Behold a woman of Canaan who came out of those coasts, crying out, said to him: Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David: my daughter is grieviously troubled by the devil. Who answered her not a word. And his disciples came and besought him, saying: Send her away, for she crieth after us: And he answering, said: I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel. But she came and adored him, saying: Lord, help me. Who answering, said: It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs.—Matthew 15:22-26
Enemies of Christianity often use the above passage as evidence that Jesus was a “Jew,” in the worst sense of the word, and that He did not care about gentiles. Some conspiracy theories run so deep as to suggest that Jesus only ever preached a “Jew only” religion and that it was St. Paul, who never knew Jesus, that fabricated a religion that could be sold to the Romans for some nefarious reasons. In turn, it is argued that Christianity itself is “basically Jewish” and has been a subversive and detrimental force against European civilization. The problem is that such theories demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding regarding what Jesus was actually saying, why He said it, and the circumstances in which He said it. Context is very important.
To begin with, the background of the above passage is that the Pharisees were confronting and challenging Jesus, so He had gone into the Roman province of Phoenice with His disciples (Matthew 15:1-21). This is important because it frames what follows in clear terms where the Hebrews were not hearing Jesus’s message and were instead consistently pushing back against Him. This is in accordance with Jesus telling the Pharisees that they did not know Him because they did not know God and that they were instead the children of Satan (John 8:41-47). The setting of the event is also important because Roman Phoenice was gentile land, and Jesus had purposely gone there despite His assertion that He was “not sent but to the sheep of the house of Israel.” If Jesus had truly intended to only reach out to the Hebrews, why would He go into gentile lands at all?
The answer is found in the carefully worded responses of the Lord, which taught an important lesson. As we can see from the passage above, the Apostles went to Jesus and asked that He send the woman away because she was chasing after them. The implication clearly being that they were annoyed with her rather than seeking to help her. Jesus did initially refer to the woman metaphorically as a dog, but the word He used was “κυνάριον,” which carried only a literal meaning, rather than “κύων,” which was commonly used by Hebrews to refer to gentiles, comparing them to dogs in the sense of lowly animals. The woman still sought the Lord’s help, and He praised her faith and healed her daughter (Matthew 15:27-28). Thus, Jesus was not actually insulting the woman, but He was instead showing the Apostles that they were wrong to have wanted to send her away without helping her. She was not a “dog” unworthy of the Lord’s help, but she was instead faithful to Him even as the Hebrews were not. As if to put a finer point on the lesson, Jesus then immediately returned to Galilee, allowing the lesson of the gentile woman and her daughter to stand on its own (Matthew 15:29).
The lesson was obviously not lost on the Apostles considering that St. Peter established the heart of the Church in Rome, as well as other apostles establishing apostolic sees in Italy, Greece, Spain, &c.