Ancient Answers


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Leviticus to the rescue!

What is the least popular book in the Bible? Most people would say, Leviticus! For very good reason, as Leviticus consists mostly of laws that Moses gave to the people of Israel. And many of these laws are the kind of thing that give the Bible a bad name among many modern people. And yet, the central theme of Leviticus is HOLINESS. God is HOLY, and God’s people are called to be holy. God “separated” the Jews from the peoples of the world in the sense that they were set apart to be holy. This was to be the quality that identified them as God’s people. This matter of holiness was not meant for the people of Israel to feel superior to others; it was not a matter of ego inflating! It was a matter of their mission in the world.

I needed some uplifting inspiration when I logged into my Logos account at midnight to see what today’s verse might be, and I was very happy to see this verse from Leviticus. I had spent the afternoon watching Simon Rattle’s final concert this past June as Chief Conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The program was Mahler’s 6th Symphony, an overwhelming 85 minutes of music and an overwhelming performance by the greatest symphony orchestra in the world.  I got into the Mahler mood and continued by listening to couple older recordings of Mahler symphonies. But in the midst of Mahler, I turned to my Apple Music library and came upon John Lennon’s Christmas Song. One verse caught my attention: “And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, for rich and the poor ones, the world is so wrong,” But for some reason, I didn’t hear “the world is so wrong.” I heard “the world is so young.” And I thought, wow, what a great line, John! But then I went back to play the song again and I turned on the Lyrics that Apple Music provides and I realized that I had not heard correctly. “The world is so wrong,” were the words John Lennon sang. But I think the song would be better if John had sung what I thought I heard, “the world is so young”! “Young” brings hope, and it seems that’s what I wanted to hear. “Young” brings hope that we can overcome what is wrong with the world and once again rediscover God’s call to be holy. “The world is so young” can be the antidote we need to apocalyptic visions of an aging world and a humanity that has lost its ethical moorings and will to live.

I still have not recovered from the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue two Sabbaths ago. It continues to haunt me and it has caused me to question so much of who we are. I can’t shake off the conviction that we Christians will be judged by God for how we have treated the Jews through the centuries. Every year I cringe at some of the words we read or chant during Holy Week services. The blatant anti-semitism that the Orthodox Church still promotes in our theology and hymnography is indefensible – especially after the Holocaust. And especially as we see antisemitism again on the rise. Will the Church ever wake up to the poison that medieval words and superstitions perpetuate? All the shows of solidarity with the Jews that our ecclesiastical leaders parade for photo ops will not erase our continuing guilt. When will we say, Enough, we will no longer use such horrible words in our worship?

There is wrong in the world, John Lennon, but the world is not wrong. As long as there is a holy God and people who are called to be holy, we can hope that we will see again that the world is beautiful and longs to be holy together with God’s people. Even Paul said something like this in chapter 8 of Romans. Read the whole chapter, you won’t regret it. Leviticus tells us what is the mission of God’s people in the world: to be holy, to bring to reality a different standard by which we live and by which we view each other and our beautiful world. The Jews through their adherence to those antiquated laws of Leviticus are showing that they have not forgotten their original calling. And they have survived thousands of years of persecution because they are and always will be GOD’S PEOPLE! I wonder when we Christians will realize that our calling and destiny are to unite with them in holiness. Holiness is not limited to monks who supposedly pray for the world; nor is holiness for those who the Church decided should be called “saints.” Holiness is the mission of all God’s people. Two thousand years later we still don’t get it. And that’s why “the world is so wrong.”


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When righteous people of God are killed

In the aftermath of the killings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, it’s appropriate to reflect on how Jesus spoke of righteousness.

Jesus said: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness – δικαιοσύνην αυτού – and all these other things will be added to you.” He also said: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.” Or, your righteous deeds – δικαιοσύνην again. In the very next sentence he says, “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you.” The Greek word is ἐλεημοσύνην – acts of mercy, compassion. Like God shows to us. Kyrie eleison! Righteousness cannot be separated from ἐλεημοσύνην. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” God’s will in heaven is always the reflection of God’s righteousness. So when we show mercy ἐλεημοσύνην, we are reflecting and sharing in God’s righteousness in heaven. His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Yesterday an evil act was committed by an evil man against people gathered for prayer and worship on Shabbat. The crime has been labeled a hate crime, anti-semitic. And it was that. But there is a deeper story that perhaps you haven’t heard. This Jewish congregation, Tree of Life in Pittsburgh – a beautiful name for a congregation – this Jewish congregation is one of over 300 synagogues across the United States that are part of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was formed in 1881 to help Jews fleeing from pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe and later from Nazi Germany. It’s the oldest refugee agency in the world, and today they help non-Jewish refugees, even Muslims. Partner synagogues help refugees from various countries resettle in American communities. Just as Catholic Charities do and as our parish did in the late 80s and early 90s with refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Eastern Europe. 

The President and CEO of HIAS, Mark Hetfield was interviewed yesterday on CNN. I was struck by something he said: “We used to be an organisation that welcomed refugees because they were Jewish, and today we welcome refugees because we are Jewish.” Helping refugees is ingrained in their DNA because Jews themselves were refugee people!

In his social media posts, the shooter often attacked Jews and Muslims together and seems to have singled out HIAS in his last hateful messages, because they bring refugees into the country who, according to him, are killing us. I don’t know who he meant by that. His final social media post: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” The shooter was so filled with hatred that he could not tolerate Jews helping Muslims and other refugees. All his hatreds came together into one act of multiple murders.

Jews helping Muslim refugees. This, to me, is an extreme example of what Jesus meant by righteousness. The shooter is evil. Let’s not spend any more time talking about him. The real matter for us today is this question of righteousness. Jews who have been mistreated and persecuted for thousands of years are helping others who are fleeing persecution and war – because they have not forgotten who they are and what they have endured over the ages. Today Greeks celebrate OXI Day, commemorating the day in 1940, when early in the morning the Greek prime minister Metaxas rejected the ultimatum issued by Benito Mussolini. As day dawned on October 28th, Greeks all over the country took to the streets shouting Ohi, No!. Perhaps because of its own history Greece was more willing to assist refugees from the Middle East than most other European countries. 

This is the righteousness of the kingdom at work among human beings. Will any Christian say today that those Jews who were killed yesterday are not going to heaven because they don’t believe in Jesus? They might not believe in Jesus, but they do the righteousness that Jesus taught. They are his people, and we would do well to follow them in acts of righteousness. Kyrie eleison we sing hundreds of times in our services. But do we show ἐλεημοσύνην? Yes, it’s dangerous to show mercy, to be righteous. What do we sing in the Beatitudes? Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – δικαιοσύνην. And, Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus was not a Christian; he was a Jew. And Christians would do well to learn some righteousness from our Jewish brothers and sisters. May their souls rest in the kingdom which Jesus promised to all who are persecuted for the sake and cause of righteousness.