In the Gospel Reading, Jesus and his disciples have walked out of Jewish lands and all the way into Gentile territory. There is a lot of excitement about him among the Gentiles, too, not least because they know that he can heal people. One Gentile woman in particular cries out to him to heal her daughter.
He won’t answer her, and she keeps crying out to him.
The disciples of Jesus can’t stand her and her noise, and they urge Jesus to send her away. From their point of view, 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.”
But Jesus is in Gentile territory as he says this; and he left Israelite territory to go there. If he isn’t sent to the Gentiles, why go to their territory? If he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, why not just send this Gentile woman away, as the disciples want him to do?
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: “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 anywhere: “even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters,” she says. And Jesus loves her for that pertness and the persistence behind it. “Great is your faith!” he says to her in praise.
But to have faith is to be one of the sheep of Israel and one of the children of Abraham. Gentile, female, or whatever else might make the disciples think that she is a person who doesn’t matter, she has the one thing that really does matter in her cleaving to Jesus.
And so it is true that Jesus is sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. She, a Gentile woman who persists in her calling to him, is one of those sheep. When Jesus crosses into Gentile territory, it is for her. It is right to give the bread of life to her.