Jesus, The Church, And My Cultural Identity: Part II

Part II: Jesus Dignified Other Cultures

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Israel had a long history of cultural supremacy (see Isaiah 18, 66; Amos 9; and of course Jonah 4 is a prime example), and Jesus challenged this sin in many ways. (In Mark 11:17, Jesus states very specifically, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations…” because Israel was excluding Gentiles from participating in worship.) One of the most powerful ways Jesus challenged Israel’s cultural supremacy was in the way He dignified people of other cultures.

First, let’s look at two specific examples where Jesus acknowledges the dignity of cultures that many first century Jews considered undignified and unworthy.

In John 4, we have the story of the woman at the well. The region of Samaria was commonly considered “unclean.” Most devout Jews would avoid the region entirely. Jesus does not. In fact, the text indicates that Jesus had an inner compulsion leading Him to feel He “had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4).

Jesus demonstrates His care for Samaritans by traveling through the area. He is a Jewish rabbi, and He is not concerned with becoming unclean by walking through the region of Samaria. But He does even more. He stops and takes a break.

Do you pick gas stations in “seedy” parts of town for pit stops on your road trips? Jesus does. He gives the disciples no choice but to go into town to get something to eat. (Bad enough for them. They will have to interact with Samaritan merchants!) He sits down and waits for the disenfranchised woman to show up.

Jesus dignifies her with a conversation. He dignifies her by engaging in an exchange of mutuality. (He was thirsty for water. She was thirsty for dignity.) He dignifies her by sharing her water pitcher and probably even her water dipper. (Drinking after a Samaritan!?!?) He dignifies her by offering her the truth and offering her an opportunity to be an agent of the truth.

Through this exchange, Jesus elevates a “foreign” woman (who is considered unclean and a sinner) to the status of a recipient of grace. What Jesus does next is a grace that He has not bestowed on any Jewish man at this point in John’s gospel account. He tells her plainly that He is the Messiah.

The woman leaves her belongings and encourages the entire village to meet Jesus. He stays and lives among them for two days. There can be no doubt, Jesus did nothing to disdain the Samaritan people. He corrected their misguided understandings about who God is and how He should be worshipped, but did not adjust their culture.

In Mark 5, we have to read between the lines a little bit. Jesus goes to a region that is a Gentile area. He casts demons from a man into a herd of pigs. He tells the man that he cannot become a disciple and that he must return home. Home, apparently, is in the region of the Decapolis (ten predominantly Gentile towns), since that’s where he goes to bear witness of what Jesus did for him. In other words, the Gadarene demoniac (we don’t know his name) was a Gentile.

Why did Jesus cross over to this region and do nothing other than heal this man? We don’t know. The Bible does not directly answer that question. But, we can infer from the encounter that Jesus gave His disciples a foretaste of what the church must do. Eventually, after His resurrection and after Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples must follow His example and engage the Gentile world with the power of the gospel.

Why? Because Jesus acknowledges both the dignity and the brokenness of non-Jewish people. Only the power of the gospel can redeem them. Only Jesus can restore their true purpose as humans: to worship Him and proclaim His power to redeem. This no-named Gentile demoniac healed by Jesus becomes the first missionary. Before Jesus gives His disciples the Great Commission, He sends this Gentile home to testify to what He has done.

Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues to dignify other cultures. In Revelation chapters 5 and 7, we see the beautiful picture of many nations worshiping Jesus. He doesn’t stop them from singing praises in different languages. He doesn’t require them to learn a universal language in order to worship “properly.” Jesus receives and redeems worship from a host of cultural expressions.

It gets even better. In Philippians 2, we see a very important desire in the heart of God. I think we remember Philippians 2 incorrectly sometimes. We think it says that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess…” But that’s not what Paul wrote. He wrote that “every knee SHOULD bow” (a desire that every person would view Jesus as King) and “every tongue SHOULD confess” (a desire that every spoken language would acknowledge His Kingship) “to the glory of God the father.”

Jesus WANTS every culture and every person within that culture to acknowledge the beautiful gift that His Father has given Him: the name above every other name. Jesus wants every nation, tribe, and language to express their enculturated praise for His Father. And the Father wants it for the Son, and the Spirit seeks to make it happen in the many-colored members of the church.

Because we are all part of each other.

But being part of each other doesn’t mean we leave our cultural heritage behind. In our next post, we will begin to explore how our shared (or corporate) identity connects to our dignified, ethnic identities. Hopefully, we will begin to see the picture of God’s vision for us to have unity with diversity.

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Wesley Price lives in East Atlanta with his amazing wife, Angey. Cullen and Lincoln are the little people that you see them with. Wesley was previously a worship pastor for 12 years, and now works in IT. Angey and Wesley are members of Blueprint Church and are a part of the Grant Park Missional Community.