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The Conversion of the Gentiles

by Brant Pitre September 18, 2020 0 Comments

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If you look at the Old Testament reading for today, you'll see that it's a famous prophecy from the book of Isaiah about the conversion of the Gentiles.  Sometimes Christians forget this.  Sometimes Christians think, “oh, well the whole idea of going to the Gentiles and the Gentiles being saved was something St. Paul came up with in the New Testament.  He tried to bring the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, to the synagogues, he was rejected in the Jewish synagogues, so he decides “Okay, well now I am going to go and bring it to the Gentiles” as a kind of pragmatic measure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  That's completely wrong.  Already in the Old Testament, as far back as the book of Genesis 12, where Abraham is told that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him, as far back as the Old Testament itself, we begin to see an expectation that one day in the future, at some point, the nations of the world, the families of the earth, the Gentiles, the pagans, are going to convert.  They are going to begin to worship the one true God.  They are going to begin to worship the God of Israel.  So the reading for today, the first reading, is one of those prophecies.  It is from Isaiah 56:1, 6-7, and Isaiah says this:

Thus says the LORD:

"Keep justice, and do righteousness,

for soon my salvation will come,

and my deliverance be revealed.

and then it skips down to verse 6:

"And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,

to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD,

and to be his servants,

every one who keeps the sabbath, and does not profane it,

and holds fast my covenant --

these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer;

their burnt offerings and their sacrifices

will be accepted on my altar;

for my house shall be called a house of prayer

for all peoples.

So notice here, what is Isaiah talking about?  A couple of points.  Number one, in Old Testament times, Gentiles were excluded from the Temple.  This is very important to note.  If you go back to the book of Deuteronomy 23:1-3, it gives a list of certain people who were excluded from being in the Temple, and one of those were pagans, non-Israelites.  If you weren't circumcised you could not go into the sanctuary and offer sacrifice.  You certainly couldn't act as a priest.  And yet, Isaiah is saying here that one day in the age of salvation, when God's salvation is revealed, at the time of the Messiah for example, foreigners are going to come into the temple and they're not just going to offer sacrifices alongside the Israelites, it actually says they're going to “minister to the Lord.”  Now that word minister there is the technical term for serve as priests.  This would have been mind-blowing in Isaiah's day to talk about a future temple in which gentiles will not only worship God, but they will serve him as priests.  How is that possible?  Well he says it's going to be possible because in that future age, God is going to make his altar and his temple into a house of prayer for all peoples.  Now this might be ringing a bell for you because if you recall, Jesus cites this very text when he goes in and cleanses the Temple later on in the Gospel of Matthew.  He turns over the tables of the money changers and he says “my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations” or “for all people’s.”  That's a turning point in Matthew's Gospel that, in a sense, sets in motion his passion.  What does it mean?  It means that Jesus, following the prophets of the Old Testament, expects that one day the Gentiles are going to convert and they will become legitimate members of God's people and they will worship him, and they will even act as priests in this mysterious new temple of the future.

With that in mind then, if you look at the Responsorial Psalm for the day, the same theme pops up.  The Psalm is Psalm 67, and the refrain for the day is “O God, let all the nations praise you!”  And the Psalm, like in verse two, says things like this:

May God be gracious to us and bless us

and make his face to shine upon us,

that thy way may be known upon earth,

thy saving power among all nations.

And then again it verse 5 it says:

Let the peoples praise thee, O God;

let all the peoples praise thee!

So why is that the Responsorial Psalm?  Well because whenever you see the word nations in the Old Testament, the Hebrew is gōyim and it literally means the Gentile nations, the Gentile peoples.  Even to this day, Jewish people refer to Gentiles as gōyim, as a gōy.  A gōy means a non-Israelite, a non-Jewish person.   So the book of Psalms, once again, is anticipating that one day all the nations, all the peoples of the world will praise God, even the Gentiles will come to worship the God of Israel.  So those two Old Testament texts, Isaiah 56 and then Psalm 67, anticipate what is happening, in a preliminary way, in the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  In a sense, because of her persistence and because of her faith, she gets to taste in advance the salvation that is going to come to the Gentiles after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and after the great commission, where Jesus sends the Apostles to the four corners of the earth to bring the good news of salvation to all peoples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  And of course especially with the ministry of St. Paul, who called himself the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Now with that all said then, I want to close with just a little bit of an insight from the living tradition of the Church, because one of the things that I've noticed over the years when I teach this particular passage in the classroom, is that people find it disturbing.  In other words, they find Jesus's treatment of the Canaanite woman somewhat off-putting.  It seems like he's being unnecessarily rude, unnecessarily standoffish, and it also even seems like he is being insulting when he compares the Gentiles to dogs and the Israelites to children.  So what do we make of this passage?  How do we make sense of the way Jesus is treating this woman?  Well in this case, I would turn to the wisdom and the writings of one of the early Church Fathers — one of my favorite and might even be my favorite ancient Christian writer — St. John Chrysostom.  He lived in the fourth century A.D.  He was the Archbishop of Constantinople, a very, very influential figure in the early Church.  He was an eastern Church Father.  And in one of his homilies, this is what he has to say.  St. John Chrysostom wrote this about Jesus and the Canaanite woman.  He said that she was an example to us of patience and persistence in prayer.  St. John Chrysostom wrote:

Have you understood? When the disciples entreated him the Lord put them off…

Meaning, when he asked him to send her away.

…but when the woman herself cried out begging for this favor he granted it. And, at the beginning, when she first made her request, he did not answer, but after she had come to him once, twice, and a third time, he gave her what she desired. By this he was teaching us that he had withheld the gift not to drive her away, but to make that woman’s patience an example for all of us.

So what St. John Chrysostom is telling us here is that there is a spiritual meaning to Jesus’ encounter with the woman.  He isn’t doing this to her in order to hurt her feelings or to insult her, he is testing her faith just like he tests our faith, in order to give us an example of patience in prayer.  In order to give us an example of the fact that it's important to ask other people to help us, like the woman with the disciples, but at the end the day, we need to be persistent in prayer.  And if we really want the Lord to answer our prayer, we need to not pray once and then give up, we need to persist even in the face of difficulties, even in the face of the apparent silence of God.  We need to entreat him, be patient in prayer, be persistent, trusting that the Lord hears us, that he knows what is best for us, and that all things will work together, in his plan of Providence, to good for those who love him.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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