Disciples to all nations?

In Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus said He was sent only to the Jews.

But after His resurrection, He sent His disciples to all nations. Why did Jesus change his mind?

Also in that passage, Jesus called the non-Jews "dogs." Then he changed his mind and wanted to deliver His message to the "dogs" also?

Asked By: 
Marco
Historical & Literary interpretations to Matthew 15:21-28

There are two ways to answer your question. One is on a historical basis, the other on a literary basis.

Historically speaking, it is possible that Jesus changed his mind, that is, that having started his ministry focusing only on Israel he then expended it to include the Gentiles, something that was already envisioned in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 52:10).

Now, in regards to Jesus addressing the woman with such an offensive language it has to be said that, disappointing as it may be to many of us who thought that Jesus was above ethnic and religious prejudices, he was behaving as a typical 1st Century Jew for whom Gentiles were as unclean as dogs. But the truth is, we don't really know what Jesus said, only what Matthew, following Mark 7:24-30, reports him as saying. We can't hear Jesus' voice. We can only read it in Matthew's narrative. We can only have access to the literary constructed Jesus, not the Jesus of history.

Therefore, literaily speaking, this all can be explained as the work of Matthew, the evangelist, who by the time he wrote his gospel, around 80 or 90 CE, knew that the Jesus movement had expanded to include non-Jews. That is why, in chapter 28:19, he has Jesus commissioning his disciples to preach the gospel to all the nations. And of course the word he uses in Greek is the same used for Gentiles. Regardless of if the historical Jesus changed his mind or not, Jesus, the character in Matthew's story, did!

Author: Osvaldo D. Vena, Th.D.
Jesus had his human limitations.
This passage trips up a lot of people and you have identified the two parts that most frequently cause questions: Why does Jesus say his mission is limited, and why does he use the word “dogs” for the Canaanite woman and her people?
 
I’m sure the professors will have other things to add, but this online response does a pretty good job of addressing the “dogs” part of your question. The site doesn’t give the name of the person who wrote the response, but here’s the link: https://www.gotquestions.org/Canaanite-woman-dog.html
 
To the broader question of why Jesus says his mission is limited to the people of Israel, my own sense is that this is a place where we see the human limitations of Jesus. Christianity teaches that Jesus is both fully human and fully God. However, the “fully God” part is limited by the "fully human" part while Jesus remained on earth. For example, Jesus needed to eat and sleep, just like anyone else. That means that he was also limited by time and space in his ministry. There was only one of him and there was no YouTube. His best bet for shaping a faith that would last was to teach those immediately around him by example, and then to multiply that teaching by sending those people out who could then train and send still others.
 
It wasn’t until I went into pastoral ministry myself that I really understood this. The first church I served was in a depressed region of the country with a huge level of need—spiritual, economic, and social. It was exhausting ministry, and the more people saw that I gave care at all levels to people in my congregation, the more others in the town showed up, literally on my doorstep. There came a day when, in my exhaustion, I was listening to the music from Jesus Christ Superstar—specifically the song called The Temple, where in the second half Jesus is faced with the barrage of enormous needs surrounding him. (You can hear the song here: http://www.metrolyrics.com/the-temple-lyrics-jesus-christ-superstar.html). In the song, Jesus is overwhelmed by the needs of the people, and it ends with him yelling in frustration, “Heal yourselves!”
 
I’d known that song for decades, but in that moment I understood both that song and the Matthew 15 passage in a visceral way. I stood there in my living room, crying, and suddenly said to myself, “So THAT’S why Jesus said he was only called to the lost sheep of Israel. It gave me permission to be called to those in my congregation rather than the whole town. The human limitation of Jesus taught me that each of us can only do so much in the face of overwhelming need. 
 
Jesus gave us a model for effective ministry. We are not called as individuals to be all things to all people. We are called to a specific people in a specific place, who we help to grow in love and grace so that they can multiply our efforts to others. We don’t reach the world with the love of Christ through a single superhero pastor or evangelist—even in the world of the internet. The Great Commission is fulfilled through the efforts of millions of flawed, limited humans who learned about Jesus’ love and care for all people from a very specific group of people who taught it to them and modeled it for them in flesh and blood. And those people were themselves taught by others, on back to the One who limited his ministry to his own people so he could be sure it stuck and then sent them out into the rest of the world.
 
-- Rev. Anne Robertson

Author:

LITERACY

UNDERSTANDING

DIALOGUE

Massachusetts Bible Society Logo

Exploring the Bible Logo