Problem Passages and Their Resolution

Season of Advent: Third Sunday of Advent, Year B

Problematic passage:  Gospel Reading: John 1:19:

“When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it . . .”

Why is this problematic?

“The Jews.” These two words communicate a generalization that brings to mind, not individual people with individual characteristics, but a featureless throng. Clearly, it would have been impossible for every Jewish person in Jerusalem to have “sent priests and Levites to ask him . . .” Instead, this must refer to a relatively small group of Jews (the Pharisees, according to verse 19) who wanted to question Jesus and to find out what claims he was making about himself.

Season of Christmas: Nativity of the Lord, Mass During The Day, Years ABC

PLEASE NOTE

This reading has two problematic passages, one in the second reading (Hebrews 1:1) and the other in the Gospel reading (John 1:11). We’ll comment on the Gospel reading first and suggest some modified wording, since the Gospel is the text most usually read in worship services by clergy. Then, after the double lines, we’ll do the same for the reading from Hebrews.

Gospel reading: John 1:1-18

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: John 1:11:

“He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.”

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

Our comments about the problematic parts of John’s gospel are not meant to take away in the least from the magnificence of its good news–John’s cosmological story of the Word become flesh full of grace and truth, who brings light and life to humanity and shows us how to be intimately united to Christ and to God.

Season of Lent: Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Ezekiel 37:12-14;  Romans 8:8-11;  John 11:1-45

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE:  JOHN 11:18

Current lectionary reading: The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you . . . “

 

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

This portrays “theJews” as being so antagonistic to Jesus that they wanted to stone him.  This clearly is unjustifiable because it depicts Jesus and his disciples, who clearly are Jews, as something different than “the Jews” who want to stone Jesus. It seems incongruous to have Jewish disciples warning their Jewish Master about Jewish antagonists, as though the former were completely different from the latter. Jesus and his disciples are clearly set apart from “the Jews” who want to harm him.

It is this tendency to see “the Jews” as a group totally alien to Jesus and his disciples that has allowed people down through history to refer to “the Jews” as “the bad guys” over against “the good guys,” Jesus and his followers. “The Jews did it” is a common refrain in the mouths of anti-Semities that easily can justify–and has justified–persecution of the Jewish community.

POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE WORDING FOR JOHN 11:8

The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, some of your Jewish enemies were just trying to stone you . . . “

OR:

The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, your Jewish adversaries were just trying to stone you . . . “

 

FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THE LEFT SIDEBAR OF THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE.

 

Season of Lent: Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Jeremiah 31:31-34;  Hebrews 5:7-9;  John 12:20-33

PROBLEM PASSAGE: FIRST READING: Jeremiah 31:31-34

This is the “New Covenant” passage. While there is nothing “problematic” with the passage itself, Christian interpreters have often read it as though it were a “prediction” of a new covenant with Christ.  Christians believe that, in Jesus, a “new” covenant was inaugurated, and have retroactively or retrospectively referred to the Jeremiah passage as an anticipated description or prediction of that new covenant.  However, there are serious problems with reading Jeremiah as though he were “predicting” the Christian dispensation.

The text is not so much a promise or prediction to be realized as “a pious hope” and “a metaphor of an arrangement with an imaginary community” (Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986], p. 612 and 614).  Walter Brueggemann, in The Theology of the Book of Jeremiah (Cambridge U., 2007) claims that “nothing could more distort the text than such a reading” (p. 126) and “It is neither necessary nor legitimate to read Jeremiah  . . . in such a supersessionist way” (p.191).

So, to the preacher:  We recommend care on how you handle this passage in your homily

Season of Lent: Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a;  Ephesians 5:8-14;  John 9:1-41 (shorter form: John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38)

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGES (there are four):

First problem passage: JOHN 9:13: They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees.

 

Second problem passage: JOHN 9:15: So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.

 

Third problem passage: JOHN 9:18Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight . . .

 

Fourth problem passage: JOHN 9:22: His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed . . .

 

WHY ARE THESE FOUR READINGS PROBLEMATIC?

The first two readings use the phrase “the Pharisees,” the third and the fourth speak about “the Jews.” For a detailed commentary on the caution that has to be taken in voicing these two expressions, see the “SermonsWithoutPrejudice” Home Page, then click on “Potentially Perilous Phrases” in the left sidebar. Here you will find a detailed commentary on “the Pharisees” and “the Jews.”

One comment here: The reading states that the formerly blind man’s parents “were afraid of the Jews” (Jn. 9:22). But the parents themselves were Jews. Therefore, it seems probable that John is using the term “the Jews” in a special way to refer, not to every Jew then living in Israel and the Diaspora, but to a particular set of religious officials who were becoming Jesus’ adversaries.

Present-day parishioners, however, listening to the reading in church, probably will not make this distinction. Even subtly, hearing the way that John refers to “the Jews” can inspire suspicion or other negative feelings toward members of the modern-day Jewish community.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the wording in the readings (Even a small change can make a big difference in listeners’ minds.)

For the first: John 9:13:  They brought the one who was once blind to some Pharisees.

 

For the second: John 9:15:  So then these Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.

 

For the third: John 9:18: Now the religious officials did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight . . .

 

For the fourth: John 9:22:  His parents said this because they were afraid of the religious officials, for these men had already agreed . . .

 

FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THE LEFT SIDEBAR OF THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE.

 

 

Season of Lent: Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Lectionary Readings:  Joshua 5:9a, 10-12;  2 Corinthians 5:17-21;  Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING:  LUKE 15:1-3, 11-32

Current reading:  Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and the scribes began to complain . . .

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

For a discussion of “the Pharisees,” see this website’s Home page, left sidebar, “Potentially Perilous Passages.” Much of what is said there about such issues as  the danger of generalizing about a whole group of people can also be applied to the phrase, “the scribes.”

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE WORDING

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but some of the Pharisees and the scribes began to complain . . .

 

OR:

 

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but certain Pharisees and scribes began to complain . . .

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

See this website’s Home page, left sidebar, “What Can a Minister Do?”

 

Season of Lent: Palm Sunday – At the Mass, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Isaiah 50:4-7;  Philippians 2:6-11;  Mark 14:1-15:47 (Shorter form: Mk. 15:1-39)

8 PROBLEMATIC PASSAGES WITHIN: MARK 14:1-15:47

NOTE: There are 8 problematic passages in this reading. They are numbered below, starting with the “1st Problematic Passage: Mark 14:1.” The problem in each of these 8 passages is the way Mark portrays “the chief priests,” “the scribes,” “the elders,” and “the Sanhedrin.” Therefore, we will comment on “WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?” here at the beginning, rather than repeating the same comments eight times.

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The period from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem until his death on the Cross is precious to Christians, but incredibly hard for Jews. Sometimes in history, after hearing the Palm Sunday readings, inflamed Christians poured out of their churches to inflict pogroms or otherwise beat up on Jews. “It was the Jews who screamed for Jesus’ crucifixion,” these Christians probably thought. “Don’t these Jewish ‘Christ-killers’ deserve whatever abuse can be heaped upon them?”

This is not just ancient history. In the modern documentary, “Sr. Rose’s Passion,” a reporter interviews people on city streets asking, “Who killed Jesus?” Time after time, their answer was “the Jews.”

Season of Lent: Palm Sunday — at the Mass, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Isaiah 50:4-7;  Philippians 2:6-11;  Matthew 26:14-27:66  (Shorter Form: Mt. 27:11-54)

THE OVERALL TENOR OF THIS GOSPEL READING IS PROBLEMATIC

The period from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem until his death on the Cross is precious to Christians, but incredibly hard for Jews. Matthew’s Passion/Trial Narrative also has wordings that create the overall perception that Israel, “the Jews,” their leaders and those who followed them, were utterly hostile to Jesus and were responsible for his death. The Jewish leaders in particular–chief priests, scribes, elders, the Sanhedrin–are single-minded in their pursuit of having Jesus tortured and killed. It is a very grim, harsh, ominous portrayal of Jewish leadership.

At various times in the past, after hearing the Palm Sunday readings, inflamed Christians poured out of their churches to inflict pogroms on or otherwise to harass Jews. These Christians may well have thought: “It was the Jews who screamed for Jesus’ crucifixion; don’t these  ‘Christ-killers’ deserve whatever abuse can be heaped upon them?”

In our opinion, this strong antipathetic tone cannot be ameliorated by substituting or deleting a phrase here or a word there. With the exception of the Last Supper and Gethsemane narratives and some “interruptions” or “intrusions” (e.g., Peter’s denials, Judas’ suicide), the reading was composed as it stands. As it stands–and the deleterious way it has been read through history–should be a matter of serious concern for any preacher. The reading should be confronted as forthrightly as possible and as time for the homily allows.

Two main concerns need to be addressed: (1) The depicted role of Israel’s or Jerusalem’s religious leaders or officials, and (2) the portrayal of the “ordinary people” of Jerusalem.

(1)  Religious leaders or officials

These appear in various combinations in the reading as chief priests, elders, the Sanhedrin, scribes, and Caiphas, the High Priest. What impression of Jewish leaders do members of our congregations get when they hear from the pulpit that:

26:4:    they plot “to arrest Jesus by treachery and put him to death”;

26:14:  they pay Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus;

26:57:  they assemble to put Jesus on trial;

26:59:  they try to obtain false testimony against Jesus in order to put him to death;

26:62-63:  they interrogate him sternly;

26:65:  they accuse Jesus of blasphemy;

26:66:  they claim that “he deserves to die.”

26:67-68:  they mock him while spitting in his face, striking and slapping him.

27:1:     they take counsel “against Jesus to put him to death;”

27:12:  they accuse Jesus before Pilate;

27:20:  they persuade the crowds to ask for the release of Barabbas rather than Jesus;

27:41-43:  they mock Jesus as he hangs on the Cross.

The cumulative effect of these assertions about Israel’s leaders is to create the (false) impression that Judaism as a whole condemned Jesus officially, with all the dire consequences this accusatory perception brought about  throughout history.

(2)  Ordinary people

These appear as “the crowd,” “the crowds,” “all,” “the whole people.”

27:20:  At the instigation of “the chief priests and elders” (as above), the crowds ask for the release of Barabbas rather than Jesus.

27:22 and 23:  (i.e., twice) they respond to Pilate, “Let him (Jesus) be crucified!”

27:25:  “The whole people” respond, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

27:39:  “Those passing by” revile and taunt Jesus on the Cross.

 

HISTORICAL PROBLEMS WITH THE TEXT

An incomplete portrayal of Jewish leaders: Unquestionably, there were Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time who were threatened by him and were involved in the events that led up to his death. But, hearing the Psalm Sunday story, who in our congregations would recall Jesus’ supporters among the Jewish leadership? Who would remember from Luke’s Gospel the description of Joseph of Arimathea, “a good and righteous man . . . who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action (Lk. 23:50). Both the gospels of Matthew and of John describe this Jewish leader as “a disciple of Jesus” (Mt. 27:57; Jn. 19:38). After the Crucifixion, Joseph wrapped Jesus’ body in a linen shroud and buried him in Joseph’s own tomb (Mt. 27:57-60; Mk. 15:42-46; Lk. 23:50-53; John 19:38-42).

