Reflections on the People of Israel
by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia
Making my way home at Oxford in the evening, I used to pass a hot-dog seller who always greeted me in a cheerful and friendly tone with the words, “Good night, rabbi.” Surely, I thought, it is an honor to be so addressed, for “rabbi,” “teacher,” is exactly what Jesus was called by His disciples during His earthly life. The title “rabbi,” little though we may deserve it, brings us close to Christ Himself. In Cyprus, incidentally, it is still the custom to address the priest as “daskale,” which is short for didaskale, “teacher,” the Greek equivalent to “rabbi”; for in the past, before there were regular village schools, the parish priest used to gather the children in church and teach them to read, using as his textbook the Psalter.
On other occasions also, because of my beard and black clothing, people have mistaken me for a Jew and called me “rabbi”; they have spoken, however, not in the friendly tone of the hot-dog seller, but with obvious contempt and hostility. This has led me to reflect with some disquiet on the persistent presence in Britain, fifty years after the Holocaust, of a widespread anti-Jewish prejudice lurking just beneath the surface. And not in Britain only. All too often in the lands that are traditionally Orthodox — whether Greek, Slav, or of other nationalities — there exists a virulent anti-Semitism, far worse than anything normally encountered in this country.
How great is our need here as Orthodox for repentance, metanoia, change of mind!
In thinking about the people of Israel, let us take St. Paul as our model. How did he, as a Jewish Christian, feel about his fellow Jews who had not accepted Christ? We find the answer in today’s Epistle (Romans 9:1-5). Reflecting on the rejection of Christ by most of his nation, Paul’s reaction is not anger, not bitterness or resentment, but overwhelming grief: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (9:2). Although his fellow Jews do not acknowledge Christ as Messiah and Son of God, Paul remains acutely conscious of his continuing solidarity with them. He does not cease to look on them as his “kinsfolk,” his sisters and brothers, and he says that he would rather be “accursed and cut off from Christ” than saved without them (9:3). (Doubtless he has the example of Moses in mind: see Exodus 32:32.)
Paul goes on to speak of the special blessings that God has given to the people of Israel. “To them belongs the sonship” (9:4): God has adopted them in a particular and specific way. Paul is probably thinking of such texts in the Old Testament as Exodus 4:22, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is my first-born son'”; or Hosea 11:1, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I have called my son.” What God said to Israel, St. Paul believes, remains as true as ever: Israel is still God’s “son.” To the Israelites belongs likewise the doxa or “glory” (Romans 9: 4), the shekinah, the uncreated splendor of God’s manifest presence that overshadowed the Jewish people in the desert (Exodus 16:10; 24:16), prefiguring the glory of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.
Among the gifts bestowed on Israel, Paul mentions next the “covenants” (Romans 9:4), speaking in the plural; for there is not just one covenant but a whole series of constantly renewed covenants in the course of the Old Testament – with Noah (Genesis 6: 16; 9:9), with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 17:2, 7, 9; Exodus 2:24), and then with Moses and the Jewish people at Sinai (Exodus 19:5; 34:27). Equally the Israelites have been entrusted by God with “the law,” with “the worship” of the Tabernacle and the Temple, and with “the promises” of the coming Messiah. Most important of all, it is from the people of Israel that Christ our God took His humanity (Romans 9:4-5). Jesus was a Jew — and so also, we may add, was His Mother.
Does Paul think that all these blessings have been revoked, all these privileges canceled, because the great majority of the Jewish people have rejected Christ? Not at all. Let us see what follows today’s Epistle reading, for chapters 9-11 in Romans form a close-knit unity. Later in chapter 9, Paul insists that, even though no more than a small “remnant” of Israel has so far accepted Christ, the divine plan has not been defeated; for in place of the Jews, God has called the Gentiles. Next, in chapter 10, the apostle refuses to regard this act of rejection on the Jewish side as something final. With far-ranging, unquenchable hope he looks beyond the present situation to the time when, so he is convinced, the whole of Israel will finally turn to Christ. “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (10:1) — not just a “remnant” among them but every one. And Paul is confident that his prayer will be answered, for he affirms, not as a possibility but as a fact, “All Israel will be saved” (11:26).
This means that, in Paul’s eyes, the Israelites are still most emphatically the Chosen People. “I ask, then, has God rejected His people? By no means!… God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (11:1-2). In God’s all-embracing plan, the people of Israel have still a unique and distinctive vocation. They are still specially “beloved” by God (11: 29), “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (11:29). What is more, when the Jewish people eventually turn to Christ, this will prove an enrichment to the total Church which lies far beyond our present imagining. “If their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (11:12). To the Christian community as a whole their conversion will be nothing less than “life from the dead” (11:15).
Let us all inscribe these words of St. Paul upon our hearts indelibly in letters of fire. Never for one moment let us forget the incalculable loss which Christianity has suffered through the early separation between the Church and the Synagogue. Let us long, as Paul does, for the ending of that separation, and let us keep steadfastly in view his confident expectation that, willingly and by their own free choice, the Jewish people as a whole will eventually accept Christ as God and Savior. And, until that happens, let us never by deed or word show the slightest disrespect or hatred for the people of Israel. They are still God’s Chosen People.
I beg you, then, to make your own St Paul’s “great sorrow and unceasing anguish,” and I ask you also to hold fast to his ultimate hope that “all Israel will be saved.”
The author is assistant bishop of the Diocese of Thyateira and Great Britain as well as Spalding Lecturer of Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Pembroke College. Among his many books, he is perhaps best known for The Orthodox Church (published under his lay name Timothy Ware); a third revised edition was issued by Penguin in 1993. A new edition of a companion book, The Orthodox Way, has been published last year by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. An autobiographical essay is included in Toward the Authentic Church (ed. Thomas Doulis; Light & Life Books, Minneapolis, 1996). Bishop Kallistos is a member of the Advisory Board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. His sermon was preached July 13, 1996, in the church of Saint Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon, England.
reprinted from In Communion (issue 6, October 1996)