I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (Matthew 15:24)
The patriarch Jacob wrestled with a mysterious man, and the wrestling match occurred because Jacob wanted this man’s blessing (Ge 32:22ff). This man, as implied in the account and as explained by the prophet Hosea (12:3-4), is indeed God. Jacob would not let God go until God blessed him. Of this account Luther wrote: “The unbelievable power of faith…prevails over God…God cannot shake loose.”
Now, almost 2,000 years after Jacob, a Canaanite woman comes to The Man, asking his blessing upon her demonically-troubled daughter. Though the woman was not Jewish, she nonetheless believed that Jesus was the long awaited Christ, for she implores Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” This Jesus whom the woman approaches is exactly what she believes: He is her Lord, the long awaited Son of David, the one prophesied to be the Merciful One. Her faith in Jesus had been generated by someone who shared God’s Word with her, for faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.
For the Apostles and for us who now read the account, Jesus rebuffs her faith three times. He does this to reveal the woman’s bear-trap faith, which having snapped shut on the Christ would not let Him go. He first gives her the silent treatment. Then He informs her that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Thirdly Jesus tells this gentile-dog that it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. The Canaanite woman’s faith would not release Jesus. Jesus finally reveals what He knew was happening all along: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (28).
Jacob confidently promised his wrestling opponent, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Ge 32:26). In lieu of Jacob’s tenacious faith, God blessed him and changed his name to Israel, which means, “He strives with God.” Through faith—a faith wrought by God through His Word—Jacob had striven with God, and prevailed; now Jacob is named Israel. In Sunday’s Gospel account Jesus apparently denies giving help to the woman by informing her that He had been sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As the Kingdom-work of Christ unfolded through His Holy Apostles, we realize who the citizens of the Israel of God are (Gal 6:15-16). As explained by Paul in Romans 9, there is of course Israel according to the flesh…the physical descendants of Israel. But then there is Israel according to the promise: For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring…This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring (6-8). The Canaanite woman who implored the Son of David to have mercy on her daughter was indeed a child of the promise, a spiritual descendant of Israel, a child of God by faith. We thus see how appropriate it was for Jesus to heal her daughter, for she was—in the loftiest sense—a lost lamb of the house Israel for whom Jesus had been sent.
Why was Jesus “sent”? He was not sent by the Father to merely travel the countryside and heal/exorcise those who needed it, but he was sent to save, and not just to save the physical descendants of Israel. The universal salvation of Christ Jesus is attested by the fact that His death was for the entire world. Scripture informs us He died for all, and thus God was reconciling the world unto Himself (2 Cor 5); He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 Jo 2). Through the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter Jesus was giving a sneak-preview of the salvation that would reach beyond the Jews. This salvation is not simply temporal healing, it is eternal. It is received by the lost sheep of the house of Israel, by those brought to faith in the crucified and risen Christ.