Scripture: Mark 12: 13 -17, 28-31
March 12, 2017
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
In the Middle Ages, according to legend, there was a time of discord in Jerusalem. At that time, in the Holy City, Christians asked the Pope to banish all Jews from Jerusalem. And so the Pope went to Jerusalem to hold a summit with the chief rabbi, the highest Jewish authority. The meeting soon turned to a debate. If the Pope won, the Jews would have to leave the city. If the Chief Rabbi won, the Jews could stay. The two men were seated in large chairs facing each other. Since neither could speak or understand the other’s language, the debate would be done only in gestures and symbols.
The Pope began the debate by sweeping his hand in a great arc. The chief rabbi responded by pointing to the floor. The Pope then held up three fingers. The chief rabbi responded by holding up one finger. The Pope reached over to the sideboard and lifted a chalice of wine. The chief rabbi removed from under his robe an apple and held it up. The Pope threw up his hands and said, “That’s enough! You’ve won! What a brilliant argument! Your theology is impeccable. The Jews may remain in Jerusalem.”
The cardinals rushed up to the Pope and asked, “What happened?” How did the chief rabbi win the argument?” The Pope said, “He was magnificent. I said, by my gesture, ‘God is everywhere.’ He said, by his gesture, “yes, but God is right here, too.’ I said, ‘But God is here in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ He said, ‘Yes, but there is still only one God.’ I held up the chalice of wine to say, ‘But we Christians are saved through this cup.’ And he held up the apple to say, ‘But as with Adam, all of us have fallen short of the glory of God, and thus we are all equal in the sight of God.’ It was brilliant. He had won. I had nothing else to say.”
Meanwhile, the chief rabbi was asked by his advisors, “What happened? How did you win?” “I’m not sure,” he responded. “The Pope said, by his gestures, ‘All you Jews must leave Jerusalem.’ I said, by my gesture, ‘We’re staying right here.’ The Pope then said, “You have three days to leave.” I said, by my gesture, “Not one Jew is leaving.” Then he stopped the debate and reached for some wine to take with his lunch. I took an apple out for my lunch and that’s when he threw up his hands and declared that I had won!”
Just as this Jewish rabbi in Jerusalem was misunderstood so, too, (on a much more serious note), Jews have been misunderstood for the past 2000 years. Last Sunday, we began a Lenten sermon series entitled, “The Last Week”. We will walk with Jesus through each day of his last week on earth. A week ago, we walked with Jesus through, what I call “Manic Monday”. A day in which Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, set loose the birds, drove out the oxen from the Temple courts. Jesus shut down the Temple that day. The very next day, which I call “Tuesday’s Turmoil”, Jesus is confronted by the scribes, chief priests, Pharisees, Sadducees, “the Jews”. We are told that these Jewish religious leaders interrogated Jesus. They tried to trap him, especially after his Temple tantrum the day before. They believe that he has blasphemed against the Temple. They want to get rid of Jesus.
Throughout the last week of Jesus’ life, which we Christians call “Holy Week”, the charge against “the Jews” permeates the pages of the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate who is the Roman governor, literally washes his hands of Jesus’ death. Meanwhile, we read that the Jews clamored for Jesus’ death. “Let him be crucified….His blood be on us and on our children!” shouted the Jews (Matthew 27:23, 27). In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter charges “the entire house of Israel” (Acts 2:36) with crucifying Jesus and so having “killed the Author of life” (Acts 3: 14 -15). Paul then refers to “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 2: 14-15). In John’s Gospel, Jews are identified as “from your father the devil” (John 8:44). When John tells about the first Easter appearance of the risen Christ, he depicts the disciples hiding behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (20:19). The anti-Christ figure in the Gospels is Judas “Iscariot”. Iscariot means traitor. Judas is the Greek spelling of Judah or Judea, the nation of the Jews. Bishop Spong states that Judas Iscariot may very well be code word for an entire Jewish nation of traitors. The list could go on and on. The clear message in the New Testament is that Jews are the dark, sinister characters responsible for the death of Jesus, even though Jesus of Nazareth dies on a Roman cross. The Jews had no authority to crucify anyone. Only the Romans could do that. But this severe misunderstanding of the Jews has infiltrated 2100 years of Christian history.
