How to Avoid Anti-Jewish Preaching

"Sammlung Braginsky Megillah2" by Fred Schaerli

“Sammlung Braginsky Megillah2” by Fred Schaerli

This article originally appeared at Ministry Matters.

“Don’t preach something that gets my kids bullied on the bus.” That’s what our guest lecturer, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, said to our preaching class over a decade ago. I’ve never forgotten her admonishment.

That’s not to say that I’ve always lived up to it. As a preacher, I will confess that I’ve uncritically repeated anti-Jewish ideas in sermons and writing without ever realizing they were anti-Jewish. It’s too easy to equate Pharisees with legalistic or hypocritical Christians. It’s too simple to buy into the theology that Jesus represented grace while Judaism represented law, that Jesus replaced an oppressive “Old Covenant” with a freeing “New Covenant,” substituting a relationship for rules.

It’s easy to portray Judaism as a religion obsessed with ritual purity—ignoring that the usual consequence for ritual impurity is simply not going to temple. As Dr. Levine told our class, “Being ritually unclean was generally not a big deal—most people were probably unclean most of the time.” Being ritually impure is an important part of life. Although handling a corpse might make you ritually unclean, burying an unburied body is an ethical imperative and an act of love. Having sex or menstruating might make people unclean, but it is a necessary part of being fruitful and multiplying. Judaism did not consider ritual impurity a sinful state! It was simply part of life. Conversely, one could be a jerk, fail to do justice and righteousness, and still go to worship—just as Christians do today.

Another version of this anti-Judaism says Jesus’ culture was patriarchal, but Jesus was a feminist, that first-century Jews were obsessed with money and privilege but Jesus, radical that he was, showed love to the poor and marginalized.

We often assume that for the Christian narrative to work, we have to make Jesus opposed to his own religion. Instead of locating him firmly within Jewish tradition, we make him an Other. The gospels themselves make it easy to do so: we read Jesus’ polemic against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, or about how “the Jews” rejected Jesus in John. Historically, it’s just as accurate to say that the early church rejected Judaism!

Dr. Levine’s recent book, Short Stories by Jesus, not only examines Jesus’ parables by placing them in a Jewish context, but also reviews some of the ways anti-Judaism gets perpetuated in Christian books, periodicals, and commentaries. Christians often rush to make parables clear-cut allegories with heroes and villains, to extract a tidy preachable moral from each story. Even when we take the view that parables are meant to unsettle, rather than simplify, we have very particular views about who is meant to be unsettled. As Levine says, “Clergy actually do think they are presenting a challenging message when in fact they are, unintentionally, repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes” (p. 20).

In the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8), for example, we usually read with the assumption that the widow is a victim in need of rescue. Christian preachers often claim that in her first-century Jewish setting, she had no rights and was doomed to a life of poverty. Levine’s close linguistic reading of the text reveals that the widow is a dangerous woman: she desires revenge on an enemy, and the judge is afraid she will punch him the face!

Levine also gives us a view of biblical widowhood that is at odds with our usual reading of helpless victims in need of rescue. Although the Bible is full of admonitions to care for widows, and although biblical authors talk of society’s obligations to widows, widows clearly could own property—otherwise, why would villains be after their houses (Luke 20:46-47)? If they were helpless, why would Paul feel they needed to be regulated (1 Timothy 5)? In Jewish tradition, women without husbands are often strong protagonists who act decisively, like Judith, Ruth, Tamar (Genesis 38), and the Widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17).

It is not only our characterization of heroes and villains that reveal our anti-Jewish tendencies. When we describe Jesus’ audience as being offended by the lavish love of the prodigal Father, or indifferent to the suffering of Lazarus, or scandalized by a woman hiding leaven in bread, we reinforce the idea that his listening Jewish audience embodied everything wrong with us. (These are also sloppy readings of scripture, often contradicted by evidence in the story itself). By extension, we make Judaism into a broken religion in need of correction—a correction that can only happen through Jesus.

We don’t need to call Jews “Christ-killers” to promote anti-Judaism. Both conservative and liberal Christians, liberation theologians and evangelicals express this kind of anti-Judaism. It is perpetuated by Christians on both sides of the modern Israeli/Palestinian debate. It is deeply rooted in our Christian rhetoric. It means Christians in the pews seldom receive an accurate picture of either historical or modern Judaism, and that Jewish kids get bullied.

