A Church of all nations

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Not long ago, at dinner in my community in Rome, which houses Jesuits from maybe 30 different countries, one of my brothers from Columbia was talking with one of my brothers from Poland about the different things people eat around the world, and he mentioned hearing that in parts of Asia people eat dog meat.  And another of my brothers from the Philippines, who is normally very quiet, looked up from his plate and said, “Oh, yes, very good,” and then he went on with his meal.  

Altar of St. Francis Xavier, Gesù Church, Rome

There is no more diverse an organization in the world than the Catholic Church.  Not only do Catholics come from different countries and races and language groups, but the Church includes saints of different historical periods, the great cloud of witnesses mentioned by the letter to the Hebrews last week.  The martyrs of first century Rome, of seventeenth century Japan, of 20th century Spain and Mexico, and, in our still-young century, of Turkey, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, France and elsewhere could not have been more different culturally or socially, yet they all shared a belief in Catholicism so strong they were willing to die for it.  People have indeed come, as the Lord says, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south to the table in the kingdom of God, around which we gather this morning.

In the Catholic Church, the prophet Isaiah’s vision from the first reading is realized.  To appreciate the significance of this vision, we need to think back to ancient times, when people worshipped many different gods, and each nation had its own particular god.  When nations went to war, you hoped your god was stronger.  The Romans, among the most tolerant of ancient empires, were willing simply to add more gods whenever they conquered someone new.  But Israel was different.  Alone among the peoples of the ancient world, God—the one and only—revealed himself to Israel as the single creator of all that is.  His first commandment to Israel was to put away all other gods and worship him alone, eventually in a single temple to be located in Jerusalem.

This led to a possible misunderstanding of God’s intentions, that God had simply picked a favorite—as he’s free to do—and, well, good for Israel but tough for everybody else.  In Isaiah, however, we see the meaning behind God’s choice.  Israel is to be a light to the nations; Isaiah’s vision is not of Israel conquering all peoples but of Israel calling “nations of every language” to worship the one God in the temple of Jerusalem.  The New Testament would reveal that the temple, the true dwelling place of God, is the body of Jesus Christ.

What conclusions can we draw from this vision for ourselves and for our Church?  I’ll mention two that strike me as particularly important.  The first is the importance of evangelization, of going out to all the world to tell the good news.  The second, on which I want to spend a bit more time, is that the vision of the Gospel is racially color-blind.  Martin Luther King, Jr., was drawing on the Biblical prophets when he expressed the hope that people would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Note that the Biblical vision does not mean there will be no judgment.  On the contrary, Jesus indicates in this reading as in others, that even though his invitation goes out to everyone, relatively few actually accept it.  We will be judged by our adherence to Jesus’ commands.  But those commands do not involve skin pigmentation.  

I mention the issue of race because I think over the past dozen years or so racially-charged rhetoric and division has increased in our country—perhaps more in our media than among normal people—and we need to be reminded that character counts more than color.  Today perhaps it takes no great courage to stand in a pulpit and repeat Dr. King’s words—though he paid for them with his life—because everyone agrees, at least in theory, that racism is bad.  But the devil is tricky and sometimes masquerades as an angel of light, and that very agreement provides an incentive to scatter accusations of racism more liberally.  Racism has become an easy accusation with which to tar one’s opponents.  Authors claiming to be “anti-racist” have, in fact, gotten rich stoking racial flames, and they have given unnecessary attention—and therefore power—to those few disgraceful purveyors of overt racism that remain in our society, creating a vicious circle.  

How do we avoid this circle?  First of all, I’d observe that never in my life have I seen an instance in which accusing someone of racism has actually made him or her less racist.  So if you’re tempted to seize the moral high ground, to put an opponent on the defensive, to gain sympathy, by accusing someone else of racism—don’t.

What would be a more productive strategy?  On one of my recent flights, I watched a documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process of the 1990s, involving Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, people who grew up hating each other.  What struck me about that process was how it began; the process included long meals and recreation in which the participants were not allowed to talk about politics.  So they had to talk about their families, books, sports, nature, food.  They shared human experiences.  At the beginning of the process the two sides would not shake hands.  By the end of it they had achieved such trust that, one of the American negotiators remembered bringing a disputed question to Rabin and Arafat, and Arafat said, “Whatever the Prime Minister decides is fine with me.” 

Two factors stood out to me as allowing such trust to grow where once there had been such hatred: working together toward a common good and the sharing of common human experiences.  This is not necessarily an easy road.  Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated, and the peace process of the 1990s eventually broke down without achieving a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On an inter-personal level, our impatience and self-righteousness undermine the pursuit of common goods and the listening and courage necessary to share human experiences.  These demons threaten the vision of Isaiah from taking root in our hearts, and they are not easy to overcome.  But Jesus tells us to enter through the narrow gate, and if we chose the path of trust instead of hatred, of understanding instead of accusation, then we will find ourselves not alone on that narrow path, but entering, strangely, with a great cloud of witnesses from every age and people, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, and we will recognize in them brothers and sisters from all the nations.

Readings: Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30

St. Isaac Jogues, Rapid City, SD

August 21, 2022

Author: Anthony Lusvardi, SJ

Anthony R. Lusvardi, S.J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He writes on a variety of theological, cultural, and literary topics.

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