Sunday, August 10, 2014

Jesus and the Jewish Perspective

As I was praying with these readings and reading about them, I realized that these readings are steeped in Jewishness. I mean, the whole Bible was written by people who were either Jewish or recent converts from Judaism, so you kind of expect that, but with these readings in particular, they're full of images and allusions that a Jew would immediately pick up on, but we might miss. So our understanding of them will be helped if we look at them from a Jewish perspective for just a bit. So for just a few minutes, let's look at these reading from the perspective of a Jewish person living just after the time of Jesus, and from that perspective we will hopefully learn a bit about what it means to be a Christian.

And we're pretending to be a Jew in just after Jesus' time because that's the sort of person who is being addressed in Matthew's gospel and being talked about in Paul's letter to the Romans. If you're a Jew living in the first century, you know yourself to be the inheritor of a rich tradition. You are part of God's chosen people. People like Elijah in the first reading figure richly in this tradition because God spoke personally to him. God revealed his presence to him. You are proud to claim Elijah as one of your guys the same way a 21st century American is proud to claim people like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as part of their heritage. But since you're a first century new right now, you have no idea who I'm talking about.

St. Paul
St. Paul, even though he became a Christian, recognized that the first promise of God was made to the Jewish people, and he summarizes it perfectly in this letter to the Romans: "theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises." And yet, Paul wants them to follow Christ so badly that he says he would even cut himself off from Christ if this were possible if it would mean that his Jewish brothers would follow Christ.

Obviously, Paul loves Christ and so can't be cut off from him, but the willingness speaks to how badly he wants his Jewish brothers to follow Christ. Closer to our own time, St. Therese of Lisieux, the little flower, expressed her own willingness to go to hell if it could mean that even one soul there would love God. Obviously, the desire to be cut off from Christ out of love for Christ is in fact non-sensical, but the point still stands. St. Paul and St. Therese would do anything out of love for Christ.

St. Therese
So Paul is highlighting the rich inheritance of the Jewish people, and then he says that the final fruit of this inheritance is Jesus himself. The reading continued "...theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, is the Christ." Paul's point is that everything in Judaism leads to and culminates in Jesus Christ.

Matthew, too, is going to great lengths also to explain this in his Gospel. Matthew's is writing to a Christian audience who still had a lot of Jewish ideas mixed into their thinking, so Matthew uses Jewish imagery to teach that Jesus is God. He does that by showing that Jesus says and does things that only God does. The first and most obvious thing that Jesus is doing here that only God does is walk on the water. Throughout the Old Testament, images of God controlling the water are quite common. The Book of Job describes God as the one "who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea" (Job 9:8). Psalm 69 is a cry to God to save the person from drowning: "Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck." Psalm 144, 18, 107 recount being saved from the waters: "Draw me out from the might waters" (Ps 144:7), "He reached down and drew me from the deep waters" (Ps 18:17), "He hushed the storm to a murmur, the waves of the sea were stilled" (Ps 107:29). So in Jewish tradition, God is the one who rescues miraculously from the dangerous waters of life, and yet Matthew is trying to show that Jesus does this, because Jesus is God. Jesus calms the storms, and Jesus rescues us from the dangers of life.
Walking on water by Veneziano
And if that wasn't enough, Matthew goes further in demonstrating that Jesus is God, almost to the point of being scandalous. When the disciples were confused and scared and said "It's a ghost" and Jesus said "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid," the phrase that we have translated as "It is I" in Greek is "Ego Eimi." Now in Greek, the phrase "Ego Eimi" is the great name by which God identifies himself from the burning bush. When Moses asks who it is and God says "I Am Who Am" or just "I Am," that name is translated in Greek as "Ego Eimi." So when Jesus says "Do not be afraid, it is I" what he is really saying is "Take courage, I Am." He is claiming for himself the name reserved to God. If you're a first-century Jew reading this, then you're starting to pick up on the fact that Jesus is not a normal rabbi, that, if the stories are true, maybe Jesus is a little bit more.

And finally the disciples get it. After seeing Jesus calm the storm and rescue Peter from the water, things that in their Jewish background only God does, then they too can proclaim that this is the Son of God. This is the first time that men have made this proclamation in Matthew's gospel, so it carries some weight.

So what's our Christian takeaway from looking at these readings through a Jewish lens? Its in the last line of the Gospel. It's important for us to be reminded that God sending his Son as the means of our salvation was something totally unexpected. I mean, ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve we had expected a messiah of some sort, someone to rescue us from this mess we got ourselves into, but nowhere could we have predicted the overflowing abundance of God's love. We never could have predicted that he wouldn't just sent a rescuer, but that he would his only Son, who was himself truly God.

This reality and this message that the apostles preached, that God became man and even died for love of us, broke upon the Jewish world like a tidal wave. It shocked, it scandalized, it amazed, and it gave people hope. If we're paying attention to what we believe, it should still shock and amaze us even today. But even more than that, it should give us hope. That God became man, that he can calm the storm and rescue Peter from the waves, that he experienced real human suffering and death, somehow in that is the answer to everything wrong with the world. Somehow in that is the only solution to all the pain we experience on a daily basis.

But for Jesus to be that answer, we have to keep our eyes on him. For us to walk over the waves of this world like Jesus invited Peter to do, we have to keep our eyes on Jesus. The Greek text of the gospel today tells us that Peter didn't just notice the wind and waves out of the corner of his eye, but he turned his attention away from Jesus and focused on them. When he turned away from Jesus to focus on the wind and the waves of this world, the wind and the waves nearly overtook him.

In just the same way, when we focus on the problems of this world without Jesus, then those problems will overtake us. But if we keep our eyes on Jesus, and see those problems through the God who loved us enough to suffer for us, then we will walk over all the troubles of this world, with Jesus holding our hand the whole way.

No comments:

Post a Comment