If there is one passage in the gospels which is used to impugn Jesus’ character, it is usually the description of his interaction with a Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman described in Matthew 15:21-28. Let’s take a look:
Jesus went away from there, and withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon. And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely demon-possessed.” But He did not answer her with even a word. And His disciples came up and urged Him, saying, “Send her away, because she keeps shouting at us!” But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” Yet He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord; but please help, for even the dogs feed on the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus said to her, “O woman, your faith is great; it shall be done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed at once.
This passage is appealed to by atheists to show that Jesus was a racist. More recently, there’s been a media uproar about a progressive Christian pastor who used it to argue both that Jesus was being racist here and that he repented of his racism. Michael Knowles has rightly pointed out that this arguably compromises Jesus’ claim to divinity, since it implies that he is imperfect. But what exactly is going on in this passage? If we don’t explain it as an example of racism that is repented of, how do we explain it? It isn’t implied here that Jesus was being a racist, nor that he repented of that racism. It is alleged that Jesus called the Canaanite woman a dog, but that is not exactly what he said. He is presenting an analogy whereby there is a household, with children and dogs, and the children have priority over the dogs. Children represent Jews, and dogs represent Gentiles. Representing someone as a dog in an analogy is certainly not flattering, but it isn’t the same as calling someone a dog, because otherwise Jews could also take offence that Jesus called them children. Wouldn’t that make Jesus an anti-Semite as well, because he says Jews are like children? The comparison to dogs isn’t flattering, but to think that Jesus was implying or intending to imply the racial inferiority of Gentiles ( or, more specifically, Canaanites) is to miss the point of the analogy. It makes sense to think that Jesus means that Jews deserved the priority of his attention, at that point in time, in his earthly ministry. Giving the benefits of Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles would be like giving food to whom it is not due. If the messiah was promised to the Jews, it makes sense that Jesus would prioritize Jews first. This is the same pattern that Paul followed. When Paul was converted to Christianity, he at first seems to focus on evangelizing Jews, but he dramatically declares an end to his focus on Jews and the start of his ministry to the Gentiles in Acts 18:6. Similarly, in Romans 1:16, he says that the gospel is “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” This is not a matter of inequality, but a matter of sequence. The messiah was promised to Israel, so it makes sense that the initial focus would be on Israel. During his earthly ministry, Jesus instructed disciples, whom he sent out to minister, to avoid Gentile and Samaritan cities ( Matthew 10:5), but at the end of his earthly ministry, he instructs his disciples to make disciples of all nations ( Matthew 28:16-20).
The idea that Jesus looked down on Gentiles or believed them inferior is very difficult to support if you look at the rest of the gospels. The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) famously has a non-Jew as the hero of the story who shows superior moral character to the Jewish priests in the story. In Luke 4:23-28, he enrages his Jewish audience when he explains why all his miracles are done in Capernaum but not in his hometown. He points out that there were many lepers in Israel, but Elisha only healed “Naaman the Syrian”. Similarly, Jesus says that there were many widows in Israel, but Elijah was sent to a widow in the land of Sidon. Jesus emphasizes that these are foreigners (i.e.Gentiles). Even more astoundingly, in Matthew 21:43 Jesus says, “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit.” The word translated “people” here is ethnos, referring to a nation or race. The implication is that the kingdom of God would be taken away from Jews and given to Gentiles. (Something similar is implied by Paul in Romans 9, when he quotes the prophet Hosea saying that God will adopt as his people those who were not his people. This does not mean that Jews are automatically excluded from Christian faith for being Jews, merely that the Jewish people will no longer be the primary locus of God’s kingdom as they were up to that point). So it seems that Jesus had a habit of lifting up the Gentiles when speaking to Jews, and lifting up Jews when speaking to Gentiles. The interaction with the Canaanite woman isn’t puzzling because Jesus is manifesting a racist attitude, but it is puzzling given how Jesus normally interacted with non-Jews. Normally, when Jesus encountered Gentiles, he was immediately willing to help them ( such as the Roman centurion in Luke 7:1-10). He heals a demon-possesed man who was probably a Gentile (Mark 5:1-20). Jesus ministers to and shows kindness to a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42).
Did Jesus Repent?
