In church today the readings lent themselves to an unfortunate comparison. First, in the Hebrew Bible, we heard about the commandments given to Moses; then we heard in the Gospel of Matthew how Jesus took the commandments further, deeper -- from external legalities to instructions for the heart. How many preachers will see how, pairing the readings in such a way, sets the Jews up to be used as foils?
Here is an example. “Jesus said, ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment...’.”
We all use comparisons to make clear why one way is bette than another. It’s a natural heuristic device. No harm is done, unless the negative example is imputed to a class of people. That lays the ground work for stereotyping, which lays the groundwork for prejudice.
Too often Christian preachers have intended to put a halo around the Way of Jesus by contrasting it with the Way of the Jews: heart-centered vs. law centered; compassionate vs. legalistic. It’s a cheap shot. In every tradition we find people who can read behind the lines and people who stick to the literal meaning. Learning to read what is not written comes with spiritual practice. Jesus could do it, and so could many of his Jewish contemporaries.
I look forward to the day when the impulse to “use the Jews” to elevate Christianity is seen immediately for what it is, seriously flawed thinking. An alternative, which actually DOES help us Christians to understand and appreciate our faith better, lies ready to hand: inter-religious study.
To listen with heart and mind to people of another faith, as they spell out what their religion teaches and what it means to them, is to discover unseen riches in our own tradition. It confirms us in our own faith, in its distinct particularities, and and at the same time elevates the contrasting faith. It builds trust and opens hearts to the joy of discovery.