The Jewish and Christian Understandings of Messiah

The Jewish and Christian Understandings of Messiah

One of the topics which really strikes me when talking about the beginnings of Christianity within First Century Judaism, is that of Messiah, which means the anointed one. The more I have tried to master it, the more it has happily escaped from my little hands and made me go around in circles! Upon further reflection, I have realized that the topic, Messiah, captivates and is never made captive by anyone, including any religion or church whatsoever.

What are the Jewish and Christian understandings of Messiah? Let me start with the Jewish idea first. From the lecture materials as well as from the notes Johnatan Gorsky kindly handed down to us, I started to realize that the Jewish idea of Messiah is related to the actuation of the Jewish lovely phrase or worldview Tikkun olam (Hebrew: תיקון עולם‎, lit. ‘repair of the world’) “the healing of the world”. In such an accomplishment, God’s Kingdom, in all its completion and idealism, is fully restored.

However, this noble mission will be carried out by God’s intervention, through anyone God chooses. The issue at stake is not WHO is going to accomplish this repair, restoration or healing of the world but the act of repairing itself. The person in question remains very unclear and uncertain. As the Jewish Scriptures rightly point out, it is GOD who restores, repairs and heals. Human agency is simply at God’s service of healing and restoration.

A quick look at the Jewish Scriptures brings out this point quite clearly and marvelously. For instance, in the Exodus narrative the Divine intervention takes place through Moses’ prophetic leadership. Furthermore, king David’s political intervention seems to embody a messianic leadership (see 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 89: 19-37 and Jeremiah 23). The peaceful kingdom is another aspect of Messianism. In Isaiah 2 we read: He shall judge between the nations and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks (Isa 2:4). Such a peaceful kingdom is marked by extraordinary acts of reconciliation like the wolf which lives peacefully with the lamb (see Isaiah 11). Whoever this person might be (see Isa 7:14), he brings about a transformed society at the end (Isa 61). After all, society needs the … good tidings to the afflicted; … [the] bind[ing] up the brokenhearted, … [the] proclaim[ing of] liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound (Isa 61:1).

Universality can be seen as another way of how the Messiah operates, particularly in Isaiah 45 where the pagan Cyrus is envisaged as the Messiah. Moreover, the imagery of a light for the nations as in Isaiah 42:6, 49:6 and 52:10 shows the widespread influence of the Messiah. In Ezekiel 34:16 the Messiah restores: I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice (Ezek 34:16). According to Zechariah the Messiah is humbly riding on a donkey. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass (Zech 9:9). How contrasting is this humble image of a mortal son of man when compared with Daniel’s obscure and imposing son of man image! I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him (Dan 7:13).

In a nutshell, the notion of the Messiah, as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible, is qualified through many features. God is the all-powerful and loving creator of a broken world that is further deteriorated by evil powers and empires which exploit it. Even the tiny Israel is subject to tyrannical powers which subjugate the world and have no clue of who God is. The world urgently calls for transformative reparation and reconciliation with its Creator thanks to the work of the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed one.

People, images, systems which serve to consolidate God’s will of repairing and transforming our shattered world will all qualify to enter into the domain of Messianism in the Jewish sense. After all they serve as faithful subjects in disseminating God’s hope.

From my personal reflection I think that the Christian idea of Messiah is very specific. The Messiah is a designated person by God, Jesus Christ. Upon reading Luke’s gospel one immediately knows that God’s divine intervention occurs through Jesus Christ, the anointed one of God. In Luke 1:32 the divine intervention through an angel, prophesizes exactly to Mary who this Messiah will be: He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David. This throne is characterised by God’s mercy … on those who fear him (Lk 1:50), which exalt[s] those of low degree (Lk 1:52), fill[s] the hungry with good things (Lk 1:53) and helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy (Lk 1:54). This is a concretization of the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Lk 1:78-79).

