Sunday, March 07, 2004

What is our relationship to the Jews?

(Second Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on March 7, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Genesis 15:5-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 9:28-36).

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2004]

On Ash Wednesday afternoon, I saw Mel Gibson’s new movie, The Passion of the Christ. It was an intense, powerful, and deeply spiritual experience. The most appropriate word to describe it: AWESOME! And yes, it was bloody and violent—as it should have been! Because that’s the way it was! This was a Roman execution, and Roman executions were notoriously barbaric. Ask any reputable historian. When they scourged you, for example, they didn’t give you a set number of lashes with a nice, smooth whip. (That would have been much too kind.) They used a cat-o’-nine-tails, with pieces of bone attached to the end of each strand, which was designed to tear pieces of your flesh off. And they didn’t give you 40 lashes or some other specified number (those were rules that the Jews had when they scourged criminals). Roman scourgings were limitless! They whipped you and humiliated you until they felt like stopping, or until you were dead—whichever came first.

As I watched the film the other day, one thought kept running through my mind: “Thank you Lord, for loving me so much that you were willing to go through all this for the forgiveness of my stinking, rotten sins.”

It’s gratitude—not anger—that should fill the heart of everyone who sees this movie. This is what God did for you! This was the price he was willing to pay to save your soul from eternal death.

Of course, we’ve all heard the charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled at Mel Gibson—and, by extension, at anyone who supports his cinematic effort. It’s my contention that those who are making these charges are either ignorant of the Gospel message (which says that Jesus came to save the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike)—or they’re worried: they’re worried that some people will see this film and actually convert to Christianity. They’re afraid that more men and women will finally begin to take Jesus and his message seriously! And that they do not want!

By the way, why aren’t they also telling us that this movie is anti-Italian? If it’s anti-Semitic, it’s even more anti-Italian, since the Romans are the real brutes in the story! Shouldn’t those of us with our roots in Italy be deeply offended?

Well, of course not. This movie is neither anti-Italian, nor is it anti-Semitic. How could it be? It’s based on the 4 Gospels, 3 of which were written by Jews!

But all this talk of anti-Semitism does raise an important question that needs to be addressed: What exactly is our relationship to the Jews? What is our relationship, as Catholics and Christians, to the Jewish people?

Providentially, that issue is touched upon in our Scripture readings this morning, specifically our first reading and Gospel.

In this story from Genesis 15, God makes a covenant with Abram, and the two engage in a rather strange ceremony (at least it’s strange from our perspective): several animals are cut in half and a smoking fire pot (which signifies the presence of God) passes through the dead carcasses. (Abram no doubt also walked through them.) Now what was that all about? Well, this was actually a common way for two parties in the ancient world to bind themselves to a covenant. By passing through animals that had been cut in half, the parties in the covenant were each saying, “I swear that I will be faithful to this agreement. And if I’m not faithful—if I break this covenant in any way—may I be split in two like these animals!”

Obviously, it was a very serious ceremony.

But what’s most important for us to note here is God’s covenantal promise to Abram. He says, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” Abram thus becomes the father of what will eventually become the nation of Israel. But then, in chapter 17, God changes his name to Abraham and says, “I am [now] making you the father of a host of nations.” Here the spiritual fatherhood of Abraham is extended to the Gentiles (i.e., to you and me). This is why St. Paul called Abraham, “our father in faith” in Romans 4. We give Abraham that same title in the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass.

So what’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that, spiritually speaking, we are Semites! God chose the nation of Israel to be the instrument through which he would reconcile the whole world to himself! When God told Abraham he would be the father of many nations, Abraham didn’t fully understand what that meant—but we do! Because the Church (which extends over the whole world) is the earthly fulfillment of that promise!

Here’s how the new Catechism expresses it, in paragraph 60: “The people descended from Abraham would be the trustees of the promise made to the patriarchs, the chosen people, called to prepare for that day when God would gather all his children into the unity of the Church. They [the Israelites] would be the root onto which the Gentiles would be grafted, once they came to believe.”

Imagine a tree that had a brain and was able to think for itself. Can you imagine that tree hating its own roots? I can’t. But that’s precisely what an anti-Semitic Christian does: he hates his own spiritual roots! Have we had people like this in the Church during our 2,000 year history? Unfortunately, we have; we must admit that. And, sad to say, there are still some walking around as we speak. That’s horrible, and it should not be!

The Catechism calls the Jewish people our “’elder brethren’ in the faith of Abraham.” (#63) All Christians need to understand that important truth.

There’s one more passage of the Catechism that I want to quote this morning. This text will help us to understand the event we heard about in today’s Gospel, the Transfiguration. It’s from paragraph 781:
“[God] chose the Israelite race to be his own people and established a covenant with it. He gradually instructed this people. . . . All these things, however, happened as a preparation for and figure of that new and perfect covenant which was to be ratified in Christ . . . the New Covenant in his blood; he called together a race made up of Jews and Gentiles which would be one, not according to the flesh, but in the Spirit.”

This was precisely what Jesus was trying to teach Peter, James and John when he took them up Mt. Tabor and was transfigured before their eyes. It was not a coincidence that Moses and Elijah appeared with him during that event and were conversing with him about his upcoming passion, death and resurrection. Moses and Elijah were central figures in the Old Testament. They were part of the process by which (as the Catechism says) God was preparing his people for the New Covenant he would establish through the blood of Christ. If Peter, James, and John had any doubts that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, those doubts were erased after the Transfiguration. Moses and Elijah, by their presence and conversation, testified to them that Jesus was the Messiah, the one they and all of Israel had been awaiting for so many centuries!

We all know that many Jews have not accepted their true Messiah and his Gospel message. But God wants them to! And how is that supposed to happen? Through people like us! God wants us to witness to the truth of his Son’s Gospel by the faith we profess, and—just as importantly—by the love we show to others, to Jew and Gentile alike. And what a golden opportunity we Christians have to evangelize with the release of this movie! I don’t know about you, but I’ve been asked lots of questions about the Catholic faith in recent days.

All of a sudden, Jesus and what he did for us are big topics of conversation—sometimes in unexpected places.

I heard Don Imus (of all people) talking about Gibson’s movie and its message the other day on his morning radio show. In the afternoon, as I was driving along in my car, I heard Mike and the Mad Dog discussing theological issues on WFAN in New York. For an entire half hour, basketball and baseball took a back seat to religion on their program.

Let’s not waste the many opportunities God is giving us these days to be witnesses to the truth. The salvation of souls, at least to some extent, depends on our willingness to step out and courageously share our faith—like Mel Gibson courageously shared his faith in making this movie!

Let me conclude this morning with a special prayer for the Jewish people. This is a prayer that’s said in every Catholic Church on Good Friday, during the celebration of the Lord’s Passion. May it be our common prayer today:

Almighty and eternal God,
Long ago you gave your promise to Abraham and his posterity.
Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own
may arrive at the fullness of redemption. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.