Dr. Amy-Jill Levine
Good morning. My enormous gratitude goes to the people of the National Cathedral for their hospitality and generosity in allowing me to speak this morning. And it also goes to the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, who at their convention on January 30, approved a resolution on addressing the antisemitic impact of lectionary readings for Holy Week. It is an honor to be with you and it is a blessing to know that you are attending to the lectionary because there’s much work to be done. The lectionary this morning includes Exodus 20, a version of the 10 commandments, the decalogue, one of the centerpieces of what the church calls the Old Testament and we Jews call the Tanakh. It includes Psalm 19, which proclaims, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.
Psalm 19 has a special role in the Jewish tradition. We Jews recite it’s last first, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart to be acceptable to you, oh Lord, my rock and my Redeemer,” at the conclusion of the Amitabh prayer. And we recite the entire song, every Shabbos, that is every Sabbath morning. This celebration of the mitzvah, the commandments that guide our paths, harness our evil inclinations and make us a covenant community, finds natural analogies in the New Testament. Numerous passages compliments Exodus 20 and Psalm 19. The gospel reading to compliment the decalogue could have been the section in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law. I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
It could have been the section of the sermon traditionally called the antitheses, the teachings where Jesus begins, “You have heard it said,” and adds, “But I say to you.”
These are not antitheses. These are extensions. When Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, you shall not murder,” one of the 10 commandments and, “Whoever murder shall be liable to judgment,” an antithesis would be, but I say to you lock load and take out as many as your automatic weapon permitted to you by the second amendment, but not by the Bible allows. Jesus does not abrogate the commandments. He extends them. But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. And if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council. And if you say you fool, you will be liable to the hell of fire. This is what rabbinic Judaism calls building defense about the Torah.
We protect the commandments by baking new laws, to ensure that we do not violate the primary ones. Similarly to the commandment, you shall not commit adultery, Jesus tells his followers that even thinking about it is tantamount to doing it. And after forbidding this thinking, he provides the verbal equivalent of a cold shower. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away, it’s better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. For those thinking that Jesus does away with that eye for an eye statement, and so replaces Old Testament, retributive violence with New Testament, distributive justice, again, wrong. No one in ancient Israel carries out the eye for an eye statement and rabbinic Judaism says it cannot be carried out literally. Rather, it’s a legal principle that says in the case of physical mutilation, if you lose an eye oral limb, the victim should receive some sort of compensation.
When Jesus says, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, but I say to you, anyone who strikes you on the right cheek, turned him to the other,” he’s not opposing Torah. He’s changing the subject. There’s a huge difference between losing a limb and getting a backhand slap meant to humiliate, rather than to do damage. Jesus observed the 10 commandments and the other 603 commandments as Jews, traditionally number them, and he taught his followers to do the same. In Mark chapter 10, he tells a would be discipled, you know, the commandments, you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not bear false witness, and so on. He debated fellow Jews on how to observe the mitzvah, the commandments, since Torah does not come with an instruction manual. And in many cases, as we’ve seen, he makes the law more, rather than less, stringent.
Regarding the epistolary reading to compliment Exodus 20 and Psalm 19, the lectionary could have cited numerous passages from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. For example, Paul’s insistence that the law is Holy, and the commandment is Holy and just and good. Or Paul’s comments about his Jewish relatives, they are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law of the worship and the promises, to them belong to the patriarchs. And from them, according to the flesh comes the Messiah, who was overall, God blessed forever, amen. Or Paul’s summary of Torah. Owe no one anything except to love one another for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law of the commandments – you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet. And any other commandments are summed up in this word, love. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Such lectionary readings would have been especially helpful, especially to those Christians who viewed the Old Testament as less good, out of date, primitive, barbaric, a proclaimer of a God of wrath and, well Jewish. While the New Testament is the new and improved up-to-date replacements, civilized proclaimer of a God of love. This view is wrong. And those who hold it are not only misguided, they’re heretics. The God who created the world, the God who called Abraham, spoke to Moses, covenanted with David and chose the people Israel, is the same God to whom Jesus, in typical Jewish fashion, taught his disciples to call avino, the Hebrew, or abuena, the Aramaic, our father. When I get this nonsense from my students about the Old Testament God of wrath versus the New Testament God of love, I am inclined to cite first Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd who leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.”
And then the gospels, where people are condemned to the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. The Psalms of Israel offer a good shepherd. The gospels have a sadistic dentist. Now, of course, that’s not a fair analogy. One should never compare the best of one tradition with more problematic materials in another. But the point should be clear. It’s the same God. And for those who insist that the commandments, the mitzvah of God, are impossible to follow, they’re wrong too.
