Paul Knitter’s Homily from August 6, 2017

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Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Aug 6, 2017


Isaiah 55: 1-5; Rom. 9: 1-5; Matt. 14: 13-21


“What about the Jews?”




As you have sometimes heard, we homilists occasionally complain about being dealt a hand of “difficult texts” – biblical passages that are either obtuse, maybe offensive, or hard to put together.

  • I can make no such complaint today! I have been dealt a full, rich hand in the passages from our first and third readings, Isaiah and Matthew – beautiful, fertile images and metaphors of abundant food for all: “Wine and milk that can be had without money and without price”… enough fish and bread for everyone to eat their fill – 5000 hungry people (not counting, as usual, the women and children)!


Well, for reasons I hope I can make clear to you, I’m not going to play my hand of these rich texts. Instead, I’d like to focus my reflections with you this morning on the totally different and very personal problem that Paul is describing in the second reading from his letter to the Romans – the problem that is causing him such “great sorrow and unceasing anguish,” the problem which, in order to resolve, Paul tells us – astoundingly – that he would be ready to be “accursed and cut off from Christ”!

  • This problem, if I may put it simply but I think accurately, was: “What about the Jews?”




  1. This was the question, the problem, that not only unsettled Paul but that simmers under the surface of the Gospels and most of the books of the New Testament: What about the Jews?
  • If Jesus really represents something new and different – a New Testament — what about the Old Testament? If Jesus is the Messiah, what about all the Jews – Paul’s “own people, his kindred according to the flesh” – who don’t accept Jesus as Messiah?
  • This is the question that Paul wrestles with, and finds a solution for, especially in chapters 9 to 11 of his letter to the Romans.


  1. It is a solution that Christians through the centuries have not sufficiently recognized or taken seriously. And this has been one of the reasons why Christianity, with its view of the Jews as cursed because they did not accept Jesus, has laid the foundations for the horrible Anti-Semitism that has plagued much of European and Western history. This was not the view of Paul.




  1. So, what was Paul’s solution for his own question of “What about the Jews?” It is as simple as it is paradoxical.
  • It’s contained seminally in the passage of today’s reading and developed in chapters 10 and 11: Paul affirms that for him and his community the Messiah has indeed come in Jesus. But at the same time, he affirms that “to the Israelites belong (note he says “belong” not “belonged”) the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the promises.”
  • More explicitly in chapter 11 he states: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!” (vs. 1) And a few verses later he gives the reason: “For the gifts and calling of God [to the Jews] are (vs. 29)
  • The Greek, ametameleta, means stable, unchangeable, dependable.


  1. Paul is holding two paradoxical claims at the same time:
  • Yes, for Christians Jesus is the Messiah. Yes, he has a transforming, saving message for all people. But at the same time, the covenant, the saving, transforming message that God has given the Jews, remains “irrevocable.” That means valid, and so, meaningful for all people.
  • This means that for Paul to follow Jesus does not mean to deny the value and validity of Judaism.  The “New” testament does not abrogate or absorb the “Old” Testament.  If there is much in the message of Jesus that challenges his own religion Judaism, there is much in Jewish teachings that challenges Jesus followers (which is why we have readings from the Jewish Scriptures every Sunday!).




  1. Fortunately, happily, the Second Vatican Council, especially in its revolutionary statement Nostra Aetate, and most mainline Christian churches since then, have explicitly recognized the irrevocability and continuing validity of the Jewish religion. Further, they have confessed the error, indeed the dangerous sinfulness, of blaming the death of Jesus on “the Jews.”


  • Mainline Christian theologians today recognize that the new covenant does not replace or invalidate the old covenant, but that both are valid covenants, valid and cherished ways to know and experience the Holy Mystery that Jews and Christians call God.


  1. And even more positively, again thanks to Vatican II and the World Council of Churches, Paul’s answer to his perplexing question “What about the Jews?” is being extended to the even broader question “What about all the other religions?”


  • Christians are coming to realize – or they are being called to realize – what Paul realized about his people the Jews: that to be a follower of this Jesus, to be fully committed to his message and understanding of God, does not require one to deny the value and validity of other religions, other ways of connecting with Holy Mystery.


  • As the Lutheran bishop and NT scholar Krister Stendahl put it: Christians can sing their songs of love and praise of Jesus without having to put down or subordinate the songs that others sing to Abraham, or Buddha, or Krishna, or Muhammad. (Although Muslims don’t do any singing in their daily prayers…)




  1. But just what does it mean to be fully committed to Christ and at the same time open to, and even ready to learn from, other religions? This is where our readings from Isaiah and Matthew’s Gospel can offer us some help. Both of these readings point us to what is at the heart, the essence, of both the covenant with the Jews and the covenant with Christians.


  1. As Isaiah announces: God’s “everlasting covenant” is one of “steadfast, sure love” – first God’s for us and then ours for others.


  • And both readings make it very clear that our “steadfast, sure love” for others must extend, very concretely, also to those with health problems and those who are hungry:
  • Matthew tells us that when Jesus looked out over the crowds, “he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
  • And in Isaiah: “You who have no money, come buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
  • And the line from the Gospel, when the disciples pointed out that the crowd was hungry, is a verse that sizzles in these days when we hear so much about rounding people up, keeping them out, and building walls: “They need not go away. You give them something to eat.”


  1. This is at the heart of following Jesus – to receive and then to extend God’s compassion to all, especially to those in need, needs such as health care, safety, food.


  • Such a way of following Jesus opens us to followers of other religions who, inspired by their teachers and sacred texts, are also seeking to show compassion for the sick and hungry.


  • Rather that approaching other religions with claims that Jesus is the only way or the best way (claims he never made), we recognize, as Paul did with the Jews, the value of their ways. And we seek to collaborate and work with them in promoting a world of greater compassion and justice. That’s a commitment which for many of us, in our present world of political turmoil and sanctioned injustice, only some kind of religious faith can sustain.


  • So, as one theologian (John Cobb) has put it: Jesus is the Way that is open to other ways.
  • The more we follow this Jesus, the more we are called to respect and learn from and work with other ways.


  • We now move to the Eucharistic table to renew our commitment to this way of Jesus.


Paul Knitter


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