Through the window of a single New Testament episode we can gain insight into how Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries employed sacred texts with creative ingenuity to grapple with the complex issues of their day.
One of the most poignant pictures which exemplify the chasm of historical misunderstanding between Jews and Christians is that found in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. It is a photograph of a life-size crucifix that stood outside an unknown German village prior to World War II. In a twist of tragic irony a sign was hung on the cross to warn Jews not to enter the village. It read: “Jews are not welcome here.”
As a small boy growing up in Alabama I had a deep love of God and a real hunger to know him better. By the age of eight I had read the entire Bible. But, like most people, I often struggled to understand what the Scriptures were saying. Many verses didn’t seem to make sense.
The King James Version translates Genesis 29:17 as follows: “Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favoured.” The New International Version has, “Leah had weak eyes,” while the New American Bible reads, “Leah had lovely eyes.” What did the Hebrew original mean to say?
The apostle Paul asserted in Romans 11:1 that God had not rejected his people. Speaking metaphorically, he went on to compare the people of Israel to a cultivated olive tree. Because of unbelief, some, but not all, of the tree’s branches had been broken off, and a wild olive branch had been grafted to the stock. Paul emphasized, however, that grafting the original branches back to the stock of the cultivated tree would be a much simpler task than grafting a wild olive to it.
From the early centuries of the Christian era to our day, expositors of the Gospels have struggled with Jesus’ teachings on the Kingdom of Heaven, particularly with their temporal dimension. Will the Kingdom of Heaven appear one day in the future when the Son of Man suddenly comes? Or, has it been germinating like a seed with much potential for growth? Perhaps as C. H. Dodd suggested, it should be described as both realized and eschatological: germinal in reference to the past (and present), but explosive in regard to its coming manifestation.
The importance of sharing one’s bread with the poor has remained in the Jewish consciousness until today. Many people do not want to throw away bread. Instead of dumping their bread along with the rest of their garbage into the garbage carts parked along the streets, they save the bread in plastic sacks and hang it from the metal projections on the sides of the carts (used to hoist the carts into the garbage trucks). That way, the bread is potentially available to the poor.
Reading a passage from the New Testament against the backdrop of ancient Jewish tradition can sometimes add to the its significance. Romans 11:30-36 is one such passage, where without knowing the Jewish tradition to which Paul alluded, we run the risk of not hearing his emphasis clearly: God is merciful and his ways, incomprehensible.
The Gospel writer Luke recorded a story that Jesus told about an anonymous rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. Living in splendor, the rich man enjoyed his wealth, whereas Lazarus pined away outside the rich man’s gated home. The story gives the reader the impression that the rich man did little to alleviate Lazarus’ pain. He probably reasoned that what was his was his, and what was Lazarus’ was Lazarus’.