Are First Nations people human beings or not? Sounds like a strange question to us today, but to many people in the sixteenth century it wasn’t so clear. In fact, in 1550, a debate was held in the Spanish city of Valladolid on that very question. On the one side was Bartholomew de las Casas, a Roman Catholic bishop. Las Casas argued that Native Americans are fully human just as Spaniards and therefore every effort should be made to bring them into the Roman Catholic Church. On the other side was Juan de Sepulveda, a Dominican friar. Sepulveda argued that Native Americans may appear human, but they are not capable of becoming Christians and that they should therefore be enslaved. It’s not clear who won the debate, but both attitudes have been found throughout history.
There have been always been those who say the gospel is only for some people and not for others. In the days before, during and after the ministry of Christ on earth, there were many who believed that the message of the Bible was only for Jews. God wouldn’t want anything to do with the dirty Gentiles. Think of Jonah. Think of his attitude to Nineveh.
But what about us? Where do we stand on the question of who the gospel is for? In principle, we might easily agree that the gospel should go around the world to people from different cultures and nations. It’s easy when we’re talking about people far away. But what about closer to home? How would we react if, say, the Lord were to begin gathering homeless people to our church every Sunday? Or perhaps people with a variety of social issues. What we would do if our pews started filling up with those sorts of people? Would we eagerly welcome them?
What would our Master do? To answer that, you might study his interaction with the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. He met this Gentile woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Her daughter had an unclean spirit. She heard that Jesus was in the area, so she seeks him and throws herself at his feet. She begs for healing for her daughter.
Jesus gives her a curious answer. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 7:27). The comparison is implied: the children are the Jews and the little household doggies are the Gentiles. The bread is what Christ has come to bring in his life and ministry. At first, the whole thing seems like a distasteful comparison, especially comparing Gentiles to doggies.
However, our Lord Jesus reveals himself to be a wise teacher who presents an argument to see what his pupil will do with it. He wants her to make a good response so he can help her. The woman has to justify her request. She has to demonstrate her faith. How desperate is she? More importantly, how does she view Jesus and what he can do even for a Gentile like her?
Her retort to him is daring, shrewd, and at the same time stunningly humble: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28). She recognizes his authority by calling him “Lord.” She doesn’t argue with him. She acknowledges her low status. She basically says, “Are you comparing me with a little doggie? I’m in agreement with that. I’m not a child in your house. I’ll accept what you say and I’ll even find some encouragement in it because I know that even the little doggies get table scraps. Can I please have some of the scraps?” She recognizes that the Jews have a priority in the history of redemption. But she believes that Jesus is also a Saviour for Gentiles. She believes that he won’t turn her away empty-handed, but will also give bread to her. He’ll restore the life of her beloved little daughter and set her free from this evil demon. Jesus does. He commends her faith and heals her daughter.
Unless you happen to be Jewish, by nature you’re in the same boat as the Syro-phoenician woman – all of us are little doggies. But through faith in Christ, we’re transformed into true children in his family. We’re fed with his food, nurtured by his love, and promised his inheritance. We become everything human beings were created to be. We should never cease to be amazed that this is all grace. If we hold that thought in our minds, that’ll also bear fruit in the way we regard others, also others who aren’t in the same social status as ourselves, who look different, or who come from a different culture. God’s grace has been wide and deep for us — it has to be wide and deep for them too and that has to be reflected in the way we interact with them. It was that way for our Master Jesus in Mark 9. He gave bread to this woman and didn’t hold her Gentile roots against her. It has to be the same way for every disciple of Christ.