Posted October 8, 2017
In today’s Gospel (Matthew 21: 33–43) Jesus says that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from the Jews and given to a people who will produce its fruit (namely Christians). I wonder if Jesus ever spoke those words. We cannot deny that Jesus clashed with the Jewish authorities during his ministry; and the mention in our passage of the chief priests and Pharisees reacting angrily might suggest that it is only they who are being targeted here. But it is from the Jews as such, surely, that the Kingdom of God will be taken away. Jesus’ words are in effect a blanket condemnation of the Jews. But did Jesus ever utter those words? They are not found in either St Mark’s or St Luke’s version of this parable. It is also difficult, incidentally, to imagine Jesus praising Christians in advance for their superior performance; and in any case, it would be presumptuous of us to suppose that Christians down the ages have proved better tenants of the Lord’s vineyard than the Jews.
There is a similar blanket condemnation of the Jews in that other passage of St Matthew where the whole Jewish people are made to cry out: ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children.’ It is often said that such statements do not sound as odious in their historical context as they do to us, because they reflected not a hostility of non-Jews towards Jews but the internal conflicts of Jews among themselves. Therefore, it is said, the words are not in themselves anti-Semitic. Be that as it may, the fact remains that these words have played their part in the anti-Semitism of the Christian centuries.
My view is that certain passages of the Gospels reflect not so much the situation of Jesus’ own day as the situation of the Christian communities in the decades following his death. The bitter conflicts with outsiders that are known to have preoccupied those Christian communities were read backwards into Jesus’ own lifetime, even to the extent of putting on Jesus’ lips the harsh words and blanket condemnations that are the stock accompaniment of religious groups in conflict. Although we accept St Matthew’s Gospel as the word of God, we do need to see it in a historical-critical perspective if we are not to sink into a fundamentalist interpretation of sacred writings which we rightly condemn in some other religions and which is equally pernicious in all religions.
We need to have a far more generous attitude towards the Jews than we meet with on some pages of the New Testament. All the more so, because we do actually find those generous attitudes already present on other pages of the New Testament. St Paul, more than any other New Testament writer, was painfully conscious of the fact that the majority of his fellow Jews had rejected the Christian gospel. It caused him ‘unceasing anguish in his heart’ (to use his own words). Yet, when he came to consider the question: ‘Has God, then, rejected his people?’, his answer was an emphatic: ‘Heaven forbid! God has not rejected his people, whom he loved “beforehand” (that is, whom he loved from eternity).’ And to those gentile Christians who considered themselves to have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people and were therefore tempted to look down on them, St Paul wrote sternly: ‘Just remember: You are only the branches: it is not the branches that support the root (namely, Israel): it is the root that supports the branches.’ And elsewhere: ‘The gifts and the call of God [once given to Israel] are irrevocable.’ And in the letter to the Ephesians too, the gentile church, far from being seen as the replacement of Israel, is regarded as that portion of humanity that has now been graciously called by God to join Israel and share in the blessings already bestowed upon Israel. This was what Pope John Paul meant when he visited the central synagogue in Rome in 1986 and told the congregation: The Jews are ‘our elder brothers’. They are ‘beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling.’
One can find in the New Testament even more surprising statements, like, for example, St Paul’s: ‘There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.’ Now I am sure some will think that I am advocating a sort of indifferentism, that is, the view, condemned by the Catholic Church, that all religions are basically equal in God’s eyes: that they all have the same truth content. St Paul would be the last person to advocate that. It is just that he abhorred the fragmentation of humanity into opposing groups, for it went against his whole experience of the risen Christ as the last Adam, who, like the first Adam, embraces in his person the whole of humanity. God’s purpose in Christ was to bring humanity together, not to divide it into religions that have lost sight of their common humanity.
What I have said about Judaism and Christianity can by analogy be applied also to Islam. There must be a profound commonality between three religions that trace their origins ultimately to Abraham, through whom God promised that all the nations of the world would receive God’s blessing. Of course it is true that there are radical differences in belief, but differences in belief can never go so deep that they uproot the foundations of that single humanity that God created in his own image. No religion can make claims that exclude whole sectors of humanity from the sphere of salvation; just as no religion can shut itself off from humanity.
In today’s second reading St Paul concludes his exhortation to the church at Philippi with the words, ‘Finally, brethren: whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, whatever is excellent and worthy of praise – fill you minds with these things.’ It is significant that this exhortation contains none of the Jewish or Christian vocabulary that we are accustomed to find in St Paul (such as ‘righteousness’ or ‘justification’ or ‘sanctification’ or ‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘baptism’). Indeed, it contains nothing uniquely religious at all. All the vocabulary is taken from the pagan world of the time. It reflects the best values and ideals of first-century humanism. As if to say: A basic criterion of the genuineness of religion (namely, the pursuit of ‘whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely’) is to be found outside religion.
We must never see our religion as an in-group affair, defining us over against other people and other religions. Christ came not to found a new religion but to create a new humanity. When our minds and hearts are full of ‘whatever is lovely’, we identify with the humanity that God has always wanted, the humanity that he has created and redeemed. Of course, we have our own beliefs about where loveliness ultimately comes from, where it is leading us and what it can cost. But we have no monopoly of it. We should certainly not want to limit access to it, or to speak of it being taken from one group and given to another. Let us pray for generous minds, big enough to embrace the humanity that Jesus came to redeem. For therein consists the Kingdom of God.
Fr Tom Deidun