Before writing The Jesus I Never Knew, I spent several months researching the background to Jesus’ life. I learned to appreciate the ordered world of first-century Judaism. I admit that the ranking of people rankled my American sensibilities — it seemed a formal pattern of ungrace, a religious caste system — but at least the Jews had found a place for such groups as women, aliens, slaves, and the poor. Other societies treated them far worse.
Jesus appeared on earth just as Palestine was experiencing a religious revival. The Pharisees, for example, spelled out precise rules for staying clean:
never enter the home of a Gentile,
never dine with sinners,
perform no work on the Sabbath,
wash your hands seven times before eating.
Thus when rumors spread that Jesus could be the long-awaited Messiah, pious Jews were more scandalized than galvanized. Had He not touched unclean persons, such as those suffering from leprosy? Had He not let a woman of ill repute wash His feet with her hair? He dined with tax collectors — one even joined His inner circle of the Twelve — and was notoriously lax about the rules of ritual cleanness and Sabbath observance.
Moreover, Jesus deliberately crossed into Gentile territory and got involved with Gentiles. He praised a Roman centurion as having more faith than anyone in Israel and volunteered to enter the centurion’s house to heal his servant. He healed a half-breed Samaritan with leprosy and had a lengthy conversation with a Samaritan woman — to the consternation of His disciples, who knew that “Jews do not associate with Samaritans.” This woman, rejected by Jews on account of her race, rejected by neighbors on account of her serial marriages, became the first “missionary” appointed by Jesus and the first person to whom He openly revealed His identity as Messiah. Then Jesus culminated His time on earth by giving His disciples the “Great Commission,” a command to take the gospel to unclean Gentiles “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Jesus’ approach to “unclean” people dismayed His countrymen and, in the end, helped to get Him crucified. In essence, Jesus canceled the cherished principle of the Old Testament, No Oddballs Allowed, replacing it with a new rule of grace:
The Gospels record only one occasion when Jesus resorted to violence: the cleansing of the temple. Brandishing a whip, He overturned tables and benches and drove out the merchants who had set up shop there. As I have said, the very architecture of the temple expressed the Jewish hierarchy: Gentiles could enter only the outer court. Jesus resented that merchants had turned the Gentiles’ area into an oriental bazaar filled with the sounds of animals bleating and merchants haggling over prices, an atmosphere hardly conducive to worship. Mark records that after the cleansing of the temple, the chief priests and teachers of the law “began looking for a way to kill him.” In a real sense, Jesus sealed His fate with His angry insistence on the Gentiles’ right to approach God.
Rung by rung, Jesus dismantled the ladder of hierarchy that had marked the approach to God. He invited defectives, sinners, aliens, and Gentiles — the unclean! — to God’s banquet table.
Had not Isaiah prophesied of a great banquet to which all nations would be invited? Over the centuries, Isaiah’s exalted vision had clouded over so that some groups restricted the invitation list to Jews who were not physically defective. In direct contrast, Jesus’ version of the great banquet has the host sending messengers into the streets and alleys to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” The Old Testament contains many indications that God planned all along to expand His “family” beyond the Jewish race to encompass those from every tribe and nation. In a delicious irony, Peter received the vision of the unclean animals in Joppa, the very seaport from which Jonah tried to escape God’s command to carry God’s message to the pagan Ninevites.
Jesus’ most memorable story, the Prodigal Son, likewise ends with a banquet scene, featuring as its hero a good-for-nothing who has soiled the family reputation. Jesus’ point: those judged undesirable by everyone else are infinitely desirable to God, and when one of them turns to God, a party breaks out.
Another famous parable, the Good Samaritan, teased its original audience by introducing two religious professionals who gave the robbery victim a wide berth, unwilling to risk contamination from an apparent corpse. Jesus made the hero of this story a despised Samaritan — a choice as startling to that audience as it would be if a modern-day rabbi told a story glorifying a PLO fighter.
In His social contacts as well, Jesus overturned Jewish categories of “clean” and “unclean.” Luke 8, for example, records three incidents in quick succession that, taken together, must have confirmed the Pharisees’ misgivings about Jesus. First Jesus sails into a region populated by Gentiles, healing a naked madman and commissioning him as a missionary to his hometown. Next we see Jesus touched by a woman with a twelve-year hemorrhage, a “female problem” that has disqualified her from worship and no doubt caused her much shame. (The Pharisees taught that such illnesses came about because of a person’s sin; Jesus directly contradicted them.) From there Jesus proceeds to the home of a synagogue ruler whose daughter has just died. Already “unclean” from the Gentile madman and the hemorrhaging woman, Jesus enters the inner room and touches the corpse.
Levitical laws guarded against contagion: contact with a sick person, a Gentile, a corpse, certain kinds of animals, or even mildew and mold would contaminate a person. Jesus reversed the process: rather than becoming contaminated, He made the other person whole. The naked madman did not pollute Jesus; he got healed. The pitiful woman with the flow of blood did not shame Jesus and make Him unclean; she went away whole. The twelve-year-old dead girl did not contaminate Jesus; she was resurrected.
I sense in Jesus’ approach a fulfillment, not an abolition, of the Old Testament laws. God had “hallowed” creation by separating the sacred from the profane, the clean from the unclean. Jesus did not cancel out the hallowing principle, rather He changed its source. We ourselves can be agents of God’s holiness, for God now dwells within us. In the midst of an unclean world we can stride, as Jesus did, seeking ways to be a source of holiness. The sick and the maimed are for us not hot spots of contamination but potential reservoirs of God’s mercy. We are called upon to extend that mercy, to be conveyers of grace, not avoiders of contagion.
Like Jesus, we can help make the “unclean” clean.
It took the church some time to adjust to this dramatic change — otherwise Peter would not have needed the rooftop vision. Similarly, the church needed a supernatural prod before carrying the gospel to Gentiles. The Holy Spirit was happy to oblige, sending Philip first to Samaria and then directing him to a desert road where he met a foreigner, a black man, and one judged unclean under Old Testament rules (as a eunuch, he had damaged testicles). A short time later, Philip baptized the first missionary to Africa.
The apostle Paul — initially one of the most resistant to change, a “Pharisee of the Pharisees” who had daily thanked God he was not a Gentile, slave, or woman — ended up writing these revolutionary words:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Jesus’ death, he said, broke down the temple barriers, dismantling the dividing walls of hostility that had separated categories of people.
Grace found a way.
Excerpted with permission from What’s So Amazing About Grace by Philip Yancey, copyright Zondervan.
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So often we feel as if we need to clean ourselves up, get it together, change this and work on that before we can approach Jesus. But, that’s a lie. Jesus sought the messy before they cleaned up anything at all. He purposefully went where He wasn’t supposed to go, talked to those He wasn’t supposed to talk to, and hung out with the sinners, the outcasts, the unworthy, and the scandalous. The grace that Jesus embodied is such good news! Come join the conversation about His radical grace on our blog! We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily