By Benjamin Guyer
Was Jesus a racist? The Gospel reading last Sunday was Mark 7:24-37, and lots of people had lots of things to say about it on Facebook (and, no doubt, on other social media platforms; Ian Paul offered a helpful survey). The narrative begins with a Syrophoenician mother asking Jesus to heal her daughter, but his response appears uncharacteristically harsh: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (v. 27). Some people claim that Jesus’ use of dogs was a racist insult that aligned the Syrophoenician mother (and thus Gentiles more broadly) with the subhuman, but the Israelites with God’s children. But is this true?
This interpretation assumes something that the text never tells us — that Jesus’ words were an example of metonymy rather than metaphor. Metonymy and metaphor are both figures of speech, but they do different things. In their now-classic study Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain,
Metaphor and metonymy are different kinds of processes. Metaphor is principally a way of conceiving of one thing in terms of another, and its primary function is understanding. Metonymy, on the other hand, has primarily a referential function, that is, it allows us to use one entity to stand foranother. But metonymy is not merely a referential device. It also serves the function of providing understanding. (Metaphors We Live By, new ed. [University of Chicago Press, 2003], p. 36).
In other words, metonymy depends upon the strict identification of words with their referents, while metaphor does not.
Lakoff and Johnson further elaborate the matter by distinguishing between consistency and coherence (p. 44). Metaphor is concerned primarily with the latter. In metonymy, however, symbolism is not arbitrary (p. 40). To borrow one of their examples, when we speak of the foot of a mountain, we use a metaphor (pp. 54-55). If the foot were not metaphorical but metonymic, we would apply other bodily referents to the mountain as well — thus, we could also speak of the mountain’s ankles, or of its torso, neck, or head. But we do not do this. The foot of a mountain is only metaphorical because the comparison of the body with the mountain begins and ends here.
Let’s return now to Mark 7:27: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” If we claim that this is metonymy rather than metaphor, an immediate problem arises. Jesus never explicitly identifies the Syrophoenician woman with one or another group in this statement. For example, he does not say, “The Israelites are but children.” Nor does he say, “The Gentiles are but dogs.”
Some will claim that the identification is implicit, but this is wrong. Nothing is ever implicit in a text. To use a metaphor, nothing is between the lines on a page, except blank space and whatever the reader adds there. While a reader may imply racist meaning in Jesus’ words, the responsibility for justifying this assumption remains with the reader. One would have to show that in its historical context (a) dog had a range of semantic reference that not only included a racist insult but required its denotative meaning here, and that (b) it makes more sense to understand dog as metonymic than as metaphorical.
But if Jesus meant this as metaphor rather than metonymy, the exchange has a rather different meaning. Jesus loved food metaphors. At the Last Supper he said of bread and wine, This is my body and This is my blood. Here in Mark he compares his ministry with food for children. If Jesus’ comment about children and dogs was simply metaphorical, then he aimed — in Lakoff and Johnson’s terminology — not at consistency but at coherence. Therefore, his goal was neither to strictly identify the Israelites as children nor to strictly identify the Gentiles as dogs. Rather, he sought to emphasize his role as a parent, providing food to the Israelites because they were his more immediate responsibility. Read as metaphorical, Jesus’ allegedly racist words ultimately point neither to Jews nor to Gentiles, but to his mission.
However, let there be no mistake. Mark’s narrative indicates that the mother applied Jesus’ use of dogs to herself (although the text does not indicate whether she considered his words insulting). But she evidently wasted no time responding, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Nothing in the narrative tells us how she spoke these words. Perhaps she spoke in despair, or perhaps in defiance. I like to think of her response as a rather cheeky retort; perhaps we might even say she had chutzpah. If this is the case, then the whole exchange could just as plausibly be read not as an example of Jewish bigotry but as a Gentile’s pointed but pious plea for help. After all, the woman was not Jewish, but she evidently found something inspiring in Jesus’ words and deeds, and thus sought his healing touch for her daughter. When Jesus heard her words, he didn’t respond like a bigot, but instead said, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter” (7:29). This isn’t a story about bigotry. It’s about the fearless and inspiring audacity of faith.
One might add that much of ancient Judaism was defined by back-and-forth debate about a range of religious matters, such as how to interpret and apply Scripture. The Talmud records plenty of stories in which the most pious men are also the most insistent and even argumentative with God. (Geza Vermes, in Jesus the Jew [Fortress Press, 1981], offers much insight here.) The loss of that context and its attendant convictions, and the general lack of familiarity that Christians have with Jewish sources and norms, often results in Christians misreading the Gospels as far more conflict-ridden than is otherwise warranted.
There is no reason to read Jesus’ words as a racist insult. A better understanding of how language works enables us to better understand how any given text can have a range of viable interpretations. In this case, we have looked at just two uses of language: metonymy and metaphor. Understanding these can help us avoid unwarranted literalism. I daresay it helps us understand Jesus a bit better, too.