In this 4th installment of our Turning the Tables series, we examine how Jesus prophetically acts out a reinterpretation of a common Jewish racial understanding of the Kingdom of God. In both the interactions with the Roman centurion in Luke 7 as well as the woman (Canaanite descendant) in Matthew 15, Jesus reinterprets what it means to have faith in God and who the Kingdom is open to. The repercussions of this unequivocal ‘no’ to racism, and the hatred and de-humanization that accompany it, apply just as much to our 21st century culture in America as they did in 1st century Israel.
Today we examine a couple more passages from the New Testament that people have tried to use over the years to qualify Jesus’s teaching on unequivocal non-violence and enemy love. The first of these passages involves a Roman centurion in Luke 7. In this passage Jesus praises the centurion’s faith that he could heal his servant, even from a long way off, just by saying the word. This passage is surprising given the Roman occupation and oppression of the Jewish people. Some folks throughout church history have appealed to Jesus’ silence on denouncing the centurion’s profession as approval of it. Given a similar situation happens with Peter in Cornelius’ household, some would say that in certain cases Jesus understands a necessity for violence, such as in defending and advancing one’s national agenda. A few thoughts are made in refuting this idea:
• Arguments based on silence are logically weak. We can’t base conclusions on what someone didn’t say, especially in case of Jesus on non-violence when He has so clearly taught in favor of it in all cases.
• As evidenced by Jesus hanging out with prostitutes and tax collectors so often, Jesus didn’t go around judging and criticizing peoples’ life styles. He wasn’t ashamed of being called their friend and put love in front of appearance or reputation. Jesus knew that encountering the living God changes a person from the inside out so He didn’t have a habit of calling out people like the centurion.
• Jesus ministered to people right where they were at and trusted in the power of self-sacrificial love and the prompting of the Holy Spirit to bring about life change.
• We are called to be imitators of Jesus, so if the perfect sinless Son of God didn’t walk around judging and condemning others, neither should we. For those that haven’t invited us to speak in to their life, we’re to have one thought about them – they have unsurpassable value and were worth Jesus dying for them.
The second passage is a little more complex to understand the point Jesus is making. It comes from Matthew 15 where Jesus encounters a woman in the land of Tyre and Sidon. As a descendant of the Canaanites it would have been very common Jewish practice to look down upon her and show extreme racism toward her people. When the woman asks Jesus for help with her demon possessed daughter His answer comes across cold, not compassionate, and at first glance racist. Knowing the Jesus is not a racist it requires a little more digging to understand the context of what Jesus was actually doing. A few key points help reinterpret a passage that at first sight seems to promote racism:
• The passage is intentional to call out Tyre and Sidon so reader would understand Jesus is addressing racially divided relationship with descendants of Canaanites
• Jesus response in calling her a “dog” would have been commonplace for Jews. Strange part is that he doesn’t rebuke the racist attitudes of His disciples or actually tell her to go away when she initially asks, He’s inviting more dialogue.
• Much like the choosing of the 12 disciples, John the Baptist baptizing in the Jordan river, or Jesus turning over the tables in the temple, this passage needs to be seen as prophetic theater demonstrating fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, not as literal back and forth conversation.
• As the Old Testament Joshua had led his people across the Jordan River and in to the Promised Land, Jesus was identifying as the new Joshua as he went out and got baptized by John in the same river. The picture of Jesus full of peace coming out of the river and Holy Spirit descending as a dove contrasts original Joshua’s conquering with a sword. Jesus is the new Joshua.
• Jesus highlights the ugliness of the past Old Testament and reinterprets what God’s actual ideal is by prophetic theater in the river much the same as He does with this woman. The new Joshua, instead of slaughtering others, allows himself to be slaughtered out of love to create a way of peace for others.
• Jesus is testing the woman’s faith, but all along wants to show the ugliness of the racist way of thing contrasting that with his mercy and love for her
These are not just 1st century Israel issues. These issues of racism and hatred are alive and well in our 21st century culture. Racism and a general fear of “other” needs to be rooted out and can’t be ignored by the church. In the Kingdom of God we are an “us without a them.” Now is the time for the church to be the loving, self-sacrificial, others oriented people that Jesus called. We can become so individualistic that we don’t see the larger narrative we’ve been born in to. We all, especially those who have been in the historic majority of power, wealth, and influence, need to do what we can in the present to heal the wounds of the past. Anything that violates the worth of another is violence, and racism does just that. Our goal should be purge all forms of violence from our lives, and it starts between our ears and is carried out in our lifestyles. Hide Extended Summary