Some years ago at a gathering of sisters who were discussing the decline in vocations, Jamie T. Phelps, O.P., posed this question to the predominantly white group: What if I told you that there were 200 healthy, energetic, faith-filled young women who were ready to join you tomorrow? Of course heads nodded and smiles revealed the warm welcome they would be accorded. Sister Jamie queried further: What if I told you the 200 women were black? The sisters suddenly found themselves struggling with their response as they faced their own unconscious racism.
The sisters’ experience may not have been far removed from that of the Matthean community, which was predominantly Jewish, struggling to welcome Gentile believers. This is the Gospel in which Jesus emphatically warns his disciples, when he sends them out on mission, not to go anywhere near Gentiles or Samaritans but only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6).
This is also the community that told the story of the Canaanite woman whom Jesus rebuffed when she pleaded with him to heal her daughter. He declared that he had been sent only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). Her faithful persistence helped him to see that his mission could embrace others beyond the borders of his own people. This openness to other people than Jews reaches a climax at the conclusion of the Gospel, where the final words of the risen Christ are his instruction to go and make disciples of all nations (28:19).
This all-inclusive mission of Christ is already foreshadowed in the opening chapters of the Gospel, where exotic visitors from the East are the first to do homage to Jesus. The term magi originally referred to a caste of Persian priests. They were not kings themselves but served their king with skills like interpreting dreams. In the Gospel they also appear to be adept at interpreting the movement of the stars. Following the star, they are the first Gentiles to seek and recognize Jesus, offering their precious gifts to him. In so doing, they foreshadow the way Gentiles will flock to the Christian communities, bearing gifts for mission.
All the readings for today’s feast underscore the welcome extended to all in God’s embrace. Isaiah speaks of how people from every nation will stream toward the renewed Jerusalem, all bearing their gifts and proclaiming God’s praises. The responsorial psalm likewise sings of how every nation on earth will adore God’s anointed one. The letter to the Ephesians emphasizes that the Gentiles are “coheirs, members of the same body and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (3:6). There are no second-class members and no privileges for those who had priority in the faith. All are equal co-members.
The very insistence on the equal status of Gentiles, backed up with the assertion that this has now been revealed to the apostles and prophets by the Spirit, reveals the struggles of the early Christian communities to make this a reality. The difficulties in welcoming Gentiles have long ago been overcome, but others still face us today. What welcome is given to people of different races? Of different socioeconomic strata? To women? To those whose marital status is irregular? To those of a different sexual orientation? Facing our prejudices and working to dismantle them is a most difficult task. It can take a lifetime, but it is possible to do with the help of the Spirit, who continues to reveal the copartnership of all in the body of Christ.