Faith always forces us to go beyond the limits religion imposes on us.

No one understands and experiences this force more deeply than the community's prophets: those who minister as their people's conscience, pointing us in the direction God wants us to go.

Ironically, each of the prophets responsible for Sunday's readings deals with the same religious restriction: the wall separating Jews from Gentiles.

Gentiles' role

Third-Isaiah treats the issue first. But we can appreciate his words only after we realize that he's primarily talking to Jews who, after the Exile officially ended, choose to remain in Babylon. He not only pleads with them to return to the Promised Land and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, but also wants them to understand the role Gentiles, like those with whom they've lived for several generations, will have in their restored kingdom (Is 56: 1, 6-7).

"The foreigners," he proclaims, "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 peoples."

The prophet's oracle disturbs most Jews. They believe the temple -- Yahweh's house -- is their house of prayer and only theirs. They forbid Gentiles, under pain of death, to go beyond an exterior courtyard.

It's significant that Third-Isaiah begins his oracle by talking about "Yahweh's justice being about to be revealed." Since justice in Scripture almost always refers to the relationship God has with God's people, the prophet is reminding his audience that Yahweh related to Gentiles in a more intimate way than Yahweh's people relate to Gentiles. The prophet believes everyone has a part to play in God's plan, even those who don't belong to the "true religion."

Rare encounter

Since historical Jesus is more interested in reforming His own people than in bringing non-Jews into "the fold," He seldom has anything to do with Gentiles. The Gospel encounter is a rarity. Coping this passage from Mark, Matthew changes it around just enough to turn Jesus' initial refusal to help the Canaanite mother into a test of her faith.

The climatic line is, "O woman, great is your faith!" Matthew simply uses the story to remind his Jewish/Christian readers that Gentiles/ Christians often have more faith and trust in Jesus than they have (Mt 15: 21-28).

Scholars believe the historical Jesus left the solution of the "Gentile question" to His followers. As far as we can tell, the earliest Christian communities imitated His practice of reaching out just to their Jewish brothers and sisters. They didn't ignore Gentiles; they simply put their conversion on a back burner. They'd deal with that issue after all their fellow-Jews accepted Jesus.

This plan seems to have worked well until Paul arrived on the scene. Frustrated by the slow pace of Jewish conversions, he thought he could speed it up by reversing the process. He concentrated on Gentiles. In the second reading (Rom 11: 13-15, 29-32), he gives his reason for turning Christian evangelization upside down.

"I glory in my ministry," he writes, "in order to make my race

jealous and thus save some of them."

Paul opened the door of faith to almost everyone reading these words. We certainly can't blame him because almost no Jews follow Jesus today. His plan probably would have worked had all Gentile Christians faithfully given themselves over to Jesus and worked at breaking down the Gentile/Jewish wall.

Paul never realized that many descendants of his Gentile converts would eventually fall into the trap of making religion more important than their faith.