Father Donald Senior, CP

Outside in; inside out

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Aug. 21: 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Is 66:18-21; Heb 12:5-7, 11-13; Lk 13:22-30

A debate is raging in our country about immigration. Some portray immigration as a destructive flood that is bringing criminals and terrorists to our shores. They raise an urgent call to seal our borders and deport those already here illegally.

Others welcome immigrants as an essential part of the American heritage and as a source of new life and productivity. Immigrants should be welcomed and integrated into our society.

Anyone who has read the Bible knows that the question of how to deal with “foreigners” was an ongoing debate in Israel, and we see echoes of this in the readings for this Sunday from Isaiah and from Luke’s Gospel. Israel saw itself as a chosen people, called from among the nations by God and forged into a new people and given a new land.

At the same time, Israel knew that God was sovereign not only over the Jewish people but over all peoples. The God of the Bible is not a tribal God but the Lord of the universe and the creator of all peoples and nations. Thus, perennial questions for the Israelites were: “What will be the fate of the nations?” “What should be Israel’s own responsibility toward outsiders?”

As is the case for today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, sometimes the nations’ response to God was more faithful than that of Israel itself. Isaiah chides Israel for its infidelities and depicts God sending messengers to distant lands: Tarshish (in Spain), Put and Lud (somewhere in Africa), Mosoch (perhaps in the Ionian Sea off of Greece) and to Tubal and Javan (apparently near the Black Sea in northern Asia Minor). In response, these foreigners would acclaim God’s glory, and all of Israel’s “brothers and sisters from all the nations” would come to offer God’s praise in Jerusalem.

Here is a vision of the future that relativizes the unique status of Israel as God’s chosen people and incorporates the peoples who come from distant lands into God’s providential future.

There is a similar motif in this Sunday’s selection from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus the prophet warns us that we should not take God’s loving embrace for granted. It is like someone who attempts to claim a friendship with us when they need something, whereas most of the time they have ignored us and don’t know us at all.

Jesus puts this challenge to his own people: “And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.” Meanwhile, the “insiders” will be “cast out” and be unable to share in the heavenly banquet “with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God.”

This pattern of “outside in” and “inside out” is found throughout the ministry of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. Very often it was the poor, sinners, prostitutes and foreigners who responded more readily to Jesus than some of the religious elite.

I don’t know about you, but I have seen a similar pattern in today’s church, too. Often I am struck by the sturdy and warm faith of those on the “outside” — the ordinary people of the parish and those that struggle on the margins — and how it contrasts with the sometimes casual indifference and routine religious practice of those “on the inside.”

A few months ago I had the chance to hear firsthand the stories of Christians from Syria who had lost everything but whose trust in God’s protection was the one thing keeping them away from despair. I wondered if in such circumstances my own faith would be as strong.

There are no simple solutions to the challenge of immigration in today’s world. The readings today alert us to the reality that we are not self-contained and we can learn and even be inspired by those we label “outsiders.” In God’s providence — the God revealed by Jesus — there are no “outsiders.”


  • scripture
  • immigration