What is a Jew?

(Homily for Eighteenth Ordinary Sunday, Year B)

Our ancestors ate manna (Jn 6:31)

Last week a college student asked me a simple, but provocative question: “Father, what is a Jew?”

For sure, those who claim the title must ultimately answer that question. Still, those of us who are “wild branchs” grafted onto the Jewish “olive tree” (Rom 11:17) cannot ignore the issue. What it means to be a Jew is crucial to our own identity as Christians.

Today’s Gospel provides a starting point. Jesus tells the crowds to work for “food that endures for eternal life.” (Jn 6:27) This leads them to remember, “Our ancestors ate manna in the desert.”

Who are those ancestors? One might reply that they are descendents of Jacob (the Twelve Tribes) who went down to Egypt some four hundred years earlier. However, things are not that simple. After speaking about the children of Israel (Jacob) who left Egypt on foot, the Bible mentions “a crowd of mixed ancestry” who joined them. (Ex 12:38) As early as the twelfth century B.C., the chosen people are not a pureblooded ethnic group.*

The key to answering the question - What is a Jew? - is found in the final chapter of Joshua. He gathers the people at Shechem, recounts major events beginning with the call of Abraham and concluding with the conquest of the Promised Land. Then Joshua asks whether they are going to serve false gods or the Lord. The people responded, “We will serve the Lord.” (Jos 24:18)

I thought of this on Thanksgiving when our school children reenacted the meal which the Native Americans provided for the newly arrived Pilgrims. A boy whose parents were refugees from Vietnam played Myles Standish. Also seated at the table were children who had come recently from Mexico, as well as the Philippines. Even those of European descent could not trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower passengers. Nevertheless, we were all there. In a much deeper sense, those were our ancestors.

Yet being an American is small potatoes compared to what Pius XI called a “spiritual Semite.” That we have become through the Jewish man Jesus. We can join the crowds in saying,

“Our ancestors ate manna in the desert.”

And, through the same Jesus, we receive the manna which satisfies every hunger.

************

*The Nazis, following the Darwinist philosophy, attempted to scientifically categorize the “Jewish race.” Their attempt failed – there is no physical characteristic that marks someone as a Jew. The Nazis wound up falling back on the self-identification of grandparents in order to classify a person as a Jew. Still they applied that classification as if it were a race. As was the case with Sister Benedicta a Cruce (Edith Stein) conversion to Christianity did not ultimately matter to the Nazis. In their racial theories they drew inspiration from Charles Darwin:

"Do the races or species of men, whichever term may be applied, encroach on and replace one another, so that some finally become extinct? We shall see that all these questions, as indeed is obvious in respect to most of them, must be answered in the affirmative, in the same manner as with the lower animals...At some future period not very distant as measured in centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races." (C. Darwin, Descent of Man)

As Benjamin Wiker observed: "Although many today would shudder at Darwin’s racism, we must concede that Darwin’s conclusions were correctly drawn from his evolutionary principles. If evolution is true, and the races themselves are the result of the struggle to survive, then how could intellectual and moral qualities not be diversely acquired by different races?...contemporary liberals have attempted to separate Darwin from Social Darwinism, but Darwin’s own words advocating severe struggle show us quite clearly that he was the first Social Darwinist." Darwin and the Descent of Morality

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From Archives (18th Ordinary Sunday - Year B):

2015: Dimensions of the Eucharist Week 2: Faith
2012: Jesus' Identity
2009: I Am the Bread of Life
2003: What is a Jew?

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