Hasidut: Righteousness that Goes Beyond the Law

Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

 

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, we find some of Jesus’ most challenging teachings. He said that those who do and teach others to do even the least of God’s commands will be called “great” in his kingdom. He speaks about having “righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees,” and then he tightens many laws, comparing lust to adultery, and anger to murder, etc. He then makes extreme statements about cutting off your hand if it causes you to sin, and concludes with words about aiming to be perfect, like God himself.

These words of Jesus are a struggle for many of us. One traditional approach to dealing with them is to say that Jesus was actually showing how impossible it is to earn our way to heaven, to cause us to ask for salvation by grace instead. However, it’s hard to believe that Jesus was setting up impossible standards simply to discourage people from keeping them. Jesus challenged his disciples to live according to his teachings, and he did so himself. Understanding his Jewish context better will allow us to unravel several “knots” in this passage.

First of all, it is important to understand that “entering the kingdom of Heaven” is not synonymous with “going to heaven when you die.” The phrase “kingdom of Heaven,” malkhut shemayim, (mal-KHOOT sha-MA-yeem) is synonymous with “kingdom of God,” and it refers to God’s redemptive reign on earth right now. To “enter” or to “receive” his kingdom was to enthrone God as your king, committing yourself to be a part of God’s “team” and to do his will.

Jesus’ references to the “kingdom of Heaven” in the Sermon on the Mount were really about how to aim to do God’s will as members of his kingdom, not how to earn your way to heaven.1 Our salvation is based on Jesus’ atonement for our sins, not on “earning our way.”

The Idea of Hasidut

Jesus may have actually had an idea in mind that was in the culture at that time. He appears to be focusing on the idea of hasidut – (hah-see-DOOT), a rabbinic term which is often translated “piety.”2 It means to walk closely with God and be utterly obedient to him. A hasid (ha-SEED), a pious person, eagerly asks the question, “What more can I do to please you?”

The idea is that they don’t focus on the minimum requirements, but on going beyond the rules to serve God. An Orthodox Jewish source describes the idea of being a hasid this way:

The hasid is one who goes beyond the letter of the law in his service of G-d. He does not do only what he is told, but he looks for ways to fulfill G-d’s will. This requires intelligence and planning; one must anticipate just what G-d wants of him and how he can best use his own talents in service of his Creator. [This is] in direct contrast to mock-piety – fasting, wailing, rolling in the snow, etc…. G-d has no interest in senseless service – that we do things just because they’re hard (and get us a lot of notice). Piety is not doing things which hurt. It is careful, planned and responsible service of G-d. We are not to sacrifice ourselves for G-d with self-destructive acts of devotion; we are to *live* for Him.3

The goal of most rabbis was to interpret God’s Torah (law, teaching or instruction) so that people could apply it to their lives and live within its limits; but if you think about it, laws can only define the very minimum required to not sin, they can’t legislate what you could do purely out of love. If this is Jesus’ thinking, it clarifies his words about “righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees…” (Mt 5:20). The phrase “scribes and Pharisees” may not be about them as people, but as the recognized interpreters of the law.

One translation says, “Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law…” (New English Translation). You could read this as, “do more than what the finest interpreters of the law say you must do.” Then the passage isn’t about being stricter than the strictest, but about seeking to do God’s will beyond its official interpretation. Jesus was not saying, “sit back and enjoy your free ride to heaven,” but exactly the opposite — “if God is really your king, you need to do your utmost to please him.”

Hasidut and the Sermon on the Mount

Understanding the idea of hasidut helps us see the overall message of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus points out various minimums set in the law, and then says to go beyond that. The law says “don’t kill” but you should not even stay angry. The law says, “don’t commit adultery” but you should not even lust.

The law says you can take vows in God’s name, but instead, you should be a person who has such integrity that your “yes” and “no” are just as good. Not only should you not seek revenge against your enemies, you should find ways to show them and everyone else the love of God. Loan people your money, carry their burdens. Anything!

Ultimately, the whole sermon is not so much about a list of toughened rules, but about exhorting us to change where our aim is. It is easy to look for what the minimum is so that you can just do that, but in every case Jesus is saying, “Don’t live by the minimum!” Don’t say to yourself, as long as I don’t commit adultery, it’s fine to lust. Don’t say that as long as I don’t kill someone, I can be furious with them. If you want to be a part of God’s redemptive kingdom on earth, don’t ask how little you can do, but ask how much you can do, to please your Father in heaven.

“Fear of Sin”

A central aspect of being a hasid in Jewish thinking was that one tried to walk intimately with God. To be close to God meant that you needed to do everything to keep sin out of your life. From this came the concept of yireh chet, (yeer-EH het) “fear of sin.” Here, “fear” doesn’t mean being terrified of punishment or of God’s anger. Rather, it is to be horrified by the idea of having sin disrupt your intimate walk with God.

