Sermon preached on 1 July 2012

The sermon this week seemed to interest people quite a lot – more so than anything I’ve preached in months, I think.

Here’s what I said:

Quite a number of years ago, I went to visit priest who had just begun working in one of our congregations – it was someone whom I had enjoyed having on placement with me during her training and together we were looking around her new charge.

As I looked around, I noticed that the church had an unusual set of Stations of the Cross. They had obviously been done around about the 1920s and were rather stylish images. There was a touch of the art deco about them and I said to the new priest, “Ooh, look at those, you could make quite a feature of them, they need lighting better – you should be showing them off and making much of them”.

“Hmm,” she said. “Look at little closer”.

And as I looked, I saw what she was trying to draw my attention to. In many of the images, there was a rather unpleasant figure. It was a caricature portrayal. A cartoon figure.

In most of the pictures it was very clear who the baddie of the story was. It was a hook-nosed, figure with an unpleasant complexion most characteristically reaching out to take money. Obviously different to Pontius Pilate and the Roman soldiers who seemed in the pictures to get off rather lightly. The baddie in each of the pictures was a different race altogether.

The baddie at each stage of the story was an unpleasant caricature of a Jew.

I remember being rather startled and rattled when I realised what was going on in these pictures.

It was fairly obvious when you looked closely that the pictures that the whole collection had a really very unpleasant anti-Semitic undertone.

It made me gasp to see. I’ve heard talk, after all of Christians being anti-Semitic and particularly of Jewish Christian relations being stretched sometimes to the point of violence in Holy Week.

Our modern liturgies that have softened Good Friday prayers for the conversion of the “Mohammedans” and the Jews. These days, we tend to pray quite differently and relate to our brothers and sisters in other faith communities using different language to the way we used to speak.

To confront the past in the presence of these pictures made me startled.

After all. We don’t do that to the Jewish people now, do we?

Now, what does all this have to do with this morning’s gospel.

I’ve preached on this gospel a few times now. We use a three year cycle of reading in church. I’ve been in the preaching business now for long enough to have had four or five opportunities to preach on this text. Inevitably, sometimes I look back to see what I’ve made of a particular gospel in the past.

I used to have quite a good sermon on this text. (Or so I thought).

It was all about that woman with her haemorrhages creeping towards Jesus and touching the hem of his garment. It was all about how she reached across various taboos which should not have been crossed. Men and women never touched in the Jewish tradition. I said. Touching Jesus would have made him unclean. I said. Touching someone who was bleeding was particularly troublesome with all the Jewish taboos about blood. I said.

And I had a lovely sermon all about how she reached out in faith and touched the hem of his garment. And he reached back and touched her and in doing so recognised her as a person, saved her from Jewish superstition, restored her dignity, gave her worth and raised her to the status of a whole person before the crowd.

And then having got that off my chest, I went on to make a point about how in the church we still had trouble recognising some people as whole people. We still had trouble with taboos about women. We still had troubles dealing with people who are outcasts. We still had trouble dealing with people who are gay in the church.

Yet, went my conclusion – Jesus reaches out beyond all the prejudices of his day and restores the dignity of the woman with the haemorrhages. So, went my conclusion. We must do likewise.

It wasn’t a bad sermon, all told – it had goodwill behind it, at any rate. But it is not the end of my dealing with that story. For I’ve come to see it in a new way.

Skip forward a couple of years to last summer. I was asked to go and speak at a conference organised by the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations. (A great privilege).

And I racked my brain for what to speak about and ended up settling on talking about those pictures that I described at the beginning – the Stations of the Cross. I went back to my clergy colleague to ask for copies of them and discovered that they had been taken down at some point and were now languishing in a dusty corner.

I was rather glad to hear that they were not up on the walls of the church. But glad I could get copies to illustrate my talk.

And all went well.

But one of the other speakers caught my attention by talking about how the trouble with modern Christianity is that it invents a load of taboos and projects them specifically onto the Jewish people and then preaches about a Jesus who comes to save people from those taboos.

And, said the speaker, who was an orthodox Jewish feminist theologian, “The liberals are the worst of the lot.”

She was very clear – “They demonise the Judaism of the day, to which Jesus was himself very faithful.”

She went on to illustrate her talk by dealing with how Christians preach on specific passages, including this one of the woman touching the hem of Jesus’s garment. And rather effectively and rather comprehensively showed that the kind of sermon that I’d been preaching for years was built not on scholarship, not on fact, but on prejudice and presumption.

To preach a story about Jesus saving people from “Jewish” superstition is, after all, to project a pretty negative version of Jewishness back onto our very Jewish saviour.

