Jesus the Jew (12/29/02)
University Congregational Church – Wichita, Kansas
Rev. Gary Cox
The scripture reading you heard read from the lectern this morning is from Luke’s gospel, and deals with certain religious obligations Mary and Joseph fulfilled after the birth of Jesus. In accordance with Jewish law Jesus was circumcised when he was eight days old.
Jewish custom held that a male child’s name was officially conferred upon him when he was circumcised. So Jesus officially became “Jesus” when he was eight days old, with Mary and Joseph giving him the name that the angel Gabriel had commanded he be named when he informed Mary she was soon to bear the Son of God.
This morning’s brief passage also deals with a second religious obligation. The story tells us, quote, “The time came for their purification according to the law of Moses.” After the birth of a male child, the mother was considered ceremonially unclean. She was required to undergo purification for 33 days. By the way, if she had a female baby, she was evidently twice as unclean, because she was considered ritually unclean for 66 days.
During that time she was not permitted to enter the Temple, nor was she allowed to touch any holy object, lest that object itself be made unclean by coming in contact with her. Finally, about a week after the purification period, she was to make a sacrificial offering of a lamb, and either a pigeon or turtledove. For women living in poverty, it was permissible to offer an extra pigeon or turtledove in place of the lamb.
Well, Judaism is known for its religious laws—there are 613 laws in the first five books of the Bible—the Torah. In today’s world, the importance of following these laws is debated within the Jewish community. There are three basic branches of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed.
Orthodox Judaism is the very strict version of the faith. These are the Jews who hold tightly to the ancient laws. Reformed Judaism is the theologically liberal branch of the faith. And Conservative Judaism tries to map out a middle ground between the two.
Many Orthodox Jews make every attempt to obey each and every law in the Hebrew Bible. Some will not cut their hair or shave their beards, in accord with the law stated in Leviticus 19:27—You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard. If they farm, they do not plant more than one kind of seed in a field, or where clothes with blends of materials like cotton and polyester, because that would violate Leviticus 19:19—You shall not sow your fields with two kinds of seed, nor shall you put on a garment made of two different materials. Laws such as this, by the way, are the types of purity laws that Jesus kept getting in trouble for violating. But the most important thing in the minds of the ancient Jewish religious authorities was purity.
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Most of those purity laws, by the way, came about when the Jewish people were released from the Babylonian Captivity. If you’ll remember, in 587 B.C. King Nebechadnezzar leveled Jerusalem, destroyed the Holy Temple that had been built by King Solomon, and took the more important Jewish people into exile in Babylon. Some fifty years later, when those people and their children who had been born in exile returned to Israel, the Jews who had been left behind had intermarried. They married outside their race!
A new breed of people had come into being, and these people would be known as the Samaritans. These people were impure. These people were mongrels. 450 years later, when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, that would have been a very offensive story to the religious people of that time, because the story makes the priest and the Levite look bad, and the impure Samaritan look good.
Well, let’s not bash Judaism—not even Orthodox Judaism. Because the beauty of the Orthodox faith is that people keep their lives centered on God. God is a part of every movement, of every action, of every deed performed throughout one’s life. That is the power behind that version of the faith. And the ancient Jewish prophets, from Micah to Amos to Isaiah, understood that keeping the law was the way we keep God in the center of our lives. It is only when we become obsessed with purity that our faith takes a wrong turn.
At the other end of the Jewish spectrum is Reformed Judaism. When I lived in Oklahoma City, the church Leigh and I attended had an ecumenical relationship with the people of the Reformed Temple. We regularly visited one another’s worship services, and we did various activities together.
I remember being quite concerned the first time I attended an event at the Reformed Temple. I knew nothing about Judaism. I knew they had all sorts of rules and regulations, because I had read the Old Testament. And I certainly didn’t want to offend anybody. I knew they were not allowed to eat pork. I knew there was some law about not mixing meat and dairy products together. And so I was really nervous, and when I found out the people of the Temple would be serving us lunch, I was eager to see what type of food they would serve.
