“…even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table” (Matthew 15.27).
While in Tyre and Sidon, a Gentile region where Jesus had gone in order to show that the kingdom of God was not limited to just one group of people, he encounters a Canaanite woman and calls her a dog. We don’t really know Jesus’ intentions here. Probably he was doing that to reflect the current thinking of the day in order to challenge it. But he uses a slur to refer to another human being.
We hear slurs regularly. We may even use them ourselves. Sometimes those slurs are venomous as we hear or express hatred of a person because he or she is a member of a certain race or group found offensive. This past week sororities at the University of Alabama selected a small number of African-Americans to receive bids. In reaction a member of one sorority used a slur in the social media which was broadcast around. Where does that kind of fear and hatred originate?
Maybe more often we hear, or use, slurs in the form of attempts at humor. Maybe harm is not intended. Maybe the purpose is just to get a laugh or to appear clever. But, in so doing, a fellow human being is totally disrespected and treated as something less than human. A slur in a friendly foursome on the golf course may actually do more harm than one issued in social media as it deepens prejudice and further convinces those who use it that they are superior.
I had lunch with a man years ago who used a slur several times in our conversation. We were in a public restaurant and I had my collar on. I cringed each time I heard the slur and finally had to ask him to quit. “I know I can’t change your mind but please understand that if someone hears you and sees me with you they may associate St. John’s with that word.” He apologized and stopped using the slur for the rest of the meal. As I got to know that man better I found that he really was a good man. He was kind and generous and respectful a lot of the time. The slur was more habit than hatred. But certainly it revealed a deep-seated prejudice.
A problem with slurs is that when we use them we encourage disrespect. And, if we hear them and laugh or let them go, the person who uses them assumes we agree. It’s pretty hard to say something in opposition to a slur if the person using it is a close friend or a family member. But it’s probably worth confronting in some way. It’s also worth considering our own prejudices and seeking a change in our own hearts.
A little later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Peter, in his famous confession of faith, says that Jesus is the Messiah. It’s the first time one of the disciples has had that insight. Jesus, acknowledging that breakthrough, says that Peter will be used to build the church and gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
It’s important to remember that Peter is given the keys, not the lock. Keys are for opening. The Pharisees and the scribes, Jesus often notes, have locked up the kingdom. Only people who are like them can get in the kingdom, according to the Pharisees and the scribes. Peter is called on to open the kingdom to people who aren’t just like him.
No matter how often I read the story of the Canaanite woman, I cringe when Jesus calls her a dog. It’s surprising and disappointing. But it reveals a prejudice of the day, a prejudice that Jesus himself is sent to heal. Jesus ends up acknowledging the faith of the Canaanite woman, affirms her, and heals her daughter. Jesus opens the kingdom and then calls on his church to continue to open it to all people.
Prejudice still exists, in our society, and in each of us. It’s wrong and we know it. I think it is true that we are judged when we use slurs or let them go and laugh at the jokes. God is disappointed in us when we treat others with disrespect.
Jesus reminds us, however, that God does not simply judge our prejudice. God is about the work of healing us, of transforming the hatred and disrespect of our hearts. Those we think shouldn’t be in the kingdom are often in before we are. But even our prejudice does not keep us out of the kingdom. God is about the work of changing us, putting his love deeper and deeper into our hearts. As we are redeemed, our hearts will be made purer.
When you use a slur or think of one, take the opportunity to examine your own prejudices. Repent and return to the Lord. When you hear a slur, find a way to challenge it. But beware of self-righteousness, the very attitude which leads to slurs. We are all God’s people, sinful yet being redeemed by the cross and resurrection. Slurs reveal our fallen nature. Christ comes to heal us and make us whole.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.