A driving force behind the writing of Luke/Acts was the evangelist’s quest to explain how a reform movement which had been 100% Jewish in the early 30s of the first Christian century had become almost 100% Gentile by the mid-80s.
Some in the Jewish community contended this upheaval in their religion was part of Jesus’ master plan from the beginning. He and his followers had been bad Jews, subverting the basic tenets of their faith and turning their heretical teaching over to non-Jews.
Luke disagrees. He believes Gentiles became Christians not because Jesus and his first disciples intended them to do so, but because Jews rejected the message they proclaimed, enabling Gentiles to step into the breach. Luke is so driven by this thesis that, except for a forced encounter with Pontius Pilate, his Jesus never even talks to a non-Jew throughout his entire gospel. (Notice how ingeniously Luke handles Jesus’ cure of the Gentile centurion’s boy in chapter 7. Jesus never comes face to face with the Roman officer.)
Today’s first reading presents us with Luke’s premise. Paul and Barnabas first preach the word in the Pisidian Antioch synagogue. Initially well received, their proclamation is eventually rejected. But instead of leaving town, the two begin to convert Gentiles, defending their actions by stating Luke’s thesis: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you (Jews) first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” Luke then has Paul turn to Deutero-Isaiah for scriptural defense of such a radical move. “For so the Lord commanded us, ‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.’”
No matter how Luke and his fellow biblical authors explain this unexpected development, most first century Christians believed it was part of God’s larger plan for the world.
By the time the book of Revelation was written, the Gentile mission was so far along the author could speak about the great eschatological gathering as a “great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people and tongue.” What had started as a small Jewish reform movement was now envisioned to be a world-wide faith community.
The shepherd image of Jesus John the evangelist created is used by the Revelation author to broaden the risen Jesus’ ministry. “For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Even Gentile eyes!
It’s clear from such a drastic change in direction that Jesus’ second and third generation disciples had to listen carefully to their shepherd’s voice, calling them to go into territories they’d never thought they’d have to enter. No doubt many in the biblical communities wondered where those who followed that voice would eventually end up.
In a recent issue of Theological Studies, Fr. Stephen Schloesser treats the now almost forgotten historical context of Vatican II. The Jesuit historian demonstrates how that mid-60s gathering stepped beyond the confines in which the church had positioned itself for centuries. The bishops, like our first century predecessors, produced documents which “excite us to wonder and admiration . . . focusing attention on the ‘big issues’ . . . . Keeping one’s eyes on cosmic concerns leads the reader to rise above all pettiness and to strive for an expansive vision and a generous spirit.”
Our shepherd’s voice constantly calls us to go beyond restrictions and smallness, to experience the whole universe God created. People heard that voice in both the middle of the first and twentieth century. I presume it’s still calling us in the same direction in the 21st century.