I’ve changed my mind about scripture.
I became aware of this slowly. My change of mind began as a kind of unease with certain passages—an unease that I filed away, in some back-room drawer of my brain, for a long time. But eventually, there were too many passages filed away to escape notice. They troubled me.
For example, I recently reread a sermon I preached years ago about the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus looking for a miracle exorcism for her daughter. It is found in Matthew 15:21-28. Early on in the sermon I noted that when the woman asked Jesus for healing, he didn’t answer her a word. At that point, I stopped preaching, and silently looked over the congregation for a whole minute. This got across, to the audience, something of the woman’s tragic situation. However, the silence also underlined, I think, the enormity of Jesus’ refusal. The disciples then urge Jesus to send the woman away. And so he does. Jesus says to her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
This passage is obviously nothing like the one where the disciples turn away the children. In that case Jesus breaks with cultural convention and responds, “Let the children come, for the kingdom of God belong to such as these.” In the Canaanite woman’s case, however, Jesus tells the foreigner to get lost. No kingdom for her. She doesn’t belong.
But she won’t leave. So this time Jesus says, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Jesus responds to a suffering mother’s plea for her daughter’s life with a demeaning and racist refusal to help. Jesus thinks Canaanites are dogs.
In my sermon I acknowledge that this is a hard saying. I try to soften it. I suggest that maybe Jesus was reminding this woman that it just happened to be God's strategy for Jews to hear his message first, only then, through the Jews, for the gentiles to hear the word—a standard exegetical twist to justify an otherwise horrible slur. Not that she, as a non-Jew, would have understood this theological twist.
There are other ways preachers and exegetes have tried to excuse Jesus’ behavior. Perhaps Jesus used this hard language because he knew ahead of time the eventual outcome of situation, and so let it play out. That would kind of be like making a baby blind so that Jesus could heal her later and so prove his Messiahship.
Or, perhaps Jesus was just expressing a widely shared cultural prejudice that he really can’t be blamed for. Or, maybe Jesus didn’t really mean what he said because of his obvious regard for foreigners that shows up in other Biblical stories. But doesn’t that make his behavior all the worse, here? Maybe this text reflects Matthew’s prejudice, rather than Jesus’. But that doesn’t make much sense either, since Matthew, in fact, from the magi at the beginning of the story, to the command to teach and baptize to the ends of the earth at the end of the story, seems to have had a deep concern for non-Jews.
We can dream up all sorts of “just-so” explanations. At its most obvious, literal level, however, this story includes Jesus using a racial slur. To call anyone a dog—no matter when and where—is to dehumanize that person, to dismiss his or her essential value before others and God. It is sin.
But on that Sunday I didn’t go into any of this. I trod lightly. This slur was a side of Jesus better passed over quickly and filed in that drawer I mentioned above. Rather than talk about the slur itself on the lips of Jesus, I immediately noted that the woman acknowledged that she was a dog. I quoted Martin Luther, who said that by saying “Yes Lord,” the woman “caught Jesus in his own words.” By saying “yes, Lord” she reminded Jesus of all his sermons about love for the hungry, the thirsty, the mourning, and the poor in spirit. Her "yes Lord" reminded Jesus that he had once said he would not despise a contrite heart. As if Jesus should have needed reminding.
From the Luther quote I moved quickly to a conclusion about how faith can move mountains—that is, how faith like the Canaanite woman’s can even endure God’s silence. It seemed like the right homiletical move, even if it made faith into a kind of works righteousness.
But the slur rankled, somewhere, deep inside. Now, years later, I have an African American grandson and an Afghani foster-daughter. I have an African daughter-in-law who was stopped at two a.m. in East Grand Rapids, not because she was speeding, but because she was out of place. I’ve experienced how hard it is to get good Christians to make room in their churches for people who don’t belong to their tribe. I read the news. I’ve taken courses that explain how structural racism—starting with slavery and Jim Crow laws and moving onto red-lining in real-estate and subpar schooling for poor inner city neighbourhoods—has all helped keep (most) African Americans and Canadians in their place.
Now I can no longer excuse Jesus’ response. It was deeply prejudiced and wrong. It infuriates me. How is it that a Messiah doesn’t know better?
As a result, I’ve changed my idea of scripture. Of course, as noted above, it isn’t just this passage. There are a whole host of scriptural issues that we tend not to take at face value but make excuses for, instead. From the Holy War of the Old Testament Jews against the Canaanites (them again) to the immanent expectation of Jesus’ return; from the obvious artifice of Old Testament books like Isaiah to mixed notions about who Jesus actually was that are found throughout the New Testament; from the condemnation of gay and divorced people to the requirement that women keep silence and are saved by childbearing many, many Biblical narratives are deeply disturbing and inconsistent with the highest ideals of other parts of scripture.
I find myself at a place where I’ve come to a corner, downtown, and am set to turn, unable to see what is ahead. I’m committed to the journey, but I’m not sure what I’ll see or meet round the corner. I’m not sure how to make peace with all this stuff. The paradigm I learned in seminary, with arguments about such passages full of eccentric and retrograde orbits to make the overall geocentric galaxy work, doesn’t work for me anymore.
Where then does one find God? Maybe God comes upon us, reveals himself or herself, in the reading. Maybe God chooses us whether we like it or not. What about scripture? Maybe scripture is witness to a long, bumpy tradition of people with a vague sense of the numinous, that I can learn from. Maybe scripture is partly right and partly wrong and I need to use its central themes to correct the outliers. We’ll see, round the corner.
What I do know, however, is that as uncomfortable as the uncertainty is I also love the freedom I now have to share both the best of scripture and my struggles with it in my present congregation. This community helps me feel as if I don’t need to turn that corner alone.