Here are some ways to avoid expressing anti-Judaism in our preaching:

  1. Refer to the “Hebrew Bible” instead of the “Old Testament.”
  2. Remember that most of what Jesus said about Pharisees and Jews of his day can be applied to committed religious people in any time and place. When Jesus talks about “Pharisees,” he often means it the same way that I mean “Christians” when I use it in this article—as a critique of a group to which we belong.
  3. Be careful about referring to “what Jews believe(d) or practice(d).” It’s often more accurate to say “some Jews.” Remember that like Christianity, Judaism has never been homogenous or monolithic. There are multiple ways of reading, interpreting, and living out Torah. In Jesus’ day there were at least four major Jewish factions, and even within those factions, people disagreed.
  4. Remember that real live Jewish people exist in your community. Christians often talk about Judaism as if it is in the past, or somewhere over in the modern state of Israel, and that it stopped developing 2000 years ago. Learn about contemporary Judaism in your own community.
  5. Take every opportunity to show how Jesus’ message echoes the major themes of the Hebrew Bible. Jesus did not invent concern for people at the margins, nor did he introduce an entirely new understanding of grace and sin. Connect what Jesus said to other Jews who lived around his time period, like Hillel, who said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to another.”
  6. Avoid attributing legalism, violence, or other negative qualities to the Jewish faith or the Hebrew Bible. It is not the case that Jews of the first century, or today, believe in stoning adulterers or disobedient children. Christians often assert that our “New Covenant” supplanted the Old. But Jewish parents love their kids, spouses, and neighbors just the way Christians do—imperfectly, passionately, and with a measure of grace. Jews manage to avoid stoning adulterers and disobedient children because they have a mature and nuanced understanding of how the Bible should guide their lives.

We do make definitive and distinctive claims about the person and character of Christ, and Christians have a unique theology of incarnation, atonement, and salvation. We do not need to stop lifting up the name of Jesus. But we need to learn to do so without denigrating—or making exotic—Jesus’ own faith.

“Don’t preach something that gets my kids bullied on the bus.” It’s a good principle for preachers to remember.

For further reading: 

The Jewish Annotated New Testament Ed. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler

The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine

The Jew Named Jesus by Rebekah Simon-Peter

Anti-Judaism in Christian Teaching and Preaching by Matt Skinner

6 Ways to Avoid Unintentional Anti-Judaism by William F. Brosend

Preaching Without Contempt: Overcoming Unintentional Anti-Judaism by Marilyn Salmon

Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Nicolas Poussin, from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.

My Favorite Biblical Errors: Ezekiel

Ezekiel 37

Usually, people who claim that they read the Bible literally also claim that the Bible contains no errors. Yet one of the reasons I so admire the Bible and consider it authoritative is that it dutifully records its own errors.

One of my favorites is the prophecy of Ezekiel against Tyre in chapters 26 through 29. For three whole chapters, Ezekiel rails against the city of Tyre. Since he believes that the army of Babylon is God’s chosen instrument of wrath against Jerusalem, he is excited to see it lay siege to Tyre.

(When you read this, you have to imagine Samuel L. Jackson’s voice.)

They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down its towers. I will scrape its soil from it and make it a bare rock.  It shall become, in the midst of the sea, a place for spreading nets. I have spoken, says the Lord God. It shall become plunder for the nations, and its daughter-towns in the country shall be killed by the sword. Then they shall know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 26:4-6)

As I said, for three whole chapters this goes on, with Ezekiel relishing his poetic destruction of the city.

Only one problem: It didn’t happen. Babylon laid siege to the city for three years, but you can’t successfully lay siege to a seaport. I imagine the guards on the walls of Tyre yelling down to the Babylonian tents, “Hey, guys! We’re having a fish fry today! Can you smell it? Oh, hey, what are you having for dinner? Aww, thin gruel again? So sad!”

At the end of three years, the army gave up. So, naturally, Ezekiel went back and tore up his manuscript, right? Or maybe he wrote, “Oops, my bad.”

Nope. He just turned his attention to Egypt!

Mortal, King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon made his army labour hard against Tyre; every head was made bald and every shoulder was rubbed bare; yet neither he nor his army got anything from Tyre to pay for the labour that he had expended against it. Therefore, thus says the Lord God: I will give the land of Egypt to King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon; and he shall carry off its wealth and despoil it and plunder it; and it shall be the wages for his army. I have given him the land of Egypt as his payment for which he laboured, because they worked for me, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 29:18-20)

Nice save, Ezekiel! So, naturally, Babylon conquered Egypt, right?

Nope again.

