Today’s readings touch upon a topic I am asked about fairly often; namely, the possibility of salvation for those who do not share the Christian faith: Can such folks be saved? How does this happen? The short answer is that, provided a person does not freely reject God, the Lord can save whomever he wishes to save, in ways unknown to us and which in fact we have no right to know. To be sure we believe that all salvation comes through the person of Jesus Christ, but God’s salvific power is not limited by human understanding or practices.
From the biblical narrative it is clear that God can be found by people in unexpected ways; in today’s first reading Elijah discovered the divine presence in the “tiny whispering sound” rather than in the mighty wind or the fire or the earthquake (1 Kings 19:11-12). God’s presence in Christ can be overlooked by people as well, just as Peter does in the Gospel: “Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter, and said to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’” (Matt 14:31).
God can also work out the salvation of people through Christ in ways that we do not readily perceive or understand; today’s reading from Romans teaches us this. It is the beginning of a long section of this most important letter of Saint Paul (Rom 9-11) in which he speaks of the mystery of salvation for his own Jewish people. Since this is a controversial topic it is worth exploring. From the early days of Christianity Jews and believers in Jesus have had relations all too often marked by misunderstanding and even hostility. Already when the Gospel of John was written we see evidence of Christians being expelled from synagogues, and not long after that Christians repaid their Jewish contemporaries with centuries of discrimination and persecution.
Thankfully, many beautiful accounts of kindness and magnanimity are also found in the annals of Jewish-Christian relations. A well-known example from the twentieth century is the moving story of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to give his life in place of a Jewish family man who had been sentenced to death in Auschwitz. Saint Maximilian is especially appropriate to invoke here as his feast day—the anniversary of his execution—is tomorrow, August 14th. In recent decades much progress has been made in understanding the intimate bond between the Jewish and Christian peoples, and this progress has been greatly aided by serious reflection on the passage of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans which we begin reading today at mass.
Toward the end of the lengthy section of his epistle that we start today Saint Paul explains of his fellow Jews: “In respect to the gospel, they are enemies on your account; but in respect to election, they are beloved because of the patriarchs. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:28-29). The “gifts” are mentioned in today’s reading from Romans: “theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever” (Rom 9:4-5). The “call” of which Paul speaks was made first to Israel, then to all God’s children in Christ. Let it be our prayer that we may hold to our Christian faith with reverence and gratitude, and practice that faith in such a way that we attract others to the saving Gospel of Christ, so that by the mysterious plan of God the paths of all his children may in the end converge in him who is “truly the Son of God” (Matt 14:33).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.