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Fourth week of Lent: Solemn Reproach #7

To begin, let’s be clear about one thing.  The problem is not about who believes or doesn’t believe in Jesus: the problem is sin.  Sin is what separates us from God and from each other in relationship.  Sin is where we fall short of God’s dreams for creation, because God didn’t create all of this just to prove to us that we can’t be perfect so we deserve eternal punishment and death.  God breathed creation into being for the sheer delight of it. 


But if we become so focused on our badness that we only look at sin, and if we then start judging other people and, worse, creating enemies even if we think we’re on the side of righteousness, then we’ve crossed our own line and committed sin.  We try so hard to avoid sin that we declare our own righteousness and become sinners. 


When we receive the message of the gospel in words like we just heard from John’s gospel, suggesting stark lines drawn between salvation and condemnation, sometimes we conclude that we must understand what God is up to.  This pamphlet, “Preaching and Teaching with Love and Respect for the Jewish People,” puts it this way:

“…such writings can also encourage a similar boldness in characterizing the circumstances of our own world. When we do, the line of sin is drawn between one group and another, with God on one side and not the other.


As we try to speak about our world with the kind of sharp clarity we see in the Bible, it is easy to characterize Jews and “unbelievers” as the examples of what — and who — we don’t want to be. In the process, we can unintentionally reinforce negative stereotypes and encourage a kind of spiritual arrogance toward other groups.”[1]


Martin Luther would remind us we’re always saints and sinners, and we are never without hope.  God’s grace is stronger than human sin.  God’s love is bigger than our capacity to destroy each other and ourselves, and God makes us saints.  But we never stop being sinners, either.  Using the words from John’s Gospel, we love darkness, meaning we want to conceal our actions or our desires with the hope we won’t get caught. 


It’s Luther who noticed that it’s when we feel most clearly on the side of righteousness that we actually become most dangerous and susceptible to cause harm to others.  Knowing all these things did not stop Luther from falling into this very trap. 


Reading again from this pamphlet:

“In the 16th century, Martin Luther struggled against a religious system in the Roman Catholic church that he saw as contrary to the free gift and grace of the gospel. It appeared to him to withhold the gifts of God from people until they produced something of value for the church.


“In the paradigm he had learned from Augustine and church tradition, this opposition to the gospel meant that the papacy had become like the “Judaizers” of the Bible: they legalistically demanded obedience to certain laws and practices from people before they would bless them with forgiveness, life and grace.


“As Luther’s theology developed, the contrast between free grace and earned reward became fundamental. Everything that opposed his understanding of the gospel could be clustered under the heading of “Jewish” or “Judaizing.” Skillful Augustinian that he was, Luther saw the image of a Jewish rebellion against God multiplied throughout the world until it encompassed all humanity as the essence of sin.”[2] 


During this era when Luther was living, Jews and Judaism were not just ideas or abstract theologies: these were living people being persecuted for their faith.  Jews were regularly ghettoized, were not allowed to be citizens in their countries of residence, denied freedoms of self-determination, like being compelled to work in banking institutions and then being resented for their work.  Jews were being kicked out of their communities and forced to migrate. 


In 1523—just six years after posting the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door—Martin Luther wrote a treatise titled “That Jesus Christ was born a Jew.”  At that point, he was tolerant of Jews, maybe even a little sympathetic, which was pretty progressive among Christian theologians of his time. 


In Luther’s view, if Jews could only understand the Gospel, then they would receive the pure Gospel and believe in Jesus.  No wonder they couldn’t believe in Jesus, they just hadn’t had it explained to them well enough.  So Luther thought he could change thousands of years of religious history and belief. 


If you’re detecting some paternalistic vibes, some arrogance, well, you’re right on.  Luther’s goal was never mutual respect or understanding: the goal was that Jews would convert to Christianity. 


Luther had limited experience interacting with anyone in the Jewish community, and you know it’s easy to dehumanize people with whom you are not in relationship.  But since Luther was on the record publicly defending gentle treatment for Jews, there were Jewish leaders seeking Luther’s help in interceding for them and their human rights.  However, instead of engaging this community as religious believers deserving of protection, instead of speaking up for freedom and justice, Luther came to believe that these Jewish leaders were taking advantage of him.  Luther believed in the rumors that Jews were proselytizing Christians, leading people away from the gospel. 


