By Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz
WE ARE LIVING in troubling and violent times! On Oct. 27, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during Sabbath services. Shouting anti-Semitic hate speech and armed with an assault rifle and several handguns, he murdered 11 members of the congregation and wounded two others, as well as four law enforcement officers. According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), this mass-killing is believed to be the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history. Less than a week later and even closer to home, anti-Semitic graffiti was found inside another synagogue, Union Temple of Brooklyn in Prospect Heights, and a series of fires were deliberately set outside synagogues and Jewish schools in Williamsburg.
These disturbing events underscore the severity of a trend pointed out in the ADL’s annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Events, according to which such incidents in the U.S. rose by an alarming 57 percent in 2017, the largest single year increase on record since the ADL started tracking this information.
While this column may not be the place for speculation on what is behind this worrisome trend, we need to bear in mind Pope Francis’ clear and unambiguous denunciations of anti-Semitism. During his pastoral visit to Lithuania in September, he reflected on the 1943 liquidation of the Vilnius ghetto and the deaths of many thousands of Lithuanian Jews during World War II. He said, “Let us think back on those times, and ask the Lord to give us the gift of discernment to detect in time any recrudescence of that pernicious attitude, any whiff of it that can taint the heart of generations that did not experience those times and can sometimes be taken in by such siren songs.”
That discernment to which Pope Francis calls us must include taking care to prevent the misinterpretation of the Sacred Scriptures from sowing seeds of misunderstanding that can – even if unintentionally – sprout into the toxic fruits of anti-Semitism. We should bear this in mind as we consider this Sunday’s reading from the Gospel according to Mark, which juxtaposes two separate episodes in Jesus’ ministry. In the first, Jesus warns, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and as a pretext recite lengthy prayers.”
It is vital to read this text in the light of its original first-century context. As the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Understanding explain in their document, “A Sacred Obligation,” we need to understand that “although today we know Christianity and Judaism as separate religions, what became the church was a movement within the Jewish community for many decades after the ministry and resurrection of Jesus.”
This means we need to take a careful look at who the scribes were in the world in which the New Testament took shape and how they are portrayed in Mark’s Gospel. This can help to prevent us from mischaracterizing scribes in ways that risk doing violence to the biblical text, a sort of misinterpretation of the first century that can fuel misunderstandings in the 21st century and can lead to anti-Semitism.
Briefly stated, the scribes were expert guides and trusted teachers, familiar with Scriptures and Jewish tradition. They were responsible for drafting and copying documents that were essential to the functioning of the community. They served in a variety of roles, which brought a certain measure of respect and social standing.
Such well-deserved esteem finds expression in Matthew 23:52, where Jesus says, “every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” In Mark’s Gospel last Sunday, an inquisitive scribe asked Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” When the scribe heard Jesus focus on the love of God and neighbor and praised the wisdom of that response to his sincere query, Mark tells us that “Jesus saw that he answered with understanding,” and said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:34).
Mark’s Gospel mentions “scribes” more than 20 times, and we often find them trying to figure out who Jesus is, and by what authority He spoke and acted as He did. In that respect, they were not alone! People questioned how Jesus could teach with authority at the synagogue and how He could declare forgiven the sins of a man suffering from paralysis.
The scribes were also curious to know why the disciples of Jesus sat at table without washing their hands. This faux pas in the practice of everyday piety would have raised questions about how effectively Jesus was instructing His disciples in faithfulness to God’s covenant.
Different people came to very different conclusions when it came to answering the question of who Jesus was and by what authority He acted as He did. The characterization of scribes in the Gospels – sometimes positive and sometimes negative – reflects this complex situation.
With this in mind, what are we to make of Jesus’ warning in this Sunday’s Gospel? He unmasks the vain conceit of those who take advantage of the high regard in which they are held, and He condemns the hypocrisy with which they use prayers to mask their exploitation of the vulnerable.
So, let’s not just pin the blame on misbehaving scribes. These offenses are unsettling because they are familiar in the 21st century: consider the clericalism Pope Francis denounces, the abuses of privilege and power at every level of society.
Like the scribe who asked Jesus which commandment matters most, you and I are called to check our privilege at the door and to focus on what really matters, the great commandment of love of God and neighbor.
Readings for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 17: 10-16
Psalm 146: 7, 8-9, 9-10
Hebrews 9: 24-28
Mark 12: 38-44 or Mark 12: 41-44
Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.