People often concoct a pleasingly dishonest image of those they admire. We often have a hard time thinking of our heroes or idols as flawed. So, when Jesus comes off as a bit of a bigot in Mark 7:24-30, it may be tempting to explain it away, but defending Jesus here might miss a bigger spiritual truth.
Here is the story, in a nutshell: The character of Jesus wants to have some time to himself, and instead he is accosted by a foreign woman -- a non-Jew who has heard of him. This woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter; the woman believes she is possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus dismisses her, calling her a dog, compared to the more valuable children of Israel. Then the woman does something rather impressive; she stands up to Jesus and challenges his prejudice. Jesus acquiesces, heals her daughter, and sends the woman home.
People wishing to protect an impression of Jesus as a sacred or holy figure have interpreted this exchange in a variety of ways. Maybe Jesus was just testing the woman, thus people must be persistent in begging God for what they want. It is as if to say that you have to want something badly enough to be nuisance in order for God to pay attention to you. There is actually another parable that supports this idea. The version of this story that is told in the gospel of Matthew, however paints Jesus in an even worse light. He ignores the woman at first, and then makes the interpretation of his metaphor about throwing children's food to dogs very clear. She doesn't deserve his help because she's not Jewish.
Recognizing that this exchange may never have happened, or that it may have transpired differently than gospel authors preserved it, the best means of extracting something useful from the story is to take it at face value. There is no way for any person to even confirm the existence of the Jesus depicted in the gospel narratives, so it would be rather presumptuous to assume to know the thoughts of a person from another culture and another time. While it may say something embarrassing about human nature, it is better to be honest than to protect a character who doesn't need protecting.
Try as we might, we are not color-blind or culture-blind. We make judgments about people, whether we want to or not. We assume things based on appearances, and we often act based on our assumptions. We have to. There is no way that we could ever have all of the information necessary to make a completely informed decision, much less know everything about another human being's character, beliefs, tendencies, desires, weaknesses, and strengths. We have to operate on assumptions to a certain extent. Being aware that we are making assumptions, however, can be helpful.
Like the character of Jesus in this story with the Phoenician woman, we are prone to taking one look at people and deciding whether we want to have anything to do with them. To be blunt, we often assess in a split second whether or not another person has any value to us. A lot of folks, we may write off as dogs not worthy of any meaningful attention. Some of us may write off people who are from different cultures, who look different from us, who have different income brackets or different lifestyles -- we may write people off for things we invent about them with no concrete information.
Sometimes people will challenge us, like the Phoenician woman challenged Jesus in the story. They may challenge us directly, or we may be challenged by something a person says or does that flies in the face of our assumptions. When that happens, we have an opportunity to rethink, to tap into our actual values and guiding principles, and to shift our behavior into alignment if necessary.
Sometimes, though, we have to challenge ourselves. People may not have the opportunity to challenge our assumptions, and even when we do give people that opportunity, we often make it difficult for them. Once we have made up our minds, we like to stay rooted. So, if we want to be really sharp about this, we have to learn to challenge ourselves. When we notice our assumptions and judgments and prejudices getting in the way of who we actually want to be in the world -- drowning out our actual values and deep guiding principles -- we have the option of changing. We can choose to allow deeper truths to inform our actions rather than allowing our assumptions, prejudices, and fears to hog to driver's seat.
We will sometimes be wrong. Sometimes, people will live up to our worst assumptions about them, even when we are trying to let go of those assumptions. The question is whether we want to be the kind of people who assume the worst about people or whether we believe in something more important than that. If we believe that all people have value, for instance, we have a choice about whether we look for that value in people or whether we look for reasons to dismiss them as mangy mutts that don't deserve our attention. We can actually have a greater positive impact in other people's lives and on the world we share when we choose to truly see people as human beings with undeniable worth and dignity -- and when we do that, we also become better embodiments of our own dignity and worth.