Gn 12:1 - 4a
2 Tm 1:8b-10
Mt 17: 1-9
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by Betsy Bauman, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
When I read these four passages, I put them in the order in which they were written and I see a progression in the way Jews and Christians have understood God’s presence in the world. In this sense, these “sibling” religions are so similar and reflecting on the continuity helps us as Christians to appreciate the depth of God’s grace (loving kindness) and eternal desire to be in a love relationship with God’s people.
The oldest passage is the one from Genesis, where God first promises Abram that he will be the beginning of a people who will be in a special relationship with God. In the passage, God is promising some things TO Abram and his descendents (great nation, blessings), but we often miss the verse at the end where God says that “all the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.” Some Christians see this passage as a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in the person of Jesus Christ, but as a biblical scholar, I read the passage from the perspective of the Jewish writer who wrote it. From this perspective, the passage is an indication of the special status of the Jewish people, still today, as the recipients and mediators of God’s grace.
Jews understood (and still do) that special calling as a responsibility to work toward TIKKUN OLAM – the repairing of the world. Their special God-given calling to implement justice and the love of God is spelled out in the next passage, Psalm 33. Here the Psalmist, is probably writing after the time of the Exile, a time of uncertainty for Jews. The passage reiterates the love, mercy and unconditional loving kindness of God for the Jews, and their faith in the character of God as “trustworthy.”
The writer of the Gospel of Matthew then connects these Jewish understandings to Jesus in his account of the Transfiguration. In this story, Jesus appears in conversation with Moses and Elijah, two men of God who were considered in Jewish tradition to have seen God “face to face.” Jesus’ conversation with them seems to indicate that he accepts the “law” (represented by Moses) and the “prophets” (represented by Elijah). Here Jesus puts his own special status as the “Son of Man,” the chosen agent of the Kingdom of God, right into its Jewish context of God’s continuous revelation/desired relationship.
Finally, in 2 Timothy, the writer affirms the same Jewish principles – that we are called to a holy life of justice and love, and that this holy life is possible through the Grace of God. Here the Christian writer says that the grace (that same loving kindness) of God comes through Christ, whereas the Jews will still accept the direct relationship advocated in Psalm 33.
But the idea is so much the same and I am profoundly moved by God’s unending effort and desire to be with us and work in us. God’s grace, God’s unconditional loving kindness, endures forever.