Sunday, March 27, 2011

Blood on the Hands

Matthew 26:57-68, 27:24-26
Lent 3
March 27, 2011
William G. Carter

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

I can’t imagine that they meant what they said. The Jews of Jerusalem looked to the cross and said, “His blood be upon us and on our children.” Did they have any idea how people would regard those words for the next twenty centuries?

I had brunch last Sunday with Sam Levine. He is a studio musician in Nashville, in the buckle of the Bible Belt. He was raised a Jew but is now a Presbyterian, an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church. I mentioned the scripture text that I would read today and he visibly flinched. It wasn’t so long ago that Christian kids threw stones at kids like Sam, because some Sunday School teacher told them that the Jews were Christ Killers. They got that from this text. “His blood be upon us and on our children.”

On Friday morning, John Conklin and I went over to pick up the painting that is now on loan in the narthex. Our church is borrowing it through Lent from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. After wrapping it carefully and loading it on a large rental truck, we were invited to lunch at the conference center where we were picking up the painting. Within a few minutes of sitting down, we were joined by a female rabbi who heard why we were there. She was very interested in learning what a group of Christians were going to do with a painting of Jesus crucified in a Jewish death camp.

“You know,” she said, “the relationship between Christians and Jews hasn’t been so hunky-dory. Just thought I’d ask.”

She has a right to be suspicious. Jewish people have been kicked around by most of the countries where they have lived. In the time of Jesus, they were kicked around in their own country. The Empire had stomped in with bloody boots. They set up battalions and plundered the commerce, all in the name of peace – Roman Peace. They maintained control through sheer brutality. Any Jew that got in the way was considered expendable. That’s what empires do – they roll over anybody who gets in the way.

Through the centuries, the Jewish people of God have had far more than their share of brutality. Ever since the ancient Pharoah who did not know Joseph, Jews have been the victims of abuse. So I expect the rabbi in New York and my friend Sam in Tennessee to be quite sensitive to how the Jewish people would be portrayed by a Christian congregation.

I think we have to hear our text with a similar sensitivity. We are playing with dynamite here.

Maybe you have heard it said that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels. I don’t think that’s true. Luke is actually a cozier Gospel for Jews: there is high regard for the Jewish Temple, Jesus is described in terms of a Jewish prophet, and Luke is constantly alluding to the Jewish scriptures in the way he tells his stories.

By contrast, Matthew writes down his Gospel at a very painful time and place. The church was going through a bitter divorce from the synagogue. Christianity had begun as a small sect of Judaism, but the day had come when both affirmed irreconcilable differences. In 80 AD or so, the Jerusalem Temple had been demolished by the empire, and Judaism had to make its way without the central sanctuary of the faith. Congregations grew up around local synagogues. Rabbis took on a stronger role, replacing temple priests who were obsolete. With this, Judaism got nervous about those who believed the Messiah was Jesus.

At the same time, Christian congregations continued to gather non-Jewish believers. The church was slowly becoming an international movement. Christians decided to define themselves over against their Jewish grandparents. Matthew was writing in Syria, at Ground Zero for this major religious shift.

That’s probably why he remembers some of the things that he does. In Matthew’s Gospel, and only there, Jesus says, “I did not come to abolish the law and the prophets; I came to fulfill them.” Do you hear that? In Matthew, he hears Jesus say, “You have heard what the Jewish Law said, but I say something different to you…” Hear that? In Matthew, Jesus is very critical of the scribes, Pharisees, and the religious officials of his time.

In chapter 23, Jesus harangues endlessly against the hypocrites who say one thing and do another. He criticizes a religious system of heavy rules and ungracious legislation. He points an accusing finger at the nitpickers who always seem to bottom-feed in any religious community. Matthew never says Jesus is condemning the Jewish faith. But he does take on anybody who numbly follows the rules and forgets the graciousness of God that lies behind them. His Jesus says, “They strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (23:24)

The problem we have is that good Christian people have thought he was talking about all Jews everywhere. Not so! We can’t universalize a first century critique of a recurring ecumenical problem. Maybe you’ve noticed: Christian people can nitpick just like the people of any other faith. Sometimes they can put their brains on the shelf and function without their hearts. I am embarrassed at some of the mean-edged nonsense that some Christian pastors say when somebody points a TV camera in their direction. It seems the more extreme the position, the more play it gets on the news.

There is no place for hatred in the name of a Jesus who teaches us to love our enemies. There is no place for racism in the name of the Christ who says, “Blessed are the merciful and the peacemakers.” There is no possibility of moral superiority for those who hear their Master say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are the meek.”

