Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
February 5, 2017
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany – Year A
1 Corinthians 2:1-16
It’s not very often that our popular culture provides us with a touchstone for understanding the Gospels. As I prayed these propers in preparation for today’s homily, however, I thought of the classic film starring Bette Davis, “All about Eve.” There is a marvelous scene in the movie when the upstart actress Eve Harrington unexpectedly stands in for the famous and renowned actress Margot Channing, played by Bette Davis, who is late for a dress rehearsal of her latest Broadway play. The conniving Eve has invited the cynical and debonair theater critic, appropriately named Addison DeWitt, from the New York Times to witness her rehearsal performance. He is appropriately impressed by her acting and writes in his review that the ingénue Eve is all “fire and light.” After reading the review, in which the acerbic critic is also careful to remind his readers of Ms. Channing’s advancing years, Bette Davis’ character grouses, “Fire and Light, Fire and Light. What am I, just an old kazoo and sparklers?”
Well, I think that Jesus himself had something like Ms. Channing’s remark in mind when he surveyed the religious landscape of his own time and place. And, I dare say, he might have precisely the same reaction to religious practice in our own time as well. His metaphors of salt and lighted lamps certainly fit the bill. In Jesus’ Mediterranean world, salt was not a spice used to add savor to a meal; it was used as an indispensible preservative for meat and fish. Small blocks of it were also used in every clay oven to ignite and maintain an ample fire for cooking. And in a world without electricity, lamps were the only source of light for twelve hours or more every day. So, when Jesus exhorts his disciples in this morning’s Gospel to preserve and to ignite the spirits of the people with their salty words, and to guide their feet into the “kingdom of God” through the light of their good works and their worship of the one true God, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” he is expressing his exasperation over a contemporaneous culture grown tepid and lax in faithfulness to God and Torah.
And yet, we must also recognize that the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, and this morning’s passage in particular, has been misused and misinterpreted to promote centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. In today’s Gospel, Jesus intended neither to found a new religion nor to abrogate a so-called outworn or a superseded Torah. Rather, he unambiguously states: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished.” And, in marked contrast to the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of popular imagination—what I like to call the “Swedish Jesus,” so often portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes—this first-century, Torah-observant, Jewish sage of dark complexion is a rigorist about the necessity for his fellow Jews to observe the whole law: what the rabbis of Jesus’ day termed the “lighter observances” as well as the “heavier” ones. Listen to the teaching of the ancient rabbis on such matters: “If a person says, ‘I accept all of the Torah with one exception,’ or if he says, ‘All of the Torah was spoken by God, with the exception of one passage spoken by Moses,’ that person has despised the word of the Lord and is worthy to be thrust out of the world to come.” (Sifre Numbers) So, in the debates raging during Jesus’ own time concerning the proper interpretation of the Torah, Saint Matthew portrays Jesus here as a rather conservative sage. And, if he were still walking among us today, Jesus would most likely be dressed as an ultra-Orthodox Jew wearing a kippah or skull cap; peyot or side curls; tzitziot or tassels visibly dangling from the corners of his garment to remind him of the commands of the Torah; and tefillin on his forehead and forearm containing the words of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel,” as prescribed for every Jewish male’s morning prayers by the Torah. So zealous is Jesus for upholding the Torah—written and oral—in today’s Gospel that he reminds his followers “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Then, in a breathtaking command to exceed even some of the Torah rigorists of his own day, Jesus warns his Jewish disciples that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of [some of] the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, Jesus expects his disciples to “fulfill”—which in the idiomatic Hebrew of Jesus’ day meant literally “to interpret correctly”—the law and the prophets.
My friends, I must be completely honest by speaking with you from my heart this morning: All About Eve was not my first reaction to this morning’s Gospel. My first response was how did it happen? How could it have happened? How did centuries of ugly and relentless Christian anti-Judaism and virulent anti-Semitism—which led directly to the pogroms, the killing fields, and finally to the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz and the other Nazi death-camps—come about in the wake of such a clear and unambiguous Gospel as today’s? How could Christians and the Church have maimed and killed Jewish people in their millions over the millennia in the name of this Jewish rabbi from Nazareth. Even if Jesus is the “Messiah”—and I believe with my whole being that he is—not a single drop of Jewish blood, not one anti-Semitic action or disparaging remark, is justified by this reality. So, my first reaction to today’s Gospel was a real cry of anguish and flow of bitter tears when I prayed over and thought about this lection, especially in light of the rabid and rising anti-Semitism worldwide. When I recalled my utter and complete horror several summers ago while standing in the gas chamber of Auschwitz One; when I remembered my surprise and dismay at the huge expanse of prisoner barracks at Birkenau; when I recollected my anguish and despair standing at the very spot where Dr. Josef Mengele, the “angel of death,” with a flick of his thumb to the right or to the left at Birkenau’s rail-spur determined who would live and who would die in their thousands; I begged God in his mercy to forgive Christians and the Church the truly unforgivable. I will never fathom—no matter the amount of my study or teaching about the Shoah—how the salty fire and beckoning light of Jesus’ images this morning—intended to preserve and sustain abundant human life—became the pretext for the ghastly flames of those other ovens, and the incandescent smoke and ash of those chimneys against the night sky of the death-camps. As the recently deceased Nobel Peace Laureate and Shoah survivor Elie Wiesel correctly wrote—long before the Trump administration’s flagrant failure to name the Jewish people in its brief and tepid nod to International Holocaust Remembrance Day last week—“The Holocaust was not man’s inhumanity to man; it was man’s inhumanity toward the Jews.” This, my brothers and sisters in Christ, may someday be forgiven, but we must never forget. We must make certain that the future will never permit what the past refused to prevent.
Our Gospel this morning is a vivid and poignant reminder that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is an eternal covenant. The Jewish people, in the words of Saint John Paul ll, are—and always will be—“our elder sisters and brothers in the faith of the one true God.” A faithful and compassionate God will fulfill his covenantal promises to all of his children—Jews and Gentiles—and we Christians will never fathom just how the cosmic Christ is drawing and reconciling ALL people to God. With this in mind and heart this morning, we in the Church must pray for forgiveness of our willful blindness and countless crimes over the millennia toward people of other religions and, most especially, for our collective guilt over the enormity of our crimes against the Jewish people. We must never allow the epic tragedy of the last century, driven by the murderous, fascist dictatorships, the false humanisms, and the lethal Jew-hatred of those times to happen again. And we must fight against the scourge of resurgent anti-Semitism, aptly described as “the longest hatred,” whenever and wherever we encounter it, and most especially in the teaching and preaching of the Church. There is no place now or ever for the sin of supersessionism: the mistaken belief that the Christian revelation has somehow abrogated or transcended God’s one, eternal covenant with the Jewish people. The vocation of a Jew is to be a good Jew; the call of a Christian is to be a good Christian; and the common summons for all humanity is, in the words of the holy prophet Micah, “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” If Jesus is indeed “a light to enlighten the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel”—as the holy prophet Simeon proclaimed at Jesus’ presentation in the Temple—then we in the Church have much more reconciling and atoning work to do before we become Jesus’ “salt” and the “light of the world,” “a city built on a hill.” Otherwise, we will remain, to our everlasting regret, “just an old kazoo and sparklers,” “full,” in the words of the Bard, “of the sound and the fury of words, words signifying nothing.”