Sunday, November 22, 2009

Breaking boundaries: Jewish "exclusivist" prayers and Christian evangelism

I know, I'm behind on updating. I got sick, & today is the first day I'm feeling up to par again. I hope to be back on schedule now. This is more of a low-weight piece than I'd intended for this weekend, but I wasn't doing the "serious research and concentration" bit the last couple of days. :)

While reading up on the history of the liturgy (same book by Elbogen that I referenced a few posts earlier), I came across an intriguing thought. Here a Jewish author looked at some of the traditional Jewish prayers. One traditional Jewish prayer includes giving thanks to God "who has made me a Jew, who has not made me a woman, who has not made me an ignoramus" (or, in some versions, "who has not made me a slave" rather than "ignoramus").

He reads Paul's letter to the Galatians as taking on that prayer, targeting it (and thereby in part helping establish a date for it): "There is now no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). I wonder if Jesus' own teaching about the Pharisee and the publican -- where the Pharisee prayed about himself, "I thank God I am not as other men" -- may also target this same type of prayer.

I am not so much speaking here about the history of the prayer or the specters of hatred and oppression we see when we read it; there is something else I'd like to point out. We have read from the Hebrew Bible that the reason God blessed the Jews -- and for which the Jews had every cause to give thanks -- was that they might be a blessing to the Gentiles, for the sake of Abraham and for the glory of God's name. Human nature being what it is, for some people that Jewish pride became simply a form of racism against Gentiles. Whenever racism ruled, the mission to be a blessing was forgotten. Or consider the example of men and women, also mentioned in the same prayer: back in the days when so many jobs required size and strength, the man's generally greater size and strength put him in a unique position to be a blessing to the family. Or its greatest oppressor, on occasion.

I have no interest in pointing fingers at this Jewish daily prayer; the application I would like to make here is about Christians. There's a lot of resentment against us in some quarters. Some is stirred up by people who hate us without cause; that is not my point at this moment. Some resentment is stirred up by ourselves whenever we take on the attitude that our religion is blessing for us and not for them, that it makes us better than the next, holier than the next, more moral or ethical than the next, better in God's sight than the next. In Christ, there is a call to reach out and be his ambassador: that if we are blessed, it is not instead of them but for them that they, too, might know the blessings that come only in Christ. Is knowing Christ a blessing? Absolutely. The question is what we make of it, whether we present ourselves to the world "I give thanks that I am not as other men", or whether we remember that we are, first and foremost, beneficiaries of God's mercy that we are to proclaim to all.

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