Afraid to look racist

In Matthew 15, Jesus said several things that sound deeply racist to us.
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
And just a moment later:
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
I recently preached on this passage to an InterVarsity student group at Duke University, my alma mater. One of the worst things you can be accused of at Duke is being a racist. In fact, you can make the case that overt racism is the most unacceptable sin in American culture. Accusation of racism derails political campaigns, careers and friendships.

Why would Jesus say something that sounds racist?

Some have argued that Jesus said one thing (the racist stuff) and did something else (welcoming body language / ironic tone). Others have argued that Jesus was just being a good, liberal pluralist (refusing to call the Canaanite woman to Jewish conversion). Neither of these explanations hold water.

Instead, what we see in the passage is something else.

Jesus has an ethnic identity. He is a Jewish man. He remains a Jewish man throughout the interaction with this Canaanite woman. Nothing he said in this interaction would sound strange coming from a Jewish man (at least, not until he gives the woman what she wants, heals her daughter and praises her faith).

Jesus' way of interacting with the woman gave her space to remain a Canaanite. He acknowledged the distance between their communities. He didn't hide from the tension. He didn't pretend she was just like him. He wasn't color blind. He accepted her.

And then, with the stage thus set, Jesus moved toward healing this woman's daughter. He didn't transcend ethnic tension. Instead, Jesus transformed ethnic tension. He leaned into it and moved through it. He made a meaningful connection. And this connection was memorable enough for Matthew to remember it years later.

Jesus wasn't willing to let the fear of appearing racist drive him away from his ethnic identity, push him to ignore others' particularities, or keep him from making connections across ethnic lines.

What are we missing out on when we're afraid to appear racist?

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