This illustration might have been better used yesterday, when we read the first half of the Emmaus gospel, but I think it still has a point to make. In today’s section of the gospel Jesus explains to his disciples how everything in the Mosaic Law and the prophets pointed to himself. He identifies completely with the Jewish people and their experience. In exactly the same way, the medieval illustrator of the Emmaus story did not hesitate to show Jesus wearing a Judenhut or Jewish hat (Latin pilleus cornutus). Compare and contrast the situation today, where Jesus is too often portrayed as a blue-eyed, fair-haired, rather bloodless figure who would have been entirely out of place trudging the roads of Roman Palestine or fishing with Peter and Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. Despite the best efforts of Geza Vermes and others, we still seem to have difficulty with the Jewishness of Jesus and thereby impoverish our understanding. (I speak generally, as I know there are many who are sensitive to this aspect of Jesus.) Why is there a problem?
I think part of the answer lies in fear of the stranger. People who observe different cultural norms, who eat different foods, wear different clothes, speak a different language are always suspect. If, in addition, they hold radically different ideas about the meaning of the same texts — in this case, what Christians know as the Old Testament scriptures — the problems are compounded. When history is thrown into the mix, and centuries of anti-semitism and persecution are considered, it all looks very bleak indeed. However, there are bright spots, too. In the twelfth century, the Cistercians were very keen to understand the scriptures aright, and there are a number of instances of Cistercian monks sitting at the feet of local rabbis in order to learn Hebrew and study the Bible and other Jewish texts, just as, a little earlier, Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny, had ordered a translation of the Koran to be made so that his monks might understand Islam better.
Understanding the other, welcoming the stranger, is still a challenge for us today. When David Cameron spoke of Britain as a Christian country, some took it as a slight on all who are not Christian. The debate continues to rage, but I think myself it is a largely phoney debate because the terms cannot be defined sufficiently precisely. From ‘cultural Christianity’ to missionary endeavour/proseletysing fervour (choose as appropriate) and the infinite varieties of church allegiance, the concept is susceptible of a thousand different interpretations. What matters, surely, is that those of us who regard Jesus Christ as our Lord and God should attempt, however imperfectly, to be as loving and generous as he. Love is the golden rule of Judaism as of Christianity and, as St Paul remarks, is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour. Perhaps we might think about that today.