One of the more frequently used quotes from the great baseball player, Yogi Berra, is “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This thought also is expressed by Robert Frost in his poem, “The Road Not Taken”:
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”.
W. Scott Peck drew inspiration from Robert Frost for his series of The Road Less Traveled books. The road we choose is very important in determining where our journey leads. As George Harrison said in his song, “Any Road”:
“If you don’t know where you’re going,
Any road will take you there.”
Early in its history, the church left Jesus behind when the church took the easier and more popular road rather than “the one less traveled by”. That road was the one that began as an adaptation of Jewish liturgy and worship so that it focused upon Jesus as the central figure for the life, history and future of the Jewish people. The first leaders in the church were Jews, so adaptation of the Jewish liturgy and worship makes sense. After all, that is what they knew. That is what the Jews would understand. The use of the many metaphors and parables to explain the message of Jesus is thought to have been easier among the Jews in the early days.
This approach of ignoring the full story of Jesus has worked for many years, but it is well beyond the time to return to the fork in the road.
Many theologians and other writers over the centuries have discussed this phenomenon which appears to have been recognized for what it was during the first three centuries since Jesus. As time has moved on from the first century CE, the beginnings of both the Jews and Jesus have been buried under the misunderstandings (perhaps convenient misunderstandings) or even laziness and ignorance of early Christians. During the first thousand years, the church faced a struggle to survive. It was also helpful to explain things in terms of the understanding of society at the time. The various cultures already had standards for worship and religion. It was more effective if preachers adapted to the locale in order to gain followers. I believe we can grant these earlier Christians grace and understanding for their behaviors. It was the best they could do at that time.
Since I am not writing this for theologians, I will provide a separate list of references for those who wish to study further. My interest lies in addressing how to move beyond the standardized sermon. I do not want to cloud the picture in the manner that professional scholars of that sort can do.
When a comparative study is done with the writings of the New Testament in relation to stories in the Old Testament, you can see how Jesus’s message was a telling of the story of God’s love that had always been there. The law and the prophets (Old Testament) had it all. The difference is that Jesus lived the love of God so we could see that it is possible to live that way.
One of the most important examples of parallels between the Old Testament and the New Testament is in the story behind the most important commandments (MIC). The story has Jesus handling a question from the Pharisees in such a plain, matter of fact manner that it can be easy to miss the importance and the origin of the story. Matthew 22:36-40 can be traced back to the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and a further teaching of love in Leviticus 19:18. (When one finds these passages in the Old Testament, it is easy to notice that they are surrounded by commandments and laws that sound rather strange today.) The Jews preached the MIC long before Jesus arrived. Like the church today, the more powerful and influential of the religious leaders of the day failed to focus on the message of love that has always been central to the will of God.
Other examples can be found in the parables, miracles, the Christmas story, and the Easter story. In fact, the Jews who wrote the New Testament can be said to have constructed the story of Jesus in light of Judaism by borrowing stories and themes to explain who Jesus is and what Jesus meant to them. Since the writers of the New Testament fashioned stories from the Old Testament around Jesus, does that mean the stories are not true? To me, the stories are very true. They may not be factual but they remain the truth. How can this be? One must consider the purposes of the stories and the traditions and methods of the Jews of 2,000 years ago in order to see the real meanings and the truth that is in the stories.
I think most people recognize that as Jesus told a parable, he was not necessarily relating a factual story, but Jesus was delivering a truth. An example from the use of parables is known as the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is found in Luke 10:25-37.
25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”
26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”[a]
28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31 Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way.33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34 The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36 What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”
37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
I doubt that anybody claims that there really was an incident where a man is beaten and left to die by the side of the road, then a priest passes him by followed by a Levite who avoids the man before finally a Samaritan stops to help the man. Yet, we see this as the truth. Not fact, but truth. Truth in the story. The story is not composed of facts, but it holds great truth for us.
More about the Jewish heritage of the followers of Jesus in the next post. How did the writers of the Bible use metaphors? I will include more about using Old Testament stories to explain Jesus. I am returning to the fork in the road.