Archives for posts with tag: antisemitism

Sermon for Mattins on the 12th Sunday after Trinity, 19th August 2018

Jonah 1 – Jonah and the Whale

Jonah didn’t want to go to preach in Nineveh. Nineveh was a big city in Assyria, Syria today – it’s now called Mosul. Jonah was a Jewish prophet. His people had been enslaved by the Assyrians – ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold’, as Byron put it – and the Assyrians definitely didn’t believe in the One True God of the Israelites. They believed in the Baals and the sacred poles and various other idols, and they were generally immoral and badly behaved. But God had told Jonah, as his prophet, to go and preach to them.

But Jonah decided to disobey God, and he ran away to sea. Our lesson says he took a passage in a ship to a place called ‘Tarshish’, but that word is just a general Hebrew word for ‘the ocean’. He just went anywhere except to Nineveh.

It didn’t go well. They were caught in a storm, and they had to throw cargo overboard to lighten the ship. As an aside, I wonder whether this is an early reference to the ancient maritime law concept of General Average, defined by the Marine Insurance Act 1906 (s66.2) as ‘… any extraordinary sacrifice or expenditure … voluntarily and reasonably made or incurred in time of peril for the purpose of preserving the property imperilled in the common adventure.’

I don’t want to wander off the track too far, telling you all about the more esoteric things in English maritime law, but I ought to just mention that our law has a wonderful expression, the ‘marine adventure’. It just means the business of sending a ship to sea on a voyage. The Marine Insurance Act, where so many of the principles which still govern maritime law and trade are found, says ‘there is a marine adventure where… Any ship goods or other moveables are exposed to maritime perils.’

‘Other moveables’: this was a law passed in 1906! It gives flexibility for any kind of transport by sea – what about an ‘Ekranoplan’, for instance? [https://goo.gl/images/ydMN5r] Or more mundanely, a hovercraft? Or a marine drone? I think they could all be described as ‘moveables … exposed to maritime perils’. They were very far-sighted in 1906, obviously.

But never mind which shipping line he took, whether they declared General Average, or which flag the ship was flying. The point was that Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. It begs the question why anyone, never mind just Jonah, would want to stand up in public in a strange place and tell their audience that they’re a bunch of godless no-good libertines. Come to think of it, though: if I stand up in this pulpit and say anything that some of you might call ‘political’, some of you may well give me a hard time. It has been known …

Imagine what it would be like if I were a Jewish rabbi – a preacher – today, going to Gaza and telling the Palestinians that they are all sinners, that the god that they worship is not real – well, not that their god is not real, because the Moslem God is the same God that Jews and Christians worship – but suppose this imaginary rabbi preached that the Palestinians’ understanding of god is faulty – and that the end is coming. I doubt that they would be particularly receptive. It’s not a preaching assignment I would want. And indeed, Jonah didn’t.

But there was a very important extra factor, which would also have influenced Jonah. That was nationality. Jonah was an Israelite, and the people of Nineveh were Syrians (or more precisely, Syrians under the overall rule of Persians.)

Incidentally, I hope it won’t disturb your repose just now if I mention – dangerously, perhaps – that we never, these days, refer to the Jewish people in the Old Testament as ‘Israelis’, but always as ‘Israelites’. Why is this?

When the great pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was interviewed on BBC Radio 3 before his BBC Proms concert on Tuesday this week, he said something along these lines; (I haven’t tracked down a verbatim recording, but my recollection is) he said that, in the current context of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, if you criticise the Israelis, you are also, automatically, criticising the Jews – and people may allege it is anti-semitic to do so. But Maestro Barenboim, who is an Israeli citizen and a Jew, clearly did not think that it was necessarily antisemitic to criticise Israel, and the Israelis.

Given what the Bible tells us of the search by the Jews for the Promised Land, it’s certainly difficult to make a distinction between Jews and Israelites. The people of Israel were the Jews: the Jews settled in the land of Israel. They were what we would normally call, Israelis. And if so, then the ancient Israelites have become the modern Israelis, one could argue.

Here, in the story of Jonah, there is a very strong anti-nationalist, universalist, theme. In God’s eyes it doesn’t matter whether the people to be prayed for, or to be preached to, belong to the right nationality, whether they are Israelites. When Jonah has been saved by being swallowed up in the great fish, and God asks him a second time to go to preach in Mosul, this time he doesn’t hesitate.

