II Jesus and Bias

We have stated that the Biblical creation account sanctions bias as a part of the human character. We mentioned gender bias and ethnic bias. In regard to the latter, almost the entire Old Testament is an exposition of the priority of Israel in God's plan for mankind.

       "For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, ‘What has God wrought!’" Gen 22:17-18

       "For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth"  Deut 7:6

This bald favoritism is one reason the Old Testament is not in favor with modern egalitarian universalists. What? How could an omnipotent deity play favorites with humanity? Are we not all children of God, do we not all have a spark of the divine flame? Etc, etc. The college-educated mind quickly dispenses with the "primitivism" and "patriarchy" of the Old Testament.  The New Testament is another matter. The modern understanding of Jesus is that he delivered us, not so much from sin and captivity to the devil, but from the narrowmindedness and intolerance of the Old Testament. Jesus dispensed grace and forgiveness freely to the undeserving. He revealed God as the universal Father, not the vengeful tribal deity of the Jews. God loves, regardless of human diversity and human response. His love is not stymied by minor doctrinal points such as belief in His existence or obedience to His commands. In fact, the only divine command is to love, and the only sin is to be biased and judgmental.

Thus it comes as a bit of a shock to encounter the Biblical Jesus expressing bias:

       “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words" Mt 6:7.

Jesus restricted the disciples' ministry to the Jewish people, and specifically forbade them to preach to Samaritans or Gentiles:

       These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans" Mt 10:5.

He used racial stereotypes:

       “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them" Mt 20:25.

When some Greeks came to see him, he seems to have parried their approach or avoided the encounter entirely.

       Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks...And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified" Jn 12:20,23

The most extreme example is the well-known encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman.

       The [Canaanite] woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs” Mt 15:25-26.

One could argue that Jesus wasn't really prejudiced, he was given to telling parables and using metaphors, so one cannot take the epithet "dog" literally. But I think that term neatly expressed the attitude of Jews to Gentiles, and certainly the woman herself understood the contempt implied. Nor did she object to that characterization, as would any modern citizen: "Dog? You call me a dog? Who do you think you are, Mr High and Mighty? Our people have lived here while you Jews were wandering barefoot through the wilderness...." But the fact is that Jesus was speaking spiritual, if not literal, truth. During the Old Covenant, all Gentiles were outside the circle of salvation and without hope, as Scripture says. We had no standing with God at all -- unless a Gentile made a complete conversion to Judaism. That was the only way to cease being a dog in God's eyes.

These examples may not seriously perturb the liberal critic, the reason being that he or she has a loosey-goosey approach to the inspiration of Scripture. Whatever agrees with his or her own prior opinion is considered canonical, whereas any contradictory saying is ascribed to the later redactor of the oral tradition. But these examples are a serious challenge to the conservative believer -- was Jesus racially prejudiced? To be fair, Jesus had some good things to say about Samaritans (the Good Samaritan and the thankful leper), and commended the Roman centurion as a man of great faith. He also sought out the Samaritan woman. (But he also insulted her race: see Jn 4:22). But that makes his "lapses" of tolerance more noticeable and unacceptable.

Furthermore, his greatest single act of bias was not something he did, but something he didn't do -- Jesus did not include a single woman or minority in his inner circle. But, one might say, that would have been unacceptable in his culture. Yes, that is the point -- in fact, most of Jesus' ministry consisted of breaking cultural barriers -- healing on the Sabbath, claiming to forgive sins, overthrowing tables in the temple, rejecting traditional teachings ("You have heard that it was said.....But I say unto you....."). What an opportunity he had to strike a blow against 1000 years of patriarchy and Jewish superiority, to show that he was not just a product of his time and place. And he didn't do it. Why not?

The short answer is that Jesus was precisely a product of the Jewish culture, and a fulfiller of its traditional hopes, and as such he shared in the biases of 1st century Judaism. In fact, he declares this very thing himself:

       He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” Mt 15:24.

But what about Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, the New Adam? He was that too, but not till after he had fulfilled his role of national savior. There is a real progression here, an elevation, a promotion, that occurs during and after the Crucifixion. He came first to the Jews in answer to God's many promises through the prophets, He gave himself totally to the messianic calling, to the point of rejection and death at the hands of his own people. Having himself rejected the devil's offer of "the kingdoms of this world," he received from his Father the crown of universal sovereignty upon his Ascension -- "the name above all names," "king of kings." It is then that the Holy Spirit began the process of evangelization of the Gentiles, to the astonishment of the disciples.

The point of this entry is twofold: one, to show that Jesus in his earthly identity and ministry was a biased human being just like anyone and everyone else. Second, this natural and cultural bias was not counted sin by God. Jesus Christ went to the Cross as the sinless Lamb of God, for the sins of Israel and of the world -- but he himself, a man who shared some of the biases of his society, was without sin. Therefore, the partiality of a man for his own country is not considered sin in God's eyes. It is a part of our finitude, which Jesus shared, but not our sin nature, which he did not. The modern campaign against bias is thus without moral foundation in the Bible.

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