Readings for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
So, who's your Gentile?
Everybody knows that "gentile" is derived from the Latin gentes which means "nations" or "peoples," and translates the Greek equivalent of the word we know from current Hebrew as goyim, which just means, "anyone with the misfortune of not being born Jewish." In the time that the Christian scriptures were being compiled, this was an increasingly important distinction. At the time of Jesus's death, there were, to the best of anyone's knowledge, no Christians at all, only Jews, some of whom came to believe in Jesus. Jews-who-believed-in-Jesus began to be seen as a threat to the limited resources of the community and to its leadership and orthodoxy, and ultimately were separated from the temple cult, at times with threats and other reprisals.
After St. Paul, also a Jew, and a pious proselytizer at that, had his famous encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, things got even more heated. Convinced by his encounter with the Lord and his own study and experience that the law of Moses had no power to save his people, a power that only faith in Christ had, he expanded his preaching of Jesus Christ as the savior of all humanity to some of the great cities of the Mediterranean, probably preaching in the vicinity of Jewish proto-synagogues. His preaching targeting many of the same potential "converts," the "Godfearers," or Gentiles sympathetic to and interested in Jewish beliefs and moral life, upon whom local Jewish communities depended for financial and political support as well as socialization. So from the outer courts of the Jerusalem temple to the streets of Corinth and Thessaly, the stage was set for tension, mistrust, and conflict between Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians within just a few years of the death of Jesus. It is entirely possible, in fact, that the gospels' near exoneration of Pilate and the Romans for the death of Jesus, a death for which they were almost certainly entirely responsible, was because of the animus between the fledgling Christian communities and their Jewish neighbors. If Acts (see Acts 6: 1-7) is to believed, there was even some dissent in the Jerusalem church itself between Jewish and non-Jewish factions, for instance, in the discrimination against the Greek widows, who were neglected in food distribution, leading to the creation of the first deacons.
All these fights about tradition, being right, who's in and who's out, are present in every stage of the church's development from the beginning of Jesus's ministry, through the New Testament times, and right up to the present day. We cannot know the mind of the historical Jesus himself, but in the hands of the evangelist Matthew, he is at least apparently conflicted. While other evangelists have Jesus preaching in pagan territory and interacting with Gentiles, Matthew's Jesus is clear, the great commission notwithstanding, that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” having told the twelve, back in chapter 10, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
In Sunday's gospel, our hearts open to the possibility that Jesus had some lessons to learn as a teacher, even one who was the incarnate Son of God, and the lesson comes by way of a woman who doggedly (sorry, unintentional pun) wants what she wants on behalf of her possessed daughter. Note too, that this gospel passage is preceded by a condemnation of the substitution of rigorous law for right living (justice) on the part of some Jewish leaders, and is followed by a second miracle of the loaves. While this latter miracle is not apparently very different from the one we heard a couple of weeks ago, it is based on the structure of the two feedings recorded in Mark (chapters 6 and 8), the second of which (corresponding to this one) takes place in the pagan territory. Mark's Jesus does not confine his preaching and ministry to the Jews like Matthew's does, and yet it's the same Jesus. So there is also the possibility, at least, of a literary movement that corresponds to what might be the mind of Jesus: what begins with the condemnation of a rigid and narrow-minded approach to law, a legalism that saves by strict adherence, ends with a feast on the Gentile side of the lake, and arrives there by way of a storm in the boat and the plea of a Gentile mother for the benefits of Jesus's ministry heretofore being lavished only upon his own people. Talk about character development!
This gospel and the whole liturgy today touches on hot-button issues in our church and in every church; for that matter, between churches. What are our sacred cows? What are the matters about which we are so certain we are right that we're willing to push people away who ask for help? Parish registration? Baptism? A certain kind of music? Celibate clergy? Ministry only by straight people? Or expand this kind of thinking into the wider world, the world that we church people populate and in which we vote and do business. What about health care? How about border control and immigration?
What's the goal of religion, specifically, the goal of Christianity? For Jesus, it appears, from at least the point of view of the fourth gospel it was this: "that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I am in you, that they all might be one in us." The shattering truth that Paul's letter to the Philippians sings in its quotation from a first-century Christian hymn is that God wanted reconciliation, that is, unity among us and between God and us, so much that, the he "did not cling to godliness,' and became a human being like us, and suffered death on a cross. God, in other words, didn't think being right was worth it. Being God meant nothing if we weren't all together. So God left it behind, and emptied Self into humanity.
Today's gospel suggests—suggests, I say—that Jesus learned that from a Gentile mother who was desperate to save her daughter from the demons that raged within her. Her tenacious love "did not cling to Gentile-ness" but emptied itself and begged from an enemy, or at least, a stranger, for what was available to others. The "faith" that saved her, we know, and Jesus knew, was not her own doing, but was planted in her by God, the only source of that gift. The Giver is the same one who wants reconciliation of all people, and she acts like the giver in emptying herself, and in the process, just maybe, opened the eyes of the Messiah to who he really was.
The repeated metaphor in the scriptures for the diversity (or chaos) of the world is the division between the Jews, i.e., the people who wrote the scriptures, and the goyim, the Gentiles, the rest of us. That is an unbridgeable gap from our side, that is to say, from the side of the Jews. God created the gap. If the Gentiles can come to the Lord, and even serve as priests, Isaiah suggests, then all bets are off. Creation has begun again. If "all the peoples" can praise the God of Israel, then the covenant has been rewritten. The Jews aren't written out; it's that the rest of us are written in. We can't do that. The Jews can't do that. Only God can do that. If that can happen, anything can happen.
It may be a suggestion that it's time to stop throwing up walls, and start tearing them down. At least, it seems to me, all of us should keep in mind that the telos, the consummation, the final goal of all things, the dream of God, is "that they—we—all be one." Everything we do, every rule we make, every decision we make, every law we vote for, every candidate we trust, everything we invest our time and money in, should be oriented toward that goal.
So, who's your Gentile?
GATHERING: Gather Us In (Haugen) 848
KYRIE/Gloria: St Aidan
RESP. PSALM 98: All the Ends of the Earth (Haugen/Haas) 70
PREP RITE: In Christ There Is No East or West or A Place at the Table 832 /812
FRACTION: St Aidan (G)
COMMUNION: One Bread, One Body (Foley) 932
SENDING FORTH: Saving Power of God (O'Connor)