During a recent interfaith 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.
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 that
parallel those the sacred authors surfaced and critiqued in their
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
that 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
We can make the same observation about the
Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Rarely is that trait clearer than in the
three readings we employ for the feast of the Epiphany.
Both Isaiah and Paul of Tarsus provide us with
passages critiquing ancient Jewish and early Christian beliefs restricting
God's salvation to a select few.
Isaiah stretches the minds of his audience (Is
60: 1-6). In the future, even non-Jews will become disciples of Yahweh.
Addressing a totally destroyed Jerusalem, 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
Ehpah; 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 his oracle.
In the same way, Paul deals with those
Christians who insist that Gentiles who wish to follow Jesus must first
convert to Judaism before being baptized (Eph 3: 2-3, 5-6). 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."
From the East
Sunday's Gospel contains one of the most
biting, self-critical passages in all of Scripture (Mt 2: 1-12). 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 also practicing a forbidden ritual: star-gazing.
Yet, by employing that abhorrent ritual, these
non-Jews discover the Messiah most Jews overlook, even though they practice
the approved method of searching the Bible 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 angles
to that religion. Matthew never intended this story to be a kids'