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Evensong, Remembrance Sunday 2016

Dr Ann Conway-Jones, Honorary Secretary of the Council of Christians and Jews Readings: Genesis 32:22 – 33:11; John 8:31-47

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. (John 8:44)

My hope, at this point, is that you are shocked by my choice of New Testament reading, and feeling uncomfortable at having been made to listen to it. It is quite likely that you have never heard it read out in church before, as it does not feature in the Sunday lectionary. Normally, the only time you will hear it in an Anglican church is at morning or evening prayer on the Thursday in the third week of Lent, as part of a continuous reading of John’s gospel. That passage from John 8 does not sit well with the usual Christian characterisation of John as the most spiritual and poetic of the gospels. It also fails to conform with a widespread Christian presumption about a loving, forgiving God of the New Testament, as opposed to a violent, vengeful God of the Old Testament – a presumption which not only ignores all the beautiful Old Testament passages about God as ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’(1); but airbrushes out all difficult New Testament texts, such as this one.

Today, Remembrance Sunday, we have remembered and honoured the fallen of two world wars. This evening I have been invited to preach about Jewish-Christian relations, in my capacity as Honorary Secretary of CCJ. In the context of today, that inevitably means recalling the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, and all the horrors of the Shoah. The relationship between Christian anti-Judaism and Nazi antisemitism is complex, and much debated. But there is no doubt that the verse from John’s gospel characterising the father of the Jews as the devil has had a long and shameful afterlife, stretching from medieval to modern times. In The Merchant of Venice Shylock is referred to as ‘a kind of devil’, ‘the devil himself’ and ‘the very devil incarnate’.(2) The caption ‘The father of the Jews is the devil’ was inserted under the depiction of a Jew in a picture-book for children published in Nuremberg in 1936.(3) And I haven’t wanted to look, but no doubt the calumny still features on white supremacist websites. What are we as Christians to do with this verse? How are we to relate to it? Is hiding it away in the most obscure corner of the lectionary sufficient?

The debate between Jesus and the Jews in John 8 is all about paternity. First we need to note that John’s gospel nearly always uses the term ‘Jews’ to refer to those Jews who question Jesus’ claims. Someone coming to the gospel with no prior knowledge would never realise that Jesus, and the disciples, were themselves Jewish. If we strip away the polemic and insults, and the biased viewpoint, the Jews of John 8 give a good account of Jewish beliefs: They are descendants of Abraham, who, like Abraham, worship the one God. Despite all the vicissitudes of history, such as bondage in Egypt, or exile in Babylon, their people has resisted idolatry, and has never become enslaved to foreign gods. These Jews are suspicious of Jesus. There are rumours circulating about the circumstances of his birth, to which they allude. In verse 19 they have asked, ‘Where is your father?’, and in verse 41 they make the snide remark ‘we are not illegitimate children’. But in response to these slurs on his earthy parentage, Jesus responds by denying their divine parentage. He claims the one God as his Father, and accuses them of being from their father, the devil. Most scholars see the arguments in this passage as reflecting debates from the end of the first century, when the emerging Christian movement began distancing itself from Jewish synagogues. Those debates were then written back into Jesus’ lifetime. By the time John’s gospel was written, Christians (or more accurately, some Christians) were developing a ‘high Christology’ – an understanding of Jesus’ divine status as Son of God which was incompatible with traditional Jewish monotheism. Argument has always been a part of Jewish culture. Fierce intra-Jewish debates were common in the first century, and still are. Sometimes insults fly. The Talmud tells of Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas disagreeing with his younger brother, Jonathan, over a legal issue, and calling him ‘the first-born of Satan’.(4) (It is worth noting that ‘first-born of Satan’ (בכור שטן), ‘younger brother’ 8 all rhyme in Hebrew, and have a similar rhythm). The Jews in John )יונתן( ’and ‘Jonathan )אח קטן( respond to Jesus’ barb by accusing him of being a Samaritan – not a proper Jew – and of having a demon (that comes in the verses straight after the passage we read). But the argument is not written up in John as an intra-Jewish debate. Instead it reflects the beginning of the separation, and bitter misunderstanding, between Christians and Jews, who are no longer able to acknowledge that they have the same God and Father. What could even have begun as a joke has become deadly serious. And John’s gospel is shot through with a dualistic worldview: there is light and darkness, belief and unbelief, truth and lies. If you believe in Jesus, and see yourself as being in the light, it is spiritual and poetic. But if, like ‘the Jews’, you are accused of being on the dark side, it reads quite differently. There is no room for different points of view. And so it has provided a proof text for expulsion, forcible conversion, and murder.

