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Monday, 13 February 2012

The Gospels and the Jewish year Luke and Feb.

Reading Luke chapter 2 verses 40 to 51 

I start with a quote from Christopher Sande a member at John Pounds Unitarian Church he has an interest in following Jewish festivals and has provided me a few notes to work on..

For us this festival  of  the “new year for the trees” is a wonderful opportunity to give thanks for the wide variety of fruit that our world possesses, and to remember that despite the bleakness of the weather and landscape at this point in the year, the spring will come, and the trees will blossom and fruits will once again hang from tree after tree. Likewise when life may seem harsh and empty one can keep hold of the hope that good times, in some form or another, will return.
This festival originally marked the beginning of the agricultural year, for the specific purpose of calculating the tithing of fruit. (Fruit from trees blossoming prior to this date are last year’s harvest, after this date this year’s.) As this is the time of year that almond trees blossom in the Land of Israel, the festival is seen as the harbinger of spring. Over the years many traditions have developed around the day, and today it is primarily observed by eating fruit, especially fruit of the trees that the bible praises the Land of Israel for: Pomegranates, Olives, Grapes and Dates.
But the Torah says, "Man is a tree of the field." We are nurtured by deep roots, as far back as Abraham and Sarah; we reach upwards to the heavens while standing firmly on the ground; and when we do all this right, we produce fruits that benefit the world—namely our good deeds. (So said our reading by Adrian)
When we start to look at Lukes Gospel in line with the then Jewish festivals, Luke is relfecting much of this in his writing about the early life of Jesus. It is a sort of preamble. To the good deeds Jesus did in later life, starting with his pre existance that shows his roots.  So there is a parallel here to the jewish festival, but we have to take on board Luke whoever he was, was not jewish. So his gospel is a gentile interpretation of the life of Jesus and he does not get it accurate to Jewish or hebrew understanding.
If you had a bible to hand the passages surounding the picture given of Jesus being at the temple aged 12 we heard read ,are about Jesus roots and another  odd geneology account is given, different to the one in Matthew. Get to verse 34 of chapter 3 and it states..Son of Abraham and ends that section with son of Adam son of God. Luke is giving us a litergy he is making a case for Jesus being rooted on earth but streaching in time towards the heavens, like a tree.  Claiming his roots are in the divine nature of God himself. Lukes overall purpose is to interpret Jesus in the light of  the hebrew scriptures, so he uses names for people to give his writing a hebrew scriptures root. Names such as Zacheriah for the father of John the Baptist and Sarah as his mother are less about historical accuracy and more about using names from the Hebrew scriptures to interpret Jesus.  Zacheriah is actually one of the last of the minor prophets of the hebrew scriptures. But Luke uses this name for the father of John The Baptist althought this prophet was far to early to have actually been the physical father of John the Baptist.
But actually in the mystical traditions of judaism this festival has another ancient link to being a pre existant hidden thought to the creation of man by a cosmic picture of what may be termed god. The very thought of existance was celebrated in the Jeweish festival now known as the New Year for the trees. Hence come back to this gospel of Luke and we have some clues to this in a write up that this thought of a creation was first seen in a baby, seen by Simeon at the temple who in the baby jesus saw the light of the gentiles in this child..  In order to fully understand how Luke is thinking requires us to know the context of Jewish thinking at the time in relation to hebrew scripture.  Not such an easy task as there were several strands of thinking. What we can say about the Judaistic people of the time is they followed a way  of life. The time of the Gospels are centered on the synagogue life that would consist of a reading of the Torah , prophets and other writings handed down from generation to generation.  Then telling stories that reflect the scripture and interpret them, this is what the gospels try to do.
To us today looking from outside of the Jewish tradition we perhaps fail to see that much of this way of living a life was a reasoned approach at the time. It was all about the use of nature as a teaching method to pass on the observations about the roots of the people.  It was a community way of life marked by the seasons and times, every year a little growth of thinking is added.  Gospel writers like Luke at this point are trying to add to this reasoned way of thinking. But their problem is the main authroities of the time disagree.. Eventually these (sect) “followers of the way” such as Luke are excommuuicated from the synagogues and the Jewish community went on without these writings being accepted. Now if you know any rabbis today, youll know they are a very studious people who know their scriptures very well. Hardly suprising that a plaguist like Luke  who pulls names out of hebrew scripture not understanding their significance, led to the birth of christianity away from its jewish roots.  These litergies as they were had to stand away from Jewish thinking from this point on, and lost their significance as related to the Jewish litergical year. At this point the early church is no longer a sect of judaism.  Instead it becomes something else, but the jewish way of life continues to this day..
It's a funny way of inhabiting time, this Jewish calendar of ours. Every seventh day a holiday. Every new moon a holiday. And then, studding the year like jewels in a crown, the festivals, each with its own music, its own flavor, both literally and metaphorically. Writes the Velveteen Rabbi online in her blog.

What is perhaps even more funny is that people later on the readers of what became the New Testament were trying to reinterpret a way of life as being found in one life that of Jesus. But they often removed from context these early gospels and made claims and alliances with other ways of life. These did not always reflect the gospels.  Often later generations have taken completely out of context these writings. Some have often missed the need to do good deads… This is at the root of the gospels.

This week I have been particularly mindful of the fact that some 200 years ago another writer was born, in Portsmouth. His works were and are still are considered great writings. I am of course talking here of Charles Dickens. For much of his adult life he identified with some powerful USA Unitarians, such as Channing who he maintained a long friendship with. In London he attended Essex Street and Little Portland Street Unitarian Chapels, but in later years moved to Rochester to be with family and returned nominally to the Church of England because there was no Unitarian Chapel in the area. At this time the Church of England also became a broader Church. Separated by distance he remained friends with Unitarians all his life.

Dickens's religious beliefs were those of most 19th century British Unitarians. In his will he urged his children to adopt a liberal, tolerant, and non-sectarian interpretation of Christianity, "the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit." He recommended they "put no faith in any man's narrow construction" of isolated passages. In The Life of Our Lord, written for his children and not published until 1934, Dickens summarized his faith as "to do good always." He believed humanity, created in the image of the divine, retained a seed of good. He preached the gospel of the second chance. The world would be a better place if, with a change of heart, people were to treat others with kindness and generosity. (Taken from web site UUA on Dickens)

Unitarians these days still sometimes look at our roots, looking at the Festivals of the Jewish year, and looking at the context of gospels once held as sacred can reassure us that we are still growing from our ancient roots. Others have been a part of what we are today, people like Charles Dickens have been a part of our past growth, and he too found strength and inspiration from Unitarian roots. Reason tolerance and freedom of religion are how we allow growth.
Those roots we still feed from now they can help us to produce good fruit. When I think about this old meeting place I often see it as an old olive tree. Those who have been around a long time may remember I spoke of the olive tree once before. Some olive trees have roots a couple of thousand years old, new growth can come to old stumps and trees can re-grow. We have started to see new growth.  Perhaps we stand more firmly on the ground than other ways of doing religion, we have allowed ourselves to evolve in our understanding and not to stick to one perception of any given religion. Our organized kindness does benefit the world already and there is no shortage of need to be satisfied. May we grow to do more good deeds as we stretch out our branches in the year ahead…
Let it be so..

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