THE MIDDLE EAST TODAY is an ethnic and religious jumble: Mediterranean and European Jews rub shoulders with Eastern and Western Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and innumerable other variations on each of these themes. This is not merely a present-day phenomenon. This is the way things have been throughout the Christian era and even earlier. The Middle East and the entire Mediterranean region have always been home to a rich mix of peoples.
The Jews always lived surrounded by others. The coastal regions, including Caesarea, the regional capital, Haifa, Tyre and Sidon were at first controlled by the seafaring Phoenicians. Later it was the Greeks and Romans who dominated in these areas. By the time of Christ, archaeologists affirm that there were upwards of 30 Gentile towns in what we call the Holy Land. The area of Capernaum, where the Lord lived as an adult, was called “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15) since there was a great number of them there.
During their first years in the Holy Land, strict Jews sought to minimize their dealings with the Gentiles. God’s people were too young in their faith to withstand the cultural pressure of their idolatrous neighbors. When Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon married Ahab, the Samaritan king of Israel in the ninth century bc, she promoted the worship of the Phoenician gods and many, including the king, followed her lead. He “began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole [i.e. a shrine to the Phoenician fertility goddess] and did more to arouse the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than did all the kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:31-33).
Ahab so decimated the prophets of the God of Israel that the Prophet Elijah complained, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left” (1 Kings 17:23). Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal and convinced the people to destroy them and return to the Lord.
Centuries later, by the time of Christ, however, the Jews were much more secure in their conviction that the God of Israel was the only true God. They had been scattered throughout the Mediterranean world and retained their faith. Furthermore, as contacts with the Jews increased, Gentiles had been drawn to the faith of Israel. Even Roman military officers – such as the one who begged Jesus to heal his servant (Matthew 8:4-14) or Cornelius, who invited Peter to share his message (Acts 10) – had accepted the God of the Jews as the only true God.
Still, strict Jews refrained as much as possible from contact with Gentiles. As Peter told Cornelius, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation” (Acts 10:28). Yet we find Jesus going to the region of Tyre and Sidon or across the Jordan without hesitation. He was about to bring salvation to the Gentiles as well as the Jews.
Christ’s encounter with the Canaanite woman seeking His aid showed that true faith in God was not the exclusive property of the Jews, and that Gentiles could have even greater faith than any in Israel. He works miracles among the Gentiles as He did among the Jews. At one time it had been necessary for God’s people to be separate from the Gentiles. Now it was time for God’s people to lead the Gentiles to the true God.
Separation in the Church
As communities of Gentile believers in Christ sprouted up in the Mediterranean world, we find their leaders, such as St. Paul, encouraging isolation from those around them. “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” he writes, quoting Isaiah and Ezekiel, “Therefore come out from among them and be separate,” (2 Corinthians 6:16, 17). These early Gentile believers, like the Jews of Elijah’s day a thousand years earlier, were too young in their faith to withstand the influences of the pagan culture in which they lived.
As the years passed, and many were martyred rather than deny their faith in Christ, the Christian community became stronger. Believers began to explain their faith to pagans on their own terms. Their “Apologies,” as they were called, showed that their understanding of the Gospel was more mature and that their commitment to Christ was firm. Christians would ultimately go out into completely alien cultures for the Lord. The faith of the Canaanite woman would be sought and found among Slavs and Franks and Saxons.
Where Are We in Our Faith Journey?
Like the Jews in the time of Elijah, we live in a pluralistic society surrounded by people of many religions and of none. There is an atmosphere of mutual respect but not everyone is able to make some important distinctions in maintaining the purity of their traditions. As a result many people find particular traditions unimportant because “we’re all worshipping the same God.” For some this even extends to basic doctrines like the Trinity and the unique role of Christ in the redeeming of the world. Their faith – and in some cases their morals – have been watered down because they were not mature enough to live in a pluralistic society without losing their own identity.
Like the first Gentile believers we live in a non-believing culture, increasingly secular and even aggressively opposing any public expression of biblical faith or morals. We are free to worship inside our churches, in what one bishop has called “our weekly Sabbath hobby.” But expressions of faith in the public sector are definitely discouraged. Woe to politicians or athletes who dare to speak about their faith, much less act in line with it. Is our faith today too immature to withstand these pressures?
Many feel, like the Jews and the first Christians, that we should isolate ourselves from outside influences in order to retain our traditional Christian identity. Many Eastern Christians have taken refuge in the foods, music, and dancing of their home country cultures to insulate their children from the wider society. If the church or ethnic community is sufficiently active, this may keep its children from dating “foreigners,” but will it keep them from aborting an unwanted pregnancy?
Our churches have, by and large, concentrated on building programs and social events rather than on faith building. In many parishes there are more parties and fundraisers than holy day services, much less instruction programs. What is there in our parish life to help us discern which elements in our popular culture are compatible with the Gospel and which are not? Does our church life assist us to mature in our faith or does it insure that we remain children?
If we or our children readily accept secular values merely because everyone else is saying or doing them, it may be because Christ is on only the fringes of our lives. If so we need to ask ourselves whether we have truly encountered Christ. Without truly knowing Him, how can we be prepared to prove our faith despite any pressure to the contrary? The Canaanite woman was not discouraged when even the apostles wanted her to be sent away. She persisted in her faith and was rewarded. She is thus a model of perseverance for us seeking to uphold our faith and traditions in the world.