So it’s clear that this is not evidence of racism on Jesus’s part, especially if one considers the attitude that he had toward Gentiles more generally. But another thing that may be puzzling theologically, is that Jesus seems to change his mind at the end. He seems to emphatically imply that he was not going to help her as this would be improper. But then, when she persists in her petition, Jesus suddenly compliments her and indulges her request. What explains that? Well, first, there is no marker of repentance here. Jesus does not express repentance, he does not apologize to her and he neither says nor implies that his previous behaviour toward her was wrong. Even if we think that he changed his mind (which we’ll get into in a moment), that does not necessarily imply repentance. You can change your mind without believing there was something morally wrong with your previous action, particularly if you have some leeway in your purpose or goal. The idea that Jesus repents also compromises the New Testament claims about Jesus’ divinity, which means this explanation is very weak on many fronts. The explanation I prefer is that Jesus allowed his decision to be changed by the woman’s faith. Jesus explicitly teaches that we will influence God by being tenacious in prayer (Luke 18:1-8 and Luke 11:5-9) and it only makes sense that he would embody this principle himself (being God). Also, Jesus specifically references her faith when he changes his behaviour toward her, giving support to this view.
Does God Change His Mind?
This leads us to a little bit of a thorny theological issue about whether God changes his mind. Some theologians find this unacceptable since it may appear to imply that God is not omniscient or doesn’t know the future. If you change your mind, it normally carries with it the implication that you have learned something which you did not know before, so it presupposes a type of being that is acting as time unfolds ( like a human being). However, there are passages in the Bible that clearly show God not just knows everything, but specifically knows the future. There are passages in the New Testament that refer very explicitly to God’s foreknowledge. So, on the one hand, there are passages seeming to show that God regrets or that God changes his mind (such as Exodus 32:9-14, Isaiah 38:1-6). On the other hand, there are passages that show that God knows the future and knows everything (such as Acts 2:23, 1 Peter 1:2). So do we need to choose one set of scriptures over another? I don’t think so. Rather than saying that God changes his mind, we can say that God changes his will. That might seem like a distinction without a difference, but bear with me. The following shows how God can change his will without needing to have realized anything new. Say God intends to do x unless a person does y. God’s intention to do x is real and isn’t less real for the fact that it is conditional. For example, if God decrees that those who believe in him will be saved, does that mean that because God knows that a particular person will repent and be saved make the fact that he is currently under wrath unreal? No, until he repents, he will remain under God’s wrath and a sentence of condemnation. The fact that God knows he will repent in the future makes no difference to his current will, as long as that repentance does not yet occur. So the fact that God’s will is conditional doesn’t mean that the changing of that will based on the condition being met, means that the previous will, before the condition was met, wasn’t real. Given that there is a certain precondition to be met before God’s will changes, it does not change until that precondition is met. The fact that God knows that it will be met, does not mean that his current will is not still appropriate to the situation. If God changes his will merely based on foreknowledge, then he in effect justifies sinners before their faith and repentance, he answers prayer before the prayers, he punishes before the sin, that requires the punishment, is committed etc. So the fact that God’s will changes based upon a human action does not imply that God didn’t know the future. For example, God could say, “Unless King Hezekiah asks me to extend his life, he will die soon after Isaiah prophesies this to him. I know that he will ask me to extend his life, but until he asks me, I will not extend it.” So, if you have a conditional will, you can change your will, but without needing to be ignorant of the future. Since the change in God’s will is conditional upon a human action, that action must be realized in the present before God’s will will change. If you have the concept of a conditional will, it might be that you don’t even need to talk about God’s will “changing”, because it’s simply a conditional will. In other words, it’s possible for it to always be God’s will for King Hezekiah to die if he doesn’t ask to live, and, at the same time, it’s always God’s will for King Hezekiah to get 15 years extra, if he asks to live. If God’s will for a particular outcome, or a particular set of outcomes, is conditional, then his will never has to change in order to accommodate the various outcomes based fulfilment ( or non-fulfillment) of those conditions. God wills King Hezekiah to die now if he doesn’t ask for more years and God also wills to give King Hezekiah 15 extra years if he asks. Both are true. It becomes logically difficult to think that God has two (inconsistent) unconditional wills, as discussed here. It’s true that human rationality ultimately cannot comprehend the mind of God and we are merely grasping at clues. His thoughts are much higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). The above is just to show that it is possible to conceive of an apparent contradiction without violating the precepts of human rationality. We mustn’t allow our theology to force us into an irrational conclusion when a more rational and biblically consistent alternative is available.