Imagine my surprise when Pizza Hut came to the door with a dozen pepperoni pizzas! Pepperoni is pork! And Pizza has meat and cheese—meat and dairy—mixed together all over the place! It wasn’t long before I discovered that I had a lot more in common with the people of the Reformed Temple than I did with the fundamentalist Christians who dominate the religious scene in Oklahoma City; and likewise, the people of the Reformed Temple had more in common with me than they did with Orthodox Jews, who not surprisingly, had no presence in Oklahoma City.
The third branch of Judaism is one Leigh and I came to know quite well, because Leigh worked in the office of the Jewish synagogue, which was the home of Oklahoma City’s Conservative Jews. Conservative Judaism attempts to find a balance between Orthodox strictness and Reformed liberalism. In some areas, especially on the East Coast, it is fairly easy to follow all the rules, because there are lots of neighborhoods, stores and markets designed to follow Jewish law.
However, in the Midwest, it is not all the easy to remain kosher—to follow all the dietary laws—not to mention all the other religious regulations. For example, because people are not allowed to work on the Sabbath, which in Judaism is Saturday, they are not technically permitted to drive to the synagogue. That is a rule that is often ignored, although to their credit, many of the Conservative Jews of Oklahoma City will only shop for homes within walking distance of the synagogue.
Many of the women of that congregation appear once a month at the Mikvah. The mikvah looks like a large baptismal font. It iss housed in a building beside, but not attached to, the synagogue. Technically, the women of the Conservative Hebrew congregation are required to spend time in the mikvah each month after their menstrual cycle. Menstruation, according to ancient Jewish law, leaves women ritually unclean, and just like Mary had to go through a cleansing ritual after the birth of Jesus, modern women are supposed to spend time at the mikvah, following their monthly cycle, before they are permitted to set foot inside the synagogue.
I have one little story to tell about Leigh’s days at the synagogue. There were a couple of maintenance men who worked there, and neither of them was Jewish. Now, unlike our friends at the Reformed Temple, these folks took the dietary laws quite seriously. Many had two kitchens, and almost all had two refrigerators so they could store milk and meat separately. It is not only inappropriate to eat meat and dairy together—they cannot even be stored in the same room.
One afternoon there was a big Bar-mitzvah taking place, and one of the maintenance men decided it was time for lunch. So he ordered a pizza for delivery. You guessed it. The maintenance man had every intention of meeting the delivery man at the door and eating the pizza in his car. But the poor delivery guy appeared at the synagogue ahead of schedule, walked in to the room where there was obviously a big party going on, and asked who ordered the pepperoni pizza. It sounds funny to us, but this was a very serious matter, especially to the rabbi, because the synagogue—the building itself—had become unclean. Of course, there is a prescribed set of rituals to cleanse the building. I should mention, that particular maintenance man was no longer around to take part in that cleansing process.
The reason I have spent so much time this morning talking about Judaism is simple. Jesus was a Jew. And we would be hard pressed to find a reputable scholar who believes Jesus set out to create a new religion. Jesus was very much in the line of great Jewish prophets who came before him. His message was the traditional message of Judaism—the message whose bearers were often killed in the millennium before the birth of Jesus. Listen to some of those messages:
Hosea, speaking on behalf of God, says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Amos, seeing the way the supposedly religious people of Israel met their ritual obligations but ignored the poor, spoke these words on behalf of God: “You abhor the one who speaks the truth. Therefore you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain…I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate.”
Isaiah grew weary of watching his fellow citizens leaving sacrifices at the Temple, assured that they were in God’s favor, and then living unjust lives. He gives voice to God and says, “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts…bringing offerings is futile…they have become a burden to me. I am weary of bearing them…Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan. Plead for the widow.”
