Judges 11:29-40+Psalm 22+Hebrews 12:1-4+Luke 22:14-23:56
A few years ago, Tim and I took a long-dreamt-about trip down the Danube River from Germany through Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary. Before getting on the boat, we spent a few days in Munich (highly recommended) with a couple of side trips, including to Neuschwanstein, the fairy castle of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. On our way back to Munich from Neuschwanstein, we drove through the town of Oberammergau, a sleepy little Bavarian village whose population swells by the thousands every ten years when the Passion Plays are produced. Passion Plays depicting the last days of Jesus through the crucifixion have been around since at least the 12th century.
These dramatized depictions of the events of Holy Week contained the most antisemitic tropes imaginable. Jews were depicted as greedy, evil (some even appeared with horns), and legalistic when it came to religious practice. The scripts did not have to search very far for an element of realism, with our gospels telling us that “the Jews” shouted “crucify him,” and “his blood be upon us and our children” (Matthew 27:25). These words ignited the crowds watching, and there was perhaps no more violent time for Europe’s Jews than during Holy Week, as bands of “Christians” terrorized the “Christ-killers.” In 1389 in Prague, more than 900 Jews – men, women, children – were murdered and brutalized, on Easter Day.
Oberammergau’s Passion Plays are perhaps the most famous of all of them, and they are also the most problematic. In its 300th anniversary season in 1934, Adolph Hitler was in attendance and remarked “Never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed.”
There have been some improvements over the years in the scripts produced at Oberammergau, but what we Christians must wrestle with is that texts that we call sacred, that we proclaim as Good News, are not Good News to those on the receiving end of violence and discrimination because of them. Just try to imagine one of our Jewish neighbors sitting here in the front row as we accuse the Jews of begging Pilate to crucify Jesus.
For many years, the Episcopal Church has been wrestling with our passion texts. Those of you who have heard me preach over the last few years know that I always try to contextualize what is going on as a family fight, a dispute among the Jews, of whom Jesus was one. But as Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine notes, that still places the blame at the feet of the Jews. If we soften the language by describing them as Judeans (a geographic designation) or religious leaders, we then erase the Jews altogether. And the Jews are very much part of our story.
The worst-offending gospels are Matthew and John, so much so that, in some locations, orchestras and choruses will not perform certain portions of Bach’s magnificent passion settings, or they include extensive, copious program notes explaining it all. It is customary on Good Friday for Episcopal Churches to read John’s passion, but our current lectionary substitutes Luke, avoiding some of the worst parts.
This rather lengthy excursus into the antisemitism found in our scriptures may seem an odd way to observe Good Friday. But the wrestling I, and many of my colleagues, have done to find ways to not make these readings so offensive actually fits really well into what this day is all about.
It is offensive.
It is inexplicable.
It is irredeemable.
Because God can redeem it.
Maybe all of this angst is an invitation for Christians everywhere to acknowledge the ways in which our most holy texts have been used for most unholy purposes for centuries. And maybe we condemn that or disagree with the anti-Jewish bias it leads to, but it continues to plague our world. An antisemitic festival in Belgium in 2020. Shootings and hostage-takings inside synagogues. Gangs of angry (mostly) men with swastikas on their arm bands. Our Jewish neighbors at United Synagogue and Chabad of Hoboken having to hire heavy security during their most sacred holy days. Politicians and others railing against globalists like George Soros, a thinly veiled trope about supposedly greedy and conniving and power-hungry Jews.
All of this adds up to further evidence of our inability to love one another as Jesus loved us. We would rather betray him, abandon him, nail him to the cross again and again rather than actually doing something to ease the burden of our neighbors – our Jewish neighbors, our Black neighbors, our Latinx neighbors, our trans neighbors. And that is why it is so important for us to come here on this Friday we call good to witness once again just what humans are capable of. Rather than risk ourselves, we’ll hand over Love incarnate to certain death.
James Baldwin once noted “not all that is faced can be changed. But nothing can change until it is faced.” Here we come face to face with the evil we have done and the evil done on our behalf. But we also know that resurrection is coming. God can take the worst we can do and make it good. The texts that slaveholders used to convince those in shackles that they belonged there lost their authority. The ones that say that women should not speak in church have lost their power (at least in some places). The texts that condemn gay and trans folk to damnation have been reexamined in many contexts, including in our Episcopal Church. But there are still plenty of places where women and LGBTQ folk are denied their humanity because of what our bible says. Right there in black and white.
Well, if God can redeem the slaveholder narrative, then God can redeem those, too. In the depths of Good Friday, maybe we can be transformed to live the kind of resurrection life that helps make that happen, that changes this world for good for all God’s people.