Knowing why a sacred author writes helps us better appreciate the work he or she produces.

Since we usually hear Scripture only in the little hunks which comprise our liturgical readings, we often have no idea how the few verses the lector proclaims contributes to the author's overall plan. If we saw movies the way we hear Scripture, we'd never figure out the plot or appreciate how an individual scene fits into the whole production.

Only those who know the sacred writer's goal will understand how each individual part of the writer's work meshes with and advances that goal.

Jews to Gentiles

For instance, one of the main reasons Luke writes his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles is to explain how a religion which, 50 years before, had been 100-percent Jewish, is now almost 100-percent Gentile. Had this "rejection" of the Chosen People been Jesus' plan from the very beginning, or had someone, after Jesus' death and resurrection, done something to change His plan?

Luke opts for the latter (Acts 13: 14, 43-52). He has Paul and Barnabas state his thesis. Up to this point, the two apostles from Antioch in Syria have limited their evangelizing to Jews. They contact only Jewish communities and preach only in synagogues. But now, because their Jewish brothers and sisters scoff at the message they proclaim, their ministry takes a significant turn.

"It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to your first," they declare: "but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us." The Jews' rejection of Jesus' message eventually leads to a rejection of the Jewish mission.

Scripture scholars and early Church historians believe the switch from a Jewish church to a Gentile church wasn't as simple and uniform as Luke conveys it in Acts, yet the result was the same. Christianity begins to take on whole new look in the 50s and 60s, a look contrasting with its image of the 30s and 40s. A Christian living in Jerusalem in 35 probably wouldn't be comfortable with the way the faith is lived in Rome in 80, and vice versa.

Explanation

This phenomenon is either going on while our Christian authors are writing or has been a problem in the recent past. In either case, they feel it needs some "theologizing." Explaining or reflecting on this essential change in the direction of their faith becomes part of many a sacred writer's plan.

Notice how it surfaces in the second reading (Rev 7:9, 14-17). "I, John, had a vision of a great multitude," the author writes, "which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue." The seer is quickly informed of the criteria for being in this community of the saved: "These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress." No longer is it necessary to be Jewish in order to experience the salvation Jesus offers. Anyone who imitates Jesus' death and resurrection -- even Gentiles -- can receive the life He offers.

This seems to be why the last evangelist, John, puts so much emphasis on the person of Jesus, independent of His historical, religious, cultural and ethnic roots (Jn 10: 27-30). If someone reads only this Gospel and knows nothing of the other three, he or she could make the case that Jesus of Nazareth is a Gentile!

"My sheep hear my voice," John's Jesus proclaims. "I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish." Jewishness, essential for Christian faith immediately after Jesus' death and resurrection, is optional by the end of the first Christian century.

Perhaps the best part of understanding our sacred authors' plan in these readings is knowing that we could be considering something essential in the Church today which, in a generation or two, might be regarded as optional.

(05-03-01)