The village of Chelm, near Poland’s border with Ukraine, is seen in Jewish folklore as the place where an angel, assigned by God to carry a sack filled with foolish souls for distribution across the globe, suddenly stumbles, dumping them all onto the village. One of them, it turns out, finds employment sitting at the gate waiting for the promised Messiah to come. When he complains to the village elders that he isn’t being paid enough for the job, they agree: “Yes, the pay is too low. But consider: The work is steady.”
There is humor here, to be sure, and the reader smiles on hearing it. But at the same time it masks a bitter sadness that survives the telling. For Jews especially, it is a dark and terrible tale. And while it may seem funny to see a fool more or less forced to wait forever, the fact that every other Jew sees it that way, that they too are fools to wait, only deepens the sense of pathos.
Here the Christian must make an effort of will and, practicing the sympathy to which our elder brothers are entitled, imagine the sheer strain imposed on those who, century upon century, await the arrival of One whom our own faith assures us has already come. Because, in truth, they had been the first, the very first, to hear the message; the first therefore to be given the promise of deliverance that the Messiah would surely come. (“Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son; and his name will be called Emmanuel.” Isa. 7:14)
Indeed, the Apostle Paul presses us to remember the high destiny of his kinsmen – who have become our kinsmen as well inasmuch as, spiritually speaking, we are all Semites – that because they are the Israelites, “to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.” (Rom. 9:4-5)
So what can the Jews do when, by their reckoning, God never shows up? All that hope they’d foolishly invested, what do they do with it now? I mean to say, here they are, the privileged People of the Book, recipients of an absolutely singular assurance from God himself, to rescue the whole of Israel from bondage to sin and death.
How odd of God to choose the Jew, we are told. And yet for all that their oddity keeps getting in the way, endearing them to no other tribe or nation on earth, they nevertheless remain God’s dearest possession, irrevocably the choice he has made. Besides, what other beachhead save that of Judaism has God established whence to mount his re-conquest of the world?
About Regis Martin
Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. Author of a half-dozen books, including, most recently, Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He lives in Wintersville, Ohio with his wife and ten children.
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