FROM A READING FOR AUGUST 14, TWENTIETH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
'...for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.' - Isaiah 56:7

Those who believe the historical Jesus tried to create a new religion can't possibly understand Sunday's three readings. Scholars like the late Raymond Brown have told us for a long time that Jesus simply thought of Himself as a reformer of Judaism.

Among other things, that meant Jesus didn't get very involved with Gentiles. That's why Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 15:21-28) is significant: It narrates one of those rare occasions in which He's shown relating to a non-Jew.

Though most biblical Jews lived their daily lives without thinking a lot about how to interact with Gentiles, the classic prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures did at times treat the subject. In Sunday's Third-Isaiah passage (Isaiah 56:1,6-7), for instance, Yahweh invites non-Jews to come to "my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer."

But there are conditions attached. These Gentiles must first "join themselves to Yahweh." That implies they will "keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to Yahweh's covenant."

In other words, they must become Jews.

Must be Jewish
The earliest followers of Jesus follow the same path. They welcome non-Jews into their communities - as long as they first convert to Judaism. Why would anyone want to imitate a reformer of Judaism unless he or she were Jewish?

This presupposition is challenged when liberals like Paul of Tarsus come on the scene. Because he zeroes in on the risen Jesus, not the historical Jesus, he sees no reason to demand that Gentiles convert to Judaism before they convert to Christianity.

If the Christ among them isn't restricted to Judaism, why should Christian Gentiles be restricted to that religion?

Yet, as we saw in last Sunday's readings, Paul himself still remains a Jew, and is proud of it. In this Sunday's reading (Romans 11:13-15,29-32), he re-minds the Gentiles in the Christian community in Rome that even his title - "Apostle to the Gentiles" - has a Jewish connection.

"I glory in my ministry," he confides, "in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them."

Gentiles welcome
Paul personally executes a 180-degree shift in the early Christian "plan" to convert all Jews first, then turn to Gentiles. Since most Jews are rejecting Jesus, his plan is to direct his efforts to converting Gentiles - hoping his fellow Jews will notice the benefits these non-Jews receive from living the faith, and, out of jealousy, flock to Christianity.

The Apostle is basing his argument on the strong faith of his Gentile converts. Their willingness to integrate Jesus' dying and rising into their daily lives is essential to his plan.

In some sense, non-Jews should be better at this, because they're not distracted by the laws and traditions which so often stop the Chosen People from taking that life-changing leap of faith.

Even Matthew stresses this Gentile faith dimension when he narrates Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite mother pleading for her daughter's cure. Jesus' initial response is amazing: He basically calls her a dog. Only after she takes His metaphor and throws it back at Him does He grant her request.

Note that Matthew significantly alters the story he found in Mark. Mark's Jesus simply praises the mother's sharp mind; Matthew's Jesus says, "Woman, great is your faith!"

Faith and Gentiles are gradually becoming inseparable.