Is Jesus Ethnocentric?
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out 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.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread 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, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
(Matthew 15:21-28 ESV)
If I’m honest, this whole interchange between Jesus and the “Canaanite woman” seems strange. Upon first reading Jesus seems to be conforming to the ethnocentric mindset shared by much of the Judaism of His day. He even uses a Jewish derogatory term for Gentiles, calling this woman a “dog” (The ESV study bible notes that the word suggests a smaller, domesticated dog rather than a wild one…but this doesn’t really soften the blow). What is going on here?
Well, first we need to remember that Jesus is the embodiment of infinite and perfect love. Every word, every action, every thought and desire in His entire earthly life was carried out in flawless love. Period. However–as I tried to explain in my four part study of love –“love” does not always look the way we’d expect it to. Sometimes love weaves together a whip and drives people forcibly from the temple grounds…sometimes love rebukes a friend, calling them “Satan”…sometimes love calls people blind guides, and white-washed tombs…He who is love will one day cast millions from the presence of His joy into eternal destruction…and the zenith of love’s earthly display is found in the agony of a public execution…. We need to be careful of assuming we know what love will do. However, that being said, real love is always good, and beautiful and true. So, despite what we think at first reading, we can trust our Lord of Love in this passage. Let’s try to look at it more closely to see if we can understand what’s going on.
An Ethnocentric Jesus?
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
This is Jesus’ response to His disciples who ask Him to send the Canaanite woman away. Again, at first reading, this seems like a more ethno-centric response than we are used to from the Lord. We know that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22) and the the Messiah was sent first to the Jews as God’s chosen people and then word of Him is proclaimed to the entire world (Acts 1:8). However, just a few chapters before this incident, Matthew quotes a prophecy concerning Christ which says that “He will proclaim justice to the Gentiles…and in His name the Gentiles will hope” (Matt.12:18,21). How do Jesus’ seemingly harsh, anti-Gentile words in 15:24 match up with the prophecy that He will become the hope of the Gentiles? I think Matthew intends for us to feel a tension here and press in a bit more deeply to discover what is going on beneath the apparent contradictions.
First off, notice that Jesus goes out of His way to enter Gentile territory. He had been on the shores of Galilee, in the Jewish city of Gennesaret (14:34). From there He goes to the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon (15:21), and then after this exchange with the “Canaanite Woman,” He returns to Galilee (15:29). If Jesus had really not intended to seek or save the Gentiles, it seems to me that He would not have so intentionally veered into Gentile land. Instead, we find Him taking a very intentional detour into non-Jewish territory. These are not the actions of someone who wants nothing to do with non-Jews. I would argue that Jesus’ travel patterns here show that He intended to go into Gentile regions and that He intended to meet Gentiles in that region.
So, when He says that He was sent only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” we have to hear Him say that through the lens of His actions. He was sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel”, and yet He has intentionally gone into Gentile territory and–after talking with this woman–He is going to turn around and go back to Jewish territory. Also, if the infinitely obedient Son was truly sent with a strict command from the Father to only save the sheep of ethnic Israel, then He would not even entertain–much less carry out–the idea of interacting in a saving way with Gentiles.
Secondly, I believe the wording itself gives us a further clue as to Jesus’ intended meaning. The Lord’s response to His disciples might be woodenly translated as:
“But answering He said, ‘I was not sent [to any] except to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”
Notice that verse 24 begin with “but” (which translates a word in the Greek that can have a subtle adversative nuance). And see also that Jesus’ words might faithfully be understood as an explanation to His disciples as to why He will not send her away, namely, because He was sent to no one except the lost sheep of Israel….of which, it is implied, this woman is a part. The disciples want this “Canaanite” woman sent away, but Jesus does not send her away, saying that He was sent to none except the lost sheep of Israel…
So what are we to conclude? I think (and this is just an educated guess, test its conclusions yourself) He is using phrase “the house of Israel” as Paul will later use it, namely, the Israel of Faith, True Israel, those who share the faith of Abraham and so are his offspring (Rom.4:16, 9:6-8). Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of True Israel, that is, only to those who have Abraham’s faith and respond as he did.
I believe that in this context “House of Israel” must refer to the “True Israel” of faith drawn from all nations. If not, then 1) why would Jesus have go so intentionally into a Gentile region? 2) Why would He not send this Gentile-blooded woman away? And 3) why would He break His Father’s “orders” and do what the Gentile woman asked? For the purposes of this study, then, I will be assuming that what Jesus means by “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” has dual significance. First, it is true that He came primarily for blood-Jews, those who are literally “of the house of Israel.” But secondarily, I think it also includes those–Jew and Gentile–who do not know the Messiah, but have faith to receive Him when He is revealed to them.
A Hard Saying
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
This statement is even more jarring than the last. How can Jesus Christ–the one Lord of all people, whether Jew or Gentile (Rom.10:12)–say something so demeaning and harsh to this woman? At this point I think we should bear in mind the different ways that words can be used to teach. Often times in scripture, the Lord teaches by placing concepts or truth directly into His peoples’ minds (commands, clear teachings, revelations of Himself, etc.). However, there are other examples of God teaching His people by using His words to draw something out of them. For the sake of time and space, I hope one of the many biblical examples will serve to make my point.
