“The Wandering Jew”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 17, 2018
University Baptist Church
I am loving the opportunity to be challenged by the topics selected out of the grab bag each week. This week the piece of paper read “I just saw the play “Underneath the Lintel” and would like to learn more about the “Wandering Jew.””
So, I did a little research. Kim and I went to the Ritz Theater on Friday night and saw the incomparable Sally Wengert give an epic ninety-minute performance as a Librarian who has lost her way pursuing the mundane—a promotion to something very repetitive. She comes across a mystery as she catalogues her books. An errant library book long overdue leads her on a journey across the world and across time, searching for the one who should receive a sizeable fine for his sins. As she follows this trip down the rabbit hole, she loses her old inhibitions, eschews her predictable life, and goes a bit mad in the process.
The object of her pursuit is the mythical figure of the Wandering Jew.
The figure does not appear in the Bible. But there are hints of one who travels a long way in search of a purpose or a goal.
“My father was a wandering Aremean” says Deuteronomy. We come from a long line of wanderers. I ponder what he wondered as he wandered.
Cain, because he slew his brother, is destined to wander the world.
In Matthew, Jesus took the disciples to task for their desire to save their lives, you know that reversal where he says, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” He then says, “I tell you the truth, there are some standing here who will not experience death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”
John, it is said, would see Christ come again and legend had it that he was still living 1000 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
Like Bigfoot, the legend of the wandering Jew just keeps going and going and going.
One of the legends has that once he reached 100 years old, he returns to age 30, the same age he was when he first met Jesus. Sounds like a never-ending Groundhog’s Day film.
On Monday I spoke with my Rabbi friend Ryan to ask what he knew about the Wandering Jew. He looked at me like I was kinda nuts. He doesn’t delve into quasi-Christian, possibly anti-Semetic legends.
But myths and legends have staying power and they have things to teach us.
By the middle ages the story morphed into the one noted in the play.
The legend is that a cobbler, a shoe salesman, has a shop on the via dolorosa, the street in Jerusalem where he constantly sees the condemned pass by carrying their trees of death on their backs.
Back in April, when we did the Gospel According to Kermit, people asked me which Biblical book the story of the wandering shoe salesman appears. I jokingly said, “I think it’s in First Caucasians.” Maybe the playwrites knew about the Wandering Jew.
The walking dead were not good for business. Day after day, business was interrupted by these gruesome displays of state-sponsored terror. They paraded the broken bodies of the accused through the public areas as a way of intimidating the people.
The cobbler was ordered by the sword-wielding Roman soldiers to offer them no mercy or he would join the line of condemned on their way to Calvary. So, when Jesus falls down at his doorstep underneath the lintel, the door, the opening, the place of welcome, the shoe salesman chooses to do what we might do. Protecting his family, he tells Jesus to pick up his cross and move on, get out of his doorway. Jesus, in an uncharacteristic display of disgust condemns the man to wander the earth until he comes again (echoing Matthew’s words: “verily I say unto you, there are some standing here who will not experience death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”) “I will stand her and rest, but you must walk,” says the 16th century version of this story.
And so the man wanders, waiting, penitent. Reflecting for eternity on whether he had made the right decision. Jesus was going to be executed anyway. Was it worth risking his own life?
The wandering Jew had immortality, but not a welcome one. Imagine not being able to sit still ever. Imagine seeing your loved ones live and die and not having the blessed rest from your travels.
Imagine being forever under the lintel, at the door, but never invited in.
The Wandering Jew is a tragic figure, but also an archetype. He’s a traveler who is seeking to find enlightenment. He is on that endless quest for what it true, what is noble and what will alleviate his pain. The stories he has seen can fill a library, maybe even a holy book. He is also holding onto a burden—and one that apparently Christ can’t forgive. Does this mean that it’s easier to forgive a fellow condemned person on his cross next to Jesus than it is to forgive someone who was protecting his own life?
That’s the tale of the wandering Jew—perhaps a parable about paying attention to what we say and whom we dismiss. It could haunt us for eternity.
Cain, Abraham, John, are all wanderers who are on a never-ending search.
