Was Jesus a bigot?
That question is presented by Sunday’s difficult story of Jesus who, when he was accosted for help by a Syrophoenician woman, likened her to a dog. This undermines our image of Jesus as someone who “respects the dignity of every human being” (to use our baptismal formula in the BCP).
Coincidentally, I just read Harper Lee’s newly published novel, Go Set a Watchman. It takes place years after the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, but was written much earlier and unnoticed until recently. For all of us who loved the younger Atticus Finch for his human decency and lack of racism in the old south, this book is tough. The old man Atticus Finch is involved in local efforts to resist the Federal imposition of black voting rights on southern states. His outspoken daughter, Jean Louise (“Scout”), now living in New York, is aghast to come home to Maycomb, Alabama and find her father implicated in these efforts to maintain racial segregation and white dominance of the political system.
The book is too complex to summarize here, but the challenge it presents is similar to the Gospel story of Jesus denigrating a foreign woman as unworthy of his good offices because she was not a Jew. How do we reckon with that?
Scout’s first instinct is to leave her hometown and never come back. But her wise uncle Jack urges her to consider coming back to Maycomb to live. “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right…”
Somehow, in order to help humanity change and grow, we must acknowledge our complicity in prejudice and sin, and work for change from within. We cannot stand apart, at a safe, clean distance, and lob denunciations at our neighbors.
Jesus learned this lesson. As he grew towards God, he realized his humanity was tied up in his neighbors, his society, his world. He could not stand apart. As St. Paul wrote about Jesus, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew so sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Cor 5:21)
These are not simple thoughts. I would love to have further conversation with you all about the scriptures and Harper Lee’s surprising book. If any are interested in gathering for a discussion of Harper Lee’s astounding novels, please let me know. JBM