And then there is Micah. You’ve heard me read this before, and you will hear it again, and again, because these words from the 6th chapter of Micah form my favorite Old Testament passage. Micah says, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgressions, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
There is something about human beings that makes us want to establish a bunch of rules on God’s behalf. We like doing that, because then we get to satisfy those rules, and in the process pretend that we are satisfying God. I hope nobody thought I was taking cheap shots at Judaism earlier. Judaism is the religious home of Amos, Isaiah and Micah. Judaism is the religious home of Jesus of Nazareth. But people have a way of corrupting religion.
There are good and faithful servants of God in all three branches of Judaism, and there are good and faithful servants of God in every Christian denomination. I made that overview of Judaism hoping it would help us look at Christianity. I love the Christian faith. I love the fact that it is a big tent, and that there is a place for every temperament within our faith. For the person of science and logic it forms a beautiful moral structure for life in this world. For the mystic it offers ample avenues of deep spiritual devotion. Like the Jewish faith from which it sprang, it is a beautiful and fulfilling spiritual path.
The reason I say how strongly I feel about the Christian faith is so you won’t take offense at what I say next. I’m not sure Jesus would be especially happy with the church. I think Jesus would be just as critical of the modern Christianity as he, and Isaiah, and Micah, and Amos were of ancient Judaism.
I think his message today would be the same as it was two thousand years ago. Your religious rituals are fine, because they make you think about God. It is good to celebrate communion. It is good to perform baptisms. But those are not the things that matter. What matters is whether or not those rituals put you on a path through life where God is at the center. Pouring a little water over your head doesn’t satisfy God any more than the ritual burning of a year-old calf. What matters is the orientation of your heart. Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. God hasn’t changed in the past two thousand years. All that has changed is the way we try to earn God’s favor.
Many of us in this place are parents, and the image of God as Father is a powerful one. God as Mother is an equally powerful image, but our tradition more often uses the male parental image, since our religious images were formed in more patriarchal times. What would you think, as a loving parent, if you left your two teenage children alone for the day, hoping they would each remember their usual chores for that day—one child is to take out the trash, and the other is to empty the dishwasher.
When you return home, you discover that one child has indeed taken out the trash. And the rest of the day he spent partying with a dozen of his closest friends, raiding the liquor cabinet, burning a couple of holes in the sofa, and watching some porno movies that a friend found in his uncle’s basement.
The other child spent the day staying away from the party, doing homework, cleaning his bedroom, and making phone calls to line up volunteers for next week’s church bake sale. But he didn’t get around to emptying the dishwasher.
Now, no matter what, you still love both of those kids. That’s just the way you are. But how would you feel if the child who threw the party and wrecked the house indignantly told you that you had no right to complain. He knew what was required of him that day, and by golly, the trash is out. And by the way, Mom and Dad, my brother deserves a really brutal beating, because he didn’t do what was required of him.
I think God might know how that feels. Because there is a certain attitude in many parts of the church that baptism is the magic formula by which the gates of heaven are battered down, and no matter what else one does in life, everything is fine as long as he or she is baptized. It really is the exact same thing that those ancient Jewish prophets saw with the ritual sacrifices. It is the same attitude that Jesus attacked in the first century, and I doubt if his feelings on such matters has changed over the years.
Life is not a game. If we think of life as a game—the most important game in the universe—then it is helpful to know the rule. And that’s what the prophets are for—prophets like Isaiah, Micah and Jesus. The priests, rabbis and preachers tend to have developed one set of rules, and the prophets another.
It is probably best to try to follow both sets of rules—to use the laws and rituals to continually remind us of God. But if we must choose between the two, I hope we follow the prophets instead of the priests. I mean, which is most important? To wear the proper clothing, or to do justice? To make ritual sacrifices, or to love kindness? To proclaim our favor with God because of the way we practice our faith, or to walk humbly with God?
The choice is ours. And it makes all the difference in the world.