Joseph was assisted in this compassionate but dangerous effort by Nicodemus, a Pharisee and another “leader of the Jews” (Jn. 3:1). Earlier in Jesus life, Nicodemus had been so drawn to him that he came to him by night (Jn. 19:19). Apparently, he was so impressed by this encounter that he defended Jesus in an argument with the other members of the Council, even though they responded to him with derision (Jn. 7:50-52).

Jesus’ arrest (26:47-56): There is no quarrel about the arrest in itself, but John’s Gospel (Jn. 18:12) has a significant and historically plausible Roman presence at Jesus’ arrest. John includes a detachment (Greek: speira) of Roman soldiers as well as a Roman officer (Greek: chiliarchos: “commander-of-a-thousand”). The two Greek words are technical Roman terms.

The trial before the Sanhedrin (26:57-68): Again, John is more plausible, describing an “investigative hearing” rather than a formal trial. (See Jn. 11:47-53 or 18:12, 19-24.) The issue most likely would have been Jesus’ messiahship or the Temple incident.

The alleged “release-of-a-prisoner” custom: There is no historical evidence for the “custom,” and Pilate is unlikely to have released a “revolutionary” who “had committed murder in the rebellion” (Mark 15:7).

Pilate’s ritual hand-washing: This is a Jewish, not a Roman, symbolic gesture, unlikely to have been performed by Pilate, the Roman prefect. (See Deuteronomy 21:1-9).

The Crucifixion: The most basic historical consideration is that crucifixion is a Roman punishment for those claiming political power (to be king or “messiah”). Apparently, this is what Pilate believed about Jesus (“Are you the king of the Jews?”) and this is the charge placed on the placard on the Cross (“Jesus, King of the Jews”). Thus, the basic responsibility for the death of Jesus must belong to the RomansYet, not only Matthew, but all the other Gospels put the blame for Christ’s death on the Jews. Tragically, this is the view that has come down through history, leading to enormous suffering inflicted upon the Jewish people. This lectionary reading can give an opportunity to counter this false generalization.

SO, WHAT CAN WE MAKE OF THE READING?

Given the tendentiousness of the text and what appears to be opposition or antipathy toward the Jewish leadership and people, how can we understand this reading? There is no question of the evil that this text has caused throughout history. Harshly negative generalizations about Jews and Judaism are among the foremost carriers of anti-Judaism from the time of Christ to the present. Does this mean that “Matthew” was evil, or that the New Testament is “evil”?

What is far more likely is that the narrative, written in the 80’s or possibly 90 of the first century C.E./A.D., was a (desperate?) attempt to cope with what the author found excruciatingly painful. The communities to whom the author of Matthew was writing, still thinking of themselves as Jewish, were apparently trying to make sense of what they saw as the tragic “No” to Jesus by Israel’s majority. It was a “No” which they saw as now irreversible and which they experienced as agonizing. It seems that the Passion narrative was the climax of an attempt to ease the pain of separation by picturing as negatively as possible the alternative (i.e., the mainstream Judaism that did not accept their “Jesus-brand” Jewishness).

The most damaging text historically, of course, has been Matthew 27:25: “The whole people said . . . ‘His blood be upon us and on our children.'” “Matthew,” who has lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 C.E./A.D., intended the (hardly historical) statement as a key to why Jerusalem was destroyed: what he had depicted having taken place at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, he wanted understood as as the cause of the suffering of the Jerusalem generation of 70 (the “children” of Matt. 27:25). In writing this, he stood firmly in the tradition of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, who assigned responsibility for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 B.C.E./B.C. to the sins of those to whom they preached. Tragically, however, and erroneously, the Matthew passage has been read as though “the whole people” were calling down a curse on themselves and their children for all time for the death of Jesus.

To attempt to render this material intelligible, to make sense of it, is in no way intended to “defend” the text nor to explain away the harm it has caused through the centuries. The alleged “guilt” of the Jews for the death of Jesus has been rejected by the Catholic Church at Vatican II (Nostra Aetate 4). God’s supposed “rejection” of Israel was long ago disavowed by no less a figure than St. Paul (cf., “God has not rejected his people” [Romans 11:1 and 2] and “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable!” [Romans 11:29].)

In sum, there is no excuse for reading this narrative without some explanation and some disavowal by the person giving the sermon.

 

Season of Lent: Palm Sunday — at the Mass, Year C

Lectionary readings:  Isaiah 50:4-7;  Philippians 2:6-11;  Luke 22:14-23:56  (Shorter form: Lk. 23:1-49)

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGES WITHIN LUKE 22:14-23:56

When recounting Jesus’ Passion, Luke’s portrayal of the Jewish leaders is less harsh than Matthew’s or Mark’s.*  Just as in Matthew and Mark, Luke clearly implicates chief priests, scribes and elders in the arrest, trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus. However, in contrast to Matthew’s and Mark’s broadly negative depiction of Jewish religious officials, Luke does not associate them or their actions with pejorative words like “treachery,” “false testimony,” “blasphemy” or “mocking,” nor do the leaders spit on Jesus or strike him or call him an “impostor.” Luke does not put in the Jewish leaders’ mouths the damning statement, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.” Furthermore, in many of Luke’s references to Jewish leaders, the wording is such that it can mean “some of” the leaders, not all.

Because of this, we are not offering alternative or modified readings for references to Jewish leaders in this reading from Luke. However, below are passages which might carry an anti-Judaic tone. You may want to comment on them in your sermon or write your own alternative wording.

PHRASES WHICH MIGHT CARRY AN ANTI-JUDAIC TONE IN LUKE 22:14-23:56

Lk. 23:4: Pilate then addressed the chief priests and the crowds, “I find this man not guilty.” But they were adamant . . .

Lk. 23:10: The chief priests and scribes, meanwhile, stood by accusing him harshly.

Lk. 23:18:  But all together they shouted out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.”

Lk. 23:21:  . . . but they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Lk. 23:23: With loud shouts however, they persisted in calling for his crucifixion.

Lk. 23:35: The people stood by and watched; the rulers, meanwhile, sneered at him . . .

* (For information on Matthew’s and Mark’s depiction of Jewish leaders, see “Season of Lent: Palm Sunday — At the Mass, Year A” and also Year B.)

 

Season of Lent: Third Sunday Of Lent, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Exodus 20:1-17;  1 Corinthians 1:22-25;  John 2:13-25

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGES: Gospel reading: John 2:13-25 — This reading has 2 problematic passages.

 

PROBLEM PASSAGE #1: John 2:18

Current lectionary reading: At this, the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC? The phrase “the Jews” is a generalization, bringing to mind, not individual people with individual characteristics, but an amorphous throng. It also makes it appear that all Jews objected to or challenged Jesus. We know that this is not the case, since, e.g., Jesus’ mother was Jewish as were his disciples. This  wording comes early in John’s gospel, but John’s habit of speaking of “the Jews” collectively is found throughout his gospel. By the end of his account, “the Jews” are being held responsible for Jesus’ death. (In John 19:14b-15, for example, we read: “[Pilate] said to the Jews, ‘Behold your king.’ They cried out, ‘Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!’”)

Tragically, this created a portrait of the Jewish people as “Christ-killers,”  a portrayal that has come down through history, strengthening anti-Semitism and fostering prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish community. It has given ammunition to bigots, manipulative politicians and dictators. The image of Jews as “Christ-killers” has contributed to the torture and death of millions of Jews by purveyors of hatred. Surely John and the other New Testament writers–followers of Jesus, the Lord of love–did not intend to unleash upon the world such defamation and horror.

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #2 — FOR JOHN 2:18

“At this, some of the Jewish leaders answered and said to    him, ‘What sign can you show us for doing this?” [This phrasing is used in TheHoly Bible: Contemporary English Version (N.Y.: American Bible Society, 1995)]

OR:

“At this, the authorities answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?

OR:

“At this, some of those present answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

WHAT ELSE CAN A MINISTER DO?

Comment on it in your sermon: A minister might say something brief and simple such as: “As we hear the words of John”s Gospel, let us not think that the phrase ‘the Jews’ refers to some group that is different from and hostile to Jesus. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew, as were Mary and Joseph, all of the rest of his family and all the Apostles. We must not let words like this take on an anti-Judaic connotation in our minds nor contribute to anti-Semitism. Let us rather acknowledge and give thanks for the Jewishness of Jesus and of the Jewish roots of our own Christian faith.”

Deepen one’s own understanding: See this website’s bibliography, which lists a number of helpful books with suggestions for creative ways to discuss and preach about this subject.

Sunday bulletin: Include a commentary on the reading which will help worshippers understand the negative ways that the phrase “the Jews” has been used in the past. Caution against reacting to the phrase in ways that can inspire or reinforce anti-Judaism.

Bible study: Invite church members to a Bible study to look more closely at this whole issue. Use a book like Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (see bibliography) to help guide the discussion. Suggestion: To kick off the Bible study, ask someone to read in sequence John 18:12-14, 19-20, 29-31, 35-36; John 19:6-7, 12, 14-16, 19-22, 31, 38; John 20:19. Then ask the group to discuss, e.g.: “What impression of ‘the Jews‘ and their role in Jesus‘ crucifixion do these verses convey? Do you think that reading these words in the Sunday worship can inspire or reinforce anti-Judaism? How did you yourselves react to these readings?”

The church’s website: Include a section on these issues. Suggest books that church members might read (see this website’s bibliography) to deepen their own understanding.

Sunday school classes: After meeting with and orienting teachers, introduce this subject in both adult and children’s classes. The latter are especially important, since children form their ideas of “the other” early on.

Have a speaker on the subject: Invite someone with experience in Jewish-Christian relations and knowledge of the biblical issues to speak at a special gathering (e.g., a night meeting) at the church. (See the resources elsewhere in this website for names of such speakers.)

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #2:  John 2:20

The Jews said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?’”

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC? Since the phrase “The Jews” repeats John 2:18, please refer to the preceding commentary which considers that verse.

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE WORDING #3 — FOR JOHN 2:20

The leaders said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?”

OR:

 

The temple authorities said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?”

WHAT MORE CAN A MINISTER DO?

For other suggestions on “What Can a Minister Do?”, see the preceding commentary

Season of Easter: Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion, Years ABC

Lectionary Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

Gospel Reading: John 18:1-19:42

NOTE: This reading has more than a dozen problematic verses. For the reader’s convenience, we are presenting them in two different versions:

1)  First VersionThe text of the whole reading (Jn. 18:1-19:42), with the current reading in [brackets] and the suggested modified reading highlighted in bold.

2)  Second VersionEach problematic verse cited separately along with a suggested modified wording.

Most ministers find the first version the easiest to adapt to the lectionary’s Scripture reading in the worship service. They simply place the lectionary and the printed-out versions side-by-side. When it is time for the reading, they use the printed-out version for the portion that has problematic phrases, then return to the lectionary for the rest of the worship service.

This procedure may seem to be a lot of trouble, but the whole trail/passion narrative, in each of the four gospels, has been a serious problem for the Church throughout history. These narratives have contributed, more than almost any other passage, to the shameful anti-Judaism and antisemitism (accusations of Jews as “Christ-killers and even “deicides”) from which we Christians have only recently (and not yet completely) disengaged ourselves.

