The Canaanite woman in Matthew’s story got the leftovers from the table at which the “children” of the household of Israel were being fed. She had no right to sit at the table, nor was any such right promised to her or her daughter; and it is clear that Jesus found her a distraction.
The earlier encounter with the centurion whose servant was sick is similar in many respects (Matt. 8:5-13). Like her he knows that as a Gentile he is unworthy to receive this Jewish miracle-worker into his house and has to argue his corner. The woman claims the right to pick up the crumbs from under the table; the centurion makes a persuasive case for healing at a distance. Both make a deep impression on Jesus and get what they came for.
Having expressed his admiration for the centurion’s faith, however, Jesus says to those who followed him, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness” (Matt. 8:11–12).
As Luke tells the story, the centurion is held in high esteem by the people of Capernaum because “he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Lk. 7:5). So the elders of the town implore Jesus to come and heal the man’s servant. The centurion makes his little speech about being a man in authority, and Jesus marvels and declares, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Lk. 7:9).
In Matthew’s version, the centurion approaches Jesus directly, man to man. In response to his speech Jesus makes the same comment about not finding such faith in Israel, but then drives the message home with the saying about the eschatological banquet:
I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. (Matt. 8:11–12)
The question is: does Jesus mean that the centurion and others like him—Gentiles with great faith—will become members of the covenant people in the kingdom of heaven? Because this is indeed what happened to a centurion in Caesarea, who believed the story that Peter told him about Jesus and Israel, we might imagine that this is exactly what Jesus is predicting here. But I think the answer to the question is more likely no.
1. The centurion is a righteous Gentile, perhaps a God-fearer. Jesus is living in Capernaum at this time (cf. Matt. 4:12) and perhaps already knows the man and his reputation. It appears that Jesus was about to go straight to the man’s house to heal the servant (“No problem, I will come and heal him”). Perhaps the servant was a Jew. But the centurion interrupts him. In the end, the servant is not healed because of the demonstration of great faith—he was going to be healed anyway. Rather, he is healed at a distance because of the centurion’s great faith: “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed”—and the servant was healed at that moment (Matt. 8:13).
So the core message of the story is that the Jews have not grasped the nature of Jesus’ authority: “For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matt. 8:9). The healing is a demonstration of the fact that a higher authority (ie., God) is getting something done in Israel through the agency of Jesus (cf. Lk. 11:20).
2. In the judgment of the nations at the parousia Jesus says that Gentiles who have attended to the needs of the disciples when they are in distress will “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from before the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). This is not, as I see it, an end-of-the-world judgment. It comes at the end of the age of second temple Judaism, with the completion of the disciples’ mission to proclaim to Israel and to the nations the approaching judgment and renewal of Israel (cf. Matt. 24:3, 14; 28:19-20). When YHWH establishes his rule in the age to come, Gentiles who have acted righteously towards his servants, even unwittingly (Matt. 25:37), will be rewarded with a share in the kingdom.
3. In the Old Testament, reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob typically evokes the hope for possession of, and prosperity in, the land. For example, God says to Israel: “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the LORD” (Ex. 6:8; cf. 33:1; Lev. 26:42; Deut. 1:8; 30:20).
4. The formula occurs only once in the prophets, when God speaks to Jeremiah regarding his covenant with the patriarchs and David:
Thus says the LORD: If I have not established my covenant with day and night and the fixed order of heaven and earth, then I will reject the offspring of Jacob and David my servant and will not choose one of his offspring to rule over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes and will have mercy on them. (Jer. 33:25–26)
This readily suggests that the restoration of Israel and of Davidic rule following judgment (cf. Jer. 33:24) is to be celebrated as the consequence of YHWH’s faithfulness to the patriarchs. This is getting us closer to Jesus’ saying.
5. Even after the catastrophe of AD 70 we hear the promise reiterated: “And I will return them to the land, which I swore to their fathers, to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob, and they will rule over it, and I will multiply them, and they will not diminish” (2 Bar. 2:34).
6. The image of an eschatological banquet is usually traced back to Isaiah. Jerusalem has been ruined, but a day will come when the Lord will “punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth”, and then the Lord will reign “on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” (Is. 24:12, 21, 23). Then comes the feast:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Is. 25:6–8)
When YHWH restores Jerusalem, and his enemies have been defeated, the nations will be invited to a celebratory banquet. The curse of the covenant (cf. Is. 24:6) will be brought to an end, and the disgrace that Jerusalem has suffered in the eyes of the nations will be removed. There is no reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob here, but it seems reasonable to line this up with the previous two points about the significance of the promise to the patriarchs.
The feast will be “for all peoples”, but this should not be taken to mean that Isaiah envisaged the incorporation of non-Jews into the renewed covenant people. Heads of state will go to Rome to celebrate the inauguration of a new pope, but that doesn’t make them all Catholics.
The ideal relationship between Israel and the nations is expressed in Isaiah 26:9: “when your judgments are in the land, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Is. 26:9). Restored Israel is a model society, from which the nations as nations will learn the ways of righteousness. Other Old Testament passages confirm this (cf. Is. 2:2-4; Mic. 4:1-4; Zech. 2:11-12; 8:20-23).
7. The reconciliation of the “poor” and repentant—the lost sheep of the house of Israel—with Abraham is a strong theme in Luke. The beggar Lazarus is carried by angels to be with Abraham when he dies (Lk. 16:22); Jesus says of the tax collector Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Lk. 19:9); and I think it likely that the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-32), with whom the wayward son is reunited, celebrated with an extravagant feast, is better identified with Abraham than with God. This motif is solely focused on Israel.
8. When Jesus is travelling towards Jerusalem, someone asks him whether those who are saved will be few (Lk. 13:22-23). This is a question about the survival of Jews in Galilee and Judah when Jerusalem is destroyed by Rome. Jesus urges them to enter by the narrow gate because many Jews will be excluded from the presence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God. Indeed, “people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Lk. 13:29). Gentiles are not in view in this passage.
So where does all this leave us? If sitting at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob conforms to Isaiah’s feast for all peoples, it may well be that Jesus envisaged the presence of righteous Gentiles, Gentiles who understood what YHWH was doing, at the glorious celebration of the restoration of Israel. But in Jewish prophetic expectation it is always diaspora Jews who come from east and west and north and south (Ps. 107:2-3; Is. 43:5-6; 49:12; Jer. 3:18; Zech. 8:7), so the main polemical point appears to be that the current régime (the “sons of the kingdom”) will be replaced by displaced and marginalised Jews. This is what the parable of the wedding feast is all about.
So on the day of the unorthodox restoration of Israel, following the catastrophe of the war against Rome, many Gentiles will be in attendance, paying homage to the God of Israel, but the dividing wall of the Law will not have been removed.