Although today’s service begins with what seems a celebration – waving palms and singing praises to God – it is in fact an overture to the days ahead for Jesus and his friends – ominous days of pending betrayal, pain, suffering, and finally death. Holy Week, prophecy historicized and composed into the form of a seven-day narrative, is also called the Passion.
We have a ceramic sculpture here today created by Virginia Leonard. When Virginia was in her 20s, staying in London, she suffered an accident to her leg that, due to various complications, resulted in a long-term stay in hospital, firstly in London then later in New Zealand. A number of her ceramic pieces are reflections upon that formative time and experiences of suffering.
This piece has two titles. The first is “How Many Bricks Does It Take to Hold My Foot Up”. This refers to her time in traction in London and the experience of her doctors overlooking her foot and forgetting to have it propped up, and so the tendons stretched so much over that time that the foot became paralysed.
The other title for this piece is “Damascus”. This is a reference to the city of Damascus and the horrendous and ongoing suffering of the Syrian people. One of the insights that can be gained from spending a long time in hospital is that there are people who are suffering far worse than you. As Virginia said about Syria: “it made my issues pale into insignificance.”
So, this piece of art has a personal particularly about it and also an other-centred universality about it.
The second reading today is from St John’s Passion when Jesus is brought before Pilate. For those of us raised in the church this scene is so familiar: Pilate, portrayed as the weak representative of the Roman Empire being brow-beaten by the Jewish “chief priests” and the Jewish crowd. Pilate isn’t culpable, instead ‘the Jews’ are. Indeed, St Matthew’s Passion includes the words ascribed to the Jewish crowd “His blood be on us, and on our children”.[i]
To a greater or lesser extent all the canonical gospels shifted the blame for the crucifixion from the Roman authorities to “the Jews”, and in doing so opened the door wide for centuries of unbelievable prejudice, bigotry, hatred, and suffering to be meted out by Christians upon Jews. When Jesus allegedly knew his life was drawing to a close, he did not instruct his followers to seek out people to blame for his upcoming death; and yet that is what many Christians have done.
Instead of seeing the particularity of Jesus’ suffering and grief of his friends as an opportunity to open the door wide to empathize and stand in universal solidarity with others who are suffering and grieving, we have used it time and again to feed our fears of, and suspicion towards, the strange and strangers, those who don’t believe, look, or act like we do.
For centuries, Holy Week was a time of fear for Jews. It was thought to be perfectly acceptable for Christians to continue to punish the “Christ killers”. Three brief examples:
In the Cathedral of Toulouse from the 9th to the 11th century a Jew was brought in each year during Holy Week and given a symbolic blow.
Rabbi Daniel Landes grew up on Chicago’s South Side in the late 1950s and remembers his beatings on Good Friday. The same boys he played football with the rest of the year would hurl taunts on Good Friday calling him a dirty Jew. They accused him of crucifying their Lord. Then they kicked out one of his teeth.
In Coita, a small town in Mexico, locals spend the middle of their Holy Week making Jewish effigies — a reference to Judas Iscariot. These effigies are then displayed for three days in different parts of the town, serving as an example of poor conduct. They’re ultimately paraded through the streets and set on fire on Easter day itself.[ii]
So, every year at this time there is a lurking difficulty for us Christians, namely how can a gospel of love be proclaimed if that same gospel is heard to promote hatred of Jesus's own people?
The charge against "the Jews" permeates the pages of the New Testament. Perhaps this vilification was inevitable. Jesus's followers could not understand how the vast majority of Jews could not accept their belief in him as the Messiah. The majority of Jews, in turn, saw no sign of the Messianic age having dawned: no general resurrection of the dead; no ingathering of the exiles to Zion; no end to death, war, disease, or poverty. What was self-evident to one group was incomprehensible to the other. Incomprehension turned to mistrust, and mistrust to vilification.
Today, interfaith conversation, in which Jews and Christians learn to appreciate their common roots and better understand the reasons for the gradual and often painful separation, can reverse the process. But we still have to deal with our pasts, and with our Scriptures. Every time the Passion narratives are read, the threat of anti-Judaism reappears. There is no catch-all for resolving the problems in the New Testament. But there are strategies. Here are six, that the Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine suggests[iii], in order of usefulness:
Firstly, excise - take a pair of scissors to the text. That might sound extreme. But consider 1 Thessalonians 2:14b-16 which scholars commonly argue that Paul did not write -.[iv] The offensive passage has been inserted at a later time and thus can be de-inserted without harming the rhetorical flow.
