As part of my commitment to a couple of book projects, this spring I am taking a personal blogging hiatus and have invited some folks to blog in my stead. It is my intention help share some new voices and perspectives with a larger audience and keep my blog active during my break. If you are interested in guest blogging, feel free to submit an idea. Today I welcome Rev. Shelby Larsen to the blogging crew. A former lawyer, Shelby has recently retired from active parish ministry and now devotes her time to writing, teaching, speaking and blogging. You can read her thoughts at www.shelbylarsen.com, at least when she remembers to post an entry.
Ever wonder where the Old Testament went? It certainly isn’t in church anymore, except for Leviticus 18:22, which still seems to be a popular topic (Abomination!!) And yet there are so many abominations in the OT that are so much more interesting. But that’s for another time, another blog.
So why don’t we preach and teach more out of the OT? Because it’s violent? You bet it is. In fact, the OT has all of the ingredients of a best selling video game or blockbuster movie. There’s treachery, betrayal, sex, mad prophets, disaster scenarios, hordes of people being wipe out by war, by plague, by enemies. There are villains to hate, heroes to admire. There are even a couple of women of the kick-ass type, as well as a few seductresses, and naive young things. I guess we don’t talk about such things in church–its so much simpler tp express “love for all” for an hour and then hit the x-box or the Sunday afternoon movie for a good dose of blood, gore, violence, and/or sex.
Do we stay away from it because in the OT God has expectations of humanity? Promises have been made between God and humankind. As it turns out, God is steadfast; people, not so much. In the OT, the breaking of a covenant has consequences–ones that seem harsh, barbaric, unfair and unthinkable to us, though not unfamiliar to those in its time and place. But in church? Expectations? Failure to live up to them? Awkward. better just to focus on the all-forgiving, washed of sin part. Then we don’t have to talk about consequences at all.
Or is the reason we stay away from the OT that we feel ancient Israelite historical traditions, laws, customs and prophecies are of no relevance to us (except the above mentioned Abomination)? Because, really, didn’t God get tired of those Israelites, and gave up on them, so he sent Jesus with a new covenant that replaces the old? And, let’s face it. there really wasn’t much of a church until the sainted Paul took the Good News to the wider world of the Mediterranean, to Gentiles, to Western Civilization, to People LIke Us. So why should we pay attention to all that dreary and must old stuff filled with unknown places and unpronounceable names?
BECAUSE JESUS WAS A JEW. The disciples were Jews. The people who listened to him were Jews. Jesus never made a trip to Athens, or to Rome, or to Alexandria or any of the other great cities of the Ancient Near East. He was born in Bethlehem, educated in Nazareth, he was baptized in the Jordan, he taught in Galilee and he died in Jerusalem. He read scripture in the synagogue. He observed the festivals. He knew the Law and the Prophets, the foundations of Jewish life. He lived in the Jewish culture, and taught in the thought patterns and through the worldview of first century Israel. Much of his teach assumed an intimate familiarity with the scripture people knew, the scripture he knew, the scripture we call the Old Testament.
So much of Christian theology has developed outside of Israel, influenced and then assimilated into the Greco-Roman base of Western Civilization that its jewish origins are diminished; The Judeo-Christian tradition becomes simply the Christian tradition. Yet for Jesus, the disciples and his first century listeners it was simply the Judaic tradition.
And that is why we need to know the OT. You cannot understand the New Testament without knowledge of the Old. We need to understand not just the words Jesus was saying, but also how he was being understood in the common knowledge of the people. Simply said, we need to stop taking the Jewishness out of Jesus.
Of course, Jesus transcends that culture; Jesus is alive and relevant in every culture. Just as his words have been assimilated into western though, and his person into western imagery, so too have they been assimilated into each culture reached by the good news. Each assimilation makes him one of their own, inevitably diminishing the Jewish foundation of the faith, and making the OT more disposable. By adapting Jesus to be One Of Us, we almost automatically exclude him from other cultures.
We need to acknowledge that even Jesus has his own cultural heritage. If, instead of ignoring his essential Jewishness, we accept it, then our Christianity becomes so much more inclusive. Learning of Jesus’ culture and values models the way for us to learn of our fellow Christian’s cultures and values.
The important thing is that we remember it all goes back to God, that wrathful, smiting God, that God of steadfast love, and to his covenanted faithless, bloody, barbaric people. God promised Abraham descendants, “as many as there are stars in the heavens”‘ and God does not break promises. The new covenant is the old covenant. We are part of that ancient pact. Like the stars in the heavens, individual, each with different qualities, colors, sizes, attributes, and all part of one glorious firmament.