The ancient Jews really cannot be blamed for their standoffish attitude toward their pagan neighbors. The Old Testament records century after century of plunder, pillage, and persecution of the Jews by their pagan neighbors.
And, of course, the Jews countered this neighborly aggression with some bitter responses of their own. The bann was a divinely ordered mandate to eliminate all the men, women, children and animals that might inhabit any town or village conquered by the Jews. Extermination of the enemy was the price of the purity and integrity of religion that God demanded of his chosen people. Consorting with the enemy was too big a risk for God’s select but small community of faith. Banishment was the safest way to deal with unorthodox neighbors. As often happened with the stringent regulations of the Old Testament, the bann was not always observed – perhaps sometimes out of humanitarian concerns, perhaps sometimes due to official negligence. Nonetheless, the bann remains an historic reminder of the animosity that has plagued the Middle East even to modern times.
Occasionally and happily the ancient Jews did rise above their neighborhood frustrations and embrace the nobler ideal of the universality of salvation, a belief which would eventually reach full blossom in Christianity. For example, the barbarism of Psalm 136 which proclaims, “Blessed is he who shall seize and dash thy little ones against the rock,” yields to the amusing perturbation of Jonah who will get no rest from God until he preaches effectively to the pagans of Nineveh. And this droll narrative should be read along with the tale of Ruth, a foreign wife whose iconic fidelity to her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi is still a monument to civility and camaraderie. In this coming Sunday’s liturgy, the church unites the call of Simon and Andrew to become fishers of men with the finally successful effort of Jonah to convert the Ninevites to the worship of YHWH. The Christian community’s first steps toward worldwide evangelization finds precedence in God’s demand that Jonah swallow his pride and preach conversion to his godless neighbors. God’s magnanimous and universal fatherhood, so often hidden in the events of the Old Testament, is discovered in the Hebrew Scriptures after all. The God of St. Paul who “desires that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of his truth” has been guiding the history of salvation all along. God who asked his own Son to die “for many” has always had the universal good of mankind at heart. Simon and Andrew, along with Jonah and Ruth, extend the biblical hope of salvation to all mankind.
This week the Christian churches and ecclesial communities throughout the world are observing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. More than 100 years ago Father Paul and his Graymoor Friars inaugurated the Church Unity Octave, eight days of prayer during which the Catholic faithful would pray for the return of the several dissident churches to Rome. The Episcopalians, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Quakers, along with the Orthodox churches and the smaller Reformation churches would be prayed for explicitly, by name, requesting God to open their hearts to the fullness of Roman Catholic truth. In the recent past, explicit prayers for church unity, that is, overt organizational unity, yielded to subtler prayers for Christian unity, suggesting that if Christians could not have corporate unity perhaps an agreeable and compatible working harmony would be a worthy goal. Frankly, the ecumenism that characterized the middle of the last century – shared pulpits and Bible services and inter-denominational discussion groups – has just about vanished. Few are the parishes and deaneries that sponsor any ecumenical programs nowadays. Liberalism on the part of mainline Protestants and a growing conservatism on the part of younger Catholics have put the kybosh on much inter-church dialogue. It is very difficult to talk shop with people who ignore abortion, who speak about the ordination of women and same-sex marriage in terms of equality, and who rank social justice ahead of supernatural faith among the church’s divinely appointed tasks.
Nonetheless, the courage of Jonah, the kindness of Ruth and the zeal of Simon and Andrew should lead every generation toward renewed efforts at evangelization. God does indeed desire that “all men” be saved and come to know “the truth.” Certainly this includes our fellow Christians.