Pursuing Righteousness

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied…. Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:6,10-12

Prison Cell

What did Jesus mean by saying that those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness possess the Kingdom of Heaven? Knowing more about the biblical language will allow us to dig deeper.

The Greek word for “persecute” is dioko, which can also mean “pursue”. The parallel word in Hebrew is radaf, which also conveys both meanings — to pursue and to persecute. As a result, this passage could be just as easily rendered, “Blessed are those who are pursued because of righteousness.”

Interestingly, in Hebrew, if a person is “pursued” by something, it can be an idiom expressing eagerness, anxious expectation, or a passionate desire for something — like saying that we are “consumed” by a passion or goal. (1) So, this sentence could speak about being consumed by the desire for righteousness, as much as it expresses the idea of being persecuted by others because of righteousness.

If this alternative meaning is true, then this verse is a close parallel to Matthew 5:6, which speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (tzedakah), and it would be a strong allusion to two passages from Jesus’ scriptures:

Justice, and only justice (also tzedakah), you shall pursue (radaf), that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 16:20

Listen to me, you who pursue (radaf) righteousness (tzedakah) and who seek the LORD… Isaiah 51:1

Of course, the very next verse of the beatitudes (Matthew 5:11) is definitely about persecution – about insults and libel and ill-treatment by others. But yet “pursued for the sake righteousness” is ambiguous, whether it speaks of the person’s passion, or of mistreatment by others.

Could it be that Jesus was actually combining the two ideas into one? Will those who are passionate about righteousness face persecution because of it? Certainly Jesus’ first followers faced no end to persecution for their great commitment to him, and in our own century, many Christians have experienced great persecution for his sake. All those suffering for the Lord’s name can take comfort knowing that their dedication and faithfulness does not go unnoticed. He says, “Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in heaven!”


(1) R. Buth, Pursuing Righteousness, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.(Premium Content Membership needed for access)

Photo: Sathyan Velumani

Blessed Are…

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3

The beatitudes in Matthew 5 are beautiful, but their meanings are not always clear to us. The first word of every statement is usually translated “blessed,” although some translations use the word “happy” instead. In Greek the word is makarios, and in Hebrew the word would have been “ashrei,” as it is found in many sayings the Old Testament, for instance:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. Psalm 1:1

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Psalm. 32:1

Content ChildIn Hebrew, the word ashrei does mean “happy” or “contented,” but not in the sense of short-term, shallow pleasure. It means a sense of knowing deeply that God’s favor rests on you, because God approves of how you live. When the word is plural, as it is in both verses above, it is to express great intensity. It is like saying, “Oh how wonderfully satisified and pleased a person can be when…”

In the beatitudes Jesus highlights the heart-felt joy of God’s favor in light of many circumstances that we would certainly not expect to give a person pleasure in our world. Who would want to be poor in spirit, meek, mourning, or persecuted? But Jesus was teaching that it is precisely when we have the least amount of approval from the world, that God pours out his greatest approval on us. When we are living life as it was meant to be lived, we can then know we are pleasing our Father in Heaven. This will lead to a sense of contentment and joy like no other!


 

Photo: Yvette T.

Blessed Are the Mourners

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Matthew 5:4

Sad Statue

This line of the beatitudes is beautiful because it says that God cares about those who are hurting and wants to heal them. But it seems odd to call mourners blessed, and to single them out as a group that God favors. All of the other beatitudes speak about an attitude or action that Jesus wants from his followers — such as being humble, righteous, pure in heart, peace-loving or merciful. This line, however sounds as if those greiving are somehow what God desires.

It helps to know that Jesus was alluding to particular scripture passages in the beatitudes, like Isaiah 57, 60, 61, & 66 and Psalm 37 & 38. In those passages, mourning is often mentioned, but grief in general is not the focus. Instead, the prophets often mourned over injustice, or lamented about personal or national sin. Experiencing God’s punishment on Israel and Jerusalem for its sins brought mourning as well, while forgiveness brought comfort. For instance:

I am bent over and greatly bowed down; I go mourning all day long. For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I confess my iniquity; I am full of anxiety because of my sin. (Psalm 38:6-7, 17-18)

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

We see here that “those who mourn” from these passages are those who are contrite for their own sins and those of Israel, or who desire the healing of their people. In this sense, mourners are those who care deeply about righteousness, but yet are merciful, wishing for repentance and God’s forgiveness. They fit well with the other groups that Jesus calls blessed, because they long for God’s will to be done, while still wanting to see God’s grace for sinners.

