The readings for today, the second Sunday in Advent, call us to attend to the relationship between Christians, Jews and Judaism.
While perhaps not as loaded as Holy Week, Advent and Christmas raise these questions too: do we think Jesus fulfilled Judaism, completely and finally? If so, do we see Jews as irrelevant, spiritually extinct? And if we don’t think that: Are we using language in church that suggests that we do?
These questions matter. The consequences range from the kind of causal Christian cultural supremacy that results in public school classrooms being decorated for Christmas – to the kind of violence that means synagogues routinely hire armed guards to watch their doors during worship. And that my rabbi colleagues are still tending to the pastoral needs of families shattered across generations by the experience of the Holocaust.
Today each of our Scripture readings raise questions of how Christians think about Judaism – in three different ways. We’ll start with our Gospel reading, from Matthew.
In our 3 year cycle of Sunday Scripture readings, which we share with many churches, we have readings from one primary gospel each year – with chunks of John, the fourth gospel, scattered all around. We just started a new church year on the first Sunday in Advent, last week; and our gospel for this year is Matthew.
Let me confess right now: Matthew is my least favorite Gospel – in part because of his often violent and frightening language.
Why is Matthew like this? About thirty years after Jesus’ death, in the year 66, some of the Jews of Judea began to rebel against Roman colonial rule. The rebels never really had a chance against Rome’s military might, and the revolt quickly turned bloody. Rome crushed the rebels and burned Jerusalem. The Great Temple was destroyed. Many people died; many lost everything.
This earth-shaking event profoundly shaped both Christianity and Judaism, from that moment onward. All the Gospels are marked by it – but perhaps Matthew most of all. His Gospel text boils over at times with his grief and rage. He seems to blame the Jewish leadership for what happened – feeling that it’s their rejection of Jesus that brought down this destruction, rather than the predictable eruption of the tensions inherent in colonial rule always and everywhere.
Turning to today’s passage: Matthew introduces John the Baptist. The Gospels are pretty consistent in their picture of John: A preacher who separated himself from society to live in the wilderness, wearing simple clothes he made himself and eating what he could find, and proclaiming that people need to change their hearts and their lives and turn back towards God and God’s ways – and to be baptized, a ritual washing, in the Jordan River.
To all that, Matthew adds this angry speech against the Pharisees and the Sadducees. We know this is Matthew, because later, in chapter 12 and again in chapter 23, Matthew’s Jesus says almost the exact same thing, calling groups of Pharisees and Sadducees “brood of vipers” and yelling at them: “How can you speak good things, when you are evil?” And “how can you escape being sentenced to hell?” Those passages are NOT echoed in the other Gospels.
Who were the Pharisees and the Sadducees? The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism at the time of Jesus, focused primarily on the common people. The Sadducees were an elite and privileged group who more or less ran the Great Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees and Sadducees would not have been natural friends; I suspect it’s Matthew throwing them together as enemies of Christianity in his eyes.
Far too much of Matthew’s hatred of these groups seeped into Christianity as a general suspicion and hatred towards Jews – which in turn has spawned unimaginable violence. I read this passage with pain and repentance.
It’s ours, but it’s not comfortable, and it shouldn’t be.
Then there’s our Epistle – a portion of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, written in the late 50s. Paul is writing here to the Christians of Rome, who included both Jewish and non-Jewish Christians, and he’s trying to help them respect one another and get along.
Before he became a Christian, Paul was not just any Jew. He had studied Jewish texts and scholarship deeply. He had become a Pharisee, a member of that reform movement that sought to spread more active and heartfelt Jewish practice among the folk of Judea. He was an up and coming young Jewish leader, when Jesus called his name and changed his life on the road to Damascus.
Scholars have wondered, over the centuries, what to make of the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen, as we learn in the book of Acts. Maybe one of his parents was a Roman. Maybe his family was gifted citizenship, a major privilege, as thanks for service to the Empire.
Either way, perhaps young Paul threw himself into his Jewish faith as a way to resolve the tensions of divided allegiances, of having ties to both subjects and empire. And perhaps it’s by growing up both Roman and Jew that Paul learned some of the skills of both/and living. Of holding ambiguities within yourself; of finding the value in different worlds and ways – even when they seem at odds.
That’s the wisdom that Paul brings to this letter to the church in Rome, as he urges Jewish and non-Jewish Christians to welcome one another just as Christ has welcomed them. In today’s passage, he is trying to help the Jewish members of the Roman church see that it’s right and joyful! for God’s saving work to extend to non-Jews – without their having to first convert to Judaism. He quotes a series of texts from the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, that mention God’s intentions to also bring Gentiles – the nations, the goyim – into God’s saving purposes.
A few chapters earlier he was urging Gentiles, in turn, to feel humbled and grateful for being grafted onto the living tree of God’s covenant people, the Jews.
