The beginning, middle and end of this week’s readings are focused on the Gentiles — the non-Israelites. The apostles hear that the Gentiles have accepted the word of God. The Holy Spirit says: “Set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them,” namely, the mission to the Gentiles. When the Jewish people reject the message of Paul and Barnabas, they turn to the Gentiles.
It seems that the Church wants us to reflect on the Gentiles for a moment. In order to do so, it’s helpful to understand two different attitudes that Israel had toward the Gentiles in the time of the Old Testament.
The first was basically dismissive: “We are God’s chosen people. The Gentiles are not. Too bad for them.” This attitude is reflected in Monday’s reading, when an accusation is leveled against Peter after he visits the house of a Roman soldier: “You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them!” The basic approach was that the Gentiles were unclean and therefore to be avoided.
The prophets offered another option: “We are God’s chosen people. The Gentiles are not. Therefore, we have a mission to them!” We see this in an Advent reading from Isaiah: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say ‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that He may instruct us in His ways, and we may walk in His paths’” (Isaiah 2:2-3). We see it in Paul’s quoting of Isaiah: “I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6). This was an approach to the Gentiles that was missionary: Israel was chosen to draw others to the Lord.
The early Church experienced what the prophets foresaw. The extended episode that we read from Acts 13 this week summarizes the point. The word of God was meant for everyone. It started with the Jewish people, and extended outward to the Gentiles.
These two attitudes toward the Gentiles are instructive for us. It’s easy for us to adopt the first: to treat the Church as an ark that closes us off from the outside world. When we do so, our principal task becomes maintaining our status as insiders of the ark.
The Church is certainly an ark! It protects us from the flood of sin, and carries us safely to heaven. But it’s not only an ark that closes us off from the outside world. It’s also an ark that gives us a mission to the outside world. That’s why Vatican II spoke of the Church not only as an ark, but also as a sign and instrument: a sign that communicates to others and an instrument that helps others.
If we water down our doctrines and practices, we lose hold of what God wants to communicate to the world through us. That wasn’t the right path for Israel. It’s not the right path for us.
But if we keep our doctrines and practices to ourselves, we lose hold of the fact that God wants to communicate something to the world through us. That wasn’t the right path for Israel, and it’s not the right path for us, either.