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AUGUST 14, 2011: TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR

Readings: 

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

Those who believe the historical Jesus tried to create a new religion can't possibly understand today's three readings. Scholars, like the late Raymond Brown, have told us for a long time that Jesus had no intention of founding a church as we know it. He simply thought of himself as a reformer of his own religion - Judaism.

Among other things, that meant Jesus didn't get very involved with Gentiles. That's why today's gospel pericope is significant; it narrates one of those rare occasions in which he's shown relating to a non-Jew.

Though most biblical Jews lived their daily lives without thinking a lot about how they were to interact with Gentiles, the classic prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures did at times treat the subject. In today's Third-Isaiah passage, for instance, Yahweh invites non-Jews to come to “... my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer." But there are conditions attached. These Gentiles must first ". . . join themselves to Yahweh." That implies they will "keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to Yahweh's covenant." In other words, they must become Jews.

The earliest followers of Jesus follow the same path. They welcome non-Jews into their communities - as long as they first convert to Judaism. Why would anyone want to imitate a reformer of Judaism unless he or she were Jewish?

This presupposition is challenged when liberals like Paul of Tarsus come on the scene. Because he zeroes in on the risen Jesus, not the historical Jesus, he sees no reason to demand Gentiles convert to Judaism before they convert to Christianity. After all, as he once reminded the Galatians, the risen Jesus is just as much a slave as a free person, a Gentile as a Jew, and a woman as a man. If the Christ among them isn't restricted to Judaism, why should Christian Gentiles be restricted to that religion?

Yet, as we saw last week, Paul himself still remains a Jew, and is proud of it. Today he reminds the Gentiles in the Christian community in Rome that even his title - "Apostle to the Gentiles" - has a Jewish connection. "I glory in my ministry," he confides, "in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them."

Paul personally executes a 180 degree shift in the early Christian "plan" to convert all Jews first, then turn to Gentiles. Since most Jews are rejecting Jesus, his plan is to direct his efforts to converting Gentiles, hoping his fellow Jews will notice the benefits these non-Jews receive from living the faith, and, out of jealousy, flock to Christianity.

Of course, the Apostle is basing his argument on the strong faith of his Gentile converts. Their willingness to integrate Jesus' dying and rising into their daily lives is essential to his plan. In some sense, non-Jews should be better at doing this because they're not distracted by the laws and traditions which so frequently stop the Chosen People from taking that life-changing leap of faith.

Even Matthew stresses this Gentile faith dimension when he narrates Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite mother pleading for her daughter's cure. Jesus' initial response is amazing. He basically calls her a dog. Only after she takes his metaphor and throws it back at him does he grant her request. But, remembering what I said above about Gentile faith, it's important to note that Matthew significantly alters the story he found in Mark. Mark's Jesus simply praises the mother's sharp mind; Matthew's Jesus, on the other hand, says, "Woman, great is your faith!" Faith and Gentiles are gradually becoming inseparable.

Of course, following Paul's argument, if there are still non-Christian Jews in the world today, it's not their fault. Their lack of conversion can only be caused by our lack of faith.