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News and views from the German-language region of Europe

October 16, 2015

The cultural context (1)

Filed under Sabbath Thoughts

Sometimes a knowledge of the cultural context can be helpful in understanding certain statements in the Bible. Two examples from the time of Jesus illustrate this principle.

In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said in His comments on the theme "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Matthew 5:38): "And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two" (verse 41). What does Jesus mean?

Jesus referred to the Roman practice of enlisting private persons to help deliver important messages. The word "compels" is derived from a Persian word meaning "to press in service". So the Romans "drafted" people to help deliver certain mail items. Sometimes the draftee had to supply a horse and carriage. But that was not enough, because the service required the draftee to accompany the message personally.

Since many Jews despised Roman rule, Jesus' exhortation to go the extra mile fits the context of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". Jesus' disciples were to perform this mandatory service willingly, without complaining or resisting. And in so doing, they would be practicing love of neighbor, because by going the extra mile they relieved someone else of being "pressed into service" to go that one mile.

The other example is about the last Passover in Jesus' life. His disciples asked Him: "Where do You want us to go and prepare, that You may eat the Passover?" (Mark 14:12). Jesus answered them: "And He sent out two of His disciples and said to them, Go into the city, and a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him. Wherever he goes in, say to the master of the house, The Teacher says, Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?" (verses 13-14).

In the culture of the time it would have been unusual for a man to be carrying water. That was usually a woman's work. So Jesus' disciples would not have had a hard time recognizing the man whom they were to follow. Jesus also determined the time when He sent the two disciples to look for the man, and at the house where the man entered it seems that the request to have a room for the Passover was also expected. That leads some commentators to think that the man carrying the water pitcher was a pre-arranged sign that would enable Jesus' disciples to recognize him. Of course, that cannot be proven, but it was unusual in the culture of the day for a man to be carrying a pitcher of water.

Next week we will examine an important phrase from Jesus' life in terms of the cultural background of His time: the son of God.

With these thoughts I wish everyone a rewarding Sabbath!

Paul Kieffer's blog with personal insights and news from the German-language region in Europe.


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