`Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10:5-6)
These words occur in Matthew’s account of Jesus’s sending out the twelve apostles two by two at a fairly early stage in his Galilean ministry, in order that the proclamation of the kingdom of God might be carried on more extensively and more quickly than if he had done it by himself alone.
The message they were to preach was the same as he preached: `The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ The works of healing that were to accompany their preaching were of the same kind as accompanied his.
Mark (6:7-13) and Luke (9:1-6) also report the sending out of the twelve, but more briefly than Matthew does.
Matthew is the only evangelist to include these `exclusive’ words in his account. `The lost sheep of the house of Israel’ is an expression peculiar to his Gospel (although it is not dissimilar to `sheep without a shepherd’ in Mark 6:34); it occurs again in his account of the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter (Matt. 15:24).
Since Matthew is the only evangelist to report these words, it might be argued that they were not originally spoken by Jesus, but were ascribed to him by the evangelist or his source.
We cannot make Matthew responsible for inventing them: there is no reason to think that Matthew had an anti-Gentile bias or entertained a particularist view of the gospel.
At the beginning of his record he brings the Gentiles in by telling how the wise men came from the east to pay homage to the infant king of the Jews – the occasion traditionally referred to as the `epiphany’ or `manifestation’ of Christ to the Gentiles.
In the course of his report of Jesus’s teaching he quotes him as saying that, before the end comes, `this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout all the world, as a testimony to all nations’ (Matt. 24:14). At the end of the book (Matt. 28:19) he tells how the risen Christ commissioned the apostles to `go … and make disciples of all nations’ (that is, among all the Gentiles).
And in the course of his record he tells of Jesus’s praise for the Roman centurion of Capernaum, in whom he found greater faith than he had found in any Israelite (Luke 7:2-10), and of his following assertion that `many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’, while some of the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would find themselves excluded from the feast (Matt. 8:5-13; cf. Luke 13:28-29)
Those last words would certainly be a hard saying for Jewish hearers, just as hard as `Go nowhere among the Gentiles’ might be for Gentile readers.
Matthew probably did derive some of the material peculiar to his Gospel from a source marked by a Jewish emphasis – perhaps a compilation of sayings of Jesus preserved by a rather strict Jewish-Christian community. `Go nowhere among the Gentiles’ may well have been found in this source.’ But the source in question probably selected those sayings of Jesus which chimed in with its own outlook; that is no argument against their genuineness.
When Jesus sent out the twelve, the time at their disposal was short, and it was necessary to concentrate on the people who had been specially prepared for the message of the kingdom. Even if the twelve did confine themselves to the `lost sheep of the house of Israel’, they would not have time to cover all of these.
This had sometimes been thought to be the point of the words: `you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes’ (Matt. 10:23), cryptic words which must be considered by themselves – see p. 107.
Moreover, it is taught in the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, and nowhere more clearly than in Isaiah 40-55, that when Israel grasps the true knowledge of God, it will be her privilege to share that knowledge with other nations.
Nearly thirty years later, Paul, apostle to the Gentiles though he was, lays down the order of gospel presentation as being `to the Jew first and also to the Greek’ (Rom. 1:16) – the `Greek’ here standing for the Gentile.
This statement of primitive evangelistic policy was evidently founded on Jesus’s own practice. Even so, there are hints here and there in the synoptic Gospels that the Gentiles’ interests were not forgotten.
The incident of the Roman centurion of Capernaum has been mentioned; the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter will receive separate treatment.
Such occasions, isolated and exceptional as they were during Jesus’s ministry, foreshadowed the mission to the Gentiles which was launched a few years after his death.
The Fourth Gospel emphasises this by relating an incident which took place in Jerusalem during Holy Week, only two or three days before Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion.
Some Greeks who were visiting the city approached one of the disciples and asked for an interview with Jesus.
His reply, when he was told of their request, was in effect `Not yet, but after my death’ -‘when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself’, all without distinction, Gentiles and Jews alike (John 12:20-32). That is exactly what happened.
The ban on entering any town of the Samaritans is to be understood in the same way. Samaritans were not Jews, but neither were they Gentiles.
Jesus did not share his people’s antiSamaritan bias (although the evidence for this is supplied by Luke and John, not by Matthew), and after his death and resurrection his message of salvation was effectively presented to Samaritans even before it was presented to Gentiles (Acts 8:5-25).