Like so many other important wisdoms, we have read it on the backs of sugar packets or pasted onto nauseating memes so many times that we tend to overlook the truth the statement contains: life is a journey. The important things in life are always journeys, not events. The events may mark milestones along the road, but in the end it is how we make the journey that defines who we become, not so much what happens along the way. Relationships are journeys, and we are our relationships. On these relationship journeys, as on any journey, we inevitably grow and change, as we are shaped by our experiences and encounters, driven by shifting expectations and aims: it is never the same traveler who ends the journey as who started it.
My experience of Christianity is that we have forgotten that this is a relationship journey. Jesus claimed to be the Way – the road to the destination, not the destination itself – and if we who call ourselves followers of Jesus are electing to take this Way, if we truly regard it as imperative that we make this journey the Jesus way, then we would do well to know where we are going and where we are coming from (and why we need to leave there in the first place). More correctly, we would do well to know where Jesus wants to take us and what spaces he wants us to leave behind. And much of our coming to understand all of these things in a 21st Century, post-Modernist world, depends on our willingness to acknowledge that Jesus was a first Century Jew. He thought as a Jew, he reasoned as a Jew, he understood everything about his world through a Jewish lens. Jesus, in other words, is utterly alien to most contemporary Christians. And once we have become humble enough to recognise that, we will need to recognise that not all Jewish people of the time saw things in exactly the same way. Not all Jews of Jesus’s day adopted the same theological stance, any more than it would be fair to say that all Christians today share the same beliefs. Theology, while located in and shaped by the broad parameters of our socio-cultural contexts (like Medieval Feudalism for Anselm or Reformation Germany for Luther), are always deeply personal affairs, refined by our own unique experiences and circumstances.
I have talked a bit, in the past few weeks, about some of these broader socio-cultural paradigms that Jesus put his own particular spin on. I have argued that Jesus’s principal message was about the imminence of the “Kingdom of God”, and that any interpretation of this message that attempts to subsume it into the contemporary Heaven/Hell dichotomy is completely anachronistic and therefore not what Jesus taught. More than that, I have argued, we have made the “Kingdom of God” a destination rather than a journey, an event rather than a process, and this misplaced emphasis on a wrongly understood destination has so perverted the manner in which we walk the journey that we have substituted the hard and difficult-to-find way of peace and self-giving love for the much easier and well-worn way of violence and exclusivity, and become (and I use this term without intending any weird, demonic connotations; I simply mean to point out that by our adopting values that directly contradict that ethic of Jesus, we have set ourselves up as) anti-Christ.
I have argued that through Jesus’s Jewish lens, the Temple as a place where Heaven and Earth merge, and from which God’s Kingdom in this world would be inaugurated, was a pivotal spiritual concept, and that Jesus repeatedly constructed himself as the true Temple. Modern Christianity, where the church is merely a building, has virtually completely sidelined the significance of these teachings. There is simply too much literature on the matter to sum up in a blog, so I will leave it to the reader to do their due diligence, but suffice it to say that this Jesus-as-Temple identity makes the question of how God reconciles the world to Henself much bigger than Penal Substitution Atonement theories can ever allow for. He claims to bring Heaven and Earth together, and so much of what he does – the healing of sickness, the forgiveness of sins, the replacing of Temple rituals with the Eucharist, for example – only makes sense if you understand how Temple works in Jewish theological constructs.
Today I want to talk about Chosenness. It is one of the ideas Christians today have inherited from Judaism and toxically distorted. But it is critical to any informed understanding of Jesus at all. What it means for Israel to be God’s Chosen nation is central not only to Jewish thinking and identity, but – as a result – to Christian thinking and identity too. And by refusing to engage with the nuanced Jewish roots of this issue, we have decontextualised Jesus’s teachings on the matter and turned them into dangerous claims to exclusivity.
I acknowledge that I speak from a limited perspective, not being Jewish, but my understanding is that most Jews would see their being chosen as a duty to perform a certain role rather than as a right to enjoy certain exclusive privileges (although these privileges are certainly implied in a text like Exodus 19:5 “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.”). Look, for example, at how this idea of chosenness is expressed in the Alienu prayer (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/aleinu ):
It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to acclaim the
greatness of the One
who forms all creation. For God did not make us
like the nations of other
lands, and did not make us the same as other
families of the Earth. God did
not place us in the same situations as others, and
our destiny is not the same
as anyone else’s.
And we bend our knees, and bow down, and give
thanks, before the Ruler,
the Ruler of Rulers, the Holy One, Blessed is God.