John 18:1-19:42 has a greater number of problematic, potentially anti-Judaic wordings than anywhere else in the New Testament. It’s worth some care, we think, to make sure that worshippers are not inundated with such wordings which can easily inspire anti-Semitism and which all too often have been used by Christians to defame the whole Jewish community and thereby to justify persecuting them. (For more on historical considerations, see the comments at the very end of this text.)

 

A note on formatting: In the “First Version” readings below, the suggested reading is in bold lettering. This is the one you will want to use. The current reading (the one that appears in the usual Lectionary reading) is in brackets, e.g., “ [the Jews].” This is the one you don’t want to use. It is left in the text below so you can see which wording is being modified or replaced.  If it’s better to simply leave out a word or phrase, we’ve put it in [brackets] with a strikethrough.

 

 

FIRST VERSION

THE WHOLE TEXT OF JOHN 18:1-19:42

 

Jesus went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley

to where there was a garden,

into which he and his disciples entered.

 

Judas his betrayer also knew the place,

because Jesus had often met there with his disciples.

So Judas got a band of soldiers and guards

from the religious authorities [chief priests and the Pharisees].

and went there with lanterns, torches and weapons.

 

Jesus, knowing everything that was going to happen to him,

went out and said to them, “Whom are you looking for?”

They answered him, “Jesus the Nazorean.”

He said to them, “I AM.”

Judas his betrayer was also with them.

 

When he said to them, “I AM,”

they turned away and fell to the ground.

So again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?”

They said, “Jesus, the Nazorean.”

Jesus answered, “I told you that I AM.

So if you are looking for me, let these men go.”

This was to fulfill what had been said,

“I have not lost any of those you gave me.”

 

Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it,

struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear.

The slave’s name was Malchus.

Jesus said to Peter,

“Put your sword into its scabbard.

Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?”

 

So the band of soldiers, the tribune, and the [Jewish] guards seized Jesus,

bound him, and brought him to Annas first.

He was the father-in-law of Caiaphas,

who was the high priest that year.

it was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jewish leaders [the Jews]

that it was better that one man should die rather than the people.

 

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus.

Now the other disciple was known to the high priest

and he entered the courtyard of the high priest with Jesus.

But Peter stood at the gate outside.

So the other disciple, the acquaintance of the high priest,

went out and spoke to the gatekeeper and brought Peter in.

 

Then the maid who was the gatekeeper said to Peter,

“You are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?”

He said, “I am not.”

Now the slaves and the guards were standing around a charcoal fire

that they had made, because it was cold,

and were warming themselves.

Peter was also standing there keeping warm.

 

The high priest questioned Jesus

about his disciples and about his doctrine.

Jesus answered him, “I have spoken publicly to the world.

I have always taught in a synagogue

or in the temple area where all of our people [the Jews] gather,

and in secret I have said nothing. Why ask me?

Ask those who heard me what I said to them.

They know what I said.”

 

When he had said this,

one of the temple guards standing there struck Jesus and said,

“Is this the way you answer the high priest?”

Jesus answered him,

“If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong;

but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?”

Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.

 

Now Simon Peter was standing there keeping warm.

And they aid to him, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?”

He denied it and said, “I am not.”

One of the slaves of the high priest,

a relative of the one whose ear Peter had cut off, said,

“Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?”

Again Peter denied it.

And immediately the cock crowed.

 

Then they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the praetorium.

It was morning.

And they themselves did not enter the praetorium,

in order not to be defiled so that they could eat the Passover.

 

So Pilate came out to them and said,

“What charge do you bring against this man?”

They answered and said to him,

“If he were not a criminal,

we would not have handed him over to you.

At this Pilate said to them,

“Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.”

 

The spokesman [Jews] answered him,

“We do not have the right to execute anyone,”

in order that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled

that he said indicating the kind of death he would die.

 

So Pilate went back into the praetorium

and summoned Jesus and said to him,

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answered,

“Do you say this on your own, or have others told you about me?”

 

Pilate answered,

“I am not a Jew, am I?

Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.

What have you done?”

 

Jesus answered,

“My kingdom does not belong to this world.

If my kingdom did belong to this world,

my attendants would be fighting

to keep me from being handed over to the authorities [Jews].

But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

 

So Pilate said to him,

“Then you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.

For this I was born and for this I came into the world,

to testify to the truth,

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

 

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

When He had said this,

he again went out to Jesus’ accusers [the Jews] and said to them,

“I find no guilt in him.

But you have a custom that I release one prisoner to you at Passover.

Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”

They cried out again, “Not this one but Barabbas!”

Now Barabbas was a revolutionary.

 

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him scourged.

And the soldiers wove a crown out of thorns and placed it on his head,

and clothed him in a purple cloak,

and they came to him and said,

“Hail, King of the Jews!”

And they struck him repeatedly.

 

Once more Pilate went out and said to them,

“Look, I am bringing him out to you,

so that you may know that I find no guilt in him.”

So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and a purple cloak.

And he said to them, “Behold, the man!”

 

When the chief priests and the guards saw him they cried out,

“Crucify him, crucify him!”

Pilate said to them,

“Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no guilt in him.”

The leaders [Jews] answered,

“We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die,

because he made himself the Son of God.”

 

Now when Pilate heard this statement,

he became even more afraid

and went back into the praetorium and said to Jesus,

“Where are you from?”

Jesus did not answer him.

So Pilate said to him,

“Do you not speak to me?

Do you know I have the power to release you

and I have the power to crucify you?”

 

Jesus answered him,

“You would have no power over me

if it had not been given to you from above.

For this reason the one who handed me over to you

has the greater sin.”

 

Consequently, Pilate tried to release him,

but the crowd [Jews] cried out,

“If you release him, you are not a Friend of Caesar.

Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”

 

When Pilate heard these words he brought Jesus out

and seated him on the judge’s bench

in the place called Stone Pavement, in Hebrew, Gabbatha.

It was preparation day for the Passover, and it was about noon.

And he said to the crowd [Jews], “Behold your king!”

They cried out, “Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!”

Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your king?”

The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

 

So they took Jesus, and, carrying the cross himself,

he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull,

in Hebrew, Golgotha.

There they crucified him, and with him two others,

one on either side, with Jesus in the middle.

 

Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross.

It read, “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.”

 

Now many of the onlookers [Jews] read this inscription

because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city;

and it was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

So the chief priests said to Pilate,

“Do not write’The King of the Jews,’

but that he said, ‘I am the King of the Jews’.”

Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

 

When the soldiers crucified Jesus,

they took his clothes and divided them into four shares,

a share for each soldier.

They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless,

woven in one piece from the top down.

So they said to one another,

“Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it will be,”

in order that the passage of Scripture might be fulfilled that says:

They divided my garments among them,

and for my vesture they cast lots.

This is what the soldiers did.

 

Standing by the cross with Jesus were his mother

and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas,

and Mary of Magdala.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved

he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son.”

Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.”

And from that hour, the disciple took her into his home.

 

After this, aware that everything was now finished,

in order that the Scripture might be fulfilled,

Jesus said, “I thirst.”

There was a vessel filled with common wine.

So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop

and put it to his mouth.

 

When Jesus had taken the wine, he said,

“It is finished.”

And bowing his head, he handed over his spirit.

 

Now since it was preparation day,

in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the sabbath,

for the sabbath day of that week was a solemn one,

the Jewish authorities [Jews] asked Pilate that their legs be broken

and that they be taken down.

 

So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first

and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus.

But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead,

they did not break his legs,

but one soldier thrust a lance into his side,

and immediately blood and water flowed out.

 

An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true;

he knows that he is speaking the truth

so that you also may come to believe.

For this happened so that the Scripture passage might be fulfilled:

Not a bone of it will be broken.

And again another  passage says:

They will look upon him whom they have pierced.

 

After this, Joseph of Arimathea,

secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of Jesus’ opponents [the Jews],

asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus.

And Pilate permitted it.

So he came and took his body.

 

Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night,

also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes

weighing about one hundred pounds.

 

They took the body of Jesus

and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices,

according to the Jewish burial custom.

 

Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden,

and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried.

So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day;

for the tomb was close by.

 

________________________________________________

 

SECOND VERSON:

VERSES CITED SEPARATELY

 

GOOD FRIDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION: YEARS ABC

Gospel Reading: Jn.18:1–19:42

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #1: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 18:3

Current reading: So Judas got a band of soldiers and guards from the chief priests and the Pharisees and went there. . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #1

So Judas got a band of soldiers and guards from the religious authorities and went there. . .

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #2: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 18:14

 Current reading: It was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jews . . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READINGS #2

It was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jewish leaders . . . . [from The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1995)*]

OR:

It was Caiaphas who had counseled the Jewish authorities . . .

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #3: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 18:20b

Current reading: . . . . temple area where all the Jews gather . . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #3

. . . . temple area where all of our people gather . . . . [from The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1995)]

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #4: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 18:31b

 

Current reading: “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.”  The Jews answered him . . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READINGS #4

“Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The spokesmen answered him . . . .

OR:

“Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” They answered him . . . .

[from The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version]

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #5 GOSPEL READING: JOHN 18:36

 

Current reading: . . . . . fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #5

. . . . fighting to keep me from being handed over to the authorities. But as it is . . . .

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #6: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 18:38

 

Current reading: . . . . he again went out to the Jews and said to them. . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READINGS #6

. . . . he again went out to Jesus’ accusers and said to them. . . .

OR

. . . . he went back out and said to them . . . . [Contemporary English Version]

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #7: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 19:7

 

 Current reading: The Jews answered, “We have a law . . . .”

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READINGS #7

The leaders answered, “We have a law . . . “

OR

They answered, “We have a law . . . .”

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #8: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 19:12

 Current reading: . . . . Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release him . . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #8

. . . .Pilate tried to release him, but the authorities cried out, “If you release him . . . .

[Contemporary English Version]

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #9: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 19:14b

 Current reading: And he said to the Jews, “Behold your king!”

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #9

And he said to the crowd, “Behold your king!” [From the Contemporary English Version]

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #10: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 19:20

Current reading: Now many of the Jews read this inscription . . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READINGS #10

Now many of the onlookers read this inscription . . . .

OR:

Now many of the people read this inscription . . .

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #11: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 19:21

Current reading:  So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate . . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #11

So the chief priests said to Pilate . . . .

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #12: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 19:31b 

Current reading:  . . . . was a solemn one, the Jews asked Pilate . . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #12

 . . .was a solemn one, the Jewish authorities asked Pilate . . . .

 

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #13: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 19:38

Current reading:  . . . . Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews . . . .

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING #13

. . . . Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of  Jesus for fear of Jesus’ opponents . . . .

[The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version]

 

*NOTE: The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1995) makes a concerted effort to use alternative wordings that do not carry an anti-Judaic tone. We have cited it above [in brackets] when we drew our “Suggested Alternative Wording” from it.

 

 

HISTORICAL CONSIDERATIONS

by David P. Efroymson

 

1)    Crucifixion is a Roman form of execution. Ultimately, it was the Romans who put Jesus to death, whatever may have been the level of cooperation by some Jewish collaborators (the high priest, for example, having been appointed by the Romans at this time).

 

2)    The Gospels were written a generation or more after the event of Jesus’ crucifixion. The extent to which anyone at the time of their writing actually knew, in any detail, what actually happened in Jesus’ arrest and trial is highly unlikely.

