“Now the birth of the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
The birth narratives in the gospels concerning Jesus of Nazareth all proclaim that his life and work have a divine origin—that it is not human parentage or family DNA that account for Jesus’ astounding ministry but rather the Holy Spirit.
But in so accentuating Jesus’ distinctiveness and singularity as the chosen one of God, the birth narratives have tended to overshadow and overwhelm Jesus’ identity as a Jew.
The birth narratives have often been read in such a way as to effectively erase Jesus’ Jewishness.
Representing Jesus as a divine figure stripped of his Jewish identity who is killed by Jews has had calamitous consequences—this notion has historically ignited wave after wave of virulent anti-Semitism.
And furthermore to separate Jesus from his Jewishness is not only to divorce him from his roots, his heritage, his ethnicity.
It is also to ignore and deny the reality that Jesus’ faith was Jewish through and through.
To borrow a bit of a riff from Dr. Seuss, Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish one hundred per cent.
We could say that what Jesus did was not abandon or reject Jewish faith but reform and universalize it—which seems to be what the apostle Paul is continually getting at.
It could be argued that the effect of Jesus’ ministry was to explode the tribal boundaries of Jewish faith and make that faith available to all of us—and that he extended the meaning of neighbor exponentially to encompass the Gentile, the alien, the leper.
It took me a long time to catch on to the peculiar nature of Jewish faith.
You see, I have this reclusive streak—my natural bent is toward a religious practice that is private and solitary with my neighbor as an add-on and after-thought.
But gradually I’ve become more and more convinced that the genius of Jewish faith is its insistence that love of God and neighbor are inseparable and indivisible—and that one cannot get to the kingdom of God by leapfrogging over one’s neighbor.
Certainly the Divine Spirit is always as accessible to us as the air we breathe and the manifestations of grace are innumerable.
But this Jewish faith obstinately contends that the primary disclosure of God to us is through the face of our neighbor, even that ornery, disagreeable, exasperating neighbor, maybe especially that neighbor!
Our neighbor challenges, demands, irritates, interrupts, and ultimately blesses us by liberating us from our self-confinement, our self-imprisonment.
Jesus’ words echo here—“Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it”—for we never have ourselves as much as when we are drawn out of ourselves by our neighbor—in this sense, the neighbor is the agent of our salvation.
Actually it seems that this Jewish faith, this faith of Jesus and the prophets, is an unnatural, perverse kind of faith that runs counter to all our instincts—for it says that the true test of faith is what we do when our neighbor tries his or her best to undo us!
According to this faith, we are emphatically our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, even those brothers and sisters who most strenuously oppose us.
And here’s something else Jewish faith ardently believes in—the absolute importance of small goodness—not grand gestures, overblown promises, heroic interventions—but incidents of small goodness which are the principle means of grace.
This faith suggests to us that the highest vocation to which we can aspire is to be the bearer of small goodness to our neighbor.
It is this small goodness that the Jewish Russian author Vasily Grossman is referring to when he speaks of those ordinary, everyday, “senseless, stupid” acts of kindness that turn out to be infinitely more important than all the weighty pronouncements about virtue and morality by politicians and prelates.
More than anything, it seems, it is the gift of small goodness that comes to us again and again that lights our way, brightens our mood, lightens our load, and gives us strength for our journey.
This fellow gets on an elevator with a young woman who has head phones dangling from her ears—as soon as the door closes, she removes them and the two of them ride silently down to ground level.
As she exits and walks away, her fellow rider regrets not having said something about her act of courtesy.
But then as he returns from lunch and is headed for the elevator, this same young woman is just getting on, recognizes him, and holds the door open—she has already taken her ear phones out.
This time he thanks her for being so respectful of a stranger’s sensitivities—she smiles and says she has a five foot rule—when she’s within five feet of someone she always takes her ear phones out.
How this act of small goodness contrasts with what I observed the other morning at Starbucks when a certain customer held up the line for five minutes while he ordered a complicated drink at the same time he was trying in a loud voice to complete a business transaction on his cell phone.
A woman has just gotten off a plane at a bustling metropolitan airport and because of construction, there is no covered jetway to the baggage claim area—so bags are being unloaded on the tarmac.
Thinking she wouldn’t need a coat until she left the airport, she had checked it with the rest of her things.
It is 25 degrees and a bitter wind is whipping across the cold, hard surface where she’s standing in a T-shirt.
Another woman passenger notices that this lady’s unprotected and shuddering in the cold.
This stranger proceeds to unzip her down coat and bundles them both in the warm folds of this coat until the bags are delivered some minutes later.
What’s remarkable about these occasions when we are blessed by small goodness is that we often remember these incidents for a lifetime such as when I was a third grader starting a new school and full of apprehension and a classmate came up to me and said, “I’m going to show you around today so that you feel a little bit at home.”
These incidents of small goodness have a way of resonating down through the years and becoming a moveable feast that continues to nourish us.
The Jewish faith of Jesus and the prophets exalts ordinary, everyday events to a sacramental level.
It’s through the prism of this faith that we are able to perceive that our neighbor in need is a stand-in for God.
It’s through the prism of this faith that we are able to perceive that the simple giving and receiving of small goodness is a function of the Divine Spirit widening our hearts and mending our wounded selves. Amen.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church