So twenty years later, when Luther could see he was not succeeding at converting Jews, in 1543 he wrote another treatise: “On the Jews and Their Lies.”  Dr. Kurt Hendel, professor of church history and a Luther scholar, wrote that this “treatise was addressed primarily to Christians and sought to prevent Christians from falling prey to the enemies of the gospel and to works righteousness.” 


Luther recommended that Christians practice “sharp mercy” so that at least a few Jews will be saved, and he gave suggestions to faithful Christian political leaders how to do this.  Here’s what Martin Luther suggested political leaders do:

burn Jewish synagogues and schools because the public blasphemy that

occurs there cannot be tolerated;

destroy the homes of Jews and house them in barns

in order to remind them that they are exiles

since they have no land and are forsaken by God;

confiscate Jewish writings that contain their blasphemous lies;

prevent rabbis from teaching;

withdraw the permissions for Jews to travel in order to carry on trade;

confiscate money, gold, and silver that they have accumulated

as a result of usurious practices which are legally forbidden;

make them earn a living with honorable trades;

and if the political leaders are afraid of Jews, go ahead and expel them. 


To be clear, we are not obligated to excuse Luther’s anti-semitism.  Dr. Hendel says that, with Luther’s writings about Jews, we can possibly seek explanations, insights, and historical clarity, but we should not make excuses.  We should reject this anti-semitism and indeed, it’s right for us to shine a light on it.  This is why we’re talking about it now, to face the truth instead of leaving these ideas to fester unseen. 


There were real consequences for Luther’s ideas, which meant real danger for Jews.  Only a few hundred years later, in the same land where Luther lived, people took his writings and his hatred for Jews and used it to defend the mass destruction we know now as the Holocaust. 


Martin Luther may not have ever guessed such an outcome, but in persecuting Jews for their faith, Luther went against his own theological principles.  Dr. Hendel said that if Martin Luther was truly worried about Christians being led astray, he should have applied his own theology to better recommendations for Christians.  Dr. Hendel imagines what Luther should have said, recommending for Christians:

to confess their own sinfulness;

to pray for Jews and remember God’s promises to them;

to pray that Christians remain faithful to Christ and the gospel;

to point out where and by whom the gospel is rejected or compromised;

to proclaim the gospel faithfully;

to let God be God by recognizing and trusting that God alone

can and will transform people, enlighten their hearts,

and bring them to faith;

and to reject the use of force in matters of faith and conscience

and remind his fellow Christians that their faith should always

be active in love. 


Luther tried so hard to remain faithful to the gospel that he missed it completely, which is another image for understanding sin: missing the mark.  Humans are always in need of God’s grace.  If we create enemies based on our understanding of sin, then we commit the sin.  If we draw a line between sin and faithfulness, we cannot put ourselves on the side of faithfulness; only God belongs on the side of faithfulness.  The line drawn between sin and faithfulness is the line drawn through our own hearts. 


This pamphlet encouraging love and respect for Jews puts it this way:

“When we ignore God’s care and concern, it is God’s own gift to offer respite from the consequences.”  [The gospel-writer John leads us to the understanding of humans as both saints and sinners when he writes] that it is “people” who “loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” 


“Jesus is not lifted up for a singular moment of getting faith, which one then has forever; Jesus is lifted up for all people, who will have moments of loving darkness and will repeatedly need a path back to the light.  John affirms that Jesus can be that path for anyone, but finally it is the life that God sends into the world that is the light, and that light already existed for Israel in the wilderness in the glint of a bronze snake.”[3] 


God leads us, all of creation, into the light of love.  We don’t give instructions to God on how to do the job of being God.  When we are facing God’s judgment, we trust in God’s mercy and receive God’s love—the love which is truly for the whole world. 


Pastor Cheryl

[2] Ibid 23.

[3] Ibid 38


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