I attended a preaching conference once with Amy-Jill Levine. If you don’t know who she is, then I have the delightful task of introducing her to you.
She is a renowned New Testament scholar and author and also Jewish. And teaches at Vanderbilt. (Also–she has fabulous shoes. Basically, she’s who I want to be when I grow up.) That may sound weird to you, but if you’ve read anything she’s written, then you’ll see that she brings enormous value to the discussion of the Gospel texts.
She spoke to us about the pitfalls of preaching during Holy Week, and the many ways Christian preachers walk right into anti-semitism, mostly without realizing it. Her lecture was so good, and so practical, that I refer to those notes every single year.
The Holy Week texts are loaded, and not just with religious angst. They are also loaded because it was from these Passion narratives that generations of hatred sprang–and if we ignore that, then we give it tacit license to continue. Unless we call out the history of the texts, unless we name the problems in them, then we allow this mess to continue.
It’s a tightrope. Here’s my attempt from Maundy Thursday.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
March 24, 2016
Maundy Thursday, Year C
There’s a common trope in Bible study–the God of the Old testament vs the God of Jesus. The God in the Old Testament is violent, angry, and legalistic–always wanting sacrifice! The God of Jesus is loving, inclusive and all about grace. No violence, no sacrificing to be found.
There are numerous problems with this–aside from the fact that it’s way too simplistic. (Protip: anytime anyone attempts to summarize something as complex as the Bible in the space of a tweet, ignore them. They’re probably missing something.)
This view, as well meaning as it is–because who doesn’t want to emphasize love and grace?, sets up the idea that Jewish people, since they follow that Old Testament God, are also violent, angry and legalistic…when all you have to do is think about this for a second to realize that this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It also skips huge parts of the canon (if Jesus’ God is really all that loving and non-confrontational, what on earth is happening in Revelations, and where did the Left Behind series come from?) And Marcion would be a big fan (yeah–Google it later.)
So it’s a problem. And we need to be careful–especially at this time of year, because well-worn ideas like the OT God vs the NT God are often so familiar they creep in without our realizing it. But Jesus’ God–the God he knew, loved, and preached, WAS the God of the Old Testament.
God is God all the time. God doesn’t change. And God demands a lot, as it turns out.
The reading from Exodus sounds like that imaginary OT God talking. Take a lamb, one without blemish, and eat it roasted. Leave none of it for tomorrow–eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Eat with your staff in your hand, your loins girded, your sandals on your feet…on and on. For tonight I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt–both human beings and animals. This is the passover of the Lord.
It’s pretty brutal. We aren’t used to much talk about sacrificing sheep, or smearing blood over things. It’s ominous sounding–the vision of a last meal, eaten in darkness, as the Israelites secretly prepare to flee their slavery. And the talk of the death of the first born is worse. It just is.
So it’s tempting to hear Jesus’ talk about foot washing, about loving one another as a reprieve. Oh hey! No one’s killing cute baby animals! All we have to do is be nice. Totally manageable.
Then we try it.
And people are sort of awful. I mean, not all the time. But a shockingly high amount of the time–people are hard to love.
People can be different, they can be scary. They can do things that challenge us. Sometimes we see them making bad decisions. Sometimes they’re annoying or infuriating, or just hard to understand. And sometimes they downright hurt us.–and so it feels easier to dislike a lot of them, or hate them. Or just ignore them altogether. Because the truth is–people are just hard to love sometimes.
The challenging thing about Jesus is, however, that Jesus doesn’t let us off that easily. On the night before he died, Jesus told his followers to love one another as he loved them. We have to love one another.
The simplest, most impossible thing to do.
And being Jesus, he went farther than that–he demonstrated what that meant He gave us bread and wine, and declared it to be his very self. Here is my very body, he told his friends–given for you. Want to know what love looks like? This is it. Do this in remembrance of me.
In the Eucharist, Jesus gives us his very self. His body, his blood. In bits of the most ordinary stuff imaginable. So that we could have a tangible expression of Divine Love in this material ordinary things. And so that we could learn to go and do likewise.
When seen like that, really, that thing with the Exodus doesn’t seem that extreme. All they had to do was sacrifice a sheep once a year. Make a meal, and move on. We are called upon to sacrifice our selves. To give all we are and have to the healing of world. Our resources, our skills, everything we have. So that the world can have a glimpse of divine love in us.
We are called to be the Eucharist for the world, gathered, blessed and given to the world around us. We are called to pour ourselves out like wine for the life and wellbeing of the world. The way the sheep made the people of Israel free–we are called to help make others free.
And we are assured in Christ’s resurrection that as we do all this, we will be renewed in Christ’s life and love.
Megan, Thanks to a dear friend, I have been and am now reading Amy-Jill Levine’s books. The one on the parables and currently “The Misunderstood Jew” etc. Her writings are eye-opening! Thanks for sharing the info about her and preaching on the subject of how we unwittingly engage in anti-Judaism!