Nevertheless a lot of trouble got started by our text. Matthew takes a broad brush to paint the trial of Jesus. That is unfortunate and probably inaccurate. To quote him, he does say, “The people as a whole answered (Pontius Pilate), ‘his blood be upon us and our children.’” He says, “The people as a whole.” That cannot be. Historically that was not true. There were Jews who were very sympathetic to Jesus – there still are. To declare uncritically that they spoke with one voice would be to misunderstand how crowds work.

And as my rabbi friend says, “Have you ever known a group of Jews to agree on anything?” I responded, “I have never known a group of Presbyterians to agree on anything.” Even if the vote is unanimous, it is never unanimous. You never hear all of the opinions until you get out to the parking lot. Even if the majority is crying out for blood, there is always somebody in the crowd who does not agree. So we have to be cautious of universalizing the voice of the crowd.

Now, the account is clear: the chief priests and the whole religious council have it in for Jesus. They have grown annoyed at his teachings. They have paid off Judas to turn him in. By chapter 26, they have captured Jesus and roughed him up. They have even broken God’s commandments, particularly the ones that say, “Do not bear false witness, and do not lie!” Instead, they are skulking around, wondering out loud, “Surely there’s somebody here who would lie about Jesus.” To nobody’s surprise, a few such people speak up, twist the truth, and Jesus refuses to dignify their lies by making any response.

The condemnation of Jesus is a complicated matter. There are mixed motives, ambiguous feelings, divided hearts, jealous urges, even guilt and regret -- especially in Judas, his betrayer. We don’t make it any better by flattening the whole complicated mess and saying there’s only one way to perceive this.

Just take that self-inflicted curse, “His blood be upon us and our children.” They were painful words for generations of those children. Christianity began as a minority sect within the minority faith of Judaism. Some three or four hundred years later, the Roman Empire changed and became the Holy Roman Empire. With Christians on the throne, it was only a matter of time before the same unimaginative nitpicking began in those in charge.

In latter days, they read Matthew’s ancient report and flattened it out. The Jews supposedly said, ‘His blood be upon us and our children.” In some narrow minds, that justified pogroms, inquisitions, and exterminations. This is what Empire Status tends to do to insensitive people. They start using their God-given imaginations in most unholy ways. They convert trees into crosses. They turn showers into gas chambers. And they operate on the ambitious belief that they, not God, shall decide who is acceptable and who is not.

What did we lose in Hitler’s empire? Six million Jews, 75,000 disabled people, 500,000 Gypsies, 2.8 million Russian POWs, unnumbered thousands of homosexuals. Those are the ones we know about. Just like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the empire murdered in the name of God. It could happen again, unless we say no. For genocide never comes in the name of the biblical God, the God of Israel. It comes in the name of an unholy trinity of arrogance, abuse, and power.

So who killed Jesus? Who bears the responsibility for his death?

The religious leaders played their part – chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, whoever. None of them wanted Jesus around. They heard his criticism and wanted to silence his voice. But they had no authority for a capital execution, especially in an occupied country.

There is the empire’s governor, Pontius Pilate. He had the authority to decide for death. Historians say he probably exercised that right every day. But Matthew says Pilate wanted nothing to do with the matter. Even his wife came out of the shadows and said, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man; he’s giving me nightmares.” So Pilate asks for a bowl of water, washes his hands, and says, “I want nothing to do with this.” That is, until he gave the order. The empire always gives the order.

And then there’s the crowd: “His blood be upon us” – if, in fact, they actually said that. Clearly there were many people in that day could not welcome Jesus with an open heart. But before we dare to accuse one group or another, let’s confess our own thirst for blood. Violence is a human addiction, a spectator sport. The most civilized nations in the world pay money to watch grown brutes knock heads together, and then retire them when their brains are damaged. We bomb dictators who live far away. We continue wars even after they lose their purpose. We grow comfortably numb with our viciousness. We love blood – even if it’s God’s blood.

“His blood be upon us.” And it is. Upon all of us.

The sermon illustration that I have for you is the stirring painting in our narthex. While it remains here during the season of Lent, I invite you to spend some time before it. It is called “Christ at Auschwitz.” The man on the cross wears a yarmulke. He is humiliated as one in a death camp. A religious priest on the left looks away in willful ignorance. The nun on the right scowls at a naked Jew and misses what is really going on – she is straining her own gnat, so to speak, while swallowing the camel. And it corrects every flattened-out, anti-Semitic spin on the crucifixion. See this: Jesus was not so much crucified by his people; he is crucified among his people.

The Man on the cross is surrounded by people who are tattooed, abused, and condemned. He is in the middle of them all. And he remains with them until the human race decides that violence is not God’s way.

Not then. Not now. Not ever.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

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