As a result, a person who is a “sin-fearer” would do everything possible to keep it out of his or her life. Jesus’ strong words about cutting off your hand or plucking out your eye fit with this idea of “fearing sin.” Jesus had a great revulsion to sin because he realized what it did to break the relationship between God and man. He used hyperboles to motivate his listeners to avoid it at all costs.

A person who was aiming for hasidut set his own boundaries inside of the rules as others kept them, so that he didn’t come close to breaking the Law. A recent example is two ultra-orthodox leaders from Jerusalem who booked a flight to the US and bought all the seats in the first class section of a plane, requested only male flight attendants, and even taped over the TV monitors.4 They went to enormous expense to avoid being tempted by sin.

This is especially appropriate to think about during the month of Elul, which usually occurs during the summer on the Gregorian calendar. Elul is the last month before the High Holy Days and the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and ask for forgiveness of their sins. It is traditional to spend the month in self-examination and repentance.

Interestingly, many sermons mention that the letters of the month Elul, aleph-lamed-vav-lamed, are the beginning letters of the phrase Ani l’dodi v’dodi li, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This is the highly romantic phrase from Song of Solomon that is often engraved on wedding rings. The take-home point is that during the month of Elul, our motivation for repentance should come from a desire to rid ourselves of anything that may have come between us and a deeply loving relationship with God.5

The Danger of Trying to Be a Hasid

Throughout the centuries there have been movements in Judaism and in Christianity that have tried to draw closer to God by becoming fastidious about observance and in keeping away from sin. While the goal is admirable, whenever a person tries to live this way there are many potential traps. One can easily become a legalist, or prideful, or hypocritical, or elitist. In light of this, it is interesting to read the following quote:

There are seven kinds of Pharisees: the “shoulder” Pharisee, who ostentatiously carries his good deeds on his shoulder so all can see them; the “wait-a-moment” Pharisee, who wants you to wait while he performs a mitzvah (good deed); the bruised Pharisee, who runs into a wall while looking at the ground to avoid seeing a woman; the “reckoning” Pharisee, who commits a sin, then does a good deed and balances the one against the other; the “pestle” Pharisee, whose head is bowed in false humility, like a pestle in a mortar; the Pharisee who asks, “What is my duty, so that I may do it?” as if he thought he had fulfilled every obligation already; the Pharisee from fear, like Job; and the Pharisee from love, like Abraham.6

Many recognize how similar this passage is to Jesus’ “woes” of Matthew 23. It might surprise Christians that the Pharisaic movement practiced its own self-criticism and noted the same kinds of errors that Jesus did. More than one scholar has pointed out that Jesus’ statements might be like the “seven kinds” saying in another way.

Instead of accusing every person of all of the sins that he speaks of, they assert that each “woe” is pointed at only the people who are falling into those sins. Instead of the blanket statement, “Woe to all of you — you’re all greedy, legalistic, and hypocritical!” he was saying something like, “Woe to you who are greedy, and woe to you who are legalistic, and you who are hypocritical!” Rather than condemning the whole group, he may have been pointing out the errors, just as the other rabbis did.7

It’s easy for us to read these passages about the seven types of Pharisees smugly, as if only the foolish Pharisees could ever have fallen into these problems. Instead, we should see them as wise words to anyone who is passionate about trying to live as God intended. There are so many ways to go wrong — by slipping into pride, or legalism, or by becoming hypocritical.

The answer is not to just give up and be worldly. The rabbis have an excellent insight that sounds like Jesus may have been saying the same thing. They point out that of all of the types of Pharisees, the only one that is truly commendable is the one that serves entirely out of love. One rabbi says it this way:

To serve with love does not mean just following the Torah and commandments, and not walking in the path of wisdom because of other reasons: to avoid bad consequences, and to be rewarded. Rather, it is doing the right thing because it is right, and in the end good comes because of it. This quality is very great and not every wise man attained it. This is the rank of our father Abraham whom the Holy blessed One has called “my lover” [Is. 41:8] because he served only for the sake of love. The Holy blessed One has commanded this virtue through Moshe as it is said: “You shall love Hashem your God.” When one loves God with proper love, automatically one performs all commandments with love.8

This fits completely with Jesus’ statement that all the commands can be summarized by “Love the Lord your God,” and even quotes that same verse. It seems that Jesus and later rabbis both saw that when you are obeying God purely out of love for him, you are eager to go beyond the minimum. When your love for God motivates you to keep from things that tempt you into sin, you can set up boundaries without becoming arrogant or legalistic about them.

Hasidut: The True Goal of Discipleship

This sermon of Jesus is difficult, but it is his goal for us as his disciples. No one is capable of doing this when they first believe, but we can aim to be a little more like this every day of our lives.

