The topic for February is “Jewish Prayer and Worship.” However, if this is not to be an abstract, academic exercise, we need to go a step further: what are Jewish prayer and worship to us?
So, let us begin at the beginning. Jesus was a Jew. Or, as one example of T-shirt theology has it, “My master is a Jewish carpenter.”
There are those who have tried to assert otherwise. There are those who have asserted that because he was the Christ he had to be a Christian, and couldn’t be a Jew. They do that, really, out of an intent to reject anything Jewish than a commitment to Scripture or to the faith as we have received it. For the evidence is clear, and affirmed by Christian and Jewish scholar alike: Jesus was a Jew.
We can say that with comfort based on the witness of the Gospels.
- Matthew and Luke alike, for all the differences in their Birth Narratives, agree that Jesus was a descendent of David. (Matthew 1:1-18; Luke 3:23-38)
- Luke asserts that Joseph and Mary followed established Torah rituals after his birth: circumcision on the eighth day, and a sacrifice of redemption on the fortieth. (Luke 2: 21-24)
- Through his childhood his parents participated in the major Temple festivals. (Luke 2:41)
Jesus was raised a Jew, the son of Jewish parents.
He continued to be a Jew as an adult.
- According to John he continued himself to participate in the annual Temple festivals. (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:2,10)
- He was recognized in his home synagogue, not simply as a reader but as a rabbi, qualified to teach on the Scriptures he read. (Mark 1:21-22; Luke 4:16-21)
- Indeed, he was not infrequently addressed as, “Rabbi.” (John 4:31)
- He quoted the Hebrew Scriptures readily, and reflected on them. Think especially of the how often he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said in ancient times…. But I say to you….” This was reflection, not on social custom, but on Torah and on past interpretations of Torah. (Matthew 5:21-48)
- Indeed, in the same context he says, “I have come not to abolish [the Law] but to fulfil [it].” (Matthew 5:17)
- His last and most important gathering with the disciples came in the context of the Passover, either as a seder, or as a chaburah meal for the eve of the Sabbath.
That is not to say that Jesus didn’t have an interesting relationship to Torah. He was more concerned with the intent, or more specifically, God’s intent as expressed in Torah.
- So, many scholars have suggested that Jesus affirmed the Law, the Torah, and then expected believers to exceed it. So, he called for his hearers to “righteousness [that] exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
- When he allows his disciples to gather grain, essentially to harvest, on the Sabbath, he points to David’s use of bread dedicated to sacrifice to instead feed his troops. (Matthew 12:1-4)
- When he eats with sinners, which he apparently does quite often, he speaks not of purity but of outreach. (Matthew 9:9-13)
- He calls the Pharisees and scribes “whitewashed tombs,” beautiful on the outside but dead and corrupt on the inside, for being all style and no substance (Matthew 23:27-28)
- And so he says to do as the scribes and Pharisees instruct, but not as they do; for “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,* and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
Remember especially the tradition of the Pharisees: in Torah, and in reflection on Torah, they had discerned more than 600 separate laws that the observant Jew was expected to follow. To do that, one practically had to be a person of leisure. The poor didn’t have the time or the resources to really meet that standard.
- So, when Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” his disciples responded, “Then, who can be saved?” (Matthew 19:24-25)
- Blessedly, we are saved by grace; and so Jesus said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
In fact, Jesus was oriented specifically toward those who could not meet those standards. The early rabbis spoke of a group or class of Jews called ‘Am ha-aretz. The phrase translates, “People of the Land,” or “People of the Earth;” but it was used to speak of those were poor and working class, and particularly that they had neither the education or the resources to be “good” Jews according to Pharisaic standards. Those were the “poor” whose backs bore burdens prescribed by the Pharisees: burdens of performance to the extent they could, and burdens of shame when they failed.
So, Jesus was a Jew – born and raised and practicing as an adult. He knew and affirmed the Law, even as he called his listeners to God’s purpose in it, instead of to scrupulous attention to detail. So, what does this mean for us as Christians, who are not Jews? What does Jesus’ Jewish heritage and practice mean for us? And what does it mean for us, both as individuals and as the Church, that he came not to abrogate Torah, but to fulfill it?