Jesus: The Jewish Teacher
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Each of the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) had his own set of necessary biases. The needs of each community, its fears, limits, and pre-dispositions determined what stories were included in their Gospel and what stories were left out—or how they were re-written to fill that need, as any good writer would do. (How can you say the Bible is verbally inerrant when the evangelists themselves usually retell the same story in four different ways? Which one is the “only true one”?) Matthew’s Gospel, for example, was written around 70-80 AD, likely addressed to a Jewish-Christian community that was just beginning to break away from its mother tradition after Jesus had been gone for 40-50 years. Matthew was trying to connect the dots for his community. Because he’s writing to Jewish people, Matthew quotes the Hebrew Scriptures forty-five times, more than any other gospel. (Mark only quotes the Hebrew Scriptures nineteen times, Luke eighteen, and John fourteen.) Matthew’s audience was wondering, “How far should we go from our tradition? Something bigger is happening, and the Spirit seems to be leading us to this.” But they still loved their tradition, and the first generation largely considered themselves merely the Messianic-believing sect of Judaism, and had no intention of abandoning their roots, nor did they!
Jesus was a consummate Jew. He fulfilled the best and deepest of Judaism. He saw himself, up to his death, as one who was reforming his own religion, not leaving it, nor founding a new religion. (Since Judaism is archetypal religion, we could say that Jesus came to reform all religion.) That reform took off with such force that it became first a sect of Judaism, and eventually morphed into what we call Christianity, which unfortunately then put itself in competition with other religions—instead of being a nonviolent message of universal love that is needed for the maturation of all religions. Only in this much more demanding way can Jesus’ message really be “the salvation of the world.” Otherwise Christianity is doomed to remain just another competing team. Once you hear this, it makes sense, or at least I hope it does.
Jesus told his Jewish followers to be faithful to their own tradition. He did this by strongly distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials, and then pushed it even further. The only absolute essential is union with God. We see this creative tension throughout Matthew’s Gospel, but perhaps no place more clearly than in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Then he goes on with six repetitions of the same phrase: “You have heard it said . . . but I say. . . .” I call this the “yes/and” approach: yes the law, and there is something more, which is “the real and deep purpose of that very law.” For both Jesus and Paul law is never an end in itself. (This is Paul’s primary point in both Romans and Galatians! How could we miss that?)
Somehow we missed the subtlety: Jesus is never throwing out the law, but is framing its purpose quite differently and giving it a different emphasis, shape, and goal, which often looks like he is throwing the law out in actual practice. All four Gospels tend to illustrate this pattern. That is why Jesus so angered the authorities all his life, and why it was inevitable that such a mindset would form a separatist group from Judaism. Yet very soon the separatist group replicated the same mistakes. Jesus broadens the message, always in the direction of mercy and inclusivity, and disconnects it from any tribal thinking whatsoever. That’s what the Spirit teaches you to do, too: read the same scriptures, but now with a deeper understanding of their revolutionary direction—“that all may be one, you in me and I in you” (John 17:21). Today we are recognizing that that many Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sufis, and Native religions seem to live this divine unity much better than many who call themselves Christians. This embarrassing and obvious truth can only be denied by people afflicted with deliberate blindness.
Gateway to Silence:
Teach me Your truth.
Adapted from Way of the Prophet (no longer available);
The Four Gospels, disc 1 (CD, MP3 download); and
Hierarchy of Truths: Jesus’ Use of Scripture (CD, MP3 download)