In some churches we don’t hear much of this message because Jesus’ great commission to “raise up disciples of all nations” has been interpreted as only meaning, “share the gospel with the lost.” Then the emphasis is on how easy it is to receive the free gift of salvation, and the only thing that we teach after that is how to evangelize others.

A disciple is much more than a mere convert, however, and believing in Christ is not God’s supreme goal for us — it is only the beginning of a life of walking ever closer to him. To go no deeper than “accepting Christ” is to be like the seed that fell on the rock or in the thorns — it sprouted, but bore little or no fruit (Lk 8:4-15). As critical as it is to share the message of Christ with the world, Jesus’ challenge to us is to always seek to go higher and deeper in our love and service to him.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

1 See the article “What Is the Kingdom of Heaven.” 

2 Many points in this article are based on the talk “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer,” by David Pileggi, which was given at the Insights into Jesus of Nazareth Seminar, which is available at the link. Also, see “Jesus and the Hasidim” by Shmuel Safrai, at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

3 Rabbi David Rosenfeld, Pirke Avot, Mishnahs 10-11 at torah.org, adapted.

4 Story from Dwight Pryor, as quoted by David Pileggi in “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer.” See footnote above.

5 Many stories are based on this saying about Elul. An example is at this link.

6 Babylonian Talmud (supplement), Avot de R. Nathan 37.4.

7 David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1992) p. 69. Also, Menachem Mansoor, Encyclopedia Judaica, (Jerusalem: Macmillan and Keter, 1972) 13:366.

8 Rebbi Moshe ben Mimoun, “Hasiduth: Love and Av’oda” The word “Hashem” means “the name” in Hebrew and substitutes for God’s name, as does the phrase “the Holy Blessed One.” This is done out of reverence, so that the name of God is not used irreverently and thereby profaned. This is also the rationale behind spelling “God” with a dash in the middle, and also Jesus’ use of the phrase “kingdom of Heaven” where “Heaven” is an indirect reference to God. This is actually an illustration of “fear of sin” – going out of one’s way to avoid doing wrong. For more on the Jewish traditions regarding the name of God, See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus by David Bivin (En-Gedi, Holland, MI, 2005), pp. 55-58.

Photos: Макаров [Public domain]

Living Out Jesus’ Words on Judging

by Lois Tverberg

This article is a follow-up to our article “What did Jesus mean by, ‘Do Not Judge‘?” Here is a brief summary of the article we sent out before:

Christians have a hard time understanding what Jesus says about judging, because it sounds as if Jesus is saying, “Have no discernment — just ignore sin!” This doesn’t seem right to us, so we put it aside, but his words were building on some wise Jewish teaching of his day.

They relate to a well-known rabbinic saying, “Judge every person in favorable terms” (Mishnah, Avot 1:6). This comes from their interpretation of Leviticus 19:15, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.” The rabbis said that if we want to be entirely fair in judging our neighbors, we should always try to give people the benefit of the doubt. In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior, and far too often we unfairly assume the worst.

Jesus’ words, “Do Not Judge”

So, how do Jesus’ words that say, “Do not judge” compare with the ethic of judging favorably? The idea behind judging favorably is to find ways to assume that other’s intentions are good. Given what we know about human nature, however, we know that people will sin willfully and intentionally.

At some point when we have been offended, we need to realize that if we are sinners ourselves, then we can’t demand judgment on others. We need to put aside judgment and extend mercy instead. As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven… For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:35-38)

Obviously, this is not saying to avoid having discernment. We can discern whether an action or an attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5), and if the the wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive (Matt 18:15-17). Leviticus 19:17-18 says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

While we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the whole motive of the heart, so we need to leave final judgment of the person up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. When we are in a situation where we are tempted to pass judgment, we need to step back and hand it up to the Lord, and remind ourselves that that is his job and not ours.

As James says, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12) and Paul reminds us, “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10).

 

 

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it encompasses many other types of behavior that we know are wrong. All insults are forms of judgment. If we like an assertive woman, we may describe her as “bold and self-assured,” but if we don’t, we will judge her negatively by calling her “arrogant and loud-mouthed.” A man may simply be uninformed, but when we call him “stupid” we have judged him negatively. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother” (James 4:11).

Gossip relies heavily on judgment. People who love to gossip usually have a habit of looking for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others.

Criticism, cynicism, and complaining are all based on searching out the negative everywhere we can find it. Even people who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in always looking for something wrong in other peoples’ actions — by their own act of judging negatively.

Our culture is also filled to the brim with “judging.” Politics seems unable to function without it. Republicans accuse Democrats of ugly, self-interested reasons for every action, and Democrats say the same about Republicans. Editorials are filled with cynicism about the evil motives of the government, and inept handling of international affairs. Tabloids, comedians, and political talk shows delight in finding prominent peoples’ faults and holding them up for ridicule.

