Thursday, April 16, 2009

Year B

Are you a Yankee?

First time anyone asked me that question – I was a kid then and we lived in New Jersey – I said, “No, I’m a Dodger.” I thought we were talking baseball teams – and the Dodgers were still over across the harbor in Brooklyn.

Since then I’ve been places in the US where that question would be fightin’ words. “Ah ain’t no Yankee!” would be the response, usually with an adjective describing Yankee that you might not want to hear in church.

But I’ve also lived in New England where local people told me they weren’t Yankees; Yankees were really just the members of those old, aristocratic New England families – Cabots, Lodges, Lowells, Kennedys…. Wait, not really the Kennedys; only Protestants were real Yankees. But the old, Protestant, New England, real Yankees would say, “No. Real Yankees are people from Vermont who eat cheese for breakfast.” (I kid you not; I remember hearing that – from a Vermonter. I don’t know what he ate for breakfast.)

It depends where you’re from, what you really mean by “Yankee.” Vermont? Boston? Brooklyn? New Jersey? Alabama? Texas?

But think of this: You may be from Texas or Alabama and hate the name “Yankee.” But if you’re overseas somewhere and the local people are running around yelling, “Yankee, go home!” it would probably not do you any good to trot out your Southern drawl and think it’ll save you.

It’s like that with one of the words we hear in today’s Gospel. In fact, the sort of explanation we used for “Yankee” is about the only one that allows that Gospel reading to make sense.

Later on the day of resurrection, the Gospel tells us, the disciples were hiding behind locked doors, afraid. Imagine this:

Just about all the disciples were there, because they wanted to be near one another for support and comfort, yes, but also because nearly none of them were from Jerusalem, and they needed accommodations. But scared? Yes, they certainly were.

One man in the group notices the doors aren’t completely barricaded. “Oh, my gosh, the Jews might be coming after us!” He gets up nervously and goes over to lay a huge beam into the big iron brackets on the doorposts to make it impossible for anyone to get in. He – like all the disciples – is really worried about what the Jews might do to them.

“Oh, thank the Lord,” he breathes, and turns around to walk back to where he was sitting. Suddenly he looks up – and it hits him: The whole room is full of Jews! All those people sitting there are Jews. Not only that, but he notices another Jewish Man who seems to be coming through the walls of the room to be with them!

Is that an accurate picture of what was going on?

No, not at all.

If we insist on using the word “Jew” the way we usually use it, the story makes no sense. It would be comic, a wild farce.

Here’s the difference: The Gospels, you know, were written in Greek. Iudaios [sounds like: you DYE oss] is the word we find translated as “Jew.” Originally, though, it’s the word for Judean, somebody from Judea.

Of course everyone in the room was Jewish – but they were not Judean. Jesus’ disciples were mostly Galilean – and the Galileans were the ones who wouldn’t have their own place to stay in Jerusalem, Judea.

Remember the young woman accosting Peter in the High Priest’s courtyard? “You must be one of his disciples. You talk like Galilean!”

And that Jewish Man who entered the room without needing to open the door? Well, history has more or less dubbed him “The Galilean” – Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.

It wasn’t Jews anybody was worried about. They were all Jews themselves. It was the local people, the city folk, who were a little more sophisticated, a little more cocky, a little more aggressive than the country bumpkins from Galilee – who even talk funny. It was the Judeans. And, really, that’s just what the Gospel says.

John – this Gospel bears his name – was also a Galilean. A lot of times, when he says Iudaios, he’s not thinking of Jews like himself; he’s thinking of those brash people from Judea.

In fact, when John tells us about the death of Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary – in Bethany, in Judea, not far from Jerusalem – he says, Many of the Jews came out to support Martha and Mary in their grief. Jews as opposed to whom? Hindus? No, of course, not. Judeans, that’s who they are, people from Jerusalem and environs.

Now, Luke – he was pagan before Christ changed his life: Luke virtually always, when he says “Jew” – Iudaios – he’s thinking of not just Judeans, but all Jewish people. He even says in the story of the first Pentecost that people visiting Jerusalem from everywhere in the world were “all Jews.”

Who is it asking that question: Are you a Yankee? Who is it asking the other question: Are you a Jew? Jewish? Judean?

Jesus and his first disciples were all Jews. But very few were Judean.

Believe what the Bible says – what the Bible says! Not just what we might think we might mean if we used the English word that sometimes translates what somebody else originally said in some other language 2000 thousand years ago.

“Jew” is not the only word that we have to be careful with. “Lord” Thomas and the other disciples call Jesus; what does that word mean when they use it? Or, for that matter, “brother,” “sister,” “first-born son” – even “blessing” and “bless” and “give thanks.”

And maybe we should not insist too strongly on old words that sound familiar – “for fear of the Jews,” for only one example – when they don’t mean for people today what John and Luke and Paul and Matthew really wanted to say. Same thing goes for Moses, Abraham, Esther – but with another one or two thousand years added into the mix.

But the word “Jew” is a good place to start, because we won’t really understand those other words if we forget that the people using them were Jews from 2000 years ago – or maybe 4000! We’ll need to talk again about Jewish words from the days of Jesus.

Some of those words have much to reveal to us.

… On another Sunday.