 

3)    Further, the Gospels were written at a time when the Jesus movement was having some success among Gentiles, and far less success among Jews. But Jesus came “to the Jews,” as every recollection and every version of the story affirmed. Thus the question naturally arose, and some critics–Gentile/”pagan” and Jewish–of the new movement were motivated to ask: “Why have you (‘Christians’) not succeeded among the Jewish community. The Gospel response was largely to answer by accounting for the failure of the “mission to the Jews” by blaming Jewish “blindness” and intransigence, which allegedly  characterized the Jewish response to Jesus throughout much of his ministry and especially at his death. This inevitably colored the Gospel narratives.

 

4)    By the time the Gospels were taking shape, the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. The followers of Jesus, in large part, saw this destruction just as Jeremiah and Ezekiel saw the earlier destruction of Jerusalem (in 587 BCE)–as punishment for Jewish sin. The followers of Jesus were quick to adduce the “sin” for which Jerusalem was now again destroyed: the “rejection” (as they saw it) of Jesus by the Jews. Thus the motivation of #3 above was reinforced.

 

N.B. None of this is intended to suggest that the whole thing was “made up.” Jesus was  crucified by the Romans, and some Jewish Temple authorities were almost certainly involved (the most likely of these were collaborators with the Romans, who were the most likely to react negatively to Jesus’ “stirring up the people” (as per Luke23:5).

Season of Easter: Easter Sunday, Years ABC

The Resurrection of the Lord — The Mass of Easter Day

Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Col. 3:1-4 (or 1 Cor. 5:6b-8); Jn. 20:1-9

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: FIRST READING: ACTS 10:39a

Current reading: We are witnesses of all he did, both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem.

Suggested reading: We all saw what Jesus did both in Israel and in the city of Jerusalem. [Contemporary English Version)

OR:

We are witnesses of everything that he did in the land of Israel and in Jerusalem. [Today’s English Version]

OR:

We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. [New Revised Standard Version]

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: ALSO FIRST READING: ACTS 10:39b

Current reading: They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.

Suggested reading: Jesus was put to death on a cross. [Contemporary English Version]

OR:

The authorities put him to death by hanging him on a tree. 

 

Season of Easter: Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Acts 9:26-31; 1 John 3:18-24; John 15:1-8

 

WE SEE NO PROBLEMATIC VERSES IN THESE READINGS

Season of Easter: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: FIRST READING: ACTS 2:36

Current reading: “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.”

 

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The theme that the Jewish community as a whole was responsible for Jesus’ death is repeated frequently in Acts. In addition to the above text, other verses are: “You denied the Holy and Righteous one and asked that a murderer released to you. The author of life you put to death. . . .” (3:14-15a);  “. . . all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead; in his name this man stands before you healed. He is the stone rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.” (4:10-11); “The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree” (5:30); “You stiff-necked people . . . You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit. . . Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (7:51-52); “We are witnesses of all that he did, both in the country of the Jews and [in] Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree” (10:39-40);  “The inhabitants of Jerusalem and their leaders failed to recognize him, and . . . even though they found no grounds for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him put to death . . . ” (13:27-28)

These passages–and others like them in the New Testament–were the basis of the ancient belief which can be summarized: “The Jews killed Christ,” which in the past inspired and justified so much persecution of the Jewish community. Tragedly, the libel lives on today, vis., when a movie-maker in modern times on street corner interviews asked, “Who are the Jews?” a large majority of respondents answered, “They are the ones who killed Christ.”

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READINGS

“Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus who was crucified.”

OR:

“Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made the crucified Jesus both Lord and Christ.”

 

FOR REFLECTION

”Neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his [Jesus’] passion. It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy Scripture. Consequently, all must take care, lest in catechizing or in preaching the Word of God, they teach anything which is not in accord with the truth of the Gospel message or the spirit of Christ. Indeed, the Church reproves every form of persecution against whomsoever it may be directed. Remembering, then her common heritage with the Jews . . . she deplores all hatreds, persecutions, displays of antisemitism leveled at any time or from any source against the Jews.” (Vatican Council II, “Declaration of the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” Nostra Aetate, 4)

 

(FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE.)

Season of Easter: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Lectionary Readings: Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-3; John 10:11-18.

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: FIRST READING: ACTS 4:10

Current reading: . . . all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead . . .

 

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The Jews did not crucify Jesus. Reading Acts 4:10 “as is” reinforces the centuries-long calumny against the Jewish people that they did crucify Jesus and thus lost their place as God’s people. Sadly, this is a common theme in Acts. It is part of the author’s effort to show how the Church became successful among the Gentiles–because the Jews were unresponsive.

Luke, Acts’ putative author, makes a great deal, here and elsewhere, of the contrast between the people of Jerusalem (“you crucified Jesus”) and God (who “raised him from the dead”). Such a contrast, here and elsewhere, has caused untold suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Christians.

To the extent that the author is referring to the Jewish leadership, he is laying the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion on them all, without any qualification. For the listener, there is very little space between this accusation and the same point driven home as recently as Good Friday. But this blanket, sweeping condemnation is at odds with other New Testament passages in which prominent Jewish leaders, like Joseph of Arimathea, spoke out and defended Jesus.

Ministers who addresses this in their homilies can go a long way toward alleviating some of the damage that passages like this have done. Not all biblical commentaries are as sensitive as they should be, but the following are accurate and helpful:

1)  Gary Gilbert’s Introduction and Annotations on Acts in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (pp. 197-252);

2)  Richard J. Dillon’s Intro and Commentary on Acts in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (pp. 722-67).

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING

. . . all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, who was crucified, whom God raised from the dead . . .

OR:

Simply leave out “whom you crucified” from the reading so that it says:

. . . all of you and all the people of Israel should know that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom God raised from the dead . . .

 

(FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE)

Season of Easter: Pentecost Sunday, Mass During the Day, Year A

Lectionary Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 20:19

Current Reading: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst . .

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The disciples had locked themselves in a room out of fear. But of whom are they afraid? Since the disciples themselves were Jews, it makes no sense to say that these eleven Jews were cowering “for fear of the Jews.” Clearly, they were hiding out because they feared the authorities, whether Jewish or Roman. But when modern ears hear the words, “for fear of the Jews,” it congers up an image of the whole Jewish community searching for the disciples with malignant intent. The message is, “The Jews are people of whom you should be afraid.” This stereotype of Jews as people to fear  can only reinforce the anti-Semitism that already is out there in society.

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE  READINGS

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,  for fear of the authorities, Jesus came and stood in their midst . . .

OR:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were lockedwhere the disciples were,  Jesus came and stood in their midst . . .

(FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE  “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE)

Season of Easter: Second Sunday of Easter, Year A

Acts 2:42-47; 1 Pet. 1:3-9; Jn. 20:19-31

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 20:19

Current reading: . . . . when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood . . . 

Suggested reading: . . . the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. [Today’s English Version]

OR:

The disciples were afraid of the Jewish leaders, and one the evening of that same Sunday, they locked themselves in a room. [Contemporary English Version]

OR:

. . . . when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the authorities, Jesus came . . . .

 

(FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE  “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON HOME PAGE)

 

Season of Easter: Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

Lectionary Readings: Acts 4:32-35; 1 Jn. 5:1-6; Jn. 20:19-31

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 20:19

Current reading: . . . . when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,  for fear of the Jews, Jesus came . . . 

 

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The disciples had locked themselves in a room out of fear. But of whom are they afraid? Since the disciples themselves were Jews, it makes no sense to say that these eleven Jews were cowering “for fear of the Jews.” Clearly, they were hiding out because they feared the authorities, whether Jewish or Roman. But when modern ears hear the words, “for fear of the Jews,” it congers up an image of the whole Jewish community searching for the disciples with malignant intent. The message is, “The Jews are people of whom you should be afraid.” This stereotype of Jews as people to fear  can only reinforce the anti-Semitism that already is out there in society.

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE  READINGS

. . . the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. [Today’s English Version]

OR:

The disciples were afraid of the Jewish leaders, and one the evening of that same Sunday, they locked themselves in a room[Contemporary English Version]

OR:

. . . . when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the authorities, Jesus came . . . .

 

(FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE  “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE)

 

Season of Easter: Second Sunday of Easter, Year C

Lectionary Readings: Acts 5:12-16; Revelation1:9-11a, 12-13; John 20:19-31

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 20:19

Current reading: . . . . when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood . . . 

 

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The disciples had locked themselves in a room out of fear. But of whom are they afraid? Since the disciples themselves were Jews, it makes no sense to say that these eleven Jews were cowering “for fear of the Jews.” Clearly, they were hiding out because they feared the authorities, whether Jewish or Roman. But when modern ears hear the words, “for fear of the Jews,” it congers up an image of the whole Jewish community searching for the disciples with malignant intent. The message is, “The Jews are people of whom you should be afraid.” This stereotype of Jews as people to fear  can only reinforce the anti-Semitism that already is out there in society.

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE  READINGS

. . . the disciples were gathered together behind locked doors, because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities. [Today’s English Version]

OR:

The disciples were afraid of the Jewish leaders, and on the evening of that same Sunday, they locked themselves in a room. [Contemporary English Version]

OR:

. . . . when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the authorities, Jesus came . . . .

 

(FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE  “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE)

 

Season of Easter: Seventh Sunday of Easter: Year B

Lectionary Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 20a, 20c-26; 1 John 4:11-16; John 17:11b-19

WE SEE NO PROBLEMATIC VERSES IN THESE READINGS

Season of Easter: Third Sunday of Easter, Year A

Lectionary Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:32

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: FIRST READING: ACTS 2:23

Current reading: This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.

 

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

Speaking at the temple in Jerusalem, Peter is addressing “you who are Jews” and “you who are Israelites.” With the blunt words, “you killed,” he charges them all with killing Jesus. Tragically, such declarations of Jewish guilt are a recurring theme in Peter’s missionary sermons to the Jewish community (c.f., Acts 2:23; 3:13-15; 4:8-11; 5:28-32; 10:39; 13:27-28). Is it any wonder that these words (and others like them in the New Testament), passed down through the centuries, entered into the Christian tradition and have created in Christians’ minds the damning calumny that Jews were “Christ-killers”?

In searching for an alternative reading that doesn’t carry an anti-Judaic tone, it seems valid to substitute the words “your leaders killed” rather than the unequivocal statement “you killed.” Clearly, compared to the total Jewish population of Jerusalem, much less all Jews living in Israel, it was a relatively small number of Jews who were present at Jesus’ trial and the other events leading up to his crucifixion.

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING

This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, your leaders killed, using lawless men to crucify him.

 

FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE

Season of Easter: Third Sunday of Easter, Year B

Lectionary Readings: Acts 3:13-15, 17-19; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:35-48

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: FIRST READING:  ACTS 3:13-15, 17=19

 

Current reading:  . . . the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus whom you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence when he had decided to release him. You denied the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death. . . .

 

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

Peter’s stern indictment, voiced in the temple area, is addressed to “you Israelites” (vs. 12). These Jews are depicted as handing over Jesus to the Roman governor and, by their action, denying “the Holy and Righteous One” and putting to death the very “author of life.” Peter says, in effect, that they would rather have a murderer set free than allow the innocent Jesus to be released. It is hard to imagine a more severe, a more grim condemnation.

