Read Matthew 19:1-22.
Today, we see yet another conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees - this time around divorce. It's a good time for a slight detour, which is really not a detour at all. I encourage you to read this interview with Amy-Jill Levine, author of The Misunderstood Jew. The whole thing is worth your time; I promise. But if you don't have that time at the moment, at least read this much:
The Misunderstood Jew examines what many might call an elephant on the table. What does your truth-telling bring to light that, in turn, enlightens readers in ways that other books talking about Jesus the Jew have not?
Jesus was a first-century Jew who, like a number of his fellow Jews, taught love of G-d and neighbor, non-violent resistance to oppression, an openness to the grandeur and the presence of G-d, and a way of seeing the world as G-d would like it rather than as humanity had made it.
It is, unfortunately, easier to talk about a legalistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, elitist Judaism and then divorce Jesus from it than it is to recognize and correct the prejudices that create the stereotypes in the first place. It is easier to talk about how Jesus “frees his followers from the Law,” as if the Law were some sort of straight-jacket rather than the gift of G-d, than it is to proclaim the demands that Jesus placed on his followers: give without expectation of return, love the enemy, visit those in prison, become servant-leaders rather than corporate managers.
The Misunderstood Jew names the stereotypes that both Jews and Christians have of each other—in effect, it fusses at both Church and Synagogue members—explains how the stereotypes developed, and then separates the chaff of prejudice from the wheat of history.Christians reading the New Testament have a responsibility to develop a sophistication about this, and not just to read Matthew at face-value. For some who have a more literalistic view of Scripture this sounds scary - but it's crucial. The early Church in its wisdom gave us four gospels, not just one homogenized one. Matthew is the most "Jewish" of those gospels but in being the most Jewish that means it also has the perspective of conflict between Jews who accept Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and Jews who do not. Like all four gospels, it is presented "on a slant." It is at times polemical.
It is therefore not simply a matter of being "PC" for us to become aware that a "legalistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, elitist Judaism" set up in contrast to an inclusive loving Jesus is hardly a "no-spin zone." The goal as more honest and faithful readers of the text is to become aware that Matthew presents the Pharisees as a foil to Jesus, probably unfairly. Re-situating Jesus in his larger Jewish context helps twenty-first century Christians not only better understand ourselves, but also our Jewish neighbors. To avoid this hard work is to put ourselves into the position of violating the commandment against bearing false witness against our neighbor.
To say all of this in another way - the portrayal of "the scribes and Pharisees" in Matthew's Gospel (or of "the Jews" in John's Gospel) makes it seem like Jesus has this brand new teaching that is radically different from "legalistic first-century Judaism." That's just not true; and the reality is that Jesus - a good Jewish rabbi - needs to be re-situated within that larger Jewish context to more deeply appreciate his teachings.