Church, it’s time to go all the way in embracing the Jewish Jesus.
Yes, Jesus is seen as a Jew in many pulpits and pews, but usually as an exception, an anomaly.
In too many sermons, commentaries,and hymnals his teachings on love, inclusion, and forgiveness are set up as a contrast against the Jews and Judaism of his day. What makes him distinctive, we say, is that he’s not like the other Jews. He reached people on the margins. He talked to women. He ate with sinners and tax collectors. But these characterizations of a Jewish Jesus are still distorted. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains why:
“Jesus becomes the rebel who, unlike every other Jew, practices social justice. He is the only one to speak with women; he is the only one who teaches nonviolent responses to oppression; he is the only one who cares about the ‘poor and the marginalized’ (that phrase has become a litany in some Christian circles). Judaism becomes in such discourse a negative foil: whatever Jesus stands for, Judaism isn’t it; what Jesus is against, Judaism epitomizes the category.”
Yes, Jesus reached out to all kinds of people. Yes, he counseled mercy and patience. Yes, he healed and set people free. But rather than see Jesus as different from the Jews around him, I suggest it is time to see Jesus’ ministry as a natural evolution of the whole history of Jewish teaching, ethics, morality, practice, and service of God. Otherwise he serves as an archetypal anti-Jew.
I’d like to explain the phenomenon, and then give you 3 criteria to check for to see if your preaching and teaching sets up Jesus as a Jew or as an anti-Jew.
Think about it.
If Jesus was fully Jewish, operating in a Jewish context, living a Jewish life, studying Jewish texts, praying to a Jewish God, clothing himself in the Jewish commandments, where else did it come from?
If we believe that Jesus was one with the God of Israel, then surely, Jesus drew upon the same Source and sources that inspired all the other teachers, miracle-workers, prophets, and kings that preceded and surrounded him.
Quite often the rabbis of his era were arriving at the same conclusions he was, from the Golden Rule, to teachings on Sabbath, the importance of love of God and neighbor. Others were engaged in calling disciples, healing, and miracle-working. Even his interactions with women, children, and Gentiles were not anomalous.
More than that, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is marked by theological and behavioral leaps, beginning with Abraham’s innovation that God is one, not many; continuing with Moses’ skilled but previously unknown leadership in leading the Israelites from slavehood to peoplehood; game-changing visions from prophets; and the courageous renewal of Judaism under Nehemiah and Ezra after the return from Babylonian exile.
Jesus is the product of generations of Jewish innovators, completely in line with the spiritual genius that went before him and even those that came after him.
Paul wasn’t kidding when he said about his fellow Israelites, “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises;to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.”
How do you know if you are preaching and teaching about Jesus as a Jew or an anti-Jew? Check out these 3 critiera:
1. You rely heavily on the compare and contrast method of preaching and teaching: Jesus is the “good guy” and his Jewish contemporaries such as Pharisees, Saducees, scribes and lawyers are the “bad guys.” This creates an us v. them dynamic that creates enemies. In other words, in order to stand with Jesus, I have to stand against somebody or something else.
2. You remove Jesus from a Jewish context altogether, substituting “the church” for the actual Jewish people, Torah, land, and institutions he interacted with. Erasing his Jewish context doesn’t help. It’s like claiming being color-blind in a society where white privilege still operates.
3. You portray the Pharisees as uni-dimensional: hypocritical, out to get him, narrow-minded or legalistic. Of all the Jewish groups present in his day, Jesus himself was most closely aligned with the Pharisees. His way of teaching, setting up a fence for the Law, and seeing the world has more in common with them than any other group.
Putting this perspective into practice will take a renewed scholarship among preachers, pray-ers, poets, professors, and Bible study writers and teachers. I realize it’s going to take some work to leave behind comfortable but dishonest dichotomies and ready stereotypes. This won’t be easy for already overworked church leaders. But there are many excellent resources that can help. It’s worth the effort.
We are grand participants in a historic reconciliation, the fruits of which are only beginning to be realized. Understanding that Jesus operated within a rich spiritual and theological context is essential for deconstructing three attitudes: first, lingering anti-Judaism; second, Jesus as anti-Jew; and third, subtle “us versus them” dynamics. While denominations have repented of these attitudes, the fulfillment of that work remains to be done in individual pulpits, in Bible studies, and in human hearts. The more we get our theology and teaching right, the more space it creates for healing between Jesus and his own people.
Excerpted and adapted from “The Jew Named Jesus: Discover the Man and His Message,” (c) 2013 Rebekah Simon-Peter.