In Luke, the Messiah has a specific name, Jesus (Luke 1:31). And, in the Nunc Dimittis, Jesus is envisioned as a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel (Luke 2:32). Hence, Israel’s mission as a people is now being absorbed by one person, Jesus. In Luke 7:11-16 God visited his people by the miracle He worked out by Jesus, the great prophet (Luke 7:16). In Matthew’s genealogy at the beginning of his gospel proves that Jesus is, in fact, a descendant of king David, thus he is qualified by birth to be the promised Messiah. The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David (Matt 1:1). Whereas in Luke the certainty provided by Matthew on Jesus as Messiah is put into question by the delusion the disciples of Emmaus were experiencing after Jesus’ death.

Having said that, there are some interesting parallels between the Jewish and the Christian understanding of Messiah. For instance, in Isaiah 52:7 we find: How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace, who brings good tidings of good, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Was not Jesus’ ministry a place where God reigned through the good tidings of good, and the salvation he published such as the prodigal son parable (Luke 15:11-32), the Pharisee and the Publican/tax collector for the kingdom (Luke 18:10-14), the lost sheep and the good news of the kingdom of Matthew 9:35-6, the sinful woman Luke 7:36-50 and the Good Samaritan Luke 10:30-6?

In the Christian perspective the Messiah is close to the poor and the lost. But already Hebrew Scriptures tell us that God was the shepherd of his people, particularly in Ezekiel 34:12: As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. In Isaiah 1:16-20 evil is eradicated by learning to do good (Isa 1:16). Was this not the essence of Jesus’ ministry which, in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, would be likewise translated: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21)?

And if in Amos those wicked leaders who made a living at the expense of the poor shall not dwell in their houses hewn of stone and shall not drink from the pleasant vineyards they planted even in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus the rich man will not be spared from his place of torment since, as Abraham rightly told him: `Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Laz’arus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish (Luke 16:25). Hence, justice must be served! Furthermore, even in Amos the Lord identified himself with the poor. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins – you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:12). Their injustices simply hurt him so badly! In Matthew’s gospel Jesus explicitly said: And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’… Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me’ (Matt 25:40. 45).

Although the Jewish idea of the Messiah is that anyone can be the Messiah whereas the Christian vision qualifies Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah, both visions note that the individual is called to participate responsibly in the messianic program designed by God (see Isa 61:1-2). God needs you and me to repair and heal the world!

Personally speaking, the Jewish and Christian understanding of Messiah, rather than divide, beautifully converge together. As it has been amply shown the Jewish Scriptures highly support the messianic idea of the New Testament that the world should be healed through good works and helping the needy. Moreover, they prove that Marcion was totally wrong when he said that God of the Old Testament is cruel and vengeful, and the God of the New Testament was merciful and loving. We are talking about one and the same God. How beautiful to hear that the “reaction to Marcion’s rejection of the OT influenced the larger church’s determination to maintain the OT as God’s word for the Christian people”.

Now I can see the great wisdom in the 1985 Vatican document called Notes, when it states:

Furthermore, in underlining the eschatological dimension of Christianity we shall reach a greater awareness that the people of God of the Old and the New Testament are tending towards a like end in the future: the coming or return of the Messiah – even if they start from two different points of view. It is more clearly understood that the person of the Messiah is not only a point of division for the people of God but also a point of convergence (cf. Sussidi per l’ecumenismo of the diocese of Rome, n. 140). Thus is can be said that Jews and Christians meet in a comparable hope, founded on the same promise made to Abraham (cf. Gen 12:1-3; Heb 6:13-18).

Attentive to the same God who has spoken, hanging on the same word, we have to witness to one same memory and one common hope in Him (our God) who is the Master of History. We must also accept our responsibility to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah by working together for social justice, respect for the rights of persons and nations and for social and international reconciliation. To this we are driven, Jews and Christians, by the command to love our neighbour, by a common hope for the kingdom of God and by the great heritage of the Prophets. Transmitted soon enough by catechesis, such a conception would teach young Christians in a practical to way cooperate with Jews, going beyond simple dialogue (cf. Guidelines, IV) (no.10-11).

Let us, Christians and Jews, be the loving manifestation of the One Merciful God! Hence, Tikkun olam!  Let us repair the world!

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap