Entering the letters of St. Paul for serious study is like undertaking professional auto racing—high risk, high reward. St. Paul is truly the first theologian of the Christian Church; his last letter of instruction was put to paper a full decade before the first Gospel [Mark] was composed. Like a theologian today, Paul has a system or overarching philosophy of reality in which he expounds the particulars of Christian belief. Today’s students of theology begin with a course on “foundational theology” or “systematic theology” which includes personal reflection on how the student structures reality in his or her own head. This is what makes it possible to enter the heads, so to speak, of people like St. Paul. I am always troubled that our catechist training programs don’t begin with this sort of preparation, but I digress.
St. Paul is the primary source for Paragraph 60, specifically his Chapter 17 of the Letter to the Romans. The Catechism here adopts Paul’s explanation of the meaning of Israel’s history to a Gentile audience, a predominantly Roman one, as you might guess by the title. It is a good thing that the Catechism is lengthy and detailed, for if all we had on the purpose of Israel’s religious history is Paragraph 60, the impression could easily be drawn that the successors of Abraham were caretakers—or trustees, a curious word--of God’s promise, keeping the seat warm till the coming of the Messiah.
I think that para. 60 wished to say more than that. Roman Catholics, most recently in Dei Verbum of Vatican II, have generally held that not only are the direct verbal interventions from God in the Hebrew Scriptures true Revelation, but the entire sweep of the 45 books of the Old Testament is the full embodiment of God’s revelation as received and believed by Jesus. The philosophical musings of Job, the pithy counsel of Proverbs, the erotic analogies of the Song of Songs, the moralistic sermons of the prophets—all stand alongside the Law and the historical narrative which begins with Genesis 12. Put another way, Israel itself, its history, is God’s Revelation, not some sort of warm-up act till the arrival of John the Baptist.
If you want a better argument for this point, ask yourself, “What would Jesus’ own foundational or systematic theology have looked like?” It no doubt would have been Jewish. From Jesus’ own words and actions, as well as the practices of the early Church, it is clear that Jesus thought he was bringing Jewish life to its fitting climax. His selection of Twelve intimate followers was not a workplace efficiency strategy, but the reestablishment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, many of whom had died out in the millennium prior to Jesus’ time. As he died on the cross, his final words (in one account) were “It is finished.”
The history of Jesus’ followers and their Jewish brethren after the Resurrection is complicated, and it is chronicled in some detail by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles, which Luke intended as the second volume of his Gospel. In Luke’s second account, we are introduced to one Saul of Tarsus, an extraordinary Jewish and conservative extremist in matters of religion. He participated in the killing of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, in the 30’s AD and proceeded to Damascus to lead more persecutions of Christians. The story of Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ, his physical blindness, and his acceptance into the Christian community at Damascus, is presumably well known to most readers.
It would be fascinating to know something of Saul’s overhaul of his “foundational theology.” Like an adult man who discovers that his real father was Al Capone, there is certainly a barely disguised sense of anger and betrayal with the Jewish tradition in which Saul had invested himself so rigorously. Much ink has been spilled on the psychological make-up of St. Paul, but suffice to say here that unlike Peter and the first Apostles, Paul embraced Christianity with some resistance toward his Jewish past. Not for nothing is he called the Apostle to the Gentiles, and Paul does credit himself with moving St. Peter and some of the other brethren to embrace a mission beyond the Jewish heartland and drop the requirement of circumcision for baptism.
In his Gentile mission, though, Paul would have to explain the Revelation of God in terms of a savior whose Jewish identity was beyond dispute. Para. 60 gives us some idea of how he might have done this. Paul acknowledges that the Jews are chosen people, called to prepare for a day when God would gather all his people. In reading Chapter 17 this morning, it seems that Paul envisioned a split between errant Jews and a remnant of true believers, a breech that must be healed if Christ’s community—all Jewish-- is to survive. Paul does not dwell on this here, but the unity of Israel appears to be of great importance in Paul’s understanding of Christ. Other New Testament writers do emphasize something of the same thing, that Jesus’ first mission was to the lost children of Israel. Consider the Canaanite woman who sought a healing from Jesus for her child (Matthew 15:26). Jesus relies that it is not right to take the children’s food and cast it to the dogs. In the Gospel, references to dogs are often metaphors for pagans. Our word “canine” is a derivative of Canaanite or pagan. No such narratives crop up in Paul’s writing.
So where do the Gentiles come into the picture? Paragraph 60 speaks of a “grafting” of the Gentiles to the tree of Israel. “Grafting” is the same term Paul uses in Romans 17. In Romans 17 Paul counsels a measure of respect that present and prospective Gentile Christians should acknowledge as they enjoy their status as rich vegetation on a tree whose roots were established long ago. Para. 60 is careful to note that this grafting comes about through baptism