On Following Jesus

Fin comments on an earlier post:

couldn’t it be said that gringos like you (or gentiles, whatever fun g word you prefer) weren’t ever supposed to follow jesus in the first place?
the argument, and a compelling one at that, has been made that all the nice things jesus said really only applied to those of the jewish persuasion.

Point taken.  Incidentally, the early church had a pretty rigorous debate over that exact question pretty soon after its inception, and the issue of Gentile involvement with an originally Jewish movement pretty much dominates the whole book of Acts.  It appears that the whole Jesus movement proved attractive not only to some Jews, but also lots of Gentiles as well, and it was, you’re right, Paul who first really understood Jesus’ work to be opening salvation “first to the Jews, then to the Gentiles,” as he put it.  Naturally, if you don’t buy the theological moves Paul is making, then it’s not going to make much sense that Americans, Chinese, Kenyans, Russians, and so on are asking themselves what it means to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

The other big question is whether or not Jesus intended for Gentiles to ever follow him in the first place.  Historically, we can’t really know.  I mean, the Gospels, canonical and otherwise, are really the only substantive witness to Jesus’ life historians have, but of course, every Gospel, canonical and otherwise, is shaped by its own pre-understanding of who Jesus was and is.  So you can’t really be sure: maybe Jesus was pretty Gentile-friendly, as some texts suggest, maybe he wasn’t a huge fan, as others suggest, too.  What is almost certainly true is that Jesus understood his ministry as being to the Jews.  He stood in the prophetic tradition as a person seeking to reform Judaism.  Theologically, it’s his crucifixion and resurrection that make the meaning of Jesus possibly important to Gentiles in any meaningful, non-disinterested kind of way.

Which, I suppose, is why the Gospels—although they certainly interpret Jesus’s story to some degree—are not without the Letters in the Christian canon: events relayed in the Gospels are interpreted by Paul and the other biblical writers.

But at a simpler level, are we really willing to say that Jesus’ teachings aren’t worth at least considering, even if we are Gentiles?  I mean, if we all took the Sermon on the Mount seriously, for example, the world would surely be a better place to live.  Good ethics are good ethics, whether you’re Jew or Gentile.

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