Recently in the readings for morning prayer, we have been going through the wisdom literature (Proverbs, and Ecclesiasticus). What struck me about this was just how much of Jesus’ teaching is already there! In the course of my reading, for example, I found nearly all of the petitions of the Lord’s prayer and the teaching about ‘not taking the best places at the table, in case a more important person comes and you are embarrassed by being asked to ‘move lower down.’
This similarity between the teaching that Jesus does in the gospel stories, and the content of the New Testament is often used by Jews in conversation with Christians. The argument goes something like “ Yes,, Jesus was against corruption in Judaism, but the kinds of things that he was teaching are not different from the best of the Bible anyway.” The implication of this argument is that Judaism says “This is why we don’t need Jesus. He was a good reforming Rabbi, but he did not say anything that was not already in the Bible, so why should we swap what we have, for what you are offering us?’
So there is the question that I want to have a think about. What they say is true according to what I noticed during my reading. Why then should we not all become Jews?
So the first question that comes to me is whether Jesus’ teaching was any different. I must add a caveat here. There are pages written about this by scholars. What I offer here is what has ‘stuck’ with me from the reading I have done, and my own ‘impressions’ of Jesus from reading the gospel.
It is pretty sure that Jesus ‘broke’ with john the Baptist after he was put into prison. The consensus seems to be that while John the Baptist was a prophet in the ‘fire and brimstone’ model, who warned people of the judgement of God to come at the dawn of God’s reign, Jesus had a different picture of the reign of God. It looked more ‘celebratory’ than John’s. So Jesus used pictures of the lost sheep, coin and son to describe it. He used the Bible’s wedding feast imagery for the reign of God than the law court imagery. Jesus says ‘you can’t fast while the bridegroom is at the wedding’ as his reason for not fasting as John’s disciples did. Jesus is harder on those who thought themselves to be righteous than he was on those whom everyone else thought to be sinners.
Second, Jesus was, in common with may reformers, demanding a more thoroughgoing penetration of the ‘person’ by God’s law. He was not interested in simply ‘keeping kosher’ but wanted people to have ‘kosher hearts’ as it were, as well as kosher practices. This is similar to the call of Deuteronomy, that the people ‘circumcise their hearts’. Here he is in the same tradition as all of the prophets, especially Jeremiah.
Then in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says that he has not come to ‘abolish’ the Torah, but to fulfil it. What can this mean? Does the Torah need fulfilling? For those who to this day keep kosher the answer is ‘No. The Law of the Lord is Perfect, reviving the soul’ as the psalm says. Yet all through the Bible, there writers are aware of the difference between an outward observance of the Torah, and the ‘whole person devotion to God’ that operates from the inside out as it were: where there is no difference between the ‘inside’ of a person and the ‘outside’. This is the tradition that Jesus stands in. When Jesus clears out the money changers from the Temple saying that it should be a ‘house of prayer’ instead of a ‘den of robbers’ Jesus is ‘clearing the decks’ for God. It is just like Jeremiah’s command to ‘tear down and pluck up’ before God can ‘write my law in their hearts.’ In this sense, the Torah was and is in need of fulfilment. I think that when Jesus says that he has come to ‘fulfil’ the law, it is possible to say that he has come to ‘bring to light’ and to ‘make clear again’ what is a major emphasis of the Common Testament, that we share with the Jews.
But this does not get us to any qualitative difference between what Jesus brings and what we can have brought to us by reading the Common Testament.
Here are two stories. I’m sure that this is not true of all Jews, but when we were in Jerusalem last January, we were participating in the ‘stations of the cross’, going through the Arab quarter. So there in the narrow laneway was a whole group of Muslims doing their trading, and a group of Christians on pilgrimage. Walking up this laneway on his way from the western wall of the temple mount toward his home in West Jerusalem was an orthodox Jewish man. As he passed by us all, he hunched over, lowered his eyes and put his fingers into his ears so as not to hear. This man wanted to remain ‘clean’. He thought that visual and auditory contact with both Christians and Muslims together would make him ‘unclean.’
Now I think that Jesus’ view of ‘clean and unclean’ is different from this. I think he was saying by his attitude to ‘sinners’ that the way God acts with the unrighteous is not to reject them but to heal them and transform them by love. Jesus is not contaminated by contact with the unrighteous, but the ‘unrighteous’ are ‘contaminated’ by His love.
This is the image that you can find in ‘Sweet Charity’ where Charity, who has descended into being a street walker, is transformed by the persistent gentle love of Oscar. This is the image we have in ‘Don Quixote’ where the Don persists in calling ‘Aldonza’ ‘My lady Dulcinea’.
This is the image that the Orthodox Christians use about Jesus’ baptism. They say that it is not Jesus who was changed by the water, but that now all ‘waters’ are changed by Him. He is the source of what it means to be in relation to God.
Jesus is criticised because of his attitude of not holding aloof from ‘sinners’. He says in effect “How I am is how God is. This is the meaning of the law and the prophets.’ So Jesus’ claim to be the fulfilment of the law draws our attention to him as the image of what being a true Jew might look like.
But there is one more step that I would like to make which differentiates being Christian from being Jewish. It has to do with the structure of how we are related to God. Here is my picture. On Good Friday, the way of God with humanity that Jesus demonstrated by his life, was actually taken up into the life of God. Jesus becomes the ‘cursed one’. He becomes all that is ‘not God’ on Good Friday, yet embraced by the Father in the ‘bond of love’. As we are ‘baptized into Christ’ so we are ‘plunged’ into the very life of God. The paradigm shifts from our ‘doing what God says we should, in keeping kosher, to ‘participating in the transforming life of God’s own life.’ This is what the sacraments do. Baptism and Eucharist connect us to god by ‘participation’ (communion). This is for me the most important ‘new thing’ that Jesus brings. Much of what it means to be Christian we share with the Jews. But the possibility of ‘circumcision of the heart’ comes in Christ Jesus, because now, the paradigm of our relationship with god is one of the most intimate communion, where, in the spirit our lives are not ‘ours’ before God, but we are ‘in Christ’ before God. This being in Christ is the means by which God’s transforming love operates in us. This, for me is new.