Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Putting It in Context

There's a good article by Joel Allen on the Sojourners website about the Pharisees, and how our cavalier or ignorant use of that word can contribute to anti-Semitism. Much of the New Testament is read by Jews as very anti-Jewish, in part because of the comments and mistunderstandings about Pharisees contained in some of the gospel stories.

I remember being surprised to learn that when I took an English class on the New Testament as Literature in college. One of the textbooks we used was by a Jewish scholar, Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, who was, as I recall, especially dismayed about the Gospel of Matthew. I think about that whenever the more blatantly vitriolic anti-Jewish passages are read and then allowed to drop into the congregation without any explanation.

Here's a really good article about the Pharisees. The section with the subtitle "The Charge of Hypocracy" will be of particular interest to Christians. In addition, it may be helpful to take a look at the 7th and 13th chapters of Luke, and also the 5th chapter of Acts, since in these passages, Pharisees are friends, helpers and advocates of Jesus and the early disciples.

It is essential practice when preaching to keep in mind, and to remind listeners, that the gospels were written many years after the time of Jesus, nor did ancient peoples employ the same standards or conventions with regard to record-keeping, attribution, or objectivity that (some of us) value and (try to) observe in our own time. We're reading these scriptures in translation, several times removed. Setting the context is always necessary, lest we inadvertently give a message that may justify hatred or oppression.

As I've said before, it behooves us as Christians to learn more about our Jewish neighbors, in part so that we keep from offending or oppressing by our ignorance, but also because doing so helps us to understand Jesus better. He was, after all, an observant Jew, and his teachings are situated firmly within that context and culture. Certainly there are universal truths within them, but the scriptures are the work of particular human beings writing in particular times and places and with particular agendas. These writings require carefully nuanced study and interpretation. It is our responsibility as readers, hearers, and preachers in other times and places to guard against unwarranted assumptions of a universal context. There's no such thing. We can't be objective. We don't see the whole picture.

I believe we fail to follow Jesus when we forget that.

Thanks to David K. for sending me the link to the Sojourners article.


claire bangasser said...

So true! Thank you.

St Edwards Blog said...

This is excellent. I am Catholic but my father was Jewish and I am very much in touch with my (our!) Jewish roots.

That said, I too used the term Pharisee with some reckless abandon. About a year and half ago, a friend of mine corrected me in regard to the negative connotation of the word.

Thank you for this thought provoking reminder.