My favorite theory is that Ezekiel became the model for the story of Jonah, which was written to be read not literally, but as a satire of the hellfire and brimstone prophets. Jonah is a frustrated prophet who fumes when God fails to destroy Israel’s enemies. In contrast to Ezekiel’s logorrhea, Jonah just stomps part way into the city, utters one line, turns around and stomps out. He wants so much to see the bad guys punished that he wraps himself in his own private hell of resentment and bitterness. God, in contrast, can’t bear the thought of hurting the children or even the cattle (Jonah 4).

There is a dialogue going on in the pages of the Bible, where competing theologies are trying to describe God’s history with God’s people. I don’t deny that there are authors who believed that God would punish cities by starving their populace, so that families would be torn apart, people raped and sold into slavery (Deuteronomy 28:30-34), and parents would be forced to cannibalize their own children (verses 54-57). Job, Jonah, and Ruth (among others) critique that theological view. And for Christians, Jesus is the final repudiation of that theology (Matthew 5:43, John 9:3, Luke 13:4, Mark 15:34). Good and bad things happen to people not as God’s rewards or punishments, but because stuff happens. What God makes out of it, and us, is where grace happens.

Anti-religious detractors like to point out these errors and blood and guts passages in order to portray believers as foolish or barbaric, but for me, these errors are awesome. The editors and compilers could have edited out Ezekiel’s mistakes, but they didn’t. They could have harmonized the gospels, the creation stories, and the histories of the monarchy, but they didn’t. The Bible is not a monologue—it is a dialogue. To me, that’s what makes it believable. What’s even more cool is that we are invited to participate in the dialogue, which doesn’t end even when you close the book and the people say Amen.

This Sunday, the sermon topic at Saint Junia’s preview service will be on the Two Creation Stories (Genesis 1-3). I’ll be sharing why it’s perfectly reasonable for Christians to believe in evolution, considering that we already have more than one creation story in the Bible. Come join the dialogue!

Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees

Simon the Zealot

In my last post I mentioned that there were at least four political groups of homeland Jews in Jesus’s day: Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, and Sadducees. I think modern Christians could learn a bit about their own politics from each of these groups. At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a thumbnail sketch of each group:

  • Zealots believed in the overthrow of the Roman Empire. They would not tolerate pagan idols and practices in their land. God would bring about the Kingdom with their help.
  • Essenes believed in withdrawing from the corrupt Temple system and the Empire. They would live holy lives in an alternative world until God brought about the Kingdom without their help.
  • Pharisees believed in radical personal holiness. They believed in internalizing their religious law, and that God would give punishment and reward in the afterlife.
  • Sadducees believed in the establishment. They made peace with Rome and focused on religious ritual. They believed divine punishment and reward happen in this life.

Rather than thinking of the world in terms of liberal and conservative, I like thinking about how Christians of various kinds fall into similar groupings. For example, Zealots are those social activists who are passionately committed to political action. Essenes react negatively to Zealots, warning them against putting their faith in politics.

There were also polarized parties in the early church. While we often love to talk about the unity of Acts 2, when believers were “all of one mind,” I think Luke’s depiction of the church is a bit more rosy than other evidence indicates. There were disagreements between Greek and Hebrew Jewish Christians. They fought over gender equality. They fought over food regulations. They fought over circumcision. They fought over how literally to understand resurrection. They fought over who was in charge. Of course, the most sanctimonious ones claimed they simply followed Christ.

They struggled to figure out how to deal with slavery, classism, and their relationship to a pagan government. Sound familiar? Of course, Paul’s words to the Corinthians give disputing groups some guidance on how to treat each other. Basically, if you can’t be loving, at least be civil! And while he acknowledges that some members may be jerks (what he called “body parts you do not display in public“), they may also play an essential function.

I believe our contemporary polarization is not some aberration from the ideal early church, but entirely consistent with the action of the Holy Spirit within a group of highly committed political and religious people. In any given conflict, there will be winners and losers, as there were from the debates before, and the terms of debate will shift, and we’ll be arguing about something else fifty years hence. But if we don’t look at the history of these disputes, and only focus on the rosy picture of church unity in Acts, we will never really ask, or learn, or care what God is doing, right now, in the midst of this debate. How has God acted before? Where would you have stood in the circumcision debate? In the food-sacrificed-to-idols debate? In the women-in-leadership debate? In the prohibition debate? In the civil rights debate? Are your religious and political attitudes closer to the Pharisees, the Essenes, the Zealots, or the Sadducees? We’re really good at finding prooftexts for our own beliefs in scripture. Can we also find examples of how to talk about those beliefs?