In a recent post entitled, Penny in the Air, Sarah Bessey tells her story of landing on the “affirming” side of the debate about Christian faith and practicing homosexuality. She begins by recounting her wrestling over Jesus’ harsh response to the Syrophoenician or “Greek” woman in Mark 7:24-30, and its parallel account in Matthew 15:21-28. She concludes:
I’ve thought of the Syro-Phoenician woman often since that first reading. It made me mad at Jesus the first time I encountered it but now I find it amazing and instructive, even convicting for us in the Church now: perhaps Jesus learned from this moment. A woman taught him and he responded. … Jesus isn’t the hero in that story even though he ultimately heals the child. Rather, the woman is the hero because she was persistent, she was unrelenting, she was clever, she turned insults into entreaties, she prevailed. She’s also an outsider who showed the insiders how it should be done in the Kingdom of God.
The implication for the question of homosexuality? If an outsider could teach even Jesus about the inclusiveness of the kingdom, perhaps the outsiders of the contemporary church – in this case, the LGBTQ+ community – can teach us a similar lesson. But there are two significant problems with Bessey’s argument. The first is the relatively novel reading of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman she employs. I do not think it is faithful to the Gospels, as I hope to demonstrate below. The second is the troubling implication of such a reading. Namely, if Jesus could err in his understanding of the scope of the kingdom he announced, then how much more so his clay-footed apostles – not to speak of the faithful but fallible church he built? A question mark then hangs over the canonical writings of the New Testament, as well as the longstanding tradition of the church. How then will the penny land?
The penny is in the air. That’s okay. We meet our own version of Cornelius or the Syro-Phoenician woman or whomever. People, relationship, listening, love, this is what causes the penny to drop.
Where the Word is unclear or even potentially questionable, relationships with others “is what causes the penny to drop.” Sounds winsome and wise, but here’s the problem with that assertion. The anecdote she shares regarding her pivotal encounter with the kind and perceptive lesbian pastor can be countered with a dozen other encounters with godly men and women who have forsaken homosexual relationships in obedience to Jesus. I know more than a few such men personally who’ve not only impacted me as friends, but have discipled me as brothers. They are among the countless faithful men and women who are elders, deacons, missionaries and otherwise mature followers of Christ who have turned away from practicing homosexuality to take up the self-denying cross of Christ. For them, the teachings of Scripture on same-sex relationships could not be clearer, even if they are personally costly – as is the call of Jesus for all who have ears to hear it. But if the Holy Spirit is using our varied, personal relationships as the decisive factor in landing our proverbial penny, then he is more aptly called the Spirit of confusion and contradiction than the Spirit of Truth. He is leading us, it would seem, to clashing conclusions.
In this case, as with all controversies, the scriptures speak clearly enough to the church, and authoritatively so, by the voice of the Spirit. In humbly submitting to biblical instruction, the penny falls in the right place. Let’s listen.
Was Jesus a Racist?
In his conversation with the Syrophoenician woman – not to mention the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-30) – there were clear lines dividing insiders from outsiders. The truth is, there always have been such lines in God’s economy (e.g. Lev.18:1-5; 20:22-26). And there always will be (e.g. 2Cor.6:14-18; Rev.21:8, 27). The question we should be asking is: Why are the lines drawn, and how do we cross them in the right direction?
For a variety of reasons – some worse than others – the Syrophoenician woman was an outsider in first century Palestine. Even for the enlightened Christ, as a Gentile, she was an outsider (cf. Mt.18:17). And Jesus’ response to her is jolting. Readers over the centuries have balked at Jesus’ apparent callousness toward the poor woman. First, he ignores her pleas on behalf of her oppressed daughter. Then, more insultingly, he refers to her as a “dog.” Was Jesus guilty of racism or operating from a racist bias here? Some insist he is. Others wonder – most recently, Rachel Held Evansand now, Sarah Bessey – and ask whether this is perhaps an instance of Jesus’ all-too-human nature as a first century Jewish man. Maybe our Lord even learns an important lesson from an insistent minority?
In her humble and faith-filled persistence, she demanded inclusion – at least as a family pet– at the banquet table of the Jewish Messiah. Jesus commended this “dog” as an exemplar of faith to Israel. How ironic this is! Unbelieving Jews would later be branded “dogs,” while believing Gentiles would be called true heirs of Israel’s promises (e.g. Phil.3:2-3; cf. Gal.4:28-31).
