One of the consequences of Jewish-Christian dialogue in recent decades has been a growing awareness of the role played by the New Testament lectionary readings for Holy Week. Consciously or unconsciously, interpretations of these readings in the preaching of Christian pastors have fostered anti-Jewish attitudes among Christians over many centuries. Preachers have propagated the idea, from the earliest times and continuing into our own day, that the Jews as a people bear responsibility for the death of Jesus.
Although this effect was at times unintended, we have explicit evidence of preaching in which the Jews were demonized from the pulpits of Europe. We find this especially in the preaching which took place during Holy Week, and most particularly in the intense focus on the death of Jesus on Good Friday. Preachers did not hesitate to remind their hearers of the guilt of all Jews for the death of the Lord, with the consequence that quite commonly on Good Friday Jewish families would remain hidden in their homes in order to avoid abuse and even death.
This history places an enormous responsibility upon preachers today to remain alert for any comment in their preaching which might give renewed support to this anti-Jewish prejudice which was often communicated by parents to their children from their earliest years. The hearing of the Scriptures and the interpretations offered by preachers had a determinative effect in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes as characteristic of a Christian identity. A potent example of this is the use of the term “the Jews” as a factor in the shaping of anti-Jewish attitudes within a congregation as being appropriate for people of Christian faith. Such preaching shaped an identity in which these anti-Jewish attitudes might become embodied in words and actions against one’s Jewish neighbors.
Our goal in this commentary for Holy Week 2013 is to focus on certain ‘difficult’ issues which emerge from a consideration of the Holy Week readings. Since we are in Year C of our lectionary cycle, our initial attention must be given to the Gospel of Luke which plays a primary role in this year’s cycle.
The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.
The proclamation of the Passion holds primary place on this Sunday. This tradition predates the introduction of what we know as Holy Week, including the Liturgy of the Palms, which was introduced in the fourth-century in Jerusalem. The normal day for the assembly of Christians was Sunday, the Day of the Lord, and so the Sunday one week prior to Easter was the day on which the Passion would be read, being the last day of assembly prior to that on the Day of the Resurrection.
The Liturgy of the Palms was a later addition at the time of the historicizing in the liturgy of the events prior to the death of Jesus. This development took place quite naturally in Jerusalem since that is where the events occurred. It was from there that the Holy Week rites spread to other parts of the world. In Jerusalem, the Liturgy of the Palms was not attached to the reading of the Passion at the Eucharist, but rather became the first part of the evening liturgy of Vespers, thus quite separate from the proclamation of the Passion. The people gathered on the Mount of Olives in the late afternoon and from there moved in procession into the city. The Palm liturgy thus began the “second layer” — the weekday sequence — commemorating the daily sequence of events leading up to the Sacred Triuduum, the Three Days which took as their focus the final meal, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the Easter Vigil and first celebration of the Eucharist of the Resurrection.
The proclamation of the Passion in cycle C, being drawn from the Gospel of Luke, immediately faces us with the significant distinction between the Passion in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the Passion of John. In the synoptics, the death of Jesus has the appearance of defeat — he is, as it were, a martyr, and the Jews are given the blame. In Luke, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate declares Jesus to be innocent and is prepared to release him, but in the end submits to the Jewish leaders and the crowd by authorizing the execution. But the preacher must make clear that by the time of the writing of Luke’s Gospel, the hostility between the Christian disciples (most of whom were themselves Jewish) and the Jewish leaders had become acrimonious. It is likely that this hostility affected the way in which the recounting of the events of the Passion were presented.
It is not special pleading to suggest that the account in Luke may exaggerate the culpability of the Jewish leaders for its own polemic purpose. At the very least, the presentation of the Jewish leaders and of Judaism in general is complex. The early part of the Gospel dealing with the events around the conception and birth of Jesus, his circumcision, and his presentation at the Temple all place his life in the context of a faithful Jewish community, which sets these chapters in sharp contrast to the harsh descriptions of the Pharisees in later chapters. New Testament scholars generally agree that the Gospel of Luke was the work of a Gentile writer and was addressed to Gentile readers, and so looks at the events, as it were, from ‘outside’ Jewish religious experience.
