Grace – faith – freedom. Martin Luther rediscovered the bright light of the gospel. His followers created the three keywords of protestant theology. Grace – faith – freedom. Humans are justified in God’s eyes through grace only and through faith only. And this is the basic of human freedom. From the beginning up till now the Lutheran doctrine of justification was a polemic challenge not just for other Christian denominations especially for the Roman Catholic theology, but also for Judaism. Luther used or abused Judaism as dark background for developing his doctrine of justification.
The longer I learnt from Judaism the more I discovered the hardcore of Luther’s theology is the hardcore of Judaism. Of course, the theological labels are not so important, but what the labels express that’s a central part of the Jewish religion.
I interviewed Jews living in our neighborhood for a radio feature broadcasted this morning. Now I’m telling about my experience of learning from Jews.
Always I’m deeply impressed how Jews celebrate Shabbat. Every seventh day a feast of freedom. One example for many: My friend Meir, a teacher, tells that he doesn’t prepare lessons or mark test papers. On Friday evening he switches off his cellphone, iPad, laptop. You can hear how much he enjoys his freedom of one day without telephone, sms or whatsapps. The entire Jewish community celebrates freedom – in ancient times including slaves and animals. They commemorate being deliberated from slavery. In the ancient world slaves of Jewish landlords were different from other slaves. Every seventh day they didn’t need to serve their lords. They lay besides their lords at the same table. They shared the same freedom. Shabbat is the partial anticipation of abolishing slavery. The seventh day anticipates the paradise, the Kingdom of God. Jewish people imitate what the creator did creating the world and they proclaim that’s relevant for all people and the entire creation.
Shabbat is not just a chapter of social ethics for Jews and Christians and all people and religions. But Shabbat is also a chapter of the doctrine of salvation. Shabbat is the practical manifestation of the doctrine that humans are justified through grace and faith only.
What Protestants have more in their mind than in their life, Jews experience in their weekly life. Shabbat is the Jewish materialization of the Lutheran doctrine of justification.
Jews told me that they don’t like the labels “grace” or “faith” or “belief”. For Jewish ears these labels are occupied by Christians. I know that “faith” or “belief” are difficult words for many Christians too. “Born by a virgin”, “resurrection”, “ascension”. For many Christians belief seems a big package, too heavy to shoulder it. But the biblical word doesn’t mean an achievement or a religious work. It means the opposite being without work, like Jews do on Shabbat, going without work. What humans have to do is reduced to receive, to accept presents, to let it happen, to trust.
Jacob told me that he is more familiar with trusting in God than believing in God. “But I’m not a hero of trusting in God. I’m more a fighter against God criticizing God because of the evils in the world; like the biblical Jacob was wrestling with God and struggling against God. A lot of doubts and desperation belong to my experience”. Listening to him I remember Luther telling about his experience about doubts and desperation. So my Jewish friend Jacob teaches me what Luther would have been able to learn from the Jews about belief, trust, confidence, faith.
He said: “If I would not believe in God, nevertheless I would not stop being a Jew.” That reminds me at Jesus meeting Zachaeus, the boss of the tax collectors of Jericho. Jesus declares him a son of Abraham independent of his behavior. Being circumcised on the eighth day makes a Jew know: I belong to God’s covenant long time before I’m able to decide being religious or not and doing good or evil. Christian theology called this gratia praeveniens, God’s forerunning grace, fundamental for Luther’s doctrine of justification.
Every day Jews pray with their morning prayer “The soul you have given me has been pure.” Original sin or purity? Anyway – before humans can use their free will and decide between good and evil, they got a gift, their soul. What they do or do not, is made possible by their creator. They live by God’s forerunning grace.
God’s choice is another aspect of God’s forerunning grace. Being chosen – that is a central and important aspect in the Hebrew Bible and (!) in the New Testament. According the letters of Paul “God’s choice” is a more relevant label than the label “justification”. In the Bible “to be chosen” means “to be loved without reason” like humans be chosen by each other who are fallen in love with each other. But I learnt Jews today don’t like this label. The label “choosiness” is poisoned by anti-Semitism. Jews fear the anti-Semitic misinterpretation being chosen means being better people. So they avoid this label.
But suddenly my friend Jacob told a joke: “At first God offered the tora to a lot of other people. But the other people denied the offer, because the tora has so many laws and regulations. The Jewish people asked: “How much do we have to pay?” “It’s just for free.” “Okay. We want it”.
A Jewish joke. Self ironically the Jewish teller uncovers the anti-Semitic stereotype Jews are counting and clever businessmen. My laughing liberated me for the acknowledge that’s typical human – and not typical Jewish – to ask every times and everywhere for the costs. And God’s choice helps humans to do not economize the entire life. The best one is what God gives for free. Life, God’s choice, God’s love is just for free. It’s gratis. Sola gratia. Luther would have been able to learn his essentials from the Jews.
For Luther one aspect of grace was especially important: the forgiveness of sins, grace in spite of guilt. “Chesed werachamim” are the words for this in the Hebrew Bible. Noemi remembers the prayers and songs on the High Holidays. Whoever goes to the Synagogues on the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, will be impressed, how passionately Jews sing for example “Avinu, Malkenu”, our father, our king, be gracious, give us justice and grace and reconciliation!… There is no doubt, the hardcore of Luther’s theology is the hardcore of Judaism.
Freedom and grace and trust are central topics of Jewish religion and Luther’s theology. Maybe you will agree with me up till now. But there is one topic in the centre of Luther’s theology there is not any agreement with Judaism. Solus Christus. Jews confessing the one and only God say No to the Messiah Jesus. Maybe that is the reason for Luther being so blind for all the other agreements with the Jewish religion. His ideology is “Just a baptized Jew is a good Jew”.
In the past I thought what many Christians think up till now: The Jewish No is their lack, their deficit. And we have to overcome it missionizing Jews and making them Christians. But I changed my mind. I don’t think so any longer. I learnt the Jewish No is an advantage (Romans 11,12). They keep the question for the Messiah open – open for the answer of the Messiah himself.
With their No to the Messiah Jesus Jews advocate God’s unfulfilled promises and they advocate the unredeemed world. They protect us from the illusion that perfect is what Jesus did and we don’t need to wait for him: Jews teach us with their No to expect all from the coming one. He has to verify what Christians believe.
I learnt it from the elder Paul, the apostle. When he was young, he tried to missionize his family and Jewish friends, with rather success. But at the end of his life he acknowledged that the entire Israel will be saved without Christian missionary work (Romans 11,26).
Solus Christus – that is not an attack against Jews or Muslim. Solus Christus has its function inside Christian Theology and church. It means the distinction between Christ and Christians. Christ only and not Christology. Christ only and not Christianity. The invisible and untouchable and inaccessible one will triumph – and not the one or the other religion. We have to expect him or her together with Jews, Muslims or whomever. We have to be curious how he or she will identify him- or herself. In the meantime we have to listen to each other and to learn from each other and so to honor him or her who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Alef and the Tav.