A driving force behind the writing of his
Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles was Luke's quest to explain how a reform
movement that had been 100-percent Jewish became almost 100-percent Gentile
within a few decades after the Resurrection.
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
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.)
Sunday's first reading (Acts 13:14,43-52)
presents us with Luke's premise. Paul and Barnabas first preach the word in
the Pisidian Antioch synagogue.
Initially they are well received, but their
proclamation is eventually rejected. 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 quote 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 that 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" (Revelation
7:9,14b-17). What had started as a small Jewish reform movement was now
envisioned to be a world-wide faith community.
The shepherd image of Jesus that St. John the
Evangelist created (John 10:27-30) 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
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
In a recent issue of Theological Studies, Rev.
Stephen Schloesser treats the now almost forgotten historical context of the
Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The Jesuit historian demonstrates how
that 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 20th
centuries. I presume it's still calling us in the same direction in the