Tag Archives: Jewish-Christians

Keeping Heroes in Mind

We’re reading the Letter to the Hebrews at length these days in our liturgy at Mass. Why was this written? When and to whom was it written? Interpreters of the Letter to the Hebrews ask these questions to understand this writing better.

Obviously Hebrews is written to Jewish-Christians, some think in Rome which had a substantial Jewish-Christian population in the 1st century. It was written after a time of persecution, perhaps when the Emperor Claudius banished Jewish Christians from the city in 49 AD because they were causing riots in Rome’s synagogues in disputes over Jesus Christ. Or maybe a later persecution.

Did that  cause the followers of Jesus there to tamper down their efforts and embrace their faith less fully? Perhaps. The writer of Hebrews warns his hearers against “drawing back” and “losing confidence” in the faith they profess. Were they losing their enthusiasm? That sounds like something that happens to us too.

Keep before you the heroes of faith, beginning with Jesus, the author of Hebrews says as he draws up for them a lengthy list of inspiring believers.

“For, after just a brief moment,

he who is to come shall come;

he shall not delay.

But my just one shall live by faith,

and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.”

 To that list of Old Testament heroes we can add the saints of the New Testament and saints of our times. They can inspire us too.

The Letter of James

James,_the_Just1We’re reading at Mass from the Letter of James, a relative of Jesus and leader of the Jewish-Christians in Jerusalem.  Commentators believe the letter was written to Jewish-Christian exiles driven from the city and now living in a foreign land. “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, greetings.”

James was stoned to death in the mid 60s as the Jewish establishment turned against the followers of Jesus and forced many of them to flee. Jerusalem itself fell in 70 AD when Roman armies destroyed the city and crushed the Jewish revolt.

Jewish-Christian exiles were not only exiled from their beloved city, but would never return. Some commentators believe this letter contains an original letter of James sent to support the exiles and other material later added to it.

The letter opens with words of support. It’s tough to be thrown into exile, but tough times test your faith, so be brave, your faith will become stronger. God will give you the wisdom to know what to do; keep asking for it.

The letter tells us what happened to the original Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem that features so prominently in the Acts of the Apostles. Some consoling words are given to the exiles, but not many.  The letter is challenging;  no relaxing of standards, no permission for self-pity. Keep your standards high, the letter insists and as the old song says: “When you’re down and out, lift up your head and shout: There’s gonna be a great day.”

 

The Mystery of the Cross

We’re reading the Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark these weekdays at Mass, writings going back to the 60s, from Jerusalem and Rome respectively. Three important Christian leaders were put to death in that decade: James, Peter and Paul. We see their deaths now as the glorious death of martyrs; Christians then were probably more aware of losing three religious leaders they depended on for guidance.

The Letter of James and the Gospel of Mark (traditionally acknowledged as the spokesman for Peter) were voices for these disciples in the churches they left behind.

In the 60s a growing turmoil engulfed the church in Jerusalem, as Jewish Christians faced growing opposition in the city. The death of James, their leader, at the hands of Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders is evidence of this antagonism. Because of it, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem and went into exile. The destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 AD canceled any plans they had for returning home.

In the 60s, the Christians of Rome experienced persecution of another kind. It was a sudden, unexpected persecution by the Emperor Nero that followed the fire that destroyed most of the city in 64 AD.

The Disciples' Unbelief

The Disciples’ Unbelief

It’s good to keep the background of these writings in mind when reading them. In today’s reading, Mark emphasizes a theme that runs through his gospel. “Do you still not understand?” Jesus asks his disciples. (Mark 8,21) What the disciples, led by Peter, don’t understand especially is the mystery of his passion and death.

Writing for the Christians of Rome, Mark wants them to see in the incomprehension of Jesus’ first disciples their own incomprehension before the vicious suffering inflicted on them at the hands of a powerful and unjust emperor.
They don’t understand. It’s a mystery slowly understood.

And they wont be the last to not understand the mystery of the cross. We’re seldom ready for it and slow to recognize all the forms it takes.

Pilate’s Wife

Daniel Harrington, SJ, in an article I’ve been reading in Bible Today on the Gospel of Matthew has an interesting comment on Matthew’s narrative of the passion of Jesus. He sees the narrative framed to absolve the Romans of their role in the death of Jesus and shift the blame to the Jews. The Jewish  Christian community around 90 AD, about the time the gospel was written, lived in a Roman world and wanted to be seen by the Romans, not as revolutionaries ready to topple their rulers, but as people interested only in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew is the only gospel reporting the dream of Pilate’s wife, who pronounces Jesus innocent. Like the dreams of Joseph, also recorded by Matthew,  her dream is important. Her judgment is followed by the Jewish crowd, prompted by their leaders, shouting out before Pilate: “His blood be on us and on our children.”  Matthew 27,15-25

Matthew’s community would see the punishment for their complicity in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. They wanted to minimise Roman responsibility. Unfortunately, Christians  throughout history reading Matthew continued to place the guilt for the death of Jesus on the  Jewish people, resulting in dire consequences.

Today in the Office of Readings I’m reminded of the true key to understanding the scriptures, however:

“The stream of holy Scripture flows not from human research but from revelation by God. It springs from the Father of lights, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name. From him, through his Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit flows into us; and through the Holy Spirit, giving, at will, different gifts to different people, comes the gift of faith, and through faith Jesus Christ has his dwelling in our hearts. This is the knowledge of Jesus Christ which is the ultimate basis of the solidity and wisdom of the whole of holy Scripture.

“From all this it follows that it is impossible for anyone to start to recognise Scripture for what it is if he does not already have faith in Christ infused into him. Christ is the lamp that illuminates the whole of Scripture: he is its gateway and its foundation. For this faith is behind all the supernatural enlightenments that we receive while we are still separated from the Lord and on our pilgrimage. It makes our foundation firm, it directs the light of the lamp, it leads us in through the gateway. It is the standard against which the wisdom that God has given us should be measured, so that no-one should exaggerate his real importance, but everyone must judge himself soberly by the standard of the faith God has given him.”

St Bonaventure, Breviloquium