And it works. The people in Nineveh are very receptive to what Jonah has to tell them. They repent; they are forgiven. God doesn’t destroy their city. If you read on in the Book of Jonah – it’s only got four chapters – you’ll see that Nineveh is saved, but, rather surprisingly, Jonah is unhappy: he is cut up about why the heathens in Nineveh, those totally undeserving layabouts, should get this prize. They aren’t the right people to be saved. It should have been the Israelites, the chosen people.

But from God’s point of view, what difference did it make what nationality they were? Jonah seems to have thought that only the Jews, only Israelites, would understand the full theological background, the need for repentance. Heathens, ‘gentiles’, like the Assyrians, wouldn’t get it. They did not worship the one true God and so they didn’t qualify, in Jonah’s eyes. But when the Assyrians, having realised the power of God, saw that God had accepted their repentance, and wasn’t going to destroy them, they started to worship God too.

I think that we sometimes slip into a similar kind of insularity, a tendency to think that nobody who isn’t like us deserves to do as well as we do. I know I sometimes catch myself out being surprised when I find that someone who’s ‘not British’ turns up doing an important job, or where there’s a foreign-sounding name where we’d expect Smith or Jones.

After all, what is wrong with people coming and living here, earning a salary and paying their taxes? I would argue that the Book of Jonah supports the view that it doesn’t matter where you came from or who your parents were. You are a human being like me. The Jewish Law of the Old Testament said, look after the stranger at your gate. In Deuteronomy 10:19 Moses teaches, ‘Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt’.

God makes it very clear to Jonah that, as He said through the prophet Ezekiel, He loves all people. ‘He does not want the death of a sinner, but rather that he should repent and live’ (Ezekiel 33:11). That’s exactly what He got from the people in the great heathen city of Nineveh. They repented, and He let them live.

The story of Jonah and the whale is a lesson in universalism. It isn’t just a good monster story. It’s wisdom literature: it’s there to teach a lesson. That lesson is that God isn’t just one lot of people’s god, not a local idol. He created all of humankind. All of us: black, white, brown, Polish, Welsh, Indian: all humans, all equally children of God.

It is the origin of the idea of universal human rights. It took the aftermath of the Second World War for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to be drafted and adopted by the United Nations, (and then for British lawyers, led by David Maxwell Fyfe, to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights, which in our law is the Human Rights Act), but the seeds of the concept were sown in Old Testament times. The people of Nineveh were just as much children of God as Jonah and the Israelites.

Perhaps as a parting thought over your lunch, you might think about this. Today if you, we, are the Israelites, who are our Assyrians?

Maybe we should just keep that gate open. And do we need a whale to keep us out of trouble? I hope and pray, not.

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Sermon for Evensong on Whit Sunday 2015 at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
[Ezekiel 36:22-28], Acts 2:22-38 – This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified ..

I find the book of the Acts of the Apostles, which is really St Luke’s Gospel Part 2, really interesting. Really interesting, because it gives us an insight into what the early church, the first Christians, did, when the story of Jesus was still pretty fresh in their minds. Today we see that they were confronted by things which have produced consequences, not necessarily good consequences, ever since.

This morning we had the story of the Holy Spirit coming to the believers gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish Feast of the First Fruits, Harvest Festival (see Exodus 23:16). There were about 120 of them gathered together (Acts 1:15), and they were among a crowd of Jews, Jews from that splendid catalogue of places we can’t now really place: where were the Medes and the Parthians from, in today’s world? Anyway, the important thing is, that they were all Jewish.

St Peter preached the first Christian sermon to this multinational group – this group which was multinational, but not multi-ethnic. He told them the story of Jesus, saying how the great Jewish king David had foretold the Messiah’s greatness (in Psalm 16): ‘thou shalt not leave my soul in hell: neither shalt thou suffer thy Holy One to see corruption.’ (Psalm 16:11, BCP)

Peter pointed out that David was mortal; what David said about not suffering his Holy One to see corruption was not about himself, about David, but was a prophecy about the Messiah to come in future, that the Messiah would not be ‘abandoned to Hades’ (Acts 2:31, NRSV).

Jesus had died and been resurrected, had come back to life. It was he, Jesus, that fitted the description of the Messiah, the chosen one of God. Peter quoted Psalm 110, Dixit dominus domino meo, The Lord said unto my Lord: Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’ You might remember ‘Dixit Dominus’ set to music by Handel.

Peter concluded, ‘Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.’

