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 
community's culture.

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.