AUGUST 20TH, 2017: TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
Thus says the LORD:
Observe what is right, do what is just;
for my salvation is about to come,
my justice, about to be revealed.
The foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
ministering to him,
loving the name of the LORD,
and becoming his servants—
all who keep the sabbath free from profanation
and hold to my covenant,
them I will bring to my holy mountain
and make joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be acceptable on my altar,
for my house shall be called
a house of prayer for all peoples.
Brothers and sisters:
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?
For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.
Just as you once disobeyed God
but have now received mercy because of their disobedience,
so they have now disobeyed in order that,
by virtue of the mercy shown to you,
they too may now receive mercy.
For God delivered all to disobedience,
that he might have mercy upon all.
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
"Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon."
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus' disciples came and asked him,
"Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."
He said in reply,
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, "Lord, help me."
He said in reply,
"It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters."
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
"O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish."
And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.
Many of us have never noticed that Paul of Tarsus employs Tom Sawyer methodology in his evangelization of his fellow Jews. Yet he’s perfectly clear about it in today’s Roman’s passage. “Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles,” the Apostle confesses, “I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them.”
Mark Twain’s hero finagles his friends into whitewashing a fence by pretending to enjoy his work so much that they eventually beg him to let them do it. In similar way, Paul tells the church in Rome that the basic reason he’s preaching the risen Jesus to non-Jews is to make Jews so jealous that they’ll beg him to convert them also. Once they see how Gentiles’ lives are changed for the better by living the faith of Jesus, simple jealousy will drive them to demand to know about that same faith.
It’s somewhat embarrassing to us Gentiles to discover we weren’t originally Paul’s priority. He only turned to us because of his dedication to his fellow Jews. After they rejected his message, he had no other choice. He felt forced to demonstrate that Jesus’ way to salvation actually worked by ingeniously having non-Jews show Jews that it worked. Though many of us falsely presume the gospel Jesus rejected Judaism in favor of Christianity, Paul couldn’t be clearer. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable . . . You (Gentiles) have now received mercy because of their (the Jews’) disobedience . . . .” But eventually, in spite of their disobedience, they also will receive mercy.
Matthew’s Jesus also is clear about the Gentile/Jew issue. When, in today’s pericope, a Gentile woman asks him to cure her possessed daughter, he initially refuses, stating, “I was sent only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, “You Gentiles don’t fit into my job description.”
Jesus eventually cures the girl – triggered by one of the best comebacks in all of Scripture – but he never says he’s changed his priorities. Though open to non-Jews, he plans on reforming Judaism, not replacing it.
He’s not alone in that pursuit. He has some rather well-known predecessors, including Third-Isaiah, the author of today’s first reading. Active shortly after Israel’s 6th century BCE Babylonian Exile, this open-minded, reforming prophet actually envisions a day when Gentiles, adhering to the Mosaic Law, will participate in Jewish rituals. But as far as we can tell, to offer “burnt offerings and sacrifices,” these non-Jews will have to convert to Judaism. (Something many early Christians also expected of Gentiles who converted to Christianity.)
Paul of Tarsus is unique. He’s convinced we follow not the historical but the risen Jesus; the Jesus who is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female. We don’t have to be free, Jewish males to be other Christs. Even Gentile, female slaves can make that transformation. In Paul’s “liberal” theology, Gentiles can be Christians without first converting to Judaism. It’s those Gentile Christians whom he presumes will make his fellow Jews jealous enough to also become other Christs.
Just one problem. I personally know of no Jew who, during my lifetime, converted to Christianity. Very few ever do. We’ve traditionally blamed Jews for that situation, at one time even liturgically referring to them as “perfidious.” Yet, following Paul’s theology, we Gentile Christians are the ones to blame. If Jews haven’t converted in large numbers to the faith of Jesus, it’s our fault. We haven’t lived our faith intensely enough to make them jealous.
Embarrassing as it might be, we non-Jewish Christians might be perfidious, not them. We’re the ones who’ve betrayed Jesus’ faith. The proof is in our non-kosher pudding.