You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus

Gordon C. Stewart     Feb. 14, 2012

“Who was Jesus?” I asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had rung the doorbell. Through the upstairs window where I do my writing, I had seen the van pull over across the street and empty out. I thought perhaps there was a family gathering next door until two of them walked up the drive way.

An email response to “Whitney Houston, the Leper, and You” (posted below) reminded me of the conversation that ensued. Here’s the email from Ann in Texas:

“So nice to hear from you and feel your energy out there flushing out injustice and ranging around in the ‘big ideas,’ and formative experiences. Bravo!  Passion writes action… and here’s mine… an odd reaction, I’m sure, but to the leper story, and the overturning of the tables and all the examples we use to cast aspersions on ancient Judaism that help perpetuate in my mind a subtle continuing contemporary anti-Judaism and the continuing need for an Israel that has morphed into “pants” to small to hold it.  Now there’s a view from the edge!”

I share Ann’s concern. I hold my breath every time I preach or write on texts like this, painfully aware of the anti-Semitism that continues in subtle and not-so-subtle forms.

When the Jehovah’s Witness rang the doorbell, I was deep into writing a sermon on planetary stewardship and sustainability in the wake of the B.P. oil “spill” – Deep Water Horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The dogs were barking up a storm at the two men standing on their porch. I went down, answered the door, and stepped outside to meet them.

They were kind and gentle people. They wanted me to know that the world was coming to an end. “Yes, I know,” I said, “what do you fellas think about the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico?” They preferred to talk about Jehovah, the Book of Revelation, the end of the world… and Jesus.

“Okay, let’s talk about that. “Who was Jesus?”

“He was the Son of God.”

“And who was the Son of God?”

“Jesus Christ.”

“And who was Jesus Christ?  Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s a title. So who was Jesus?”

“The Son of God, Jesus Christ.”

“Let me ask it differently. Who was Jesus of Nazareth?’ Who were his people and what was Jesus’ religion?

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Jesus was a real man, in real time. He lived in a particular time and place. Jesus didn’t suddenly plop down out of the sky. So who was Jesus of Nazareth?

“He was the Messiah, the Christ. He came to bring the new Covenant.”

“And what about the first covenant? What was Jesus’ religion?

“He was a Christian,” they said.

“Jesus was a Christian?! You can’t follow yourself. A Christian is someone who follows the Christ.  Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And he’ll always be a Jew. You don’t get to make him up like that. We can’t create Jesus in our own image. You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus!”

We talked then about Jesus and the Book of Revelation. We discussed the fact that the Book of Revelation is a literary genre of the first century called “apocalyptic” that was peculiar to that time; that it was written by a disciple of Jesus held prisoner by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos, who was denouncing the imperial claims of the Roman Empire, and proclaiming its end in bizaare images of Jewish Scripture (in Danile and Ezekiel). The Book of Revelation wasn’t, as so many think today, a book of predictions about the future or the end of the world.

“You’ve thought about this a lot,” said one of the men. “You really seem to have spent a lot of time studying this.”

I thanked him for the compliment and responded that although I’ve been thinking about these matters all my life, I still know very little.

At the end of the 45-minute conversation, I told them how much I respected their commitment to their beliefs and their sacrifices of time and money. I took their literature and invited them to think about what Jesus would have us do about the crabs, the oysters, and the oil-soaked birds drowning in oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

If we were all as committed to the healing of the planet and to the care of the poor as my visitors were that day to spreading their message with urgency, the world would be a better place.

Those of us who carry the name “Christian” don’t get to have a Jesus who is a Christian. The only Jesus we get to have was and always will be the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, whose people have been crucified many times by the anti-Semitic pogroms of those who claim to follow him.

The Jesus who heals the leper also tells the leper to “go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing….” Jesus is telling the man to practice his Jewish tradition, but Christian interpreters typically fail to notice the startling clarity of Jesus’ Jewishness. Likewise, any reading that begins with the assumption that Jesus was a Christian mistakes Jesus’  turning over of the money-changers’ tables in the temple as his rejection of Jewish faith and practices rather than the deepest affirmation of the Jewish covenant by which he lived. In faithfulness to the covenant, he protested the abuse of the covenant by the religious leaders of his time who had forsaken their high calling by collaborating with and cozying up to the Roman economic and military powers that occupied Jerusalem – just like today.

Thank you, Ann, for the email that reminded me.