Why such hostility for the Jews? After all, Jesus was a Jew. He was circumcised on the 8th day and presented in the temple on the 40th day of his life. At age 12, he journeyed to Jerusalem – possibly for a bar mitzvah-type ceremony. Jesus went to the synagogue. We see a Jesus who was a devout Jew, deeply engaged in the worship tradition of his people. In addition, the twelve disciples were Jews. His parents, Joseph and Mary, were Jews. The Gospel writers were Jews. The Gospel writer, Luke, was born a gentile, but he converted to Judaism. Other Christian leaders, like Paul and Mary Magdalene, were Jews. So, why such hostility for the Jews?
It’s important to note that the authors of the New Testament are Jewish revisionists, who were determined to open a reformed Judaism to the inclusion of Gentiles. These revisionist Jews believed that Jesus was the Messiah. They were still Jews. They went to the synagogue on Saturday to hear the scriptures and pray. On Sunday, they would meet to break bread, to celebrate the Eucharist.
The vast majority of Jews, who I will call the Orthodox / Traditional Jews, did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Why? Because they saw no sign of the Messianic age having dawned: no end to death, war, disease or poverty – all of which the Orthodox / Traditional Jews believed would happen when the Messiah came (Levine, Amy-Jill, “Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews: Avoiding Anti-Judaism at Easter, ABC Religion and Ethics, April 2015).
We must not forget that both parties were Jews. This is a family dispute between the Orthodox Jews and the Revisionist Jews. Not unlike the dispute between Fundamentalist and Progressive Christians. Over time, with an influx of gentiles, the Revisionist Jews began to loosen their own ties with Judaism. The Revisionist Jews allowed for Jews and Gentiles to eat together and intermarry. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Jews hardened along those same lines. Finally, in AD 90, around the time that the Gospel of John was written, a split occurred. A new religion called Christianity came into being. And John called the Jews the “children of the devil.” Yet, John was a Jew himself. Christianity emerged from the womb of Judaism.
The negativity toward the Orthodox / Traditional Jews, later simply called “the Jews”, would become a regular feature in Christian worship each Sunday. It would result in Christians forgetting not only their Jewish origins, but the Jewishness of Jesus as well. Thus, anti-semitism was born. (Spong, John Shelby, “Unmasking the Source of Christian Anti-Semitism – Part III” essay, May 26, 2004).
In the second and third centuries, the Founding Fathers of the Christian Church called Jews “evil, vermin and unclean people…unfit to live.” Christians were taught it was a virtue to hate Jews actively.
During the crusades in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries “killing infidels” became a “Christian Virtue.” Most crusaders never made it the Middle East so they were satisfied by killing infidels wherever they found them. Jews were the primary victims. In the 14th century, when the plague we call the “Black Death” swept across Europe, the popular cultural response was to blame the Jews who were said to have “poisoned the wells”.
During the Reformation, led by Martin Luther, the Jews fared no better. Luther himself was an anti-Semite calling for the burning of synagogues.
The “Great Depression” in the 1930’s was blamed on the Jews. Adolf Hitler rose to political power by identifying the Jews as the cause of all of Germany’s woes. This ultimately produced the Holocaust. Six million Jews perished. Last July, one of the few survivors of the Holocaust himself died – Elie Wiesel, who wrote his memoir entitled Night. One of the most painful books ever written. Elie Wiesel once said this, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (The Nobel Peace Prize speech, 1986). Significant words, for Christian silence and anti-semitism played a huge role in the Holocaust. Those who spoke out like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller, were so few that their names are still remembered. I did watch a documentary this week of a small Protestant village in France – 500 Christians who took in 500 Jews during the time of the Holocaust. Why? Because Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, to welcome the outcast. This documentary gave me hope in the midst of a pretty depressing week as I did research for today’s sermon. I found myself asking for forgiveness for the Christian faith for the atrocities it has committed over the years. I found myself praying “Forgive me” for those times when I am neutral, silent, playing it safe. We must always take sides, says Elie Wiesel.
In case we believe that Anti-semitism is a thing of the past, it is not. In fact, during this year alone, there have already been 135 threats against Jewish centers. Holy Week, with its focus on the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus, has been a traditional time for attacks on Jews, even in recent years. And with Holy Week and Passover around the corner, it is important that we spend time unpacking the Scripture passages that appear to pit “the Jews” against Jesus. As we continue to follow Jesus through the last week of his life, may we remember that this is a time for us to celebrate our Jewish roots. This is a time to locate Jesus and his earliest followers within Judaism, rather than over and against Judaism. This is a time to heed the words of Jesus, in our scripture passage this morning. Jesus says, “The first commandment is to love the Lord your God (the divine energy, the Spirit of the universe, whatever it is you call the “Sacred”, love this presence) with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There are no other commandments greater than these.”