He concludes this passage with this beautiful prayer for the Roman Christian community in its diversity: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Paul is dealing here specifically with Jews who have become Christian, like himself. But Paul’s attitude towards Judaism is nuanced and interesting. He knows that he was called to something different – something more; but he honors the beauty and integrity of what he came from. He’d like other Jews to become Christians too, but I think he’d also like to see Christianity stay pretty Jewish.
It’s complicated! But I do think a truly Pauline Christianity would have a much more open and humble heart towards Judaism than historical Christianity has had.
For Matthew, Christianity fulfills Jewish faith – and leaves Jews behind. For Paul, it’s less clear: he loves his Jewish heritage and kin, but feels called to a new way of faith beyond Judaism.
Who’s right about God and salvation: Jews or Christians? What if it’s not up to us to decide – or even to know?
One of the texts Paul quotes is today’s Isaiah passage: “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”
Back in Lent of this past year, Father Tom McAlpine led us in a study of how Christians read the book of Isaiah. We were looking specifically at a set of texts from much later in Isaiah, known as the Suffering Servant songs. Today’s passage is somewhat different – focusing on a wise and righteous leader who will bring peace to God’s people – but it raises similar questions.
Historically, the prophet Isaiah and his eighth-century-before-Christ audience probably thought this prophecy was about King Hezekiah of Judah. Hezekiah was a young king who called his people back to exclusive and faithful worship of God. But it’s the nature of prophetic language not to be fulfilled or exhausted by any given historical figure or event. Hezekiah did big things – but his reign did not usher in a cosmic realm of peace. It’s possible to see elements of a prophecy fulfilled, while other parts still hang in the air, waiting and shining.
This text is here, in our Advent lectionary, because Christians have assumed for millennia that it’s about Jesus. That he is the “shoot of Jesse” – meaning, a descendant of Israel’s great king David, whose father was named Jesse.
Now, Matthew and Luke both make a point of the fact that Jesus is born into a family with links to King David. But listen: David lived in Judea a thousand years before Jesus. And he had a lot of kids. By sheer dint of math and time, a heck of a lot of Judeans could have claimed Davidic ancestry by the time Jesus was born.
It’s so, so hard for us not to read these Old Testament texts backwards from Christianity, as as inevitably and exclusively pointing to Jesus. In Father Tom’s class we kept tripping over that, how deeply-seated our impulse was to read these texts and think: “Well, this is obviously about Jesus; how could it not be? What else could it possibly mean?”
Texts from the Old Testament, and especially from Isaiah, shaped the language and hopes of the Jewish people for centuries. The way they thought and spoke about a coming Messiah, a holy leader sent by God to save and restore God’s people. And these texts likewise shaped the ideas and language of the first Christians, especially those steeped in the Hebrew Bible – like Matthew, like Paul. They used Isaiah and other Hebrew Scriptures to help them make sense of what they had experienced in Jesus’ life and ministry, and in his death and resurrection.
We think we recognize Jesus in these Old Testament texts because how Christians think and talk about Jesus has been shaped by these Old Testament texts, literally from day one.
I would rather say that everybody’s right than that everybody’s wrong. And I think that’s more faithful to the mystery of how holy texts can speak and speak again in new times and places.
This passage is about Hezekiah and it’s about Jesus and it’s about the promised Messiah whom our Jewish siblings still await and it’s about the second coming of Christ that we still await.
What passages like this tell us about God’s purposes for Israel and for the world can help us understand the person and work of Jesus. We can rightly treasure these texts as Christians. But we need to hold them carefully, with an awareness that they don’t only belong to us.
At the Beth Israel Center across town, when my friend Betsy’s congregation opens the ark where the scrolls of Scripture are kept, and take out the scroll of the Nevi’im, the Prophets, and remove its silver end caps and its embroidered velvet cover and unroll it on the altar and chant it aloud in Hebrew – Isaiah’s words resonate differently in that space than they do here.
Not entirely differently, to be sure. But importantly differently. And some of the difference is history and humanity – and some of it is holiness and mystery.
It’s important for Christians to grapple with the anti-Judaism embedded in our history, our texts, our practices. Good citizenship and good ally-ship are part of our call to love our neighbors and serve the common good.
But for me there’s something more here too – something a little hard to put my finger on, but I’ll try.
I find a sense of joy and freedom and possibility in the idea that God’s saving purposes are bigger and broader and honestly messier than any human mapping. We can’t pin down the meanings of ancient prophecy, or the mechanics of salvation, to fit within our categories of belonging and belief, doctrine and truth.
This is one of the fundamental themes of Advent: The God who came among us as Jesus of Nazareth is coming again.
We are people of expectation.
People called to expect mystery.
To expect disruption.
To expect redemption.
To expect, someday, whether in this world or the next, to come face to face with the Living One who both fulfills and transcends all our scriptures and theologies.
May it be so. Come, Lord Jesus.