The wandering Jew had many names: John, Ahasueras, Malchus, Isadore, Cartaphilus, Joseph, even Giovanni Bottadio. Maybe his name is Isaac, Ishmael, Miriam, Mary, or even Doug.
Think about the forgiveness that we have offered and that which we withhold—allowing people free rent in our brains. Think about the words you have spoken in anger or frustration that you wish you could take back, but the person has died or is somehow inaccessible. How many miles and how many years is the penance?
Way back in 1992, our family did an intensive week of therapy in Arizona—unpacking a lot of secrets and mistakes we made in our family system. At one point, we were in a fishbowl setting and we had to tell someone the nature of our anger. Sitting right across from the person who had to take it. They were not allowed to respond verbally. Then the circle would reflect back on what they saw. Later on in the week, we did a similar exercise of forgiveness. “Will you forgive me for…?” The answer was yes, no or I’m working on it. At one point, some of us needed to do our confronting thing with someone who was not there. We could only imagine their reactions. I wonder if the Wandering Jew imagined this encounter with Jesus. What would he say? How would we who watched react.
This story comes to us at a time when we consider as a country an increased disdain for foreigners, especially foreign travelers who have sought safety, security and welcome underneath our lintel, our border, our door. But like the cobbler, nursing whatever ungodly fear we have turned them away. We have even gone so far as to rip children from their families.
Google Megan Gunnar Dahlberg’s wonderful letter to the editor in Tuesday’s Star Tribune. It spoke about how parents are essential to children’s brain development. Separating children from parents causes brain damage and serves no purpose but to be mean. We can be better than that.
On Friday, Lee Spitzer, the General Secretary of the ABCUSA issued an open letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Here’s what he said in part:
The American Baptist family would like to communicate our deep concern over the unjust immigration policies of the United States government, and in particular, the unconscionable separation of children from their parents on our southern border. As a fellowship of Christ-followers who recall the trials of the child Jesus and his parents, who fled from persecution in their homeland to another country (Matthew 2:13-18), we adamantly oppose separating children from their relatives. A just society can fulfill its fidelity to its own laws and border security without resorting to such unwise and harmful practices; instead, we urge that compassion, fairness and family-affirming policies characterize our response to the plight of families on our borders. We note that destructive practices such as the separation of children from parents place a serious burden on our law enforcement agents and officials, who in carrying out such policies find their own consciences ethically compromised and troubled.
Furthermore, we strongly disagree with your erroneous appropriation of the New Testament (in particular, Romans 13) to justify inhumane and unjust governmental actions. No responsible Christian theologian would assert that Romans 13, or any other passage in the Bible, supports the horrific separation of children from parents that we are witnessing at the present time. In fact, both the Old and New Testaments call those who believe in God to welcome refugees and immigrants with open arms and friendship, with loving care and concern, and with the willingness to assist others in enjoying the prospects of a future based on hope and opportunity.
Accordingly, American Baptists wish to express our sincere hope that the separation of children and parents will immediately cease. We urge Congress and the President to approve and implement without delay more compassionate and just immigration policies and procedures.
This makes me proud to be an American Baptist.
The Wandering Jew is a legendary if not mythical figure based loosely on a couple of cryptic passages in the Bible.
But we are all wandering, wending our way with our individual and corporate sins haunting us. Maybe the wandering Jew is not some mythic figure out there. Maybe it’s a mirror. Encouraging us to not be defined by our moral failures, but by a higher and better narrative, one that will welcome the traveler home.
And so we stand, forever underneath the lintel, at the threshold. Are we the gatekeepers or the oppressed condemned one seeking rest? Hear this, on boht sides of the door are searchers, wanderers, wonderers.
And so we offer our grand old building, a sanctuary for the wanderers of the world. On our best days, we welcome refugees, asylum seekers, sinners and saints alike. This door is for you, even the door to our hearts. For the wandering one is welcome here. We might not have all of the answers, but we welcome the questions—for they point us to what God might reveal.
Welcome wanderers. Show us your truth. Here, so we might be a little kinder, a little more humble, a little more welcoming. For we search, like you, for shelter from the storms of life.