The man in the photograph is, of course, the world-renowned pianist, Evgeny Kissin. Born of Jewish parents in Russia, while still a young boy he wrote, “When I die, bury me in the region around Moscow, in the forest, and let the stone read, ‘Here lies Evgeny Kissin, son of the Jewish people, a servant of music.’” At the age of 10 years, he also wrote this poem :
Why am I writing about this? It’s because it reminds me of what I think is of most importance about another Jew, namely Jesus of Nazareth. What is not important to me, unless understood metaphorically (or mythically) is the idea that Jesus was God in human flesh, whose death on the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice, belief in which brings forgiveness for sins, ‘original’ and personal. My own past experience suggests to me that it’s too easy, consciously or otherwise, to turn that into a ‘get out of jail free’ card – in which case, what I say, and how I behave, may not matter as much as they ought to, because the right belief, and a quick confession, will see the slate quickly and efficiently wiped clean.
If I focus, instead, on how that flesh-and-blood, down-to-earth human being lived and behaved, I find that he sets many examples that are a challenge to me, with no escape clauses on offer. His openness and inclusiveness embraced people from Samaria, who were ‘half-breeds’ in that when the northern tribes were defeated by the Assyrians most, but not all, of the Jewish population was replaced with other conquered peoples, with subsequent religious ‘dilution’. He also engaged with social outcasts like local tax gatherers, despised as collaborators with the Roman occupiers, and accused of being cheats who collected more than was due, pocketing the surplus.
Also included were people who were ‘ritually impure’, and therefore to be avoided as ‘untouchable’ for fear of contamination, like the man with leprous skin, or the woman with an ongoing “issue of blood”. Rather than avoid, Jesus touched and engaged. In a misogynistic society, he not only welcomed women into his group of followers but taught and debated ‘theology’ with them. Some might argue that his inclusiveness didn’t include the Pharisees, but if we read through the Gospels chronologically, we can see their anti-Semitism progressively increase, climaxing with ‘John’, written at the end of the 1st century. By that time the Jesus movement, initially Jewish, had become a separate Gentile movement, with increasingly little love lost between Christian and Jew. The anti-Pharisee diatribes, and blaming of “the Jews” rather than the Romans for the crucifixion of Jesus, seem to me to be more like retrospective historical revisionism, than verbatim reports.
More could be said, but my point is that Jesus seems to require of his followers, and of us all, acceptance of, respect for, and engagement with, all people regardless of social, political, cultural or religious differences. A key, and compelling symbol, is his ‘open table’ at which anyone, irrespective of gender, status or beliefs was welcome to join, sit and share a meal, irrespective of what was on the menu. I can’t help thinking that if this had been highlighted, down through the years, as a principal thrust of the message and mission of Jesus, rather than the later metaphysical and mythical additions, then perhaps there might have been fewer religious wars, not as many burnings at the stake, less prejudice, bigotry and hate, and an absence of misogyny and all the rest of today’s multiplicity of other ‘phobias’.
Happily, there might also have been less anti-Semitism, and no need for a ten year old boy to endure the ongoing hurt that had to find expression in the penning of such a poignant, heart-breaking poem. As a last thought, here’s a short video of Evgeny Kissin playing Chopin’s outrage-filled prelude, thought to be his instant response to news of a Russian invasion of his beloved Poland – sadly, there’s nothing new under the sun.