Epiphany: A Story of Outsiders
BY: Tom Ehrich, Religion News Service
Years ago, when our older boys attended a Jewish preschool, another dad and I brought in the tools of our trade for a class.
As a priest, I brought stole, Bible, prayer book, cup and bread. As a rabbi, he brought prayer shawl, Bible, prayer book, cup and bread.
Some in our respective traditions would have been offended by our presentation. But our point was to affirm mutual respect, our common heritage and faith in the one God.
In my childhood, Jews had a parallel culture -- their own country club, their own neighborhoods, their own law firms, their own athletic club. When I tried to take a Jewish friend to my swimming club, he was told to leave.
These ethnic animosities go way back. One could argue that the Book of Genesis was written to explain why Semites were special in God's eyes. Israel's myths served to justify warfare against other tribes.
If much of Torah was grounded in ethnic hatred, so were the Gospels. Matthew and John seemed determined to reinforce hatred of Jews. Once the Day of Pentecost had passed, the New Testament drama turned on ethnic tension: Did one have to become a Jew before being baptized?
It went both ways: Jews persecuted Christians, and Christians, once they got the upper hand, persecuted Jews. Christians and Jews have spent the last 2,000 years hating each other.
The story of the Epiphany is more than a quaint incident involving mysterious strangers from the East bringing gifts to baby Jesus. Matthew's point was that the first witnesses to Jesus were outsiders.
As Matthew tells it, established leaders like the Pharisees resisted Jesus from the beginning. Small wonder. The Sermon on the Mount was a rewriting of Torah and the declaration of a new beacon to the nations. Jesus railed against shallow piety, false prophets, ancient trees whose sap had dried up. In the end, his own people shouted for his death.
Perhaps in this Third Christian Millennium we will finally read the story correctly. The point wasn't to condemn Jews. The point was that Messiah was rejected by the religious people of his day. His enemies were his own people, and not because they were Jews, but because they rejected anyone who bade them take their tradition seriously.
The religious establishment, the pillars of temple and synagogue, saw in Jesus a threat to their privileges and self-serving world view. Rather than admire their finery, Jesus called them to account for abusing "the law and the prophets."
We cannot read this story as Christian vs. Jew. Not because it is politically incorrect to do so, but because it is an abuse of Scripture. In our various faith communities, we must ask whether rejecting someone else truly constitutes accepting God. Can anything worthwhile be built on hatred?
Speaking to my own tradition, I would ask, Does the religious establishment of our day welcome a gospel of new life, self-sacrifice, suffering servanthood, victory over money and control? Do the religious of our day embrace a faith-world in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free?
Have our churches become so immersed in the way Jesus lived that we have torn down our walls of exclusion, abandoned our membership rules, given away our gold, frankincense and myrrh, left our safety to follow a star, put aside our pastor profiles and knelt before a child?
It isn't Jews who send Jesus outside the walls to die today. It's people who enjoy the benefits of Christian community but resist discipleship. It is easier to hate and to blame than it is to repent and to accept unearned forgiveness.
Standing together before God isn't a sappy blurring of necessary lines. The rabbi and I weren't being nice. We were laying down our arms. We were looking for common ground.
That should be our business in the new millennium: Jew, Christian, Muslim, non-believer, male, female, straight, gay -- finding common ground, standing before God, our angry histories and our fervent opinions piled behind us like rifles we no longer need.
What salvation worth seeking can possibly be found in shedding the blood of another pilgrim?