The Differences that so Easily Beset Us
The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of a Middle Eastern people as they evolved from Hebrews, to Israelites, to Jews, and as they grew from a single family into a nation. They were never a large nation, but their location made them an important one. Surrounded by larger nations, who saw Israel as ripe for conquest, they maintained an uneasy existence until being overrun by the Assyrian Empire (the Northern Kingdom of Israel) and Babylon (the Southern Kingdom of Judea). Eventually they and their neighbors were conquered by Rome.
The Hebrew Scriptures tell not so much the history of this people as the story of their relationship with their God, YHWH. From the Bible’s perspective, when the nation followed YHWH’s commands the people prospered. When they turned their back on YHWH they encountered disaster.
Alone among the nations of the Middle East they worshiped a single deity. Their neighbors and conquerors served multiple gods, each responsible for one or more specific functions. Israel served one God who provided for every need anyone could imagine. There was no need for other gods; theirs was all-sufficient.
One of the negative results of the nation’s relationship with YHWH was a sort of spiritual ego trip. By the first century, despite their political subservience to Rome, they believed themselves spiritually superior to all other nations. They were, they claimed, God’s chosen people, even though their chosenness didn’t seem to be doing them much good on the political front.
Enter Jesus, who turned the Jewish world upside down with his claim to be not just God’s Messiah, the anointed one, but God’s Son, and therefore himself God. The Jewish religious leaders took exception to his claim. How could God be split in two? How could God be anything but one? This was blasphemy! The leadership also objected to Jesus because his teaching was in direct opposition not only to what they taught, but how they lived.
And then came Paul—Saul until his conversion, and until his conversion a Christian-hating, pagan-hating separatist. His beliefs permitted no recognition of or association with anyone but true-believing Jews.
Jesus brought him a life-changing, attitude-changing experience. Paul went from an exclusionist to an inclusionist. He found himself saying, under the guiding hand of Jesus, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.”
He says this not just once (to the Romans), but again to the Galatians (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), and once again to the Colossians (“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all.”)
This privileged son of Abraham now saw that all who believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, were the spiritual descendants of Abraham. There were no distinctions between believers. Their belief in Jesus Christ obliterated all other distinctions—those of race, religious background, socioeconomic status, and gender.
Unfortunately, too many Christians today try to reinstitute those differences. Some want to elevate one gender over another. Some want to make distinctions by social class, or race, or political beliefs. They need to hear the words of Kate Sheppard, who said, “All that separates, whether of race, class, creed, or sex, is inhuman, and must be overcome.”
Jesus Christ, who came to show us what it means to be truly human, couldn’t have said it better.