God Struggled

Homily at St Philip Evans on the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

Map showing the modern State of Israel and Palestinian Territories

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

All today’s readings speak about Israel in one way or another. With so much in the news about Gaza, and so many points of view about the Jewish State and the Palestinian Territories, it is worth pausing to look at what the Bible and the Church say about Israel. We may find that our religious heritage colours our thoughts in ways we don’t expect.

In the book of Genesis, God promised Abraham that he would become  the father of many nations, and his descendants would inhabit the territory we today call the Middle East. The next four books of the Old Testament tell how Moses led the descendants of Abraham out of Egypt and to the borders of the Promised Land. This part of the Bible makes for uncomfortable reading. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses gave instructions, in God’s name, that in six named cities, the Israelites were to destroy every living man, woman, child and animal. Is this really what God wanted? If you read every word of the Bible literally, you can only conclude that this is what God asked for. But our Catholic way of reading the Bible is to say that in the days of the Old Testament, people heard God imperfectly, and it is only through the teaching of Jesus that we can truly know God’s heart.

After settling in the Promised Land, the people of Israel become a strong nation, eventually acclaiming David as king. But when David’s grandson became king, the northern half of the kingdom rebelled, and from then on there were two Jewish nations: Judah in the south and Israel in the north. By the time of the New Testament, the southern kingdom was called Judea and the north, Samaria – this is why the Samaritans were so hated, they were seen as rebels whose ancestors rejected the heirs of David in Jerusalem.

Today’s first reading is typical of the prophets who preached in Israel and Judah in the days of the divided kingdom. The prophets kept returning to two common themes: were the Jewish people staying faithful to God and not turning to religious beliefs from surrounding tribes? Were they treating kindly and fairly the poorest members of their community? Two well-known quotes (from Exodus and Micah) sum these up: “I am the Lord your God – you shall have no other God before me”, and “This is what the Lord asks of you: act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.”  Today’s reading also tells us quite specifically that foreigners in Israel who choose to worship the true God are to be welcomed, not hated.

When we read the New Testament, we see quite clearly that Jesus came to preach to the Jewish people, whom he describes as God’s lost sheep. Today he is asked for help by a Canaanite woman – the equivalent today would be a Palestinian seeking a blessing from an Israeli rabbi. She wins her blessing because she addresses the cultural awkwardness by an act of deep humility. Why does Our Lord treat speak to her so harshly? The scholars have various ideas but my suspicion is that he saw in that woman a spirit so feisty, that he could push her into an act of amazing humility which would be told for all time in memory of her. There’s a lesson here which is much needed amidst today’s conflict!

The 12 apostles and almost all the first Christians were Jews. But tensions grew up between the followers of Jesus and the rest of the Jewish community, and often when the New Testament speaks of ‘the Jews’ it means ‘the ones who didn’t follow Jesus’. We must be very careful that this does not push us into being anti-Jewish; the history of the Middle Ages includes many sad examples of our own Catholic Church supporting anti-Semitism. We fell into the trap of remembering that in the accounts of Our Lord’s crucifixion, the Jewish crowd cried, ‘his blood be on us and on our descendants’ and forgetting that Jesus said, ‘forgive them, they don’t realise what they are doing’. The lowest point came in the year 1215, when the Catholic Bishops gathered in a great council passed a requirement that Jews and Muslims should wear a distinctive sign. Somewhat belatedly, St John Paul II apologised for the Church’s acts of anti-Semitism in the jubilee year, 2000, after the Vatican acknowledged that the history of Christianity in Europe had left ‘anti-Jewish prejudices embedded in some Christian minds and hearts’.

Today and in recent weeks our Second Reading has been from St Paul, about the Jews who did not become Christians. The gist of today’s reading is that because some of the Jewish people failed to welcome Christ, they crucified him – opening for us the gates of heaven – prompting Paul to take the message of Jesus out to the Roman Empire instead. St Paul notes that God never takes back a promise; because of this our church recognises that the Jewish people will always continue to be God’s Chosen People through the Old Covenant, even though a fuller relationship with God is on offer to those who become baptised members of the Church.

In the year 70 AD, the Roman authorities destroyed the Jewish Temple and excluded Jews from Jerusalem. This led to a failed Jewish revolt seventy years later; most of the Jews not killed by the Romans were then expelled from the Holy Land. It was only in the 2oth century that Jews started returning there in large numbers. This is the root of today’s tension between the State of Israel refounded in 1948, in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust, and the Palestinian people – mostly Muslim, but some Christian – whose families had occupied that land for generations. For the Jews, they are merely reclaiming their God-given land after an eighteen-hundred-year hiatus; for the Palestinians, they are resisting an occupation of their ancestral home.

Some Christians tend to side with the State of Israel automatically, because they focus on Old Testament texts which declare Israel to be the Promised Land, or because they read some New Testament texts as saying God’s plan for the world will only be fulfilled when the Jews return to Israel. Other Christians tend to side with the Palestinians because the New Testament calls on us to protect the weak against the strong, and at present the State of Israel is the dominant political and military power over the Palestinians.

All of this might seem irrelevant to us here in Cardiff, living thousands of miles from the rockets and shells flying in both directions across a disputed border. It matters, because right now, in Gaza, more than a quarter of a million human beings are sheltering in buildings away from their homes. Hundreds of people need urgent medical attention. Clean water and electricity are in short supply and sewage is not being treated properly. Whatever the rights and wrongs of how it happened, Jesus is suffering in every displaced resident of Gaza – as he is in every Israeli bereaved or injured by Palestinian militants.

Catholic Bishops in the Holy Land and in our own land have called on Israelis and Palestinians to replace hatred and revenge with a recognition of every neighbour as a fellow human being with equal rights and responsibilities. The Bishops in the Holy Land have asked for our prayers, but know that prayers alone are not enough. CAFOD has asked us to write to our Foreign Secretary for Britain to express greater concern that the violence by both sides must stop, and stop quickly. Where we have no power to act, let us ask those who can, to work for peace. But let us never cease to heed the words of the Psalms: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem! On Israel, peace!

Additional material for the web edition:

In a 7-minute homily it is impossible to give this subject a detailed treatment. Otherwise our starting point would be Abraham, who is named in the Missal as ‘our father in in faith’. The book of Genesis tells us that God spoke to Abraham, who was childless in his old age and made him. Abraham fathered a child, Ishmael, through his slave, before God made his 80-year-old wife, Sarah, become pregnant with Isaac. Muslim Arabs look to Ishmael as their ancestor, the Jewish people are the children of Isaac.

Isaac fathered twin sons, Jacob and Esau, who became great rivals. When they were each grown men and leaders of their own communities, Jacob travelled to make peace with Esau; during this journey he met a mysterious stranger who spent a night wrestling with him, with neither gaining the upper hand. Eventually Jacob recognised that his opponent was a messenger sent by God, and said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me’, and was blessed with a new name – the name Israel, which means ‘God wrestled’. Jacob’s twelve sons and their families – the ‘twelve tribes of Israel’ – lived peacefully in the land we now call ‘Israel’ until famine forced them to move to Egypt. For 400 years these families lived and grew in Egypt, until Moses led them out into the desert, and his successor Joshua brought them across the River Jordan into the Promised Land.

After the age of the kings, the Jewish people were deported to Babylon for 70 years, then returned to the Promised Land with limited autonomy under the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires.

As my example of Catholic anti-Semitism, I chose the rule passed by the Fourth Lateran Council because of the grave nature of such a decision being taken by so many bishops gathered in council. But an equally worthy candidate for ‘all-time low point’ would be the expulsion of Jews from the Papal States.