It is not unusual for Christian lectionaries to pair the gospel reading with an Old Testament reading believed to have been fulfilled, or even overturned, by it. I propose to reverse the procedure, and to turn to the Old Testament for help in my struggle with this most troubling of New Testament passages. I’d like to think about Jacob at the ford of Jabbok. Jacob and Esau, if you recall, first started struggling with each other in the womb. Eventually Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright, fooling Isaac into giving him (Jacob) the blessing intended for the first-born son (Esau). Then he fled to Paddan-aram and worked for his uncle Laban, marrying first Leah (having himself been tricked!) and then Rachel. We take up the story as he is returning home for the first time, and nervously preparing to meet Esau, the older brother he has wronged. Already he has prayed, ‘O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac ... Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children".(5) During the night, as we heard, he is drawn into a wrestling match. There have been numerous interpretations of this encounter. Who was Jacob’s opponent, the mysterious stranger? He is often described as an angel, although at no point in the text is the word ‘angel’ mentioned. I like the interpretation which suggests that Jacob was wrestling with his brother – not the real flesh and blood Esau, but his internal brother. He is at last facing up to the rivalry which has defined his life. This interpretation has some justification in the text. At sunrise, before limping away, Jacob names the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.'(6) After the meeting with Esau, a meeting which most unexpectedly turns out to be a reconciliation, Jacob says to Esau, ‘for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God’.(7) One essay I read on this passage puts it beautifully, ‘Jacob knows at that moment that the way we see God on earth is by facing the people we’ve wronged, by looking into their faces and knowing that we can change’.(8) There is an even more intriguing clue in the text, one which most English translations miss. The NRSV, for example, translates 33:11 as ‘Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me’. A more accurate translation of the Hebrew would be: ‘Please take my blessing’.

Jacob is returning the blessing he stole all those years ago. As a result of the wrestling match, he is both more and less than he was before. He has a new name and a new blessing. He is also wounded – he has learnt humility, which opens him to change, and he now no longer needs to appropriate what is not his. He is ready to meet his brother on a new footing.

As a Christian, this story speaks to me of Christian rivalry with Jews. From the very beginning, as we see so clearly in John’s Gospel, Christians have defined themselves over and against Jews. I have listened to countless sermons in which the preacher says, ‘Jews believe such and such, but Jesus, on the other hand, dot dot dot’. Jews on one side, Jesus and Christians on the other, completely forgetting that Jesus was Jewish, and therefore anything he said was, by definition, within the range of possible Jewish opinions. But the fact remains that it was out of wrestling with Jews – mostly our own inner conceptions about Jews – that Christianity was born. The process involved deciding what we could appropriate from Israelite and Jewish traditions, and what we would reject. In opposition to Marcion, the early Church kept the Hebrew scriptures (though nearly always read them in translation); but it rejected halakhah – Jewish law. And we can’t rewrite that history. But we can decide what to do next. How about ceasing to struggle with inner Jews and crossing the river to meet some real ones?! I spend a lot of time reading the New Testament and the early church fathers, and agonising over the Jews that I find there – one dimensional theoretical constructs. Being Jewish is reduced to rejecting Christ. The best antidote to this agonising is to go to my local synagogue. The welcome that I receive there, the friends I have made, the depth and beauty of the liturgy, the commitment to social justice – these have nothing in common with the cardboard cut-out stereotypes I meet in Christian texts. It is in encounters with real people that we learn to see the face of God – in the face of the other.

The Council of Christians and Jews was founded 1942 by Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz and Archbishop William Temple. In the darkness of the times, they realised the importance of Jews and Christians meeting together and learning to recognise the humanity of each other. The dualisms of John’s gospel – light/darkness, truth/lies, good/evil – do reflect something of the world as we experience it. No one can look at Nazi Germany, or the behaviour of so-called Islamic State, and say that evil does not exist. But once we start using those dualisms to categorise people, or groups of people, they become lethal.
Taken to extreme they lead to the sort of dehumanisation which permits genocide. There is good and evil within each of us, and there are moments when we are called to choose. And the way to combat evil is to assert our common humanity. The most difficult topic in Jewish-Christian relations today is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. CCJ deliberately does not take a position on this. It acknowledges the concern that many Christians have for the plight of the Palestinians, at the same time as recognising the importance, the fragility and the preciousness of Israel for Jews. And it sees its role as facilitating dialogue – enabling people with deeply held, sincere views to see the human face of those they disagree with.

Jesus and the Jews of John 8 are portrayed as arguing over who can rightly claim the fatherhood of God. Jacob and Esau parted because of a dispute over the parental blessing. But after a night of honest self- searching, Jacob acquired both a new confidence in his own identity, and the humility to return to his brother the blessing he had stolen. I do not believe that divine favour is apportioned according to the rules of our human economy. The truth about God is bigger than any of us. When we are open to having our experience of the world enlarged, and we meet those who differ from us in a spirit of receptiveness and curiosity, aware of our own wounds and weaknesses, we discover that the other is not to be feared, but embraced, and in doing so we see the face of God.

1 Eg Psalm 86:15
2 Act 2, scene 2.
3 Ein Bilderbuch für Gross und Klein. See Gareth Lloyd Jones, ‘Teaching Contempt: The Jew through Christian eyes’, Journal of Beliefs & Values, 20: 1 (1999), 18.
4 Talmud Yevamot 16a.
5 Gen 32:9, 11.
6 Gen 32:30
7 Gen 33:10
8 Dara Horn, ‘Jacob: Some Notes on Character Development and Repentance’, in Beth Kissileff (ed.), Reading Genesis: Beginnings (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), 176.