My father was a businessman in the textile industry. Many of his associates and virtually all of his lawyers were Jewish. They were his friends, and I still remember some of their names. When I was in my early teens he commissioned me to purchase a gift for the same-age son of one of them who was about to be Bar Mitzvahed. We delivered it to the boy’s home in Paterson. We never became pals, but I was left with the impression of a family very much like my own: caring, loving parents; secure, happy children, despite the fact that they viewed God differently and celebrated life somewhat differently.
But over the years my attitudes changed when I was taught in school and in church that the Jews had rejected and killed Jesus – himself a Jew! Once a year, on Good Friday, I prayed for those “perfidious” Jews. I didn’t know what the word meant, but I knew it had to be negative, condemnatory – and deservedly so.
South Pacific had it right: you have to be carefully taught to be prejudiced.
And now, so many years later, I realize what I did not appreciate back then: that I myself am a spiritual Jew, an Israelite, and that I belong to the same heritage that these good people come from. I know now that Jesus did not establish a new religion, but only tried to purify his beloved Jewish faith. The new religion, Christianity, was the work of his followers long after his death.
In today’s second reading, taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he speaks of Jesus as a human being like the rest of us, made, as we all are, in the image and likeness of the Creator. It was St. John who introduced the notion almost two generations later that Jesus had lived from eternity as God. Paul stresses only that Jesus was human and that he accepted the limitations of his humanity and did not gloat over his likeness to God, but rather identified with the lowly, the poor, the outcast. He saw Jesus as that unique human being who was uncommonly sensitive to the presence of the Creative Spirit in everyone and in everything.
This inevitably reminds us of what Jesus said at one point in his public ministry: that anyone who wanted to know God would only have to know him. And this statement he applied not exclusively to himself but rather to each and all of us. In other words, it should be true of all human beings, without exception, that contact with us in one way or another is always contact with the invisible God. That is to say that we reveal God, we demonstrate the presence of God, we become the very instruments of God, by the goodness and love that flow from us in any situation. Was that not our experience with Pope Francis in his recent visit to the United States? The pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, urged his followers to go out and spread the good news of Jesus, adding, “And use words, if you have to.”
We have focused so much on the divinity of Jesus that we are reluctant to consider his humanity – that he grew and changed and developed like any other human being. Scripture scholar Father Roger Karban suggests that when Paul — who, remember, writes 40 years before St. John taught about Jesus’ divinity – says that Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped at, what he means is that Jesus, who was so conscious of the presence of God in everyone and everything, never used that awareness to lord it over others. Instead, by it he made himself the very compassion of God, especially to the weakest, the neediest, and the most rejected.
As Jesus grew into that mindset, the basis of his beautiful lifestyle, so are we meant and called to do the same.