Commentary: In the other “problematic passages” on which we comment, we usually are able to find an acceptable alternative wording that does not carry the anti-Judaic tone found in the lectionary’s phrasing. In the case of Acts 3:13-15, however, we could not think of  language to substitute for Peter’s harsh, accusatory words without distorting the clear meaning of the lectionary’s text.

Therefore, it may be best to leave the wording “as is” and for the presider to comment on it homiletically, using the sermon as a way to help the congregation confront and better understand  the anti-Judaism found in the New Testament. Here are some points the minister might make in a sermon along these lines:

1)  We, as Christians have to face up to and take responsibility for the harm these words have done–and still can do.

2)  Take note of the forgiving, exculpatory language of Peter’s next words in verse 17: “Now I know, brothers, that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did.”

3)  Ask the congregation to imagine how different this reading would sound if Peter had acknowledged his own complicity in Jesus’ death. Think of what impact Peter’s words would have had if, instead of using harsh invective, he had said honestly, “Some of you handed Jesus over to Pilate, but when they arrested Jesus, just a few hours before the trial, I ran away in fear, as did the other disciples. You may have denied him in his trial before Pilate, but while the trial was happening, I denied him three times. Therefore, I am just as complicit in his death as you are. Since we all killed the Author of Life, we all need to repent and be converted.”

 

FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE

Season of Easter: Third Sunday of Easter, Year C

THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER: YEAR C

Lectionary Readings: Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: FIRST READING: ACTS 5:30

Current reading: The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

Speaking before the Sanhedrin, Jerusalem’s “supreme court” of chief priests and elders, Peter charges these leaders with killing Jesus. This is a sweeping condemnation, which, among other things, does not take into account members of the Sanhedrin who were sympathetic to Jesus and the apostles. One of these was Gamaliel, a Pharisee “respected by all the people” (Acts 5:34). He persuaded his “infuriated” (5:33) colleagues on the Sanhedrin not to kill Peter and the other apostles, but to let them go. If you don’t, he argued, “you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:39).

Back at the time of Jesus’ trial, another high-ranking dissenter, Joseph of Arimathea, is described as “a virtuous and righteous man who, though he was a member of the council, had not consented to their plan of action.” (Luke 23:50-51)

One of the main characteristics of any prejudice, including anti-Judaism, is the tendency to voice blanket, unqualified, negative generalizations about a whole group of people. Standing alone, today’s lectionary reading does just this regarding the Sanhedrin. If proclaimed without any alteration or interpretation, it can create or nurture anti-Judaism among listeners, even at an unconscious level.

 

SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE READING

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus, though some of your leaders had him killed by hanging him on a tree.

 

FOR FURTHER SUGGESTIONS, SEE “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THIS WEBSITE’S HOME PAGE

Season of Easter: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C

Lectionary Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30

There are three problematic verses on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C.

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #1: ACTS 13:45

Current reading:  When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul had said.

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The Book of Acts is not subtle when it refers to “the Jews.” In this Sunday’s reading, the “jealous” Jews violently abuse and contradict the apostle Paul.  Most accounts in Acts similarly portray Jews as aggressively hostile to the disciples and their message. The apostles’ speeches in Acts, especially those of Peter in the first thirteen chapters, nearly all contrast what “you Jews” have done to Jesus against the action of “God, who raised him up” (see Acts 2:22-24, 36; 3:13-15; 4:10-11; 10:39-40; 13:27-30).

For the most part, Acts describes the Jewish response to Paul and the other apostles as hostile, unrelenting and–at times–malevolent. Jewish leaders, “filled with jealousy,” arrest and imprison the apostles (5:17-18). Jews plot against Paul and the apostles (9:23-4; 20:3, 19). They stir up persecution against Paul and Barnabas (13:50). Jews stone Paul (14:19). Jews form a mob and drag Paul, Barnabas and Jason before the city authorities to charge them with breaking the decrees of the emperor (17:5-7). They bring Paul before the Roman proconsul and charge him with persuading people to break the law (18:13). A group of Jews plot to ambush Paul after taking an oath not to eat or drink until they have killed him (23:12).

When Christian worshippers today hear about “the Jews” in a readings such as these, it can reinforce the notion that they were violently antagonistic to Jesus, were largely responsible for his death, and thereby lost God’s favor. When these stereotypes of Jews are passed down to us, they easily can inspire or reinforce anti-Judaism.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Use an alternative wording such as:

“But when some people saw the crowds, they became very jealous and ardently contradicted what Paul had said.”

Comment on the reading in your sermon:

Point out how the portrayal of the Jews in Acts is both historically and theologically inaccurate.  The Jewish community–today and in Jesus’ time–varies tremendously. One of the features of prejudice in general and anti-Semitism in particular is that it takes a whole group of people–the Jews–and makes sweeping generalizations about them without acknowledging their multifaceted diversity. To counter such prejudice, we need to remember that Jesus was a Jew, as were his whole family, his disciples and most of the people who followed him.

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #2: ACTS 13:46

Current reading:  Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

This is a very intense, drastic condemnation of the Jewish response toward the Gospel message. It casts Jews in the worst possible light as a people who reject the word of God and thereby make themselves “unworthy of eternal life.” This viewpoint, if left unchallenged, can convey to our congregations a picture of Jews as a stubborn and spiteful people who reject God’s word, shut themselves out of heaven and turn their backs on the blessings of salvation.

The passage also raises a very important theological issue.  It may be the clearest in the New Testament leading to the (erroneous) theological assertion that it was (only) because “the Jews” “rejected the word of God,”  that God turned to the gentiles.  This is neither the teaching of the NT nor of the Church, but it can be read into this passage, and should be confronted in the homily.

Thus, it is not simply that the passage shows “the Jews” as “stubborn” and “unworthy” that is at stake.  The passage implies that in allegedly “rejecting” the word of God or the Gospel, “the Jews” made a move nearly as momentous as their alleged “rejection” of Jesus.  As a result of that move or decision, they are now “out,” and forever; others (gentiles) are “in,” having taken their place.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Find an alternative wording?
Now and then, we come upon wordings for which we (and others) have not been able to find a satisfactory alternative that removes an anti-Judaic tone. Acts 13:46 is one of these. Even translations that are trying to be sensitive to possible anti-Judaism in the New Testament have not found, in our opinion, a non-problematic wording.

However the wording is modified, it does not seem possible to remove the clear and drastic  implication that the Jews are a people who reject the word of God and thereby make themselves unworthy of eternal life. (See, for example, in The Good News Bible, The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version, The Inclusive New Testament, The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction.) Therefore, we feel that the best approach is not to search for an alternative wording but to refer to these verses in your sermon.

Comment on the reading in your sermon
You can draw upon, of course, the above comments on Acts 13:46. You might also point out that, in spite of Paul’s statement, “. . . we now turn to the Gentiles,” Paul and Barnabas in the very next chapter go to a synagogue in Iconium, where they “spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks came to believe . . . ” (14:1)

This might also be a place to quote from a powerful prayer of repentance voiced by Pope John XXIII not long before his death:

“We acknowledge that, for many, many centuries blindness has covered our eyes so that we no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people and no longer recognize in its face the features of our first-born brother. We acknowledge that the mark of Cain is upon our brow. For centuries, Abel lay low in blood and tears because we forgot Thy love. Forgive us the curse that we wrongly pronounced upon the name of the Jews. Forgive us that we crucified Thee in the flesh for a second time. For we knew not what we did.”

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE #3: ACTS 13:50

Current reading: The Jews, however, incited the women of prominence who were worshippers and the leading men of the city, stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their territory.

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

All we have said above about the phrase “the Jews” applies to this reading. Here “the Jews” are portrayed as persecuting Paul and Barnabas and expelling them from their territory,

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Use an alternative wording, e.g.:

The opposition, however, incited the women of prominence . . .

 

OR

 

Those who opposed Paul and Barnabas, however, incited the women of prominence . . .

Ordinary Time: Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Ezekiel 2:2-5;  1 Corinthians 12:7-10;  Mark 6:1-6

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGES:  THE EZEKIEL READING AND THE MARK READING TAKEN TOGETHER

Here, the problem is not so much with any particular verse or verses, but rather with the impact on the listener of hearing both passages read on the same Sunday. You might try putting yourself in the place of a parishioner listening to these readings. First, he or she hears Ezekiel condemning “the Israelites” as “rebels who have rebelled against me [God].” They are “hard of face and obstinate of heart . . . a rebellious house.”

Then, after the reading from Corinthians, the parishioner hears that people of Jesus’ own village “took offense at him,” such that “he was not able to perform any mighty deeds there.” They know his own family, watched him grow up and find it hard to believe that he is anything special. Probably they thought he was asserting too much authority or “making too much of himself.” It would not have been the first time that people found a familiar person “too big for his breeches.”

By itself, that is not a problem; Jesus did in fact encounter resistance.  And this passage is not nearly as problematic as the parallel in Luke 4, in which the townspeople of Nazareth, his “native place,” (allegedly) attempt to kill him. Nevertheless, on this Sunday, in Mark, when paired with the first reading, in which Ezekiel is commissioned by God to go to the Israelites, regarding them as “rebels who have rebelled against me (God),” it can easily and unnecessarily lead to the impression that we are to think of the Jews who in Mark “resist” Jesus in Nazareth—and perhaps all Jews (?)–as “rebellious” toward God.

The attentive preacher might take note of this homiletically.

 

 

Ordinary Time: Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  1 Kings 19:4-8;  Ephesians 4:30–5:2;  John 6:41-51

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE:  JOHN 6:41

Current reading: The Jews murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The reading just prior to verse 41 (see especially 6:22-25) shows that the people Jesus was addressing in this passage were a relatively small “crowd” (vs. 22, 24) who had come to Capernaum by boat, “looking for Jesus” (vs. 24b), plus any citizens of the city and the surrounding area who may have come in hope of hearing Jesus speak.

Yet verse 41 says “the Jews.” We have commented earlier and at length about why the generalization, “the Jews,” is problematic. See Season of Advent: Third Sunday of Advent, Year B.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the reading

Several alternative wordings can remove the problematic phrase “the Jews” without changing the meaning of the story. In fact, some alternative readings can be seen as more accurate historically than “the Jews,” since they paint a more precise picture of the actual make-up of “the crowd” than can be inferred by the Lectionary reading. Here are some possibilities:

His listeners murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

 

Some of those in the crowd murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” (Catholic New Testament scholar, Gerard S. Sloyan,  favors “the crowd” “since that is what is meant, not Jewish people generally.” (Preaching from the Lectionary: An Exegetical Commetary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), pg. 371).

 

Then some of Jesus’ own people began to become very skeptical about what he had said, especially because he had made the claim, “I am the bread that has come down from heaven.”  (This translation comes from Lutheran Professor of Theology, Norman Beck’s The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction (Lima, Ohio: Fairway Press, 2002), pg. 350.

 

FOR OTHER IDEAS ON HOW TO HANDLE THIS, SEE “WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?” ON THE HOME PAGE.

 

Ordinary Time: Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18;  1 Corinthians 3:16-23;  Matthew 5:38-48

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE:  GOSPEL READING: MATTHEW 5:43

Current Reading: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies . .

