Who is my neighbor?
I wanted to write a brief commentary about the sermon, because, as I reflected on what I said, I realized there are some flaws that I wanted to explore. This is a sermon based on the parable of the Good Samaritan. I love it, and it was really appropriate for a reflection on race.
But in my exegesis (my explanation of the text) I drew out some issues of race, based on the idea that Jews didn't like Samaritans in that period in history. The flaw is that, we still use the same word for Jew today as we do in a text from approximately 2000 years ago, and in me calling out Jews in the text for being racist, I, as a Christian minister, was not careful enough to distinguish them from contemporary Jews.
Recently, as I have been involved in a dialogue between Christian ministers and Jewish Rabbi's, I have become more sensitized to this way of reading biblical texts. The Roman's and the Jew's often become the bad guys in the text. We no longer have Roman's to associate with the Roman's of the bible. We don't think that all Italians are being spoken of when the New Testament refers to Romans. It has not always been so with Jews. In the history of the Christian tradition we have, and sometimes still do, still think of modern Jews when we speak of the Jews of the ancient near east.
That is not only unfair, it is misleading and damaging. An un-nuanced interpretation of my sermon could lead you to assume that I believe all Jews are racist - which is, in itself, a generalization based on race - and is not what I believe.
In this story, Jesus, as a Jewish man, was critiquing his own culture. His critique was challenging and forceful, which is why he caused controversy, but he was definitely speaking to his own about their attitudes. When I, as a white Christian minister in the early 21st Century use the same words to speak of Jews I am also using a word that refers to a group of people who exist today, and not just an historic culture. The rhetorical difference is that Jesus is speaking to his own, I am speaking of the other, but I am using the same words.
So I wanted to write a paragraph about how I read these texts and what I mean when I preach about 'the Jews'. When I use these texts I do not so much think of the people in the text as Jewish, so much as I think of them as representations of my own christian community. Jesus was speaking to his own people, but his message is universal and can be applied to a certain kind of religiosity that occurs over and over again in human history. I want to talk to my own community and use his message to identify that we can all be caught up in the kinds of religious attitudes that Jesus was deconstructing. Sometimes preachers, (and when I say preachers I am including myself) don't say that quite as clearly as they should. Most people understand what we mean from context, but not all do, and not in every period of history. The texts of the New Testament that are meant to critique the use and abuse of religious power have themselves been used to persecute Jewish minorities throughout history, and it is one of the things Christians must be cautious of.
I am trying to work out how I could have handled this more subtly in my sermon. I am wondering if some time spent on this issue within the sermon might have been useful, although, it was pretty long already. Pausing to think about this was important to me though, because this was a sermon about race and violence: just because I was focused on the subject of white on black racism, I didn't want to also miss the way in which anti-semitism has been a part of my own Christian tradition.
I wonder what you think of this reflection? I hope that the powerful message of the parable of the Good Samaritan still speaks to you clearly about race, but I wonder if you pick up the undertone I am reflecting on now?
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
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