This year, 2018, the Jewish celebration of Passover coincides with Easter, which only happens on occasion due to the fact we use different calendars.
Passover Eve this year begins on a Friday evening at sunset, just as it did on that Good Friday circa 33AD. This is one of the holiest times of the year for both Christians and Jews as we respectively remember the crucifixion and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and celebrate the Exodus of the people of Israel from Slavery in Egypt on their journey to freedom in the Promised Land.
Surely this is a time when Christians might also share in celebrating the events of Passover too, and recognise our Jewish brothers and sisters in doing the same?
Unfortunately, celebrating Easter every year we often read the story in a way which threatens to cast our Jewish brothers and sisters into a distinctly negative light. This is a problem which has its roots in the biblical texts themselves, or more accurately, in our handling and interpretation of them. This portrayal tends, in my experience, to be an unintended outcome of retelling the story but one which can be redressed once we become sensitive to it.
I wonder if any of these features of the Good Friday and Easter narratives are familiar to you at all?
– We read about “the chief priests and the teachers of the Law assembled in the palace of the high priest” [Caiaphas] who schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. (Matthew 26:3; Mark 14:1)
– We hear about how one of His disciples called ‘Judas’, which unfortunately sounds rather too close to the word ‘Jew’ was the one to betray Him.
– We read about how the Sanhedrin held a trial for Him at night. How they testified falsely against Him, and beat Him. They accused him of blasphemy and “condemned him as worthy of death.” (Mark 14:64)
– We read about how Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, wanted to release Jesus knowing that He was innocent, but that he gave in to the will of the crowd and released a murderer called “Barabbas” because the crowd were calling for him to be crucified. John identifies the crowd as “the Jews” (John 19:4).
-The people in Matthew’s gospel even seemingly accept guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus: “His blood be upon us and our children”. (Matthew 27:25) They say, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).
This is not an exhaustive list. Let’s just say though that if you combine these ingredients, you have a story in which the visibly Jewish characters do not emerge well. We find here too some of the context for some of the horrendous anti-Jewish statements of Church Fathers which have become part of our Christian heritage.
Whilst these details of the Gospels are recorded as the historical details of the events, they are also sensitive details which need to be carefully treated and interpreted so that they cohere with the Biblical texts and are understood as texts which are Jewish in authorship. Their immediate Jewish readers (at least) would never have taken these events as a criticism of the Jewish people as a whole. This happens only when they are read, as it were, by an outside party.
Unfortunately, for many Christians today, even amid the increased diversity of our societies, the Easter narrative is likely to be a central narrative for formulating our perception of Jews, even on a more subconscious, emotional level. It is hardly surprising therefore that many Christians, even those who have rightly recognised that antisemitism is diametrically opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, may often still ‘feel’ fairly indifferent towards them.
My challenge this Easter is for us to be vigilant to the story which is being retold, to listen and to hear whether this negative portrayal Jewish people is being allowed to contaminate the Good News which is being celebrated in our local church community. We need to be pray for those delivering the message. We may even need to question whether the portrayal of the narrative needs to be directly addressed.
There are, of course, details which balance our interpretation of these events. Jesus was every bit as Jewish (more Jewish, indeed we must say, if we are calling Him ‘Christ’) as His opponents. So too where His disciples and the crowd which greeted Him into Jerusalem waving palm leaves six days earlier (this was not the same crowd which called for Him to be crucified). Jesus’ opponents were a very small minority of Jewish people, who did what they did for a number of reasons (some of them very understandable), and who in no respect can be permitted to represent other Jews before or since. Jesus also taught that His crucifixion came about through His willingness to submit to it as part of God’s redeeming purpose for everyone,
“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.” (John 10:17-18)
So, as we celebrate this Easter, let us take a moment to give thanks for our Jewish brothers and sisters and the gift that they are to the world.
Finally, let us pray for the healing of the division in God’s family as we reach out in the love of God to help those among the Jewish people who desperately need our care and services which will raise them up out of poverty and suffering, and help them home to the promised land of Israel.