It shouted out at me from the page in the worship bulletin this past Sunday. It was in bold print, and we recited it together. The verse. The fateful one. The 25th verse of the 27th chapter of Mathew’s gospel: “His [Jesus’] blood be upon us and on our children!”
I wonder if Matthew could have known in the middle of the first century what havoc, what tragedy, his inclusion of this verse in his gospel will cause, would he have simply omitted it? I dearly wish he had.
Matthew 27:25 has been called “the blood guilt text”. It’s been cited in every generation since by Christians as justification to continue to punish the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus.
We Christians will continue to hear other similar verses in our Holy Week services. Some of what we hear will be ironic since Jews celebrate their grand festival, Passover, this week as well.
The gospel of John, especially, has long provided anti-Semites with grist for the racist mill. There are 31 instances where John uses the word Ιουδαίοί, the Jews, in a hostile, if not provoking, sense. John lumps all Jewish groups of the time together, with no distinctions made between different parties and factions. The Jews were no more uniform then than they are today. There is some credibility, to be sure, in the suggestion among scholars that by the word “Jews”, John is referring to the religious leaders who worked together to present Jesus to Pilate for crucifixion. But when we hear potentially inflammatory verses from John’s gospel in the pew, it’s too easy to hear them as his ascribing to “the Jews” en masse the unjust death of Jesus.
Jews have been paying en masse with their lives for such an incorrect, if not willfully incorrect, interpretation of history. Though much of what I discovered was not entirely new to me, my research for my second novel (which will deal with the ambiguous fate of Jewish refugees in Finland before and during World War II) overwhelmed me with the crushing catalogue of instances of unthinking, spiteful violence against Jews by Christians throughout the centuries. (For the record: the treatment of Jews by the Finns was largely free of violence, but as those who read the book when it comes put will see, there were other issues.)
Of course, not all Christians have participated in such ruthless behavior against Jews. But more than we can count have been silent, (and therefore complicit, wouldn’t you say?) when many of their brothers were committing vindictive acts.
As a Lutheran Christian, I have to acknowledge, sadly and embarrassingly so, that the one for whom we are named, Martin Luther, had a shocking, merciless, difficult-to-read anti-Semitic streak. In his pamphlet, On the Jews and their Lies, he excoriates the Jews, particularly those who stubbornly refused to convert to Christianity, as “venomous beats, vipers, disgusting scum, devils incarnate.” He encourages the princes to engage in pogroms. “Let the magistrates burn their synagogues and let whatever escapes be covered with sand and mud. Let them be forced to work, and if this avails nothing, we will be compelled to expel them like dogs.” Sure, you can say that Luther was merely a product of a dark, particularly anti-Semitic age. But since some four centuries later, Adolf Hitler read Luther’s pamphlet and quoted from it, Luther’s harsh and bigoted words were a giant step forward on the road to the Holocaust.
We Christians need to be wise and judicious hearers of the Holy Week texts and thoughtful doers of the gospel of compassion and tolerance. We need to listen in a spirit of penitence for the anti-Semitic and other prejudicial elements of our heritage and a willingness to expose our hearts to God’s correction.
The ending of the Martin Luther story, by the way, is a good one. In his very last sermon before he died in 1546, he proclaimed, “We want to treat [the Jews] with Christian love and to pray for them. . .”
Pretty good advice for Holy Week.
Until next time, live each day to the fullest.
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