Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28 (NRSV)
Well. Talk about your un-Jesus-y moments.
This little story is a jarring pebble thrown into our placid, quiet pool of What Jesus Must Be Like. In it, he ignores a woman’s cries for deliverance for her daughter. When she keeps after him, he emphasizes that he is only here for the lost of Israel. When she continues, he dismisses her with something of an insult. Finally, her persistence seems to win him over, and her daughter is healed the moment this happens.
This story seems so jarring to us that a very common tactic to deal with it is to assume that Jesus is deliberately staging this whole thing for the purposes of addressing a Jewish misconception.
In this way of reading the story, Jesus’ actions and words do not reflect his own views or intentions, but rather they reflect the views of the Jews around him – that Gentiles are dogs that aren’t worth helping. Jesus sort of dramatically/sarcastically pretends to have these views, himself, only to reveal at the end that he (and other Jews) should view Gentiles as neighbors worth helping and treat them accordingly.
I remember attending a presentation by Don Richardson when I was in college. This was the tack he took with the passage, and he narrated this with gusto, having Jesus winking to the woman as he talked and the woman catching on to what Jesus was doing and proceeding to play her part. And, you know, Matthew’s gospel does not have stage directions in it, so we don’t really know Jesus’ tone of voice or other contextual actions as he said and did these things.
This is a legitimate reading of this story, and I don’t really have any arguments to demonstrate this story can’t be read that way or shouldn’t be read that way. I would certainly advise a couple of things for those who want to take this route:
- If this passage is meant to show Jesus not really believing something he says, be prepared to explain how you can tell the difference, especially when it comes to looking at other passages that are difficult sayings of Jesus.
- Make sure you can establish your case on the basis of the source material and not just initial distaste for the idea that Jesus might, in fact, actually think these things.
You see, when we find passages in the gospels that don’t seem to fit what we think Jesus was like, that may be our cue that we’re not reading the passage correctly, but it also might be our cue that our understanding of what Jesus was like isn’t entirely correct.
“Oh come on,” I hear my imaginary reader protesting. “Jesus was the perfect image of God in the world and, as such, would definitely not have retained the cultural views of his people toward Gentiles. That’s petty, prejudicial, and racist. What’s more, Jesus was on a mission to reconcile all of humanity to God, not just Israel. His mission was universal. The idea that he would limit his deliverance to Israel and deny it to Gentiles is just really inconsistent.”
Ok, imaginary reader, I hear you, and those are good points. In return, I would offer that the Jesus we are shown especially in Matthew’s gospel is not primarily a transhuman Jesus out to save all humanity but is primarily a Jewish Jesus who, at this point in his ministry, sees his mission mostly if not exclusively as a mission to recover Israel. He may foresee ramifications this will have for the rest of the world, and we definitely see that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, but Jesus’ views of Jew and Gentile are shaped by Judaism and we will see that Matthew has taken pains to show us that Jesus’ pre-Resurrection ministry is focused on liberating Israel.
Are Gentiles Dogs?
In Jewish tradition, the primary distinction between Israel and other nations is that the Jewish people took on the yoke of Torah. There is no particular sense that Jews as a race are somehow superior to everyone else. In fact, some traditional stories have the Jews only accepting the Torah under duress, while others point out that it was precisely the lack of any special features of the Jewish people that made them the ideal people for God to have as a nation of priests so that His own power and faithfulness would take center stage (cf. Deuteronomy 7:1-11).
Nevertheless, the Torah itself makes plenty of distinctions between Jew and Gentile and even will contrast God’s expectations for the Jews with the normal behavior of the Gentiles. For instance, Deuteronomy 18:14: “Although these nations that you are about to dispossess do give heed to soothsayers and diviners, as for you, the Lord your God does not permit you to do so.”
Laws concerning Gentiles extend into the realm of clean and unclean, with Gentiles being denied entrance to the Temple. It was certainly possible for Gentiles to convert, but to do so, they had to be circumcised, take on the whole yoke of Torah, and leave their lands to live and travel with the Jews.
So, right from the get-go, in the very Torah itself, Israel is elevated (not through any merits of her own) to a special status with God giving her a role of ruler and priest over the other nations. These other nations are basically lawless idolaters who will corrupt holy Israel if they intermingle. This principle is carried out symbolically into laws about food and fabric.
