Matthew records two incidents with some striking similarities: both involve Gentiles; both include miraculous healings of a third party; and in both cases the Gentile is commended for their remarkable faith. In recording these two incidents Matthew gives us an important insight into our Lord's view of faith as a basis for inclusion in the people of God.
Matthew 8:5-13 - a Roman Centurion's servant is healed by Jesus from a distance, and the Centurion is commended: "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel".
Matthew 15:21-28 - a Canaanite woman's daughter was healed, also from a distance, and the woman is commended: "Great is your faith".
An interesting similarity between the two stories is that they both include a statement that the servant/daughter was healed "from that very hour", an expression not found elsewhere in the Gospels. Perhaps Matthew intended that we should see similarities between the two incidents and learn from them.
The second incident includes some puzzling remarks by Jesus and deserves some exploration. First, it seems that Jesus acts rudely by ignoring the woman when she pleads with him to heal her daughter - "he said not a word". Then, when the disciples appeal to Jesus to send her away because she is becoming a nuisance, He answers "I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel". Finally, in what to our western minds would appear to be an insult of the most discriminatory kind, Jesus says it is not fitting to give the children's food to dogs - obviously referring to Canaanites in particular or Gentiles in general as "dogs".
There have been several attempts to explain these comments. Most explanations I’ve come across are based on the assumption that when Jesus initially ignored the Canaanite woman it was because His mission was to Israel and not to Gentiles, and He was serious in His statement that “I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. Well, I can almost hear people saying already “of course He was serious! Jesus should always be taken seriously!” Was Jesus serious when He said “If your eye offends you pluck it out”? I don’t see many Christians with one eye, so I guess we don’t take that seriously; or, at least we don’t it literally. Was Jesus serious when He referred to planks in the eye, camels going through the eye of a needle, or swallowing camels? If we don’t interpret His views literally there, then we should be open to the possibility that His words which were addressed to the Canaanite should not be taken literally either.
We are faced with another problem if we take this statement literally. Jesus had already healed the servant of the Centurion. Why didn’t he say to the Roman Centurion that “I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”? Why didn’t he ignore him, or call him a dog? In fact, Jesus commended this Gentile for his faith, so why treat the Canaanite woman differently?
So what did Jesus mean?
In actual fact, I don’t think Jesus treated the Canaanite woman differently, or with contempt, and I don’t believe He insulted her. It seems to me that most of what Jesus said here was actually intended for the benefit of His disciples. Look carefully at the sequence of events: (a) the woman cried out to Jesus (presumably from some distance), but He did not answer her, then (b) the disciples become agitated and ask Jesus to send her away because she was crying out (literally “shrieking/screaming”). The disciples’ request implies that they thought disparagingly of her. Did they object when Jews cried out for help? Would they have asked Jesus to send away a woman in Israel who was in need? This suggests to me that Jesus’ initial silence may have been deliberately to see how the disciples would react to this situation, and this would be consistent with His practice on other occasions*.
Notice the next words in the sequence: “Then He answered, ‘I am sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’.” Answered whom? These words were probably addressed to the disciples, although within the woman’s hearing. Jesus was reflecting what the disciples were thinking, and articulating their unspoken belief that He shouldn’t be ministering to non-Jews. The woman was not put off, and she came and fell at His feet and asked directly for His help.
Again, Jesus articulates the beliefs of the disciples by saying “It is not fitting to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs”. No doubt the disciples would have approved of this response! Perhaps this was the kind of thing they’d heard (or even said) before in the race-related insults which were hurled freely between the various ethnic groups living in this part of the world (and remember, Jesus is here in non-Jewish country, outside Israel proper – He’s in her territory!)
Her response was amazing: “even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from their Master’s table”. Like the Centurion who acknowledged Jesus’ authority over disease, this woman also acknowledged that Jesus was her “Master”. A Canaanite woman accepting that this Jew was her Master was indeed remarkable, and her trusting submission to that authority was rewarded immediately and her faith commended.
Was Jesus sent “only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”? In fact, these words were spoken outside Israel, in Gentile territory. In the next few verses we read of Jesus feeding four thousand Gentiles (in a similar manner to the feeding of 5,000 Jews), and he heals the sick amongst a Gentile multitude so that they “glorified the God of Israel” (there would have been no need for Matthew to say this if it had been anything other than a Gentile crowd). Later, Jesus chased the money-changers out of the Court of the Gentiles in the Temple, saying His Father’s House should be a House of Prayer for “all nations” (literally, all goyim, all Gentiles). Jesus did in fact heal Gentiles and had a concern for them. After His resurrection He gave the Twelve a specific commission to take His teachings to the Gentiles, and later called Paul to be an apostle with this specific task. It’s simply not true that He was sent only to Israel.
The main purpose of this language was to first articulate what the disciples were thinking, so that they then would be shamed by seeing “great faith” being demonstrated by this Gentile “dog”. It was another lesson in inclusiveness. In various dramatic ways throughout His ministry Jesus demonstrated that those who had been rejected by the religious leaders as “unclean” or “defiled” were regarded by Him as “clean” and acceptable. He touched those who were condemned by the Law of Moses as unclean and allowed them to touch Him. He welcomed those who had been excluded and condemned: the dirty, the poor, the diseased, the disabled, the mad, sinners and now Gentiles. The basis for inclusion in the Kingdom of God was faith – not race, religious observance, ceremonial correctness, or doctrinal purity, but a devoted trust in the One who could provide.
* For example, on one occasion the disciples said to Jesus “send the crowd away so they can buy something to eat (Matt 14:15), and Jesus challenged them by responding “you give them something to eat” – His response was to designed to provoke a reaction from them.