God’s Love Is Irrevocable
According to a Jewish story, Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania once went to Athens to dispute with the Greek philosophers. There they asked him many questions and he was able to answered them all. One of the questions they asked him was: “Where is the centre of the earth?” Rabbi Joshua pointed with his forefinger to a spot on the ground where he stood and said, “Here.” They said to him, “How do we know that you are right?” He answered, “Bring your measuring rods, and measure it for yourselves.”
Why did the Greek philosophers ask the Jewish Rabbi about the centre of the earth? It is because the Greeks believed that Greece was the centre of the earth. The Greeks divided humanity into two; either you are a Greek or else you are a barbarian. In the Delphi Temple in Athens, they had a sacred object known as the omphalos or the navel of the earth. But the Greeks knew that the Jews also had a similar belief. The Jews also believed they were the centre of the earth. Like the Greeks they also divided the world into two. You are either a Jew or a Gentile. Till today, in the Church of the Resurrection by the Temple Mount in Jerusalem there is a wooden structure known as the navel of the earth. The Greeks asked the Rabbi about the centre of the earth because, in the simple logic of the philosophers, there can be only one centre of the earth. If it was true that the navel of the earth was located in the Delphi Temple, then the Jewish claim that it was located in their Jerusalem Temple was false, and vice versa. By pointing to the ground on which he stood as the centre of the earth, the wise Rabbi was saying that the centre of the earth was not just Athens or Jerusalem but any spot where a human being stood. He was saying that there was not just one centre of the earth. He is right. Any point on the surface of the globe can be the centre of the globe.
How does this relate to the what Paul is discussing in the second reading? Paul is discussing the subject of God’s dealings with humanity and the place of the Jewish nation in it. As a Jewish Rabbi, Paul did not have any doubts in his mind about Jerusalem being the centre of the earth. He believed that the Jews were exclusively the chosen people of God. The Jerusalem Temple he believed to be the one house on earth where God literally lived. Something happened to make Paul question these neat assumptions. It was his conversion to Christianity where he saw that the Gentiles, as well as the Jews, were equally loved by God and called to be God’s people. This was later reinforced by the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in the year ad 70. If God literally lived in the Jerusalem Temple, how could God allow the pagan Romans to destroy His own house? Where then was God, since God’s home was no more?
In his earlier life, Paul belonged with the Jews who claimed that they were God’s only beloved people. In his later life he belonged with the mainly Gentile Christians who claimed that, since the Jewish population rejected Jesus and his message, the Jews were now rejected from being God’s people, and they, the Christians had become the new chosen people of God. Paul was not satisfied with this either-or, black and white, approach to God’s covenant. He reminds the Gentile Christians that “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29), so God could not have rejected the Jewish people. Like Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania in our story, Paul had come to the realisation that being people of God was open to everyone, Jew or Gentile. No one is qualified by national or religious affiliation alone, and by the same token, no one is excluded either. Rather, God has made a level playing field for all. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32).
Unfortunately, there are too many people in our world today, 2000 years after Paul, who still believe that God is their exclusive possession. They still believe that they, and they alone, have access to the mind and blessings of God. These narrow-minded believers are found in practically all religions. They include Christians, Moslems, and Jews. Such people oppose dialogue, believing that anybody who does not share their religious convictions is either a heretic or an infidel to be corrected or even punished.
Today we pray that God may make us and all who call on God’s name to realise the important truth He taught Peter and the other Apostles 2000 years ago: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, cssp