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The Failed Gentile Mission and Jesus: The Prodigal Son in Reflection, Part 2

angry phariseeHow many Israelite characters can you name who ministered to Gentiles?

  1. Moses came out of Egypt with a mixed multitude who were absorbed into Israel.
  2. David had Gentiles as part of his entourage. Like Uriah whom he murdered after stealing his wife.
  3. Elijah won Naaman in 2nd Kings 5 after healing him from a skin disease.
  4. Jonah was instrumental in the conversion of the sailors through both his proclamations of YHWH’s glory and his own “death” at YHWH’s hand in the midst of the storm. He also preached a message to Ninevah and turned many from their wickedness, no matter how unhappy he was about the deliverance.
  5. Daniel and his friends were powerful witnesses for YHWH even in the face of death threats… and actual murder attempts.
  6. The exile and diaspora forced Jews to spread abroad, advancing YHWH’s fame (even if by accident) through their dedication to preserving Torah and Synogogue.

When God called Israel out of Egypt and met with them at Sinai, he gave them a commission. It was the natural extension of the commission to man in the garden of Eden. (Genesis 1:26-30) God created the world with a purpose; He created it to become something, and put that “something” into the hands of His regents in the world—humanity.

It was a commission whose fulfillment was promised through THE ONE when humanity fell into sin (Genesis 3:15), that ONE person who perfectly represented the Creator in this world. For though man should fail, God will not allow his word to return void. He will accomplish His purposes. Creation will become what God intended it to become when He made it… even if He has to come to earth as a man to fulfill it Himself… one standing in for all.

It was a commission handed off to THE ONE, Noah and then adapted for the Seed of THE ONE, Abraham chosen from among all the sons of men to bear it forward. Israel, Abraham’s seed, was called to be a nation of priests, holy to YHWH, fulfilling His purposes in creation, representing the Nations to God, and God to the nations. (Exodus 19:5-6)

This commission falls on hard times, however. Isaiah 2:1-4:6 unpacks the trouble. God has called Israel to be a light to the nations, which is an ongoing theme in Isaiah, a mission to be fulfilled ultimately by THE ONE great Messiah who is to come. Israel, however, strives not to affect the nations, but to be like them. They forsake Torah and emulate the vile practices of the peoples around them; they worship idols and give themselves over to bloodshed and immorality. God, however, will fulfill His purposes in and through them. He will use exile to purge them of this tendency, to create usable instruments for His glorification the world over.

When Israel returns to the Holy Land after exile they are cured of Idolatry… sort of. They are so skittish about idolatry that one risked instant stoning and riots at the very hint of physical idol worship. This says nothing of the human tendency to establish idols in the heart, but there would be no truck with actual images.

Unfortunately, as is the wont of human nature, they also became so antiseptic, so paranoid, so determined to keep themselves unstained by the world, that, far from fulfilling their commission as a nation of priests, they inculturated hatred for the Gentiles… their new defining feature. Pharisaic distain for non-Jews (and less committed Jews) is expressed in their writings with enough vehemence as to make your average hate monger blush. “The Traditions of the Elders,” a stimulus for Jesus’ personal Gentile mission in Mark 7, is not a code word for Jewish oral law in general, but represented 18 vigorously enforced, and newly passed, oral laws that were specifically designed to strain all Gentile Jewish relations to the breaking point… their single aim was to drive a wedge of hatred between the Jew and the non-Jew.

It is not that no converts were accepted, for they were, but even here Jesus criticized them, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” (Matthew 23:15)

The heartland of Judaism (Judea) manifests its most vicious forms. As one spreads out from Judea, the rule keeping grows sloppier. The Pharisees work aggressively to bring the regions of Galilee and other outlying areas into line with their own rigid sense of Torah keeping. They also have strained relations with Hellenistic Jews who have been forced to live abroad in the Roman Empire… a tension that carries on within the Christian church thereafter. They also relegate classes of people like sinners whose Jewish sloppiness was unbearable to them, and tax-collectors who earned their keep working for the Roman authorities to tax their fellow Jews.

It is within a general context of hatred for “less deserving” people that Jesus speaks the parable of the prodigal son. The Pharisees and their ilk imagine that they have earned the Father’s love and that these others—Gentiles, Sinners, Tax-gatherers, and the like—have lost it.

There are prodigal sons, prodigal daughters, prodigal people groups, prodigal nations and Jesus arises as THE ONE son of David, THE ONE son of Abraham, THE ONE seed of the woman to fulfill Israel’s commission to the world. He establishes a church whose own commission encompasses the others. God’s regents are meant to win the lost… everywhere. Thus, Jesus commissions, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

A non-soul winning church is not—like the rejected rule of the Palestine Jewish rulership of Jesus’ day—fulfilling its most basic purpose… no matter how awesome the congregants may be.

 

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