The Mission of Jesus – Part I

Perhaps the most disregarded important passage in the gospel record is found in the Gospel According to Matthew.

After haranguing a group of “Pharisees and teachers of the law” in Galilee in regards to ritual purity, Jesus decides, for some mysterious reason, to travel to the Gentile regions of Tyre and Sidon. I say “mysterious” because earlier Jesus had commanded his disciples,Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans.[1]  Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.[2]

 Syrophoenician Woman

          While trying to enjoy a respite from His missionary work by retiring to a house in the region of Tyre,[3] a Syrophoenician (Gentile) woman approaches and frantically beseeches Jesus to exorcise her daughter who has become “demon-possessed.”[4]

At first, Jesus ignores her. But she is persistent and tenacious—so much so that Jesus’ annoyed disciples ask Jesus to send her away. It is then when Jesus proclaims, “I was sent only unto the lost sheep of the House of Israel.”[5]

After more of the Syrophoenician woman’s unrelenting pleading, Jesus scornfully rebuffs her by telling her, “It is not right to take the children’s[6] bread and toss it to the dogs.[7][8] It was Jesus’ way of saying He had no interest whatever in spreading His message to any Gentiles.

Not surprisingly, much has been made of Jesus’ use of the term “dogs” [i.e., κυναρίοις (kynariois)] here. It is a well-known fact that the Israelites often referred to Gentiles as “dogs, κύων (kuón); using the word as a deliberate slur.

However, since Matthew used the “diminutive” form of kuón, Christian apologists contend that Jesus wasn’t referring to Gentiles as “dogs” in the insulting manner Jews usually did, Jesus was, instead, referring to them as “little puppies” and was not being insulting in the least. Christian apologistm, D. A. Carson, however, points out that:

There may be no significance to the diminutive “dogs” (kynaria) in vv. 26-27, because in Hellenistic Greek the diminutive force is entirely lacking; but if there is such force here, it does not make the “dogs” more acceptable— i.e., “pet dogs” or “house dogs” as opposed to “wild dogs” but [only] more dependent.”[9]

Christian scholar, Joel Marcus, adds:

“this does not necessarily mean that Jesus is [here] affectionately referring to the woman or her daughter as “little dogs,” or “pups . . . In Koine Greek, the diminutive is often indistinguishable in meaning from the regular form . . . and the normal term for “little dog” is not [κυνάριον] kynarion, but kynidion.”[10]

Couple Jesus saying “Do not give dogs [κυσίν (kysin)] what is sacred” in Matthew 7:6 (and part of the Sermon on the Mount!), and it’s a pretty safe bet that Jesus actually was disrespecting the Syrophoenician woman.[11

So we’ve seen in the texts of both Mark and Matthew that Jesus did relent and “cure” the demon-possessed daughter due to the great “faith” of her Gentile mother. But it was also her sheer doggedness that earned her a Jesus’ “miracle.” And while the episode has a happy ending, we mustn’t be distracted and overlook what Jesus had so definitively proclaimed to his disciples: “I was sent ONLY to the Jews of Israel.” We need to focus on those words like a laser-beam.


In PART II: Did Jesus really sanction a mission to the Gentiles?


[1] See here.

[1] The Samaritans and the Jews of Judea had opposing views as to which of them was adhering to the “true” faith of Israel and, thus, arch-enemies.

[2] Matthew 10:5-6.

[3] Cf. Mark 7:24, 31.

[4] While Mark’s gospel has Jesus being beseeched by the Syrophoenician woman in someone’s home  in the region of Tyre, (cf. Mark 7:24, 31), Matthew seems to describe the woman as trailing Jesus’ entourage while out in the open in the Tyre/Sidon area.(See especially Matthew 15:23.)

[5] Matthew 15:24, KJV; Cf. Matthew 10:5-6: “These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans

[6] I.e., The Jews

[7] I.e., The Gentiles

[8] Matthew 15:26.

[9] Carson, D. A. Matthew, Chapters 13 through 28. ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1995.

[10] Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8: a New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. 1st ed., vol. 1, Doubleday, 2000, p. 463.

[11] Christian apologists will, of course, portray Jesus in the best light possible. That’s perfectly understood. But then, the fact of the matter is that Christian apologists are, sadly, not always truthful when it comes to defending biblical texts.


2 thoughts on “The Mission of Jesus – Part I
  1. Wow. This passage had confused me. Now it makes a lot of sense. Great post.


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