Is it any coincidence that this episode follows Jesus’ rigorous interrogation of the traditions surrounding ceremonial washings and kosher food laws (Mt.15:1-20; Mk.7:1-23; cf. Lev.20:22-26)? As Mark momentously concludes, “Thus he declared all foods clean,” (7:19). In fact, many of the church fathers read Jesus’ unusual treatment of the Syrophoenician woman as a pedagogical device aimed at his disciples, further unveiling Gentile inclusion in the messianic blessings. Along these lines, Michael Bird writes:
Yet if one examines the saying in its narrative context (assuming the saying and narrative historically go together), it reflects more of an ironic quip, in which Jesus’ harsh words may have been designed to invite the woman’s witty reply (e.g. Mk.7.29: ‘because you have said this’) … Jesus’ ironic remark towards the woman concerns the focus of Israel in his mission and deliberately attempts to elicit a shrewd comeback. He acknowledges the validity of the woman’s reply that Israel’s blessings can, even in limited ways, extend to Gentiles, a theme found elsewhere in the Jesus tradition (e.g. Lk.4.25-27). But the key issue is that such a blessing is available for Gentiles in the present.
Jesus draws out faith and sheds new light. He is the hero in this passage after all.
However, it seems Peter didn’t learn this lesson the first-time round. He would require a second session (and a third, and a fourth) regarding kosher meats before preaching the gospel to the household of an uncircumcised centurion named Cornelius (Acts 10-11). After being invited in a vision to partake of heaven’s culinary spread – a bizarre cornucopia including unclean animals – the perplexed apostle responds:
“By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times…
It isn’t until Peter walks into the Gentile’s house that, as Bessey aptly puts it, the penny drops.
Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
Peter now understands the heavenly word given him earlier. God’s lines are drawn by His revelation and representatives not to exclude people, ultimately, but to include them. As Paul writes of the ancient gospel preached to the Semitic patriarch, singled out from among all peoples:
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
But in order to fully include the nations, God must first offer salvation to beloved Jacob. As he himself testified, Jesus came for the lost sheep of Israel (Mt.15:24). Salvation is not only from the Jews (John 4:22), but it is for the Jew first (Mk.7:27). So, within Jesus’ program, Israel had a covenantal priority as the elect nation (Mt.10:5-6; cf. Rom.11:28-29). Of course, Christ was not unaware of the coming Gentile mission (cf. Mt.10:16-18), which had been long prophesied in connection with the messianic age (Lk.24:45-47). Still less was Jesus racially biased against Syrophoenicians or Greeks. He knew that, in his rejection by “his own,” he would draw all men to himself – including Greeks (John 12:20-36). He joyfully anticipated the full participation of the nations at the eschatological banquet. Prior to his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman, he marveled at the astonishing faith of a Roman centurion in Capernaum:
Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (see Mt.8:5-13; cf. Lk.7:1-10)
But there was an order to this unfolding redemption. First, the Christ must be “lifted up," that is, condemned and crucified in Jerusalem. The message would then begin in the City of David, and extend to the very ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). To the Jew first, then the Gentile (Rom.1:16; e.g. Acts 13:46-38).
The wonderful mystery of the gospel is the full inclusion of the Gentiles qua Gentiles (Eph.3:1-6; Rom.11:11-36). That is to say, they don’t need to become observant Jews in order to be saved. But they must repent and believe the good news of Jesus. Or in Peter’s words: in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. For God to include the Gentiles, their characteristically Gentile “lifestyle” must be excluded. Hence the famous “quadrilateral” ruling of the Jerusalem council regarding Gentiles coming under the “tent of David” (Acts 15:16-17):
For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
Paul, the apostle of Gentile freedom (e.g. Gal.5:1-6), not only concurs with the ruling (see 1Cor.8-10), but is one of its official emissaries (Acts 15:22-27).
Is Jesus' Church Homophobic?
