There was once a thriving little town in Central Europe where almost everyone was Jewish and they all had a job. The single exception, it seems, was the Village Idiot who, when offered work, refused to take it. What was the job? It was to wait at the outskirts of the village for the arrival of the Messiah, whom he would then greet and escort into town. “The pay isn’t much,” he was told, “but the work is steady.”
It’s a wonderful story, of course, full of sly Jewish humor but, at the same time, steeped in a pathos so profound that one is left with little reason to smile. Why that should be so is what prompts this reflection.
So, why exactly would he have turned down the job? Was it because, as the Village Idiot, he hadn’t enough sense to know even what a job was, never mind the one he’d been offered? On the other hand, it looks as if no one else wanted it either, which is why they offered it to him. And why is that? Because, to be a Jew in the modern world means, in effect, to have long since given up waiting for the Messiah. He’s not coming, you see, and not even an idiot would think otherwise.
How far the People of the Promise have come in their journey out of Egypt! How unspeakably sad, too, that for all that their destiny has been marked out by God for greatness, they should persist in refusing to believe it. How odd of God, we are told, to choose the Jew. But even more odd, surely, is the fact that, having once and for all been chosen, they should continue to resist the offer. What have they got to lose?
The Apostle Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, implores us never to forget the sublime vocation of his kinsmen, vouchsafed by God himself, to raise an entire world to the dignity of a sacrament. “To them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever” (9:4-5).
How stirring is that? And Paul, please remember, applies it to a people for whom he would gladly have suffered—yes, even unto final separation from Christ!—were the Father only to ask it. If, to win their souls for Christ, Paul must forego his own salvation, then he would do it. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). The glory of Israel, in other words, is not the result of ethnicity or race; nor is it a Zionist plot. It is, rather, a reality rooted in God himself.
Think of it. For two thousand years all the revelations of God were to be entrusted to this people. Can such a thing be said of any other tribe or nation in the history of the world? And not only were the words of God handed over to Israel, as though her legacy were purely literary, but the unheard of enfleshment of God himself. “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation,” T.S. Eliot tells us in Four Quartets. “Here the impossible union / Of spheres of existence is actual, / Here the past and future / Are conquered and reconciled.” And where does it happen? Where does this stupefying event take place? In Israel. Indeed, it takes place in the womb of a teenage Jewess named Mary. Can any other people lay claim to saying that from the loins of its own life there once sprang into human being the Eternal Word and Son of the Father?
“In this alone,” writes Jean Daniélou in a beautiful little book called Dialogue with Israel, “there is a greatness that staggers our imagination and reason. All other earthly greatness is passing. The great empires of antiquity have sunk into oblivion; their monuments—attempts to defy time—are merely tombstones of bygone civilizations. The great powers of today will decline in their turn, but Jesus Christ will live eternally and will eternally be Jewish by race, thereby conferring a unique, eternal privilege on Israel.”
I shall never forget that April evening, in 1986, when Pope St. John Paul II ventured across the Tiber to enter the oldest synagogue of the Diaspora. I was a student then in Rome and heard all about it. It was a stunning gesture, altogether unique, inasmuch as his saintly predecessor, John XXIII, had dared only to park his car outside the Temple, blessing the Jews as they left. But not Karol Wojtyla. “The Church of Christ,” he told them on the inside, “discovers her own bond with Judaism by searching into her own mystery. The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
Isn’t this why, at the deepest level, the sin of anti-Semitism stands condemned? Not just as a breach against charity, but as an affront to faith, to be denounced therefore as a form of heresy. Because, as Pope Pius XI resoundingly reminded us, “Spiritually, we are all Semites!” No less an authority than St. Augustine, in urging his brethren to be on their guard, solemnly enjoins them:
not to insult those who are not in the Church; rather pray that they may be in it. ‘For God is able to graft them back’ (Romans 11:23).
It is of the Jews that the Apostle said this, and so it happened to them. The Lord rose and many believed. They did not know him when they crucified him. But later they believed in him, and that great offense was forgiven to the homicides. I do not say deicides, ‘for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory’ (1 Corinthians 2:8). The slaying of an innocent was forgiven them, and the blood they had shed while out of their minds they later drank by grace. Say then to God: ‘How tremendous are your deeds!’ (Psalms 65:31).
If to love another person is to offer him the best gift you have got, then what better way to show love to our elder brother than to give him Christ?
[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]