In most of our commentaries on “Problematic Passages,” we have suggested alternative wordings which do not convey the anti-Judaic tone of the Lectionary’s current readings. Some ministers, for very understandable reasons, do not feel comfortable with changing the current wording. Others are willing to modify the wording, but want additional ways to address the text.
Below we suggest other possible ways of addressing this challenge. Not all may be relevant in your context. Choose those that seem helpful. Or, add your own ideas.
IN ADDITION TO (OR INSTEAD OF) MODIFYING THE READING, HERE ARE SOME OTHER WAYS TO DEAL WITH PROBLEMATIC PASSAGES
Don’t make a point of it: Read the verses without making any changes if, in your judgment, there is little or no downside to reading the passage as it is.
Read the text as it is, but confront it: Call the congregation’s attention to the harm that passages with an anti-Judaic tone have done and can do. Here is what a Catholic leader, Archbishop Weakland said about such passages: “I acknowledge that we Catholics, by preaching a doctrine that the Jewish people were unfaithful, hypocritical and God-killers, reduced the human dignity of our Jewish brothers and sisters and created attitudes that made reprisals against them seem like acts of conformity to God’s will. By doing so, I confess that we Catholics contributed to the attitudes that made the Holocaust possible.”
A Vincentian priest in Philadelphia confronted a set of up-coming problematic texts around the Lent-Easter season by saying, before proclaiming the day’s Scripture: “Over the next three weeks, we’ll be hearing some of the most anti-Jewish Scripture readings that we’ll hear at any other time during the liturgical year. So talk to your children about this. What is our relationship to the Jewish community? How do we relate to the roots out of which the Church sprang? What responsibility do we share for the suffering of the Jewish people? Talk to your children about what we believe and what we don’t believe. . .Teach your children so they can grow up without anti-Semitism, can grow up, in fact, without prejudice of any kind.”
Omit the verse: Now and then, problematic words/phrases can be omitted without doing violence to the meaning of the passage. For example, John 20:19 says: “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. . . .”
Since the disciples still considered themselves Jews, it is not historically accurate to say that these Jewish men were in hiding “for fear of the Jews.” To modern ears, however, it can be heard as another indictment of the Jewish community as a whole.
This phrase appears more than once in John’s Gospel (e.g., 7:13; 9:22) and in each case it means fear of the authorities. The reading flows without “for fear of the Jews,” i.e., “. . . when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, Jesus came and stood in their midst. . .”
The whole passage is too rich with solid Johannine themes to try to address this problem in the homily. Better to omit the phrase or to substitute “for fear of the authorities.”
Comment on the reading in your sermon: An approach that can jolt people into awareness is to read, one after another, a string of negative verses about Jews in John. (Examples: John 5:15-18; 7:1; 7:13; 8:43-44, 47-48, 57-59; 9:22; 10:31; 11:53-54; 18:35-36; 19:12, 14-16, 38; 20:19.) Then request the congregation to ask themselves quietly: How do these verses portray the Jewish people? Do you agree with this portrayal? How does reading them all together make you feel?
Then read a group of verses which portray Jewish people in a positive way, and ask the same questions. (Examples of positive verses: John 4:45; 6:14; 7:31, 40; 10:41-42; 11:45; 12:12-13.)
Another approach would be to caution the congregation by saying something like: “When we hear the phrase ‘the Passover of the Jews’ in today’s Gospel (John 2:13), it is important to remember that these five words refer to the Jewish Passover, something with which we’re all familiar. Jesus and his family, as faithful members of the Jewish community, celebrated the Passover all their lives. We should regard Passover as something that unites us more closely to Jesus and to the Jewish religious community of which he was a part.”
Bible study: Ask one of your congregation’s Bible study groups to take up the topic of how Jews are portrayed in the New Testament and what to do about it. A good exercise to begin is to ask the group to read in sequence John 8:12-14, 19-20, 29-31; 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? How do you react to these readings? Do you think that proclaiming these passages during Sunday worship can inspire or reinforce anti-Judaism?
Deepen your own understanding: Read up on the subject. See especially this website’s “Bibliography” and “Essays” sections which have a wealth of information. See especially “Essays on New Testament Judaism.”
Sunday Bulletin: Refer to the issue in the church’s Sunday Bulletin. Possibly include a commentary on the lectionary reading which will help worshippers to understand how phrases like “the Jews” or “the Pharisees” have been used to fire up anti-Semitism.
The church’s website: Include a section on these issues. It might be titled something like, “How we are addressing anti-Judaism.” Suggest books or articles that parishioners might read to deepen their own understanding (for suggestions, see on the home page the Bibliography and the Essays).
Sunday school classes: After meeting with and orienting teachers, introduce this subject in both children’s and adult classes. The former is especially important, since children form their ideas of “the other” early on. For example, when John 2:13, with its reference to Passover, appears in the lectionary, take time in a class to read from Jewish books about Passover. Make an exhibit of such books in the back of church, with some for sale.
Have a speaker on the subject: Invite someone with experience in Jewish-Christian relations and knowledge of the biblical issues to speak, e.g., at a special night meeting. Invite a rabbi or other knowledgeable Jewish person to speak at church.