Among the bans against the brutal and corrupting practices of pagan worship stands the peculiarly Gentile sin – at least from the Jewish perspective of late antiquity (cf. 1Thess.4:2-5)– of sexual immorality. This taboo entails both sacred (e.g. 1Cor.10:7-8; Rev.2:14?) and secular practices (e.g. 1Cor.6:12-7:2?). In other words, the Jerusalem council wasn’t merely denouncing cultic sex acts. For instance, Paul writes to the Corinthians regarding a notorious case of incest within the congregation:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (cf. Lev.18:7-8)
A line must be drawn, the apostle insists. And that line entails our sexual behavior. Paul continues:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
As Jesus instructed his disciples, the church seeks and saves lost sheep, in part, by drawing a line, by maintaining an inside and an outside in calling wandering saints to repent – to cross the line (see Mt.18:10-20). Outside that line lies sexual immorality, among other sins. Such immorality includes adultery, incest, prostitution, pederasty and homosexual acts, as Paul goes on to illustrate:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
God draws these lines, not in order to narrow the scope of salvation, but to broaden it - in order to save as many as possible (see 1Cor.5:3-4)! And such were some of you… That is one of my favorite lines in the New Testament. God’s salvation can reach anyone, no matter what their sexual orientation, identity or history.
But if we fail to draw these lines in obedience to Christ, we are not acting more inclusively than if we didn’t, but less so. According to the apostle, by refusing to exclude such “Gentile behaviors,” we are excluding men and women from the kingdom of God.
Maybe we're tempted to think that smudging the line might free us to be more generous. But it inadvertently makes us more stingy in our offer of grace. Blurred lines create confusion for the church's mission. To whom do we preach the gospel of the kingdom? And what do we call them to repent of? If we lack clarity on our mission, we'll loiter about heaven's door in anxious hesitation, rather than throw it open wide to the world.
To have gospel clarity and courage, the penny must drop. But on what side of the kingdom's line will it fall?
The Bible speaks plainly to this question. And for two thousand years the church's witness has been univocal regarding homosexuality and Christian obedience. In this sense, the penny landed long before we late modern Christians appeared on the scene. It’s we who’ve picked it back up again. And that’s OK ... provided we don’t carry it across lines Jesus drew.
There is always an inside and an outside to God's reign. And every outsider is welcome to come inside. All are invited! It could not be more inclusive (cf. Mt.13:47-49). Many are called ... but few are chosen. Outsiders, like the Syrophoenician woman or the Italian officer, Cornelius - or the Pharisee of Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus - must cross over through a self-denying repentance and supernatural faith. In Jesus' words, it is those who are dressed for the occasion who will finally be ushered into the party (Mt.22:1-14). The wedding of the Lamb is, after all, an exclusive affair.
Thankfully, the loving Shepherd continues to lead his prone-to-wander sheep ever so patiently and graciously through the narrow gate (Mt.7:13-27).
Thankfully, the loving Shepherd continues to lead his prone-to-wander sheep ever so patiently and graciously through the narrow gate (Mt.7:13-27).
It’s long been observed that the word used in both Matthew and Mark’s account, κυνάριον, is a diminutive form for “dog,” κύων. According to a standard lexicon, “in the NT the diminutive force may have become lost, though a component of emotive attachment or affection is no doubt retained and thus the reference is presumably to a house dog —‘house dog, little dog.’” (Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996), Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains, New York: United Bible Societies).
As noted above, Jesus uses a different word than the typical term for “dog.” Nevertheless, his choice of words is arresting to later, Gentile readers. Jesus appears to be using the language of his day regarding insiders and outsiders in Judaism, without the dehumanizing connotations found in its various, polemical contexts. As Allen Black writes: “The form of his statement is proverbial. And the basis of the proverb is not an antipathy for Gentiles, but the necessary Jewish focus of Jesus’ earthly ministry” (The Book of Mark, Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995; p. 137). If Jesus truly did consider the Gentile woman a “dog,” in a derogatory sense, he has broken his own rule: “Do not give dogs what is holy…” (Mt.7:6). In any case, I wonder if Dean Breidenthal of Princeton University is correct when he says, “I suspect we would not be so bothered by Jesus’ unkind words to the Syrophoenician woman if they were not directed against the Gentile community. Those of us who are Gentile Christians have less trouble with Jesus’ invectives when they are directed against the Jewish leadership of his day.”
