During a recent inter-faith dialogue, someone asked me to name some good things I found in the Catholic Church. I had no difficulty giving him a list of those attributes. But his questioning me on that topic wasn’t a surprise. Addressing his unasked question, I reminded him that as a student and teacher of Scripture, I’m constantly dealing with a library of self-critical writings. After 40 years of being involved with the Bible, it’s become second nature for me to surface situations in my own church which parallel those the sacred authors surfaced and critiqued in their communities.
The Bible isn’t the only literary collection whose authors are self-critical. According to experts on the Great Books Series, one of the elements which makes this collection so great is their authors’ knack of critically examining the culture and morality which gave rise to them. For instance, the vast majority of writings about war in the series are actually anti-war. Instead of finding fault with their enemies, the writers find fault with themselves and those who share their values.
We can make the same observation about the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. And rarely is that trait clearer than in the three readings we employ for the feast of the Epiphany.
Both Third-Isaiah and Paul of Tarsus provide us with passages which critique ancient Jewish and early Christian beliefs restricting God’s salvation to a select few.
The immediate post-exilic prophet stretches the minds of his audience. In the future, even non-Jews will become disciples of Yahweh. Addressing a totally destroyed Jerusalem, Third-Isaiah proclaims, “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 and frankincense, and proclaiming the praise of Yahweh.” If all Jews were open-minded about the salvation of non-Jews, the prophet never would have delivered this oracle.
In the same way, in our Ephesians pericope Paul deals with those Christians who insist that Gentiles who wish to follow Jesus must first convert to Judaism before being baptized. From the instant of his Damascus Road experience, the Apostle began to understand “God’s secret plan . . . unknown to people in former ages but now revealed by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets. It is no less than this: in Christ Jesus the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body and sharers of the promise through the preaching of the gospel.” Narrow-minded Christian is an oxymoron.
Today’s gospel pericope contains one of the most biting, self-critical passages in all of Scripture. Remember, Matthew writes for Jewish Christians. The astrologers who come “from the east” searching for “the newborn king of the Jews” are not only Gentiles, but they’re practicing a forbidden ritual: star gazing. Yet by employing that abhorrent ritual, these non-Jews discover the Messiah which most Jews overlook, even though they practice the approved method of searching the Bible, looking for clues to his arrival.
Considering the Jewish make-up of Matthew’s community, his message is breath-taking. His original readers would have rated it “R,” unable to understand how modern, non-Jewish Christians could judge it to be “G,” the stuff from which children’s Christmas plays are made. It takes a tremendous amount of faith-maturity to admit that no matter how dedicated we are to our specific religion, God can and does work through those who live much of their lives at right angels to that religion. Matthew never intended this story to be a kid’s narrative.
No wonder those who have to explain such biblical passages are often regarded as trouble makers in their own faith communities.