At the time Jesus was born, the people of Israel as a group were pretty isolationist. They refused to participate in the religions or even the customs of the Roman empire. You might think that the Jews of the day were hostile to all outsiders, but that wasn’t necessarily true. Among the non-Jews who interacted with the people of Israel, some were identified as “righteous,” decent people even though they weren’t Jewish. These were friends and neighbors who had been living among the people of Israel from the very beginning.
When Moses led the people out of Egypt, the group included some who weren’t Jewish even then. When Moses received the law, and brought it to the people for their acceptance, some of those in the crowd who accepted the covenant weren’t Israelites. They’d escaped from Egypt with the people, and traveled with them, but they didn’t share the same religious commitment to the God of Israel. Moses gathered together all of the people of Israel as well as the Gentiles who were living among them, when he proclaimed the covenant:
You stand assembled today, all of you, before the Lord your God
the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, and the aliens who are in your camp, both those who cut your wood and those who draw your water
to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, sworn by an oath, which the Lord your God is making with you today; (Deut 29:10-12)
Every seventh year the covenant was to be read to all the people, Israelites as well as those who were not Israelites but living among them, to remind all of them of the law which they had accepted.
The term for aliens in Hebrew scriptures is “גֵּר (gēr)” in Hebrew. This word is translated as “alien,” “sojourner,” “foreigner,” or “stranger.” It implies living in a place where you’re not part of the local society or culture, a place where outsiders do not own land and where whatever rights they have are only those allowed by the resident culture. Aliens, including Gentiles, were subject to the law of Moses, and the law itself specified those provisions which applied to them.
What does it mean to be righteous for a Gentile among the people of Israel? After all, most Gentiles were known to be idolatrous and violent, capable of murder, rape, incest, and a whole range of bad behavior. I was curious, so I took my word processor to the Mosaic law in the scripture to find out which parts of the law actually applied to the aliens living among the people. What I found was a group of specific provisions in the law that included aliens:
• Prohibition against Idolatry
• Prohibition against Blasphemy
• Prohibition against Bloodshed
• Prohibition against Sexual Immorality
• Provision of Justice for All
• Participation in Sabbath and Festivals
It turns out that these are the provisions of the law that were identified as moral, rather than having to do with religious rituals, by Jewish scholar Jonathan Klawans of Boston University. Gentiles living among the people of Israel were expected to comply with the moral, but not ritual, provisions of the law in order to be considered righteous people.
There is a story in the Jewish sacred writings that shows the way neighborly Jews and Gentiles got along during Jesus’ time. It has to do with respecting and not working on the Sabbath. The rabbis say, “They do not give hides to a [gentile] tanner, or clothing to a gentile laundryman, unless there is sufficient time for them to be done while it is still day.” This lets the work be done before sunset so that the workers won’t violate the Sabbath.
The story continues, “R. Eleazar b. R. Sadoq said, ‘Members of the household of Rabban Gamaliel had the habit of giving white clothes to a gentile laundryman three days before the Sabbath, and colored ones on the eve of the Sabbath.’” The rabbis drew a very interesting conclusion from this observation: “Accordingly we infer that white ones are harder to do than colored ones.” The rabbis taught that it was appropriate for Jews to honor the needs of Gentiles to respect the Sabbath. This story also shows that in the mix of cultures living in Palestine during the Roman occupation, interactions between Jews and some Gentiles were friendly and honored the law.
In the first century, during the lifetime and ministry of Jesus, both righteous and barbaric foreigners were part of everyday life. Jesus grew up in the Galilee, called Galilee of the Nations in those days because of the many cultures of the folks living there. There were Roman cities intermixed with Jewish villages, so Jesus had lots of exposure to outsiders. We know that non-Jews were included in the Gospel, since Jesus told his followers in the Great Commission to carry the Gospel to all the people of the nations. He said, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:20)” What kind of behavior did Jesus himself expect from these unpredictable Gentiles?
At a minimum, he expected that Gentiles would all be included as recipients of the good news of the kingdom of God. He spoke to Gentiles as well as Jews, and he told his followers to include both Jews and Gentiles in their work. He expected that Gentiles would be welcome at the messianic banquet at the end of time, and that they would stand beside the people of Israel without partiality or prejudice at the time of judgment.
Jesus interacted with Gentiles capable of great faith, as great as any shown by the people of the covenant. In his encounters with believing Gentiles, Jesus always pointed out that it was their faith that made the difference, that their faith made their healing possible. Faith, the single critical element required for salvation, was equally available to Jews and Gentiles. Jesus made sure that each Gentile heard about its critical importance.
Finally, Jesus expected righteousness from Gentiles, just as he did from Jews. He ordered his disciples to teach all people “to observe all that I commanded you.” His command to repent, to turn away from sin, was always the first step on the road to the kingdom of God.
It’s when we listen to Paul that we can get confused about righteousness and how it relates to the law. Paul says, “now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:6)” and “For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Romans 10:4)”
In these verses, it may sound like the law is obsolete or no longer matters. On the contrary, Paul’s letters to the people of the churches are very clear that that they’re still expected to behave themselves. Whether it’s dissention in the church or sexual immorality, Paul is clear that righteousness should be seen in behavior that matches the moral teaching of the law.
For Paul, the meaning of righteousness itself didn’t change with the coming of Christ. It was still there in the moral provisions of the law. What changed was the way that people should reach for and could acquire the righteousness of God.
Salvation does not come from obeying the law, but from faith. In faith we’re forgiven our sins, our violations of righteousness, and welcomed as righteous before God. But what standard identifies the things we should do and things we should not do? It’s the law that sets the standard, that establishes what a righteous person, a godly person, should be doing and should not be doing. This moral law is still a standard for all, Jews and Gentiles.
For those of us who follow Jesus in these days, where do we fit in? Some of us may have a Jewish inheritance, and a few of us may be Jewish Christians. But I expect that most of us are like me, descended from those Gentiles who knew nothing about the people of Israel when Jesus was born. We’re blessed that he came for all of us, and that through him we’re all adopted into the people of God. We’re forgiven our failings and accepted through him, even when we fail in the righteousness we should be striving for. In these days, how do we know the way we should be living and the righteousness we should be seeking?
The scriptural law still sets the standard for moral behavior for all people, Jews and Gentiles, the same way it sets the standard for Jews to live out their relationship with God. The list of moral provisions should still be a guide and standard for our behavior:
• We must respect God and not indulge in idolatry or blasphemy
• We must avoid bloodshed
• We must avoid sexual immorality
• We are required to provide equal justice for all
• We must participate in times of worship and celebration
For those of us who come to Jesus with the other Gentiles who made their way to him, we can resolve to show God’s righteousness through our lives every day.