As we saw last time, Matthew himself shows Jesus interacting with Gentiles and even going so far as to tell his fellow Jews that “many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12). This does not fit well with my reader’s claim of an ethnocentric Jesus.
So I contend that Matthew’s ultimate point is that while Jesus initially goes only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, his mission is (as Paul says in Romans) “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16) and that the real learners in this episode are therefore not Jesus, or the Woman, but his disciples. He is catechizing his followers out of their deeply ingrained ethnocentrism and so, especially, is Matthew who is, decades later, still teaching a Church full of ethnic issues.The evidence for this is everywhere in the New Testament and constitutes the central problem facing the first century Church: namely, the relationship of that Church to the Jewish matrix out of which it grew.
The problem is perfectly understandable and human. The Judean Church–most especially in Jerusalem–was the Mother Church. Christianity began there. And you can watch some of the pains of youth in the book of Acts.It was the Judean Church, centered in Jerusalem, that struggled to free itself from literalist notions about the kingdom of heaven. At the Ascension, they ask Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Ac 1:6), still expecting a political Davidic kingdom.
As the Church spreads to Gentile areas, it is the Jerusalem community that promoted the idea that Gentiles could only become Christian by becoming Jews first. Once that mistaken idea is quelled (Acts 15), the Judean community remains a stronghold of resistance to the idea that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised or keep kosher–and of hostility to the ministry of St. Paul, apostle to the Gentiles.
Again and again, throughout his ministry, Paul has to fight back, in Galatians, Romans, and Colossians among other letters, against the idea that Jews are somehow the spiritual superiors of Gentiles. So it is true that Jewish ethnocentrism is a problem. Indeed, it is such a problem that Paul even has to remind the first pope–Peter, who himself was the one who first declared that Gentiles were not saved by keeping the Mosaic law (Acts 15)–not to draw back from associating with Gentiles! (Gal 2:11-21).
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