| ¨ Some of us may have been invited to a Sabbath eve meal, a Kabalat Shabbat or to a Passover Seder, but for most of us contemporary Judaism is something we know very little about. Why is that? ¨ Ricardo+|
A HOMILY FOR THE TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
August 17, 2014
¨Have you ever had a Jewish missionary knock on your door? Have you ever been given a leaflet encouraging you to visit a Jewish synagogue? Has anyone ever come up to you and told you how wonderful Judaism is and invited you to learn about it and to consider becoming a Jew? Many of us have Jewish friends.Well, Judaism as practiced by the so-called Orthodox Jews is consumed by details of the Law and the observance thereof. Non-believers are unclean and therefore intimate contact with them is to be avoided. They will not eat with us. There is much emphasis on the observance of purity codes such as those Jesus criticizes in our Gospel reading. If we have any experience of Judaism, it is usually of Conservative or Reform Judaism which is more relaxed and open to the world around it.
Was it always so? Well yes and no. If you listened carefully to the reading from Isaiah this morning you know that the Lord’s salvation includes gentiles. “And foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-these will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered”. This is a vision of a universal Judaism open to all. The Lord will bring his salvation to the nations, and gather them all to himself. This vision is at least 2500 years old.
The Psalm appointed for the day also takes up the theme of the universality of the knowledge and love of God that is a part of Judaism; “Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations…Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide all the nations upon earth”. God is more than a tribal God, more than a national God. He is a universal God. He is Lord over all. This is how Christians understand him, and this is why we have usually sought to bring other peoples to him.
In our reading from Isaiah and the Psalm this morning we see that within Judaism there is a universalism that is at variance with how it was practiced by some in Jesus’ time, and as it is observed by many today. This tension between the Jewishness of Judaism, and the universality of God was and still is a tension within Judaism. The question of whether legal impurity is important is what triggers Jesus’ parable about what goes into a person, and what comes out of a person. The Pharisees have questioned the fact that Jesus’ disciples eat without washing their hands. This is not a part of the Law, but is a tradition which for the Pharisees has the force of Law. But is it important? “No” says Jesus. The impurity that matters is moral impurity.
Food goes into a person through the mouth and travels through the digestive tract, and is eliminated as excrement. It does not make a person unclean. It is what comes out of a person’s mouth that defiles, for what comes out issues forth from the heart, and the heart is the seat of “evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander”. We are dominated by sin, Jesus says, and we must therefore seek regeneration through a change in our hearts. Whether we wash our hands before eating or not is not important. The rules and regulations of the Pharisees are not important. “They are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit”.
True love of God does not reside in hand washing, or in making the sign of the cross, or in genuflecting. True love of God begins with the offering to him of a contrite and broken heart, and what follows from there is his grace, his forgiveness, a new way of living and a new way of relating to others.
The next part of this morning’s Gospel reading fascinates me. It comes directly after Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees as to what is important in the observance of faith. Jesus has challenged the Pharisees as to what is important in faith, and now he himself is challenged by a Canaanite woman. Remember this: Jesus is man and God, but in this world he was, except for sin, human like you and me, Above all, he knew himself a Jew, sent to the Jews. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” he tells the disciples.
Jesus was a Jew of his time. He shared their prejudices. Canaanites were called dogs by the Jewish people of Israel. Dogs in Judaism are unclean animals. The Canaanites were unclean-dogs, in other words. Some translations of the Gospel soften Jesus’ words. The “puppies” is one stab at a softer translation. In Spanish “los perritos” is used to soften the harsh language. But realize that in Jewish eyes puppies weren´t cute and loveable either - they were just younger versions of an unclean animal. If it’s any consolation to you, if you are shocked by Jesus’ language, he is talking about house-dogs, allowed in the house, and possibly allowed under the table at mealtime.
The woman cries out to Jesus. She comes and kneels before him. “Lord, help me” she cries. The reply is harsh-“It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”, Jesus tells her. She is a brave woman, a woman of great faith. She accepts the insult but turns it back at Jesus-: “Yes Lord, yet even the dog’s eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table”. Yes, the main thrust of your mission may be to the children of Israel, but we dogs are entitled to crumbs of your mercy as well! This is what she is saying “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish” says Jesus. Her daughter is healed.
Did Jesus realize something from this encounter? Did he perhaps now understand that his mission went beyond the confines of the land of Israel? Didn’t he acknowledge the strength of the woman’s faith? Did he now see himself with a mission that transcended Judaism? I think so. Certainly the history of our faith follows a path from its Jewish origins towards an ever wider universalism.
Starting with Saint Paul’s mission to the gentiles, many of the more Jewish aspects of the new faith fell away. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E and the utter destruction of Jerusalem in 132, the ties of the followers of Jesus to Jerusalem were broken. The Jewish Christians resident in Jerusalem fell in the carnage of the two rebellions. The surviving followers of Jesus the Christ in Jerusalem were scattered, and would never again exercise authority like they had in the time of St. Paul.
But what of the Jews as a community of faith? Paul and his disciples usually began their preaching in a town at the synagogue. Sometimes their preaching was accepted, and sometimes they were expelled physically from the synagogues. Still the Judaism of Jesus’ and Paul’s time attracted many God-fearers, non-Jews who were impressed by the ethical content of Judaism and who found in its monotheism a Deity in whom they could believe, and who was worthy of worship. They would have welcomed a Judaism freed from its legalisms and its requirements like circumcision. Where the synagogues were hostile, then the believers often met at the houses of wealthy believers, many of whom were gentiles, and who sponsored the meetings out of their own funds. Over a period of half a century or more the followers of Jesus became increasingly differentiated from mainstream Jews, until the two streams came to be seen as different faiths. Still we cannot deny ever the Jewishness of our religious origins, the complete Jewishness of the Holy Family, of all the Apostles and each and every one of the Disciples. Consider again the Jewish consciousness of our Savior who, until confronted by a Canaanite woman, felt himself sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.
A number of books document the relationship between Christians and Jews over the centuries. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire the relationship can best be describe as one of recurring atrocities inflicted by Christians on Jews, and of the inward turning by the Jewish communities as they sought desperately to survive in hostile and often murderous social and political environments. I commend to you a book by Paul Johnson called A History of the Jews. It is impressive in its breadth, and often made me ashamed as I read it to call myself a Christian. So what about Jews? Are they still chosen by God, are they still under Covenant?
The words of Saint Paul express best what the attitude of every Christian should be towards Jewish believers: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”. Yes, they are in a state of disobedience, just as we are until we turn to Jesus. But the Covenants are not revoked, and their election as God’s chosen people remains. If now they are in a state of disobedience, it is so that they may receive mercy. “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all”. Amen
The Rev. Ricardo Frohmader
The Rev. Ricardo Frohmader
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