In Exodus 32:10, YHWH is furious at Israel for idolatry and He says to Moses, “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” The Lord tells Moses to leave Him alone so that He can destroy Israel. And how does Moses respond? He doesn’t listen! Instead he intercedes with YHWH and recounts to the Lord all of His faithfulness in the past and His promises to the Fathers and the centrality of His glory in all that He does (32:11-13). And then it says that YHWH relented from the disaster.
Now, did God really want to destroy Israel and make a new people? Did Moses really change God’s mind? No. What was happening then? God was speaking in this way in order to draw out from Moses the words and actions of Ex.32:11-13. He wanted Moses to remember the Lord’s faithfulness, He wanted Moses to proclaim that all God does He does for His Name’s sake, He wanted Moses to stand up as an intercessor between God and man and thus become a foreshadowing of Christ. Ultimately, the shocking words of YHWH in v.10 are a tool with which He draws out faith and truth and Christ-likeness from His servant Moses.
I would contend that we are seeing something similar in the interchange between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. Just as the idea of YHWH destroying His chosen people seems shocking (and it was just this shock that drove Moses to act), so too the words of YHWH-in-the-flesh to this grieving mother shock us. And yet it is their very harshness that draws humility and a confession of faith from her lips. the woman does not bristle, she does not rage, she does not stomp off in indignation, rather–calling Him “Lord”–she embraces her secondary status as a Gentile and asks even for a crumb of God’s grace. And as soon as she passes this test, Jesus is quick to commend her for her faith and give her–not just a crumb–but all that she asked for.
A Lesson For the Disciples
“Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”
I think there is at least reasonable biblical warrant to understand Jesus’ words to this woman as a loving test–pointed and sovereignly aimed words designed to stir up and draw out her faith, so proving that she was indeed a “lost sheep of the [True] house of Israel.” But God is doing a million things when He does anything, and before we close I want to consider how Jesus might have been teaching His disciples through this encounter.
While Jesus was–and is–truly and fully Man, I do not believe that He shared the sinful blind spots (such as the radical Jewish ethnocentrism that I’m addressing in this post) of the culture in which He lived. His disciples, however, were men of their culture and they assuredly functioned from a worldview that made sin-driven distinctions between various ethnicities. I believe we see a result of that world view in their request to Christ quoted above. They want this Gentile dog to leave them alone and stop crying out after them, and in expressing this desire they manifest the degree to which their own hearts differ from that of their Lord and Master. Jesus has come to save all–without distinction–who will look to the Son and believe in Him (John 6:40), and He is going to help His disciples see that in this passage. To that end, He responds with words that might be taken as an affirmation of their worldview but which–we will see–work to dismantle it and rebuild it from the ashes:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house if Israel.”
“Good,” the disciples might have thought, “then rebuke this woman and let us be on our way.” And yet, having affirmed that He came for none but the sheep of Israel, Jesus turns, speaks to the “Canaanite,” tests and commends her faith, and then sends her away with her prayers answered. With that the worldview of Jesus’ disciples must have been shaken to its foundations. Here is a man that they are beginning to recognize as the long foretold Jewish Messiah, here is the Son of David and King of Israel….and He has just treated this Gentile–this Canaanite–as one of His own sheep…..as though she belonged to the people of Israel! How could such a thing be?
Counter-cultural as Jesus’ actions here might have been, they were not without biblical precedent. In Isaiah 19:25, YHWH foretells a day when Egypt will be called His people and Assyria His handiwork. And in Psalm 87:4, God says, “Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon; behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush–‘This one was born there (in Zion),’ they say.” YHWH has always been the God of all peoples and nations, and–from the beginning–His purposes have been to bless all nations through His chosen Servant (Genesis 12:3), and Jesus Christ is that Servant. Through the coming of Immanuel, all ethnicities, all bloodlines, are united in the single blood line of God the Son. And it is by Jesus Christ, the True Shepherd, that all the lost sheep of True Israel (both Jew and Gentile) will be gathered into one fold. And this is the reality that I believe Jesus was helping His disciples to see. He was working to mold their hearts into His own image, which is the image of His Father.
As We Go…
I don’t claim that this blog post has settled the matter of this particular hard saying of the Lord, but I know that–for me at least–it has helped me to understand Him a bit more….to see that His heart is always love and yet that His love may, of necessity, seem abrasive at first glance (consider the love of Christ in John 11:5-6). As we are enabled to grow in our knowledge of and love for the person who is Jesus Christ, may we not pass over the hard sayings. May we not allow the confusing teachings to fade into willful obscurity. May we instead, like this Canaanite woman, refuse to let go of Christ until we have received the blessing that we seek (if, indeed, that blessing is more of Himself). Often it is by digging in scripture’s hardest ground that some of its most precious jewels can be found. So–by grace, as individuals, and together with all the saints local and global–may we find them and be filled with sanctifying joy at their discovery.