This is still a challenge to us as Christians today. It is easy to see the sins of other Christians or of the world in general, and angrily accuse them. But Jesus is saying that we can lament that things aren’t they way they should be, and we should long for the day when comfort will come, when Jesus’ reign is established over all the earth.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Romans 12:14-17

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Matthew 24:30-31


 

Photo: Jes

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called
sons of God. Matthew 5:9

What is a “peacemaker,” and why should he or she be called a “son of God”? With all the anger and broken relationships in the world, we can imagine how important healing is from a person who helps others be reconciled. And anyone who extends peace in a situation where they are in conflict with another knows that it usually is costly — they often need to conceed their own rights and put aside hurts that don’t feel resolved.

Shalom on EarthUnderstanding the whole meaning of the Hebrew word shalom, peace, adds greatly to the picture of the peacemaker. Shalom doesn’t just mean a harmonious relationship or the absence of war. Rather, it refrs to one’s entire well-being and wholeness. A person can bring shalom to a life by helping deal with hurts and fix wounds of all kinds — essentially, trying to restore life to all that it was intended to be.

Why does Jesus say that they will be “sons of God”? In his culture, an assumption behind the word “son” was that a son shared the characteristics of his father, and grew up to be like him. When Jesus was called a “son of David,” it meant that he was a great king like David. In a similar way, Paul declares those with faith the “sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7). Likewise, for a human being to be called a “son of God” meant that he or she was an imitator of God and acted as he does. Jesus says a similar thing later:

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matt 5:44-45.

By giving up his son Jesus to bring peace between sinners and himself, God is the best example of one who pays a costly price for peace. This is the kind of peacemaking that we are called to as sons and daughters of God.


 

Photo: Barbara Carr

The Poor in Spirit

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:3

Who are those who are the poor in spirit, and how do they possess the kingdom of heaven? It helps a lot to know the idioms of Jesus’ time and his references to the scriptures. The phrase “poor in spirit” is an allusion to Isaiah 66:2:

This is the one I esteem: he who is humble (poor, ani) and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2

Pilgrim ReadingThe word “poor” is ani in Hebrew, and is also often translated “afflicted,” and often used to refer to groups of people like widows and orphans who were dependent on charity to survive. A person who is “poor in spirit” sees himself as needy and helpless without God, and yearns desperately for God’s presence in his life. Like a recovering addict, he can only survive each day by leaning on God. The opposite type of person is someone who is “great of spirit” who is bold and self-reliant, who has no need of anyone’s help, especially not God’s. He is one who feels that he is “the captain of his fate, the master of his soul.”

The overall picture of Isaiah 66:2 is that God looks with favor on those who know they are inadequate to run their own lives, but show reverence for God, and are sorry for their sins. When we bring this picture of a person who is “poor in spirit” into Jesus’ saying in the beatitudes, it fits with the Kingdom of Heaven as we understand it hebraically.

The “kingdom of Heaven” is the same thing as the “kingdom of God” — it is not being used to refer to heaven after we die. Rather, it describes God’s reign over the lives of people here on earth. Not all people are in God’s kingdom, but a person enters the kingdom by enthroning God as his king, committing himself to doing God’s will. (1)

So we see now that a person who is poor in spirit is one who sees his need for God’s reign over his life, and submits to his rules. God’s kingdom consists of exactly this kind of people — those who are humble and needy enough to yearn after him.


(1) For a more complete understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven, see the following articles: What is the Kingdom of Heaven? and The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News

Photo: William Blake

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

by Lois Tverberg

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. ” Matthew 5:3

All of the beatitude sayings are very Hebraic, and somewhat difficult for Western Christians to grasp. The saying above, that the “meek shall inherit the earth” is widely quoted, but barely understood.

Lebanon

It is very helpful to know that this line, like almost all of the beatitudes, is a quote from the Jesus’ scriptures, specifically Psalm 37:11. In that verse the Hebrew word for “meek” is anav. It is also translated humble, afflicted or poor. Moses was called the most “anav” (humble) man on earth. It is often used to describe the people who called out to God for help in their difficulty, instead of being aggressive in fighting for their own way.

