Mindful Sermons: Preaching John 1:19 Without Prejudice

Third Sunday of Advent, B

Problematic passage:  Gospel Reading: John 1:19

“When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it . . .”

Why is this problematic?

“The Jews.” These two words communicate a generalization that brings to mind, not individual people with individual characteristics, but a featureless throng. Clearly, it would have been impossible for every Jewish person in Jerusalem to have “sent priests and Levites to ask him . . .” Instead, this must refer to a relatively small group of Jews (the Pharisees, according to verse 19) who wanted to question Jesus and to find out what claims he was making about himself. This  phrase comes early in John’s gospel, but John’s habit of speaking of “the Jews” collectively is found throughout his gospel. By the end of his account, “the Jews” are being held responsible for Jesus’ death. Tragically, this helped to create a portrait of the Jewish people as “Christ-killers.” This portrayal has come down through history, strengthening anti-Semitism, fostering prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish community, giving ammunition to bigots and manipulative politicians and contributing to the torture and death of millions of Jews by purveyors of hatred. Surely John and the other New Testament writers–followers of Jesus, the Lord of love–did not intend to unleash upon the world such defamation and horror. This history of Christian-inspired anti-Semitism causes Jews like Rabbi Irving Greenberg to ask, “Will the Gospel of Love never stop generating hate for Jews?” (For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2004), pg. 46.)

What can a minister do?

Sermon – Preaching: A minister might say something brief and simple such as: “As we hear the words of John’s gospel, let us not think that the phrase ‘the Jews’ refers to some group different from and hostile to Jesus. After all, Jesus himself was a Jew, as were Mary and Joseph, all of his family and all the Apostles. We must not let words like this take on an anti-Judaic connotation in our minds nor contribute to anti-Semitism. Let us rather acknowledge and give thanks for the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of our own Christian faith.” Deepen one’s own understanding: See this website’s bibliography, which lists a number of helpful books with suggestions for creative ways to discuss and preach about this subject. Sunday bulletin: Include a commentary on the reading which will help worshippers understand the negative ways that the phrase “the Jews” has been used in the past. Caution against reacting to the phrase in ways that can inspire or reinforce anti-Judaism. Bible study: Invite church members to a Bible study to look more closely at this whole issue. Use a book like Removing Anti-Judaism from the Pulpit (see bibliography) to help guide the discussion. Suggestion: To kick off the Bible study, ask someone to read in sequence John 18:12-14, 19-20, 29-31, 35-36; 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? Do you think that reading these words in the Sunday worship can inspire or reinforce anti-Judaism? How did you yourselves react to these readings?” The church’s website: Include a section on these issues. Suggest books that church members might read (see bibliography) to deepen their own understanding of Christian anti-Judaism. Sunday school classes: After meeting with and orienting teachers, introduce this subject in both adult and children’s classes. The latter are especially important, since children form their ideas of “the other” early on. Have a speaker on the subject: Invite someone with experience in Jewish-Christian relations and knowledge of the biblical issues to speak at a special gathering (e.g., a night meeting) at the church. (See the resources elsewhere in this website for names of such speakers.) Modify the reading: For very solid reasons, not everyone feels comfortable with changing the actual wording of the text. However, for those who are comfortable with taking such a step, we’ve given below two examples of alternative wordings that you might use. This different wording would make the reading both more accurate to the historical circumstances and less amenable to an anti-Judaic interpretation.

Suggested ways to change the wording of John 1:19

When some of the Jewish leaders from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it . . . When the authorities from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to him to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it . . .

For additional resources, visit Sermons Without Prejudice and Faith Not Fault

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