April 15th, 2022 (Good Friday and the beginning of Passover)
A long time ago, my wife and I regularly attended a Bible study group. We met at a member’s house almost every Saturday afternoon to discuss the Christian gospels. We went to these sessions for years. Most of the participants were Evangelicals. Karin and I were often the only Catholics in the circle. The discussions were usually passionate but respectful. Occasionally things got tense. We all became friends over time.
I remember once there was conversation about the Jews. One of the people in the group blurted out,
“They’re all damned!”
I was a bit shocked by that comment. I think I was more concerned by the fact that nobody there really contradicted the speaker. The assumption seemed to be that the Jewish people were not saved. Period.
A few years after we stopped attending these Bible studies, I started going to an Orthodox Jewish synagogue. I wanted to learn what Judaism was about, and I needed to be with Jews to understand the tradition. Now, after thirteen years, I still don’t completely get the picture, but I still spend time with the folks from that shul. I have grown close to some of them, and we have strong ties of respect and affection.
Today I think about that blanket condemnation of the Jews by the person at the Bible study. Where did he get the idea that all the members of a religious tradition were going straight to hell?
I don’t know about the teachings of other Christian denominations. I can only speak about what I know as a Catholic. The historical fact is that, especially on Good Friday, the message to the Catholic congregation was antisemitic.
There are four gospels. One of them is attributed to St. John the Evangelist. The crucifixion story of John’s Gospel was and is read in its entirety during the Good Friday liturgy. John’s Gospel is unique in that the opponents of Jesus are always referred to simply as “the Jews”. This a bit odd since Jesus himself was a Jew, as were all of his followers. Regardless, in this particular Passion narrative, the bad guys are “the Jews”. The implication, intended or not, is that the entire Jewish nation was responsible for the execution of the messiah. This interpretation of the gospel can be seen to have been responsible for centuries of pogroms against the Jews throughout Christendom. It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Holocaust has some roots in John’s Gospel.
Then there are the prayers that are said after the gospel reading. One of the petitions has traditionally concerned the Jews. Prior to Vatican II, the prayer was recited like this:
“Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts 2 Corinthians 3:13-16; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. (‘Amen’ is not responded, nor is said ‘Let us pray’, or ‘Let us kneel’, or ‘Arise’, but immediately is said:) Almighty and eternal God, who does not exclude from your mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of your Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.“
That’s a little harsh.
After Vatican II, the prayer was changed to this:
“Let us pray also for the Jewish people, to whom the Lord our God spoke first, that he may grant them to advance in love of his name and in faithfulness to his covenant. (Prayer in silence. Then the Priest says:) Almighty ever-living God, who bestowed your promises on Abraham and his descendants, hear graciously the prayers of your Church, that the people you first made your own may attain the fullness of redemption. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
That’s a little better. That is the prayer that Catholics use today.
I think about my friends who are Jewish. They are serving God in their own fashion, and in many ways their tradition is the foundation of my own. They are my older siblings in faith. I don’t often talk to them about Jesus. They have already heard enough about Jesus. More to the point, they have seen what the followers of Jesus have done to them during the last two millennia. They don’t really have much against Jesus personally, but they are very gun-shy with regards to his adherents.
I cannot imagine any of my friends being damned for being good Jews. That makes no sense to me. A God who is loving and just would not punish anybody that sincerely seeks Him.
Honestly, if my Jewish friends can’t go to heaven, I don’t want to go either.