Lauren Winner, a professor at Duke Divinity School, grew up as an Orthodox Jew. In college, she converted to Christianity and is now an Episcopal priest. Much of Winner’s writing focuses on the way her practice of Judaism has helped her to appreciate aspects of the Christian faith many of us Gentiles take for granted. She also describes how tone-deaf the Church can sometimes be about the way Jews perceive basic elements of our faith, when our words are set in the context of centuries of Christian hostility to the Jews.
In her memoir, Girl Meets God (2003), she describes one of her first experiences of the Palm Sunday liturgy in her Episcopal congregation in New York City. Reflecting on hearing the reading of Saint Matthew’s Passion Gospel (the same text we will read next Sunday), she wrote
“Today I feel stunned. I am stunned because of how the Jews look in this drama. He whole thing reeks of charges of deicide. The Passion play makes sharper what John’s Gospel makes clear: Pilate is useless, the Jews are to blame, they turn into some bloodthirsty chanting mob and killed Jesus. I look around me at the small children sitting in their pews and I think, When they leave, they will think the Jews are bad…
I don’t know what to do with this text, but I figure this much should be obvious; it has been two thousand years, and we see that this story, the Jews-killed-Christ story, is a story with consequences. After two thousand years, it seems to me the Church should take some responsibility for the way we tell this piece of salvation. I don’t mean we should deny that this chapter is sacred writ, or stop reading it. But we shouldn’t just act out charges of deicide, and then leave them sitting there (160-161).
There’s a long history of anti-Semitic violence specifically associated with the Passion story and its “charges of deicide.” The first anti-Jewish pogram in English history occurred in London on Good Friday in 1144, in response to sermons preached against the Jews. Throughout Europe for centuries, Jews became accustomed to riots and vandalism around Easter in response to the annual reading of the Passion. Holy Week, of course, falls at the same time as Passover, the great celebration of God’s faithfulness in protecting and liberating His people. Ironically, the celebration was overshadowed for many Jews by the threat of cruelty and violence committed by worshippers of the same God of Israel.
Winner is right that we can’t ignore this potentially threatening part of the Passion story, because His rejection by His own people is an integral part of the story. Jesus insisted long before his death that “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Luke 9:22). Jesus believed that this hostility by the guardians of the people’s religious life marked Him as a figure in continuity with the prophets, who also were rejected by those they were sent to save (Luke 11:47-51). In the Holy Week parable of the tenants, Jesus predicted that the bloodthirsty hostility of God’s people would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem in judgment, and the extension of God’s salvation to the whole world, “The kingdom of God,” he warned the religious leaders, “will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” (Matt. 21:43).
But the Passion story certainly does not teach that the Jews alone were culpable in the death of Jesus. He was executed under the authority of the Roman Pontius Pilate, whose cowardice and cruelty are amply depicted in the Gospels. The author of Hebrews describes those who commit serious sin as “crucifying afresh the Son of God” (Heb. 6:6), and in his Epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul carefully explains how both Jews and Gentiles are guilty of the sin Christ has taken upon Himself in His painful death. “For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all,” he writes (Rom. 11:32).
It can be easy for us to forget that even as many Jews rejected Jesus in Jerusalem that first Good Friday, all those who were faithful to Him were also Jews. Though Jesus had predicted the crowd’s hostility, he also asked God, from the Cross, to forgive them (Luke 23:34). Those Jews who had most shamefully betrayed Him, His closest followers, boldly announced God’s free forgiveness to the people of Jerusalem who had been complicit in Jesus’ death just weeks before (Acts 2:34ff). Saint Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, wept at the failure of His own people to greet their long-promised Redeemer. But he also steadfastly believed that God’s ancient promises to them were “irrevocable” (Rom 11:29), and that God’s final plan was that “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:26).
There is absolutely no Biblical basis for Christian violence against the Jews, and it is to our shame that our brothers and sisters in past ages have twisted the words of Scripture to serve their own purposes. We also have mocked and betrayed Christ, and He bears the punishment for our sins as well as the sins of His own people. Each of us must confess, in the words of Heerman’s great hymn, “I crucified thee.” (Hymn 158)
During our Lenten Bible study a few weeks ago, we were discussing Isaiah 53, the Good Friday Old Testament lesson, which we Christians see as such a remarkable prediction of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection—the whole of the Gospel in miniature. “How can the Jews possibly read this and not see it as pointing to Jesus?” one of you asked. An excellent question, especially because interpreting this passage was central to one of the New Testament’s most vivid conversion stories (Acts 8). To our own sorrow, the most truthful answer may be that they cannot see Christ as the promised Redeemer because of the wickedness of His followers.
I’m grateful for many courageous strides in improving relations between Jews and Christians over the last half century. Major theological documents like Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate (1965) and the Jewish rabbinical statement Dabru Emet (2002) have focused attention on our common convictions about God’s faithful purposes. There have been many public expressions of contrition by Christian leaders about past anti-Semitic acts. The Church has carefully amended the Holy Week liturgies to avoid phrases that could be misinterpreted to authorize violence.
On Good Friday we will pray, as Christians have always done “for those who have not received the Gospel of Christ” (BCP 279). The Jews are among those for whom we must pray, asking the God would help them to see His Son as the great fulfilment of His promises, the One who comes in love and mercy to “visit and redeem His people.” To see Christ, they must look past our sins. But we trust in “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! (Rom 11:33), that He will find a way in the face of our failures.