Jesus said: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel (Matthew 15:24). Does Jesus reject all people who are not of Jewish extraction? Or does He not?
Answer: First of all, here is the full text of this pericope from the Gospel of Matthew, 15:21-28:
“Hhen Jesus went from that place and withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out, 'Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.' But he did not say a word in answer to her. And his disciples went and pleaded with him, saying, Give her what she wants, because she keeps shouting after us.' He said in reply, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.' But the woman came and did him homage, saying, 'Lord help me.' He said in reply, 'it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.' She said, 'Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters'. Then Jesus said to her in reply, 'O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed from that hour."
We observe this scene from the Gospel, full of life and spontaneity. Matthew describes it with impressive dynamics.
From time to time, Jesus walked beyond the borders of Palestine into pagan territory. This time, He went to the region around the cities of Tyre and Sidon, north of the Holy Land. And lo, He and His apostles are met by a Canaanite woman who comes from this region. She begins to shout: Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.
It is a cry for help in dire straits, straight from the loving heart of the mother. The daughter is suffering terribly and therefore the woman turns to Jesus. She is likely to have heard about Him, about His goodness towards the sick, about His miracles with them. And so she turns to Him with a plea and with intense faith.
But this time, Jesus response is surprising: He does not listen to the intensity of the plea; He does not even say a single word to the woman. He shows that He does not want to intervene, that He does not want to use His miracle powers to serve even such a harshly tried woman.
The apostles turn to Him and beg Him to do something for this woman; they say to Him Give her what she wants, because she keeps shouting after us. However, what motivates the apostles to speak in favor of the woman is not so much compassion with the mother, but the unpleasantness represented by her noisy shouting for help. Because she is being heard by many people and directs everyone’s attention to this group of foreign Jews. Jesus’ apostles therefore act out of fear and a certain level of ill feeling.
In this situation, Jesus explains why He does not want to intervene: This is not part of his mission. He says, I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus, Son of God, knows that during His time on earth His mission is to be limited to the people of Israel. Jesus, mild and humble, does not want to exceed the boundaries that have been set for Him, does not want to take the initiative which is not part of His mission. This is a manifestation of great humility, great obedience towards God the Father. Despite the pity He feels, Jesus does not wish to intervene with a miracle here.
But the woman does not lose hope, just the contrary. She approaches Jesus, throws herself down before Him and says: Lord, help me! Jesus gives an answer similar to the previous one: It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs. These are harsh words from Jesus: the Canaanite woman is being compared to a dog.
The woman could have departed, insulted by such language, and could have simply left Jesus without saying another word to Him after his rejection. But instead of feeling insulted, she remains with her plea and finds a way to beg insistently in a manner which corresponds to Jesus harsh words. She says: Yes Lord! [she accepts Jesus word, but she also immediately adds:] But even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters table.
Thus, the woman shows great humility: she accepts that she is being compared with a dog. But she successfully uses the comparison to insist with her plea: if the dogs have no right to the bread of the sons, they can still feed themselves from the crumbs that fall from their masters table. It is truly remarkable: all this energy the woman applies to save her daughter!
Then Jesus says to her: Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish! Jesus admires this woman’s faith, admires her insistent pleading. Therefore he agrees to exceed the boundaries of His mission. He says to the woman: Let it be done for you as you wish. And from this moment on, the daughter of the Canaanite woman is healed.
Although Jesus Mission has been limited by the Father, He believed He could overlook it because the woman’s faith was surely inspired by the Heavenly Father. He therefore felt moved by the Father to show her nothing but pity. And thus, this pericope of the Gospel tells of the universal opening of Jesus to all people who believe in His power and His mission.