Friday, July 26, 2019

Minutes that Matter: Tuesdays in July, 2019

This is the transcript for the fourth of my talks for RTHK Radio 4's Minutes that Matter programme on Tuesdays in July.

Talk Four: A Wild Olive Tree

Jesus was a Jew. He interpreted his life and ministry in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. His mother and followers all believed that he came in fulfilment of promises made to the significant figures in Israel’s history. So important were his own people to him that Jesus made no attempt to reach out to anyone else. ‘He came only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ as he himself put it. All this should have made antisemitism inconceivable in the Church. As history shows us only too clearly however, it didn’t. So what went wrong?

The Church began as a grouping within Judaism. The apostles were all based in Jerusalem and continued to live as observant Jews, observing the Jewish times of prayer and going daily to the Temple to pray. The credit and the blame for the Church becoming more than a group within Judaism is given in equal measure to Saint Paul.

In popular histories of the Church, it is under the influence of St Paul that the Church reached out beyond the confines of Judaism and left behind its Jewish roots to become a universal faith and religion. There is no question that St Paul was an amazing evangelist for the Christian faith and no doubt either that he believed that the Gospel was not only for the Jews, but for the Gentiles also. St Paul, however, wouldn’t recognize himself from the descriptions of him and his teaching in many accounts of his life and theology.

Yes indeed, St Paul did believe the Gospel was for the Gentiles as well as the Jews, but as he himself puts it, it was for the Jews first. He was after all a devout, observant Jew himself. He describes himself in this way: ‘circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews’. And while he came to see his birth and upbringing in a new light when he became a follower of Christ, he didn’t stop being an observant Jew. He still understood both the Lord he followed and the Gospel message he preached in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures. He still went to the Temple when he was in Jerusalem and still believed that God’s promises to Israel stood. He says so explicitly in his most important letter to the Christians in Rome.

Ironically, it is also in his letter to the Romans that he has to combat an increasing tendency in the Church, a tendency which has now become the norm in the Church. As Gentiles came into the Church, and more and more of the Church’s members were ex-pagans rather than Jews, the Church became less and less Jewish in character. This led the non-Jewish majority in the Church to look down on the Jewish minority and take a superior attitude toward them.

St Paul is horrified at this attitude. Apart from the fact that such pride and arrogance should have no place in the Church whatever the reason, in this case it showed a complete lack of understanding of the Gospel itself and the role of the Jewish people. Describing the people of Israel as an ‘olive tree’ that the Gentiles have been grafted on to, he warns the Gentiles:

‘do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you.’ He continues: ‘So do not become proud but stand in awe.’

We do not know whether the Roman Christians listened to St Paul’s warning, what is certain is that, tragically, the Church historically did not. It was not long before the Jewish roots of the Church were all but forgotten and the two faiths that St Paul saw as belonging to the same root had parted ways. 

Gideon Klein, Duo pour violon and alto en 1/4 de ton: Andante]

The parting of the ways between Jew and Christian was to have tragic consequences. Doubtless there were faults on both sides; there always are. But, as the saying has it: ‘to the victor the spoils’. With the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in the Jewish War of AD 66-70, Jewish Christianity was to lose all influence in the Church and, with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was to become the dominant force in the Empire and, with its dominance, the pride and arrogance that St Paul warned against was given free rein.

The Church of today can’t put the clock back – would that we could! We can, however, work hard to make sure that never again is antisemitism allowed a place in the Church and that the warning of St Paul, unheard in his own day is, at long last, heard in ours.

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