Who Are You Calling a Gentile?

December 8, 2013   2nd Sunday of Advent   Romans 15: 4-13   Matthew 3: 1-12

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Name-calling is a nasty business.  Children are good at it.  They can turn just about any given name into a put-down.  If you’re lucky enough to have a safe name like John or Mary, you can still be called Fatty or Stupid.  Human beings, young and old, seem to have a need to put people into categories and then treat them like caricatures.  These impulses are not innocent or benign.  They result in wars, hate crimes, ethnic cleansing and the basic prejudice of racism.  None of us like to be put in a box, but all of us are relatively adept at putting others into their respective boxes:  rich, unemployed, Black, Asian, young, past your prime, immigrant, cancer patient, Democrat, Jew, and Gentile.    

     Hey, who are you calling a Gentile?  For the Jews of Jesus’ day, that was the worst box you could put someone in:  Gentile.  The Gentiles were unclean, idolatrous, uncircumcised foreigners.  They were not God’s Chosen People.  They ate the wrong food, worshipped the wrong gods, and lived the wrong way.  The safest course of action for any faithful Jew was to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  God had made a choice.  God chose the Jews to live as God’s holy people.  God made a covenant with them (not with the Gentiles).   “I will be your God and you shall be my people,” said the Lord.

     The Gentiles were all put in a box labelled ‘Gentile.’  They were to be avoided, feared, fought, and judged.  After all, it was Egyptian Gentiles who enslaved the Jews.  It was the Canaanite Gentiles who waged war against the Jews when they entered the Promised Land.  It was Babylonian Gentiles who destroyed Jerusalem and took the Jews into exile.  It was the Roman Gentiles who ruled over Israel in the first century when Jesus was born.  No one, NO ONE liked the Gentiles.   Can’t you just imagine children at their play or adults in their daily life, in the midst of an argument, mumbling or even shouting at someone, “You stupid Gentile!”  And the automatic response:  “Who are you calling a Gentile?”

     Advent is not meant to be a season of name-calling, no matter how frenzied your Christmas shopping experiences become, no matter how poorly people drive in snow, no matter how long the line is in the post office, not even if Kuhn’s runs out of candy canes.  And that’s not just because this is supposed to be a season of happy-clappy-cheerfulness when we take a break from all of our usual bad-mannered, prejudicial behavior.  Advent is the season when we proclaim a cataclysmic shift in the way the world is run.  That’s because Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ, signaled the dawning of a new age.  Jesus would be the Messiah of the Jews, but he would also be a light to the nations, the Lord of all, the Savior of the Gentiles.

     This revolutionary truth was what Paul was writing about in the 15th chapter of his letter to the Romans.  Now Paul, before his conversion, was a super-Jew, a strict Pharisee.  We can probably assume that Paul would have been more than able to hold his own when it came to the fine art of Gentile name-calling.  For Paul, and for any Pharisee, there would have been no such thing as a good Gentile. 

     So, this passage from Paul’s letter represents a real religious flip flop for Paul.  It was a revelation that changed everything.  Suddenly, his perspective on the world was wrenched open so that God’s plan of salvation included the Gentiles.  This was unthinkable.  But as Paul sifted through Old Testament passages, he saw that it was true.  In Christ, Jews and Gentiles would be one people.  They were to welcome one another, recognizing that the whole history of the Jews was leading up to this point in salvation history when together Jews and Gentiles would “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

     That, of course, meant that there was no more Gentile box.  There was no category of people who were automatically excluded from God’s promises, God’s forgiveness, or God’s love.  That was the end of name-calling, of separation, of holier-than-thou behavior.  Christmas ended all of that, because Jesus was the Savior of both Jew and Gentile.  That’s the good news.

     Long before Paul experienced this big revelation, John the Baptist was busy preparing the way for Jesus’ coming.  In his passionate call to repentance, John saw that the coming of the Messiah was going to be bad news for those who were not ready and for those who rejected the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  John was a pretty good name-caller in his own right.  “You brood of vipers!”  Hey, who are you calling a brood of vipers?  It was the Pharisees and the Sadducees, those super-Jews who were all about purity and law book religion.  Proud of their status as the chosen among the Chosen People, they were just covering their bases in coming out to be baptized by John.  “You brood of vipers!” John said, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come.”

     John certainly didn’t sugarcoat anything.  His message was a message of judgment.  There will be judgment.  The ax is at the root of the tree, and if you don’t bear good fruit you will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  The Messiah will come with a winnowing fork in his hand, ready to clear his threshing floor. He will “gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  You don’t want to be chaff.

     And don’t think that because you are not in the Gentile box that you will be spared.  Here is the most revolutionary thing that John said, “I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”  The Gentiles too – yes, even  Gentiles – could be children of God.  And if you don’t treat all of God’s children like God’s children, then you will find yourself on the receiving end of God’s judgment!

     On Thursday of this week Nelson Mandela died.  He was an international statesman who led a revolution for justice and equality in South Africa.  But, perhaps even more importantly, Mandela encouraged and enabled reconciliation to heal the wounds of a racist nation.  He refused to put people into boxes labeled Black or White or Brown, Dutch or Zulu or Xhosa, descendants of French or German or English settlers.  As the first freely elected president, Mandela enabled them all to see that they were South Africans.  He showed them how to repent and how to forgive the past sins of name-calling, race-baiting, injustice, violence, fear, and hatred.  He was a John the Baptist kind of figure, preparing the way for the kingdom in which there would be no more boxes, and when Jew and Gentile, Black and White, rich and poor, foreign and native-born together would live as God’s children.

     This is not just a future hope.  It is a present mandate for us.  It is how we are to live.  No one is a Gentile any more.  No one is a second class citizen.  There are no more boxes.  Be forewarned!  If we live that way – if we tolerating name-calling and if we put people into prejudice-based categories, thinking we are somehow better than they are – if we do that, we are inviting God’s judgment.  That was the message of John the Baptist.  Instead, Paul encourages us to live in harmony with one another so that together we may all with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Make this elimination of boxes part of your Advent preparations.  For the Lord of all is coming as both judge and Savior.  Don’t let him catch you putting anyone in a box.  Who are you calling a Gentile?