On Iran and Israel: Does God So Love the World?

As the US faces a vote to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran, I fear that my Christian brothers and sisters will oppose these decisive and historic steps toward peace out of devotion to Israel.

Many Christians believe that in Gen. 12:1-3 God promised the land of Canaan to the Jews forever; moreover, God has determined to bless all nations through Israel. Some see the establishment of the Jewish state as a fulfillment of prophecy. In Ezekiel 36 we read: "I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back to your own land. You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people and I will be your God." Pat Robertson representatively states: "Ladies and Gentleman, evangelical Christians support Israel because we believe that the words of Moses and the ancient prophets of Israel were inspired by God. We believe that the emergence of a Jewish state in the land promised by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was ordained by God." Israel, unlike any other nation on earth (save God-blessed America), is especially favored by God and deserves the Christian's unconditional support.

Should Christians agree with Robertson that God has a special place in his heart and history for Israel?

Jesus repeatedly rejects understandings of divine love and humanity which would restrict God's love to a particular people or tribe or religion. When the Canaanite woman interrupts the disciples (Matt. 15:22-27), asking for mercy on the part of her long-suffering daughter, she was rebuked by Jesus who said, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." Maybe Israel is favored after all.

When the woman insists, Jesus replies with a typical tribal and prejudicial attitude, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs." Aren't the people of Israel, then, God's children and the Canaanites (that is, all outsiders), dogs?

The Canaanite woman persists, "Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table."

It happens so quickly we often fail to see it: Jesus refers to the woman as a dog. His first response was to ignore her. When pressed, he replies, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." In other words, "You're not on my team; I'm not responsible for you." Finally, Jesus refers to her and those like her as dogs.

This woman, though, is insistent--she falls to her knees, begging on behalf of her daughter, "Lord, help me!"

Who was this woman? She is a Canaanite (also called a Phoenician). Many Jews considered the Canaanites to be dog-like--rough, uncivilized, definitely not God's chosen (not even worthy of God's attention). And she is a woman, a second-class citizen, and a pagan (an uncivilized one at that). In the ancient context, she is unworthy of any respect. Finally, she gave birth to a demon-possessed child (you can hear the crowd grumbling: "I'd never raise a child like that."). Who wouldn't look down upon a pagan, poor, woman, Canaanite (dog), mother of a demon-possessed child?

In reality, we know very little about the mother; the text doesn't tell us. I doubt the disciples knew much about her either. Their reaction was prejudice pure and simple. So, based on their prejudgment of those Phoenicians (and women, and pagans, and...), they insisted that Jesus send her away.

Yet the woman throws herself in front of Jesus and begs, "Lord, help me."

Finally, Jesus gives in: "Then Jesus said to her, 'Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.' And her daughter was healed at that moment" (Matt. 15:28 NIV).

This story is a puzzle. Jesus's initial reaction was as prejudiced as his disciples. It makes one wonder: at precisely what point in Jesus's life did he learn that God's love was not restricted to the children of Israel?

We tend not to think of Jesus learning at all, and we mostly ignore that he was a human. As a human, he spoke a specific language, took on a specific culture's habits, and was inculcated in a culture's values. Perhaps he, too, like us, needed to unlearn cultural prejudices and tribalism (our natural tendency to hang out with and like people like ourselves and to exclude and even harm the outsider). Maybe feeling this woman's pain made him see that the borders of God's kingdom extend beyond Israel--to see that God so loved the world. Perhaps God used the Syrophoenician woman to teach Jesus to burst the bounds of finite, human, exclusionary love.

However Jesus learned it, we're supposed learn from this story that there are no bounds to the love of God. God does not restrict his love to the children of Israel nor does he restrict his love to followers of Jesus. We are to extend our compassion to those outside of our community (and well beyond Israel). As followers of the Christ, we, too, must burst the bounds of our own limited, prejudiced, and culturally circumscribed love.

The New Testament in its entirety unabashedly claims that God loves the world (John 3:16). God doesn't especially love Hebrews or white Christians or Americans--God loves each and every human being without distinction. God is Love (I John 4:8) and out of love died for the sins of whole world ("not for ours only" as we read in I John 2:2). That means that he loves Iranians (and Muslims and Persians and...). As followers of the God who is love, we are called to love as God loves (I John 4:8), unconditionally and without distinction (even Muslims and Persians and....).

If you read the Iran-US treaty without favoritism towards Israel and prejudice against Iran (that is with equal love for all), you will see that it is fair and balanced and conduces to peace. Despite hysterical pronouncements to the contrary, it dramatically reduces Iran's nuclear capabilities (to nearly zero) all the while encouraging peaceful relations among the nations.

Treating Iranians as the beloved of God and not as despised dogs is the first step Christians can take toward doing "the things which make for peace" (Romans 14: 19).