I thrust my hand forward for a handshake as I was introduced to Sean, a young Jewish man wearing a yarmulke and fringes. He drew away from my hand murmuring “Religious beliefs.” I had not heard of Jewish men being forbidden to shake hands with women, nor of orthodox Jews named Sean for that matter. The Bible study group to which our son, Wort, had invited us was off to an interesting start. Sean was the brother of a member of Wort’s church. Was Sean a convert to Judaism or was his sister a convert to Christianity? I suspected that the sister, as well as Wort, hoped this meeting would facilitate Sean’s conversion to his sister’s faith.
The study topic was Luke 7:19-28—the account of John the Baptist sending messengers to ask if Jesus was “he who is to come.” I had vowed to say nothing during the meeting, since I’m not on the same page with Calvinists, but responses lagged, so I offered my interpretation of verse 28. I have always thought Jesus was referring to himself when he said, “He that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (John the Baptist.) I don’t know if that’s a Mormon interpretation or if I just assumed that Jesus, out of humility, was referring to himself as the least—just as he often referred to himself as a servant to his disciples. Anyway, it made sense to me that if no greater prophet was ever born than John, that only Jesus would be greater. Calvinists interpret this verse as Jesus teaching the equality of the kingdom of God—that ordinary people who accept Jesus could equal and surpass John. I found that insight interesting. As a Mormon, I’m not an advocate of biblical inerrancy, so I enjoy other interpretations of scripture. A proselytizer, I am not.
Wort directed the discussion to verse 23, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me,” and asked who was offended in Jesus. No response, so Wort offered his own example. He wondered—is he really doing what Jesus desires of him in his life? And does he really want to? Two other group members responded in a similar fashion. They value their autonomy. They don’t relish being told what to do. Then Wort asked Sean if he was offended in Jesus. “Oh boy,” I thought.
Sean explained that as a Jew, he does not accept Jesus as God. “I haven’t read the entire New Testament, but many of Jesus’ teachings are not offensive to me.” Edison, the Chinese member of the group, asked for a definition of Israel, and Sean obliged. Then Wort mentioned his parents’ Mormon faith. Edison asked if Mormons believe in hell. I said we did not believe in the literal flames as described in Revelation—a book which was almost excluded from the modern day canon—and that we believed salvation was given to all through the atonement, but different degrees of heaven exist which have to be earned.
Cookie, our daughter-in-law, frowned. Clearly, this session was not going the right direction to convert a Jew to Calvinist Christianity, but I couldn’t stop. I told Sean that Mormons believe they are also Israelites. “I know,” he said. “I took the discussions from the missionaries for eight months.” That statement moved the study session from Luke 7 to a discussion of the differing beliefs of traditional Christians, Jews, and Mormons. The evening’s outcome wasn’t exactly what the devout members had anticipated, but I enjoyed it. I wish we humans could enjoy sharing the wisdom from our various religious traditions without the egoist (and non-spiritual) need to prove we are right.