She made me gasp as I recognised what I had been doing. She made me think again.

She reached out and touched me.

Don’t you see, she said, the woman touched the hem of Jesus’ garment – that’s the religious fringes that he was wearing. That shows he was a good Jew, not someone come to undermine Judaism at all.

It was a moment of revelation, and in sharing it with you today I leave you with few questions to think about.

• When was the last time someone told you something about the scriptures which surprised you; shocked you or made you gasp? (I’ve learned that I often learn most from people who are not like me)

• What do you make of the Jewishness of Jesus? And do you know enough about Judaism to be able to make that judgement?

• And finally, if you reached out and touched Jesus, what would he need to heal you of? Would it be what you think you need healing of or something else entirely?

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Liberator.


  1. Excellent stuff! It’s worth noting I think that overt antisemitic caricatures, rather than being left in the 20s, were very much a feature of ”The Passion of the Christ”, much beloved of certain fundamentalist/evangelicals, whereas the Christ-analogy Bingo approach to the Jewish Scriptures popular in some quarters certainly supports a reductive misunderstanding of the Jewish religion (and so people?)

  2. Eric Stodadart says

    Indeed, an excellent sermon although there’s no getting away from Jesus-a-good-Jew being critical of some aspects of some of the various streams of Judaism of his time. His comment on one particular way of tithing is a case in point.
    Having said that, Kelvin’s Jewish scholar is spot on. Whilst we might learn about others by considering their friends perhaps we understand others more when we look at those whom they feel the need to denounce. In evangelical preaching I have perpetrated in the past ‘Judiasm’ was a convenient container into which I could drop criticisms of ’empty ritual’ or ‘salvation by works’ that my congregation probably could understand as coded references to Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant piety, respectively.
    Projecting fears and taboos onto characters in a narrative is bad enough but, of course, real people are caught up in the out workings of such stereotypes. More positively, I think that figuring out who, for us, are ‘the baddies’ in the biblical texts – and on what grounds – is a salutary exercise. For me, that probably means starting with S. Paul. Not that I see him as one of the baddies but reflecting on what I might be projecting on to what I think are his theological off-days would likely be useful.

  3. Suz Cate says

    Important message, artfully delivered. Thank you. I’ve been reading Jesus the Jew by Geza Vermes–an excellent resource for considering your second question.

  4. Oh, dear, Kelvin! I shan’t ever be able to recycle the sermon I preached yesterday, after reading yours. Thanks for sharing this deeper insight (said he ruefully).

  5. Marion says

    Surely there’s also something important here about recognising that none of us is prejudice free – we just see our own targets as valid. The only way I’ve learned to manage anti-semitism within the church (and the scriptures) is to explore the underlying fear and to recognise that we all live with fear and insecurities. Having been on the receiving end of racial prejudice, I know how easy it is to dismiss it as ignorance – and of course, on one level, that is true. But we are all ignorant about how it is to live in someone else’s skin. I found it more difficult to deal with the people who told me ‘some of our best friends are Jews’ than it was to deal with the people who hurled insults. It seems to me that Jesus the Jew challenges us to recognise our fears and to allow the possibility of transformation if we can find the courage to acknowledge our true selves. Maybe a starting place is to recognise that difference is OK – or more than OK; through recognising difference we have the potential to learn and grow.

  6. Craig Nelson says

    I feel Pharisees in particular get a very bad press from the New Testament which may not be fully warranted.

  7. Rosie Bates says

    Wow, heard Matthew’s version of this Gospel at Mass this evening and I am still gasping and wondering. Thanks for new vision and allowing the scholarly woman to touch you and ‘blow your mind’. My previous sermons are well and truly dumped and I repent of them. Drained is love in making full, bound in setting others free…. came to mind and so much more to be thankful for. I had a Jewish doctor in London in the 70’s who was rather angry with me when I wished to continue with a life threatening pregnancy. He persevered with this stubborn scared young Christian (one who understands why some would decide otherwise) and when he came to visit each day after the birth of John he totally ignored me and sat rocking in prayer beside the miracle in the crib. He and his lovely wife honoured us with their presence at John’s Baptism – a first step into another place of worship for them as they approached their seventies. We continue to journey together now that they are in the fullness of The Kingdom. I was so fortunate and my dear Doc who was known to me as ‘Uncle Eric’ is still very much part of our family. He always ended his surgery with an important appointment – His wife confided in me that it was to watch Eastenders! which he found therapeutic – so do I as the Gospel message is always popping up in the midst of horrors and so are the babies!

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