God goes to great lengths for our salvation

  • June 6, 2008

Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) June 15 (Exodus 19:1-6; Psalm 100; Romans 5:6-11; Matthew 9:36-10:8)

Protectors, champions and warriors — so many ancient peoples compared their gods. Nations, peoples and tribes each had their own deities with whom they entered into a covenant. These gods were meant to protect a people, as well as defeat and destroy their enemies on the battlefield. Gods inspired awe and fear with their displays of power — natural signs such as thunder, lightning, plagues and famines. 

In the passage from Exodus, the God of Israel addresses Moses — Israel’s representative — in a similar fashion. God enumerates the many things He has done for Israel, the destruction of the Egyptians topping the list. They are free at last and they are in the wilderness, and now God lays an offer before them. If they are obedient and observant of His covenant, they will enjoy God’s exclusive favour. They will be considered a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. This means that the nation will worship God collectively and all are expected to do their part. And “holy” — Hebrew kadosh — means set apart. They are not to mix and mingle with other nations or follow their ways, but will follow the pattern of life set forth by God without deviation.

Today this relationship with God might strike us as narrow and exclusive, even a bit primitive. But Israel’s understanding of God’s relationship with the peoples of the Earth continued to develop throughout the history of the Old Testament in the direction of transcendence and universality. Humanity is still in the process of learning that God does not play favourites or belong to anyone. Nor can we expect God to do violence to our enemies or win our wars for us. And this is a struggle that is far from over, as the religious conflicts and controversies of our time bear painful witness.

Part of this continuing unveiling of God is evident in Romans. Paul is thunderstruck that Christ would die for humanity not when we were at our best but at our worst. We would like to think that our salvation is something deserved, earned and merited, but Paul will have no part of that. Human history with all of its blood and injustice will not allow such a conclusion. For Paul, the fact that Christ died for us while we were still in the depths of sin is proof of the compassionate mercy of God. It bears witness to the incredible lengths to which God is willing to go in order to achieve our salvation. We should marvel rather than resist or be resentful at the countless ways God bestows His blessings and salvation on all the people of the Earth without distinction.

The compassion that Jesus felt for the crowds will resonate in many times and places. Very often the demands and concerns of institution and structure are given greater weight than easing the burdens of ordinary people and providing encouragement along with sound spiritual guidance. In the proverb that He recites, the harvest alludes to the ingathering souls at the end of time. Jesus feels the pressing need, but is dismayed at the small number who understand what God is really about and who are truly doing His work.

As a sign of God’s presence and compassion, Jesus sent the Twelve out with extraordinary powers over unclean spirits, leprosy, illnesses and death itself. Their power over these negative forces was a sign of proof that God’s reign over the world was very near indeed. And surprisingly, Jesus tells the Twelve not to bother going to the gentiles or even to Samaritans — after all, this is only for the house of Israel. This is strange considering the openness to both groups in other parts of the Gospels.

But Matthew’s Gospel is the most observant of Jewish law and traditions of the four. He is making it very clear that Jesus is a Jewish Messiah and that the proclamation was made first to the house of Israel. We will have to wait until the Gospel’s last chapter — at the end of His earthly ministry — for Jesus to command His followers to share His teachings with all nations.

By sending His Son into the world, God has chosen all people as His own. We will never be without a shepherd, for the Lord walks closely and personally with each one of us. May our understanding of God continue to deepen.