The mission to the gentiles is part and parcel of God’s Old Testament call of the Jews. It is not that the Jews rejected Paul’s message and so as second best Paul goes to the gentiles. From Abraham on, the idea had been there all along that this call from God was for the benefit of all the tribes of the earth (Gen. 12:3). Paul realized that with God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus, his followers must move beyond the bounds of Israel. In some ways Paul had been resisting that more inclusive part of Israel’s faith. It’s natural that once he surrendered, he went all out to bring everyone to Christ.
Much is made of the fact that Jesus made no great missionary journeys himself. Some even take this as an indication that Christ had no great missionary intentions. But with the Canaanite woman (Mt. 15:21-28) the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-42) and the Roman centurion (Mt. 8:1-13) not only does Jesus prove himself open to foreigners, he remarks that foreigners are more open to faith in him. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 8:11). He feeds both Jewish and gentile crowds, making the point to the somewhat dull disciples that he provides enough for both and that both have a place in God’s kingdom (Mk. 8:14-21). What really annoys Jesus about the traders in the temple is that they are in the “Court of the Gentiles,” thus preventing the gentiles worshipping the God of Israel (an essential part of the Temple’s purpose) and so he quotes Isaiah 56: 7: My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations (Mk. 11: 17). In the Parable of the Vineyard (Mt 21:28-46) The kingdom of God is offered to “others”. Likewise, the parable of the wedding guests is linked to the in-gathering of all sorts of people. In his sermon on Mt. Olivet Jesus, warning the disciples not to get worried about the end-times, gives a much more important task: And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come (Mt. 24:14). Without even having recourse to post-resurrection sayings we can see in the ministry of Jesus the seeds of a mission to all nations.
The true spiritual nature of Judaism is broad and inclusive. But it is also an ethnic religion. To use Pauline terminology, that is its nature “according to the flesh”. Paul’s pre-Damascus defence of his religion was tied up with the defence of his people’s culture. The encounter with the risen Christ enabled him to break free of that – at least to relativise its importance. If all God’s promises have now been made available through one man who was killed by people with a similar mind-set to Paul, then there is no further reason to hang on to this mind-set.
The early Paul, like most Pharisees, had believed that Israel was still in exile, was still corrupt, compromised and sinful, that restoration was still to come. He would have seen the followers of Jesus as a dangerous, disloyal distraction from this agenda. Through conversion he realized that the longed-for restoration had come, but in Jesus.
Paul makes it clear that his mission to the gentiles was there from the beginning. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-16). The very beginning of Paul’s life as a Christian was as a missionary. The first place he went was Arabia (not Saudi Arabia but modern day Jordan, the capital being Petra.) There he preached to the Nabataeans. The popular idea that Paul first began to preach to Jews, met with failure and turned to the gentiles as “second best” simply does not square with what we read either in Paul’s own words or in Acts.
What are the practical ways in which your parish can reach out in mission to those in your area who do not know Christ?
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.
Image by Enrico Manfrini, photo by Sergia Ballini, FSP.