Unfortunately, we don’t notice that participating in that kind of judgment slowly fills us with the same ugly attitude toward others, even poisoning our relationships with loved ones.


Applying this idea to our own lives

In our own ministry, we have experienced unique ways this has been a guide for us. En-Gedi shares information about the Jewish background of Christianity, which gives insights that cast new light on the Bible and fill in many gaps. It is not uncommon when a person starts learning more to have an attitude of judgment and ask, “Why wasn’t I told this ever before?” Some people become quite angry about it. The same folks who once expressed their love for God in traditional Christian ways suddenly feel that those who observe the same traditions are practicing paganism!

It’s possible to have a neutral discussion about whether a tradition is sound using the Bible as guide, and we may even change our own practice. This is is exercising discernment. This is very different than accusing others of idolatry when the intent of their hearts is to lovingly worship God.

One thing we’ve realized is that any time a new, good insight enters the Christian world, it can become a source of division because of our habit of judging negatively. Whether it is learning about our Jewish heritage, or using spiritual gifts, or adopting contemporary worship styles, Christians often reflect the pervasive habit of condemnation that is part of our world, one they hardly realize is toxic and destructive.

Christians would do well to focus more on the ethic to judge favorably. While some children grow up scarred from physical abuse, many more grow up scarred from relentless criticism from parents who did not judge them favorably. Indeed, the worst “judges” are often those who never received mercy themselves, and never learned to extend it to others. Realizing this should cause us to refrain from condemning the most judgmental, because we don’t know how much criticism they have endured themselves.

To hear Jesus one more time,

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:36-38 

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To explore this topic more, see chapter 8, “Taking My Thumb off the Scale” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 104-16.

Photos: Claire Anderson on Unsplash; Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

 

What Did Jesus Mean By “Do Not Judge?”

by Lois Tverberg 

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

What did Jesus mean by “do not judge?” This is one of those sayings of Jesus that can be unclear. It can sound like Jesus was telling us to look the other way when we see sin. From everything else that Jesus said, we know that he couldn’t be suggesting this. Yet, to not be guilty of “judging,” we often try to avoid calling sin for what it is.

To better understand what Jesus meant, it is helpful to study some of the discussion going on among Jesus’ contemporaries and see if they can shed light on his words. Interestingly, we find a great discussion and some very wise thinking related to the concept of “do not judge.” Jesus appears to be building on these Jewish ideas in his own words on judging.

Judging Others Favorably

ScaleA rabbi who lived more than a hundred years before Jesus said, “Judge everyone with the scales weighted in their favor” (Yehoshua ben Perechia, Avot 1:6). In a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, it says “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God” (Shabbat 127a).

It is interesting to see how reminiscent these sayings are to Jesus’ words, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” To “judge in favorable terms” was considered as important as visiting the sick, devotion in prayer, or teaching the Scriptures to your children!

A story was told to illustrate the point:

A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages so that he could go home and support his wife and children. The farm owner said to him, “I have no money to give you!”
So he said to him, “Well, give me some of the crops I’ve helped grow.”
The man replied, “I have none!”
“Well then, give me some of the goats or sheep, that I’ve helped to raise!”
And the farmer shrugged and said that he had nothing he could give him. So the farm hand gathered up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart.
A few days later his employer came to his house with all of his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to him, “When I told you I had no money, what did you suspect me of?”
“I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your cash to buy it.”
Then he said “What did you think when I said that I had no crops?”
“I thought perhaps they were all leased from others.”
He then said, “What did you think when I said I had no animals?”
“I thought that you may have dedicated them all to the Temple.”
The farmer answered him, “You are right! My son wouldn’t study the Scriptures, and I had rashly vowed all of my possessions to God in my prayers for my son. But, just a couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!”1

This story is a great example of resisting condemnation. It also parallels, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Could this enlighten us to the gist of what Jesus was saying? The idea in the story is that the hired hand always gave the employer the benefit of the doubt by imagining the best possible motivation for his suspicious actions. This is exactly what the rabbis meant by “judging a neighbor favorably.”

This seems like a nice thought, but hardly an earth-shaking interpretation of Jesus’ words. But, what if we applied it to our own lives? Just imagine these situations and the choices you might have in your reactions:

♦ On the way to church, a car passes you on the road and cuts you off. Why?

The driver is has no regard for speed laws!
<or>
Maybe the driver is late for something, or his kids are driving him crazy.

♦ In church, you are asked to greet the people around you, but the lady in front of you was obviously avoiding you. Why?

She is obviously a snob and you didn’t dress well enough today!
<or>
Maybe she’s new to the church or uncomfortable meeting people.

♦ A woman asks you afterward about the surgery that you had. Why?

She’s a busybody who just wants to put her nose in your business!
<or>
Maybe she genuinely worries about others and wants to share your burdens.

In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior. The way we interpret others’ motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others. This idea of the rabbis to “judge favorably” certainly was wise, even if it isn’t exactly what Jesus said.

