Jesus’ love for his people does not prevent him from an honest assessment of the failures of his nation.
First, Luke 7:1-10 tells the story of Jesus’ healing of a servant of a Roman centurion. Commentators writing about this passage often focus their attention on the fact that Jesus is extending the ministry of the Kingdom of God to a Gentile, a foreshadowing of the Gospel being preached to all the nations. Rarely observed is the angle of persuasion the Jewish elders take in seeking to exhort Jesus into action:
“He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.”
The Jewish appeal for the healing of the centurion’s servant derives from his love for the Jewish people, a love so sincere that the centurion even constructed a synagogue for them. The very next verse reads: “And Jesus went with them.” The immediacy of Jesus’ response suggests that the content of the Jewish leaderships’ argument — this man loves our people! — was the impetus for the Messiah’s determination to act. Our Lord in effect affirms that the demonstration of true charity towards His nation pleases Him.
Secondly, Matthew 10:5-6 records one of the missionary campaigns directed by Jesus. It reads: “These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” Here we see one of several passages in the Gospels where Jesus prioritizes the missionary program first to his own people. There are important theological and religio-historical reasons for this, ones that are made explicit in another popular anecdote — His conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
In this third example, Jesus and the Samaritan woman go back-and-forth in what seems at first glance to be simply about a drink of water, but soon turns into a complex theological discourse. For our purposes, Jesus’ response to the Samaritan’s woman’s comment about proper worship is most relevant. He tells her in John 4:22: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” Beginning with Abraham’s call to leave his native land and embark on a journey, the Old Testament is the story of a nation’s faith in God’s promises, guided by a unique covenantal relationship. This covenant anchors the Jewish people and nation, wherever it lives, leading all the way to the Messiah’s coming. As Deuteronomy 7:6 explains, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.” Thus Jesus’ messianic mission must of course first prioritize His own people, the Jews, for whom the covenantal promises were first made.
This helps clarify our fourth Gospel passage, that of Jesus’ interaction with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28). Here a Canaanite woman, viewed as unclean by the Jews (indeed, even a “half-breed” because of their joint Jewish and pagan lineage), pleads for Jesus to release her daughter from the throes of demonic possession. Jesus’ response at first seems chilling: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” How could Jesus say such a thing, that to our modern ears sounds so callous? Precisely because He is first the Messiah of the Jewish people. In His grace, He extends that covenant to the entire world. Indeed, in the face of the Canaanite woman’s unparalleled faith, He relents, granting her request, preparing us for fulfillment of the prophetic vision, where the missionary impulse moves to the Gentiles. Even so, this passage suggests Jesus retains a unique love for His own people.
Finally, and most profoundly, is Jesus’ lamentation inside the walls of the Jewish people’s great capital city, Jerusalem, recorded in Matthew 23:37-39. It is here that Jesus, having rebuked the religious leadership of his day for their hypocrisy and hard-heartedness, cries,
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.”
This is the lament of a man passionately in love with his native land and its people, who years to see his fellow Jews choose the right, submit to God, and find renewed communion with YHWH. The failures of his country are cause for great mourning, precisely because of the degree to which He loves it and yearns for its spiritual and moral renewal.
My conclusion is that Jesus is a patriot, a man intimately united to his people, his homeland, and their destiny. This does not prevent Him from an honest assessment of the failures of his nation — indeed, it almost certainly helps drive and direct his criticism of their failures. The best criticisms always emanate from a sincere love, one that yearns to see the erring party vocalize contrition, return to the truth, and become a better version of itself. Moreover, such patriot fervor is evidence in many saints throughout Catholic history, from St. Joan of Arc and her defense of France, to St. Faustina Kowalska and St. John Paul II and their devotion to Poland.
To be clear, extreme nationalism, when it fails to see and compassionately respond to the humanity of others, is never helpful, and it is behavior antithetical to Jesus’ own response to those outside of his nation.
But there is nothing wrong with patriotism and love for one’s country — as we have seen, it is an impulse grounded deep within the heart of our own Lord and Savior.
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