Certainly one of the most significant contributions of the Second Vatican Council toward the Catholic appreciation of salvation history is the decree Nostra Aetate in which the proper relationship between Judaism and Christianity is bravely and boldly taught for the benefit of the universal Church after centuries of popular misconceptions. Perhaps for most of Christian history, many thought that Christians had clearly replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. Some figured that the Jews had their chance; they failed to accept Jesus as Messiah; so now their turn was up; Christians would take over. So, for many, prayers for the conversions of the Jews was understandably a noble Christian task. Why should present day Jewish people pay needlessly for the sins of their ancestors? Failure to welcome the world’s Jewish population into the fullness of revealed truth would indeed be negligent. After all, St. Mark calls for preaching “the Gospel to every creature.” Surely Jews are not to be excluded. But while some prayed for the Jews, others were cruelly oppressing the Jews through forced conversions and heartless persecutions.
The present day Church happily has a much more benign view toward the Jewish people and their heritage. A recent Papal commission helpfully and frankly noted, “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.” Pope John Paul II also noted, “The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the Covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity.”
The passage from the Epistle to the Romans to be read at Mass this Sunday should give all Christian believers pause in dismissing Jewish beliefs and practices too swiftly – or at all. St. Paul heaps praise on his fellow Jews: “They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen (9:4-5).” The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, reflecting on these laudatory words of St. Paul for his own people, recalled an even more profound thought from St. Paul in this same Epistle: “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable (11:29).” The Council providentially and courageously instructs: “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues.” The Council continues, “Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.” The Council gladly admits the centrality of Jesus Christ to salvation history but it refuses to second guess God’s Providence: “The Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ (Zeph 3:9).”
The Council’s instructions here were not simply a gesture of good will toward a beleaguered people, especially after the horrors of the Holocaust in the last century. No, the Council is not merely being kind to the Jews; rather the Council is actually exalting the magnanimity of God. While the Jewish people have not and do not recognize Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, they bear witness to God the Father as faithful. God indeed has remained faithful to them. His gifts and calls are irrevocable, irreversible, immutable. Although many Jews did not embrace the ministry of Christ, God still mysteriously has a plan for the Jewish people. Jews today might not bear witness to Christ as Messiah but they do bear witness to God as faithful. As the Council wrote, “God does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues.” And if God can stay faithful to the Jews who sadly missed “the time of their visitation,” then certainly God is going to remain faithful to any believing Christian who might also ignore guidance from the saving hand of God. If God does not default on promises made to Jews, neither will he renege on promises made to Christians.
Some Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians have sadly allowed the infidelity of the Jews at the time of Christ to overshadow the fidelity of God during all of history. God’s enduring loyalty to the Jews is a recurring pledge of God’s trustworthiness toward all those who have embraced Christ as Messiah and Lord, especially when a believer might fall short of this noble vocation. All sinners can take heart that God’s gifts and calls are indeed irrevocable. True hope is based on God’s fidelity and not on mankind’s loyalty.