Wandering Jews and Others
Tradescantia pallida. It’s not a chant; it is the scientific name for a long, leafy, green, purple and white plant more commonly called the Wandering Jew. For many years we had one hanging in the family room window of my childhood home.
Though the plant was beautiful, its name seemed somehow derogatory. I always felt a bit uncomfortable about saying it. Eventually, I discovered my feelings were not unfounded. The phrase, wandering Jew” has indeed been a derogatory stereotype, used by anti-Semites to disparage my people from the medieval period all the way through Nazi Germany, and even until today. There is no need for me to rehearse here the unfolding of this venomous caricature.
Many stereotypes are insidious because they contain a grain of truth buried away in a pack of lies. As I have pondered this notion of the wandering Jew, it seems to contain a truth that applies, not only to Jewish people, but to all people. Wandering is unfortunately in our DNA but it can also be in our destiny.
Later this month Jewish people the world over will recite the liturgy of the Passover: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.” This is taken from Deuteronomy 26:5, the passage where Moses tells the Israelites what they are to say when bringing their offerings of first fruits before the Lord at the altar. Our festivals and our worship remind us that even before Israel was forged as a nation, wandering was in our DNA.
Wandering need not bear a derogatory connotation. It was a way of life for our father Abraham, somewhat like the Bedouin tribes that still exist to this day. But wandering is also seen as a mark of disobedience to God. When Cain slew his brother Abel, God told him that as a punishment he would be “a restless wanderer on the earth” (Genesis 4:12). When Israel refused to enter the promised land, “the LORD’s anger was aroused against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the LORD was gone” (Numbers 32:13).
Wandering is not only a punishment for disobedience, but its very nature aptly depicts the character of disobedience. Wandering represents rejection of the good things that God intends for His children; it might be a callous and reckless indulgence of a sinful passion; it might be a restless and careless pursuit of things that promise happiness but ultimately bring harm—or it might be a fearful and faithless refusal to believe God’s promises. But wandering is a picture of being somewhere other than where God wants us to be, not just physically, but spiritually. The Bible calls this sin, and it truly is embedded in all human DNA.
In punishing the sin of Cain, Israel and, in fact all people, it is as though God tells us, “If you choose to wander from my goodness then wanderers you shall be.” As the hymnist Robert Robinson wrote, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” Yes, our natural inclination is to wander away from the Lord. But thankfully, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; He, to rescue me from danger, interposed His precious blood.” We have been saved from a life of restless wandering away from God and His marvelous grace. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we can be restored, forgiven and brought back into His wonderful and abiding presence.
Yet through that gift of grace God makes us a different kind of wanderer. We cannot help but be restless as we experience a godly discomfort with the status quo of this world. As Augustine prayed, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” It is a good thing to be a wanderer for the Lord. Our father Abraham was a “wandering Aramean” not only because he embraced that lifestyle, but because, “he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
That city often seems so far off—it is challenging to wander and wait like our father Abraham did. We often prefer to become nesters in this world. Yet we dare not find too much comfort in the transitory pleasures of this life. Just as it is part of our DNA to wander away from God, so it is part of our destiny to wander in this world until we find our final home in Him.
One of our core values in Jews for Jesus is mobility—a willingness to make ourselves available to travel, to relocate, to go where we are needed and be ready to make certain sacrifices in our service to the Lord. For example, this month most of our missionaries will be separated from family and loved ones for two to three weeks as part of our ministry duties. We will be speaking in churches for the most part, sharing the message of Christ in the Passover. Many of us will be wandering into areas of the country we don’t normally see, encountering people we might not otherwise meet, including Jewish people we wouldn’t otherwise be in touch with. We may even be coming to a church near you.*
Witnessing campaigns are also times to be away from home and family, and wemissionaries, like anyone else, aren’t naturally inclined to be separated for very long from the people and places we love.
But mobility is more than a function of travel. It is a mind-set. Many people travel for work or for pleasure. Some find it burdensome while others enjoy it. But the mobility we are striving for has more to do with the posture of being a willing wanderer for the Lord, to hold lightly to the things of this world and to press on in the adventure of seeking that city whose builder and maker is God. All of us are still struggling to maintain that posture, to help one another, to help our families to realize the importance of being wandering Jews and others for Jesus.
Of course you don’t have to be a missionary to be a wanderer for the Lord. You don’t even have to leave the city where you were born and raised. Some of the most faithful wanderers don’t travel very far on this earth before they find their rest in Him, but they have a great longing for that city of God, recognizing that only when they enter in will they be truly home. That is the mindset and commitment for which we all should pray daily to the Lord: “Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.”
Executive Director, Missionary
David Brickner is executive director of Jews for Jesus. David oversees the world-wide ministry from its headquarters in San Francisco. David received his Master’s degree in Missiology with a concentration in Jewish Evangelism and Judaic Studies from the Fuller School of World Mission. He has authored several books, and has been interviewed on national television shows such as Larry King Live. David’s daughter Ilana is a graduate of Biola. His son Isaac is on the missionary staff of Jews for Jesus. Isaac and his wife Shaina have one daughter, Nora, and a son, Levy, which makes David part of the grandparent club, a membership he is very proud of. See more here.