February 16, 2004
A Very Jewish Story
"And I will pour out on the house of David and the
inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and
supplication. They will look on me, the one they have
pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for
an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one
grieves for a firstborn son" (Zechariah 12:10).
Have you ever thought about what associates something
with one culture or another? What makes Spaghetti,
Italian and Tea, English, especially when both of
these examples have their roots in China?
Most cultures have associated foods, music, dress, and
other customs. Some cultural associations are more
recognizable by people outside a particular culture,
while some are mainly noticed from within.
How a custom becomes part of a particular community is
complicated. Where a people settle, their migrations,
positive and negative relationships with other
peoples, spiritual and philosophical influences,
political concepts, etc. all play a part in molding a
Those outside of a particular community may have
trouble understanding cultural sentiments of that
community. It takes a long time, if ever, to get to
know those who are different from ourselves.
I grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood. Though I went
to a public school, most of the people I knew were
Jewish. I did not have a lot of experience outside of
my own community. Additionally most of my Jewish
friends were like me in that they did not come from
religious homes. Yet at the same time our cultural
context was Jewish.
When I was about 16 years old, the High School band I
was in was involved in a band exchange. The school
band from another city came to our school. The band
members stayed in our homes. We showed them around our
city and we performed in a concert together. About a
month later, we did the same in their city.
I remember when I was in my host family's home.
Sandwiches were prepared for lunch one day. I was
asked if I ate a particular type of sliced meat, which
I did. Yet I was not prepared for what I saw. They put
butter on the bread! I had never in my life seen
butter on the bread of a meat sandwich. You might
think this strange, but it is true. My hosts probably
thought I was strange. But for me it was like being
transported to another planet.
I cannot and do not fault those nice people for not
being sensitive to my cultural background. How could
they be? In fact, it is difficult even now to explain
why the butter was an issue.
In the same way I also do not fault anyone for not
understanding why the Gospel story is not understood
as a Jewish story. Many assume that it should be.
After all every element of it is Jewish. It takes
place in the land of Israel among Jewish people. It is
the story of a travelling teacher, which was common at
that time in that place.
Every other aspect of the story is also Jewish. His
was not the first miracle birth in Jewish history, the
Hebrew Scriptures were his point of reference, and
many of his concepts were in keeping with the
religious concepts of his day. Even his conflict with
the religious authorities was in line with the Jewish
prophets before him. The very concept of "Messiah" is
Jewish. That God would be concerned about earthly
things like food, wine, and healing sickness is
Jewish. And his crowning feat: the resurrection of the
dead is a cornerstone of Jewish thought.
And yet in spite of all this, the common sentiment
among most Jewish people today is that the Gospel
story is about as un-Jewish a story as there is. How
could that be?
It's like that sandwich. The bread and meat could have
been from the finest Jewish delicatessen in the world,
but there was something about the butter that made
something so culturally relevant into something, not
only foreign, but repulsive.
Through the centuries there have been layers and
layers of things spread over this most Jewish story
that have made it on one hand acceptable and
understandable to millions of non-Jews, yet
objectionable to the very people to whom Yeshua came.
Those layers include cultural elements designed to
help make this very Jewish story more understandable
to non-Jewish peoples. The presence of these things,
while helpful to non-Jews, have made the story
confusing to Jewish people. On top of those things
have also been layers of negative attitudes toward
Jewish people. How can something be seen as culturally
relevant to a people who have been continually harmed
by that story?
What has happened to the Jewish people and the Gospel
is as if what Italians did to noodles and the English
did to tea would make these things revolting to the
Chinese. This, of course, is not what happened. But it
is what has happened to the Gospel.
And yet it will not always be this way. The day is
coming when somehow all the years of misunderstanding
will be swept away, and the Gospel will be seen for
what it really is - a very Jewish story.