Holy Asides
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July 10, 2014, 9:13 AM

Looking at Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes

I wrote before that I would mention in this space some of the authors and books that have shaped me. I was fortunate enough to not only read Kenneth Bailey’s books, but to hear live lectures and audit a class taught by him. Ken Bailey spent forty years teaching the New Testament in seminaries in the Middle East, and his writings and scholarship presented me with a whole new way of reading and studying the Bible.


I had always enjoyed many of the stories and parables of the Bible. Stories like the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan and the Woman at the Well were already insightful and interesting passages. But Dr. Bailey’s teachings specifically delved into looking at cultural background. In other words, what did the original audience see and hear? For instance, the reader knows already that the woman at the well is an outcast because she is at the well at noontime, when no one else will be around. The Prodigal Son, asking for his inheritance, is saying, “I wish you were dead.” The priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan was “keeping the law” by avoiding the unconscious victim, because he was not legally able to get close enough to the body to see if he was alive or dead without risking becoming “unclean.”


These little nuggets (along with countless more) transformed the scriptures and allowed me to begin making the connections of cultural realities in that day to the present. The excuse one man makes of not being able to attend the wedding because he has just bought five yoke of oxen and has to see how they work together, is as preposterous as someone saying, “I just bought five used cars and I need to see if they have engines in them.” In other words, it’s a lame excuse. And everyone knows that it’s a lame excuse. That’s the point. What does it mean when we make lame excuses to the King of kings? 


In this Sunday’s gospel reading, Jesus teaches the Parable of the Friend at Midnight. The cultural background transforms not only the story but the theological reality concerning prayer and why we pray. The importance of hospitality and community is so important in the Middle East, compared with much of our Western culture today, that we can miss the true message of this passage. When Jesus asks the question, can you imagine someone saying, “Sorry, I can’t get up because the doors are locked and my children are sleeping,” when his neighbor came looking for bread?—The answer was “NO!!!!” That is ridiculous, no one would do that. Hospitality is too important.


How then does this parable address the way we pray? You can find out two ways…come Sunday and hear the sermon (or wait until it’s online) or read about it in one of Kenneth Bailey’s books. Through Peasant Eyes  or Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes provide the best starting places. I would classify these as intermediate books—they are not so basic as a Max Lucado, but not so theological as a commentary either. I promise you will be blessed through these readings, and the scriptures will be opened to you in a whole new way. 

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