Sunday, April 6, 2014

Perils and Pitfalls of Passiontide Storytelling

I heard it from the pulpit in another state just a couple of weeks ago: “Jesus taught a religion of freedom and love to counter the oppressive Jewish religion of fear and law.”

The sermon, in this liberal, progressive congregation, went on to describe the elaborate pettifogging burden of “613 detailed laws” that Jews had saddled themselves with by Jesus’ day, and Jesus’ genius in boiling them all down to two: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  No mention, of course, of the rabbinical sage Hillel the Elder, the real author of this alleged “simplification,” or of the fact that Jesus himself surely knew that a lion’s share of those 613 Torah commandments applied to temple and judicial officials rather than to daily life.

But there it was, hanging in the air, this age-old stereotype, confirming life-long impressions of many of the hearers. A stereotype peddled by a theologically sophisticated, even avant-guarde Protestant minister, and repeated in a variety of ways in both liberal and conservative churches to this day, on occasion fueled by some “liberationist” readings of the Gospels.  Jesus vs. “them,” the Jews—or, at the least, the Pharisees. 

The Holy Week Drama

Jesus, of course, had opponents, and eventually, enemies. Every return to Holy Week, the most emotionally intense part of the Christian Year, promises to sharpen stereotypes of this adversarial relationship, from the supposed fickleness of the Jerusalem crowds to the reasons for Jesus’ death.  Holy Week, therefore, has been, and can be still, a perilous time for re-telling this story, for it is so very easy to fall into time-worn stereotypes of both Jews and Judaism, especially in an attempt to make this tragic—and triumphant—tale more dramatic.

Much teaching and seminary training in recent decades has blunted the sharp edge of Christian anti-Judaism a great deal. But these stereotypes still roll all too often from the tongue of preachers and rise up too easily in the minds of Bible-readers, even those with no desire to denigrate Jews or Judaism. The narrative reflex is old and deep.

In this short series of blog essays I plan to share what I’ve learned in almost five decades of intense Jewish-Christian dialogue and reading of texts both Jewish and Christian. This bears on the Gospel narrative, especially on Palm Sunday and Holy Week preaching, teaching and meditating. The foci will be three, though the essays may be more than that: 1) Stereotypes about Second Temple Judaism;  2) The Passover crowds on Palm Sunday and Easter; 3) “The Jews” and the death of Jesus. 

Real-life consequences, then and now

Necessity drives such stereotype-purging. Not so very long ago in historical time, Holy Week served as prime time for attacks by Christian mobs on Jewish towns and neighborhoods. An elderly Jewish man told me recently that he knows Jews in cities like New York who still steer clear of even walking near churches in Holy Week. Here is an inherited reaction to almost twenty centuries of ugly Holy Weeks, reinforced by vivid memories of bullying in childhood by Christian kids calling them “Christ-killers.”

The Christian world, even the “enlightened” section of it, has not yet fully outgrown some of its deeply inherited misunderstandings. In a second post tomorrow, I’ll begin by taking on that preacher and his all-too-easy sermonic flourish, (hoping that, for most of my readers, I will only be confirming what they've already learned).

Next: Law vs. Love or Law the Means of Love?


  1. Thank you, Bob. My favorite part is that many of those who would stereotype Jews in this way cling to the stringency of Hebrew Bible laws when it comes to the most divisive social issues of our day - abortion and homosexuality. How God must love irony!

    1. Christian legalism has a long and powerful history, Avi, much of it rooted in distorted understandings of the Hebrew Bible, as you note.