The Gospel of Matthew 28:19-20
Known to Christians as “The Great Commission,” this text often evokes polarizing responses. On the one hand, it assures followers of Jesus that a living God is eternally present; and that, in obeying what Jesus taught, all on earth can be blessed. Undeniably, however, many non- Christians and even some Christians have felt overwhelmed by a zealous missionary, at home or abroad, who seeks to convert the “alien other” to God. I believe that I can be a devout Christian and, at the same time, see God in all persons. I especially appreciate the maxim attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel, and, if necessary, use words;” for, to me, heeding the Great Commission means living a life that embodies Jesus’ summary of the Commandments: to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, and to love my neighbor as myself.
Da’wa is the Arabic word for “invitation,” and is used in Islam to denote the practice of spreading God’s message. It is explained in the Quran: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.” (al-Nahl 16:125) This verse is both a reassuring and humbling ideal. It is reassuring because it expresses the underlying notion of strong trust in God, the All-Knowing, Who sees into the hearts of all people, whether or not they display signs of guidance. And it is humbling because it reminds us that a Muslim will always fall short of conveying the beauty of God’s message, no matter how knowledgeable and how spiritual he or she is. For this reason, every Muslim, at every stage of life—whether practicing the formal da’wa or not—recites the following supplication: “O God, guide us, guide through us, and allow us to be a reason for the guidance of others.”
While Judaism welcomes converts—the early rabbis established rituals surrounding formal conversion by the 4th century—Jews do not actively proselytize. The main reason that Jews do not seek converts is that, throughout the centuries, proselytizing was often forbidden by the ruling religious majority. In some historical periods it was even a capital crime for Jews to convert non-Jews, so Jewish evangelism did not develop as normative tradition for political reasons. Although Jews may be free to proselytize in many countries today, the collective history of Jewish persecution leads to our ongoing reluctance to proclaim our faith. In fact, the custom of rabbis actually discouraging prospective converts in order to test their sincerity continues to this day, and—in the moment just before conversion—rabbis will often ask prospective converts if they are “choosing of their own free will to cast their lot with the Jewish people.” Following his or her immersion in the mikvah (ritual bath), the new Jew proclaims the faith by reciting, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." (Deuteronomy 6:9)