Who Is a Light to the Nations?
August 14, 2006
A friend on the Religion Forum posed this question from a Jewish perspective:
>>It is interesting that the Jews are supposed to be a light unto the nations, in deed, not in changing anyone and then Christianity comes along and changes what G-d has told specifically to the Jews. As a Christian, do you see a problem here.<<
What follows is my answer.
Good question, my friend - not so easy to answer. That's no reason not to try <s>.
What I say from here on is my belief and my perspective - but I also believe it to be a New Testament point of view.
Jews are a light to the nations. The history of the Jews is a living witness to G_d's faithfulness. The scriptures, which Christians accept as relevant to our beliefs are a "gift" from the Jews. The continuing Covenant relationship between G_d and the Jews is a witness to the world as to G_d's desire to invite all people into relationship with Him.
No one can provide an adequate substitute for that role of Jews in the world.
That kind of relationship does in fact change people. Being light just points to the possibility of life transformation. People do not change people. Conversion is internal and spiritual. Forced, coerced, or deceptive conversion is not conversion at all from a Jewish or a Christian standpoint. Conversion that turns people from scoundrels into productive members of the community is spiritual and genuine. Of course, not all who need/desire conversion are outward scoundrels; some are just afraid of their own shadows, devalued by themselves, or haunted by a nagging suspicion that there is more to life than materialism and the roller coaster of earthly succes and failure.
I am still in need of daily conversion, transformation, and change (not that they are not all the same thing) because I am not all I can be and will be. Thank G_d for that!
In Esther's day, many Gentiles became Jews, not by persuasion but because of the witness of a faithful people and the miracle demonstrated by a faithful G_d.
In the same way, the Jews embraced those who wished to join them at every point in history. I like your point that they were often discouraged because it is a hard thing. Jesus said something silimar, "Count the cost."
Jonah did not attempt to convert. He hoped that the folks would not be converted (the little soiled sport <S>). But G_d converted the people through the message/light of Jonah's, all beit reluctant, faithful witness. They were not converted to a particular religion, but to a recognition of their evil and G_d's sovereignty. G_d had mercy and spared them through the light of the Jews.
Christianity does not/cannot usurp the role of Judaism as a light to the nations. It just includes those who come to the Kingdom through the witness of Jesus.
It is not a contradiction as we see it, but a complement. It is the possibility of righteousness - which from my understanding has a two-fold meaning from scriptures: (1) right relationship with God and (2) heading in the right direction.
Even the Paul I read in the NT was no arm-twister. Nor did he ever try to convert people to a new religion. The Jews he influenced to become disciples still considered themselves Jews and observed the law. The Gentiles to whom he directed most of his ministry saw themselves as benificiaries of the light shed by the Jews and deeply indebted to Jews.
What went wrong? I think it was a combination of political power, respectability, and comfort. Even today, when believers in Jesus focus more on those three things, they become less likely to stand with the poor, have broken hearts over the 8,000 people who die of AIDS daily, the 6000 new orphans, or the injustices that are perpetrated in the world. They retreat to the suburbs leaving iner city churches empty. They don't have to deal with lives broken by gangs and drugs because they are comfortable. They can focus on being judgmental and moralistic and delude themselves into thinking that such a course is the way of grace and salvation. When Christians began to think they had the power of majority, they often exercised it ruthlessly. That is history - but it is not all of history.
If Christianity would disappear from history, there would still be Judaism. However, without Judaism, there is no Christianity. However profoundly our Jewish friends may feel we have misinterpretted the Hebrew scriptures, they provide the foundation of our beliefs. We have a debt.
Jews continue to have a message to Christians. That is why people like Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Martin Buber speak so deeply to my soul and propel me to a deeper love of God.
Concerning the awful attrocities done in the name of evangelism through the centuries - shame on us.
But acknowledging all that, those of us who have what we consider to be good news (which is really quite simple) have an obligation to live it and share it when given permission to do so - at least to make it available. G_d has given all people the privilege and responsibility of being light with the light they have - and I think Jews still have a very big, and unique chunk of that.
That is how I would answer that question from how I understand my own perspective on the matter.
- Tom (taking off his theologian's hat now and putting his friend/sysop hat back on <s>.)
BONUS (Some quotes from Wikipedia's article on Abraham Heschel by Abraham Heschel):
- "All it takes is one person… and another… and another… and another… to start a movement"
- "Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge."
- "A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers no harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."
- "God is of no importance unless He is of utmost importance."
- "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."
- "Self-respect is the fruit of discipline, the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself."
- "Life without commitment is not worth living."
- "In regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible."
The rest of the discussion is available online.