Paul tells us in Philippians, that concerning righteousness under the law, he was blameless. Luke describes the parents of John the Baptist, Zachariah and Elizabeth as righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. And if a Jew misstepped, there’s always repenting and atoning. Jesus, like his fellow Jews, followed the decalogue and the other commandments. Jesus, like his fellow Jews, recognized that God gave Israel the Torah out of love, and they followed the commandments not to earn divine love, but in response to it. Jesus, like his fellow Jews, also realized that following the commandments were a way of meaning retaining their identity as empire after empire – Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, and so on wanted them to assimilate, to accept the beliefs and practices of the majority. Following Torah has always been a form of multiculturalism. A way for a minority group to retain, proclaim and celebrate its distinct identity.
With Exodus 20 and Psalm 19, the church had such wonderful opportunities for finding appropriate New Testament readings. But instead of wonder, we get whiplash. While the Psalm rejoices, “the decrees of the Lord are sure making wise the simple.” Paul in first Corinthians states, “In the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom. God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who believe.”
The two old Testament readings celebrate the Torah that makes one wise. The reading from first Corinthians appears to undercut the Torah’s ability to inculcate wisdom for the Christian worshiper. This reading thus appears to undercut the Torah’s importance and severed the link between the old Testament and the new.
And that’s not the message we should take. Paul was not seeking to undermine the Torah, nor is Paul moving from Judaism to Christianity. Indeed, the word Christian appears in none of his letters. Paul has rather moved from a non-messianic form of Judaism to the movement that proclaimed Jesus Lord. He has moved from a tradition that was waiting for the Messiah to come, to one that proclaimed that the Messiah had come and would surely and shortly come back. When Paul tells us in his epistle to the Philippians that he was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people Israel of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews, and as to the law a Pharisee, he’s not denying his identity. He’s boasting. Granted Pharisees do get some bad press in the gospels, but that’s because they represented a viable alternative to the messianic proclamation of Jesus and his followers.
Pharisees were a lay-led movement whose members were known for walking the walk, as well as talking the talk, and for interpreting the Torah to make it more egalitarian, for showing the people how they could be like priests in the temple and how they could make their meals comparable to the sacrifices in the temple. So why do we get the impression that Paul had a negative view of Torah? To understand Paul’s view, we need to understand his audience. Paul is writing to pagans who have eschewed both local and empire-wide gods and turn to the God of Israel. The one Bible they have is not the New Testament, that hadn’t been written yet. Their scripture, the one second Timothy proclaims is inspired by God and useful for teaching reproof, correction and training in righteousness, is the Greek translation of what came to be called the Old Testament.
But here’s the problem. Paul does not want his Gentile believers doing all that Moses commanded. To the contrary, those Gentiles are not to practice circumcision, not to practice the Jewish dietary concerns, not to celebrate Jewish holidays. Why? Because they’re Gentiles, not Jews. And Paul does not want them converting to Judaism. Paul, Jew that he is, knows that in the messianic age, the Gentiles will turn to worship the God of Israel, but they do so as Gentiles and not as Jews. When the prophet Zachariah predicts that in the messianic age, 10 Gentiles will grab hold of the Jew and say, take me with you to Zion. He does not then have these pilgrims say circumcise us when we get there. For Paul, the messianic age is the time when Jews and Gentiles together participate in the worship of the one God. The Jews retain their distinctive practices the Gentiles follow those commandments that fit their new life outside of paganism. Worshiping the one God rejecting idolatry, hallowing God’s name, honoring parents and refraining from murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness and coveting. The one missing commandment here is the Sabbath, which those early Gentile followers may not have celebrated. Instead, they commemorated the Lord’s day. Sunday, today, the day they proclaimed Jesus had been raised from the dead. The lectionary starts with the decalogue and the Psalm insists the decrees of the Lord are sure making wise the simple. And then we have the whiplash of first Corinthians that proclaims, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and then John two, the temple incident. What does Jesus violently stopping temple activities have to do with the 10 commandments?
Most commentators, including the Episcopal sermon guides that I’ve found online, says that Jesus was protesting temple economics. He was condemning a system where poor had to borrow money to offer sacrifice, the system that plays vendors in the court of the Gentiles, and so prevented those Gentiles from having meaningful worship, a system that relied on money changers, who extorted funds from pilgrims. Or, as one Episcopal source puts it, a system that inserted, “An unnecessary barrier between God and the children of God.”
The impression the congregation then gets is that the temple epitomizes not the 10 commandments, but the 10 sins from idolatry to Sabbath worship, to murder, to stealing, you name it. And that the gospel of John makes explicit, none of this is only one of many problems here. The gospel reading threatens to create or reinforce the pernicious association of Jews with worshiping money and the false stereotype that Jews equate money with righteousness and poverty was sent. Anyone who was read the Torah, the decalogue, with its laws against stealing and coveting, the whole Jewish Bible, as well as the rest of the entire rabbinic tradition, with its repeated insistence on care for societies vulnerable, the poor, the widow, the orphan and the resident alien would know the stereotype to be incorrect, and if not, a production of Fiddler on the Roof would have made the point.
The temple offered sacrifices on behalf of everyone so that the poor were always included. It operated on a sliding scale, adjusted for income, so that when Mary and Joseph visit the temple, according to the gospel of Luke, chapter two, they offer a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons. And that was the gift of the poor. And Leviticus states that even if the small birds were too expensive, there’s a vegetarian option. As for the temple as a place of quiet meditation, wrong again. We’re talking about the ancient temple, not the National Cathedral during worship. Ancient temples were loud, busy and crowded as any reader of the gospel should know, given all those teachers, including Jesus himself, holding court there. We know that Jesus’ followers continued to worship and even contributed to the temple as the book of Acts notes on several occasions. When Paul, in Romans four details the benefits of the Jewish tradition, he includes the term worship, la treya in Greek, the Hebrew would be avodah, temple worship.
Had Jesus denounced the entire temple system for which the vendors and the money changes were necessary, then not a single one of his followers got the point. How then should we understand this passage in John’s gospel? Here are two possibilities. First, perhaps Jesus, like the Pharisees, is seeking to enact Exodus 19:6, the chapter right before today’s lectionary selection. Exodus 19:6 proclaims, “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”
Perhaps he, like the Pharisees, is extending the temple holiness to all the people. When Jesus says, take these things out of your stop, making my father’s house a marketplace, he’s paraphrasing Zachariah 14, which describes the messianic age. On that day, there shall be inscribed on the bells of horses, holy to the Lord. And the cooking pots in the house of the Lord shall be as holy as the bowls in front of the altar. And every cooking pot in Jerusalem and Judah shall be sacred to the Lord of hosts, so that all who sacrifice may come and use them. And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day. Taking out the vendors is a sign of the messianic age. And second, rather than use this text to promote a negative view of Jewish practice by inventing economic or ethnic problems, why not use it to promote a positive view of Jesus? In John 2, Jesus refocuses temple activity from the sacrificial offerings to himself, which is entirely appropriate for the one John the Baptist calls the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And these words provide comfort. For by the time John wrote his gospel, the Romans had destroyed the temple.
Jesus claims the temple is his father’s house. And his disciples remembered the quote from Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
And much could be said here for memory and for reassessing our histories in light of later knowledge. It can take time to see the full effect of an action or a quote or a lectionary reading. The lectionary reading today, which in common cultural imagination moves from Old Testament law and ritual to New Testament grace and spirit threatens to suggest that Judaism is outdated or more likely failed, perverse, exploitative or impossible. And that Jesus comes to replace it and erase it. Christian teaching need not maligned Jewish tradition in order to make Jesus look good. I’m a Jew. I don’t worship Jesus as lord and savior, but I have spent my life studying him and being inspired by him and learning from him. He’s a splendid teacher. If I can see how profound and provocative he is without having to malign Judaism, surely Christians can do the same.
The incorrect stereotypes of Judaism stereotypes this lectionary threatens to reproduce and disseminate lead to Jew hatred. And we have seen on our own US soil what that looks like. Sometimes texts need a warning label. Sometimes lectionary, and not just for Holy Week, need to be revised. If symbols of slavery can be removed from flagpoles in public parks, why can’t Christians change Sunday readings that can easily lead to prejudice against Jews? If people can be reprimanded or canceled for making comments that reinforce the sins of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and so on, why can’t ministers be trained to follow the commandment about not bearing false witness against their neighbor? If we are all to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, please God, let us stop the bigotry that comes in the name of religion and let us prevent the gospel of love from being turned into a gospel of hate. The resolution of this diocese includes not only the concern for adjusting Holy Week lectionary readings, it also suggests that the Episcopal Church advocate that other denominations using the revised common lectionary consider the same changes. God speed on your work, and please God help others to follow your lead.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you.