I’ve often asked myself that question. We all know that the religious leaders of Jesus’ time didn’t recognize him as the Messiah and as I’ve been studying the history surrounding Jesus’s ministry, there are two things that strike me as being the most obvious factors that kept the Jews from this recognition. I have a funny feeling that this lack of recognition wasn’t limited to the people of his own time period and I think these two things are significant….
1.) The inability to believe in miracles
Without taking the supernatural into account, Jesus was a bastard. The importance of the fact that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father cannot be understated. Mary was considered an adulteress (1) and Jesus was considered “a bastard of an adulteress” (2) The Hebrew word for an illegitimate child is “mamzer” which meant “polluted or corrupted.” Mamzer children and their offspring were prevented from entering the congregation of God. They were not allowed to hold public office, participate in Jewish ceremonies or even marry fellow Israelites (Deut 23:2) In many cases, they were considered the “untouchables” of society.
Enter Jesus. The bastard son of an adulterous mother, claiming to be the Messiah. The religious leaders at the time could never accept this and the law wouldn’t allow it. From the moment of his birth, a belief in miracles was required in order to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Can you imagine the kind of faith it would take, to believe that? And not just the miracle of a virgin birth, but lets take a moment to consider the act of the immaculate conception: uncomfortably similar to that for which the Greek god, Zeus, was known for, God Himself “overshadows” and impregnates a mortal woman. I find myself asking: would we have such faith? How many of us today could believe not only in the miracle of a virgin birth (half of us claiming Christianity can’t even muster up the faith to believe in the miracle of a divine healing,) but in a birth that so closely aligns with a major tenant of a pagan religion? Which brings me to the second thing that most often kept people from accepting Jesus as the Messiah….
2. The inability (or unwillingness) to have our understanding of God challenged and changed
I remember asking a Christian friend what would happen to her faith if she found out that man really did descend from apes and that evolution was a fact. She answered that she would no longer be a Christian, because she’d know that the bible was wrong. Years later, after coming to know Jesus myself, I asked another friend the same question. He answered that he would know that his interpretation of the bible was wrong. His answer has shaped my life to this day.
We’re all sure that what we believe and the way we interpret the bible is the right way. We’re certain that these things over here are sinful and these things over here are not. We’re certain that if he were alive today, Jesus would always do A and B and C and never do X or Y or Z.
And so were those who crucified him.
Jesus’s teachings REQUIRED that people be able and willing to remain flexible regarding the things they believed about God and their interpretation of the Torah. Jesus healed and allowed his men to pick grain on the Sabbath – defiling one of the most important tenants in all of Judaism – and the religious leaders persecuted him (John 5.) He told the people they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood – an act of pagan worship – and many of the disciples left him (John 6.) He allowed Mary to rub his feet with her hair – an act of unprecedented intimacy and indecency in a society where women were to keep their hair covered in public – and Judas left to betray him (Mark 14.) Those who weren’t willing to reinterpret what they’d always believed COULDN’T follow Him.
I can’t help but wonder… are we any different today? Do we believe in miracles? Do we hold so tightly to our interpretations and understandings of the bible that we aren’t willing to have those beliefs challenged and changed? Would we recognize the Messiah if he were to come back today? Would we recognize him if he kept the Sabbath on Saturday or sacrificed a lamb for Passover? Would we recognize him if he ordained women as pastors, or baked a cake for a gay wedding? Would we recognize his power at a healing crusade, or acknowledge his love at an abortion clinic? More importantly, are we willing to go where he says go, and do what he says do? Are we willing to be the hands and feet that blaspheme, according to the religious leaders of our day? Or are these still the things that keep us from having a fully intimate relationship with Jesus today, even as they kept those most devoted to God from having a relationship with him, then?
1.) b.Yebamoth 49a; m Yebam. 4:13
2.) b. Sanh. 106a.