Ask any parent which of their children they love the most, and typically the response will be, “I love all my children equally.” Ask any child, and you will hear otherwise. The oldest daughter thinks she is favored as firstborn and that she holds prime place in her mother’s affections. The youngest son thinks he is the apple of his father’s eye. The middle child knows her specialness—how could she not be the most beloved?
In the second reading today we see Peter as a kind of older sibling wrestling to let go of his notion that, as one who belongs to God’s firstborn, he could claim primacy of affection from his heavenly parent. The scene in Acts 10 is the culmination of a very difficult struggle on Peter’s part to accept the fact that God’s favor could also include others who were not part of God’s firstborn. It took a thrice-repeated vision before Peter could recognize Cornelius as one of God’s favored. Peter’s initial opposition to the heavenly voice that instructed him to eat something he considered unclean (vv. 13-14), was emphatic: “Certainly not!” (N.A.B.); “By no means!” (N.R.S.V.).
After entering Cornelius’s house, Peter converses with the centurion (v. 27). Undoubtedly, in the course of their exchange, Peter discovers that he is not the only one to whom God has spoken through visions. Cor-nelius, too, has encountered an angel of God who has called him by name (v. 3). Moreover, Peter finds that this man prays constantly and gives alms generously (v. 2). Peter has to admit to all in the house that whoever fears God and acts uprightly is “acceptable” to God. He acknowledges that “God shows no partiality.”
While this is a great breakthrough for Peter, his recognition of Cornelius as “acceptable” is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Might there be a hint in Peter’s statement that he still considers himself among “God’s favorites,” and that he thinks of Cornelius more like a stepbrother—who certainly could not displace him in the divine affections? More time would be needed before Peter could see the Gentile as being loved as passionately by God as himself.
In the Gospel another heavenly revelation highlights Jesus’ specialness as God’s beloved. While the divine voice at Jesus’ baptism is directed to him (“You are my beloved Son”; see Mt 3:17, “This is my beloved Son”), Luke has added “all the people” to the scene. In this way, Luke hints that they, too, experience the delight of God in them, as they are washed clean, newly born and favored. As we recall our own baptism, we know that we, too, have been in that thin space where “heaven was opened” and the barrier between humanity and divinity is dissolved. With Jesus’ taking on human flesh and then inviting us to partake of his flesh and blood, the special place he holds in God’s affection is extended to all.
That God is partial to each of us is something startling. This divine favor causes wonder and also carries with it a mission. In the first reading, Isaiah elaborates the mission entrusted to a chosen servant: to bring forth justice. In biblical parlance, justice does not imply that everyone gets what he or she deserves. Rather, it signifies that those who know themselves to be favored by God undeservedly have been empowered by the Spirit to be light, to speak truth and to be compassionate to those who feel like “a bruised reed,” fanning into flame the spark of God’s love wherever a smoldering wick is found.