Sharing God’s Riches

creche1-copyLike every culture, the Jews had to face fundamental decisions as to how open or closed they would be to others. The default mechanism tends to be flight or fight. In discussing remaining social groups living close to the level of what he calls “traditional” societies, Jared Diamond observed this phenomenon. A stranger wandering into the territory of a different tribe had better come up with a common ancestor or the encounter could prove fatal.

The type of encounters with other nations has an effect on such decisions. In the case of the Jews, most encounters were bad. Slavery in Egypt was followed by both cultural and military threats from the Canaanites who tempted the Jews to forsake the God who had delivered them from Egypt. Encounters with the Assyrians and Babylonians were catastrophic. But then the Persians destroyed the Babylonian Empire and invited the Jews to return to their homeland and revive their cultural and religious traditions. It is surely no accident that the return from Babylonian exile and resettlement back in their homeland coincided with the first expressions of openness to other cultures on the part of the Jews such as we have when Isaiah proclaims: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is. 60:3) With Isaiah, we have the breakthrough insight that the God who brought them out of Egypt and then delivered them from Babylon was the God for all people and not just them. Although Adam Smith took the title of his famous book The Wealth of Nations from Isaiah 60:5: “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” the prophet encourages a much more profound exchange than that of capital: an exchange of the riches of the Jews’ religious tradition for the riches other nations can bring to that same tradition. Unfortunately, retrenchment followed, climaxed by the expulsion of all foreign wives at about the time of the building of the second temple.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, the other nations, was complex and tense. Their religious traditions were mostly tolerated but at times menaced by the Romans. Although some individual Gentiles became God-fearers, practicers of Jewish piety such as the Centurion who built the synagogue at Capernaum, (Lk. 7: 4-5) there were few friendly relations between Jews and Gentiles. And yet in the face of this tension, Matthew sees in the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the exchange of wealth between the two peoples.

It was for St. Paul to return the gifts to the Magi. After his dramatic conversion, he was called to preach the Good News of Jesus, a Jew, to the Gentiles. To the surprise of many Jews who followed Jesus, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3: 6) That is, Jesus dissolved the fundamental division between Jew and Gentile when he was crucified by a collaboration between the two peoples who had suddenly come together for that brief moment. But when Jesus was raised from the dead as the forgiving victim, he bridged the gap between nations with one comprehensive act of forgiveness.

Ever since Paul’s commission, the Church has been tempted to retrench herself as the Jews did after building the second temple. This is to fall back into the default hostility to the stranger that Jared Diamond saw as part of “traditional” humanity. What the feast of Epiphany celebrates is the generosity of God who shares God’s riches with all so that all people can share this same richness with all others, not least with strangers who can then soon cease to be strangers.

Advertisements

Outcasts at the Manger

altarXmasStar1We like to be insiders and hate to be outsiders, don’t we? Well, let’s look at some insiders and outsiders in the Christmas story. The people who stayed at the inn in Bethlehem were insiders. A betrothed couple and their newborn baby were outsiders. Shepherds were outsiders, hated and distrusted by all. So why would the angel of the Lord show such bad taste in revealing the birth of the Savior to them?

The Magi were highly-placed insiders in their own country, most likely top advisors of royalty. So why would they travel to another land where they were outsiders? If the star was up there for all to see, why did these foreigners from without and outcasts from within Jewish society respond when others did not?

The Magi, used to being insiders, went straight to the top, to the ultimate insider, King Herod, to inquire about which newborn child the star was indicating. Ironically, Herod was an Idumean, not a full-blooded Jew. He had power, but he was an outsider. Herod’s reaction to the Magi’s inquiry showed Herod to be an outsider to humanitarian feelings once he thought his power was threatened. Mixed racial background aside, being rich and powerful pushes one to the margins of society as much as the poverty of the despised shepherds.

These days, we easily see Herod as an outsider, an intrusive foreign element entering the story only to stir up trouble and grief. The shepherds and the Magi are insiders, like us. How did that happen?

There is a certain sleight of hand that turns us and certain chosen others into insiders when it suits us. Not only do we not wish to be outsiders, we don’t like to be challenged by outsiders. If we realize that the shepherds and Magi and the Holy Family themselves are outsiders, our identities are shaken at a deep level. If it is outsiders who appreciated the richness of the Christ Child, maybe the same thing happens today. After all, some nonbelievers care more about the poor than rich Christians and a Hindu early in the twentieth century believed in the Sermon on the Mount more than the Christians of his time.

The greatest irony is that Christ was born to save all people, to make insiders of all of us. The problem is, we don’t want to be insiders with those who are outsiders and we certainly don’t want outsiders to join us. After all, what would we do if there were no outsiders?