Did Jesus really think that His mission was only to the Jews? In today’s Gospel, Matthew 15:21-28, when resistance has forced Jesus to withdraw to the borders of Lebanon on the edge of Galilee, Jesus still insists, “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24).
This may strike us as being exclusive but it is an indication that God is meticulously faithful to the promises He made with Abraham, Moses and David.
In today’s second reading, Romans 11:13-15, 29-32, St. Paul, who identifies himself as “the apostle to the Gentiles,” affirms God’s continuous desire to include the people of Israel in His kingdom: “God’s gifts and His call are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29).
St. Thomas Aquinas comments: “Whatever God promises is as good as given and whomever He elects is somehow already called. Such temporal gifts and callings are not voided by a change in God, as though He repented of them, but by a change in the person who casts them off : ‘See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God’ (Heb 12:15)” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Paul to the Romans, 926).
God’s faithfulness to His promises should encourage us to believe in His faithfulness to us, as St. Paul declares, God’s intention is “that He might have mercy on all” (Rom 11:29)
The Jews gradually came to understand that God intended that all the nations would be included in what God gave them. God promised Abraham: “Through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 22:18).
The passage from Isaiah, which is our first reading, Isaiah 56:1, 6-7, reflects this conviction: “The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, ministering to Him, loving the name of the Lord and becoming His servants … Them will I bring to My holy mountain and make joyful in My house of prayer … For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Is 56:6-7).
Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures. Yet the Gospel also brings out that Jesus is for the Gentiles. In Matthew’s Gospel, those who are the first to seek the “new born king of the Jews” and “to worship Him” are “Wise Men from the East” (Mt 2:2).
Thomas Aquinas reflects: “They came to Jesus, because they recognized from Christ the glory of the wisdom they possessed. They are, indeed, the first fruits of the Gentiles, because they were the first to come to Christ” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew).
As Matthew’s Gospel closes, the disciples, gathered on the mountain, also worship Jesus, as He commissions them to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).
Thomas observes: “He was sent to all men, but He was sent firstly to the Jews, so that He might bring the Jews to the Gentiles: ‘Christ Jesus was minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the Fathers’ (Rom 15:8)” (Commentary on Matthew).
According to Thomas Aquinas, the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel is a “symbol of the whole church of the Gentiles” (Commentary on Matthew). Jesus predicted that many Gentiles would come to Him: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 8:11).
Thomas notices the woman’s loving concern for her daughter: “She considered the misery of another to be her own; hence she says, ‘Have mercy on me’ (Mt 15:2); and this is great compassion” (Commentary on Matthew).
St. Thomas comments:
“We should pray for those things which we should desire. But the love we should have for our neighbor, as stated above, should lead us to desire good things for others as well as for ourselves. Hence, charity demands that we pray for others… Prayer flowing from fraternal charity is sweeter to God than that which is the outcome of necessity” (2a2ae. 83, 7).
The Gospel tells us: “He gave her no word of response” (Mt 15:23). Thomas wonders: “This is strange. The fountain of compassion is silent.”
Jesus insists that His mission is to Israel: “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 15:24). Yet, Jesus had already cured the paralyzed servant of the Roman centurion (Mt 18:5-11).
Thomas suggests that, although Jesus initially instructed his disciples not to go to the Gentiles (Mt 10:5), the woman’s persistence moved Him: “Because she was insistent, He granted what she asked … On account of the insistence of the petition, what was above the Law was obtained” (Commentary on Matthew).
Thomas proposes also: “The second reason for His silence is that it was so that her devotion might grow more” (Commentary on Matthew).
The Gospel tells us: “She came forward then and did Him homage with the plea, ‘Lord, help me’” (Mt 15:25).
Thomas understands her “homage” as an act of adoration: “She recognized that He is God, because she adored Him” (Commentary on Matthew).
Contemporary Biblical scholars are hesitant to read too much into her act of “homage,” although Matthew uses the same Greek word here as he does of the “worship” of the Wise Men” (Mt 2:11) and the “worship” of the disciples on the mountain before Jesus ascends (Mt 28:17).
The woman might not have had the full understanding of “Lord,” yet even the disciples only came to it gradually. She definitely knows that Jesus possesses remarkable healing power.
Jesus seems to put her off with his comparison of the Jews as the children with her people as dogs. Thomas comments: “This is added to prove her humility, because she was already standing firm enough in faith” (Commentary on Matthew).
The woman was humble, asking for Jesus’ “pity.” She persists even when she seems to be rejected. Thomas recalls the words of Sirach, “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds, it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds” (Sir 35: 17-18). Thomas also recalls psalm 102:18, “He heeds the prayers of the lowly.”
Jesus commends her for her faith: “Woman, you have great faith” (Mt 15:28). Thomas uses the example of this woman in the Summa Theologiae to demonstrate that “faith can be greater in one than in another” (2a2ae. 5, 4).
Thomas reflects: “Her faith is great, because she believes great things. Likewise, it is great because of its steadfastness: ‘But let him ask in faith, without doubting” (James 1:6).
When our prayers are not answered quickly we think God has stopped caring about us but even as God was faithful to His promises to the people of Israel, He is faithful to us. As St. Thomas said, He doesn’t change, we do.
We also grow in faith and humility as we persist in prayer even when it seems that are prayers are not heard. So many of our needs and desires come easily to us but those which seem not to heard are the ones that really stretch us, to believe in God’s good will for us, even when we can’t see it.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
Reference to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Romans was taken from the translation begun by Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. and edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón. The translation was published by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, Lander, Wyoming, in 2012, p. 316.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew are taken from the translation of Fr. Paul M. Kimball, published by Dolorosa Press in 2012, pp. 341-345.