Joseph, Your Brother

"Come close to me, my brothers"  (Gen 45:3).

The story is told that when Pope John XXIII met a delegation of Jewish rabbis after he was elected, his greeting to them was a quote from Genesis 45, today's first reading: "I am your brother Joseph." 

The message conveyed in these words first spoken by Joseph to his estranged brothers, who had come down to Egypt to secure grain for their families during a famine, was both profound and complex.  Pope John, wearing his small white cap, or zuchetta, was reaching across the centuries to his ancient brothers, wearing their yarmulkes, in the voice of one whom history had estranged from the roots of their common Jewish mother. The historical and theological rift between the Christian movement and its Jewish origins is one of the great tragedies of both religions.

The first generation of the church was entirely Jewish, including Jesus himself, his disciples, the Apostle Paul and the earliest missionaries. Before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, followed by the great diaspora of both Jews and Christians, the early church existed within a broad diversity of groups who worshiped in the Temple and openly shared their convictions regarding Jesus.

In today's Gospel, Jesus sends his disciples to expand the circle of the Kingdom of God to the Jewish towns and villages where he himself would visit to preach, heal the sick and drive out demons.  The circle would one day reach the gentile world, the complex unfolding history of institutional Christianity would transform the Mediterranean world. Conflict and persecution would touch both Christians and Jews, but also end up creating theological quarrels and a poisonous spirit of anti-Semitism that would marr the history of the church down to the 20th Century. 

Pope John, whose service to the church took him outside the Vatican to Middle Eastern countries and many interreligious contacts, carried with him to the papacy a strong desire to heal the divisions that had so diminished the religious world, especially the relations with Judaism.  One of the most significant of the documents produced by the Second Vatican Council would address Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. 

One sure path to a better understanding of Jesus is to know him as a Jew. Every follower of Jesus is in this sense also a Jew, immersed in the rituals and prayers that formed Jesus. He is like Joseph our brother, and by embracing our common ancient tradition, we enrich ourselves in the blessing that is the foundation of who we are.