Jesus Repents of Racism
Have you ever been new at something and just really wanted to get it right?
You’ve been given an unprecedented opportunity and all you can think is, “Don’t screw it up.”
It happens to me all the time.
Even though I’ve been working at St. Francis for two years and been ordained a priest for almost ten years, every day I pray to God, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me turn this dear lovely church into an ecclesiastical train wreck.”
I see other people engaged in new endeavors doing the same thing. A friend of mine and her husband are preparing for their first baby, due to be born at the end of November.
Of course, my friend Sara is nervous, wondering if she can handle the pain of labor, wondering if her child will turn out to be a ballet dancer or a serial killer or whatever.
But her mom is also a friend of mine, and talks to me about whether or not she’ll be a good grandmother.
Sara’s mom, Nancy, will tell me she’s planning to offer no parenting advice to Sara because she doesn’t want to be overbearing and interfering, while five minutes later Sara will be telling me she’s so glad she’ll be able to rely on her mom’s parenting advice.
The two of them get so worked up I start to wonder if I’m being too blasé about being a godmother for the first time.
Is it possible to negatively influence an infant in Iowa all the way from Indiana?
Could I singlehandedly turn him away from God and the Church and the Kansas Jayhawks and everything else I love if I don’t do everything exactly right?
Whether it’s a new job or a new baby or a new church, we all feel nervous when we’re venturing into the unknown and the stakes are high.
This is the situation in which we find Jesus in our Gospel today.
Jesus has traveled very far from his home in Galilee. He is ministering in Tyre and Sidon, what would feel to people in his time like a foreign country.
He is not among the Jews, he is in a country of Gentiles, Syrians and Phoenicians, foreigners with whom Israel has rarely been on good terms.
Jesus has become cognizant at this point of the great power residing within him.
He has fed five thousand people, healed many sick and suffering individuals, taken on the Pharisees and won, even walked on water.
But up until this point, he has only been caring for his fellow Israelites.
This is where we get to the crux of the story, and the crux of how each one of us views and relates to Jesus.
Is Jesus merely an idea to you?
Is he a collection of creedal statements?
Is he a mysterious historical preacher who had a few good ideas?
Is he so bright with divine glory, so far away in heaven that you can’t even see him?
Or is he a person? A real person?
How you answer that question will depend on how you view his words and actions in this story from Mark.
Let me start with the caveats.
I am an orthodox Christian.
I can stand before you today and affirm the vows that I made on my ordination day, that I believe in the Nicene Creed, that I believe the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary for salvation.
But it is exactly because I am an orthodox Christian and I do believe in the Bible that I demand of myself an attention to the work of a living and active Holy Spirit.
The people in the Bible and throughout history who heard the voice of God received revelation precisely because they were unsatisfied with the old ways of thinking about God.
They hungered for more, more knowledge and more mystery simultaneously.
I’m bringing this up to you because I believe that in this Gospel story we are privy to an incredibly intimate and pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus Christ.
I believe we are seeing him awaken to the fullness of his ministry.
Jesus is challenged in this moment in his thinking, and he rises to the challenge by changing his mind, by fighting through the patterns of prejudice he has been taught by his society.
He grows up into his full stature right before our eyes, and I am so honored that he is brave enough and honest enough to share this vulnerable moment with us.
I said all the stuff about orthodoxy because I do agree with Hebrews 13:8, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
But what does that mean?
I believe in a God and a Jesus and a Holy Spirit that are perfect in every way, and to me that means a Holy Trinity that is capable of change.
Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever in that he is always open to change and growth, always open to the ways his Father is revealing his work, always open to be moved and touched by us, his people.
There is ample scriptural precedent for a God that changes God’s mind.
Consider the Flood in Genesis, when God decides to erase the whole world and start over.
Consider Exodus 32, when Moses talks God into not carrying out God’s plan to smite the Israelites.
Consider Jonah 3, when God sees the Ninevites repent and changes God’s mind about destroying their city.
If God can change and grow, if God’s greatness is so glorious that God can be moved by humble love, why not Jesus too?
Why not us, too?
I believe that’s exactly what happens in our story today.
Jesus wants to do the right thing.
We often forget that it took Jesus thirty years to get his ministry started.
