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Clearly rooted in the New Testament, the missionary dimension of Christianity calls not only for proclaiming the "Good News" but also for understanding diversity and promoting interreligious dialogue.


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Make Disciples of All Nations

by Daniel Harrington, S.J.

Christianity is a missionary religion. It takes its identity as such from the words of the risen Jesus in Matthew 28:19: "Make disciples of all nations." Few of us may realize that the greatest numerical missionary success in the church's history took place in the 20th century. In 1900 there were ten million Christians in Africa, while in 2000 there were 360 million!

At the same time events in the 20th century have taught us that there is also a need for dialogue and mutual understanding among representatives of the great religions of the world. In 1965 the Second Vatican Council declared that "the Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions" (Nostra aetate 2). Events in the early 21st century such as "9/11" have further impressed on us the urgency of interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding. The peace and continued existence of the human race may depend upon it.

The missionary dimension of Christianity is made abundantly clear in the New Testament. Without ignoring this fact, I want to show that some New Testament passages also give us openings to dialogue with other religions. My point is that the New Testament encourages Christians to engage in both missionary activity (evangelization) and dialogue (mutual understanding).

The Great Commission

The most famous and influential New Testament text pertaining to evangelization appears at the end of Matthew's Gospel. It is part of the appearance of the risen Jesus to eleven of his apostles (the Twelve minus Judas). The appearance takes place on a mountain in Galilee. When the disciples see the risen Jesus, some pay him homage while others hesitate or even doubt. This sets the scene for the words of the risen Jesus that are traditionally known as the "Great Commission." The text appears in Matthew 28:18b-20:

"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age."

It is possible to understand the Great Commission as a summary of Matthew's Gospel taken as a whole (and indeed all the Gospels). Jesus whose story has been told throughout the Gospel now appears as the risen Lord who is worthy of homage and even worship. As the glorious Son of Man (see Daniel 7), the risen Jesus declares that all power in heaven and on earth has been given to him. As the great authoritative Teacher, the risen Jesus commissions his closest followers to carry on his mission of teaching. As the Son of God, the risen Jesus directs that all nations be baptized in his name. And as "Emmanuel" or "God with us" (see Matt 1:22-23), the risen Jesus promises to accompany his followers until the end of the present age.

Likewise, the disciples who had been repeatedly characterized by Matthew as having only a "little faith" now receive their commission to teach "all nations" and not simply their fellow Jews ("the lost sheep of the house of Israel," see Matt 10:5). It is likely that these words presented an especially timely challenge to Matthew's largely Jewish Christian community around A.D. 90 to expand their own vision beyond those who were Jews by birth and so to include non-Jews in their mission.

Missionary Activity/Evangelization

The missionary impulse in Christianity is rooted in parts of the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah looked forward to the day when all nations might stream toward the Jerusalem Temple and when in turn instruction might go forth from Jerusalem (Isa 2:2-4). The task of God's Servant in Isaiah 40—55 is to be "a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth" (Isa 49:6). In Zechariah 8:22-23 there are marvelous images of "many peoples and strong nations" seeking the Lord in Jerusalem, and of ten men taking hold of every Jew by the edge of the garment and saying, "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you."

In Jesus' time there were many Jews scattered all over the Mediterranean world. Their cultural and religious centers were called "synagogues" (meaning "gathering places"). These centers attracted not only Jews in the area but also non-Jews (sometimes called "God-fearers") who were impressed by Judaism's doctrine of one God, high ethical standards and community celebrations. There is a long-standing debate among scholars about how aggressive Jews in Jesus' time were in carrying out missionary activities among non-Jews (see Matt 23:15).

There is no doubt, however, that the Jewish movement founded by Jesus was missionary. The word "evangelization" means bringing the "gospel" or "good news" (euangelion in Greek) to others. In the first phase of his public ministry Jesus proclaims the nearness of the kingdom of God and urges belief in this "good news" (Mark 1:15). When summoning his first disciples in the midst of their work as fishermen, he promises to make them "fishers of men" (Mark 1:17); that is, active participants in his task of proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom. The essence of discipleship is to be with Jesus and to share in his mission (Mark 3:14), and so eventually Jesus sends out the Twelve to do what he did (Mark 6:6-13; Matt 10:1-42).

The earliest Christians were convinced that in Jesus' life, death and resurrection God has done something very decisive in bringing near the kingdom of God. And so Jesus himself became the focus of their "good news" (see Rom 1:3-4; 1 Cor 15:3-5). Having experienced God's kingdom in the person of Jesus, the first Christians wanted to share that experience with others. This impulse is the root of all genuine Christian missionary activity.

The first Christians were all Jews. But soon and much to their surprise, non-Jews (Gentiles) showed interest in their good news and received the Holy Spirit and baptism (see Acts 10—11). Paul, a man with impeccable Jewish credentials, was called by God to bring the gospel to non-Jews. His letters are records of his efforts at extending pastoral care for the Gentile-Christian communities that he had founded.

The Acts of the Apostles recounts the spread of the gospel from "Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The time frame covered in Acts is roughly from Jesus' ascension and Pentecost (A.D. 30) to Paul's arrival in Rome (A.D. 60). Throughout Acts, the apostles Peter, John, Philip, Barnabas and Paul engage in missionary activity and have great success especially among Gentiles.

