By Bishop Mike Rinehart

The Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations is working on a guide for preaching and teaching with love and respect for the Jewish people. It’s nearly done, but not quite in time for Holy Week 2022. The draft is not yet public, so perhaps it would be helpful to raise a few helpful points in preaching Holy Week.

One of the things about which we must be careful are stereotypical binaries. Many of us grew up with these concepts either explicitly or implicitly. If Jesus is the light, sometimes Jews are depicted as being in darkness. Even the hint of such things betrays an unexplored understanding of the Jewishness of Paul and Jesus.

Another binary is that Christian are all about grace, while Jews are all about law. One of my Old Testament professors, Ron Hals wrote an excellent book called Grace and Faith in the Old Testament. He reminds us that Judaism is all about God’s grace. Additionally, we all have heard plenty of law from fire and brimstone sermons.

We often hear Jesus challenging the Pharisees, and so we assume they are his enemies. In fact, Jesus is fairly well aligned with the Pharisees, which may be why he leans on them so heavily. It is also important to know that sectarian Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes) make up only a small fraction of first century Jews. The vast majority of Jews are not parts of these groups. The vast majority practiced what are often referred to as Common Judaism (Sabbath, Circumcision, Temple, Torah…).

We must avoid supercessionism, which holds that because of what Jesus has done, Judaism is outdated, misguided and ignorant of the Scriptures. We should also take care not to portray the “Old Testament God” as angry and the “New Testament God” as compassionate and merciful. There is one God.

Even more egregious are hints at stereotypes, tropes such as Jewish overconcern about money. People on the fringe still imagine that Jews are part of some global conspiracy to take over the world. We must preach in a way that does not feed these conspiracy theories. We must not preach in ways that insinuate that Jews are separate or exclusive.

Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
Romans 3:29-30

Holy Week has been deadly to Jews throughout history, with Passion Processionals where Jews were beaten, and Jewish homes and business stoned. Jews were positioned as Christ killers, even though crucifixion was a Roman means of execution. Some of the passages read in Holy Week are easily misunderstood.

Matthew 27:25, “his blood be on us and on our children,” is particularly difficult. Christians reading this, imagine this coming from Jews. This can be understood as humanity speaking. It can be understood as forgiveness, as in the blood of the lamb. Unfortunately, it has, at times in history, been heard as a condemnation of Jews. Some of our people will default to this unless we help interpret passages like this homiletically.

The Passion in the Gospel of John has a number of misunderstood passages. “Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus…” (John 5:16) “No one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews…” (John 7:13) Jesus, to his opponents, “you are from your father the devil…” (John 8:31-59). And others. John uses οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι more frequently than the synoptics, which tend to specify the chief priests, Sanhedrin, Pharisees or Sadducees. John is referring to those with whom Jesus is debating, but our 21st century ears hear “Jews” universally. John also says salvation is from the Jews (4:22), and frequently points out how many Jews believe in Jesus. Sometimes he uses the word to refer to people who live in Judea. People forget that all of Jesus’ disciples were also Jews. John’s shorthand does not serve us well in a post-holocaust world. Whenever you hear “the Jews” in a text, approach the text with caution.

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means!
Romans 11:1

As we have seen, what is actually said, and what people hear, living in this time and context, are often two different things. The verbiage, especially in John, is so complex and misunderstood that some have some have proposed that we switch to another gospel for the appointed Passion readings on Palm Sunday and/or Good Friday. The Episcopal Church is working on this right now. Watch Amy-Jill Levine’s sermon for the National Cathedral on this topic.

Another helpful resource to review prior to Holy Week is our ELCA declaration to the Jewish Community.

When the preaching guide comes out, it will be good for us to read and discuss it. The way we encounter “the Jews” in Scripture will always require great care homiletically in a post-holocaust age. Additionally, it is important that we carefully parse our relationship with the Jewish community, both in terms of Paul’s clear understanding, and in light of the ecumenical age in which we now live.

They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.

Romans 9:4-5