Moses and Jesus
This year, as happens occasionally, Passover, the Jewish festival, coincides with Christian Holy Week.
During Passover Jews celebrate their liberation from slavery in Egypt where they had been laboring making bricks and building pyramids to glorify the Pharaohs. But, so the story goes, Moses with the help of God persuaded the Pharaoh to let the Jews go after every firstborn Egyptian child died through divine intervention.
Liberation is the key word in this story about the exit from Egypt. This story is a political one about the founding of a new nation, the Jews, with the help of their divine patron.
The Christian story, as usually told, appears to have little in common with that of the Jews. In the Christian story Jesus is revealed to be, indeed, the son of God whose resurrection and later appearance to his disciples testifies to his divinity. The person who had seemed to be so very human, as he walked humbly among the poor and outcast he had chosen to be his companions, was now revealed to be not only human but also divine, clad in mystery demanding from us that we accept what we cannot understand, the mystery of the Trinity.
But from the perspective of Passover we can see a different story manifest in the Gospels--Jesus as a social revolutionary. He was harshly critical of the religious authorities that governed the Jewish people. The Gospels reproduce long sermons of condemnation of the Pharisees and other tribes of rabbis whom Jesus condemns as hypocrites, as men who take advantage of the privileges of their position to benefit themselves and lay heavy burdens on ordinary Jews.
Over and over Jesus praises the poorest and most downtrodden people in the Jewish community. He associates with prostitutes, tax collectors--widely hated because they collected taxes for the Roman occupiers--he stays in the house of a leper. Almost every move is a protest against the social and economic distinctions in the existing Jewish society. Over and over he preaches equality, that every person is of equal value, that every person deserves respect and considerate treatment. Wealth was not to determine how neighbors spoke to or regarded one. One’s position in the society was not to be determined by how one made a living and what work one did in the day to day. The chief command in Jesus's ethics was "love your neighbor like yourself."
In the political vocabulary of our day Jesus would surely be a socialist. We might even say that Jesus was the Bernie Sanders of his day.
That man fired up ordinary Jews. When he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey crowds lined the streets and cheered for him. The hard-working, the downtrodden understood his message that they too were to be treated as important persons who did their part to keep the society operating. They should not be exploited and disrespected because their hands were calloused and their backs bent.
Not surprisingly the authorities felt threatened by what seemed to be an impending revolution of some sort. They feared that Jesus would overthrow existing authorities and declare himself the new King of the Jews. The SWAT teams of Homeland security were called out to arrest Jesus.
"Are you the King of the Jews?" They kept asking him. Jesus refused to answer.
What was he going to say? He was not the King of the Jews in that he did not aspire to the power and position of the Pharisees or of the colonial governor, Pontius Pilate. But of course he was the king of the Jews in so far as the people revered him and heard in his speeches a renewal of the Jewish people and the beginning of a new era of equality.
The competing stories of Passover and of Easter illustrate for us the profound ambiguities of our histories – the histories of Jews and of Christians. Their traditions celebrate freedom and human equality. The Jews get to leave Egypt and after 40 years to find their own land and construct their own people. And later there comes the prophet Jesus who steadfastly proclaims a gospel of human equality.
But hierarchies of Jewish rabbis or Christian priests and of Roman colonial authorities continually push the message of freedom and equality into the background, concealed behind the mysticism of Christian theology and the complexities of Jewish dietary laws. Jews gave excessive authority to their rabbis and now, when they are citizens of liberal democracies, many of them support the Israeli occupation and oppression of Palestinians and many of them support conservative and reactionary governments in their own countries. The message of freedom and equality is almost forgotten buried under hierarchical religious and political organizations. Social distinctions based on income are revered. Freedom becomes very limited.
The Catholic Church concealed the message of freedom and equality, proclaimed so eloquently by Jesus, under a hierarchy which to this day regards women as second-class citizens, which is unable to make a clean break with the abuse of children, and reluctant to give up the benefits of political power for the sake of being true to the Christian message of loving one's neighbor as one loves oneself. Instead of promoting peace, they went on Crusades, fought bloody religious conflicts and legitimated the imperial wars of kings and emperors.
The belt buckles of Nazi soldiers proclaimed “Gott mit uns. (God with us)”
The history of Passover and of Easter is a sad testimony of humanity's unwillingness to take seriously what the best of us have always insisted on, namely that human beings be equal, equally free and equally respected.
These two celebrations challenge us to remain faithful to the central values of our tradition – freedom and equality – and to keep challenging illegitimate hierarchies of political and religious power. Today that means that we support the slogan that “No Human Being is Illegal.” It means that we commit ourselves to combat the gross economic inequalities everywhere. We must be serious about our basic principle that “All Men are created Equal.”