We must heed Christ’s solemn teachings on the place of the Jewish people in salvation history

Father John A. Kiley

St. Paul is clearly stressed in the second reading from Romans at Mass this coming Sunday that his Jewish brothers and sisters did not accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of all mankind. The Apostle writes, “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” Yet, St. Paul’s distress that so many of his Jewish contemporaries did not acknowledge Christ as the expected Messiah is eased greatly when he ponders the Biblical history of God’s bountiful generosity toward the Jewish nation in the past. The Apostle writes boastfully: “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.” St. Paul knows in his heart and takes much comfort from this conviction that God who had been so generous to the Jews in the past would never abandon them now even though they did recognize the time of their visitation.
The commentary on this passage from Romans in the New American Bible’s footnotes understands St. Paul’s dilemma to be a perennial challenge for the believing Christian community. The current edition reads: “Israel’s unbelief and its rejection of Jesus as savior has astonished and puzzled Christians. It has constituted a serious problem for them in view of God’s specific preparation of Israel for the advent of the Messiah. Paul addresses himself here to the essential question of how the divine plan could be frustrated by Israel’s unbelief.” Many generations of Christians, in fact, many centuries of Christian believers, popularly considered the Jews a lost nation, cursed and even damnable. A not-so-mindful reading of the New Testament might even foster such anti-Semitism.
The Second Vatican Council rightfully and courageously considered the role and place of the Jewish people in salvation history in the eye-opening document “Nostra Aetate,” Latin for “In Our Time.” The Council Fathers generously acknowledged that “God wants all men to saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1Tim2:4).” All the great religions of the world offer some degree of truth and even an individual thinker might arrive at some eternal principles. God will certainly be generous toward all who seek the truth. But the bishops gathered in Rome a half-century ago appreciated the salvific state of the Jewish people in a more generous light. “Nevertheless, 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 — such is the witness of the Apostle.” (Nostra Aetate, 4)
The Council wisely and correctly admits some sad elements within Jewish history: “As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading.” But the Council, with equal solemnity, teaches that God, having made promises to the Jewish fathers — the Patriarchs — will abide by those promises for all time; God will not “repent” of the pledges he has made. Alas, the fulfillment of those promises when “all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and serve him shoulder to shoulder” is a day “known to God alone,” as the Council document frankly admits.
In considering the prospect of eternal salvation for the Jewish people, present day Christians must first accept, as St. Paul has in today’s reading, that God will indeed be faithful. Whatever misgivings a Christian believer might have about the Jewish failure to accept Christ responsibly or the Church’s failure to preach Christ effectively, no authentic Christian believer may doubt God’s fidelity. Yes, that day “…known to God alone…” will arrive in history and the promises made to the ancients will be effectively realized in their children. The dual challenge here is having faith in the goodness of God toward his Jewish people as well as having faith in our Catholic Church to effectively elucidate this teaching to successive generations.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, St. Peter is able even to walk on water as long as he keeps his eyes fixed on Jesus. Sadly, eyeing the wind and the waves, the chief apostle begins to sink. “O you of little faith,” Jesus chastises him, “why did you doubt?” Present day Christians must heed the solemn teachings of Christ’s Church on the place of the Jewish people in salvation history, no matter how challenging, lest modern believers, as previous generations, sink into the engulfing waters of bigotry, prejudice and error.