3 Ways Understanding Jesus's Cultural Context Helps Me
In two weeks I will attend a series of professional meetings in San Antonio, TX. Years ago at such a meeting I roomed with a long-time friend from another university. We stayed up late one night, talking and catching up, in spite of the fact that I had a very early breakfast meeting the next morning. So, when I awoke before dawn to get dressed for my meeting it was still dark outside, and, trying not to disturb my roommate, I reached for my glasses on the nightstand and made my way to the bathroom. Suddenly, I felt dizzy and disoriented. I thought, “What is wrong with me?” But I made it to the bathroom, took a shower and dressed. Again, as I was walking down the hall to the elevators, the dizziness and disorientation hit me in waves, causing me to feel somewhat nauseous. I started worrying about brain tumors! But as I turned the corner and approached the full-length mirror on the outside of the elevator, I noticed something strange—my glasses had changed color, from brown to burgundy! Then I remembered that my roommate’s glasses, which had been lying on the nightstand, were the same shape as mine but a different color. In the dark, I had inadvertently grabbed the wrong pair of glasses and they messed up my perception of the world!
As we read the teachings of Jesus, something similar can happen. If I simply wear my “cultural glasses,” the way of looking at the world which has been crafted in my own cultural context, the teaching of Jesus can be skewed. I may not feel disoriented, since I am comfortable in my culture, but I may have a skewed vision of what Jesus is saying, missing aspects of his powerful, culture-altering message. So how might learning more about the cultures of Jesus’s day help us? How might Jesus speak from his cultural contexts to our cultural moments, so that our lives can be changed?
1. Understanding Jesus’s cultural context helps me hear the intended impact of Jesus’s teaching.
For instance, consider the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Remember that when the son came to his senses, starved and worn out with his wasteful life, he decided to go home. By stringent guidelines of the culture (think of the directions in Proverbs for dealing with a rebellious son!), the father had every right to turn the son away and treat him harshly. Yet, when the son stepped over the horizon, moving from his life of rebellion to the home where he had been raised, the father saw him coming. He ran to his son. Some scholars point out that an important, socially-respectable patriarch did not run in public. He was dignified. People ran to him, not the other way around. This part of the story would have shocked Jesus’s audience. The father did the unthinkable in terms of social norms—because of a love-infused grace. Jesus is telling us: the Father’s love is reckless in the eyes of the world. Rather than stand-offish, God enthusiastically embraces those who repent and turn to him.
2. Understanding Jesus’s cultural context keeps me from mis-hearing Jesus.
One of the most jarring stories in the gospels is found in Matt. 15:21-28, where we are told about a Gentile mother’s faith. Kenneth Bailey sums up the story the way many people tend to hear it:
“A sincere foreign woman seeks help from Jesus. At first he ignores her. He then appears to exhibit racism and insensitivity to her suffering as he insults her in public. Yes, he does finally heal her daughter, but only after the mother demonstrates a willingness to be publicly humiliated.”
Yet, this reading of the story misses key aspects of the cultural backdrop. First, as Bailey points out, rather than individualistic, the culture of Jesus’s day was profoundly oriented to community, and we should read the story, thinking through the bigger group in the scene, specifically the disciples. Notice that they are the ones who say, “Send her away!” Jesus stays quiet initially to see how they would respond (he is teaching them something). They may have been saying, “Do what she wants so she will leave us alone!,” which would make sense of his answer, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24).
Yet, as Bailey and commentators on Matthew point out, Jesus, in good rabbinic fashion, said this to draw the woman into a conversation (which was radical in itself—Jewish men did not talk to Gentiles or women). When she cries out again, “Lord help me!!,” he responds with a proverb, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.” This sounds harsh, but it is not (and I think Jesus may have said it with a smile on his face). As scholar Larry Hurtado explains, the form of the word for “dog” here means “little dog” or “puppy,” a word that was never used in a derogatory manner in ancient Greek. What is in mind is a household setting involving children and a pet, not the violent dogs of the street. So Jesus is not calling her a derogatory name; so what is he doing?
Jesus is using a word picture in which food is fed to the children of the house first. They are the priority. In effect Jesus is asking her, “Why would you say that I should turn from my first priority, the people of Israel, and help you?” She responds (and I think she may have smiled in return, even in her desperation), “. . . even the puppies eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!” She takes the proverb and turns it around in a brilliant way! She answers in effect, “Surely God’s goodness can extend to me, even though I am a Gentile and not the current priority of your mission." Jesus loves her answer and celebrates her faith, curing her daughter.
3. Understanding Jesus's cultural context can draw me out of my cultural box and challenge my cultural values.
As we understand the implications of Jesus’s teaching for those in the ancient culture, it can help us reflect deeply on parallels in our own culture—and hear the call of discipleship, a call to be counter-cultural in our own day. If, for instance, I understand the deep, violent racial divide between Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’s time, the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 challenges me to consider my own racial, ethnic, and cultural prejudices and invites me to push back against them. But I cannot hear Jesus—and hear Jesus speak to me about “my neighbor”—if I don’t first understand how culturally radical his teaching was in his day.
So let’s learn to tune into the cultural dynamics that form the backdrop of our Gospels. We will hear Jesus more clearly and, hopefully, live out his teaching more faithfully.