While every word in the Bible is truthful, not every word in the Bible is factual. Think of all of Jesus’ parables. They certainly expressed the truth but they surely were not factual. The good Samaritan and his beaten traveler were products of the Master’s talented preaching. The merciful father and his wayward son similarly derived from the Savior’s resourcefulness. The unjust steward, the builder who framed a house on sand, and the ill-clad man at the wedding banquet were all literary inventions conveying a Gospel truth, not revealing any historical fact. The Old Testament also had its parables, its satires, its novelettes. The Book of Jonah, from which this Sunday’s first reading is taken, and the Book of Ruth are certainly among the ancient Jewish community’s colorful efforts to reveal timeless truths rather than historical facts. Jonah and Ruth certainly existed; they were real people. Jonah was a minor prophet explicitly mentioned in the Second Book of Kings 14:25. Ruth was the wife of Boaz and great-grandmother of King David and hence an ancestor of Jesus Christ, as St. Matthew notes in his genealogy. So the actors are real but the tales spun about them are generally agreed to be fanciful but nonetheless instructive.
Both the Book of Jonah and the Book of Ruth are rare examples of Jewish interfaith thinking toward their ordinarily despised foreign neighbors. The ancient Jews understandably had few tender feelings toward the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Greeks and the Romans who conquered them and persecuted them. Yet the prophet Jonah is sent by God to preach to the pagan Ninevites, a wickedly sinful foreign city, the thought of which makes Jonah renounce his mission and flee on the neatest boat. A stormy passage results in Jonah getting swallowed by the “great fish,” then having a reluctant change of heart, and eventually preaching to the despised Ninevites. To add insult to injury, the Ninevites quickly repent – much to Jonah’s disgust. The saga ends with Jonah literally sulking under a shade tree. When the shade tree’s leaves fail under the scorching sun, Jonah is more upset with his loss of shade than he ever was at the thought of the Ninevites possibly dying unrepentant. It’s a cute story, profoundly revealing the wideness of God’s mercy and the universality of salvation, notions that will be brought to fulfillment finally in the New Testament.
The Book of Ruth has a similar interfaith theme but it is expressed in a kinder and gentler style. Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite, who married a Jewish man and then, with his family, took refuge across the Jordan River during a famine. When a good harvest returned, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi urged the now widowed Ruth to stay with her Moabite people rather than return to a possibly hostile Israel. Thereupon Ruth uttered some of the most famous and most tender words in the Bible: But Ruth said, “Do not press me to go back and abandon you! Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die, and there be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17). The reference to Ruth and Naomi sharing the same burial plot is particularly telling. Even to this day non-Jews are not ordinarily interred even alongside Jewish spouses in a Jewish cemetery. A mixed religion area is reserved for such situations. The narrative once again is clearly a tale of God’s munificence toward all peoples, a tribute to God’s universal salvific will.
The Books of Jonah and Ruth especially reveal a Divine largesse toward foreigners, non-believers, alien cultures. The twenty-first century has witnessed the Roman Catholic world’s greater exposure to assorted Christian communities, from store-front meeting rooms to sprawling mega-churches. Again today’s Catholics regularly encounter Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, agnostic and atheistic neighbors much more frequently than in the recent past. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity recently issued directives on Catholic encounters with other Christian communities but much of Rome’s advice could pertain to religious involvement with any and all faiths. Rome advises: “The primary duty of Catholics is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself. For this reason, rather than begin with our relations with other Christians, it is necessary for Catholics first to examine their own faithfulness to Christ’s will for the Church and accordingly to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform. This inner renewal disposes and orders the Church towards dialogue and engagement with other Christians.”
Fruitful religious dialogue begins first with sincere Catholic soul searching. Authentic ecumenism and interfaith discussion, like charity, begins at home.
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