Dialogue/Mutual Understanding

The term "dialogue" implies conversation and personal interaction, with the goal of increased mutual understanding and respect. The New Testament provides little explicit basis for the kind of interreligious dialogue that has become popular and even necessary in recent years. Yet there are some little noticed but nonetheless significant openings in the Gospel portraits of Jesus.

The Roman empire was the world in which the gospel originated and spread. It was a world of much religious diversity and little religious unity. All kinds of gods were worshiped, and all kinds of cults drew devotees. The emphasis was more ritual than moral. There were also efforts to rally citizens of particular places to participate in displays of civic religion. And the Book of Revelation presupposes efforts in parts of western Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to force everyone there to worship the Roman emperor as a god and the goddess Roma as a personification of the Roman empire. In this very pluralistic context Christianity emerged as a form of Judaism with monotheistic beliefs and high ethical standards but open to all kinds of peoples and no longer tied to the nation of Israel except through the Scriptures and Jesus.

According to Paul the Christian missionary, conversion to Christianity was a life-changing event. In the earliest of his letters, Paul described what happened to the Gentile Christians at Thessalonica in this way: "you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thess 1:9). In treating the pastoral problem of whether Gentile Christians at Corinth might eat food that had been used in sacrifices to pagan gods, Paul observes that "even though there are so-called gods in heaven and on earth...for us there is one God, the Father...and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 8:5-6). In his long meditation on what God has done in Christ, Paul proclaims that "the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 6:23).

Paul's concept of "universalism" is decidedly Christ-centered. For him, all peoples are called to belong to Christ and to attain salvation through Christ. He does not deal with the salvation of those without knowledge of Christ or with the salvific value of other religions.

But times change. It is doubtful that Paul knew anything about Hinduism and Buddhism. And Islam did not yet exist. Paul most likely regarded his own "conversion" as a move from one form of Judaism (Pharisaism) to another (Christianity), not from one religion to another. Meanwhile, modern developments in travel and communications place us today in continual contact with people of other religions. For the sake of world peace and human progress we need to foster interreligious dialogue and mutual understanding. Do our Gospels contain anything that might help us?

At first sight Jesus does not appear to be a promising model for promoting interreligious dialogue. According to John's Gospel, he proclaims himself to be "the way and the truth and the life" (14:6). But in other Gospel texts Jesus shows himself to be open to some surprising persons: women, tax collectors, "sinners" and so forth. Indeed, one of the persistent complaints against Jesus concerns the company he keeps: "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2).

Jesus willingly enters into debate with opponents about important issues in Jewish life, as the blocks of controversy stories in Mark 2:1—3:6 and 11:27—12:37 illustrate. While many of these conversations are emotionally charged and even hostile, Jesus always patiently states his position and demonstrates his superior wisdom. And in the dialogue about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34), Jesus and the scribe, after a rocky start, find themselves in perfect harmony. When inforned that someone is casting out demons in his name (Mark 9:38-41), Jesus makes a remarkably tolerant statement: "whoever is not against us is for us" (9:40; but see Matt 12:30!).—————————

In two Gospel episodes Jesus enters into conversations with non-Jews. In Matthew 8:5-13 a centurion (a Roman military officer) asks Jesus to heal his servant and professes his confidence in Jesus' power to do so. Jesus in turn states that "in no one in Israel have I found such faith" (8:10) and heals the servant at a distance. In Mark 7:24-30 (see Matt 15:21-28) Jesus reluctantly gets involved in a conversation with a non-Jewish woman. Matthew calls her "a Canaanite," while Mark describes her as "a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth." The woman wants Jesus to heal her daughter. At first Jesus puts her off by restricting his ministry to his fellow Jews: "Let the children be fed first." But she persists and points out that even dogs are fed from table scraps. Jesus realizes that the pagan woman has gotten the better of him in debate, marvels at her faith and heals her daughter. In this case Jesus seems to learn from dialogue with a pagan woman and recognizes that his mission concerns more than his own people.

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem, he becomes increasingly aware of the fate that awaits him and its significance for others. He concludes the journey narrative with these words: "the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45). Near the end of his ministry in Jerusalem Jesus offers a description of the Last Judgment at which the glorious Son of Man will preside (Matt 25:31-46). The central issue in this judgment scene is the criterion by which "all the nations" will be judged. That criterion turns out to be acts of kindness shown toward "these least brothers of mine...these little ones" (25:40, 45).

The Gospels do not present Jesus as presiding over a seminar or debating society. As documents of faith, they portray Jesus as the Word of God—God's definitive revelation to humankind (see John 1:1-18; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:1-4). But they do give us hints that Jesus also entered into dialogue and sought mutual understanding. And at least in the case of the Canaanite woman Jesus appears to have come away from the conversation with new attitudes and perspectives about his own mission.

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. He has been general editor of New Testament Abstracts since 1972 and is a past president of the Catholic Biblical Association (1985-86). His recent books include The Church According to the New Testament, The Gospel of Mark (with John Donahue), and Jesus and Virtue Ethics (with James Keenan).

Praying With Scripture

Read slowly the account of Jesus' conversation with the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30 (or Matt 15:21-28). Follow carefully the interactions between Jesus and the woman. How would you characterize Jesus and the woman? Does Jesus change his mind? What leads him to do so? How might this passage help you to approach Jesus and his Father in prayer?

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