We have come to a point in the Gospel storyline where Matthew and Mark continue on alone for a little while. Jesus fed the five thousand men, plus others, and then walked on water to meet His disciples on the Sea of Galilee. This was followed by a confrontation with some traveling Pharisees over hand-washing, where Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for teaching contrary to God's Law, only for Jesus to give His own teaching which was contrary to God's Law regarding being clean and unclean.
Toss It to Their Dogs
Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30 record a journey of Jesus into the region of Tyre and Sidon, coastline cities to the north of Israel. Allow me to repeat that for emphasis, this is outside of Israel. Why is Jesus outside of Israel? Well, Mark, the earlier-written of the two Gospels, seems to imply that Jesus either on the run, or was looking for a little private relaxation, because Mark 7:24 reveals that Jesus was trying to keep His presence there a secret. Matthew did not want his version of the Messiah sneaking around, so he left off the secrecy in Matthew 15:21, which also leaves off any kind of indication of why Jesus would go there.
I know. Right now you are thinking: "You Fool, Jesus was sent to the Jews and the Gentiles. That is why He was there." Is that so? Hmm. Let us see what Jesus has to say about that a little later.
Despite the secrecy of Jesus' visit, or lack thereof, news of His presence spreads. This was Jesus' first recorded visit to the region, but supposedly His fame had already reached the region and had earlier enticed some of its denizens to go see Jesus while He was in the region of Galilee (Mark 3:8, Luke 6:17). So, naturally large crowds gathered... No. Wait. Just one woman. One woman came to see Jesus while He was there, because she had a demon-possessed daughter. She begged Jesus to help her daughter (Matthew 15:22, Mark 7:25-26).
Naturally, you would expect Jesus, the epitome of love and virtue, endowed with unlimited powers of healing and exorcism, and overflowing with compassion for everyone, to jump at the chance to free this woman's daughter of the evil spirit, just like He had done literally countless times before for other people. You would be wrong. Matthew 15:23 records that Jesus would not even waste His breath to speak to her until He was prodded by His disciples to do so because she was bothering them. When Jesus finally did say something, it was far from what would be expected, as we see in Matthew 15:24:
[Jesus] answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel." NIVAccording to this line, Jesus was sent only for the Jews, according to the will of God the Father (the implied sender of Jesus). No Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24:45-47). No inclusion of Gentiles. Maybe. Let us take a moment to birth this pregnant statement.
This could be a relic of a time when the Jesus story was exclusively for the Jews. With the above-noted Great Commission (the commission to preach Jesus to all of the world) being at the end of the Gospels, they could easily be a late addition to the story at a time when it seemed that the Gentiles had become interested in Jesus. In fact, the oldest manuscripts of Mark do not include this Great Commission. (Those versions end at Mark 16:8, with an empty tomb but no eyewitnesses to a risen Jesus.) Of course, there is also the curious fact that Saul/Paul was specifically designated as the Apostle to the Gentiles in Acts 9:15, which would not have been necessary if the surviving eleven Apostles had been given a commission to go out to all of the nations. Finally, and in connection to the point above, we should also consider that the "all of the nations" in the Great Commission may not have actually meant all the nations of the world. In the Old Testament, such as in Zechariah 11:10, "all of the nations" was also used (although rarely) to mean exclusively the Jews, as each of the Twelve Tribes of Jews had a "nation" of their own* within the greater nation of Israel. So it is possible that the Great Commission, even if it was included in early Gospel drafts, may not have been all that great in scope.
On the other hand, Jesus could just be saying that God the Father's specific orders were for Jesus to spread the message to the Jews, and for believers to subsequently spread the message to the rest of the world. Then Jesus' statement would seem to be an indication that He placed following the commands of God the Father first and foremost, so He could not heal the woman's daughter because it was outside His God-given scope, and yet He healed the daughter anyway just a handful of verses later. Plus, if Jesus was only sent to the Jews, what on earth was He doing outside of the nation of Israel? It makes no sense for Jesus to travel to Tyre or Sidon. It is like going to Norway to help the people of Sweden.
The story really does not get better as it continues. The woman begs for help again (Matthew 15:25). From here on out, Matthew 15:26-28 and Mark 7:27-30 have essentially the same content, but there is one peculiar difference.
Matthew 15:26 is similar to Mark 7:27, but Mark adds a qualifying statement (highlighted in bold below) in Jesus' reply to the woman:
"First let the children eat all they want," [Jesus] told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs." NIVIf you were reading Mark's version alone, you may not really know what Jesus means by "the children." That is probably why Matthew touched up the story when he copied it for his Gospel, adding the part discussed above regarding the lost sheep of Israel. Jesus is saying that the Jews should get first dibs on healing miracles and exorcisms, and possibly on interaction with Jesus. Of course, again, this leads to the question of why was Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon if such preference was to be given to the Jews?
Jesus' statement suggests that there is a limited quantity of God's blessing.
Also, you should note that to use the reference of dogs here, referring to this woman and her people in general, was a pretty big insult. This is not exactly the kind of language you would expect from Mr. Compassion.
Do not think that the statement implies that it was a Jews-first, then Gentiles sentiment either. The metaphor is children verses dogs. They were not equal in Jesus' eyes, and not even worthy of sitting at the table. The concept through the metaphor is that maybe, just maybe, some compassion may spill over for the Gentiles, but it is far from guaranteed.
Finally you should note that this is the same Jesus who had earlier instructed His own Disciples to freely give of their powers of healing and exorcism when sending them out on their first mission (Matthew 10:8). This is no free giving. This is a test of endurance against intentional discouragement, rendering Jesus a hypocrite in the classic sense.
The woman, unfazed or perhaps desperate beyond any other hope, pleads one more time, continuing in Jesus' metaphor to suggest that she would gladly take any crumbs which dropped from the table. This persistence finally won over Jesus' compassionate side, and so He exorcised her daughter remotely (Matthew 15:27-28, Mark 7:28-30). Allegedly the daughter is healed, even though there are no witnesses in Jesus' party to verify that fact, given that the daughter was not present at the time.
Perhaps it is for these very serious issues that Luke, the Editor, opted not to include this episode in his Gospel.
* - That each of the tribes had their own nation is not 100% accurate. The Tribe of Levi, a.k.a. the Levites, did not have their own nation, but were rather scattered through each of the other Jewish nations serving as priests. Nevertheless, there were still considered to be twelve nations, as the Tribe of Joseph was considered to be split into the Tribe of Manasseh and the Tribe of Ephriam. See this map for reference.
Curiously, you will see that the map actually includes Tyre and Sidon as part of the territory of the Tribe of Asher as defined in Joshua 19:24-31. Yet as 2 Samuel 5:11 later indicates, Tyre had a Gentile king. Neither Tyre nor Sidon were ever captured and populated by Jews or fully incorporated into their kingdom, but Tyre was often portrayed as having a friendly, almost vassal-like relationship for some time with the Jews (2 Samuel 5:11, 1 Kings 5:1, 1 Kings 9:11-12). Yet at some point in time, the relationship with Tyre turned sour, causing God to condemn it (Isaiah 23, Ezekiel 26).