The lectionary of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, offered Luke 22:14—30, as an alternative to John 13:1—15. The Revised Common Lectionary does not offer the Lucan alternative, but expands the Johannine reading: John 13:1—17, 31b—35. This expansion articulates the particular perspective in John that the crucifixion of Jesus is his glorification: the Cross is the sign of victory, as in the ancient hymn Vexilla regis (Hymnal 161), “God is reigning from the tree.” Thus the Gospel reading for Maundy Thursday links us to the proclamation of the Passion of John on Good Friday.
This supports the claim that the liturgies of the Triduum are actually one great liturgy in three ‘parts’ which are celebrated over that number of days. This understanding is further supported by the rites themselves in that there is no dismissal given in the prayer book for either the Maundy Thursday or the Good Friday liturgies.
Another dimension of the Maundy Thursday rite which invites an exploration of the common heritage of Jews and Christians is the presumed character of the Last Supper as a Passover seder, as it is presented in the Gospel reading. Many Christians have had the experience of participating in the Passover meal with Jewish friends. For me, this experience has been much more rewarding than that of a so-called ‘Christian seder’. It is worth remembering that in 1979, the Standing Liturgical Commission issued a document in which such Christianization of the Jewish rite was strongly discouraged as a presumptuous use of a Jewish ritual that removes it from its appropriate context. When I last attended the Passover with Jewish friends, I was profoundly moved by the many moments in the ritual when within me the connection of the Passover to our Lord’s final meal was made real in its own terms. If a preacher on this day chooses to talk about the Last Supper, it offers an occasion to again emphasize the common heritage in which both Jews and Christians are rooted.
Finally we turn to what is in many ways, along with Passion Sunday, a rite that offers particular challenges to the preacher. Albeit allowing for differences of emphasis, it is in both of these rites that the Passion is proclaimed, and thus where anti-Judaic attitudes have most been nurtured. It is with regard to the Gospel of John in particular that commentators have raised the question of anti-Judaism. That is, of course, an important question for us, and perhaps particularly for those who preach on Good Friday.
Throughout the Gospel of John there are comments about “the Jews” which have confirmed in the minds of many people that the Gospel is itself anti-Jewish. But is this claim justified? In the Gospel of John, who were “the Jews”? The term appears over seventy times in this Gospel, far more frequently than in the other three. Whereas the Synoptic Gospels generally refer to specific Jewish groups such as the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, John generally refers indiscriminately to “the Jews.” We have been conditioned to hear those words as applying to the opponents of Jesus, and thus as pejorative.
Commentators have noted, however, that the term is used with various meanings in John. “The Jews” can refer to the people who live in Judea (John 7:1—18), or it can refer to a sub-group within the synagogue (John 9:22). At other places, the term is used in reference to people who are clearly friends, like those who comfort Martha and Mary when their brother Lazarus has died (John 11:31f.), or in reference to “the festivals of the Jews.” We need always to remember that all of the people in the Gospel narrative were Jews, therefore the preacher must avoid any hint of seeing “the Jews” in caricature.
The problem for us is that, although we may assert that the Gospel of John is not anti-Jewish, it seems that it often sounds that way to our ears. For this reason, it is imperative that preachers — generally, of course, but especially when preaching on the Passion — be very attentive to their choice of words. Unless we are careful about this, our hearers may not hear what we intend. In this regard, it is helpful to read a variety of translations of the pericopes assigned for Holy Week in the lectionary. Every translation offers, of course, an interpretation, and if we are attentive to a variety of voices offering to us nuanced distinctions, we shall be more prepared to meet this challenge, and to proclaim the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord with words that embody the Gospel in its integrity.
