Homilette for March 4, 2008

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

(John 5:31-47)

As Holy Week approaches, Christians do well to reflect on our attitudes toward Jews. Much too often we unjustly see them as ruthless and avaricious in worldly affairs. Resentful of their accomplishments, we can find in the gospel more reason for contempt.

All the gospels relate that Jewish people had a role in Jesus’ passion and death. The Romans actually executed Jesus, but each gospel points out that they did so at the instigation of Jews. The gospels of Matthew and John are especially harsh in their consideration of Jewish responsibility. Matthew locates culpability for the crucifixion not only with the Jews in Jerusalem on Good Friday but also with all Jews of all times. It reads, “And the whole people said in reply (to Pilate), ‘(Jesus’) blood be upon us and upon our children.’” Throughout the Gospel according to John, as we see in the passage today, Jesus is in a bitter debate with not only the scribes, Pharisees and other Jewish leaders but, more generically, with “the Jews.”

However, we must be very careful about making accusations. It is universally recognized that the Gospels not only tell the story of Jesus’ life and death but also reflect the conditions of the apostolic times. For a while after Jesus’ resurrection his followers considered themselves as part of Judaism. They worshipped with other Jews in the Jerusalem Temple and in synagogues all over. But during the latter half of the first century, when the Gospels were being composed, bitter opposition arose between Christians and Jews. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., Jewish leaders reformed their religious practices. They saw the need to expel from the synagogues the Christians who were worshipping Jesus as Messiah. As Jesus makes clear in the gospel today, Jews and Christians read the Scriptures differently.

Because some Jews persecuted some early Christians, the evangelists described Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death quite harshly in the gospels. But these facts should not cause us to castigate all the Jews in the gospel, much less think of any Jew today as a “Christ-killer.” The Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Relationship of the Church and Non-Christian Religions” states: “True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. Jn. 19:6); still, what happened in His passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living, without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today.” Rather than animosity, our attitude toward Jews today should be profound respect. They belong to the lineage that gave us Christians both initial understanding of the One God and, more importantly, our Savior Jesus Christ.