In the Gospel Reading, Jesus and his disciples have walked all the way into Gentile territory, and one Gentile woman cries out to him repeatedly to heal her daughter.
The disciples of Jesus urge Jesus to send her away. The way the disciples see her, she’s just a woman, she isn’t Jewish, and she doesn’t look like an important person even among the Gentiles. So, from the point of view of the disciples, she is a person who does not matter. They want Jesus to get rid of her.
In response, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
And this is an odd thing for him to say, isn’t it He is in Gentile territory now. Why did he go there if he has no mission to the Gentiles?
And if he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, as he says, then why doesn’t he just send this Gentile woman away, as the disciples want him to do? Why does he let her keep crying out to him?
Because he doesn’t send her away, she comes closer to him and pleads with him for help. In reply, he says to her one of the most insulting things he says to anyone in the Gospels: “it is not right to take the bread of the children and give it to the dogs.”
How could she matter less than this?
The solution to the perplexity of this story comes in the final exchange between the two of them. Jesus’ treatment of her elicits from her one of the most pert responses to Jesus from anyone anywhere: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs of the children’s bread,” she says. And Jesus loves her for that pertness and the persistence behind it. “Great is your faith!” he says to her in praise.
It is the way Jesus deals with her that brings her to this point, isn’t it?
But here is the most important thing to notice. To have faith is to be one of the sheep of Israel. Because he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, Jesus went to Gentile territory for her.
Gentile, female, or whatever else makes her seem a person who doesn’t matter, she has the one thing that really does matter: she won’t let go of Jesus.
And now we can understand why Jesus went into Gentile territory. He was looking for her. And we can also see that what Jesus says to his disciples is after all true: he is sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
All those who cleave to Jesus, Gentile or Jew, are his sheep.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University