Similarly, many scholars argue that Jesus' invectives in the Gospels stem not from him but from the later church in competition with local synagogues.
Comforting as such arguments may be, they are based on hypothesis, not fact. Paul may well have changed his mind; Jesus and Paul would not be the first Jews critical of fellow Jews.
Secondly, retranslate. For example, some translations read John's Gospel as condemning not "Jews" but "leaders" or "religious leaders".
Such translations are well-meaning, but to replace the New Testament's "Jews" by other terms is to have a text "purified" of Jews. Such retranslation obscures part of the reason why Jews have been persecuted over 2,000 years, and divorces Jews from Jesus and his earliest followers.
Thirdly, romanticize. It is common to hear preachers say, in response to "Who killed Jesus?" that we, humanity, did. The problem, however, is that those who see themselves as "Jews" on Good Friday then see themselves as redeemed "Christians" on Sunday morning. Where does that leave Jews who wish to remain Jewish?
The same romantic approach today is exemplified in the celebration of the Passover seder in some churches on Maundy Thursday. While there are educational benefits to introducing Christians to Jewish ritual, holding the seder in churches is not a good idea in times of both historical consistency or interfaith sensitivity.[v]
The fourth option is to allegorize: to say that the text really doesn't mean what it says. For example, we take Matthew's “His blood be on us” not as a self-curse, but as a plea for redemption: the people are ironically asking to be redeemed by Jesus's blood.
While this approach might absolve the verse theologically, it also suggests that the Jewish crowd wanted and needed this redemption. The move turns Jews into crypto-Christians.
The fifth approach, historicize, provides historical rationale and often justification, for the problematic statements. For example, we claim that Matthew is a Jew writing for a Jewish community; therefore, his words cannot be anti-Jewish - as if Jews cannot be anti-Jewish.
Similarly, we note the historical unlikelihood of "all the people" saying, "his blood be on us and on our children" - that all Jews would say the same thing, ever, is a tad unlikely. Therefore, so the argument goes, since the people never said the line, we can ignore it.
Another variation on the historicizing approach is to claim that the anti-Jewish language is reactionary: invective would be quite natural from the pen of those excommunicated from the synagogue. The problem here is, first, that we have no evidence, other than John's attestation[vi] of synagogues tossing people out. Secondly if some synagogues did expel Jesus' followers they may have had good reason. Finally, if we define this polemic as reactionary, again we blame the Jews for the problem.
Finding the history behind the text can help. But we still have to address what the New Testament actually says.
We come finally to our sixth option: admit to the problem and deal with it.
Preachers might imagine a Jewish child sitting in the front pew and take heed: don't say anything that would hurt this child, and don't say anything that would cause a member of the congregation to hurt this child. Better still: educate the next generation, so that when they hear the problematic words proclaimed, they have multiple contexts - theological, historical, ethical - by which to understand them.
Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when in slavery in Egypt, should hate Egyptians.
We choose how to read. After two thousand years of enmity, Jews and Christians today can recover and even celebrate our common past, locate Jesus and his earliest followers within rather than over and against Judaism, and live into the time when, as both synagogue and church proclaim, we can love God and neighbour.
Jews have been treated terribly by Christians. And, it is the Passion story, and this holy week, that has been used to inspire and fan the flames of hatred and persecution.
So, as we remember the suffering of Jesus, the suffering of his friends, and seek understanding about our own suffering, let us also remember the suffering of others and the suffering we have implicitly or explicitly been a part of.
[i] Matthew 27:25.
[iii] In this part of the sermon I have drawn extensively on Levine’s work: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2015/04/02/4210266.htm
[iv] This passage is inconsistent with Paul’s positive comments about Jews – such as Romans 9:4-5; 11:28b-29.
[v] Amy-Jill Levine gives the following reasons why Christians should not hold a seder on Maundy Thursday:
It is not clear that the Last Supper was a Passover meal; it is not, in John's Gospel, which at this point has better claims to historicity.
The seder is a rabbinic invention which then developed over the centuries; Jesus did not eat matzoh ball soup or gefilte fish, sing Dayenu, or say "next year in Jerusalem" - for Jesus, the seder would have consisted of a lamb sacrificed in the Temple and eaten in Jerusalem.
The Passover at the time of Jesus was limited to Jews, because one needed to say, "My ancestors came forth out of Egypt."
In John's Gospel, Jesus is the Passover offering, crucified at the time the lambs are sacrificed in the temple, so for the church to celebrate a seder would be theologically retrograde.
[vi] John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2.