The theme of Psalm 37 is to remind us that when we are wronged, we shouldn’t try to get revenge, but to trust in the fact that God will someday set the world straight. It says,

… Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek (anavim) will inherit the land and enjoy great peace. (Psalm 37:7-11)

Six places in Psalm 37 it talks about those who would “inherit the land” (yirshu aretz, to inherit or possess the land/earth). That phrase is very significant, having first come up when God made the great promise to Abraham that he would “give him this land to possess/inherit” (Genesis 15:7). Then, later in Deuteronomy, more than a dozen times, Moses tells the people that only by being obedient would they be able to remain in the land:

Deuteronomy 8:1 “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your forefathers.”

Deuteronomy 16:20 “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

It seems that in Psalm 37, David was using this idea from Deuteronomy that God would see to it that the faithful would remain in the land God gave them, and the evil-doers would be removed from it. The psalmist was using the phrase “inheriting the land” in a wider way to speak of God’s full blessing. The wicked may seem to be winning now, but the righteous will ultimately possess God’s gifts for eternity.

In quoting this verse in the beatitudes, Jesus seems to be saying that if we are humble and rely on God rather than striving to punish those who have done us wrong, that we can trust that God will win the day. No matter how much the world demands that we should fight evil with evil, eventually God will reward his followers who trust him to set things right.


 

Photo: Bontenbal

An Eye for an Eye

by Lois Tverberg

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. Exodus 21:23-25

Many of us read this passage in the the Hebrew Bible about taking “an eye for an eye” and “tooth for tooth” as showing the barbaric nature of the laws of that time. But in fact, the laws of the Torah were far more humane than in other ancient cultures, and even this law, in its context, actually was an effort at reasonable punishment rather than cruel vengeance. Without any laws, the typical response to a crime where one had injured another would be revenge by the victim’s clan, escalating into feuds. This law of “like for like” was actually intended to limit the punishment for an injury to no more than the injury itself.
No Littering SignIn fact, some scholars think that in ancient Israel this law wasn’t followed literally, but was interpreted as allowing for monetary fines for injuries (1). Evidence for that is in Numbers 35:31 which says: Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. The existence of this law suggests that usually a monetary fine was given for a crime to compensate the other party. The reason for not allowing a life to be paid off by money was because of the precious nature of life itself — that a human life was so valuable, the only fitting punishment for destroying it was death to the offender.

Interestingly, the sacredness of life was a very large difference between the laws of Israel and surrounding
Knoosenations. In other nations, capital punishment might be used for minor crimes like stealing, but in Israel, no property crime ever demanded the life of the offender. On the other hand, murder always called for capital punishment rather than monetary fines, as in other cultures. Other nations also demanded brutal punishments for people of lower classes for minor offenses against the rich. Israel, in contrast, treated all criminals alike. Their punishment was far more humane, usually demanding restitution to the victim rather than bodily damage to the offender.

Once again, we can see that when we understand the culture, we see God teaching his people the need to be fair and just to all levels of humanity, and we see the preciousness of life itself.


(1) N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, Shocken Books, pp 182-189

Photo: Pbalson8204 and Patrick Feller

If Your Eye…

by Lois Tverberg

eyeIf your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. Matthew 18:9

Some of the sayings of Jesus are so strong that we wonder if Jesus really wants us to take them literally. Should we really pluck out our eye, as this saying above says? Should we cut off our right hand if it causes us to sin? Is is really better to be drowned with a millstone than to lead a little one astray? Is it really harder for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? Jesus’ overstatements can make us uncomfortable when we aren’t sure how we should take them.

One thing that we should keep in mind is that the practice of exaggeration and giving commands that go far beyond expectations was very much a part of Jesus’ rabbinic culture. In order to underline the importance of what they taught, the rabbis often spoke this way. For instance,

When three eat at one table and words of Torah are not spoken there, it is as if they ate at the altars of the dead… But when three eat at one table and bring up words of Torah, it is as if they ate from the table of God, blessed be He! (Mishnah, Avot 3.2-3)1

The point of this teaching is to emphasize that people should try to always include discussion of the scriptures when they eat together. Likening a meal without Torah study to worshipping in an idolatrous temple is a strong overstatement that is intended for emphasis. Or, here is another example:

Let no one stand for prayer without bowing his head… Even if the king greets you, do not answer him. And even if a snake is coiled at your heel, do not break it off. (Mishnah, Berakot 5.1)

Once again this the importance of concentration in prayer is taught by saying that even in the most extreme circumstances, you should have single-minded attention on God. People took these teachings seriously, but knew they were overstatements for effect.

Knowing this aspect of Jesus’ culture should give us some sense of how Jesus’ words were heard by his audience when he said things like, “Unless you hate your mother and father… you cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). He sounded like many other rabbis who said extreme things to reinforce the importance of their teaching.