Very early on in rabbinic writings, we see the perspective that Gentiles even outside of Torah can follow the laws God set down for Noah. They can fear the true God and they can obey Him in this general sense and even enjoy His favor if they choose to do so. But the perspective on Gentiles as a whole is very negative. As you look at the interpretations of laws that depend upon reciprocation, for example, the traditions assume Gentiles won’t hold up their end of the bargain.
One of my favorite examples of this is Siman 153:2 of the Yoreh De’ah that sounds like something your mother might say:
An Israelite should not be alone with a Gentile; they are idolaters and may commit bloodshed.
Yoreh De’ah 153:2 (translation mine)
So, even though the issue is not so much about race as it is about relationship to Torah, the general perspective found in the Torah and traditional commentary on the Torah is that Gentiles, being apart from the Law and worshiping false gods, are not to be trusted and, given the opportunity, will probably screw you over.
Unfortunately, history mostly seemed to bear this out in terms of Israel’s relationships to the other nations, and by the time we get to Jesus’ day, Israel had suffered much at the hands of Gentile rulers, and they were currently under an oppressive Roman regime in their own land.
While we might envision Jesus rising above all this, we do well to note that this would not be the first time Jesus refers to Gentiles as dogs, and even pigs. If you don’t think Jesus is referring to Gentiles in general in that passage, he’s referring to somebody, right? So, unless we’re willing to say that Beatitude is a sarcastic statement where Jesus is just taking on the stereotypical views of his day in order to contradict them (which is possible), then we need to reckon with the possibility that Jesus might actually mean what he says here in Matthew 15.
I think at least part of our distaste is because of the insults that we associate with referring to someone as a dog or a pig. But the reason dogs and pigs can be used to describe Gentiles in the first century is not because dogs and pigs are ugly or fat or worthless – it’s that they’re unclean animals.
Dogs, especially, in Jewish law and tradition, are viewed not only as unclean, but they are seen as prone to violence. Portions of the Talmud require dogs to be chained because they are unpredictable in their violent tendencies. Elsewhere in the Talmud, a person who trains up dogs is called “accursed.” These traditions continue in Jewish teachings even as late as the 12th century, where the Mishneh Torah requires all dogs to be chained because of their propensity to do harm. It’s only the 16th century where we begin to see distinctions made between safe and unsafe dogs.
So, yes, Jesus comparing Gentiles to dogs in a proverb is derogatory, but it may not have the same insulting connotations you and I are used to. In Jewish law and tradition, dogs are both ceremonially unclean and unpredictably prone to violence. It is those characteristics that make them a first century image for Gentiles.
Is Jesus Only Interested in Helping Israel?
In our passage, Jesus says that he has only been sent to the lost sheep of Israel. The two, powerful forces that make this seem out of character to us are that we already have a story in place of Jesus coming to bring salvation to all mankind, and that we know the end of the story.
Never ever underestimate the power of the narrative you have or I have in our heads about what the Bible says. Many times, that mental narrative takes the place of the actual Bible, and when we read the actual Bible, our preexisting idea of what the Bible says is a huge controller of how we read the text. This is so much the case that many people frequently fail to differentiate between “what the Bible says” and “what I understand the Bible to say,” especially in discussion. So, if I have a different theological view than you do, it’s not that I understand the relevant texts to mean something different than you do, it’s that I’m deliberately disregarding “what the Bible says.”
So, when we come to this story already having a narrative about a universal Jesus on a universal mission to secure eternal life for all mankind, passages like this almost demand to be read in a way to make the tension go away.
In addition, we know that the mission draws in the Gentiles. We know Jesus in Matthew will tell his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, and we know that people like Peter and Paul take their message to the Gentiles. Perhaps because, today, the followers of Jesus are by far and away more Gentiles than Jews, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that God including the Gentiles in His people and promises is a huge shock to all parties concerned and plays a dominant theme in many Pauline writings.
Because of these powerful, existing perceptions, we can easily read these things backward into the whole of the gospels and assume that Jesus’ mission has always meant at all times to be directed at all mankind.
But is this really the picture Matthew has painted for us?
