Did Jesus Lie to the Canaanite Woman?
There I was, merrily reading away ‘Canaanite woman…comes to Jesus…asks him to heal her child…disciples try to send her away…Jesus says it’s not right to feed the children’s bread to their dogs…she says ‘even the dogs eat the crumbs from beneath the table’…
But then my eye was caught by a little line tucked in the middle that I had never noticed before.
‘[Jesus] answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”’ (Matt 15:24)
Wait a minute…what about the big plan? You know, the thing we Gentiles are taught is the big overarching story of the whole of Scripture? From the Abrahamic ‘all nations will be blessed through you’, to Revelation’s (and indeed Genesis 10’s) ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’, or so I’ve always been taught, God’s message of salvation is for all of us. He is ‘not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’
Sure, Matthew 1:21 tells us that Jesus ‘will save his people from their sins’, which I can see could refer to the Jews, but just 5 verses later, Magi are coming from the East to worship him. The first worshippers of the incarnate Christ recorded in the NT canon are Gentiles. Given that Matthew was writing for a primarily Jewish audience, and that there were several Jewish worshippers on the scene earlier that he could have mentioned (as we learn from Luke), this is especially noteworthy – it seems he wanted to leave no doubt in the Jewish mind that Jesus came for the Gentiles too.
What, then, are we to make of Jesus’ comment to the Canaanite woman? Was he lying?
Clearly we can rule that explanation out of court for starters, but what is the truth? Most commentaries I have been able to find focus more on the apparent insult of calling her a dog (the word used was actually that for a lap-dog or cherished indoor puppy, not the mangy, wild dogs roaming the streets that we might at first imagine), but Matthew Henry suggests it may have been merely a ploy to strengthen her faith:
Christ treated her thus, to try her; he knows what is in the heart, knew the strength of her faith, and how well able she was, by his grace, to break through such discouragements; he therefore met her with them, that the trial of her faith ‘might be found unto praise, and honour, and glory’ (1 Pet. 1:6,7).
That may be generally true of Jesus’ treatment of her throughout this passage, but it still doesn’t speak to the statement which seems to exclude her forever.
He gets there eventually, though, suggesting that:
though he was intended for a Light to the Gentiles, yet the fulness of time for that was not now come, the veil was not yet rent, nor the partition-wall taken down. Christ’s personal ministry was to be the glory of his people Israel.
To be honest, I’m not sure how the woman was supposed to know that. Most articles I’ve read refer to the fact that all nations were to be blessed through Abraham, and to Jesus’ comment in John 4 that ‘salvation is from the Jews’, as if that made it clear that although salvation and healing could be offered to Jews before Christ’s death and resurrection, they remained unavailable to the Gentiles until after that point.
Add to that the fact that the curtain didn’t exclude Gentiles from the Jewish areas, it excluded everyone but the High Priests from going into the Most Holy Place, and I’m still left thinking that was a pretty random thing for Jesus to say.
The closest thing I can find to an explanation is in John 1:11-12:
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.
Perhaps this was all just a PR exercise. In order to avoid offending the Jews – his own people – he went first to them, and made sure they knew it (though only when it was politically safe to do so; he didn’t say it to the Roman Centurion who came to him for help back in chapter 8). And while other verses in Acts and later in the New Testament support this version of events, none of the footnotes point back to any Old Testament hint that this might be the case. Nor do they adequately answer why he said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel and not simply ‘first’ to them.
So I find myself stuck. The deeper I dig and the wider I study, the further I seem to find myself from an answer – so I’ll throw it open to the floor: how are we to understand Jesus’ statement that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, and how would the Canaanite woman – or indeed anyone else – have known that?