The Worship War

Imagine another scenario where a “worship war” has broken out in a congregation. The older members want to sing hymns and the young members want a rock band. The older people are saying things like, “They have no appreciation for the richness of hymns — they only want to be entertained!” The younger people respond with, “The old folks don’t care about reaching the lost — they just want to do things the same old way!”

What would happen if each group stopped assigning negative motivations to the other group? What if the “hymns only” group started saying, “Maybe the younger members of our church think that they can bring new meaning to the service by putting it in their own style…”

What if the “rock band” enthusiasts started saying, “Maybe the older members find more meaning in what’s familiar rather than in what sounds strange to them…”

How long would the conflict last in that church? How long would it be before both groups would try their best to accommodate each other?

To this day, Jewish culture has endeavored to instill in its people the ethic to “judge favorably.” One Jewish group meets simply to practice finding ways to give the benefit of the doubt when it appears someone has done something unkind. They reflect on hurts in their lives and then propose ways to excuse the perpetrator. For example, when one of them didn’t receive an invitation to a wedding, they would say, “Perhaps the person was under the impression that they had already sent an invitation,” or, “Perhaps they couldn’t afford to invite many people.”2

One Jewish website, called “The Other Side of the Story,” is filled with stories where a person looked liked he was in the wrong, but then turned out to be innocent. The point is simply to teach others the importance of judging favorably.

Jesus’ Words, “Do Not Judge”

Even though the rabbis’ words are wise, they aren’t exactly what Jesus said. How does Jesus teaching about “do not judge” compare to others? Jesus began with what the other rabbis taught and then increased the challenge. His audience likely already knew about “judging favorably,” because it had been around for at least a hundred years.

The famous rabbi Hillel, who lived fifty years before Jesus, said, “Judge not your fellow man until you yourself come into his place” (Avot 2:5). His idea was that we shouldn’t judge because we don’t have full knowledge of another’s life experience. We can’t know if someone struggles with depression or a wound from their past. Hillel’s idea is a step closer to what Jesus said, and it shows that the discussion of “judging” was still going on in Jesus’ time.

However, Jesus’ reasoning was different from Hillel’s. Jesus began with a less optimistic perspective of humanity, knowing that often people sin willfully and intentionally. Even if you give them every benefit of the doubt, at some point it will be undeniable that the person’s intention was evil, and you shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t.

In the midst of this realism, Jesus says that our response must be to remind ourselves of our own sinful hearts, the only hearts we really can know. Seeing our own sinful nature, we shouldn’t place judgment on others. If we want God to be merciful to us, we need to put aside condemnation and extend mercy instead.

As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you” (Luke 6:35-38).

Rather than saying, “Judge favorably,” perhaps Jesus would have said, “Judge mercifully! Do everything you can to extend mercy to others.”

But Have Discernment

Obviously, this is not to cast aside discernment. We should discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is not only to discern, but also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5). When a wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive (Matt 18:15-17).

JudgeWhile we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the motive of the heart. We need to leave final judgment up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. So when we are in a situation where we are tempted to condemn someone, we need to step back, hand the situation over to the Lord, and remind ourselves that it is his job to render judgement, not ours. As we read in James 4:12, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”

Both the teachings of the rabbis and the words of Jesus are extremely useful in every day life. Our attitude toward others becomes more loving when we assume the best rather than the worst. If we try to always “judge favorably,” we’ll be less likely to have a critical or cynical spirit towards others. Even when people are clearly in the wrong, we can give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it includes many other types of hurtful behavior as well. Insults are a form of judgment, such as calling someone arrogant or loud-mouthed. Gossip relies heavily on judgment too. People who gossip usually look for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others.

Criticism, cynicism, even complaining are all rooted in searching out the negative everywhere we can find it. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother” (James 4:11).

Negative judgments are particularly toxic to marriage relationships. In his book Blink,3 Malcolm Gladwell describes a study of married couples which examined the rate of divorce compared to attitudes the couple showed toward each other beforehand. The interviewers looked at dozens of variables and found one factor that could almost surely predict divorce — an attitude of contempt. When one or both partners habitually spoke to the other with disdain or disgust, even in the most subtle ways, the marriage was often moving toward a break up. If you think about it, contempt comes from a history of judging unfavorably and without mercy. It is a way of saying, “I have reached my verdict, and there is nothing good in you.”

People who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in looking for ugly motives in other peoples’ actions — their own act of judging negatively. If you think about it, anger always involves an accusation of sin. Next time you are angry, ask yourself what sin you might be accusing the other person of. Then remember that Jesus says that you are a sinner too. You can’t expect God’s mercy if you aren’t merciful to others (See Matthew 18:23-34).

