Holy Week centers Christians on the most important stories of our faith – the entrance, betrayal, denial, rejection, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in first century Jerusalem. It becomes a time to find oneself in the cheering crowd on Palm Sunday, as betrayers like Judas and deniers like Peter on Maundy Thursday. In Holy Week we discover that it is we who abandon him, mock him, and cry beneath his feet on Good Friday.
The coming joy of Easter is not a happy ending to a bedtime tale, but is God’s shocking surprise of new life and forgiveness that meets us in the participation of the death of Jesus.
Unfortunately, this perspective is not the only takeaway from this powerful story. A shameful memory of anti-Semitism and blaming our Jewish neighbors for the death of Jesus across the centuries has had a long and tragic history. Blame is not a Christian virtue. Repentance is. As we read and reread the passion narratives we should remember that it is we who killed Jesus, while pointing the finger of judgment on countless of innocent people on his behalf. May God have mercy on us all.
One of the ways Christians have justified this mistreatment of our Jewish neighbors comes from the Gospels themselves. John’s Gospel in particular is troubling because of the idiom he frequently used to describe Jesus’ opponents as “the Jews.” I have struggled a long time with John’s use of this phrase. I wish he never used those words. We tend to hear them differently after the horrors of the Holocaust that took place during World War II. A shooting rampage at a Jewish Center in Kansas City this week makes reading John’s Passion difficult. We hear his words “the Jews” not as shorthand for the religious leaders that found the ministry and teaching of Jesus challenging to their understanding and authority, but rather as an anti-Semitic slur we continue to perpetuate. To read John’s use of the phrase “the Jews” as representative of all Jewish people of all time including your neighbor down the street leads to dangerous places, and abhorrent actions which stand against everything Jesus said and taught. Remember the point in telling this story year after year is not to assign blame by answering “Who killed the Messiah?” as we point away from ourselves. The point is “so that you may believe” (John 20:31), from Good Friday to Easter Sunday and beyond.
The message of Jesus is powerful. One of the most important lessons is that whatever ethnicity, gender, background, status or other dividing line we see – all people are precious in God’s sight. Jesus said in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17). As people called to a ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21) and tearing down dividing walls between us (Ephesians 2:13-14) our mission is to bring people together, not drive them apart, threaten or blame. As people who are reminded to first see the sinfulness and brokenness in ourselves, we turn to the mercy of God we revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus. By faith we hope that our lives reflect the one whom we follow. We turn to God’s judgment and mercy because we so often do not.
In his later life, Martin Luther wrote one of the most unfortunate tracks of his career, “On the Jews and Their Lies.” (Here is a link to what I wrote about it: https://sinibaldo.wordpress.com/2012/04/04/against-luthers-on-the-jews-and-their-lies/.) In that tract, Luther advocates horrible things, such as burning property, banishing people from communities and other acts of violence. All Christians should repudiate these words and the trajectory of hate crimes they have caused. I am happy to report that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did that in 1994 (http://www.elca.org/Faith/Ecumenical-and-Inter-Religious-Relations/Inter-Religious-Relations/Jewish-Relations). We must all be on guard to the ease in which others are persecuted in the name of faith. We must not excuse Luther. He was wrong to say what he did. He should have remembered his own teaching about the Ten Commandments:
“First, we are forbidden to do our neighbors any injury or wrong in any way imaginable, whether by damaging, withholding, or interfering with their possessions and property. We are not even to consent or permit such a thing but are rather to avert and prevent it. In addition, we are commanded to promote and further our neighbor’s interests, and when they suffer any want, we are to help, share, and lend to both friend and foes.” (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert. [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], pp. 419-420.)
How are we to treat our Jewish neighbors? In short: Like neighbors who take care of their neighbors.
This is what Jesus teaches:
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:12-17)
I wish you a blessed, rich and fulfilling rest of Holy Week. As you listen and witness others asking “Who killed Jesus?” or assigning blame for our violent world, remind them what the story of Jesus is really about: God’s love for us all.