Summary: A look at the religious groups of Jesus day and how they were affected by their culture (as might be): 1. Zealots 2.Phariasees 3. Saduccees 4. Scribes 5. Herodians 6. Essenes
How would you like it if someone spit on you? In our cultural setting it would be a sign of disrespect, an attempt to shame and humiliate a person. But for some cultures, it has an entirely different meaning. I am reading a wonderful book entitled Christianity Rediscovered. It is written by a priest who went to minister to the Masai tribe in Tanzania. The Catholic church had been present among the Masai building schools and hospitals, and ministering to the various needs of the people, but there were no visible results. Not one convert could be pointed to, even after 100 years of ministry among them. Vincent Donovan decided to go and simply tell the story of Jesus to them. He would look for things in the Masai culture and their traditions to find links to the Christian message. One of the most unusual traditions was what happened if a person sinned against another, especially if a son sinned against his father. The son would be banished from the community and shunned by the father’s friends. Donovan explains this unusual tradition in his own words: “Sometimes the peers of the father would encourage him to ask God for the “spittle of forgiveness” so that he could forgive his son and bring blessing once again on the village. Spittle, a very sacred element of a living, breathing human, was considered the sign of forgiveness. It was not just a sign, as we might be inclined to describe it, or an empty sign bereft of meaning. It was an African sign, which means it was a symbolism in which the sign is as real as the thing it signifies. (We might call it an effective sign, one in which the sign effects what it signifies. We could even call it a sacrament.) In other words, spittle was not just a sign of forgiveness. It was forgiveness. And so the father prayed to God for that spittle. Sometimes it was not granted him. He could spend the night on a mountainside praying for it. Sometimes it is given him. Whenever it is, word is sent immediately out to the bush to the guilty son. During that same period that son might have been advised time and time again by his own peers to return and ask forgiveness of his father. . . . If word does come that the spittle of forgiveness has been granted his father, he will be earnestly entreated by his peers to take advantage of it. They will accompany him back to the village. And his father will be waiting with the other elders. The two groups will cross from different sides of the village towards each other in the center. When they arrive there together, the son will ask his father’s forgiveness, and the father will spit on him, and forgiveness comes, and there is great rejoicing.”
Because of the Masai culture and traditions, they see being spit upon very differently than those of us who live in this culture. In fact, the two understandings of being spit upon could not be further apart. That’s what cultures and traditions do. They color our understanding of things and how we respond to them. The meaning of Jesus’ statements, which come from the Jewish culture and tradition which existed two thousand years ago, can be totally misunderstood by Christians living in the United States in the 21st century. We come from vastly different cultures which see things very differently. As a small example, if you entered my home and I asked you to take off your shoes and washed your feet, and then smeared olive oil on your head, you probably would not like it. You might think I was unstable. But these were common courtesies extended to guests in Jesus’ day. They would not sit at a table, but they would recline on one elbow on the floor to eat. There may be a small, low table, and there may not. As a good Jew, Jesus covered his head when he prayed. There was a myriad of cultural distinctives that Jesus observed with which we would be uncomfortable.
And even the people of Jesus’ day reacted and responded very differently to his message. People then, as now, were very different from each other. They saw things differently. They thought and reacted differently. They behaved differently. And certainly, they were different in their religious expression. There was not one unified way of being a Jew in Jesus’ day. There was not one definitive way of living for God. People’s response to the Scriptures varied greatly, as they do today. They had different understandings of what it meant to please God and live out their faith.
Let’s look at some of the different religious groups that existed in Jesus’ day. The first was: The Zealots. The Zealots believed it was wrong for Rome to occupy Israel. They refused to pay tribute to Rome, because the only king was the God of Israel. They were, after all, God’s people. Hadn’t God given them the Promise Land? Hadn’t God called them to be his special people? How could they be special when they were occupied by an evil nation? Did they not need to be free to practice their religion without interference from the Romans? Shouldn’t God’s people be free to rule themselves, or to put it better, to be ruled by God? After all, God had called them to be a holy nation, and that was not possible when it was occupied by pagans.