Was Jesus a racist?

Gesù e la donna cananea – di Carla D'Agostino Ungaretti – Ricognizioni

Not everyone knows the “shocking” episode in the Gospel of Matthew [15, 21-28], which we are referring to by our provocative title.

“At that time”, says the evangelist, “Jesus moved to the area of ​​Tire and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman, who came from that region, began to cry out: «Have mercy on me, Lord, son of David! My daughter is very tormented by a devil»”.

Do you know what Jesus answered to her? At first, nothing at all.
He didn’t even say a word to her”, explains Matteo.
But that’s not all.

At that point, the disciples, a little annoyed by the screaming woman, try to convince Jesus to listen. And that’s when Jesus rattles off a couple of answers that would stagger Pope Bergoglio.

I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel only“, he replies dryly. And, after the woman continue to insist, he adds: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs“.

At this point something happens which, again according to Christian interpretations, marks a turning point.
The woman, in fact, accepts the humiliation and replies: “It’s true, Lord, yet the little dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table“.

It is only at that point that Jesus is convinced (“Woman, great is your faith”) to help her and heals his daughter.


Rereading this passage one is clearly surprised.
Foreign peoples, not belonging to the “house of Israel”, are compared – as was the custom at the time – to dogs (dog puppies, according to the literal translation that exegetes tend to emphasize to tone down), not worthy of get an answer or help.
The comparison refers to them as being another race or, at least, a people of lesser value than the chosen people.
And this is why different interpretations intervene to explain the theological meaning of the sentence.
And one can’t help but notice that explanations tend to be obviously “justificationist”.

In this dialogue, Jesus would in fact show his openness to the foreign people and, precisely in this passage, one of the foundations of Christian openness to non-Jews would reside.
After all – as those who know more than me explain – what convinced him is faith, which is therefore more important than the woman’s origin and his initial refusal would actually be linked “only” to her being a pagan. Therefore, behind this dialogue, the essence of the Christian message would be hidden: anyone, in every part of the world, can be liked by Jesus if they show faith in him.
In short, by glissing at appearances, it was possible to attribute a positive meaning to the episode.


We will return to what has just been said shortly. First, however, it is worth emphasizing that a fideistic reading necessarily points towards a justificationist interpretation.
Whether the latter is true or false in this specific case, a Christian will never be able to tell you that Jesus was wrong, contradicted himself or gave the wrong teaching.
In the same way, for the same reason, he will not be able to deny the established dogmas and truths about the teaching of Christ: in the past, however, heresies did not come to a good end.
Let’s think also about a small detail: despite the brusque ways of Jesus on this and other occasions, his representation is that of a man who is always sweet and kind.

It matters little, therefore, how you want to interpret this passage: this quick comment is not to tell you that Jesus was actually a racist.
Instead, it is to reiterate that dogmatic faith does not allow you to contest, to doubt, to criticize, to observe and to disagree with what is established (by the ecclesiastical authorities).
Therefore a fideistic attitude, in which the answers are already written, is the opposite of the spiritual search.
In what we call “faith” there is actually much, too much, human conformity.

In fact, one cannot fail to observe a detail: Jesus does not perform the miracle to convert the infidel, but demands the conversion of the infidel to perform the miracle.
Beyond the possibly “discriminatory” and “arrogant” aspect (I won’t help you if you don’t believe in me), this is a fundamental step that summarizes the fideistic attitude: you must believe what I say, even without proof, without need explanations.


Having said this, the interpretations regarding the episode explain – as we said – that there is no racism in Jesus’s sentences: the origin of the woman and her people would make no difference, but her being pagan, or her religion and faith in “false gods”.
The episode, therefore, would represent in a figurative way the overcoming of the Old Testament (the Jewish religion intended only for the Jewish people) and the confirmation of the truly universal message of Jesus.

So, what is left to note?
The episode and the meaning, even without actual racism, reflects a fundamental theological and cultural cornerstones of the (Catholic) Christian religion: “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus“, that is “outside the Church there is no salvation” (accentuated by traditionalists nowadays as in the past, slightly mediated by Vatican Council II and other readings).
The circle has not opened, it has only widened: anyone can convert to Christianity but this conversion and belonging is in any case the only tool to access salvation and spiritual fullness. It is no longer a discrimination of race but of religion that makes you worthy or not.

On a doctrinal level, moreover, this concept of exclusivity is the essence of many religions (especially monotheistic) that claim to monopolize the truth and eventually convert the world.

History has shown many times through countless massacres how disastrous and catastrophic the cultural consequences of this thinking can be, which we would call “spiritual racism”.
This “spiritual racism”, potentially harmless and doctrinally understandable, has in fact the ability to transform itself into a seed of violent intolerance in those people who are convinced that they must forcefully affirm the only truth and the only good. And the seed germinates rapidly when the fertilizer of fideistic conformity abounds.

Emmanuel Raffaele Maraziti


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