So, here I am in Brooklyn this week, with the opportunity to go to mass on Ash Wednesday morning at a nearby progressive Catholic parish, an opportunity not afforded to me in my little village in Vermont. Ash Wednesday is, of course, the beginning of the season of Lent and a time for serious introspection, focusing one’s life on repentance for what has past, and beginning again at trying to do good in the world.
With all of that in my mind, at mass I heard that familiar passage from the Gospel of Matthew read aloud. “Jesus said to his disciples,” it begins, and goes on to say, in summary: Go and perform good deeds, and repent of your sins. Oh, and don’t do it like the hypocrites.
Here’s the problem: The identity of these “hypocrites” is probably misunderstood. Jesus says:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them. … When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.”
And then later, Jesus says:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.”
So, all of those hypocrites are in synagogues, far from where Jesus might be worshiping on a day like this. Right? No way.
Jesus was a Jew. Jesus was a rabbi. In fact, he was talking only to Jews when he said those words. This means that the correct interpretation today for the twice-repeated phrase, “as the hypocrites do in the synagogues” would be, “as the hypocrites do in the churches.” The hypocrites are us.
I am among many people today energized by the explosion of information about the Jewishness of Jesus. These resources are changing how Christians and Jews relate to each other, and how Christians understand the origins of their faith. One immense, recent, insightful book is “The Jewish Annotated New Testament,” which my local book group has just taken on. Thousands of Christians and Jews (our group includes both) are using it to discover the context in which Christianity was born.
How many Christians misunderstood the meaning of Jesus’s teaching today? They may have walked home, to the subway, to their cars, off to work or shopping or whatever, thinking that as long as they were not like those hypocritical other people, they would be OK before God.
Here’s the worst part: Perhaps they passed by a synagogue as they left church. I passed two in Brooklyn on my way back to the apartment. I wonder how many Christians thought to themselves, seeing the entrance to a synagogue, “Those Jews, they are so unlike Jesus, and so different from how Jesus asked me to be.” That would be to completely misunderstand the message.
If we are going to use Jesus’s teachings, during Lent or at any other time, I hope we take away that they are about how to be good 21st century Christians, not how to be bad first century Jews.
Pastor Youcef’s situation – an innocent man convicted and sentenced to death for becoming a Christian – has not been this dire since we first brought his case to your attention last year.
It is unclear whether Pastor Youcef would have a right of appeal from the execution order. We know that the head of Iran’s Judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, must approve publicly held executions, but only a small percentage of executions are held public—most executions in Iran are conducted in secret.
There has also been a disturbing increase in the number of executions conducted by the Iranian regime in the last month.
Iran is actively violating its human rights obligations by sentencing and detaining Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani. We call on the Iranian government to release Pastor Youcef immediately.
We are continuing to work to help spare the life of Pastor Youcef, and will provide additional updates on his situation as we are able.
There are reports that an Iranian Christian pastor, Youcef Nadarkhani, is under threat of execution by the Iranian authorities for blasphemy for his refusal to renounce his Christian faith. Though there are reports of persecution of Christians in many countries, China included, it usually takes the plight of a single identifiable individual to make an otherwise generalized problem — in this case religious intolerance — take concrete rather than abstract dimensions. The re-emergence of the religious right in America during this current presidential campaign, though mild by comparison to threatened executions by radical clerics, should give us cause for concern. Though well over two centuries ago, “witches” were burned in this country and a recent book documents the struggles of Roger Williams against fundamentalist intolerance. The persistent thread of intolerance springs from a narrow fundamentalist insistence on orthodoxy in an age in which strict religious doctrine in some quarters quickly emerged to fill the vacuum of failed 20th century political ideologies. And religious orthodoxy exhibits an almost demented insistence on conformity and intolerance toward political dissent.
Intolerance is a function of fear, fear not simply of conflicting views and beliefs but of a more powerful and more persuasive faith. The radical Islamic mullahs who dictate social behavior and religious belief in Iran are afraid of Pastor Nadarkhani. They fear a man whose beliefs about redemption, love, and compassion are so deep and so powerful that he will die for them. The early Christian church got its foothold in unlikely venues as much as anything because its disciples, apostles, and believers were willing to perish for these beliefs.
But do not other religions invite martyrdom, and did not the later Christian church in the middle ages barbarically persecute non-believers? Indeed, but jihad is a far cry from non-violent resistance based on faith, and the church of the inquisition and crusades was as far from the teachings of Jesus as it is possible to be.
Conformity, orthodoxy, and fundamentalism are inconsistent with both the principles of democracy and the teachings of Jesus. Those teachings upon which true Christianity was and is based are intolerant, but they are intolerant of cruelty, judgmentalism, and presumed spiritual superiority.
Though the product of an evangelical family, church, and college, and a divinity school graduate, I tried to exhibit my beliefs and the principles based upon them, though not without error, in the quiet performance of public duties and not by seeking to impose them on others. But those same beliefs now cause me to pray for Pastor Nadarkhani and others like him around the world and to pray that the spirit of intolerance is once more rejected by our nation.