We must be careful never to minimize Jesus’ high calling away as exaggeration. But at the same time, we gain wisdom for how to understand Jesus’ words when we have a better idea of how they would have been heard in his time.


(1) The Mishnah is a compilation of sayings of rabbis from before Jesus’ time until about 200 AD, and often is very useful in seeing Jesus’ words in context.

Photo: Normann Copenhagen

The Bride and the Lamb

by Lois Tverberg

Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.Then he said to me, “Write,`Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.'” Revelation 19:7-9

Certainly there are many puzzling images in the book of Revelation. One that seems striking is the marriage of the Bride and the Lamb. Where is this image coming from?

MarriageIt appears to come from an ancient understanding of a redeemer, and how that describes Christ’s relationship to his church. A redeemer was a relative who would “buy” a person or property that had been sold, usually because of debt. If a person became enslaved because of debt, the redeemer would “purchase” the person to obtain their freedom. As a result, the redeemer would “own” the person, but as a close family member, not as a slave. An example of this is when Boaz acted as kinsman-redeemer for Ruth. It says he “bought” her and she became his wife (Ruth 4:5, 13). God was using this image when he said to Israel,

`I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. `Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God. “ (Exodus 6:6–7)

God was saying that he would be their redeemer and take them as his people, as a man takes a woman as his wife, as Boaz did for Ruth. God did not just want to release to them from slavery, but he wanted an intimate relationship with this people, like that of a husband and wife. He redeemed them out of love for them and wanted them to be close to him forever. Often the Scriptures speak of God as the husband/redeemer of Israel:

For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of hosts; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth. (Isaiah 54:5)

Christ, who was our redeemer from sin, also “purchased us” as his people with his blood that was shed on the cross. As Peter says,

It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18 – 19)

the Lamb

Peter points out that Jesus was the true lamb of Passover. The lamb’s blood protected the Israelites in Egypt and led to their redemption from slavery. In the same way, Jesus’ blood redeemed us from our debt of sin, and the death we deserve because of it. Through his death, Christ “bought” us as his people, but not just to set us free. Instead, like a husband taking a wife, he redeemed us out of his great love, so that we could have an intimate relationship with him. The scene in Revelation is the vision of the Lamb, Christ who had died and rose again, finally taking the bride, the people he loved, as his own to live together forever.


 

Photo: DaviPeixoto and  Jan Van Eyck

Give to Him Who Asks

by Lois Tverberg

Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:42

Figures Sharing

This saying of Jesus’ (above) can sound as if we should give without discernment. Is it saying that we should blindly donate to every charity, and we should lend to others indiscriminately too?

One scholar (1) suggests that it is helpful to see this saying as a Hebraic parallelism, where the second phrase is almost synonymous with the first. In Hebrew, the word “ask” is one of two alternative terms that is used when a person wants to borrow something. Sha’al, (ask) is used when a person wants to borrow something that will itself be returned, like a hoe or a donkey; and lavah (borrow) is used when the item is consumed and then replaced later, like a cup of flour or a quantity of money. So this saying of Jesus’ may be a parallelism that reinforces the need to loan to those who need things.

But why is loaning so important? In the Bible’s Eastern way of thinking, people were community-oriented and they depended on borrowing and lending between neighbors for survival. In fact, our wealthy, individualistic way of life is quite unusual in the world, where we always buy everything for ourselves and do not depend on borrowing from friends. In Eastern cultures, to not loan something is to not fulfill an expected kindness, and to show a callous disconcern for the needs of others.

More than that, in biblical times, loans were sought out of poverty and crisis, and not out of a desire to buy a luxury. Interest was not allowed because the poor who received loans could hardly pay back the principle, much less interest. Many times God tells people to be generous to the poor and lend to them:

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Deuteronomy 15:7-8

A person who loaned to a poor man knew that he may actually be giving charity, because often the poor could not repay. In that case, lending to someone becomes a type of giving. Then the “giving” in the first phrase is also a parallel with the lending of the second phrase of Matthew 5:42, because the loan may become a gift. This teaching is similar to Jesus’ instructions to hold a banquet and invite the poor rather than one’s rich friends, because they were the ones who never could repay (Luke 14:12-14).

Jesus was once again reminding of us of our responsibility to love our neighbor and to share with others. We need to be especially sensitive to those who may look to us for help, whether we will be repaid now, or will have to wait for heaven.


(1) David Bivin, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus, Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image Pub, 2001, pp 72 – 75.)

Photo: A. David Holloway