Last year at a wedding, I was chatting with a guy at my table about what I do (Religious Studies, specifically New Testament). The conversation turned, as it usually does, to whether I myself practiced any religion. When I said that yes, I was Catholic, he said, “Oh, you must get really annoyed at bad homilies, since exegesis is your thing.” I automatically started to say yes, but then I caught myself, because of all the things that inspire less than charitable thoughts in me on any given Sunday–and there are many–biblical interpretation is rarely one of them. In my experience, bad homilies–say for instance ones that are homophobic or offensive to women–happen not because a priest is bad at historical criticism, but because he is homophobic and sexist in general.
I know I didn’t always feel this way. For many years I was sure that my field of study was what could “rescue” the Bible and turn it from a terrifying text into one that was inspiring and not, it turns out, harmful to certain groups. But now it seems to me that it’s the process that biblical criticism forces you to go through (alienation from the text, second-guessing common sense, critical empathy, suspicion, identification of ideology and change over time), more than historical data itself, that leads to less oppressive interpretations.
So I was surprised a few months ago when I found myself annoyed, on historical grounds, by part of a homily I heard. The Gospel reading was one of those passages where “The Jews” are the antagonists who set the stage for Jesus to speak some word of wisdom. The priest (who I should say is an excellent, educated person) changed the wording of the translation as he was reading it. Instead of reading the NAB’s “The Jews etc., etc…,” he read, “Some of the leaders of the Jewish people etc., etc…”. Though this was the first time I heard him actually reword a reading, he often takes a moment in his homilies to explain that when the text reads “The Jews,” we should understand it as saying, “Some of the leaders of the Jewish people.” Since the Gospel authors and the first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, goes this explanation, it’s unethical, but primarily anachronistic, to read the text as referring to “The Jews.”
I’m curious to hear what WIT’s readers think of this approach. I go back and forth on it. On the one hand, a preacher has only a few minutes to ensure that his audience doesn’t come away from Mass more anti-semitic than when they arrived. Changing “The Jews” to a different phrase seems like an efficient, clear, historically-defensible way to do that. It’s a good soundbite that has a high chance of remaining with the listeners.
On the other hand, the switch makes the text seem more innocent than it is. The reading doesn’t say, “Some of the leaders of the Jewish people.” It says, “The Jews.” And whatever the historical identity of the Gospel writers, it’s significant that they are using a shortcut, catch-all phrase to create a monolithic “other” in contrast to themselves. If someone today, for example, said, “The blacks are lazy and violent,” it would not do any good–and in fact would miss the nature of racism entirely–to say, “He means to say, ‘Some of the leaders of black gangs are lazy and violent.’” Swapping out “The Jews” for “Some of the leaders of the Jewish people” (or even, as many scholars do, reading it as a geographical description, i.e., “The Judeans”) can give the impression that these texts are problematic only because we mistake the referent of certain words, not because Christian anti-Judaism is built into the very language of our sacred texts.
But on the other (third?) hand, would such an explanation be appropriate in a homily? Homilies are not academic papers or classroom lectures, after all, and perhaps the most ethical course of action is to give the audience a concise, memorable line that they can easily retrieve when encountering this text on their own, or in conversations with other people. What do you all think? What are your experiences of preaching on texts about “The Jews,” or hearing them preached?