July 22, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Opening to the Gentiles

See Matthew 15:21-39, Mark 7:24-8:10

Matthew and Mark tell us about Jesus’ trip outside of Palestine—to Tyre and Sidon, in Phoenicia or in what is now the country of Lebanon. We can imagine several reasons for this trip: He wanted to get away from the arguments with the scribes and Pharisees; he needed some private time with his Apostles; he thought it wise to put some distance between himself and Herod Antipas who, Luke’s Gospel says, “kept trying to see him” (Lk 9:9). Herod also “liked to listen” to John the Baptist before he had him beheaded.

In the region of Tyre, Jesus was pursued by a Canaanite woman, a Gentile. She wanted Jesus to heal her daughter.

Once again, we find Jesus’ actions puzzling. Not only was he discourteous to the woman, but he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Why would he say that if he had come to save all humankind? Later, he commissioned his Apostles to teach all nations.

Apparently he thought, at this point, that his personal mission was to the Jews. He refused the woman’s request twice, and he was insulting when he did—“It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs”—showing Jewish contempt for Gentiles.

The woman, though, refused to be denied because of her love for her daughter and her faith in Jesus. So she got her way. Jesus healed her daughter from a distance.

Afterward, perhaps Jesus thought about what had just happened. As he reflected, maybe he had second thoughts about his mission being only to the lost Jews. Perhaps he remembered that his mother told him of Simeon’s prophecy when Jesus was presented in the Temple 40 days after his birth, calling him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles (Lk 1:32).

Or perhaps he recalled Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah: “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is 49:6).

Whatever Jesus reflected about, he decided to go back to the Decapolis (10 Gentile cities). Check a map and you’ll see that this was no overnight journey. He went from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea east across Phoenicia to the Golan Heights, and then south to the east side of the Sea of Galilee. It was a long trip.

When he reached the Decapolis, he discovered that the demoniac he had cured then sent as his first Gentile missionary had done his work well. Large crowds came to see him, bringing with them “the lame, the blind, the deformed, the mute and many others.” Jesus cured them and “they glorified the God of Israel” because their mightiest gods couldn’t perform wonders like this.

It was here, too, that Jesus performed his second miracle of feeding the multitudes with only a few fish and loaves of bread, as I discussed in a previous column.

Jesus had extended his mission to the Gentiles. †


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