The renowned 20th-century scholar of the Christian
Scriptures, Rudolf Bultmann, always reminded his students that every Bible
passage originally had a "sitz im leben" for the community it was
That means that something was going on in that
community to prompt an author to compose a particular passage. No biblical
writer worked in a vacuum.
Just glance at Sunday's second reading (Ephesians
3:2-3a,5-6) and Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12). The "sitz im leben" jumps
from the page.
For Jews only?
Jesus' earliest followers thought only Jews would
want to become His disciples. Jesus went town to town, synagogue to synagogue,
preaching a reform of Judaism. He was Jewish, His audience was Jewish, His topic
Why would Gentiles -- non-Jews -- give Him a second
Yet, against all expectation, large numbers of
Gentiles began to take an interest in Jesus' teaching and lifestyle. Though
initially these Gentile converts were expected to become Jews before they became
"Christians," eventually people, like St. Paul, began to realize the
risen Jesus was calling them to faith as Gentiles.
They could follow Him without jumping through the
Jewish "hoops" their predecessors in the faith had thought essential
Paul and his co-workers ultimately started to
appreciate that their "outreach" to non-Jews was part of Yahweh's
overall plan for the salvation of all people.
God somehow had shared this "mystery"
with Paul: "The Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body and
co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel."
Christianity would never be the same again.
But Jesus' Jewish followers didn't just vanish
after Gentiles started to convert. Twenty years after Paul's death, St. Matthew
composed his Gospel for a Jewish/Christian community, a church whose members
presumed Saturday synagogue attendance and Mosaic law observance were part of
their imitating Jesus.
Yet the evangelist is forced to remind his readers
that there are other ways to carry on Jesus' ministry beyond the Jewish
structure within which he exercised his own ministry.
At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew
demonstrates that even those who flaunt the Torah regulations forbidding
"star-gazing" can find their way to Jesus. Pagan magicians can know
more about navigating the road to Bethlehem than Herod's Scripture scholars.
In Matthew's infancy narrative, these non-Jewish
strangers are the only people who do Jesus "homage." This magi passage
certainly "blew the minds" of many faithful Jewish/Christian
On the other hand, even mainstream Jews knew their
own prophets had frequently spoken about Gentile involvement in their faith.
Five hundred years before Jesus' birth, Isaiah (Isaiah 60:1-6) conceived of a
rebuilt Jerusalem being a magnet for everyone, even non-Jews.
"Nations [that is, 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,
frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of Yahweh."
No Jewish prophet ever left the impression that
Jewish communities were "in here by themselves." They were always part
of a larger world.
No doubt, our modern belief that we're part of an
almost infinitely expanding universe forces us to have a different "sitz im
leben" than our faith ancestors. But, even if we don't know how to spell
"quantum theology," God's plan for creation's eventual salvation still
contains elements just as mysterious as those Paul discovered 2,000 years ago.