RESOLVING PAUL’S DILEMMA:
THE JEWISH JESUS: A WAY OPEN TO OTHER WAYS
Sermon – Aug 6, 2023
Readings: Isaiah 55: 1-5; Romans 9:1-5; Matt 14: 13-21
- (Two Roads Diverged)
- When I first read the readings for today and tried to decide what might be the topic of this homily, I felt a bit like Robert Frost in his oft-quoted poem:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both, …..
I took the one less-travelled by.”
- I image the more travelled road into today’s readings would be to focus on the first and third readings. As I said in my opening remarks, they deliver a powerful and needed message about a God who wants everyone to eat.
- But today I’m choosing the less travelled homiletic road and will be focusing on the reading from Paul. – And I’m doing that for two reasons:
- First of all, the problem that caused Paul to feel, as we heard, “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” concerning his people the Jews is still a problem today – for Christians, but more so, for Jews down through the centuries of Western history.
- But I’m also choosing to focus on this passage from Romans for a very personal reason. Just about a month ago a good friend of mine published a book dealing with the very issue that Paul was anguishing over.
- The book is titled Redeeming Jesus’ Name: Reflections of a Ninety-Year-Old Nun Living in Jerusalem. For the past nine years, I’ve been helping now 97-year-old Sr. Maureena Fritz, of the Sisters of Sion, to write this book.
- It’s really something like her last will and testament in which she calls on her fellow Christians to recognize more honestly and to resolve more effectively the problem that Paul raises in today’s reading.
- I should add that Sr. Maureena is presently on line and joining us in our liturgy from Jerusalem.
- (Paul’s sorrow and anguish)
- So, what was this problem that was causing Paul such sorrow and anguish?
- He was caught in a mind-bending, heart-rending dilemma between, on the one side, his conviction that this Jesus of Nazareth is the Christos, i.e. the anointed Messiah come to bring the covenant with the Jews to its fulfillment; and on the other side, he recognized the reality that the majority of his fellow- Jews were not accepting Jesus as their Messiah.
- Which seemed to mean that by rejecting God’s plan to fulfill God’s covenant with them, they were losing their covenant and their special relationship with God.
- But this what Paul could simply not accept. As deeply convinced as he was that Jesus was the Messiah, he was just as deeply convinced that God would never break God’s covenant with Israel. Later in Chapter 11, he expressly states that God’s covenant with the Jews is “irrevocable.” (11: 29)
- But he can’t solve this dilemma. After these opening verses of chapter 9, he goes on throughout chapters 10 and 11 exploring a tangle of ways in which he tries to solve this dilemma. But at the end of chapter 11, he gives up and declares it a mystery that only God can resolve: “How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways. For who has known the mind of God?” (11: 33-34) Not Paul.
- (The problem persists in later books of the NT – especially the Gospels.)
- As Sr. Maureena shows in her book, the dilemma that Paul, writing in the early 50’s, did not resolve and left to God, was, unfortunately, resolved by many of the authors of the Gospels, writing in the 70s and 80s or 90s.
- Throughout all four Gospels, but especially in Matthew and John, “the Jews” are, for the most part, presented as those who did not accept Jesus’ message and who were therefore to be “replaced” or “superseded” by Jesus’s followers – or to be more historically accurate, the Jewish Jesus followers (for in the beginning all “Christians” were Jews) were to replace the other Jews.
- We are so accustomed to hearing these put-downs of the Jews that are laced into many of the parables and stories of the Gospels that we are not aware of how they might be affecting us.
- For instance, in the parable of the vineyard, Matthew has Jesus announcing to the Jews: “I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matt: 21: 33-45)
- Luke closes the parable of the great wedding banquet with these words from Jesus: “I tell you, none of those who were invited (the Jews) will taste my dinner.” (Luke 14:24)
- And in the beautiful story in John’s Gospel, which we heard on Corpus Christi, in which Jesus presents himself as the Bread of Life, we may not have noticed the put-down of Jews when John has Jesus add: “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died…I am the living bread from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6: 49-51)
- And perhaps we don’t notice how all four Gospels, again especially Matthew and John, blame the death of Jesus on the Jews when he clearly died a political death, executed, like so many other Jewish rebels, by the Romans.
- Matthew has the Jewish crowd shout out: ”His blood be upon us and our children.” (27: 24-25). And then Matthew draws the consequences at the moment of Jesus’ death: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Matt 27: 5-51) The ancient temple , in tatters, was to be replaced.
- These many texts proclaiming, explicitly or implicitly, that God intended Christians to replace or supersede Jews would provide the foundation or justification for the anti-semitism that has so infected Western history in both Europe and the Americas.
- (What to do?)
- So what can we do? Are we still stuck on the horns of Paul’s dilemma?
- In her book, Sr. Maureena describes how, after the Nazi Holocaust made clear the horrifying extent to which antisemitism can lead, Christian churches began to try, as one theologian put it, “to now take up where Paul left off.” (Pawlikowski)
- Such efforts began in the Second Vatican Council. In its document on the Church’s attitude toward other religions (“Nostra Aetate”) the Council declared something that contradicted centuries of Christian doctrine: it stated that God’s covenant with the Jews is, as Paul said, irrevocable and so implied that the Jewish covenant should not be replaced by the Christian covenant.
- Theologians today therefore speak of two different but complementary covenants, the Jewish and the Christian…which makes Jews and Christians siblings, rather than rivals. – And of course this image of God’s many covenants is being extended to also include other religions.
- But to really solve Paul’s dilemma, Sr. Maureena urges something more and this is the most important piece of this homily. She calls on Christians to “redeem Jesus’ name,” and to do this by meeting and getting to know, again for the first time, the original Jewish Jesus.
- Jesus was an extraordinary Jewish prophet. And while he wanted, like all Jewish prophets, to challenge and reform his religion, it would have never entered his mind to replace it.
- His Jewish message was based on his experience – his mystical experience — that Jahweh, the God of Israel, was Abba – Father/Mother – a God of radical, enduring, unconfined love for all people.
- So Sr. Maureena calls on her fellow Christian to redeem Jesus’ name by reappropriating this Jewish Jesus as “a way open to other ways.” Notice, not the way but a way that is open to other ways.
- He is a way that gives his disciples a clear place to stand, which enables us to let others know that “we hold these truths.” But it is a way that is open to, respects, and is ready to learn from other ways.
- But Jesus as a way that is open to other ways is not only someone we understand; he is someone we can become. As St. Paul also taught, we Christians not only believe in Christ, we are to live in him and he in us; we are to share his mind, his Spirit; with him we are held in the unconfined Love he called God.
- This is what the Resurrection means: Jesus the Christ lives on in his followers.
- This is what we have the opportunity to feel and experience in our weekly Eucharist. In sharing this bread and wine, in retelling his story, this Jesus as the Christ lives on in us and as us, enabling us to follow his way that is open to other ways – open to our sibling Jewish brothers and sisters and to all followers of other religions.
- As we gather around this table now, may we feel the presence of this Christ-Spirit among us, may we allow him to live on in us, as a way open to other ways.