As Jerome wrote, “Wonderful change of things! Once Israel the son, and we the dogs; the change in faith has led to a change in the order of our names. Concerning them is that said, ‘Many dogs have come about me’; [Ps 22:16] while to us is said, as to this woman, ‘Thy faith hath made thee whole,’” Catena Aurea: St. Matthew.
Anselm of Canterbury writes, “The Jews were born sons, and brought up by the Law in the worship of one God. The bread [offered] is the Gospel, its miracles and other things which pertain to our salvation. It is not then appropriate that these should be taken from the children and given to the Gentiles, who are dogs, till the Jews refuse them,” Catena Aurea: St. Matthew.
This in addition to the present benefits certain Gentiles enjoyed from the peripatetic ministry of the “light of men” wandering Israel’s countryside. As Bird writes, “Jesus’ ironic aside is met with recognition from the woman not merely of the priority of Israel, but the significance that Israel’s salvation holds for Gentiles in the present. As the children of Israel are being fed, crumbs are now falling for the dogs. As Israel’s restoration becomes more and more of a reality, it becomes more and more possible for Gentiles to experience the blessing of its fulfillment. In this sense, interpreting the pericope in terms of ‘Jew first and then Gentile’ fails to grapple with the significance that a partially realized restoration has for Gentiles. That is not to collapse the entire eschatological hope for the Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry since the full inclusion of Gentiles can only begin when Israel’s restoration is complete. What is important is that the restoration of Israel, in nascent form, carries with it incipient eschatological benefits for the Gentiles who find themselves confronted with God’s anointed prophet. As the children of Israel are fed, it is possible for the dogs (i.e. Gentiles) to be fed as a consequence of Israel’s dawning restoration.”
Jerome writes, “The Gentiles are called dogs because of their idolatry; who, given to the eating of blood, and dead bodies, turn to madness,” Catena Aurea: St. Matthew.
The Letter of Aristides is typical here, underlining Jewish continence over against Gentile promiscuity: “The majority of other men defile themselves in their relationships, thereby committing a serious offense, and lands and whole cities take pride in it: they not only procure the males, they also defile mothers and daughters. We are quite separated from these practices.” Regarding homosexuality specifically, in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs we find the characteristic Jewish abhorrence of same-sex relations as found among the Gentiles (T. Levi 14:6; T. Naph. 4:1; T. Benj. 9:1; T. Naph. 3:4–5), depicted as disordered, unnatural and the result of a perverted understanding of God’s nature (T. Naph. 2:2 – 3:5) - among other sexual taboos ala Leviticus 18 and 20. Similar evaluations are made in 2 Enoch, Wisdom of Solomon, Sibylline Oracles, Pseudo-Phocylides, as well as the works of Philo and Josephus.
The current scholarly consensus questions the existence of sacred prostitution in the ancient world (e.g. see Stephanie Budin, S.M. Baugh). However, as Rosner and Ciampa demonstrate, temple prostitution, in which prostitution was involved in religious banquets held in Greco-Roman temples, evidently did exist in places like first century Corinth (see The First Letter to the Corinthians, pp.247ff.).
According to the previously cited lexicon, the Greek words porneuo, porneia mean “to engage in sexual immorality of any kind, often with the implication of prostitution—‘to engage in illicit sex, to commit fornication, sexual immorality…’” This includes adultery, homosexuality, and other forms of illicit sex. As Ciampa and Rosner write: “Fundamentally, in the Bible there are only two types of sex: sex within marriage [between male and female] and sexual immorality,” (ibid., p.277). The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament summarizes: “The NT is characterized by an unconditional repudiation of all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse. In this respect it follows to a large degree the judgment of OT and Israelite preaching and transcends the legalistic practice of later Judaism, which is shown to be inadequate by the Word of Jesus. Jesus can and does effect this radicalizing because the Gospel as saving forgiveness manifests the divine dynamic in this age.”
The term “those who practice homosexuality” translates, οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται, which, as most scholars conclude, refers to the passive and active participants of the male homosexual act, respectively. The latter term, ἀρσενοκοῖται, appears to be a uniquely Pauline word, coined from the Septuagint - the Greek translation of the Old Testament - rendering of Leviticus 20:13, καὶ ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός (see also Lev.18:22). The term also appears in 1Timothy 1:9-10, Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient … the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality (ἀρσενοκοίταις), … and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.