Statement By The Standing Liturgical Commission:
Why a Seder is not appropriate on Maundy Thursday
26 February 1979
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in celebrating a Passover Seder on Maundy Thursday. Sometimes the meal is thinly Christianized; sometimes a traditional Jewish Seder is used without any change. (The word seder means order). Although this practice grows out of an understandable desire to reproduce the circumstances of the Last Supper, and so to participate more vividly and intimately in one of the central events of Holy Week, it is a questionable practice for several reasons:
- There is a serious disagreement within the New Testament itself as to whether the Last Supper was in fact a Passover Meal. The first three Gospels clearly describe it as such; but the Fourth Gospel declares that the crucifixion occurred on the “day of Preparation” (John 19. 31), and thus the Last Supper fell on the night before the Passover.
- For another thing, a true Passover Seder is a highly festive occasion, inappropriate during the Lenten fast.
- But most important, every aspect of the Jewish religion has been transformed for Christians by the death and resurrection of Christ. Even Maundy Thursday is not simply a historical reconstruction of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Although our attention on Maundy Thursday is fixed on the scene in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, nevertheless our primary act of worship on that day is a full Christian Eucharist, during which we proclaim, as we do throughout the year,
“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
Thus, even on Maundy Thursday, Christians worship in the power of the resurrection. On the Passover, Jews remember their deliverance from Egypt, and thereafter from all the enemies of their historical existence. But Christians, in their worship, remember their deliverance from “the last enemies”, sin and death. We say “Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” because we believe that Christ, through his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter, has brought the fulfilment of God’s promised deliverance. It is the death and resurrection of Christ, rather than the Last Supper, which most nearly correspond to the Exodus from Egypt; and thus the Great Vigil of Easter which most nearly corresponds to the Passover Seder of the Jews.
Christians who celebrate a Jewish Passover on Maundy Thursday are not truly respecting the integrity of Jewish Passover expectancy, for Christians believe that Jewish expectations have already been fulfilled in Christ. (Christians can truly worship only by expressing that conviction, as in the Eucharist. For them to participate in Jewish worship requires a degree of mental reservation: a temporary setting aside of their distinctive Christian identity. ) Also, they are failing to recognize that the fulfilment of those Jewish expectations in Christ is through the whole paschal mystery, through his death and resurrection, rather than in the Last Supper, which was a preliminary anticipation of that hope.
It is a right instinct to celebrate the Lord’s death and resurrection at this time of the year in a more intimate and familial way than usual. The holding of agape meals during Holy Week, especially on Maundy Thursday after the celebration of the Eucharist, is to be encouraged. But these meals should be simple, even austere, in keeping with Lenten fast. They should point forward to the great paschal fast, which begins after the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, is intensified on Good Friday, continues through Holy Saturday, and is concluded by the reception of Easter communion.
Part of the pressure for observing a Passover Seder may arise, even unconsciously, from our desire to experience transition or passage to a new life. Of course, it is the celebration of Holy Baptism within the Great Vigil, and the Lenten preparation for it, which constitutes for Christians our passage to new life, our “Exodus.” When Christian initiation is better understood, and its practice becomes a dramatic part of our celebration of the Easter mystery, the desire for a Christian observance of a Passover Seder may pass away.
 See Devils, Women, and Jews by Joan Young Gregg (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1997. This book gives examples of medieval sermons in which evil is attributed by nature not only to the devil, but also to women and to Jews.
 We must remember, however, that such anti-Jewish preaching was by no means limited to the liturgies of Holy Week. Anti-Judaism was fostered in devotional literature as well.
 It is important to note that the seder as we have come to know it probably does not follow the same ritual which Jesus and his disciples would have used. The pattern now familiar to contemporary Jews did not appear until several centuries after the time of Christ.
 The text of the Statement from 1979 is being added as a supplement to this commentary.
 See the discussion of this question in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (eds. Levine & Brettler), NY: Oxford University Press, 2011,