Friday, July 20, 2012

Thankless Jews

We are following through a section of Luke, where Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem for the last time, and He is having discussions and performing miracles along the way. Recently in that Gospel timeline, Jesus had instructed to forgive someone absolutely any time that they repent, no matter how many times they transgressed and repented in the past. Then, Jesus explained how a little faith can move trees, and that you should consider yourself an unworthy slave to God.

Thankless Jews
Antisemitism has an undeniably strange relationship with Christianity. Jesus was a Jew, after all. The Twelve Apostles? Jews too. While there are several verses in the New Testament which remind us of the special prominence of the Jews in the eyes of God, there are other verses which seem to be written against the Jews as a whole. Let us take a closer look at a little bit of antisemitism, as well as an implicit reference to Jesus actually being God, brought to us by Luke.

In Luke 17:11-19, a miraculous tale goes like this:
While Jesus was entering a town in Galilee near the border with Samaria, ten lepers begged Him to heal them. Jesus told them to show themselves to the priests. (Per Leviticus 14, people needed to prove to the priests when they were cleansed of diseases, so that they could perform a purification sacrifice ceremony, and to permit them to re-enter society.) As the lepers walked to the priests, they became healed. Upon seeing that he was healed, one of the ten lepers, a Samaritan, went back to Jesus, praising God and thanking Him. Jesus was surprised that the other nine lepers did not come back to give thanks, and tells the Samaritan that he is saved. (My paraphrase)
One interesting point on this healing is the walk-of-faith aspect. Jesus did not heal the lepers right away. Instead, they had to obey Jesus' command and take it on faith that they would be healed in the process; and they were. In that theological regard, this is one of the better miracle stories of Jesus. If Luke had stopped there, it would have been perfect, but Luke was writing this passage with a purpose.

To see Luke's purpose, we have to look into a few of the details. Take a look at Luke 17:15-18:
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked Him—and [that leper] was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" NIV
The first important detail is how Luke equated Jesus with God. It is so subtle that it may slip by you because your mind automatically reconciles it to how you think it should be, but the claim is there, boldly. The NIV translation uses "Jesus' feet" to help you along, but they put "Jesus" in place of a possessive pronoun, and therefore it is better translated as "His feet." This pronoun usage makes it more ambiguous, but we can see how "His" could just as easily and more appropriately, per the guidelines of pronoun use, be interpreted as "God's," as in "God's feet." The implication that Jesus is God is made more strongly when we see that the leper did "return and give praise to God" in Luke 17:18, when the leper had both returned to Jesus and had clearly given thanks directly to Jesus. A third implicit reference is even stronger, but we will get to that in a moment.

The second important detail in this anecdote is that the leper who returned was a Samaritan. Jesus emphasizes this point by calling that leper a "foreigner" in Luke 17:18. If the only one of the lepers who had returned and given thanks to God had instead remained generically defined, that could be a statement about just how fallen mankind had become in general. But, no, this one thankful leper is defined specifically as a Samaritan and a foreigner, which draws the natural implicit conclusion that the nine other lepers who did not return to give thanks were, in fact, Jews. This becomes a specific statement against the Jews, about how they are thankless of all that God has done for them.

This passage provokes a righteous indignation against the Jews, which helps to foster antisemitism. An omniscient God would understand how verses like this, and others, such as we saw earlier in John 8:42-47 where Jesus claims that the Jews are children of the Devil, and what would happen later in Matthew 27:25 where the Jews appear to be taking the responsibility for Jesus' death, would spur on antisemitism and lead to the persecution of His Chosen People for millennia to come. Of course, if God has that omniscient understanding and let the verses be written anyway, then God is not good. If that is false, then God is not omniscient. This is a lose-lose situation for the Almighty.

This brings us to the third and final important detail, which is a lose-lose situation for Jesus too. Jesus asks both where the other nine ex-lepers were, and essentially, rhetorically, why they had not come back to give praise to God.

The question we should as is why would they have to return to Jesus to give praise to God? We can certainly understand why they may have wanted to thank Jesus as being an intercessor, but the ultimate power of the cleansing came from God Himself. If they wanted to give praise and thanks to God, the most appropriate traditional way to do that would be at God's Temple, possibly with thanksgiving offerings (Leviticus 7:11-15).

So who is to say that these nine Jewish lepers were not at their local synagogue or, more correctly, on their way to the Temple in Jerusalem to give proper and formal thanks and praise to God? The only way we can exclude this possibility is if Jesus is omniscient, if Jesus is God, and therefore He would know that the others were not off praising God somewhere else. Yet if Jesus was God, He would also know that it was appropriate for the Jews to give praise and thanks to God at the Temple, so there should have been no expectation for the lepers to "return and praise God" in front of Him (that Him being Jesus), except that Luke is equating Jesus to be God. So the details of this episode create quite a paradox for Jesus' accurate knowledge as either God or a Jewish man.

On minor point to consider as well is how did a Samaritan leper find himself hanging out with nine Jewish lepers in Jewish territory when, as John 4:9 puts it, the "Jews do not associate with Samaritans." Of course, this is a reportedly a border town, where the lines get a little more blurry.

When you consider all of these factors, the real truth becomes evident: this is fiction. Luke wrote this anecdote for a purpose, and that purpose was obviously for showing a condemnation of the Jews. However, this may not have been to provoke anger at the Jews. The Gospel of Luke was completed in a time after a major Jewish rebellion, one which ultimately cost them the destruction of their Temple at the hands of the Romans. Verses like these may have been used to put the Jews politically at some distance from the early Christian sect, so as to convince the Roman authorities that they should not be associated with those rebellious Jews.

A little drop of ink, such as this, would cause a great flood of blood.

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