Jesus Invented Affirmative Action
Let me state it for the record: Jesus is not opposed to affirmative action. Jesus revolutionized both the religious and educational systems of his day. In fact, I believe that Jesus invented affirmative action.
Let me explain.
What if the only people that could come to church and study the Bible were “Sons of the American Revolution” whose ancestors came on the Mayflower, and who scored 1590 on the SAT, graduated summa cum laude from Harvard or Berkeley, and then received a Ph.D in religious philosophy from Yale or Princeton? How many of us would be allowed to attend our local church, study the scriptures, and teach a morning Sunday school class?
That’s not too far from what it was like in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day before He burst onto the religious scene 2,000 years ago.
At that time, the privilege of being a disciple of a rabbi or religious teacher was reserved for Jewish men who had the best grades and who scored the highest on the PAT (Palestine Achievement Test)!
In Jesus’ day only the smartest and brightest Jewish men became disciples (students) of a Rabbi. They became disciples by successfully navigating a three-tiered religious educational system. The three levels of Jewish education were called: Bet Sefer (House of the Book), Bet Talmud (House of Learning), and Bet Midrash (House of Study). Nothwithstanding its exclusivity, it was an amazing educational system for its day (Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, 124-134).
Male students started off in Bet Sefer at the age of six. Bet Sefer was kind of like our version of compulsory public education today. Most boys were allowed to attend and the goal of Bet Sefer was for students to learn as much as possible about the Torah Shebichtav, or the “Torah that is written.” The Torah was viewed as the key to life and education was held in such high esteem that Jewish historian Josephus stated, “Above all else we pride ourselves on the education of our children.” This was quite an amazing system of public education for its day.
Students learned about the Torah by memorizing the first five books of the Bible ----Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy! By the age of ten, Bet Sefer students learned all of these books by heart! That sounds hard enough right, but only those considered “gifted” were allowed to move on to the next level--Bet Talmud.
Bet Talmud took things up a few notches and required students to memorize the rest of the Old Testament! Yes, 34 more books! Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1st and 2nd Samuel, all the Psalms, all the big and small prophetic books…
As tough as Bet Talmud sounds, the big prize was to make it to the next step and get accepted into Bet Midrash, or House of Study. This was like getting into Harvard or Stanford or Princeton. Only the best of the best made it to Bet Midrash. Bet Midrash meant you got to study as a “disciple” of a well-known rabbi and this put you on track to become a rabbi yourself. Being a rabbi was one of the most revered and well-respected positions one could hold. Think brain surgeon or corporate law partner in our day and time. As religious and community leaders, Rabbis were at the top of the totem pole.
You applied for Bet Midrash at the age of 14. Getting into Bet Midrash was elitist however, like my opening example. It limited special knowledge of God and the Bible only to those who were deemed “gifted” by the religious and educational establishment. Only those kids who went to the equivalent of fancy prep schools that cost $20,000 a year, aced the SAT, got a 4.7 gpa, and got accepted to Harvard could study the Bible and become religious teachers. If the educational administration didn’t think you were good enough to move on to Bet Sefer or Bet Talmud, then you would be sent home to learn the family trade. You got pushed out of the “Israeli educational pipeline” and your destiny was to join the working classes as a fisherman, carpenter, shepherd, etc. Even more significantly, you were excluded from becoming a disciple of a rabbi and acquiring a rich spiritual education.
As part of the application process for Bet Midrash, an aspiring rabbi to be would approach a well-known rabbi and say, “Rabbi, I want to be your disciple.” The Rabbi would then grill him with theological questions of various kinds. If the student passed the test, guess what the Rabbi would tell him? “Come, follow me.” (Do you see where I’m headed with this?)
At that moment a sacred bond was formed between rabbi and disciple. The disciple, or student, was required to leave his father, mother, family, friends, and community—everything--to follow the rabbi. From that point on the disciple’s main task was to learn from the rabbi and become like him. The main way this was accomplished was by spending every waking moment with the rabbi. In fact, we are told that disciples would follow their rabbis so closely that at the end of the day they would literally be covered in dust from their teacher’s feet. A saying was even circulated among disciples which admonished them to “cover yourself with the dust of your rabbi’s feet.”
Following 16 years of apprenticeship with a rabbi, Bet Midrash was completed and, at the age of 30 (sound familiar?), one could begin their own career as a rabbi. And, as a full-fledged rabbi you could then train up your own students, or, disciples.
It is likely that Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples was comprised entirely of rabbinic school drop-outs. (As someone who was not allowed into the gifted program of my elementary school called “GATE,” I take hope in this. I literally had the “gate” of gifted education closed to me). St. Peter, the “rock,” and St. John, “the disciple who Jesus loved had all been “pushed out” out of rabbinic school educational pipeline and were not deemed worthy of furthering their religious education. This was why they had to join their dads and become fishermen.
Jesus broke all the rules when He told Peter, Andrew, James, and John: “Come, follow me.”
You could even say that at that moment he invented affirmative action.
According to the humanly-constructed educational admissions standards of the day, Peter, Andrew, and the rest did not deserve to advance within the educational pipeline of the day. They hadn’t gotten the right grades nor gotten high enough scores on standardized tests. They didn’t come from the right neighborhood, either. Jesus, Peter, and most of Jesus’ first disciples came from “Galilee” which was kind of like the hood to the urban dwellers of Jerusalem. Galilee was looked down upon as a region where many “mixed-race” people lived and where orthodox religious practices had become watered down. (South L.A. is probably a good modern parallel). Jesus came from a town in Galilee called “Nazareth” which may have been one of the most despised towns of Galilee (Perhaps the way many, incorrectly I might add, view Compton). Jesus, the founder of Christianity and God in the flesh, was raised in the hood and chose inner city drop-outs to lead the most powerful and transformative social movement which the world has ever seen. How the Christian church has strayed so far from it’s roots!
Jesus also broke from the gendered and racial norms of his time as well. You could say that Jesus invented gender and race-based affirmative action as well! Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told his inner city, rabinnic-school flunkees:
“…[G]o and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”(Matthew 28: 19-20).
In this passage, Jesus makes a dramatic and literally, earth-shattering announcement to his first students: He says that the call to spiritual discipleship should no longer be limited to males of any particular ethnic or national background.
Jesus, the rabbi and Savior, invites all people—male or female, from every nation of the world, and every socio-economic background-- to be his disciples. We all have equal access to the “Jesus educational pipeline.” Everyone is invited to be his student. It doesn’t matter where we were born, where we grew up, or whether or not we have “papers.” Jesus doesn’t care what schools we did or did not attend, whether we were in honors classes, or whether or not we ever even heard of the SAT. It doesn’t matter to Jesus what we do for a living or what income tax bracket we are a part of. It doesn’t matter what ethnic background we come from or whether we are a mujer or chamaco. Jesus loves us all and calls us all to be his students.
Like the early disciples He calls us to follow Him and to make everything else in life a distant second—so that we might live in intimate and personal relationship with Him and find TRUE LIFE. As we live as His students and apprentices on a daily basis, He transforms every dimension of our lives and we receive TRUE LIFE in Him.
To be Jesus’ disciples is an incredible privilege that we should never take lightly or take for granted. Not only because it is the only path to true life, but also because Jesus broke all the rules to make this possible for us.
He invented affirmative action so that we might all come to know Him.
Grateful for God’s Affirmative Action,