What’s wrong is that nowhere in the Hebrew Bible/OT is there a teaching or command to “hate” one’s enemies.  Here and there (e.g., in the Psalms) someone spontaneously, humanly, expresses what might be construed as “hatred” for an enemy or an oppressor, but no one is taught or commanded to hate—neither by God nor by Israel’s understanding of what God wanted.

The “problematic” dimension is not simply the inaccuracy, but the implication, sometimes actually drawn by preachers and others, that Judaism, or the earlier religion of Israel, was (at least in part) a religion of hatred, in contrast to Christianity, “the religion of love.”

It would be a good idea to mention this, at least, in the homily.

 

Ordinary Time: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Jeremiah 23:1-6;  Ephesians 2:13-18;  Mark 6:30-34

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: EPHESIANS 2:14-15

Current reading: For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two . . . “

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

This is problematic only if misunderstood.

After the assertion that Jesus had broken down the “dividing wall” of envy (between Jew and Gentile), the author adds, apparently in explanation:  “abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims.”   

The misunderstanding would arise only if this were understood to mean that Jesus “abolished the law” for everyone.  According to the best (and now the preponderant) scholarship, what Paul (and his disciple who wrote Ephesians) was arguing for was that what was “abolished,” as unnecessary and not helpful, was the imposition of the Jewish law on Gentiles coming in to the community.

Some members of the early community of Jesus-followers were convinced that the Law, the biblical Law, was incumbent on everyone: on new Gentile believers as well as on Jews.  Paul and those who sided with him were convinced that this would imply that these incoming Gentiles were to become Jews, whereas Paul had argued that they were to be saved as Gentiles. For example, in Romans 3:29-31:  “Does God belong to Jews alone?  Does he not belong to Gentiles, too?  Yes, also to Gentiles.  For God is one, and will justify the circumcised on the basis of (Jesus’) faithfulness and the uncircumcised through the same faithfulness (of Jesus).  Are we annulling the Law through this faithfulness?  Of course not!  On the contrary, we are supporting the Law.”

(This translation of Rom 3 makes use of that argued for by Hays, Stowers [see below] and many others, according to whom the “pistis” (usually rendered “faith”) of the text is not the “faith” (pistis) of the believer, but the “faithfulness” (pistis) of Jesus to the will of his Father, all the way to death.)

This is worth some attention in a homily.

Those interested in pursuing this issue further would do well to examine several of the books and articles in the bibliography (under “Paul”): especially those by Lloyd Gaston, John Gager, Richard Hays, and Stanley Stowers.

 

Ordinary Time: Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Hosea 6:3-6;  Romans 4:18-25;  Matthew 9:9-13

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING: MATTHEW 9:11

Current reading:  The Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with . . . ?”

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

Please see “Potentially Perilous Phrases” on the left sidebar of this website’s Home page. There we comment on why it is hazardous to generalize about “the Pharisees.”

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the reading’s wording, for example:

Some of the Pharisees saw this and said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with . . . ?”

(For more suggestions, see also on Home page, “What Can a Minister Do?”)

 

Ordinary Time: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lectionary Reading:  Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18;  1 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18;  Luke 18:9-14

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE:  LUKE 18:9-14, especially vv. 10 and 11

Current lectionary reading:  Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity–greedy, dishonest, adulterous–or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

 

“But the tax collector stood off art a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

WHY DOES THIS READING POSE A PROBLEM?

The problem comes especially in vv. 10 and 11, in which the person with the self-congratulatory attitude, praying “to himself,  is identified as “a Pharisee.”  Clearly, the prayerful attitude of the “tax collector” is to be commended, and Jesus does so.  The first reading, from Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18, shows that such an attitude is part of the Jewish/biblical tradition: that God “hears the cry of the oppressed”—the “orphan,” the “widow,” the “lowly.”  This is important since the association of the self-congratulatory attitude with the “Pharisee” has led (erroneously) to its association with Judaism.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Treat it in the homily

In commenting/preaching about this passage, the preacher would be well advised to take the above into account, i.e., the temptation to apply the self-congratulatory attitude of the Pharisee to all Judaism. What we have on “The Pharisees” in the section on “Potentially Perilous Passages” should also prove useful.  And there is a fine brief “sidebar essay” on this passage by Jewish NT scholar Amy-Jill Levine in the Jewish Annotated NT, on p. 138.

Modify the wording

It might be useful to substitute the words “an official” for the word “Pharisee” in the parable.

 

Ordinary Time: Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Lectionary readings:  Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10;   1Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13;   Matthew 23:1-12

Both the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible reading from Malachi and the Gospel reading from Matthew are problematical. Note that our commentary begins first with Matthew, then takes up Malachi.

THE WHOLE GOSPEL READING (MATTHEW 23:1-12) HAS SERIOUS PROBLEMS

The passage serves as an introduction to the whole of Mt. 23, which has been called “one of the ugliest and most unfair passages in all of the gospels.” The most serious part of Mt. 23–the “woes” on the scribes and Pharisees and the judgment on Jerusalem–is not read on any Sunday, but much of it appears in weekdays during the year.

The first seven verses of this passage (Mt. 23:1-12), however, are troubling enough to warrant direct confrontation in the homily. Other passages appearing throughout the year describe “the” Pharisees as challenging Jesus or quarreling with him. In such cases, one can “finesse” the text by substituting phrases like “some Pharisees” or “the leaders.” Here, however, we have a text in which Jesus is portrayed as severely criticizing, even condemning, “the scribes and the Pharisees” in a wholesale way. “Tinkering” with such passages by substituting, e.g., “some scribes and Pharisees” simply will not work. Given the deleterious  way these verses (and the “woes” later in the chapter) have been read, it is, in our opinion, far better to confront the text as it stands directly.

Anthony Saldarini (1941-2001), was a professor in Boston College’s Theology Department and a leading Christian scholar of Late Second Temple and Rabbinic JudaismIn his book, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community (see this website’s Bibliography), Saldarini shows how this passage “attacks scribes and Pharisees for failing to practice Judaism sincerely,” for failing “to guide others to live Judaism correctly,” and for failing to attend adequately “to the major principles of the Law and the Jewish way of life” (pg. 48). They are attacked for their alleged “hypocrisy” and for their alleged desire for public acclaim. Historically, this criticism is unlikely to have actually come from Jesus, and is certainly unjust. (The preacher would benefit from pursuing the brief essay on “The Pharisees” in the “Potentially Perilous Passages” section of this website.)

What is at stake here is part of the struggle for the identity or shape of Judaism/Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (70 A.D./C.E.). The apparent majority (Jewish) position in this locale seems to have been led by the Pharisees and their successors. They have not been convinced by the claims and preaching about Jesus of the Matthean community or communities. Against them, the Matthean communities of Jesus’ followers make a vigorous claim also to be Jews, indeed the (only) authentic Jews, Jews who accept and follow Jesus and his interpretation of Torah. So this Jesus depicted by Matthew seeks here to undermine the traditional leadership of the (non-Jesus) Jewish community in order to bolster or defend Matthew’s group and its leadership.

Similar name-calling and similar accusations were not uncommon in antiquity. And the heat of the struggle for the identity of Judaism perhaps helps to render intelligible such rhetoric. Nevertheless, it cannot condone or alleviate the harm done by these verses and the whole of Matthew 23 in history.

There is simply no historical evidence for the alleged “hypocrisy” of the Pharisees. They have a reputation for a certain “exactness” in their concern for the Law, but “placing (intolerable) burdens on people’s shoulders” (Mt. 23:4)? Not at all! In Jesus’ own time they had no authority to do so. In fact, the Jews who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls accused them of being “too easy.”

That the Pharisees are thus accused is bad enough. But the Pharisees and their successors seem to have had a leading role in the formation of the rabbinic Judaism which gradually developed. This led to the “hypocrisy” and “heavy burdens” being even more damagingly applied by Christians to Jews and Judaism more generally, with all the evil consequences of those accusations.

So this text provides a good opportunity to educate the congregation–both about the Pharisees and about the conflict in the years after the death of Jesus and after the destruction of Jerusalem. This conflict can help account for the embarrassing and unwarranted polemic in our New Testament.

THE OLD TESTAMENT/HEBREW BIBLE READING: MALACHI 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: MALACHI 2:1-2b, 7-9

And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, And if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse. . . . For the lips of the priest are to keep knowledge, and instruction is to be sought from his mouth, because he is a messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction; You have made void the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of Hosts. I, therefore, have made you contemptible and base before all my people, Since you do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your decisions.

The critique of “the Pharisees” in Matt 23, as bad as it is, is probably exacerbated by the judgment on the priests in Malachi 2.  The congregant who pays attention to both readings, or who reads both in her missal, is likely to apply what’s in Malachi to the Pharisees in Matt 23:  that they do “not listen” or “lay to heart” what God commands; that they “do not keep [God’s] ways,” that they “show partiality” in their decisions.  The congregation should be warned that whatever provoked “Malachi’s” anger (we do not know the time or place of this book, and “Malachi” [“my messenger”] may be a title rather than a name), it is not to be applied to the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and not to “the Jews” of any time.

Ordinary Time: Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Current Lectionary Readings:  Deuteronomy 6:2-6;  Hebrews 7:23-28;  Mark 12:28b-34

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE:  THE WHOLE SECOND READING, HEBREWS 7:23-28

Brothers and sisters, The Levitical priests were many because they were prevented by death from remaining in office, but Jesus, because he remains forever, had a priesthood that does not pass away. Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.

 

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens. He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself.

 

For the law appoints men subject to weakness to be high priests, but the word of the oath, which was taken after the law, appoints a son, who has been made perfect forever.

The Hebrews passage draws a contrast between the priesthood of Jesus and that of the Levitical priests and high priests.When coupled with the Gospel, Mark 12:28b-34 (the greatest commandment) and 12:33 (that love of God and of neighbor “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices,”) it can create the impression that Israel’s sacrificial worship—and thus the Judaism that grew out of Israel—was somehow unworthy of God, unworthy of Jesus.

To counter such a sentiment, the preacher would do well to reflect on and take into account the following:

(1).  Christian attitudes toward Israelite sacrifice have largely been influenced and shaped (unfortunately) by this and other passages from Hebrews, according to which, with the appearance and “sacrifice” of Jesus, OT sacrifices had been “superseded.” (On which, see below).

(2). It is important to be aware of the role of sacrifice in the worship of ancient Israel (On what follows, see Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament.  [Minneapolis:  Fortress, 1997], 650-79.):

–Leviticus 1-7 lists the various sacrifices; clearly, Israel believed God wanted them.

–For Israel, “Yahweh is an awesome, demanding agent, whose presence is not casual, trivial, or ad hoc.” (663).   That presence was mediated by “the visual, material, physical acts of worship.” (664)

–Thus, “it is in worship, and not in contextless, cerebral activity, that Israel worked out its peculiar identity” and its relationship with God. (653)

–When the relationship with Yahweh was disrupted—by sin—“Yahweh had granted a reliable, authorized device whereby Israel can be restored to full relationship with Yahweh”—especially on Yom Kippur (666)

–The Israelites were “actively, physically engaged” by their (sacrificial and other) gifts and attitude; their sacrificial worship was a “thing of joy for Israel, not a burden.” ((668).