Right from the outset of Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph and says of Mary:
“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Matthew 1:21 (NRSV)
At the stage in history Matthew 1 is describing, “his people” means Israel. You could possibly argue it down to “faithful Israel,” but it would make no sense to argue it up to “all mankind” or “all who will become followers of Christ in the future, Jew or Gentile.” While theologically we might refer to all Christ followers as “Jesus’ people” these days, it would be hugely anachronistic to read that back into Matthew 1. That would be like saying everywhere the Old Testament says “Israel” it actually means both Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus because that’s how Paul and Peter will later use the term.
Joseph would certainly have understood this as Israel as would any of Matthew’s readers.
This is carried into Matthew 2, where the magi show up looking for “he who was born king of the Jews,” and the priests tell Herod Jesus has been born in Bethlehem, quoting Micah 5 and telling him that the Messiah has come “to shepherd my people Israel.”
The phrase Jesus uses here about the lost sheep of Israel is actually one he’s used before:
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”
Matthew 10:5-8 (NRSV)
It is true Matthew gives us an occasional example of a Gentile showing faith. For instance, the Roman centurion:
When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion answered, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.” And the servant was healed in that hour.
Matthew 8:5-13 (NRSV)
But this does not mark the inclusion of Gentiles into Jesus’ ministry. This event actually happens before Jesus tells his disciples not to proclaim the kingdom to Gentiles. The reason this story stands out is that it’s an exception. Jesus uses it as an indictment against Israel. The point of the story isn’t, “Now I will begin to liberate the Gentiles,” the point is, “Even this heathen has more faith than you guys do.”
It’s also noteworthy that Jesus is amazed at this. He’s shocked. He’s surprised. He did not see this coming. If Jesus can be surprised by the faith of a centurion, then he can also be won over by the persistence of a Gentile woman. Maybe it seems a little crass to you that someone could actually coax a result from Jesus from constant pleading, but in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable that God is like this when He delivers justice to His people who continually cry out, so Jesus’ listeners should be encouraged to keep praying and not give up:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)
So What’s the Point Then?
Like the centurion story, this story is meant to be exceptional. This woman disrupts the pattern, and she disrupts the pattern by displaying great faith.
This story is immediately followed by Jesus doing great healing works among “the crowds” who “glorify the God of Israel,” but none of them are singled out. This woman is, because she’s exceptional.
And because she is a Gentile, she stands in contrast to an Israel that has largely given up and does not have faith that Jesus will deliver them. In contrast to an Israel that has stopped praying and lost heart, this woman follows Jesus, begging him incessantly for deliverance for her daughter. She truly believes Jesus is her only hope, and she will not let him go.
Others in Israel will pass Jesus by without giving him a second glance. Still others will try to silence him. But for this nameless Gentile woman, Jesus is all she has to turn to, and she will not be dissuaded by either silence or opposition. Even when Jesus himself tells her why he won’t do it, she won’t leave him alone. She counters his argument, and Jesus gives in to her faithful persistence. Many in Israel will not, but this Gentile woman will.
And this calls to mind the teaching Jesus gave to his disciples when the centurion asked for Jesus’ help:
I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Matthew 8:11-12 (NRSV)
Like I said, there’s not really an argument against reading our passage as a sort of drama or mockery that Jesus is intentionally using to show that the views he’s pretending to espouse are false.
But at the same time, I don’t think there’s a good reason to need to explain away tensions in this passage. I think this passage as written is actually very consistent with the narrative Matthew is laying out before us – one of a Jewish Jesus who has come to save the lost sheep of Israel.
But, oh, along the way, we see powerful examples of faith that even Israel cannot deliver – examples that instruct her and convict her and call her to like faithfulness. And these seeds of faith will grow into a mighty tree, for the same Jesus that, today, is focused on Israel, is the same Jesus who will unleash his followers to go to the ends of the earth to make disciples of all the nations, bringing Israel’s hopes for the future to their climax – a new world under the Messiah where faithful Israel has led the way.
- Is it troubling to think of Jesus focusing first on Israel then bringing in the Gentiles? Are there other passages of Scripture that indicate that God plans to deal with Israel first, then bring in the rest of the nations?
- Is it troubling to think of Jesus as a man shaped by his religion, his culture, and his time in history? Why or why not? What does it mean for Jesus to be completely, fully human?