We all like to be among our kind. It is easier to live among those who share our background, our ways of thinking and acting. Those who are different are usually perceived as a challenge or threat.
In the beginning, Israel thought that every nation had its own god. Their God, revealed through Moses, was seen as greater than the other gods, especially when they defeated other groups in battle.
In time, they began to understand that there was only one God, and that raised the question of how God viewed other nations. The prophets worked hard to teach Israel that God cared for all, not just for them. The others, the gentiles (“the nations”) were included in God’s love.
The Gospels show us Jesus often making the same point. This should have been obvious from the beginning of the church, if Luke’s account of Pentecost is to be believed. On that day, Acts tells us, people were gathered from many nations:
“We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs.” And Luke says about 3,000 people joined the church that day. We were a diverse lot right from the start.
Of course, these were apparently all Jewish Christians, so the big crisis that faced the early church was what to do about gentiles who came to believe in Christ. Paul insisted that they did not have to become Jews in order to be Christians, which caused great dissension in the church that was only resolved at the first council in Jerusalem.
The Gospels recount several times when Jesus pushes us to broaden our thinking. In one case, he seems to have been pushed himself, when the Canaanite woman begs him to heal her daughter. He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but her faith leads him to grant her request.
With the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus challenged listeners to recognize that the term “neighbor” must include more than our own kind. Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies, but it is the Samaritan who is the true neighbor to the injured Jew.
When Jesus cured the Roman centurion’s servant, he acknowledged the faith of this non-Jew, saying, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven.”
And, of course, he gave the church the task of making disciples “of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
— Father Lawrence E. Mick
Father Mick is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and a freelance writer.
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Food for Thought
The Catholic Church in the United States counts among one of the most multicultural communities in the world. It is, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us, “one community of faith with many faces, languages, heritages and experiences.”
In “How Do We Welcome the ‘Stranger’ in Our Parishes? A Resource for Building Unity in Diversity,” we’re told to use this mix of ethnic groups as an opportunity to promote unity and collaboration.
While dealing with multiple languages and groups can pose tensions in some communities, it can also be the perfect place to practice the Gospel and to implement the new evangelization that our church leaders have proposed. It may mean feeling uncomfortable at the beginning, trying to wade into territory new to us. But it is a path well-worn by our Christian ancestors.
“We are called to follow in (Christ’s) footsteps … to step outside ourselves so as to attend to the needs of others,” said Pope Francis. “We should not simply remain in our own secure world … but we should go out in search of others so as to bring them the light and the joy of our faith in Christ.”