‘That Jesus, whom ye have crucified.’ Possibly those words have been some of the most troublesome ever uttered. It said that the Jews were God-killers. That was certainly the way that the early Church fathers, such as Origen and Irenaeus, went on to see things. The original promise to Abraham and the renewal of Israel promised to Ezekiel in our first lesson, ‘[Then] you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God’, the early Church fathers thought that promise had been replaced, replaced by the anointing of the Messiah, Jesus.

That interpretation caused untold misery for the Jews. Christianity was set against Judaism. For centuries, it wasn’t the Muslims who persecuted Jews, but Christians. I have read that even some of the defendants at the Nuremberg trials relied on the theory that Jews were God-killers, in order to justify the Holocaust. The idea had come down in German theology, it’s surprising to learn, through Martin Luther.

But it does seem very unfair. Indeed, it illustrates how careful we must be when we read the Bible, not to take things out of context. As you will remember from the lesson just now, what Peter said in full was, ‘When he [Jesus] had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God, you used heathen men to crucify and kill him’ (Acts 2:23, NEB).

I will come back, to dissect the various strands in it; but first we should recognise that, at the end of the passage in Acts, (verses 37-41), the Jews listening to Peter were ‘cut to the heart’, and asked what they should do. Peter said, ‘Repent, … repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus the Messiah for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ And then note this; he went on, ‘For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God may call.’

There’s actually no suggestion that the Jews have been replaced as the chosen people of God. And we read that three thousand were baptised that day – a huge number.

Of course, St Paul became the apostle to the non-Jews, to the Gentiles – which is us. ‘The Lord our God’, that St Peter spoke about, is the same God, whether we are Jewish or Gentile – or indeed Moslems.

If we go back to what St Peter said, ‘when he had been given up to you, by the deliberate will and plan of God’, you killed him. Could one say that the Jews were not responsible, except insofar as they carried out God’s plan? Ironically, if so, it would be the same defence that was used by the guards in Auschwitz, ‘We were only following orders.’

No. I don’t think that the Greek text works that way. Literally, it says, ‘this one, handed over [or betrayed] in accordance with God’s definite will and foreknowledge, by the hand of lawless men you killed, crucifying him.’ That he was handed over – a word which can mean ‘betrayed’ (εκδοτον) – was foreseen and willed by God. But you, using ‘the hand of lawless men (meaning outside the Jewish law, as the Romans were), killed him.’ There is no doubt that Peter did hold his fellow-Jews to blame.

But equally, the great thing about the Christian gospel is that they were not condemned eternally. Even for such a terrible crime, for having killed the Son of God, if they repented and were baptised – baptised as a symbol of washing away their sin – they would be forgiven, and the Holy Spirit would come to them.

And yet: and yet, I must confess that I thought about the ‘blood libel’, so-called, against the Jews, when I visited the Holy Land a couple of years ago, and saw the awful wall which the Israelis have put up, sometimes separating Palestinians from the fields which they farm, and when I saw the substantial Western-style suburbs which they have built illegally on Palestinian land – not so much pioneer ‘settlements’ but rather, proper towns like Milton Keynes – and when I read about and saw on the TV what the Israelis did in Gaza – for every Israeli soldier killed, they killed at least 10 Palestinian civilians, including women and children. Are the people who did these things, these dreadful people, really God’s chosen people?

It leads me to think two things. First, that we should hate the sin, and try to love the sinner. What the Israelis have done, and continue to do, is wrong, and hateful. They put forward excuses or explanations, but they are not justified. They are, I believe, guilty of brutality, racist oppression and invasion. But face to face, I have never met a nasty Jewish person. They really do conform with God’s promise to Ezekiel, ‘I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will take the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36:26). So we must follow St Peter, and recognise that even the worst sins can be forgiven. We must not oppose the Jews because they are Jews, but only oppose the harm they do in Palestine.

The second thing which occurs to me, is that we don’t really understand what it is to be ‘chosen’ by God. I have a feeling that the God of the Old Testament was rather more akin to the old Greek idea of God – essentially, a superman living above the clouds, so the ‘superman God’ could have human favourites, which is all rather different from the more spiritual, transcendent God that we think of today. What does it mean, today, to ‘sit at the right hand of God in heaven’?

That’s a question for another sermon, another day. But just think: this huge question came up for the first time in the first few weeks of the church. What a momentous time it was. And we still need to try to understand it, even 2,000 years later. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will come to us and help us as it did those earliest Christians. ‘Repent, …. so that your sins may be forgiven.’ Think what it meant then, and what it could mean today.