No Replacing the Jews
Some serious things have been happening in our world while I was on vacation. Neo-Nazis demonstrated on the streets in Charlottesville, VA, chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” Jews were forced to leave their Sabbath service through the back door to avoid potential violence. The Holocaust Memorial in Boston was vandalized. Anti-Semitism is on the rise again and the internet has increasingly become a tool for propaganda and recruitment. All of which brings us to our readings.
Two weeks ago, we heard Paul, a Jew himself, describe the “great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart” caused by so many of his Jewish contemporaries not accepting Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. He wrote, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever.”
Now this week, we have readings that suggest the Jewish rejection of Jesus leads to God’s rejection of the Jews. Isaiah has God saying, “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority… I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut [and] when he shuts, no
one shall open.” This is paired with the Gospel reading about Simon Peter’s profession of faith. Simon bar Jonah, a Jew, recognizes that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus then changes his name to Peter, meaning “Rock,” and says, “upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”
The pairing of these readings over the course of a few Sundays demands our attention. It seems to suggest that the Jews who rejected Jesus, and those Jews who do not accept him to this day, are “accursed and cut off.” The readings suggest that God reacted to the Jewish rejection of Jesus by saying, “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station.” The Chosen People’s “station,” it appears, has been given to Peter and the Church. As Isaiah prophesied, the power of the keys would be transferred. In theology, this is known as supersessionism or replacement theology. The Church, according to this long and terrible tradition, has superseded the Synagogue; Christianity has replaced Judaism as inheritors of the Covenant and as the Chosen People.
This is a dangerous proposition that contributed to a long history of anti-Semitism. History is filled with segregation and vile treatment of Jews, with suspicion and forced conversions, with pogroms and the Holocaust. We say, “Never again!” If we mean it, then our Christian theology and liturgy must be examined for continuing signs of what has been called “the teaching of contempt.” After Charlottesville, there has been a lot of talk about racism in society and rightfully so, but we must not forget the hatred of the Jews that surfaced yet again. The Church must be loud and clear in denouncing anti-Semitism and eliminating it from its baggage.
Fortunately, in the week in between the sets of readings we just looked at, we heard another piece of St. Paul’s writing that is essential and must not be overlooked. Speaking of the Jews, Paul said, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” This is a critical theological point. God has never rejected the Jews. They remain the Chosen People. The Covenant has never been rescinded. Pope St. John Paul the Great referred to the Jews as “our elder brothers [and sisters] in faith” and “The people of God of the old covenant never revoked by God.” Christianity, in fact, is not a replacement for Judaism. According to St. Paul, it finds it meaning and its life in Judaism, which provides not only its historic roots, but its very life. Jesus was a Jew. Mary was a Jew. St. Joseph and the Apostles were Jews. Mary Magdalene was a Jew. Christianity without Judaism is unthinkable and absurd. While we tend to think of Judaism and Christianity as separate religions, Paul saw their intimate and indestructible unity. Christianity, to Paul, is God’s way of grafting non-Jews onto the good tree of Judaism (Romans 11:17-24).
Following Paul, the bishops at Vatican II wrote that the Church “draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild shoots” (NA #4) and taught unequivocally that “the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this
followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ. Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church… decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone” (NA #4).
After Charlottesville, the urgency of this teaching—and our inclusion of it in catechesis, witness, and worship—should be very clear.
Editorial credit: 4kclips / Shutterstock.com for the Holocaust Memorial photo.