Summary

All of us would do well to focus more on judging favorably and extending mercy. Both are ways of showing God’s grace. We’ll find that over time, it really has the potential to transform our personalities to be more like Christ. Listen to Jesus words one more time:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Luke 6:35-38)

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1 B. Talmud, Shabbat 127a

2 J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York, ISBN 0609603302, p. 35.

3 M. Gladwell, Blink (c) 2005, Little, Brown & Co, New York, ISBN 9780316172325, pp. 30-34.

To explore this topic more, see chapter 8, “Taking My Thumb off the Scale” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 104-16.

Photos: John Salvino and Wesley Tingey on UnsplashLouis Smith on Unsplash; http://ferxtreme.hu/wp-content/uploads/birosag.jpg

First-century Discipleship

by David Bivin 

Jesus and Disciples

 

Like other sages of his time, Jesus demanded his disciples’ total commitment. They were to put the “kingdom of Heaven” (Jesus’ band of full-time disciples) before all else. They were to “hate,” that is, put second, father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and themselves, as well (Luke 14:26). Following Jesus to learn Torah from him was to take precedence over every other endeavor.

The call to be a sage’s disciple in first-century Israel often meant leaving relatives and friends and traveling the country under austere conditions. It also meant total commitment. A prospective disciple first had to be sure his priorities were in order.

Consider the words of the man who said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family” (Luke 9:61). Jesus’ reply shows that only those who were prepared to commit themselves totally to him would be welcome: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). 

This is emphasized in Jesus’ response to another man who offered to follow him, but only after “burying his father.” “Let the dead bury their dead,” Jesus told him (Luke 9:60; Matt 8:22).

Apparently, Jesus’ replies were directed towards persons whom he had invited to leave home and serve a full-time apprenticeship with him. This form of discipleship was a unique feature of ancient Jewish society.


Sacrifice

According to Mishnah, Peah 1:1, a person “benefits from the interest” in this world from certain things such as honoring one’s father and mother, while “the principal” remains for him in the world to come. “But,” the passage goes on, “the study of Torah is equal to them all.” Jesus said something similar: as important as honoring one’s parents is, leaving home to study Torah with him is even more important.

To the rich man mentioned in Luke 18, the call to follow Jesus meant giving up all his wealth. The price was too high for him and he did not become one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter reminded Jesus that he and the others who had accepted Jesus’ call were different: “We have left everything to follow you.”

“Amen!” said Jesus — in other words, “Yes, you have done that and it is commendable.” Jesus went on to promise that anyone who had made the sacrifice of total commitment for the sake of the kingdom of God would receive something of much greater value than what he had given up, and, in addition, eternal life in the world to come (Luke 18:28-30).

Commitment
Jesus did not want his prospective disciples to have any false expectations and he frequently stressed the need to count the cost before making a commitment to him:

Which of you, if he wanted to build a tower, would not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he had enough money to complete it? …likewise, any of you who is not ready to leave all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:28-33)

Jesus was clear about the degree of commitment that was required of a disciple:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, and himself as well, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)

In this context, the word “hate” does not carry the meaning it normally has in English usage, but seems to be used in a Hebraic sense. In Hebrew, “hate” can also mean “love less” or “put in second place.” For example, Genesis 29:31 states that Leah was “hated,” but the context indicates that Leah was not unloved, but rather loved less than Jacob’s other wife Rachel. Note that the preceding verse specifically says that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah.

A second illustration of this particular Hebraic shade of meaning of the word “hate” is found in Deuteronomy 21:15: “If a man has two wives, one loved and the other hated….” Here too, the context shows that the “hated” wife is only second in affection and not really hated in the English sense of the word. Likewise, in Jesus’ statement, he is saying that whoever does not love him more than his own family or even his own self cannot be his disciple.

Jesus also alluded to the rigors of the peripatetic life of a sage when he said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:57-58). The burden Jesus’ disciples had to bear was a heavy one, but not unlike what disciples of other first-century sages had to bear, and would not have been considered extreme by the standards of first-century Jewish society.

Another hardship a disciple could face was being away from his wife. Disciples commonly were single, but since marriage took place at a relatively early age (usually by eighteen according to the Mishnah [m. Avot 5:21]), many disciples had a wife and children. For example, the mother-in-law of one of Jesus’ disciples is mentioned in Luke 4:38. If married, a man needed the permission of his wife to leave home for longer than thirty days to study with a sage (m. Ketuvot 5:6).

