Blurring and Redefining Boundaries, Part 1

I came across this little tidbit today, and thought it did a good job of explaining the difficulties the Messianic movement faces as we struggle to define ourselves:

The key fact about Jews for Jesus is that its founder, Moishe Rosen, who died last week at 78, had been a Baptist minister for 20 years when he formed the group in San Francisco in 1973.

I don’t want to get caught up in the question of whether two decades of Christian ministry undermines one’s Jewishness, or whether Jews for Jesus are indeed Jews at all, or just perpetrators of a not-half-as-clever-as-they-seem-to-think-it-is scam. I’m actually of the opinion that people are free to believe whatever they like and call themselves whatever they wish. Plenty of individuals embrace faiths while directly contradicting their tenets — gay Catholics come to mind — and passing judgment on whether a person deserves to be in the club implies that someone else can pass judgment on you.

That said, the notion that you can accept Jesus Christ as your savior and remain Jewish does remind me of the transvestite I met once at a drag ball who told me he is a heterosexual male who lives as a woman and dates men. O . . . K . . ., if you say so, pal, but it seems to muddle the boundaries a bit.

Indeed it does. But then, being a true disciple of Yeshua has always been about messing with the accepted boundary markers.

Christianity Today ran an article a decade ago called Why Jesus’ Disciples Wouldn’t Wash Their Hands. While the article itself is a good discussion of the societal boundary markers within traditional Judaism, the title betrays the author’s misunderstanding: It wasn’t that Yeshua’s disciples wouldn’t wash their hands on the basis of a moral stand, it’s that they didn’t–as mostly Galilean Jews, they had a certain zeal for the Torah itself, but were not as concerned with the minutae of the Law as the Judean Pharisees and had their own traditions as to how to keep it. They had a different set of boundary markers than the Pharisees had set for themselves. So, for that matter, did the Sadducees, the Herodians, the Zelots, the Hellenists, the Essenes, and every other sect of Judaism then in existence. (Paul actually makes reference to this when he called down Peter in Galatians.)

Pharisees did not share table-fellowship with non-Pharisees, categorizing Galilleans, tax-collectors, and harlots all together as "sinners." Seen in this light, their repeated invitations to Yeshua for dinner and vexation over His choice of company is actually quite complimentary: They considered Him one of their own, and couldn’t understand why He kept moving across the boundary lines to have fellowship with those they considered beneath a man of His evident righteousness.

Yeshua’s followers would themselves breach an even more important boundary just a few years later when they started accepting mass numbers of Gentile converts. It should be noted that most synagogues of the time had a minority of Gentile "God-fearers" who gave up idolatry, observed a good bit of the Torah (even the dietary restrictions, according to Josephus in Against Apion 2.40), and sat in the back of the synagogue, but who did not take the step of becoming proselytes by circumcision. As long as they remained a minority, these God-fearers were tolerated. But when the Good News was proclaimed, and the number of interested Gentiles overwhelmed the synagogue (as in Acts 13), the Jewish response was to close the gates. It’s one thing to be kind to a foreign visitor; it’s quite another to let so many foreigners in that they supplant the native citizens! The Ekklesia’s response, to accept these Gentiles not only as subjects of the Kingdom, but fellow-heirs, fellow-citizens, and brethren, was an incredible demonstration of the Holy One’s grace.

That willingness to blur the previously well-defined line between the People of the Covenant and all other peoples had both a positive and a negative aspect. On the plus side, it faithfully carried out the Great Commission which, as the Acts 15 counsel realized, is a pre-requisite to the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom. On the negative side, once the Gentile side of the Ekklesia became dominant, it set up its own boundaries–ones in which Jews were excluded unless they were willing to give up everything Jewish.

The Messianic Movement, if we are doing our jobs right, makes both Christianity and traditional Judaism uncomfortable for the same reason: We blur what was thought to be well-defined boundary markers between the two communities: "Christians don’t keep kosher!" and "Jews can’t believe in Jesus!"

But simply because we blur the boundaries, does that mean that we can afford to ignore them entirely? That’s the question I’ll be pondering in part 2 of this post.

Shalom

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