From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Proper 14, Year 1 (Pentecost 11, 2015)
Acts 21:27 ~ When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen [Paul] in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd.
When I was a kid growing up in Las Vegas I knew there were some people called “the Jews.” That is about all I knew about that particular group of people. My family knew a couple of Jewish families; my dad was friends with Sammy Davis, Jr., who was a black Jew and I knew that that was somehow really different. But I didn’t know anything about different sorts of Jews; they were all one group in my childish understanding.
When I went away to boarding school, I met and befriended a young Jewish man who introduced me to the American varieties of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstruction. His family went to a Reform synagogue and, he told, were Sephardim by ancestry, thus introducing me to the difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. In my senior year, my English class read Leon Uris’ recently published novel “Exodus” and these differences took on more meaning, and the concept of the Sabra was introduced to my understanding.
In college, I read Martin Buber and learned of the Hasidim and the ultra-Orthodox; I also took a course about the founding of Israel and learned about the Mizrahim (Jews from eastern Arabic, Persian Gulf countries), the Maghrebim (Jews from North Africa), and the Falasha (black Jews from Ethiopia).
So when I read the words “the Jews from Asia” in today’s Acts reading, I wondered which of these modern divisions of Judaism and ethnic Jewry (if any) they might have represented. That I am currently reading a new text on the history of Israel probably encouraged that.
And then I wondered how many modern American Christian readers of the Acts lesson appreciated the existence of such divisions. We are so prone to monolithic thinking. I know from Bible study conversations over the past 30 years of ministry, that when we read the words “the Jews” in the Christian Scripture we Christians tend to create in our minds a united block of co-religionists who rejected and then opposed the teachings of Jesus and his disciples.
We do the same when someone says, “The early church ….” Again, in our minds we create this mythical monolithic united religion which even a short course in Christian history will demolish.
We do the same when someone says, “The Muslims ….” Monolithic thinking, even in the face of news reports reminding us that there are differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites, between Arab Muslims and Iranian Muslims, between radical Iraqi jidahists and moderate American imams.
We whites do it at the mention of “African Americans” and blacks do it at the mention of whites. We know better but, initially, as if it’s part of some human hard-wired programming that we must constantly over-write, we do it anyway.
“The Jews of Asia” stirred up a riot in the Temple precincts on flimsy and false premise that Paul had taken a Gentile, Trophimus the Ephesian, into the Temple. The police were called; Paul was arrested; the riot was put down. As I listened to the radio news this morning, I was informed that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts riots, a civil disturbance with perhaps more justification, and certainly more damage, than the Biblical riot.
I was not quite a high school freshman living in another part of the Los Angeles metroplex in August of 1965. That was back when I still thought of “the Jews” as a singular, monolithic group; I thought of black Americans the same way. I remember the riots. I remember “our” fear of “them.” God help us, not much seems to have changed in fifty years! In all honesty, not much has changed in two thousand years. That hard-wired pre-programmed initial response of monolithic thinking, both about “us” and about “them,” whoever the “us” is and whoever the “them” is, is still with us, still a part of us, still in control of us.
When I was in seminary, I had a dormitory neighbor named Elizabeth, a doctoral student from Australia. I had the privilege of hearing her preach a children’s sermon one day on the parable of the lost sheep. She gathered the community’s children around her and asked them if they knew how God counts people. They all said “No,” of course, and she proceeded to point directly at each child saying, “One … one … one … one …” Her point for the children was that each one of us can be a lost sheep and that in God’s eyes each one of us is “number one,” the most important, the one God will take all the time necessary to search for and find.
As I think about our reading today and “the Jews from Asia” and the Watts riots, I remember Elizabeth’s children’s sermon and draw another inference: for God there are no monolithic groups, there are only individuals gathered into a flock. It is one of Jesus’ many lessons for us to learn, remember, re-learn, and remember again as we constantly over-write that programming; there is no “us” and there is no “them.” There are no monoliths!