The Real JewFr. Barnabas Powell
“Now THAT’s a real American!” The conversation centered, as all conversations seem to during an election year, on a particular political idea. The enthusiastic judge of what a “true American” really is was thrilled that the talking head on some 24-hour news station agreed with his idea in the first place. And, it was that very agreement that made the speaker a “true American.”
Isn’t it amazing how quickly we declare something “genuine” when it agrees with our preconceived notions? Convenient, don’t you think? One of my favorites is when someone claims to be a Christian simply on the basis of their loosely held thoughts or the “happy accident” of their birth. To be sure, it is a great joy and priceless advantage to get a spiritual head start in the Christian Way, but is it really authentic to claim to be something that doesn’t affect your life in any meaningful way?
Look at our lesson today in Romans 2:28-29; 3:1-18. Here’s the main portion of the reading, but please read it all:
BRETHREN, he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God. Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God. What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every man be false, as it is written, “That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged.” But if our wickedness serves to show the justice of God, what shall we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? And why not do evil that good may come? – as some people slanderously charge us with saying. Their condemnation is just. What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for we have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands, no one seeks for God.
Saint Paul here dives headlong into the real power of the Christian message for his day, and ours as well. First, he starts by insisting that being a Jew isn’t so much a racial reality as a spiritual reality that shows up in our actions. By insisting that Faith be more than mere race, St. Paul forever removes the notion that God is more interested in a “pureblood” than a conversion of the heart. Imagine that: Faith-based on a true, and noble practice, and not merely reduced to habit or “birthright.” To actually practice the Faith is to BE the Faith.
But then he quickly adds wisdom so as not to reduce the value of this wonderful blessing of heritage and lineage. The great value in this long heritage of Faith is precisely the opportunity to actually place proper value and dignity on such a treasure! In fact, it is in those who devalue their faith heritage by reducing it to some mere “cultural” expression or accidental habit that are really debasing the Faith. Just look at every generation that falls for this delusion of “accidental” piety; their track record of passing on a robust and purposeful faith to the next generation is abysmal! It never works.
No, the key to avoiding the poverty of a Faith in name only is a brutal honesty of two essential insights: First, there is great value in the heritage of Faith through the centuries, and we display how we truly value this gift by actually practicing the Faith, not merely enshrining a museum to the Faith. And Two, realizing this treasure was mean to heal the common spiritual illness of all of us, no matter when or where we were born. Because all of us suffer from the same spiritual illness. And it is in seeing this universal remedy in the Faith that actually overcomes the first temptation to reduce the Faith to habit AND insists we truly love our neighbors who have not had the privilege we have in having this heritage of faith.
Today, are you a true “believer?” Are you ” the real thing?” If you answer “no” then you are honest enough to be a true believer! And it all hinges on your willingness to be Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Dear Lord, You have never wanted anything else but that the whole of humanity, regardless of “tribe,” be Your children. You chose Abraham and his descendants to teach the world about being a community that is formed by You. Now, You make all of us, by faith, the children of Abraham. Please help me keep this in mind when I’m tempted by tribalism to think less of others not like me. Amen.