In a day and time when fifty was a long life-expectancy, that’s some pretty serious procrastination.
What held him back?
Did he not discover his power until that age?
What ran through his mind as his friends all got married and started families, while he still worked in his father’s carpentry shop?
Did Mary worry that she had a deadbeat son?
I think the evidence does not point to a Jesus that was impulsive and on fire with the Holy Spirit like his cousin John the Baptist.
I think Jesus maybe sensed how great the power was within him and was almost afraid to unleash it for fear of what it might accomplish for good or for evil.
How scary would it be to know that you could literally do anything in the world?
I imagine Jesus finishing a long day building tables and benches in the shop and then wandering out to sit beneath a tree in an olive grove, feeling this raging power within him and asking himself, would he be able to know and do his Father’s will with this gift?
I imagine him after feeding the five thousand or walking on water thinking, “My God, I could slaughter an entire Roman regiment if I wanted to. I could go down to Jerusalem and level the entire temple. And no one could stop me.”
Some people would revel in that power.
But a person like Jesus, a person who loved God and loved his people so dearly, I expect that power was at times terrifying.
So now, in this moment in the Gospel, Jesus knows that he is called to minister to his own people, the Jews, and he knows that he must leash the great power within him carefully.
Perhaps it is the stress of the situation, perhaps he has had a long day and has a headache, whatever fear or anger is taking over in Jesus’ human nature, something makes him say this awful, ugly, racist thing to this suffering woman who asks for help: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
And we all cringe.
If that happened to me, I would probably slink away in humiliated disappointment.
But not this Syrophoenician woman asking the foreign rabbi for help.
Her daughter is dying and she won’t take no for an answer.
She believes and proclaims that Syrophoenician lives matter.
She answers back with no fear and considerable sass, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
And right there, the light goes on.
Jesus wakes up.
The doors of understanding open in his mind and his heart and he finally understands he is not called to save and care for only Israel.
He is called to love and to die for the entire world.
All of humanity will be within reach of his healing power if he will open himself up to share it.
His world turns on its axis and he understands, the stories of his mysterious birth his mother whispered to him as a child and the power he’s trying to wield so carefully are pointing to something greater than becoming Israel’s next minor prophet.
He is the Son of the Living God, and this strength within him is not meant to be feared and tightly controlled, but unleashed to bless and heal everyone he encounters no matter who they are or where they’re from.
Jesus fights free of the shackles of racism.
He lets go into the abundance of his gifts, and tells the woman to go for her daughter is healed.
What a sacred privilege it is for us to witness this moment.
We are allowed to see Jesus, who is always so good and gentle, in a moment where he is not his best.
We see him be small-minded and bigoted, sneering at a woman from a different people and a different culture.
And then we see him stop, awaken, and grow into something new and more beautiful than ever.
We see him become himself.
That he would share that with us is so moving to me.
Jesus was like us, but without sin. And in this story, Jesus made a mistake, changed, learned, and grew.
And so we can learn therefore from this story that it is not a sin to make mistakes.
In fact it is a critical part of our spiritual journey.
We are called to imitate Christ, and it turns out as we see from this story that making mistakes and being open to having them pointed out is very Christlike.
And that include our blunders of racism.
None of us wants to think we’re racist, but we are blind to most of our racist thinking until someone challenges us enough to wake us up to what we’re thinking and how we’re behaving.
And it is possible that when we make a mistake and are humble enough to listen to it being pointed out, we may awaken totally new gifts within ourselves, just like Jesus did.
Failure may be the exact path to enlightenment and new life in our ministries.
We clearly recreate this bitterly familiar pattern Jesus displays over and over and over, judging one another, applying false stereotypes, unable to confront the demon of racism that robs people of dignity and devalues their humanity.
If we have walked in the footsteps of Jesus here, perhaps we can follow him into awakening to truth and healing.
Jesus’ most ungraceful moment became the catalyst to open up a whole new world of grace for him to share with the world.
I love Jesus in this moment of making a mistake and growing into himself right in front of us because it’s so real.
It makes him so real to me.
Maybe if we didn’t work so hard to hide our mistakes and sins and blind spots from view, we would be more real to each other.
Maybe we could be more real before God, more unashamed and honest and connected both to Jesus and to one another.
Maybe that would be the greatest grace of all.
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