When King Ahab and his diabolical wife Jezebel finally passed on, the kingdom of Israel fell under the rule of the unfortunate King Ahaziah who one day fell through the lattice of his roof terrace at Samaria and was injured. The ailing monarch dispatched messengers to inquire from Baalzebub, the god of the nearby territory of Ekron, whether or not he would recover from this injury. The prophet Elijah learned of the King’s interest in this foreign god. He encountered the king’s messengers and boldly told them to go back to the palace and inform the king that since he had inquired from a foreign god instead of the God of Israel he would not leave the bed upon which he was resting. Ahaziah would die. When the unhappy message from Elijah was brought back to the king, he sent off soldiers to bring the prophet back to the palace so the Ahaziah could confront him personally. Three times the king sent out soldiers to bring Elijah back to the royal presence. At Elijah’s word two of these military cohorts were consume by fire. Finally Elijah agreed to meet the king face and face, only to give him the unhappy news: “Thus says the LORD: Because you sent messengers to inquire of Baalzebub, the god of Ekron—do you think there is no God in Israel to inquire of? —you shall not leave the bed upon which you lie; instead you shall die.” The Scriptures then tersely note, “Ahaziah died according to the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.”
Obviously, Elijah the Tishbite took the first commandment seriously. There would be no strange gods within his sphere of influence. Admittedly the Old Testament knew no compromise with foreign gods. The prophets knew only too well the Jewish susceptibility to fall in line with the cultures of their mightier and wealthier neighbors even to the point of honoring their gods. These old timers meant business. In great contrast to Elijah’s calling down fire to consume his enemies is the rather benign attitude of Jesus Christ when faced with some unpleasantness in Samaria. St. Luke records: “On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.”
Although it would take over two thousand years to germinate, Jesus’ kindness toward the intolerant Samaritans was the beginning of an interfaith movement that, since Vatican Council II, has been quietly nurtured through guidance offered in the Council document Nostra Aetate – In Our Age. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of this document by the Council fathers and locally, especially between Providence College and Rhode Island’s Jewish community, a second look is being given to its instructions. The Council document addresses the traditional world religions, especially Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, pointing out and frankly praising certain aspects of these faiths that are especially noble and edifying. Judaism’s embrace of the One true God, Islam’s fidelity to prayer, fasting and almsgiving, Buddhism’s otherworldliness and Hinduism’s respect for nature are all aspects of the fullness of truth God intends all people to share. The Catholic Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth, Christ himself, which enlightens all men.”
It cannot be denied that for most of the Church’s first two thousand years creeds and cultures that differed from Catholicism’s deeply held beliefs were held in little esteem. St. Jerome had great respect for Israel’s rabbis and St. Thomas Aquinas learned much from Arabian manuscripts. Even St. Peter had advised the early Church to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12). But interreligious dialogue, where it existed, was much more characterized by mistrust than by candor. Today the Church is called to acknowledge universal truths rather than particular errors, confident that the growth of all will eventually lead to the fullness of truth found in Christ.