In today's first reading, Paul and Barnabas take the Gospel of Jesus to the synagogue at Antioch, the meeting place for the Jewish people. There, the two apostles tell the story of Jesus to help them recognize that Jesus is their long-awaited Messiah. But, disappointingly, only a few Jews respond affirmatively. Then when Paul and Barnabas announce that God's saving graces also embrace the gentiles, some Jews heckle and contradict them, insisting that God is their God, not the gentiles' God. The gentiles meanwhile are delighted to hear God's saving blessings are meant also for them.
This story of religious people excluding others is as old as the story of Cain and Able, and as new as today's headlines. Religious people like ourselves are very good at the game of exclusion. The Jewish community in the first century was glad to hear Paul and Barnabas and consider their message about Jesus. But when the apostles go to the gentiles with the very same message, these people of the synagogue want no part of it. They consider Paul and Barnabas, themselves Jews, to be casting pearls to gentile swine!
For centuries since, Jews shun Gentiles, Christians shun Jews, Catholics and Protestants not only shun each other, but battle each other in deadly wars. Catholics are taught that Lutherans are unworthy so don't associate with them, and by God don't ever marry them! Meanwhile, Lutherans are taught the same about Catholics! Oh yes, we religious people want to make sure our sacraments are not soiled by unworthy people, our holy places are not contaminated by unworthy people, our prayers are not compromised by unworthy people. Our church leaders insist on such things. But how do we measure "unworthiness?" Where and how do we draw the line between worthiness and unworthiness? Who gives us permission to do so? Not God, for God makes each and everyone of us in God's own image, gifting us with life, with faith, with love and the promise of life in abundance. God does not make mistakes in creating us. No one is created outside the circle of God's loving embrace.
So the question is: How big is our personal circle of love and acceptance? If we are asked to draw our circle of love and acceptance of others, how big would that circle be? This big? Or this big? Or perhaps THIS big? Whom do we include? Whom do we exclude? Do we exclude people because of age or race, language or social standing, religious belief or sexual life-style, mental handicap or physical deformity?
Can we face the fact that there are people whom we consider soiled, scarred, scared, marginalized and alone not because God made them that way, but because far too many of us put them outside our circle of love and acceptance? Do we forget that as followers of Jesus, we are called to be light to the nations? It's not for us to pick and choose whom to include in our circle, whom to exclude. The Gospel of Jesus is not the private property of anyone or any particular group. The Gospel of Jesus plays no favorites. It is meant for everyone: gentiles, Jews, homosexuals, heterosexuals, citizens, foreigners, the sick, the handicapped, the rich, the poor : oh yes, especially the poor! Our circle of love must be big enough to embrace all : not just in theory but in our every word and deed. Let it be so!