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AUGUST 17, 2008: TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

In hindsight, we humans have a knack of turning past complicated subjects into simple black and white issues. Through the centuries questions become clearer, answers more evident. This is certainly the case with the history of how biblical Jews related with non-Jews, and Jewish-Christians with Gentile-Christians.

Many of us presume Jesus simply was sent by God to found a new religion: Christianity - a religion open to all. The prerequisites for joining were that they renounce their "old religion," profess faith in Jesus, accept his teachings and submit to the hierarchical institution he founded. The majority of Jesus' own people - the Jews - who rejected him and his new religion are thus condemned to spend their earthly existence as members of a "discredited" religion, never possessing God's whole truth, never achieving the fullness of faith Jesus offers.

If only things were that simple and easy to comprehend. Those who dare return to our earliest expressions of faith - the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures - know "it ain't necessarily so."

There's no one answer to the Jewish/Gentile question even in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some authors demand total separation between Israelites and non-Israelites, even threatening death to any Jew who engages in "intimacies" with a non-Jew. Yet at the same time we have a prophetic element within ancient Judaism which takes a more liberal stance - none more so than Third-Isaiah.

Active within 50 years of the Babylonian Exile, this anonymous prophet has experienced non-Jews in unique situations and relationships. His experiences help him see them from a different perspective from those Jews who've never or rarely come into contact with Gentiles. "The foreigners," he announces, "who join themselves to Yahweh, ministering to him, loving the name of Yahweh, and becoming his servants, . . . them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer.. . For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people." This certainly goes beyond what many century BCE Jews are willing to tolerate.

Matthew's Jesus seem to echo Third-Isaiah's point of view. The evangelist drastically changes the story he found in Mark, making Jesus' initial refusal to help the Gentile woman's daughter a test of her faith. Thankfully she passes the (rather insulting) test and hears the words, "0 woman, great is our faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." Gentiles with faith are just as accepted in Christianity as Jews with faith.

Paul has the most unique theology on the subject. As a good Jew, he believes Jews should be the first to be evangelized. But he eventually varies that conviction for two reasons. Jews aren't exactly knocking one another out of the way in their stampede to convert, while Gentiles are beginning to commit themselves to Jesus in larger and larger numbers. Paul figures jealousy can be a great motivator. If his Gentile converts could demonstrate the terrific benefits of their new faith to his fellow Jews, envy would entice them to also become believers. The Apostle pulls no punches with his Roman readers. "I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?"

Following Paul's logic, if there are still Jews and Christians existing as two opposing religions in today's world, that can only mean we Gentile Christians haven't given ourselves over completely enough to the faith of Jesus to convert our Jewish brothers and sisters, as Jews, to that faith!

0, for a return to the simple days of the catechism!