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JANUARY 6, 2008: EPIPHANY

Readings: 

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

The renowned 20th century scholar of the Christian Scriptures, Rudolf Bultmann, always reminded his students that every Scripture passage originally had a "sitz im leben" in the community for which it was written. In our language, something was going on in that community which prompted the sacred author to compose this particular pericope. No biblical writer worked in a vacuum.

Just glance at today's second and third readings. The sitz im leben jumps from the page.

Jesus' earliest followers thought only Jews would want to become his disciples. The historic Jesus of Nazareth went town to town, synagogue to synagogue preaching a reform of Judaism. He was Jewish, his audience Jewish, his topic Jewish. Why would Gentiles - non-Jews - give him a second thought, unless they were writing a doctoral dissertation on first century C.E. Palestinian carpenters-turned- reformers?

Yet against all expectation, large numbers of Gentiles began to take an interest in Jesus' teaching and lifestyle. Though initially these Gentile converts were expected to become Jews before they became "Christians," eventually people, like Paul, began to realize the risen Jesus was calling them to faith as Gentiles. They could follow him without jumping through the Jewish "hoops" their predecessors in the faith had thought essential to discipleship.

Though contrary to popular Jewish belief, Paul and his coworkers ultimately started to appreciate that their "outreach" to non-Jews was part of Yahweh's overall plan for the salvation of all people. God somehow had shared this "mystery" with Paul. "The Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." Christianity would never be the same again.

But Jesus' Jewish followers didn't just vanish after Gentiles started to convert. Twenty years after Paul's death, Matthew composes his gospel for a Jewish/Christian community, a church whose members presumed Saturday synagogue attendance and Mosaic law observance were part of their imitating Jesus. Yet the evangelist is forced to remind his readers that there are other ways to carry on Jesus' ministry beyond the Jewish structure within which he exercised his own ministry.

At the beginning of his gospel, Matthew demonstrates that even those who flaunt the Torah regulations forbidding "star gazing" can find their way to Jesus. Pagan magicians can know more about navigating the road to Bethlehem than Herod's Scripture scholars. In Matthew's infancy narrative, these non-Jewish strangers are the only people who do Jesus "homage." This magi passage certainly "blew the minds" of many faithful Jewish/Christian believers.

On the other hand, even main-stream Jews knew their own prophets had frequently spoken about Gentile involvement in their faith. Five hundred years before Jesus' birth, Third-Isaiah conceived of a rebuilt Jerusalem being a magnet for everyone, even non-Jews. "Nations (Gentiles) shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance . . . . Caravans of camels shall fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; all from Sheba shall come bearing gold, frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of Yahweh." No Jewish prophet ever left the impression that Jewish communities were "in here by themselves." They were always part of a larger world.

No doubt our modern belief that we're part of an almost infinite expanding universe forces us to have a different sitz im leben than our faith ancestors. But even if we don't know how to spell "quantum theology," God's plan for creation's eventual salvation still contains elements just as mysterious as those Paul discovered 2,000 years ago.