–The prophets were sometimes critical of the “routinization,” the “taken-for-grantedness” of the system, and they sometime focus on ritual to the neglect of justice and the responsibility toward others. (676)

–Nevertheless, “a regularized, stylized practice of symbolization is indispensable for the sustenance of intentional ethical practice.” (678)

Before the destruction of the Temple, it certainly appears that the Jewish followers of Jesus engaged in the regular sacrificial activity in the Temple:

Matt 5:23-24:  Jesus says “If you bring your [sacrificial] gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, and go . . . be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Luke 2:22-38, esp. vv 22-24:  The infant Jesus is taken to Jerusalem by Mary and Joseph “to offer the sacrifice . . . .”

–Acts 21:17-26, esp. 26:  Paul sees to the offering made for the four men with the vow.

The following all depict Jesus, his family, or his disciples frequenting the Temple.  While there is no mention of sacrifice, one did not “go up” to the Temple to “hang out”; one took part in some way (sacrifices, financial offerings, etc.) in the sacrificial system:  John 5:1; 7:2-3, 10, 37 (Tabernacles); 10:22-23 (Dedication); 18:20 (parallel Mark 14:49: Jesus asserts his regular presence in the Temple);  Luke2:41-42 (Jesus and parents for Passover);  Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:12 (Disciples after the resurrection).

However, when the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE/AD, both the Judaism in process of formation and the Jesus movement had to deal with what to do now.  For a good account of the Jewish crisis, see Jacob Neusner, First-Century Judaism in Crisis (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1975), esp. 156-75:  Johannan ben Zakkai, a Pharisee and leader of the renewal or reform, is cited as recommending “acts of loving-kindness” and of justice to replace the no-longer-possible sacrifices, quoting Hosea 6:6 in support or justification:  “I desire mercy (hesed:  “goodness,” compassionate action) rather than sacrifice.”

Matthew has Jesus citing the same verse, in two different argumentative contexts (Matt 9:13; 12:7).  Thus much of the partially negative attitude toward sacrifice in the NT, perhaps especially in Hebrews, can be attributed to the same crisis, although the prophetic critique of the neglect of justice and “acts of loving-kindness” also had a role, but it is a critique of Christian practice as well.

(Jesus’ alleged “Cleansing of the Temple” has been left out of consideration here.  There is simply too much scholarly disagreement about (1) whether in fact it happened, and (2) if it happened, what Jesus intended, what he was criticizing.)

 

 

Ordinary Time: Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Isaiah 25:6-10a;  Philippians 4:12-14;  Matthew 22:1-14 (shorter form: Matthew 22:1-10

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: MATTHEW 22:1-14 – the whole “Invitation to the wedding feast” passage

Current lectionary reading: [From Mt. 22:1: “Jesus again in reply spoke. . . .” to Mt. 22:14: . . . . “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”]

WHY IS THIS WHOLE PASSAGE PROBLEMATIC?

The parable has been read—and may have been intended by Matthew—as an account of the rejection and punishment of (unbelieving) Israel for their rejection of God’s (and or Jesus’) invitation to join in the “wedding feast” (of Jesus’ community? of the kingdom of God?).  It also includes the puzzling incident of the guest without a “wedding garment.”

Without homiletic interpretation, listeners may very well hear this reading as showing the rejection and punishment of the Jews because they did not believe in Jesus. Historically, this “rejection-punishment” theme has caused immeasurable harm to the Jewish community.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

To deal adequately with this parable in a homily, without contributing to a kind of indulgence or satisfaction in the alleged (and here narrated) rejection and punishment of the Jews who did not believe in Jesus, a few points need to be made.

(1).  The partially parallel version in Luke 14:15-24 has led scholars to the conclusion that an original parable—probably from Jesus himself–would have been about an invitation to a feast (participation in the in-breaking reign of God) with the warning that to neglect this last invitation [last, because the reign of God was at hand] would have serious consequences:  losing out on something important, and  that others might be invited.  At this point it would have been a general warning, not one meant to apply to the Jewish community alone.

(2).  Then, after the death of Jesus, there was a lack of success in winning over “all Israel” (and the possible mistreatment of some of the new movement’s “missionaries”). Then came the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE/AD, which Matthew and others in the early church took to be God’s punishment on the those who refused.  Matthew then added to the parable the mistreatment of the messengers, the anger of the “king” (obviously God), and the burning of their city (obviously Jerusalem), which he saw as God’s just punishment on the Israel or Jerusalem that had refused God’s invitation.

For Matthew and for others in the early Jesus movement, this may well have been understandable, but it cannot be defended and congregations need to be disabused of any similar sentiment..

(3).  The strange  case of the person without a “wedding garment” (why the anger because the guest didn’t have a special clothing?  Didn’t he do the king a favor by showing up, and at short notice?) can still be “salvaged.”  It appears that Matthew added what originally  may have been a separate parable, to make the case that despite the gratuitous invitation, one nevertheless needs to bring and/or practice one’s righteousness (a favorite word in Matthew).  Alternately, it might have been Matthew’s metaphorical (or coded?) way of reminding Gentiles (those from the “main roads” and “streets” of the parable) that they are welcome, but they are to observe the [biblical/Jewish] Law (Matthew’s position as opposed to Paul’s).

 

Ordinary Time: Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lectionary Readings: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14;  1 Timothy 1:12-17;  Luke 15:1-32 (Shorter form: Luke 15:1-10)

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: LUKE 15:1-2

Current lectionary reading:  Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

A POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE READING

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but some of the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Ordinary Time: Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Isaiah 45:1, 4-6;  1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b;  Matthew 22:15-21

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: MATTHEW 22:15

Current lectionary readingThe Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.

WHY DO THE WORDS “THE PHARISEES” POSE A PROBLEM?

For a thorough discussion of “the Pharisees,” see this website’s Home Page, left sidebar, “Potentially Perilous Phrases.”

Ordinary Time: Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Jeremiah 20:7-9;  Romans 12:1-2;  Matthew 16:21-27

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING: MATTHEW 16:21

Current reading:  Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

WHY IS THIS WORDING PROBLEMATIC?

This wording implies that all the elders, chief priests and scribes will be responsible for Jesus’ suffering and death. These horrors are attributed, not to the Romans who actually beat up, whipped and crucified Jesus, but to prominent Jews.

As members of our congregations hear this reading from the pulpit, what impression are they getting of Jewish religious leadership? What impact, if any, will this have on their attitude toward Jewish leaders in today’s world?

A POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVE WORDINGS

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly at the hands of his opponents, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

Ordinary Time: Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8;  James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27;  Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING: MARK 7:1

When the Pharisees with some scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus . . . .

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the Reading

Here are two possibilities, one from a modern translation of the Bible. You may find another wording that works better for you.

When some of the Pharisees and scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus . . . .

 

Some Pharisees and several teachers of the Law of Moses from Jerusalem came and gathered around Jesus . . . . (The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1995)

 

 

 

Ordinary Time: Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Lectionary Readings:  Isaiah 5:1-7;  Philippians 4:6-9;  Matthew 21:33-43

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE:  MATTHEW 21:33-43 (in connection with Isaiah 5:1-7)

Current lectionary reading(The whole Matthew reading as connected with the first reading, Isaiah 5:1-7.)

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

The Gospel passage  has a severe ending, with Jesus warning (v.43):  “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”  The key question is:  to whom, or against whom, is Jesus reported as speaking?  The passage has, through most of Christian history, been taken to mean that the kingdom (here: God’s favor, symbolized by the vineyard) has been taken away from Israel and given to the (Gentile/Christian) church.

In light of the first reading, from Isaiah, who “sings” of God’s anger at Israel, God’s vineyard, the same conclusion can easily be drawn.  That the kingdom will be given to “a people . . . “ (an ethnos = a people or nation) would tend to support such a reading.

However, if one notes v. 45, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew he was speaking about them” (and thus not about Israel in general), another way of reading the parable lies open.

We would strongly suggest adding v. 45 to the reading of Matt 21:33-43, thus making it possible to explain what is at stake here:  the possibility that this is a scathing critique of (some of) Israel’s leadership rather than of Israel itself.

It might further be wise to substitute, for “the chief priests and the Pharisees” of v. 45, something like “many of the leaders” (or “officials”).

There is a good treatment in Daniel Harrington’s commentary on Matthew (in the Sacra Pagina series), listed in this website’s Bibliography.

(Parenthetically, the preacher might be well advised to check what we have on “the Pharisees” in the section entitled “Potentially Perilous Phrases” on the Home page of this site.)

Ordinary Time: Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Genesis 2:18-24;  Hebrews 2:9-11;  Mark 10:2-16 (Shorter form: Mark 10:2-12)

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: MARK 10:2

Current Reading:  The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him.

WHY DOES THIS WORDING POSE A PROBLEM?

Please see our commentary on the Pharisees in the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the reading

The insertion of the phrase “some of the” before the word “Pharisees” helps to emphasize (1) that the group to whom Jesus is speaking is not every single Pharisee in Israel, (2) that there were real differences among the Pharisees–so it is not accurate to clump them all together as if they were one united group, all of whom opposed Jesus, and (3) that some Pharisees were friendly toward Jesus and supported him (e.g., Nicodemus in Jn. 3:1, Gamaliel in Acts 5:34).

See if the following re-wording of Mark 10:2 is helpful.

Some of the Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” They were testing him.

 

Ordinary Time: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Lectionary Readings: Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19;  1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13;  Luke 4:21-30

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: LUKE 4:28-29

Current reading: When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong.

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

In Luke’s Gospel, this account of violent Jewish hostility toward Jesus comes at the start of his public ministry. It may suggest to those hearing this reading the erroneous idea that Jews, from the very beginning, were so furious with Jesus that they both rejected him and were out to kill him.

What Can a Minister Do?

Comment on the reading in the sermon

One approach might be to leave the text “as is,” but to explain the historical background of conflict between the Jewish community and the emerging church out of which passages like this one surfaced. Most Scripture scholars agree that Luke’s narrative is based on Mark 6:1-6, which was written a couple of decades earlier than Luke. Mark has the same story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth, but without the hostility. True, the synagogue members “took offense at him” (6:3b), but Mark doesn’t describe them as being so furious that they try to throw him off a cliff. For various reasons, in the time between Mark’s writing and Luke’s, friction and conflict had grown between the established Jewish community and the nascent community of Jesus’ followers. It is reasonable to assume that this antagonism (which goes far beyond anything in Mark’s account) is reflected in what Luke wrote.

Another approach might be to acknowledge the hostility expressed in these verses, but to remind listeners that there were many Jewish individuals and groups who, instead of rejecting Jesus, gave him a friendly reception. Some became his followers, defended him and “mourned and lamented him” (2:27) as he carried the cross to Calvary. (See these positive views of Jewish receptivity in, e.g., Luke 13:17; 19:48; 21:38; 23:27, 48.) This might help to counter the impression that all Jews, from the beginning, were so furious with Jesus that they not only turned their backs on him but wanted to kill him.

Leave out verses 28-29

We have not found a way to re-word these verses without being unfaithful to the original text. No modification of the wording seems to remove the tone of murderous Jewish intent. Therefore, this may be one of the few readings that simply should be left out of the Sunday readings. Lutheran scholar Norman A. Beck’s suggestion may be apropos: “The hateful anti-Jewish polemic expressed in these three verses is not appropriate for use in our church services” (The New Testament: A New Translation and Redaction (Lima, Ohio: Fairway Press, 2002), pg. 263).

