We had a great time in the adult class at our church this morning, looking at a couple of stories about Jesus. It hit me all over again how radical a reformer Jesus was.
In chapter 7 of the Gospel of Mark, the first story is of a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. They clashed often, not so much because they were entirely unlike one another but because they both cared so very deeply about one central theme: personal righteousness before God. The problem was that they each understood righteousness in a different way.
For the Pharisees in those days,* righteousness was a goal to be accomplished, while for Jesus righteousness was a gift to be received. For the Pharisees righteousness was the state of non-sinning, while for Jesus righteousness was the state of being-forgiven.
The Pharisees were striving with great devotion to fulfill every detail of Torah, of God’s expectations of his people. The problem they faced — besides the irritating fallibility of the human heart — was that God had not always spelled out those expectations in quite enough detail. The Pharisees, therefore, developed a number of traditions to make Torah more specific and, in the process, ended up loving their own interpretations more than Torah itself, more than God himself. So Jesus blasts them for leaving the commandment of God, rejecting it, even voiding it.
Had that been the end of the story, we still would have to conclude that Jesus was a radical reformer in first century Judaism. The movement from a concept of righteousness as being a matter of behavior to being a matter of the heart was in itself a major seismic shift but for Mark the story is not yet complete. There is more for us to see.
After this encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus leaves Jewish territory and walks north into Gentile territory. There he is approached by a Gentile woman with a daughter possessed by an unclean spirit. She couldn’t be a greater contrast with the Pharisees! Jesus seems to respond to her rudely, telling her that it was not right to take the bread meant for the children (i.e., the Jews) and give it to the dogs (i.e., the Gentiles). Whether or not the woman knew that the Jews tended to call the Gentiles dogs, she clearly understands that in Jesus’ remark she is being portrayed as a dog. The word he uses, however, actually gives her a ray of hope. He refers not to wild dogs or curs or mutts but to little, pet dogs. It is a more gentle term, almost an affectionate term.
She picks up on his figure of speech and builds on it. “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She is not arrogant or demanding, just persistent. And Jesus says, “For this word, you may go your way — the demon has left your daughter.”
On the one hand, we can see this story as just another one of the many stories showing both the strength and the gentleness of Jesus. There is another level to be seen, though, when we put the two stories together. He clashes with the most righteous people in Israel, walks far away from them, and then offers healing and compassion for an unclean, Gentile woman.
From our twentieth century perspective, it is hard for us to grasp how radical a transition Jesus is exemplifying here. The good news that he brings is of inclusion, no exclusion. It is news of acceptance, not rejection. It is news in which everyone like me (a far-from-perfect Gentile) can find hope and joy and forgiveness.
He has not in any way rejected the Jews, despite the hateful things Christians have so often said about the Jews over the centuries. He has called them from an outer to an inner sense of righteousness and cleanness. He is reforming Judaism, not rejecting it, but he is doing so in a way that reaches deep into the human psyche, where we all tend to condemn anyone not like us.
This is a very radical Jesus, supplanting religious traditions with love and grace. This is the Jesus I want always to follow. He is worth it.
*It is important to know that the Pharisees themselves were soon to develop into real heroes in Judaism by helping the Jews after the destruction of their Temple see that righteousness was a very personal, inner manner. In Jesus day, however, they were still in a certan “external” frame of thinking.