From Israel to the World
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) | Fr Euan Marley considers the challenge of the universal mission contained in St Matthew’s Gospel.
The Gospel of St Matthew can be seen as a sort of conjuring trick. Conjurors like to misdirect us, make us look in one direction so that we can’t quite see what they are doing. Then they baffle us because they do something that seems like magic, but is really a series of logical steps, which change everything. What is it then that Matthew does which seems like a trick? Well if you read the Gospel from start to finish, it seems like a story about the mission of Christ to Israel, a mission in which he clearly states to the Canaanite women, who seeks a cure for her daughter beset by a demon, that ‘I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ (Matthew 15:24) Even when he sends the twelve apostles out, he says to them, ‘Do not go into the road of the Gentiles, and do not enter into a city of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ to translate literally, Matthew 10:5-6. Yet the Gospel ends with these resonant words. ‘Go therefore, instructing all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things which I have commanded you, and behold! I am with you all the days until the consummation of the world.’ (Matthew 28:19-20)
So how does the mission to Israel become a mission to the world? Where does it change direction? At this point, let me say it does not actually change direction. The direction is the same, from Israel outwards, but there is a limit to how far down the road, the disciples are to go. At the end, they are to go to all the nations, but at first, they are not to go to the road of the Gentiles, which is to say not too far yet. There is no single point where we can see this change, but there are key moments. Some are negative, as Christ is rejected by many of his own people, but there are more positive reasons. After the Sermon on the Mount, from which we are reading today, Christ encounters the Centurion, who seeks healing for his servant. ‘Amen I say to you, I have not found so great a faith in Israel.’ (Matthew 8:10) Then, that Canaanite woman whom we have already mentioned also says to Jesus, ‘Even the dogs eat from the crumbs that fall from their masters table.’ (Matthew 15:27) These words change world history.
So are we misled by the direction of the Gospel, and why would Matthew do that? It is not so much a misleading as a failure to see what is meant from the beginning. The Magi are a sign that Chrst is good news for the world. We read the whole of the Gospel, and then we see that the mission to the world was always there. In today’s Gospel: ‘You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world’, he says. Jesus is speaking to Israel, but Israel’s purpose is to reach out to the world. Salt and light are metaphors about the world. Salt is to give flavour to something else, light is to illuminate something else, in both cases the world. You might say, doesn’t he talk of salt losing its flavour? That’s a common but bad translation. Literally he says that salt might become stupid! It is stupid, just as a light under a tub is stupid for it is failing to do what it is called to do.
So there isn’t really a contradiction in the mission of Israel becoming a mission to the world. God called Abraham with a view to saving the world. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to Israel first. We are the new Israel, but that does not mean a replacement Israel. We must keep close to the common root, the call of Abraham, which began the process of redemption. Christ as the Word of God always knew this, but his humanity has to be obedient to the divinity, and has to learn from events, from other people, how the work is to play out. Even more do we have to continually learn what being the light of the world, the salt of the earth means. We are not just called to live a Catholic life in the so-called Catholic places. It is so easy to be content just to manage what we have, but we are to be more than that, just as Israel was, and indeed still is. We are to go forth to all nations, and that task is never done.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window in the Stanford Memorial Chapel at Stanford University in California.