Good Friday and John’s Use of “The Jews”

Every year as I prepare my Holy Week sermons, I listen to the soundtrack from “Schindler’s List.” With its moving violin parts, exquisite choruses sung in Hebrew, and haunting yet hopeful songs, the Oscar winning music written by John Williams and Itzhak Perlman reminds me of the horror that is possible in our world. That cruelty toward others is sometimes used in order to humiliate and dominate the marginalized. That power and hatred can coalesce, and senseless violence is the result. 

A sermon on The Passion of St. John.

This year I rewatched the film that graphically portrays the impact of unchecked fascism and anti-semitism during the Holocaust. Nazi officers indiscriminately shoot Jewish people. They kill because they can. It’s a result of how they’ve dehumanized Jewish people calling them vermin and rats, filthy animals who are not even human beings. The Nazis had no moral compass to guide them, though if asked most of them would consider themselves to be Christians.

The phrase “the Jews” appears 19 times in our Passion Reading from John, and 70 times in his Gospel. Most of the time, it’s used in place of the possible words “the religious and political leaders of the Jewish people living under Roman occupation,” but it’s also intentional. It’s both easier to say “the Jews,” and also significantly more harmful. What gets left out of course is that Jesus himself is a Jew, and, as I read this week, with his teachings and life “he was more a Reform rabbi than a Jew for Jesus.” Every single apostle and nearly 100% of Jesus’ first followers were also Jewish. Yet in John’s gospel, “the Jews” becomes vilified. And that vilification both there, and in the other gospel accounts, has led to all Jewish people being called “Christ-killers” throughout history. “Jewish deicide,” as it is called, has led to the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the killing of Jewish people during the Crusades, the expulsions of Jews from England, Spain, France and Portugal, and the Holocaust. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to Jesus’ own ethnic identity and blame the collective “Jews” for his death.

As we heard in the Passion tonight, the Jewish leaders wanted to put Jesus to death but couldn’t according to their laws, so they turned to Rome. Pilate goes to Jesus and asks “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Jesus tries to help us see the that this confrontation is really about spiritual kingdoms, but Pilate isn’t buying it. And neither do most of Jesus’ disciples in the centuries that follow.

When the gospels were written, followers of Jesus were a persecuted minority. The ones who were Jewish were often kicked out of synagogues. If they were Gentiles, they were under intense persecution from the Roman officials and were martyred in a myriad of ways. As a result, both the Jewish leaders and the Roman officials would not have been well regarded by the gospel writers or Jesus’ followers, and so they are portrayed negatively. And the pen, as they say, is mightier than the sword. 

That negativity and denigration has persisted for past two millennia. And sadly, anti-semitism is once more on the rise. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2022 had the highest reports of anti-semitic acts in the US since it started keeping records 44 years ago. There was an average of 10 incidents of harassment, vandalism, or assault against Jewish people every single day in our country, not including unreported acts. A significant percentage were the result of organized white supremacist activity, and, notably, bomb threats increased more than 10 fold over the previous year. Massachusetts—this presumed bastion of acceptance and diversity—had the sixth highest incident rate of any state. The first four on that list are the four biggest states by population, while Massachusetts is the 18th most populous. Our neighbors in this Commonwealth perpetrated more anti-semitic acts last year than 43 other states.

And here’s the truth: the Christian Church has done much to perpetuate acts of violence against Jewish people since its earliest days, all contrary to the teaching of Jesus. We heard him say it again last night that his disciples would be known by their love. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus declares from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus died not because of the Jews or the Romans, but for the deep love which exemplifies his kingdom. He died so that we could be restored in our relationship with God which our collective sin had ruptured. He came to bridge the gap in order to show the amazing power of love over violence and death. He came in order to offer life. To everyone. To the whole world. 

And yet when we hate, or when we do not speak up against hate perpetrated against others, we reject that message of love. We reject Jesus. Beloved ones, we cannot ignore the injustice that has been carried out against our Jewish friends and neighbors simply because of who they are, often being done in the name Christ. We cannot turn a blind eye to the rise in neo-Nazi groups both in our own country and around the globe that continue to spew hate. We cannot allow the cross of Christ to become once more a weapon against those who do not share our faith. If we really want to know who crucified Jesus, we would do well to remember the Holy Week anthem “Ah, Holy Jesus.” In it we sing this stanza, “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.”

Jesus’ kingdom is indeed not of this world. His way of sacrificial love, of offering peace, and healing the sick and giving hope to the broken hearted, all of it points to the abiding care God has for each and every human being. Jesus came to offer his life and to establish that kingdom where the first are last and the last are first. Where those who are refused a seat at the table are given the place of honor. Where the goats and sheep are separated simply based on what they did and did not do in Jesus’ name. Where the despised and hated are given comfort and solace.

As we once more come to the foot of that cross, let us reaffirm our commitment to stand up with love and respect for every human being. Let us work to end hatred perpetrated against any person, whether they worship God in the same way we do or not. Jesus died in order to establish that heavenly kingdom where God delights in all people, each of us created in God’s very image. Let us live faithfully as disciples of the one who died that all might have life. Let us see in his crucifixion, the call to put an end to violence and hatred, choosing instead to show his sacrificial love. Let us truly follow Jesus who died that all might fully live.

Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay 

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