Christians have adopted terms like pilgrim, sojourner, and resident alien to describe our identity in the world. We are in it, but not of it. Sometimes, however, the lure of the world is as overwhelming as its subtleties are undermining. We can easily find ourselves both in and of the world.
How do we prevent that from happening? The Jews of the diaspora (the dispersion) found themselves in a similar situation, and they provide us a helpful and straightforward answer to our problem.
Surrounded by a hostile culture
Separated from temple life and the religious rhythms of Israel, Jews of the diaspora came under the powerful sway of the Greek culture that dominated the Mediterranean world. Jews needed direction and encouragement to stay true to their faith rather than slowly give ground to Hellenism’s cultural hegemony.
You can imagine the pressures they felt because Christians today feel the same to one extent or another: the pressure to fit in, the pressure of doubt, the pressure to compromise for ease, comfort, or advantage.
Against these pressures stood Israel’s wisdom literature. Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and later Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon drew bright lines for Jews. Against divergent moral standards, they reiterated God’s commandments and sovereignty. Against false philosophy, they upheld godly wisdom.
Don’t forget the commandments
Ecclesiastes, for instance, parades the futility of human wisdom before the reader and concludes that only God’s wisdom is real and profitable. Ecclesiastes “is the message to the congregation(s) of nascent Judaism confronted with Hellenism, warning them not to forget the Law,” writes biblical scholar Paul Tarazi.
The same is true for Sirach, whose original audience was Palestinian Jews confronted by Hellenism in the early part of the second century before Christ but which was later translated into Greek by Sirach’s grandson and read by Diaspora Jews facing even more rigorous expressions of Greek culture. The intention of the author and translator is, according to Tarazi, “to emphasize the importance of the torah at a time when Hellenization had been threatening to undermine it. . . .”
How well did it work? Paul of Tarsus was, for one example, a Diaspora Jew well versed in Greek literature, but his devotion to the faith of his fathers was undiminished by any sort of cultural erosion. He was successfully in, but not of.
The fear of God
Above all, the wisdom books called their hearers and readers to recognize that the fear of God was the summit of wisdom — piety and obedience its hallmarks. For Christians, piety and obedience find their fulfillment in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the eternal word and wisdom of the Father.
It is easy to lose sight of God, to let him slip the mind, to make moral compromises for short-term gains. How much more so when the culture seems stacked against us? Most of us would never say, “If you can’t beat them, join them,” but it’s something we do often enough, regardless. We should return to the pages of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach and remember that all but the wholehearted pursuit of God during our earthly sojourn is vanity.
Such a remembrance is the only way to avoid becoming absorbed by the world, rather than serving as salt and light in the world.