The Most Dangerous Book for Jews
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Biblical Scholar Jesper Svartvik calls the book of Hebrews "the New Testament’s most dangerous book for Jews." Not because of how it was originally written (as one of the earliest Christian sermons) or who it was originally written to (a community of both Jews and Gentiles wrestling with what this new belief in Jesus, who was a Jew, means for Judaism), but because of how it has been interpreted in the centuries that followed.
That common interpretation says that Christianity trumps Judaism. The revelation of Jesus, with his death and resurrection, closes the book on the “old faith”. Christianity, it says, is the only valid evolution of Judaism. The fancy seminary word for this is supersessionism.
“Supersessionism understands Judaism not as a distinct religion from Christianity but rather as its prologue. In history, it is argued, Judaism preceded Christianity; moving forward, Christianity should proceed alone. Judaism paved the way, and now it should make way. This way of thinking has been extraordinarily influential in Christian theology.”
It’s where we get the terms Old Testament and New Testament and why you hear me refer to them instead as the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament.
To believe that Judaism should make way for Christianity is to nullify the faith of Jews all over the world—around 15 million people. Supersessionism says that Jews are wrong for not believing in Jesus as savior. And this kind of thinking has informed anti-semitism for millenia, from the expulsion of Jews from England and France during the Crusades to the Holocaust.
The way we believe has real consequences.
We can easily read the letter to the Hebrews in a supersessionist way. Chapter eight says, “in speaking of ‘a new covenant,’ [God] has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.”
But we don’t have to. And I believe that if we read this letter through the lens of Jesus’ teachings, we shouldn’t. After all, Jesus was himself a Jew. He was born a Jew, he lived as a Jew and was called rabbi, and he died a Jew. He didn’t come to establish a new religion, he came to teach God’s love. That love was powerful enough that we’re sitting here together celebrating it two millennia later.
But sometimes I think we get away from the love that Jesus taught, that he prioritized above all else, in order to prove that we are right.
So often we think that someone else needs to be wrong in order to validate our own perspective. So that we can feel right. So often we establish rules—for belief and behavior—to protect our own perspective. But we don’t have to.
Today’s reading from Hebrews has three parts. First, rules. Then comfort. Finally, Jesus.
First: “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled.”
Then: "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"
Then: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
It’s that third part I want to talk about today. Because as Christians, Jesus is where we should always end up.
And guess what? Jesus wasn’t really into rules. At least not rules for rules’ sake. Whenever Jesus taught, it wasn’t, “do this or don’t do that.” It was parables. Stories that invited the listeners in so that they could find the lesson themselves. Whenever Jesus preached, it wasn’t “this will get you into heaven, and this will send you to hell.” It was love. When it comes to the prisoner, default to love. When it comes to the sick, default to love. When it comes to the hungry, default to love. When it comes to sinners, default to love.
In fact, whenever he did get confrontational with people—usually the Pharisees—it was because they were clinging too tightly to rules over love. “You don’t want me to heal this person who is hurting because it’s the Sabbath?” he asked. “You don’t want me to eat a meal with this person because they have a bad reputation?” he asked.
It’s not that he didn’t think rules were important. He kept the Sabbath, meaning he set aside a day to give fully to God. He kept the Law of his Jewish faith. Not because he was supposed to, not because someone told him he’d go to hell if he didn’t, but because it was his way of practicing his love for God.
Rules are important but only if they open a space for us to practice our faith and values, to practice God’s love in our lives. Rules are not themselves our faith. Rules are not themselves our values.
We don’t stop at red lights because the rule says so. We stop at red lights to keep one another safe at intersections. We don’t come to church on Sundays because we’re supposed to, we come to church to be nurtured by God’s love.
When rules become our faith, they become idols. They become a way for us to move power from God to ourselves, to decide who’s in and who’s out, who’s wrong and who’s right. There’s no love in that equation, which means there’s no God in that equation.
Jesus didn’t need other people to be wrong. And he didn’t need to feel right. All Jesus wanted was to live God’s love and help others live it.
So let’s not read the letter to the Hebrews or any other part of the Christian Testament as trumping Judaism, as completing Judaism. Yes, we who believe in Christ rest in the New Covenant he gave us. But our Jewish neighbors rest in the original covenant, and that is how they love God.
We can believe in ways that give us life without diminishing different ways of belief that give others life.