A House of Prayer for All Nations
Twentieth Sunday of the Year. Fr Columba Ryan preaches on the impartiality of God.
One of the threats that our opening millennium faces is an increasing division and misunderstanding between the three major religions of the West, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The murderous slaughter between Palestinians and the state of Israel, and the easy assumption of some Western die-hards that certain Arabic countries harbour and promote terrorism, may have little to do with religious convictions and more to do with political and financial ambitions, but they can all too easily be dressed up to look like the outcome of religious faith.
It has to be admitted that religious people themselves have in the past, and even now, shown extreme intolerance for one another. The very strength of religious conviction seems to debar any kind of compromise or allowance for different points of view. The history of mutual denunciation and inter-religious and inter-denominational persecution bears witness to this. Our history has not been a pretty one.
It is salutary therefore to have in today’s readings glimpses of men reaching out to a larger vision.
My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.
This passage is from the third part of the book of Isaiah, and was addressed, it seems, to those who returned from exile to Jerusalem in about the 5th century BC.
The returning refugees were a dispirited lot. They had come back to a city of ruins and one where many of the inhabitants were foreigners of non-Jewish, largely pagan extraction. The prophet accepts even these as people
whom I will bring to my holy mountain … and whose holocausts and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar, for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.
There was in Jewish history a long tradition of exclusivity, of confining God’s choice to themselves alone, no doubt in the interests of preserving the purity of their One God. But from time to time there appear, as in this text, a more universalist understanding of God’s salvation.
The difficulty of making this breakthrough was later found amongst the earliest followers of Christ when they had to decide whether their mission should be extended to non-circumcised, non-Jewish converts. The apostle Peter when confronted with the question of receiving Cornelius and his pagan household into the new Judaeo-Christian community made what was for him a belated discovery.
I now really understand that God has no favourites, but that anybody of any nationality who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (Acts10:35)
Paul acknowledged the same:
Glory and honour and peace will come to everyone who does good — Jews first, but Greeks as well. There is no favouritism with God. (Rom 2:10)
Both in fact were echoing a much earlier ‘universalism’ found in Deuteronomy, which they may not till then have understood:
Your God is God of gods, Lord of lords… free of favouritism. He it is who loves the stranger and gives him food and clothing. (Deut10:17ff)
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus himself seeming to take the prevailing narrow view: when the Canaanite woman asked for the healing of her daughter and his disciples asked him to satisfy her (if only to get rid of her clamourous shouting after them), he said,
I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.
He seemed to play into their old exclusivist ideas. But it turned out only to be a ploy, to let them see that she was capable of a faith greater than theirs. He said to her,
Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted.
Did that mean that the Jews were no longer the Chosen people? Paul, Hebrew
of the Hebrews, struggled with this question in his epistle to the Romans. Were the Jews in some way rejected because of their rejection of Christ?
Certainly not, he answered:
God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice.
Disobedient they may have been but they also will enjoy mercy; their disobedience was allowed only that pagans too might enter into the promises made to them. Paul has no doubt that Jews too, made emulous of what has been given to the pagans, will return to what he calls ‘resurrection’.
We need to remember all these things if we are not to fall into intolerance. God has no favourites.