No, Jesus Wasn’t a Bigot

No, Jesus Wasn’t a Bigot

This Sunday we will hear one of those challenging passages that are hard to interpret at first. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. A Canaanite woman approaches the disciples and asks that her daughter be healed. The disciples want Jesus to get rid of her. He tells them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman comes to Jesus, worships Him and asks for help. His reply is shocking, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She accepts that she is a dog, and asks for scraps from the master’s table. It then appears that Jesus has a “come to Jesus” moment where he recognizes the greatness of her faith and heals her daughter.

Some Catholic commentaries explain that Jesus was a product of the time and place he inhabited. He held the tendencies that most people of his time held. As a woman, especially a Canaanite woman, this mother was on the bottom rung of society. They say her persistence helped Jesus “evolve” and see His saving mission in a broader sense. I reject this interpretation for a few reasons. First, if Jesus were so anti-gentile, what was he doing in Tyre and Sidon? Second, at this point there are already examples in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus heals both women and gentiles, so the interpretation doesn’t fit the context.

But the larger problem with this interpretation is this: it means that either bigotry and ethnic/racial prejudice aren’t sins, which they clearly are. Or, the alternative, which is even worse, it means Jesus wasn’t the spotless lamb, like us in all things but sin, and therefore died for his own sin, not ours. Our Catholic faith holds that Jesus was sinless, and affirms that racism is a sin so there has to be a better way of reading this passage. There is, fortunately, a third alternative. Jesus is being ironic. He’s using a specific irony called sarcasm.

Irony and sarcasm aren’t rare in the Bible. Elijah uses sarcasm in a confrontation with the priests of Baal. They are calling down fire from heaven on their sacrificial bull and it’s not going well. Elijah suggests they shout louder, as their lord Baal might be busy taking a dump.

Jesus uses irony throughout the Gospels. Every time he responds to the Pharisees starting with the words, “Have you not read…” he’s using subtle irony. Of course the Pharisees have read what Jesus is about to tell them. The Pharisees had poured over the scriptures countless times and could recite every word from memory. He also makes use of sarcastic forms of irony.

At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’” (Lk 13:31-33)

Not only does he call Herod a fox (actually a vixen, Jesus uses the feminine form) but he then basically tells the Pharisees, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to die now and rob you of the chance to kill me in Jerusalem.”

The idea that Jesus used sarcasm at times might be unsettling to some. It’s a form of irony that is usually reserved to express contempt or scorn. And that is exactly how Jesus uses it in this story. He pours contempt and scorn on the ethnic and racial supremacy of His time, of all time. His target audience was not the Canaanite woman, but his disciples, then and now. I don’t think Jesus would have spoken this way if He didn’t see the woman’s heart and know that she could grasp the subtlety. Her wit and humility gave Jesus the space to teach a valuable lesson. But the lesson on bigotry isn’t the real gem here.

The Canaanite woman is the treasure buried in this reading. The worst part about wrongly interpreting this story is that you might miss out on her. For her, Jesus was a mere rumor, but she persisted in faith. He was a Jew, the enemy of her people, but she persisted in faith. The disciples, among them the Apostles who were the first bishops, told her to get away. She persisted in faith. Her faith was greater than the obstacles and in the end she was rewarded. Her reward was not to be exalted as an example while the disciples were humbled. The true reward wasn’t even the healing of her daughter. Her reward was the one we all should seek—Jesus Himself.

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So You’ve Soiled Yourself. Now What?

So You’ve Soiled Yourself. Now What?

The Gospel reading this Sunday is the parable of the sower (note the name, I’ll come back to that). I’ve used this passage to open retreats with teens for many years. The message I add to the parable isn’t exactly mind blowing: listen to the explanation of the parable and consider which of the four types of soil represents you.

These are generally Confirmation retreats so I assume they have heard the Word the parable refers to—that God loves them, made them for life with Him, and that we reject His love by disobedience and sin, but He sent His Son Jesus to set us free from sin and give us hope of eternal life by his Death and Resurrection. Then we examine the four types of soil.

There’s path soil. The devil snatches the seed up before it can even grow. This represents a hardened heart, much like the hard-packed soil of a dirt road. Hearts harden for so many reasons but these reasons all tend to have something in common with the road: they’ve been walked on, run over, trampled. And it’s often done by people who don’t know they’re doing it, sometimes by “church” people. The scar tissue of life’s wounds builds up and the seed cannot penetrate. They become cynical about God’s goodness and even His existence.

There’s shallow rocky soil. Crops sprout up quickly but have no root so they wither. This person isn’t shallow, but their faith might be. The reason for the shallowness can be found in a confusion between faith and feelings. When persevering in faith feels good, faith seems strong. But when the positive feelings dry up (as they do) there is nothing of substance left to feed the growing faith. I see this in people who come home from a retreat, conference, mission, or bible camp on fire for Jesus, but the fire is partially the result of an emotional roller coaster. The first speedbump—an argument at home, a friend who questions or mocks, or a personal setback—derails the whole thing.

Then there’s thorny weedy soil. The first two were dark, so I have fun with this one. You can do this too. I tell them think of everything obligation they have. Raise your hand and keep it up if you go to school. Raise the other hand and keep it up if you have a job. If both hands are up raise a leg if you have commitments to family, friends, sports, arts, academic clubs, social media, hobbies, etc. The list goes on and on until every one of them has two arms up, two legs up, is bobbing their head and shimmying in their seat. Then I ask, how do you look doing that? In a hundred times doing this exercise there are two answers I always get. First, they say foolish. Second, like a puppet. The simple message is that the things in life that are supposed to be enjoyed shouldn’t make you look like a foolish puppet—they shouldn’t control you. They have heard the Word and desire to accept it and live it out, but honestly believe they just don’t have the time or energy. Faith goes on the back burner and promptly begins to die. In the very least it bears no fruit.

Finally, there’s good soil which has been tilled, cleared of rocks, and weeded. It’s not soil that was never trampled, was never shallow and never had thorns or weeds. It represents the one who cooperates with the sower to allow rocks to be removed and make room for genuine faith. With the sower they make sure that their trampled heart, though scarred, remains open by hope. And in genuine love they put weeds and thorns in their proper place. Rather than loving things and using people, they love God, love others, love themselves, and use things.

This is absolutely true. Each of us has the responsibility to cooperate with grace in perfecting our hearts to receive the Good News with joy so we can bear fruit.

But that’s not what this parable is about.

Jesus refers to this parable by name, and He doesn’t call it the Parable of the Four Types of Soil. He calls it the Parable of the Sower. It’s not about us, it’s about Jesus.

The seed is the word of God and Christ is the sower. I’m not a farmer, but I know that seed is valuable. After all, the farmer could have eaten it, or sold it. He certainly wouldn’t toss it anywhere, especially in places he knows it won’t grow. I don’t think Jesus is trying to tell us that He’s a careless farmer. The Parable of the Sower is about God’s desire that everyone be saved. His love for us is abundant and lavish—even reckless. It is a gift we cannot earn. We all have those times when faith is shallow, or forgotten, or even shut out by a hardened heart. Jesus is still there.

Good soil or not, God provides His Word and the grace to receive it with joy because He loves us. The only proper response is to ready our hearts, be hearers and doers of the word, and bear fruit.

Speak, O Lord, as we come to You
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us 
All Your purposes for Your glory.

Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
Holy reverence, true humility;
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
In the radiance of Your purity.
Cause our faith to rise; cause our eyes to see
Your majestic love and authority.
Words of pow’r that can never fail—
Let their truth prevail over unbelief.

Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us—
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.