Tag Archives: Gentiles

God’s People, part 226: Greeks

Read John 12:20-26

“Jesus replied, ‘Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem’” (John 4:21, NLT).

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

GreekFamilyPart 226, Greeks: Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who claimed some pretty astonishing things about himself, things that would have sent up all sorts of red flags for the Jewish establishment. He claimed that he was Lord of the Sabbath, that what one ate did not defile a person, that one could do work on the Sabbath, that he was God’s son, that he was the Son of Man, that he was the way, the truth and the life, the bread of heaven, the light of the world, the life-giving water, the vine, resurrection and the life, and the great I AM. Such claims would have been scandalous and would have set Jesus at odds with the Jewish religious and political leaders of his time.

His association with Gentiles would also have been frowned upon by the Pharisees, who were a group whose name literally meant separatist. The Pharisees believed that strict adherence to the Torah and separation from all Gentile cultures was the way to faithfully follow God. Gentile cultures worshiped a plethora of other gods and, as had happened so many other times in Jewish history, they had the tendency to lure the Jews into idolatry.

Jesus life is actually bookended by relations with the Gentile culture. A child who was no more than two years of age, he was visited by Zoroastrian astrologers from the East we know as the Wise Men. At the end of his life, he was sought out and approached by a group of Greeks. Both the Greeks and the Zoroastrians were Gentiles as they were both non-Jews.

But those weren’t the only relations with Gentiles. He healed a Roman centurion’s son, he healed a Syro-Phoenician woman from bleeding, and even conversed with and taught a Samaritan woman. This willingness to engage with a culture at odds with Judaism would not have sat well with his critics.

Yet, throughout his life and ministry, Jesus engaged with Gentiles and, according to John, it was one of the final things he did before his arrest. When the Greeks requested to meet with Jesus, he saw that as a sign that the time of his suffering and death had come. His ministry had mostly been to the Jews, but now his name was known to even these Greeks (who may have been from the Decapolis, ten cities in northern Israel, Jordan and Syria). This was as sign that his message of salvation and the imminent coming of God’s kingdom was about to go from being exclusively Jewish to a global message that included Gentiles as well.

That is why Jesus responded to their request in this way, “Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives” (John 12:23-24, NLT). Jesus was foretelling the impact his death and resurrection would have on the spreading of the Gospel to all the world.

Jesus went on to proclaim that “Anyone who wants to serve me must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me” (John 12:26, NLT). Jesus was not just including a specific group of people as God’s people, but was opening the doors to ANYONE and EVERYONE who followed him as the Way, the Truth, and the Life! What good news, right? That means you, that means me, that means anyone who loves and follows Jesus our Lord. The challenge for us is to be a part of spreading that GOOD NEWS to anyone who will open their ears and their hearts to that profound message of hope!

“The carnal nature of man is that he places his tribe above others, but the only basis for the power and unity of the church is that there is no Jew or Gentile.” – Yemi Osinbajo

Lord, help me to serve Christ in all that I do so that I may be a part of spreading the Good News of God’s coming Kingdom. Amen.

The Sermon, part 16: God-Centered Prayer

Read Matthew 6:7-8

“So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: ‘Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: “To an Unknown God.” This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the One I’m telling you about.’” (Acts 17:22-23 NLT)

ladyonthemoonI have yet to reveal this in my devotions, but most who have known me over the years know that I had once practiced Wicca[i] for nearly a decade of my life. I was brought up in a Christian home, raised to be a Christian in a church, and had even experienced the call to become a pastor as a child. With that said, as a teenager I became disenfranchised with Christianity and with institutionalized religion as a whole. More than that, I was disenfranchised with myself and was seeking who I was, as opposed to who everyone else though I should be.

I know, I know, it’s a common teenage thing: the search for identity; but it’s not to be scoffed at, and it led me to Wicca. Honestly, I thank God for that. Yes, you heard me right, Wicca was a gift given to me from God and I am thankful for it. Through Wicca, God gave me the space to grow, to discover myself, to find my God-given identity, and it kept me seeking the divine rather than denying it. It gave me the space to, overtime, reconnect with my calling and to wrestle with my faith. What’s more, there is truth within the teachings of Wicca and I learned a great deal about God through it.

Since, then (in 2004 to be exact) I came back to Christ, not because Wicca was bad or wrong or (add your adjective here), but because Christ had laid a claim on my life long before I ever chose to go out and explore my spiritual identity. While I may have left the Church, I never left God and God never left me; rather, believe it or not, I grew closer to God through Wicca and gained a much better appreciation and affinity for God’s creation.

The relevance of all of this is that, because of my experience in religions outside of Christianity, I have something to offer in terms of understanding what Jesus is talking about when using the term “pagans” (depending on what translation you use). Matthew was written in Greek, and the word that Matthew quotes Jesus saying is, ἐθνικός (pronounced eth-nee-kos’).  This often gets translated to “pagan” or “Gentile”. It is where we get our English word “ethnic” from and, in Jesus’ Jewish context, it refers to anyone who is NOT ethnically Jewish and/or has not converted to Judaism.

In this passage, Jesus uses the common Jewish perception of Gentiles (or pagans) in regard to prayer. In the ancient pagan world, people would go to great lengths to pray the right prayers, say all the right things, and perform all the right rituals in order to appease the gods and make them happy. To fail to do so could result in the prayer not being answered. In other words, the prayer was intended to manipulate the gods to do what the person was praying for.

If taken literally, Jesus’ words could be seen as an oversimplification, if not a mischaracterization of those religions. In the ancient, Greco-Roman world, there were many different types of pagan religion and cult groups. Each of them had different practices and different beliefs. What’s more, to take his words and try to literally apply them to a modern-day, neopagan religion such as Wicca, would be a mischaracterization. Wicca is a religion that seeks to find balance and harmony with nature and doing one’s part to add to that balance. It is not a religion that solely focuses on self, nor does it seek to prayerfully appease angry, fickle gods.

Yet, Jesus’ point in teaching about prayer was not to put down “pagans” as much as it was to distinguish what prayer ought to be in the Judeo-Christian context. It ought not to be focused on self or on manipulating God/nature in order to affect self-driven (not always self-centered) change in the world around us. That is not what prayer, as defined by Jesus, ought to be. Yet, can Christians truly hold non-Christians to account on that? Do Christians model God-driven or self-driven prayer? Is one’s prayer life centered on self, and on what oneself needs, or is one’s prayer life centered on God and what God wills?

That is what Jesus is talking about in today’s passage. It is not a judgment against “pagans” or other religions, as Christians have unfortunately interpreted it; rather, it is a mirror that Jesus is holding up to Christians to measure themselves in. He utilized language that the people of his time would understand, drawing a comparison between the way the Greco-Roman world practiced prayer, and the way Christians ought to practice it.

The questions for us are these: Are we set apart for God, or are we set apart for ourselves? Are we living the talk, or are we talking differently than how we live? In what is to follow from this passage, Jesus is about to show us what God-driven/God-centered prayer is all about. Reflect on your prayer life between this devotion and next in order to prepare for the instruction our Lord is about to give.

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” – Søren Kierkegaard.
Lord, I center my prayer on you. What is it you would have of me? Show me the way. Amen.

[i]Due to time and the focus of this devotion, I cannot go into detail about Wicca. If you want to learn more about it, here is a reasonable and accurate web site which you can visit: http://wicca.cnbeyer.com/wiccan-basics/