Beware of the Blame Game

Beware of the Blame Game

It was on a Friday morning when they took me from my cell
And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well.
You can blame it on Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews
You can blame it on the devil, BUT IT’S GOD THAT I ACCUSE.
It’s God they ought to crucify instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter hanging on the tree!
And it was God who allowed himself to be crucified on that tree for our sake!

This poem, from the pen of Sydney Carter, aptly captures the human tendency to search around for someone to blame for life’s tragedies and heart-breaks. And, if God is the One who created all things, including human freedom, allowing with its abuse such awful suffering, then why shouldn’t he be accused?

But Christians have, in general, pointed the finger in the direction of a nearer target – the Jews – often labelled “Christ-Killers” down through the years, resulting periodically in pogroms and persecution, culminating in the Holocaust or Shoa.

Reading Sunday’s Gospel passage from Matthew 22:1-14, could offer some justification for such historical animosity. Recalling that the Gospel of Matthew was the main text read in the Church’s liturgy for many centuries and was thus the subject of much popular preaching, the violence of the reaction of some of the invited guests to the Wedding Feast could easily lead to this naming and blaming of the Jewish Race for Calvary.

Such a reading of this particular text, however, does not justify any blanket condemnation of Jewish people at any time, even in the immediate historical context of the Lord being “handed over” to the Romans!

I have underlined the word “some” in relation to the invitees in the Gospel to suggest a more nuanced approach to understanding the message of the evangelist. For those invited to the wedding of the King’s Son fall into three distinct categories, responding to the call to come to the wedding differently.

The first group’s response is simply termed the ones who “would not come” (v.3). No reason is given for their refusal. Nor do we find any animosity towards the servants or any violence. They simply refuse and they are left to their own devices. There is no response from the King at this stage and certainly no punishment for what might be seen as an insult to an important authority figure.

In the case of the second group, there is also rejection of the invitation, but now we are given reasons for not turning up, or should we say rather – excuses – as one is said to go off to his farm, while another has to deal with business (v.5). Yet again these potential guests do no harm to the messengers of the King and in turn he does no harm to them.

It is only the third group of invitees who reject the invitation violently, seizing, maltreating, and killing the unfortunate servants (v.6). They are simply labelled “the rest” and why they should take such extreme action to a kind invitation is not addressed. Nor do we ever find out if these people form a large number in relation to the others. Still, their ruthless reaction is punished by the King, destroying the murderers, and burning their town (v.7).

Some expert commentators on this Gospel passage suggest that the reference to the destruction of the murderers’ town was not originally spoken by Jesus but was added later by Matthew in view of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by Roman forces in AD70. (The parallel parable in St Luke 14:16-24 contains no violence whatsoever, just the refusal to attend!)

The key point I am making here is that we must be careful to avoid a simple logical fallacy when reading these verses. It is the mistake of moving from “some” to “all” which is a common temptation, when emotion can take over from logic and clear thinking. Because some police, priests, lawyers, teachers etc. are corrupt, they all are!

But a moment’s thought should show us the error of such claims, which is easily backed up by looking at the statistics for these groups.

The lesson of history in relation to the crucifixion of Jesus is that he was the victim of a pragmatic move on the part of a relatively small elite of priests and Pharisees in Jerusalem to get rid of a troublemaker who had been warned repeatedly to desist from his radical teaching and even more radical behaviour, e.g., cleansing the Temple.

Jesus was not put to death by all the people of Israel, certainly not by his native Galileans or Samaritans. Why, even some members of the Sanhedrin or ruling council, like Joseph and Nicodemus, are mentioned as defending him! So there is no justification in Matthew’s Gospel for blaming the Jews in general for what happened to Jesus. And certainly we must not think of God as one who nurses grudges for centuries, leading him to sending innocent men, women, and children to the gas chambers!

We can read Matthew’s words about the destruction of Jerusalem, not as God’s punishment of the “Jews” but instead as the result of what happens when the message of peace brought by Jesus is rejected, and a (small) group of zealots start a violent revolution against the Romans.

It’s not that different from the Hamas faction in Gaza bringing down the wrath of Israel on their own innocent people. Again, it is the “some” who create the difficulty for the “all” and it is left to Jesus to stop on his woeful Way of the Cross to comfort the women of Jerusalem for what some of their own people are going to bring down on their heads and those of their children.

When will we ever learn?

Kieran Cronin OFM