Monday, December 03, 2012

Jesus Was a Jew Who Wore Torah on His Sleeve - 31 Days With Jesus - Day 9

Streets of Jerusalem

Linda's mother, Martha, was Jewish. One of her lifelong dreams, which was never fulfilled, was to travel to Israel and see her homeland. I'll never forget when Linda and I got to go to Israel. I remember flying over the Mediterranean and seeing Tel Aviv below us. We looked at one another - "We are in Israel!" For Linda this was fulfilling a dream, and was a way of honoring her mother as well.

When you visit Israel you walk the very land that Jesus walked. Why did Jesus walk there? Was he a tourist who flew in from some other country, only to visit? No. Jesus was Jewish. In order to understand the Real Jesus we must understand this.

A few years ago I read Vanderbilt University professor Amy-Jill Levine's The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus. Of this book Ben Witherington writes: "The Misunderstood Jew is simply the best book ever written about the Jewishness of Jesus and his earliest followers. This book is such a seminal work that it makes us all reexamine what it really means to be a Jew or a Christian." (From the back cover.) Levine writes:

"Jesus had to have made sense in his own context, and his context is that of Galilee and Judea. Jesus cannot be understood fully unless he is understood through first-century Jewish eyes and heard through first-century Jewish ears." (Levine, 20) Just as I could not understand you apart from understanding the ethnic, social, and temporal context into which you were born and now live, so we will make a big-time mistake if we try to understand Jesus from our current cultural perspective.

For example, Jesus spoke, at times, using parables. "Parables" are from first-century Jewish culture, not 21st-century North American culture. Here's another example. The healings of Jesus made sense and were assessed according to the first-century Jewish worldview, not our worldview. And another: the debates going on in the four Gospels about how to follow Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) only make sense within Jewish first-century legal parameters and ways of talking, not our legal system and modern language. Levine writes: "To understand Jesus' impact in his own setting - why some chose to follow him, others to dismiss him, and still others to seek his death - requires an understanding of that setting." (21)

The Gospels are more relevant and powerful when we uncover their meaning as it was understood and apprehended within their first-century Jewish worldview. I like how Levine expresses this. She writes: "When Jesus was located within the world of Judaism, the ethical implications of his teachings take on a renewed and heightened meaning; their power is restored and their challenge sharpened." (21)

Here is another example. Jesus dressed like a Jew (but of course, right?). He wore tzitzit, or "fringes." The book of Numbers instructs all Israelite me to wear fringes, and today many Orthodox Jewish men still wear them. They can be seen on the prayer shawls Jewish men wear in the synagogue during worship. Numbers 15:37-40 reads:

The Lord said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. 39 You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. 40 Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.

These tassels (tzitzit) were the WWJD bracelets of the time. Levine writes: "Just as the bracelets remind their Christian wearers to ask, "What would Jesus Do?" so the fringes remind Jewish wearers of all 613 "commandments," or mitzvot. The Gospels do not shy away from the fact that Jesus wore these fringes." (24)

Those were the fringes the woman with the twelve-year bleeding touches in hopes of a healing (Matthew 9:20). Wherever Jesus went people begged to simply touch the fringe of Jesus' cloak (Mark 6:56). And Jesus, in Matthew 23:5, accuses the Prahrisees and scribes of making their fringes long, whch suggests that Jesus' fringes were shorter. Levine concludes: "Jesus thus does not dismiss the Torah; in the modern idiom, he "wears it on his sleeve."" (Levine, 24; emphasis mine)

Jesus dressed like a Jew, ate like a Jew (see Levine pp. 24 ff.), and spoke like a Jew. In Jesus God came to us and took on, specifically, Jewish flesh. The Christmas outcome for us today is that, in and through the death and resurrection of Christ, we Jesus-followers gain family status "God's chosen people, holy and deeply loved" (Colossian 3:12, which is a very Jewish way of speaking as it reduplicates the family status of Deuteronomy 7:6 and applies it to us).

Rejoice, rejoice
Shall come to thee
O Israel