Rescuing St. Matthew’s Gospel from the anti-Semites

Back east, they tell the story of a young catholic priest who made the mistake of mentioning in passing during a sermon that Jesus was a Jew. No sooner had the words left his mouth than he heard an audible gasp move across the church. The first week, chatter about the priest’s mistake – surely Jesus wasn’t a Jew – was confined to the inner circle of church leadership. But, as time went by and the priest did not correct his error, consternation swirled around the parish and the conflict grew into a larger and larger circle.

When the local bishop could not stand any more calls old complaint, he dispatched an old and wise Monsignor to handle the situation. A meeting was called in the gymnasium – the largest space in the church complex. People who hadn’t been to Mass since last Easter appeared and packed the gym to the rafters. Everyone expected old monsignor to put the brash new priest in his place.

The new priest – who had actually been pastor of the parish for four years – presented a lively and spirited defense of his belief that Jesus was a Jew. Row after row of parishioners sat with their arms folded across their chest, refusing to be swayed by their pastor’s words.

Finally, the priest sat down and the Monsignor rose to speak. “The teaching of the church is that Jesus was a Jew.” He said. And then he sat down. Silence reigned for a moment before everyone relaxed. “Why didn’t he just say so?” one person asked in a stage whisper. From the back row, another man spoke: “OK Monsignor. I can accept that Jesus was a Jew. But don’t you go saying that about the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

The point of that humorous story is, in part, to show how good people can be misled by foolish misconceptions, misconceptions that may actually run counter to the main points of Christian thought and living.

Sometimes foolish misconceptions can do real damage. For centuries, if not millennia, some foolish misconceptions have held that Jesus was not a Jew, that the Jews are Christ killers, that Jews should be forced to convert to Christianity or face death. Remember the wave of anti-Semitic hate crimes after the last election? Those hateful acts – like the Nazi Holocaust that killed six million Jews – did not spring from thin air. They both flow from a stream – no a river – of antisemitism that is mistakenly thought to be supported by The Gospel of St. Matthew. The great irony is that this gospel was probably written by a Jew for Jews who followed Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. So how do we sort this out?

As members of the Episcopal Church, we expect to answer theological questions by balancing “scripture, reason, and tradition.” That balancing act is the Anglican Way, it is a spiritual path we inherited from the Church of England.

This path grew out of the bloody past of our church, a past that saw clerics burned at the stake for either being too protestant or too catholic. Balancing “scripture, reason, and tradition” usually allows our church theologians to find a middle way, a path that avoids the extremes on either side.

Let’s see how that works with Matthew. A literal reading of scripture tells us it is the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Our tradition tells us to consider carefully the assessments and conclusions of scholars. They tell us this gospel was probably written around the 90-th year of the Common Era. That’s more than three decades after Jesus died and about 20 years after the first Gospel – the one we know as Mark’s – was written. Scholars also tell us all of the Gospels were written anonymously – that they were almost certainly not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The scholar Bart Ehrman tells us “manuscripts with titles do not start appearing until around 200 CE.” And the list of books to be included in the Christian Bible was made final by a church council around the year 400 CE. That’s more than three centuries after the death of Jesus.

Most real scholars say the Gospels were written anonymously. Many evangelical and fundamentalists disagree. But their arguments are based in scholarship which is designed to prove their point, to prove what they already believe. And starting by choosing your conclusion and then picking only the evidence that supports your conclusion does not make good academic scriptural analysis.

Scholars also tell us Matthew’s is the most Jewish of the four Gospels. That makes sense since we think “Matthew’s gospel is clearly written for a Jewish Christian audience living within the immediate proximity of the homeland itself.”

Yet this Gospel also identifies Jews (often the Pharisees) as principal enemies of Jesus and it includes a Good Friday story that can be easily misread to blame the Jews for the Crucifixion of Jesus.

So how can balancing “scripture, reason, and tradition” help us assess the so-called “anti-Jewish” subtext of the Gospel attributed to Matthew? Right now this issue seems to be blurred by time and tradition.

We need a lens to help us see this Gospel more clearly. You know – like what happens when you start an eye exam and they go from lens one to lens two and things are a bit more clear? The lens we can use to make our understanding more clear is what happened in the year 70 CE. In that year, the Romans laid ruin to Jerusalem and the Temple. This ended a revolt that had begun four years earlier. It also was a catastrophic change for the People of Israel.

Jewish life and faith centered on the Temple: that was where you went to gain forgiveness. It may have felt as if the hub of your wagon’s wheels have been cut out, for the Temple was the focal point of their faith and practice. Instead of centering on the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish faith began to revolve around the local synagogue.

In the synagogues, people asked why this terrible calamity had befallen them. Some said the disaster was the fault of t hose Jews who were not pure enough, who allowed non-traditional thinkers into the faith. This conflict – a conflict between some of the Jews and the Jews who followed Jesus – eventually led to an irrevocable split between the Jewish and Christian faiths.

The author of Matthew was small dab in the middle of this fight. You can see signs of this if you read the text carefully. For example, when Jesus was alive, the Pharisees were not a prominent group.

But when Matthew was written, the Pharisees were the chief proponents of excluding Jews who followed Jesus from the synagogue. The author of Matthew’s Gospel demonizes the Pharisees as enemies of Jesus because they are the principal opponents Matthew’s author faces in his life. And the author of Matthew really goes after his enemies: “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites. For you are like white washed tombs which on the outside look beautiful but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.” (MATT 23:27)

If we use reason to understand the context, audience, and history surrounding this Gospel, we see clearly that the Gospel of Matthew is not anti-Semitic, that this text does not provide a foundation for the sins which have been committed in its name.

Instead, we see Jesus as the Messiah – a term that has little meaning in the first century outside the Jewish community. We see Jesus as Rabbi Jesus – provocative, untraditional, confrontational, inclusive, unconcerned with gender roles. He did not confine women to a subservient role in his ministry – neither did St. Paul. Jesus drinks and dines with sinners, people the religious establishment write off as too damaged or too poor or too powerless to matter. And he loved people: his people, their friends, us.

To suggest a Christian Gospel endorses anti-Semitism runs against the deepest principles and purposes of Christ’s teaching – and of his life.

And yet here in 21st Century America we have just seen hundreds of white men marching through the night shouting “Jews will not replace us.” And some of our respectable news media misunderstood the chant, reporting it as “You will not replace us.” Such is the power of privilege – it changes what we hear and shapes what we see.

Here at Turk and Lyon, we are called to continue creating a community where everyone is welcome and has a safe place. Here at Turk and Lyon, we are called to open our doors and our hearts to this community. Here at Turk and Lyon, we are called to find new ways to grow and prosper as children of the Living God.

Sometimes we will feel overwhelmed. When we do, look back on how far we have come. Consider this unexpected email:

“I keep meeting the most amazing and diverse groups and people gathering and doing work at St Cyprian’s. Just wanted to write and say how this feels like the closest thing to an actual church I’ve ever been a part of. I’m amazed at how much you coordinate and foster, and want to say thank you for building such exemplary community. I’m sure it’s ungodly difficult, but thank you for making it exist!”

Yes, the path we walk is difficult. Yet it offers each of us the opportunity to bring the Kingdom of God a little bit closer to our lives and our neighbors.

Let us pray:

God, you are the power of liberation,

calling your servant Moses

to lead your people into freedom,

and giving him the wisdom to proclaim your holy law.

Be our Passover from the land of injustice,

be the light that leads us to the perfect rule of love,

that we may be citizens of your unfettered reign;

we ask this through Jesus Christ,

the pioneer of our salvation.

May the church say: Amen.

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