Humans have a knack of turning complicated subjects into simple, black-and-white issues. That is certainly the case with the history of how biblical Jews related to non-Jews and how Jewish-Christians related to Gentile-Christians.

Many of us presume Jesus was sent by God to found a new religion: Christianity. The prerequisites for joining were that people renounce their "old religion," accept Jesus' teachings and submit to the hierarchical institution He founded.

The majority of Jesus' own people -- the Jews -- who rejected Him were, therefore, condemned to spend their earthly existence as members of a "discredited" religion, never possessing God's whole truth and never achieving the fullness of faith Jesus offers.

Not that simple

If only things were that simple and easy to comprehend. Those who return to our earliest expressions of faith -- the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures -- know "it ain't necessarily so."

There's no single answer to the Jewish/Gentile question even in the Hebrew Scriptures. Some authors demanded total separation between Israelites and non-Israelites, even threatening death to any Jew who engaged in "intimacies" with a non-Jew.

At the same time, there was a prophetic element within ancient Judaism that took a more liberal stance, none more so than the author of the first reading (Isaiah 56:1,6-7).

Active within 50 years of the Babylonian Exile, this prophet experienced non-Jews in unique situations and relationships. His experiences helped him see them from a different perspective from those Jews who had never or rarely come into contact with Gentiles.

"The foreigners," he announces, "who join themselves to Yahweh, ministering to Him, loving the name of Yahweh, and becoming His servants,...them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer....For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people."

That certainly goes beyond what many Jews of that time were willing to tolerate.

In the Gospel (Matthew 15:21-28), Jesus seems to echo Isaiah's point of view. St. Matthew drastically changed the story he found in Mark's Gospel, making Jesus' initial refusal to help the Gentile woman's daughter a test of her faith.

Thankfully, she passes the test and hears the words, "Oh, woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."

Gentiles with faith were just as accepted in Christianity as Jews with faith.

Paul's view

St. Paul had the most unique theology on the subject (Romans 11:13-15,29-32). As a good Jew, he believed Jews should be the first to be evangelized. But he eventually varied that conviction for two reasons. Jews weren't exactly knocking one another out of the way in their stampede to convert, while Gentiles were beginning to commit themselves to Jesus in larger and larger numbers.

Paul figured that jealousy could be a great motivator. If his Gentile converts could demonstrate the terrific benefits of their new faith to his fellow Jews, envy would entice them to become believers.

The Apostle pulls no punches with his Roman readers: "I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them. For if their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?"