What We Should Remember at this Time of the Year
Jesus was Jewish, never worked outside Israel with singular exceptions and taught in accordance with his background. He was party to internal arguments of the time, especially among the Pharisees and Sadducees, less so among the Essenes, and he had contact with the Zealots.
He acted as a rabbi; that is, a teacher of Israel. He was especially familiar with Psalms, Isaiah, and the Torah (the first five books) – and no doubt with interpretations current at the time. He knew scripture as much from memory and immersion as he could. His particular take on the tradition emphasized compassion as the heart of holiness rather than outward piety. He gathered a band of disciples, he had a wider coterie of followers, and he held dinner gatherings with his friends. He didn’t depart from ritual although there is some evidence in the gospel that he interpreted the kosher and Sabbath laws in a generous liberal fashion. He kept the festivals, especially Passover.
He acted within a specific spiritual tradition in part at least because, as a child of his time and place, he probably would have had no alternative. But his message attained a kind of universality and inclusiveness that his followers have, sadly, often betrayed by word or by action. He spoke to the heart in ways that transcended his particularity, and he can still do that to this day.
Everything he professed can be traced within his tradition. He taught us that the One who is “invisible, ineffable, inconceivable, and incomprehensible” (Orthodox Liturgy), beyond all human knowing or logical grasp, this great mystery at the heart of the universe, may be addressed personally as Father in prayer. This teaching was by no means novel among the Jews but his emphasis brought an intimacy previously unstressed. His parables underscore this emphasis, and embrace maternal as well as paternal images for the Holy One.
His ethic is in line with his tradition. The one point at which he may diverge from his own tradition is in the seemingly cavalier manner in which he dismissed family duties in the name of a higher calling. As the scholar Rabbi Jacob Neusner has pointed out this dismissal runs counter to Judaic emphasis on responsibility to the clan. We may see it in the light of his urgency to get the message out, as an overstepping of customary boundaries in the interest of an envisioned future reality in which “family” is not limited to blood or kinship.
His clashes with the civil authorities no doubt came as a result of his urgent belief that the “kingdom of God is at hand.” This was the hope that God would act decisively once again to free his people from enslavement, this time to Rome. His own agenda appears minimally political and yet its subversive nature would have been evident in his compassionate and wide ministry that overstepped boundaries of class and sex.
If there is a genius of the early Christians, surely it was this drive to embrace others in a spirit of love and inclusion. Constantine’s sword may have expanded empire in the name of Christ, but the price was very high. It is a contradiction to try to impose by force what was meant to grow organically like a tree or a flower. Might is not the engine for serendipity nor is power the vehicle for spontaneous recognition of a new truth.
Jesus exhibits that gift some few have attained throughout history; namely, to reach into the depth of a given tradition and to live and share those riches to others outside the tradition. He invites us to do the same.
published 17 December 2010