It was one of the most radical teachings of Jesus: salvation is for all God’s people – even the Gentiles!
Most of the people whose paths Jesus crossed were appalled at the notion that the Gentiles were their equals. This was a new teaching that challenged the faith and mindset of the people to whom Jesus preached. Even his closest and most loyal followers were slow to understand how it could be possible that the people they looked down upon were equals in God’s eyes.
Saint Paul was among those who were slow to come to the understanding that God is for everyone. He reveals this understanding in his letter to the Romans: “It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek (Romans 1:16)” and during an address he made in Jerusalem as a prisoner: “Let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen (Acts 28:28).”
Jesus’s disciples learned that when the Good Shepherd throws open the sheep gate, you’d better get out of the way, because in comes everybody: the Samaritan, the leper, the prostitute, the thief, the woman caught in adultery, the tax collector, the Canaanite, the beggar, the foreigner, the unclean – even the woman in John’s Gospel who had been divorced and remarried five times and was living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. Jesus ministered to all of them: he taught them, healed them, chose them, called them, and died for them.
The Apostles were slow to understand and appreciate the new teachings of Jesus. It took them years to catch on, which often led Jesus to express his frustration with them: “Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear (Mark 8:17-18)?”
The Church today still struggles to comprehend the depths of God’s love. Too many of our shepherds try to keep the gate shut, and spend more time thinking about how to exclude and condemn people rather than invite and evangelize them. Some of them have even spoken about a “smaller church” as if it were some lofty goal. But never in her 2,000-year history has the Church’s mission been to downsize. “Go out to all the world… preach the Gospel to every creature” remains our call, and it’s one for which we will always be ridiculed.
This, too, is nothing new. In the days of the early Church, Peter himself faced criticism for his ministry to the Gentiles – those who didn’t follow all the rules and customs. In Acts chapter 11, we are told that Peter ate meals with such people, and that he was condemned for it. He responded by telling his accusers that he saw a vision from heaven in which a large sheet came down across the sky. He looked into it and saw all the four-legged animals of the earth,
the wild beasts, the reptiles, and the birds of the sky. A voice told him, “Slaughter and eat.” Peter objected to the idea based on what people believed about religious dietary laws: “Certainly not, because nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The voice answered: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane (Acts 11:1-9).”
Peter’s message to those who preferred exclusion and a smaller church was clear: all of the animals of the world are deemed suitable for our dinner tables, just as all of the people of the world are deemed suitable for God’s banquet table. What God has made clean we are not to call profane.