If your religion is practiced by far less than one percent of the world's population, you're forced to develop procedures for dealing with the other 99 percent.

That's always been the case with Judaism. Built into its law codes and traditions were regulations intended to guard their unique faith from being assimilated by their neighbors' superior numbers: very little association, absolutely no intermarriage.

Yet, in the midst of these and other restrictions, the prophetic element in ancient Judaism frequently teaches that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, also works in the lives of non-Jews. We see this belief in Sunday's first reading (Is 56: 1, 6-7), stated in a way that must have disturbed many Jews of the time.

To the Temple

The prophet holds open the possibility that, one day, non-Jews will not only follow Yahweh, but also be invited to pray in that most exclusive of all Jewish shrines, the Jerusalem temple.

"I will bring them to my holy mountain," Yahweh promises, "and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their holocausts and sacrifices will be acceptable on my altar, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."

As we hear in the Gospel (Mt 15: 21-28), Jesus had to deal with Gentiles who inhabited the Holy Land during His earthly ministry. Matthew seems to have taken this confusing story of the Canaanite woman from Mark and altered it to remind his listeners of the potential for faith in Jesus that non-Jews possessed. The key line: "Woman, you have great faith!"

Since Jesus and all His original disciples were Jews, the question of what to do when Gentiles wanted to join their communities quickly developed into one of Christianity's two earliest problems. (The other was Jesus' delayed Parousia.)

Jewish Christians seemed to have welcomed these non-Jews from the beginning, but on one condition: that they convert to Judaism before being baptized into Christianity.

This procedure seemed acceptable to almost all of Jesus' first followers until 10 or 15 years after His death and resurrection, when people like Paul of Tarsus started to ignore the conversion-to-Judaism provision. They baptized Gentiles as Gentiles, ignoring the stipulation that non-Jewish Christians followed the 613 laws of Moses. Gentile men were not even expected to be circumcised.

Imitating Christ

Though many Jewish Christians vehemently opposed this new-fangled process of conversion as a sign of disrespect and an abandoning of Judaism, the faith of Jesus, Paul looked at it from a different perspective. As we hear in the second reading (Rom 11: 13, 15, 29-32) the Apostle thought his fellow, non-converted Jews - seeing the joy and fulfillment Gentiles experienced when they became Christians - would be so envious that they also would begin imitating Jesus.

"I glory in my ministry," he writes, "in order to make my race jealous, and thus save some of them...by virtue of the mercy shown to you; they, too, may receive mercy."

Paul gives no timetable for this envy to kick in, for Jews to begin flocking to Christianity. But I don't believe he thought it would take more than 2,000 years. What went wrong with his plan? He simply never anticipated how many Gentile Christians would stray from the faith of Jesus and not even notice their departure.

Before Pope John Paul's famous pilgrimage to the Holy Land, a National Public Radio reporter interviewed an Israeli woman as she was leaving a government-sponsored exhibit on Christianity. Acknowledging that her visit helped her learn a lot about the Pope's faith, she was asked, "What did you know about these people before you came here?"

Her response was immediate and biting: "Only that Christians kill Jews!"