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Sermon of the Week: Israel's God for all

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO   |   Aug. 16, 2002 at 8:57 PM   |   Comments

(In this 69th installment of the United Press International series of sermons, Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI religion correspondent and a Lutheran lay theologian, reflects the universality of the God of Israel).

This sermon is based on Isaiah 56:1,7, Psalm 67, Romans 11:13-15, Matthew 15:21-28.

Before we consider the readings for this 13th Sunday after Pentecost, let's remember a prophecy by André Malraux, the French statesman-philosopher.

"The third millennium," he predicted, "will either be a religious one or none at all." On other words, unless the world returns to faith there will no longer be a world.

True enough. The world is returning to faith, some might say, dangerously so. In the name of religion -- false religion, to be sure, but religion nonetheless -- mass murders are being committed. In the name of religion, the world may altogether blow up.

Into this scenario, today's lessons bring us comforting and troubling words. We learn the identity of the true God of all mankind -- the God of Israel. He is not a Jewish tribal deity; his invitation is universal and so are his commandments:

"The foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants ... and hold fast to my covenant -- these I will bring to my holy mountain" (Isaiah 56:6-7).

So the Jewish covenant is no country club whose membership is restricted to the people of Israel. Anybody can join.

Therefore today's psalm encourages us to rejoice: "Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples of the world with equity and guide all the nations with equity and guide all the nations upon earth!" (Psalm 57:4).

Of course since Isaiah things have changed. Christians believe that God has entered a new covenant with the new Israel, the Church. Its pillars are God's grace and our faith in Christ's redemptive work. To a Christian, keeping the law is the fruit of faith but not in itself the key to righteousness.

But God does not take back what has given. Rightly, the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs declared that he never revoked he Old Covenant with his people.

This is perplexing. If there are two Covenants, as the Catholics and many Protestant theologians claim -- is one tailor-made for the Jews and the other for Christians?

Do the Catholic bishops have a point when they extrapolate from this that campaigns targeting Jews for mission are no longer theologically acceptable?

Can we infer from this that Jews need no redemption? Must we buy into translation acrobatics suggesting that Jesus' Great Commission to his followers to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19) applies solely to nations outside Israel?

Let's exaggerate a little further: Must we assume that Jesus is the Messiah only for the Gentiles? Did he die only for them and not his own people? Or is David Brickner, the executive director of Jews for Jesus, correct in his response to the bishops: "If Jesus is the Messiah at all, he must be the Messiah of all, and that certainly includes the Jewish people to whom he first came."

Brickner has today's Gospel lesson on his side. Bluntly, Jesus tells the Canaanite woman pleading with him to free her daughter from a demon: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 15:24).

So now what? Do we have the right to withhold this news from God's own people? What about Paul's unsettling word's in our Epistle lesson? He wrote, "Inasmuch as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I glorify my ministry in order to make my own people jealous, and thus save some of them."

Read "desirous" instead of "jealous" -- still, this passage tells us that the Gospel is for Jews and non-Jews alike.

It is fashionable among trendy European theologians to say that, never mind today's texts, the Holocaust has ended our right to evangelize the Jews. Since the word, evangelize means bringing someone the good news, this logically implies that we must exclude God's people from this happy message.

This is a copout. The Holocaust was no Christian enterprise. Its authors were atheists or even Satanist, such as SS leader Heinrich Himmler, who dabbled in the occult.

Yet the Holocaust has altered the relationship between the peoples of the two Covenants forever -- if only by bringing back to the public mind the past mistreatment of Jews by Christians.

Luther, who at the end of his life made objectionable remarks about the Jews, nevertheless hit the nail on the head when he observed in his youth:

"If the apostles, who were also Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles."

Christians slaughtered Jews for allegedly polluting wells in order to spread the plague in medieval Europe. As "proof," the Christians pointed to the fact that few Jews died of the disease. The truth was of course that by obeying their God-given Law, the Jews were simply cleaner.

While believing Christians cannot be blamed for the Holocaust, this genocide nonetheless topped an almost 2,000-year history of religious anti-Judaism and later racist anti-Semitism.

This anti-Judaism was the unintended outcome of the issues the apostles Paul and John had with their former Jewish co-religionists, as our Epistle lesson shows.

Still it would be callous to conclude that we must now tell the Jews: "Since our fathers have slaughtered your fathers, we have no right to give you the road map to eternal life."

To be quite clear, this is not the position of the Catholic bishops, but of certain liberal Protestants who have lost the appetite -- and presumably the faith -- for mission.

The bishops do say that the Church must always witness to its faith, though not drag unwilling Jews to the baptismal font. We can narrow this down -- the most acceptable form of evangelization is the personal witness of individual Christians in word and deed.

We might challenge the bishops' belief that it is unacceptable to "target" Jews for mission. To a faithful Christian, everybody has to be a "target," or worthy recipient, of the good news.

But more and more Jews do wonder if Jesus was indeed the Messiah. They are certainly more receptive to what individual Christians have to say -- and how they behave -- than to being steam-rolled by Gentile missions, which specialize in converting the people of the Old Covenant.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to this: The ballast of the 2,000-year relationship between the two peoples of God has to be weighed against the happy end of today's wonderful Gospel story:

"Woman, great is your faith," Jesus said to the Canaanite and healed her daughter. The liberating truth Christians must joyfully share with their Jewish friends is that faith overcomes all obstacles in the relationship between man and the divine.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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