The claim of N.T Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, is that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish eschatological prophet. Jesus thus carries on the tradition of the Prophets before him, proclaiming a coming judgment if Israel does not repent. With this established, Wright believes much of the content in the Synoptic Gospels fit well the profile of a Jewish eschatological prophet. For instance, he reads The Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’ challenge to Israel to become the nation God always intended her to be.
Jesus’ call for Israel to be a shining city on a hill then is a call for her to bring her God to all peoples. Through the leadership of Jesus, Israel will finally fulfill God’s promise to Abraham; that through him and his descendants the entire world would be blessed(Genesis 12:3). In receiving a renewed heart, Israel will become a blessing to those who have been for so long estranged from God.
The evangelist who makes this point most strongly is certainly Matthew. Jesus in Matthew has a unique mission to be the good shepherd the Pharisees and the priests have failed to be. His leadership will restore Israel and bring about this blessing. The defining characteristic of Israel will no longer be sacrifices(9:13, 12:7); it will be a heart that loves God and neighbor. For Matthew, once Israel can do this she will then be a blessing to the nations.
With this in mind, we can now begin to deal with the difficult texts; those that suggest that for Matthew, Jesus’ mission was only for the Jews. In chapter 10 Jesus sends out the twelve “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”(10:5-6). Wright points out that the twelve he sends are representative of the twelve tribes of Israel. This particular mission then, is symbolic of the restoration of Israel. Through this restoration, God’s promises to Abraham are to be fulfilled. Consequently, this saying does not mean Matthew thought Jesus and his disciples avoided Gentiles throughout the entire ministry. Matthew’s text itself proves this is not the case.
Elsewhere in the gospel Jesus blesses Gentiles, healing a centurion’s servant(8:5-13), and exorcising the Gadarene demoniacs(8:28-34). The scene with the centurion is remarkable because Jesus tells him, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will sit with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”(8:1-12). For Matthew, many Jews and much of their leadership will not make it into the restored Israel, the Kingdom of Heaven. This centurion and many other Gentiles like him will partake in God’s blessings instead.
Matthew also takes from Mark the story of the Syrophoenician woman along with its entire greater context. There is some indication however that Matthew did not perceive how Mark was using the story. Notably, Matthew adds to it an urging on the part of his disciples to send her away and a saying about mission on the lips of Jesus.
A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
“Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment(Matthew 1522-28).
It seems that Matthew has tried to make clearer what he believes to be the plain meaning of the text in Mark. Jesus did not come to bless the Gentiles, only the Jews.
This reading is problematic. How can Jesus say he was only sent to Israel when his actions speak otherwise? Earlier in the gospel we saw him heal gentiles and proclaim a Kingdom including both Jew and Gentile. Perhaps rather than being a statement to the woman, verse 24 is a question to the disciples. “Was I sent only to the house of Israel?” Having seen the blessings given to Gentiles already, do the disciples really believe that Jesus was sent only for the house of Israel? Matthew then has Jesus ask the woman the same question in the form of a riddle as in Mark. She sees what the disciples do not and is commended for her faith. She understands Jesus’ teachings about defilement. The Israel Jesus comes to call is not concerned with washing or food laws or temple sacrifices or even circumcision. The true Israel is concerned with inner purity, a renewed heart.
Matthew’s Jesus freely heals the Gentiles and states clearly that those who enter the Kingdom will not necessarily be those who were expected to inherit it. If read in light of God’s promises to Abraham, Jesus’ sending of his disciples exclusively into Israel in chapter 10 is not further exclusion of Gentiles but the enacting of their full inclusion by means of restoring Israel. Matthew then, along with Mark and Luke presents a Jesus who invites all who will follow.