Sunday, March 1, 2015

A New Understanding of Jewish/Christian Relations

The normal way of approaching the New Testament is to see Jesus as abrogating the Jewish law, and the New Covenant as 'replacing' the Old. This is, for instance, the standard reading of St. Paul's letters. Most people think that Paul believes that the Jewish Law is no longer a path to salvation, which comes from Jesus Christ alone. But there is an alternative approach to the New Testament that does not see the Jewish law as useless or abrogated, but simply as a separate but related covenant to the one established in and through Jesus. On this view, salvation is not a replacement of the Jewish covenant, but an extension of it 'out'. The adoption that Jews experience, the salvation they experience, is made available to all people in and through Jesus Christ. It is like there was this demarcation line that once existed only in Israel and now extends worldwide.

Paula Eisenbaum argues for a position very much like this in her book PAUL WAS NOT A CHRISTIAN, which is a fantastic and well-argued book and one I commend to everyone. Even if you disagree with everything she says, it is worth it to be exposed to that kind of scholarship and intellectual-spiritual activity.

On this view, the Law is not a 'curse' or 'death' for everyone as Paul sees it, but simply for the gentiles that existed outside of the Jewish covenant. So, for instance, circumcision is a wall between gentiles and God, because it keeps gentiles from being able to become full members of God's people. Christ's sacrifice removes circumcision as necessary for entry into the people of God, and so extends out beyond the Jews a salvation once vouchsafed only for them.

There is a ton that can be said about this approach, but the point I want to make here is simply that many of Jesus PARABLES make a lot more sense when read from this point of view. If you can shake off your preconceived notions, and what you've always been TAUGHT these parables mean, I think if you look at them with these eyes you'll see the great potential that exists here. Once I started thinking about the parables form this point of view, I could never look at them the same way again.

Just a couple of examples:

Take the Prodigal Son. What if the boy who left his 'father' (God), represents the gentiles who went off and worshiped idols? On this reading, the son's return is the gift of Jesus Christ, and the elder brothers anger is the anger of the Jews at the idea that Gentiles get into His Kingdom without the law, without the shared suffering of the Jewish people either. The father's words at the end about the shared salvation of both brothers would then be the essence of the Gospel.

Or what about the day laborers: one group works all day and another only an hour, and they both get paid the same. The anger of the earlier laborers would again be the tension Jesus' sacrifice will create between the new recipients of covenantal adoption (gentiles) and the older recipients of the same (Jews).

There are others I'll post later, but hopefully you can see how this theological approach can change the way you read the parables, and I think for the better. What do you think?

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