If verses 28-29 are left out, the reading would end with verse 27: “. . . . yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

Find an alternative wording?

If you decide that it would be inappropriate to leave out verses 28-29, you might use the following reading from The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version (This is a translation that tries to be especially sensitive to the problem of anti-Judaism in the New Testament.)

“When the people in the meeting place heard Jesus say this, they became so angry that they got up and threw him out of town.”

 

Ordinary Time: Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Deuteronomy 5:12-15;  2 Corinthians 4:6-11;  Mark 2:23–3:6

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READINGS: MARK 2:24 and 3:6

Current reading: Mark 2:24At this, the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?”

Current reading: Mark 3:6The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.

SPECIAL NOTE RE. MARK 3:6 — We suggest using the Lectionary’s “Shorter Form,” i.e., Mark 2:23-28

The Lectionary allows a choice of readings between a “Longer Form” (Mk. 2:23–3:6) and a “Shorter Form” (Mk. 2:23-28). Using the “Shorter Form” avoids Mark 3:6, which casts the Pharisees in the worst possible light as wanting Jesus killed. Note that this indictment comes very early in Jesus’ ministry. Why Mark made this accusation against the Pharisees, and why so early in his Gospel, is a serious puzzle to biblical scholars. When we come to the trial of Jesus, there is no mention of the Pharisees being “out to get” Jesus, neither in Mark, nor in any of the other Gospels.

After reading the next section, “What Else is Problematic About These Two Readings?”, see if it makes sense to you to avoid Mark 3:6 by using the “Shorter Form.”

WHAT ELSE IS  PROBLEMATIC ABOUT THESE TWO READINGS?

In many dictionaries, the word “Pharisee” is defined as “hypocritical,” “self-righteous,” “outwardly but not inwardly religious.” This very negative way of looking at the Pharisees has become imbedded in our very thought patterns so that, for most of us, when we hear the word “Pharisee” we immediately think “hypocrite,” “sanctimonious,” “legalist,” “one who preaches but doesn’t practice.” It is very common in sermons, both in Catholic and Protestant churches, to hear the Pharisees described as if they were the “bad guys” in contrast to Jesus and his disciples, the “good guys.” Since the Pharisees were leaders in the Jewish community, it may be tempting for those who hear these readings to extend this negative view to all Jews, including our Jewish neighbors today.

No one would deny that there were tensions and disagreements between Jesus and at least some of the Pharisees. The Pharisees had their program for the reform of Palestinian Judaism, whereas Jesus had different ideas. These disputes over the best future direction for the Jewish community may well have led to heated exchanges between them.

According to many scholars, however, the unflattering portrayal of the Pharisees found in Mark and elsewhere in the New Testament is very one-sided and does not take into account their positive characteristics and contribution to the spiritual life of their day.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ time were a lay movement, outside the Temple administration, whose goal was to renew and extend the observance of Jewish practice in society. According to Josephus, the (roughly contemporary) Jewish historian, they were popular among the common people. They were predecessors of the rabbis, who authored the Talmud, the spiritual classic still treasured by Jews today. They produced extraordinary leaders, like Hillel, who was admired for his brilliance, patience, goodness and scholarship. A famous story about him says that, when asked to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot, he is credited with answering, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary.”

Why, then, do the Gospel accounts tend to lump the Pharisees together and portray Jesus as sometimes excoriating them?

One explanation that New Testament scholars give is that arguing with highly inflated language was the style of that day. Another is that the heightened language was provoked by the intense rivalry between members of the nascent and quickly-growing early Church and the Pharisees, who alone (after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE) remained as major competitors of the Christians as interpreters of the Hebrew scriptures. “Mark was written at a time when, sadly, Christians and Jews were beginning to experience each other less as brothers and friends and more as enemies.” (Professor Robert J. Daly, S.J., “Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit: Four Approaches,” in Kee and Borowsky, Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (N.Y.: Continuum, 1996), pg. 56)

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the wording in the readings

For Mark 2:24:  At this, some of the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the on the sabbath?”

For Mark 3:6 (in case you decide to read it, rather than using the “Short Form,” which we recommend):  Jesus’ opponents among the Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death.

 

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READINGS: MARK 2:27

Current reading: Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath . . . “

This is not directly anti-Judaic, but it is sometimes construed as an idea that Jesus thought up or invented and which is not present in Judaism. It carries an anti-Judaic tone when this thought is interpreted as in opposition to the (supposed) sabbatical (and “inhuman”) intransigence of “the Pharisees” or of Judaism as a whole.

However, the first reading, from Deuteronomy 5:12-15, shows precisely Israel’s (and God’s) sabbath concern for “man,” for human beings, for human welfare. In that passage, not only are the free Israelites not to “work” on the sabbath, but their children, their slaves, and even their animals are also to rest, because “you were once slaves in Egypt.”

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

It probably would be good to point out in the homily that Jesus was speaking in harmony with a long Jewish tradition, not in opposition to it.

Ordinary Time: Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Proverbs 9:1-6; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING: JOHN 6:52

Current Reading:  The Jews quarreled among themselves . . . .

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

We have commented earlier about why the sweeping generalization, “The Jews,” is problematic. See Season of Advent: Third Sunday of Advent, Year B.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the Reading

Using an alternative wording can remove–or at least soften–the problematic phrase, “The Jews.” Several translations of the Bible that try to be sensitive to removing anti-Judaism from the Gospels offer such alternatives. See two such examples below, plus one that occurs to us.

They started arguing with each other . . . . (The Holy Bible: Contemporary English Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1995).)

 

This started an angry argument among them .  (Good News Bible: The Bible in Today’s English Version (New York: American Bible Society, 1976)

 

Those who heard this quarreled among themselves . . . .

 

 

 

Ordinary Time: Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Lectionary Readings:  Isaiah 50:5-9a;  James 2:14-18;  Mark 8:27-35

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL READING, MARK 8:31

Current Reading: He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.

WHY DOES THIS WORDING POSE A PROBLEM?

This lectionary wording could reinforce the idea that the entire Jewish religious leadership rejected Jesus and wanted to kill him. In fact, the Gospel accounts depict Jewish leaders who respected Jesus and tried to support him.

For example, the New Testament tells us about Joseph of Arimathea, “a distinguished member of the Council” (Mk. 15:43). Luke describes him as “a virtuous and righteous man” (Lk. 23:50) who “had not consented to their [the Council’s] plan” (vs. 50-51). Matthew says that Joseph was himself “a disciple of Jesus” (Mt. 27:57). After Jesus’ crucifixion, this prominent Jewish Council member took some risks to make sure that Jesus had a proper burial (Mk. 15:43, 45-46).

So, contrary to the image of all Jewish leaders being against Jesus, here is one who not only did not plot against Jesus, but actually was a disciple of Jesus.

Another Jewish leader who sympathized with Jesus was Nicodemus, a Pharisee, who sought Jesus out to hear his teaching (John 3:1-9) and who, after the Crucifixion, joined Joseph of Arimathea in caring for Jesus’ body (John 19:39).

Still later, in the Book of Acts, we hear about Gamaliel, another sympathetic Jewish leader. Gamaliel is described in Acts as “a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin” and “a teacher of the law, respected by all the people” (Acts 5:34). When the Sanhedrin “became infuriated” at Jesus’ apostles and “wanted to put them to death” (5:33), Gamaliel made a powerful, persuasive and effective speech, urging the other Sanhedrin members to let the apostles go (5:35-39).

The main point is that we should take care not to bolster the all-too-common view that the whole Jewish leadership rejected Jesus and wanted him killed, since such a view has been and still is an influential source of anti-Judaism.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the reading

Inserting just three words into the reading, not only  removes (or at least softens) the anti-Judaic tone of Mark 8:31. They also make it more historically accurate for the modern reader:

He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by his opponents among the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.

 

Ordinary Time: Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Current Lectionary Readings:  1 Kings 17:10-16;  Hebrews 9:24-28;  Mark 12:38-44 (shorter form: Mark 12:41-44)

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE:  MARK 12:38-40

In the course of his teaching, Jesus said to the crowds, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

 

WHY IS THIS PROBLEMATIC?

Jesus’ words are an assault on “the scribes,” who “will receive a very severe condemnation.” They are portrayed as hypocritical, snobbish, pretentious. Their “long robes” mark them as economically well-off people who would not stoop to manual labor. Even their prayers are insincere, said for the sake of appearances.

As the Gospel story unfolds, the scribes (often linked to the Pharisees) are pictured as among Jesus’ strongest enemies.

Here we have the familiar problem of generalizing about a whole group of people. Stereotypes are a potent source of prejudice–“All Mexicans, Blacks, Irish, Jews are . . . .” Once people have been dropped into a category, all with the same negative characteristics, it is much easier to justify discrimination against them–or worse.

The danger to the Jewish community of this portrayal of the scribes is that it can be applied to all Jews without distinction and strengthen antipathetical attitudes toward Jews in general. This cannot have been Jesus’ intention.

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Comment on the reading in your sermon

Without denying that some scribes opposed Jesus vehemently, this can be an occasion to humanize a group of Jewish people and to counter the tendency to apply their purported negative characteristics to all Jews everywhere.

Among Jews at the time of Jesus, scribes were learned men who, in a largely illiterate society, could read, write and interpret documents (e.g., contracts, correspondence). Because of this skill, they often allied themselves with other literate members of the Jewish community, such as the Pharisees, high priests and elders and, at times, became interpreters of the law. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the multifaceted role of the scribe can be found in the Book of Ezra (cf. Ezra 4:8, 9, 17, 23; 7:6, 11. The important Jewish leader, Ezra, it should be noted, was himself a scribe.) In the Book of Kings, the scribe was a high cabinet officer concerned with finance, policy and administration (2 Kings 22).

Throughout most of the Gospels, scribes are described as opposing Jesus. However, just before the passage we are discussing, a scribe agrees with Jesus and extrapolates on his words, leading Jesus to tell him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (12:28-34). Matthew and Luke also describe a scribe who wants to follow Jesus “wherever you go” (Mt. 8:19-20).

Choose the shorter form of the reading

The shorter form (Mark 12:41-44) might be preferable since it avoids the above problems entirely.

Ordinary Time: Last (Thirty-Fourth) Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B — Christ the King

Current Lectionary reading:  Daniel 7:13-14;  Revelation 1:5-8;  John 18:33b-37

PROBLEMATIC PASSAGE: GOSPEL: JOHN 18:36

Current reading: If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.”

 

WHY IS THIS WORDING PROBLEMATIC?

See our commentary on THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT, YEAR B. There we describe how the phrase “the Jews” can be–and has been–used in a way that inspires anti-Jewish prejudice. The Gospel of John frequently uses the phrase, “the Jews,” not to speak of the diverse Jewish community of Jesus’ day, but as a stereotype that refers to Jesus’ enemies. John 18:36 is one of the worst uses of “the Jews” in the whole Gospel. Furthermore, it makes no sense to have Jesus talking about “being handed over to the Jews,” when he himself was Jew, as were his parents, his family,  his disciples and most of his followers.

 

WHAT CAN A MINISTER DO?

Modify the reading

If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to those who want to kill me.

 

OR

 

If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.

 

OR

 

If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to my opponents.

 

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