Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Presence Behind the Piety

Oh, The Places!

There is a lot to look at when analyzing text. Particularly sacred scriptures. There's doctrine, lessons, cross-references, actions... the list goes on and on. Different passages of scripture lend themselves to different kinds of analysis. Luke 4 is particularly kind to setting—where is Jesus? It is very interesting to see how Jesus conducts himself in various different settings and what that can teach us about our own reactions when we find ourselves in these same places.

The Pious Place

The first place we see Jesus is the synagogue in Luke 4:15. Technically, we could begin with Jesus' wilderness experience as the narrative flows nicely from there. However, we could also technically keep going back to the beginning of the book (not necessarily a bad thing) but we must start somewhere and the synagogue is a logical place for this study.

The synagogue was a place of piety with a rich tradition in it's own right. Some scholars believe the synagogues were established during the Babylonian exile, which would make sense as the people would need some way to express their devotion to God when a trip to the temple would be impossible. By the time of the Maccabees, synagogues were commonplace. In fact, the temple during Jesus' time was used as a synagogue.

Scholars are divided as to the nature of the synagogue, however. Traditions like these do not typically spring up as a fully-developed entity. Most likely, synagogues began as public meeting places out in the open, like down by the river or at some other landmark. This particular practice was still in use in the first century C.E., as borne out by New Testament observations of Jewish prayer meetings that were held by the river. After some time, the formal synagogue was to be convened once there were ten men in an area that were devoted to the meeting. It was critical that the synagogue was a local entity, as it allowed the faithful to meet together on the Sabbath without breaking the law regarding steps allowed to be taken.

As a result of the rise of the synagogue, temple worship and animal sacrifice was replaced in importance by synagogue worship and the reading and analysis of the Torah. The synagogue was not equipped with the temple furniture and instruments, but could easily accommodate scripture reading and study. As a result of this paradigm shift, the following two elements followed suit:
  1. The role and importance of the priesthood was replaced by the scribe—a scholar whose expertise was the study and interpretation of the sacred scriptures.
  2. Judaism shifted from a "symbolic religion" to a "book religion." In other words, they became less reliant on the symbols (burnt offerings, the laver, etc.) and more reliant on their scriptures.
This did not occur overnight, it was a gradual process that perhaps started out of a community need and certainly grew into a community fixture. This transformation of Judaism is clearly seen in the religious atmosphere surrounding Jesus and the early church.

A Pious Problem

All that seems well and fine, except for one minor problem: God never instructed the Hebrews to set up the synagogue system. We have very detailed instructions on how and where to build the Temple. We have specific instructions on the furnishings that should be used in the Temple. We have explicit instructions regarding the priests who should minister inside the Temple. Further, we have these same details regarding the Temple's predecessor: the Tabernacle. But God is silent with regard to synagogue and synagogue worship.

Psalm 74:8 seems to mention a synagogues. This fits in with the history, as the Psalm appears to describe the destruction of the Babylonian conquest. However, this is the only potential reference in the Old Testament to synagogue worship, albeit a positive one. Or negative, bemoaning the fact that they are being destroyed.

In this case, you would expect Jesus, the Son of God, to completely blast the system. You expect him to show up at the synagogue and rail against the traditions of men and overturn the uncommissioned appliances. But he does not. Quite the opposite, actually. Jesus honors the tradition by attending the synagogue and even partaking in the liturgy. By doing so, he inspires Paul, James, Peter and the other disciples to do the same. In fact, we know that the early church attended synagogue on the Sabbath and met together on Sundays well into the second century.

The Potential Payoff

What could this mean? Why would God honor an institution that he did not explicitly institute? Notice what Jesus does inside the synagogue. He reads the scripture, just as they would normally have done. Then he takes the spotlight away from the prophecy and places it squarely on himself. He uses the gathering for its actual purpose: The worship of the one true God.

Traditions are not the problem, vanity is the problem. Symbols aren't the problem, emptiness is the problem. The patriarchs set up memorial stones. Animal sacrifices pointed to a God who wanted to cover their sin. The Tabernacle represented a God who wants to be with his people. The Temple proves that God wants to be a permanent fixture in man's life. The Lord's Supper remembers that God became flesh and blood and offers his eternal life to mankind. These traditions are good and useful when they remind us of truth. They can become rotten.

This principle is what Samuel was getting at when he said that God takes no pleasure in sacrifice, but in obedience. We perform these traditions because we have the one true God in view and we desire to please him. If the synagogue was established to help the congregation know the word of God more intimately, why wouldn't the Word of God present himself there?

Sadly, the people in Nazareth did not believe Messiah was in their midst. This section ends with an assassination attempt on Jesus. Instead of being filled with worship, they were filled with rage. They were outraged that their customs were being blasphemed, proving that their piety had blinded them so they could not recognize the presence of God. This is a danger for us too.

May our traditions never be in vain. May we always recognize the Presence behind the piety and allow him to shine through it.
Christopher M. Jimenez. Powered by Blogger.

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