The One who spread out the heavens, and made the
foundations of the Earth,
and whose precious dwelling is in the heavens
above, and whose powerful
Presence is in the highest heights. Adonai is our
God, there is none else.
Our God is truth, and nothing else compares. As
is written in Your
Torah: “And you shall know today, and take to
heart, that Adonai is the only
God, in the heavens above and on Earth below.
There is no other.”
Therefore we put our hope in You, Adonai our God,
to soon see the glory of
Your strength, to remove all idols from the Earth,
and to completely cut off
all false gods; to repair the world, Your holy
empire. And for all living flesh
to call Your name, and for all the wicked of the
Earth to turn to You. May all
the world’s inhabitants recognize and know that to
You every knee must
bend and every tongue must swear loyalty. Before
You, Adonai, our God,
may all bow down, and give honor to Your precious
name, and may all take
upon themselves the yoke of Your rule. And may
reign over them soon
and forever and always. Because all rule is Yours
alone, and You will rule
in honor forever and ever.
As it is written in Your Torah:
“Adonai will reign forever and ever.”
And it is said: “Adonai will be Ruler over the
whole Earth, and on that day,
God will be One, and God’s name will be One.
Note that it is Israel as a nation that has been chosen by God, not the individuals who make up that nation. The individuals are chosen by default. This will have major ramifications later for how we read Paul’s inclusion of the Gentiles into that choosing, but that is a big discussion for another day. For now, exploring the origins of notions of chosenness in Christianity, we note that the choosing of Israel as a royal priesthood does indeed set them apart, but the purpose of that setting apart is so that the whole world can come to see God. God sets Israel apart so that through Israel, the world may come under the “yoke of God’s rule”. In other words, Israel is chosen to bring about God’s Kingdom by setting the right example. Isaiah 49 puts it this way (my emphasis):
5And now the Lord says—
he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
and gather Israel to himself,
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord
and my God has been my strength—
6 he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
7 This is what the Lord says—
the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—
to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation,
to the servant of rulers:
“Kings will see you and stand up,
princes will see and bow down,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”
8 This is what the Lord says:
“In the time of my favor I will answer you,
and in the day of salvation I will help you;
I will keep you and will make you
to be a covenant for the people,
to restore the land
and to reassign its desolate inheritances,
9 to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’
and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’
So when, in Matthew 5, Jesus calls his disciples to be salt and light, it is not a call to personal holiness. He is speaking to the heart of Jewish identity as a people; to what it means to be chosen:
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
Jesus is talking to Jews about the responsibility they carry through being chosen as lights to the Gentiles. What does it mean, Jesus is asking them to consider, to be the image-bearers of God to a people who do not know Hen? And Jesus answers that question by immediately embarking on the now famous teachings that comprise the Sermon on the Mount, which redefine the Mosaic Laws so that they are not merely check-box affairs, but so that his disciples can see that being God’s light to the world – perfectly living out these Covenantal laws – means relating to others – even enemies – in love.
Jesus’s claim in John 14:6 and 7 makes a very different kind of sense when you understand it through the lens of Chosenness:
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
This teaching has nothing to do with whether or not you accept a PSA interpretation of Jesus’s death (that would be to ascribe an anachronistic post-Reformation meaning to his words); it is not about accepting Jesus into your heart, or whatever other nonsensical inventions Evangelical Christianity has dreamt up to deal with them. This is about Jesus’s interpretation of what it means to be part of a people chosen by God to be a light to the world. This is a call to follow Jesus, the “light of the World”, as the writer of the fourth gospel introduces him, in revealing the nature – the peaceful, non-violent, non-retaliatory nature – of God to a world lost in darkness. This teaching is not about how to access heaven. It is not about the destination at all. It is about the journey, about how you – as a mimetic model – embark on that journey.
That is not to say that the destination is unimportant. It is. But the destination is not a place; it is a different way of being in the world; it is the inauguration of God’s Kingdom here on Earth, where people relate to one another in love and peace, just as Jesus modelled, rather than in power and violence. The world does not see that, of course. It is on a broad road that can see no other way of being other than violent exploitation in the name of progress and modernity, where a select few win and the victims are silently hidden. It is a road that must ultimately lead to our destruction: an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, as the saying goes. But Jesus has shown us a better way. And it is hard, because love doesn’t really make much sense; forgiveness looks like weakness. It is a narrow road, but it is also the only road that can lead to life. And you, Christian, have been chosen to light the way, to “be a covenant to the people” of God’s love and forgiveness. Do you bear the image of Jesus?