Like a Father
Despite the many hardships, nothing compared with the exhilaration of following and learning from a great sage, and being in the circle of his disciples. A special relationship developed between sage and disciple in which the sage became like a father (see my “Call No Man ‘Father’”). In fact, he was more than a father and was to be honored above the disciple’s own father, as this passage from the Mishnah indicates:

When one is searching for the lost property both of his father and of his teacher, his teacher’s loss takes precedence over that of his father since his father brought him only into the life of this world, whereas his teacher, who taught him wisdom [i.e., Torah], has brought him into the life of the World to Come. But if his father is no less a scholar than his teacher, then his father’s loss takes precedence…. If his father and his teacher are in captivity, he must first ransom his teacher, and only afterwards his father—unless his father is himself a scholar and then he must first ransom his father. (m. Bab. Metz. 2:11)

If the thought that someone could ransom his teacher before his own father seems shocking, it is only because we do not understand the tremendous love and respect that disciples, and the community at large, had for their sages.

Similarly, Jesus’ not allowing a prospective disciple to say good-bye to his family before setting out to follow him may seem cruel. However, Jesus’ first-century contemporaries would have seen this as quite reasonable and normal. What Jesus meant would have been perfectly clear to them when he said, “No one can be my disciple who does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters.”

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New LightTo explore this topic more, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006.

Photos: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash, Evgeni Evgeniev on Unsplash

Reflecting on the First Advent

by Lois Tverberg 

Advent Candles The prayers that surround Jesus’ birth are somewhat a puzzle to Christians, until we know the context. In Zechariah’s song, he rejoices that God has raised up someone who will bring “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Lk 1:71). Who is Zechariah talking about who hates them? And why was Simeon “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Lk 2:25)? They seem to have some great anxiety, and seem to be imploring God to save them from a great enemy. What was going on around them?

Let’s find out a little more about the history of the time. Remember Herod’s massacre of the infants around Bethlehem (Mt 2:16)? I used to read that as an isolated tragedy, but it actually was typical of the great brutality of Herod and the Romans.

I was especially struck by an incident that happened near Sepphoris, a city just a stone’s throw from Nazareth. If you’ve visited Israel, most likely you’ve walked through its amazing ruins. Scholars say that it’s quite likely Jesus and Joseph walked there each morning and worked in the city because it was so close.

In 4 BC, almost exactly the time of Jesus’ birth, an uprising occurred in Sepphoris. The Roman responded by scouring the countryside, rounding up two thousand rebels who were crucified. They swept through many of the towns, killing and destroying everything in sight. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, all its surviving inhabitants sold into slavery.

Just imagine, Jesus’ own hands may have chiseled some of the stones that rebuilt Sepphoris. He must have had family friends that told shocking stories of the cruel deaths of their relatives. In his adult ministry, he may have even healed some of their lingering wounds.

As I heard about the events of the first advent again I was newly sensitized to the great anguish of Jesus’ people. For a while I’d gotten used to hearing about all the Roman cruelty, and it seemed almost fictional. But then I read one historian liken the Roman government to the Nazis, calling it a “totalitarian regime.” He said that there was really no time in Jewish history that they suffered so much as the first century, outside of the Holocaust. And Jews have suffered a lot over history.

It was really a crisis of faith for them, because in the Old Testament, Israel was punished when it wandered from God. But in Jesus’ time, the most pious were the ones that suffered the most. About a hundred years before Jesus, Greeks tortured and killed Jews for reading the Torah and circumcising their children, and horrors like that kept occurring in his time. In Luke 13, some Galileans report that worshippers who had come to the Temple had been murdered, their blood mixed with their own sacrifices. I can hardly imagine their feelings.

This helps in understanding the groups of people around Jesus, because society was deeply divided by this crisis. The Zealots felt that God wanted them to fight for their freedom, to serve him rather than foreign gods.

The Sadducees were wealthy priests who controlled the Temple, who had given up the idea that God would come to their rescue. They, in fact, had sold out to the Romans and were getting wealthy by stealing the tithed money from the Temple.

In reaction to the Temple’s corruption, the Essenes abandoned worship there and had secluded themselves to live lives of great ceremonial purity. They were waiting for the day when God would send the Messianic “Teacher of Righteousness” who would call them as the “Sons of Light” to battle the “Sons of Darkness,” which, in their minds, were pretty much everyone else.

Many of the common people, like Jesus’ family and Simeon and Anna, concluded that their best hope for the future lay in prayer and careful obedience to God’s word. A popular movement grew up of laypeople who wanted to pray and study together in their own towns, rather than only worshipping in the Temple.

The leaders of this movement were the Pharisees, who were common laborers who distinguished themselves by their devotion to study. You can imagine that at times they might get a little excessive, because they felt like their nation’s life depended on their obedience and piety. But ultimately, Jesus was closest to their way of thinking. And you can imagine how strong people’s feelings were at that time. In times of war, emotions run very high.

Wow. All of a sudden I see why people were longing for a redeemer. And as many times as I’ve piously said, “they were wrong to want a political savior,” I now have great empathy for why they did. Jesus lived in a world as evil as anything in our modern reality, and God sent him right into the middle of the depths of their darkness.

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Photos: SolLuna; Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash

Jesus’ Surprising Answer

by Lois Tverberg

When Jesus was asked the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life,” the conversation leads to an answer that most Christians would find unacceptable, or at least confusing. It sounds as if by obeying the commandments, or even by loving God and our neighbor, we can somehow earn our own salvation!

We read this conversation in Luke 10:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, `Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” Luke 10:25-28

One explanation for Jesus’ response is that because the law expert is testing Jesus out of hostility, Jesus is deliberately affirming his “wrong” answer, so that later, when he realizes his inability to keep these commands perfectly, he will see that he must lean on God’s grace and just believe.

Jesus and Disciples

Most likely this is not what was going on. If this is true, it means that Jesus was playing a game with the lawyer, and that his words must be read knowing that no one ever could actually do what he just said to do. While this has satisfied some Christians, having additional information from Jesus’ first century Jewish context can lead to a better reading of this text that explains why Jesus accepted the answer without hidden qualifications.

We should start with the assumption that many times when other rabbis “tested” Jesus, it was not done with hostile intentions. The rabbinic style of public discussion from Jesus’ time even up to the present has been to pose a difficult question with the expectation of debate. A story is even told of a rabbi who greatly mourns the passing of his strongest adversary, because he had lost his best way to sharpen his intellect.1

We tend to assume that every conversation between Jesus and religious thinkers was antagonistic, and hear their questions as legalistic or manipulative. But several questions, like whether divorce was permissible, or what was the “greatest commandment,” were actually important discussions already permeating the rabbinic community of Jesus’ time.2

Love the Lord Your God

The key to understanding Jesus’ affirmative response is to look at the context of how the lawyer’s response was understood in that time. The first line of his answer says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind,” and comes from Deuteronomy 6:5. We hear “love” as inward affection, and it does mean that. But in Hebrew, the verb “love” can also refer to the outward display of committedness to another. It is to “act lovingly toward” or “to honor and be loyal to.” It was even used in covenants between kings after a war, when one would promise to “love” the other, meaning to show uncompromising loyalty to the other.3

Why is this important? Because then the statement “You shall love the Lord…” then becomes a statement of life commitment to God, and faithfulness to a relationship with him. This is very close to the Christian understanding that we need to have a personal relationship with God for salvation.

Interestingly, the rabbinic term for this idea — to commit yourself to a personal relationship with God, was to “receive the kingdom of Heaven,” very close to what Jesus referred to in his preaching. Why? The word “kingdom” refers to God’s reign or authority, and “Heaven” is a respectful euphemism for God. When we receive the reign of God, what we are actually doing is enthroning him as our king, committing our lives to be under his reign.

This yields a clue as to why Jesus spent so much of his ministry proclaiming the “kingdom of Heaven,” in the sense that he had come to open the way for all people to have a relationship with God through atonement by his blood, and that relationship could be described as “entering under God’s reign.”4

Another important thing about the lawyer’s response was that he was quoting from the Shema, the “pledge of allegiance” that Jews said as a statement of commitment to their relationship with God. The first line is “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord alone.” According to the Jewish Publication Society, the emphasis is not actually on proclaiming that “God is one,” a creed of monotheism (as is often said), but on the demand of utter loyalty between God and his people — that he alone is their God.5

Obedience Follows Relationship

It may be surprising to some that rabbinic thought of Jesus’ time embraced the idea that salvation comes by faith rather than by works, and they even saw that expressed in the Shema. They understood that the relationship with God must always come first, and only after we have that do we obey God’s commandments.

In the Mishnah6 there is a sermon based on the how the Shema is recited. A  person always begins with Deut. 6:4-9, which begins with “Hear O Israel, the Lord is Your God, the Lord alone.” Next they recite Deut. 11:13-21, which begins with the words, “So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today…” The rabbi said,

“Why do we always talk about God being our Lord before we say the part about obeying the commandments? Because we must first receive the kingdom of Heaven (meaning “enthrone God as our king,” or establish our relationship with him) and only then take on the yoke of the commandments.”7

We do not earn our relationship, we receive it as a gift from him, and the laws are not for earning God’s favor or getting into heaven, but for learning how to live to please him. One creative rabbi imagined that King David may have been thinking that when he wrote Psalm 141:1:

King David said, “Some trust in their fair and upright deeds, and some in the works of their fathers, but I trust in you. Although I have no good works, yet because I call upon you, you answer me.”8

Love your Neighbor as Yourself

The other commandment that the lawyer mentioned in Luke 10, “love your neighbor as yourself,” also has special significance. It is a quote from Leviticus 19:18, and it was singled out in ancient Jewish culture before we hear it from Jesus. It has a rare word, ve’ahavta, “and you shall love,” in common with that of words of the Shema that shows total commitment to God, “And you shall love the Lord your God…”

Even before Jesus’ time, those two verses were thought to be linked, in a poetic way, so that the way you expressed your total love and commitment to God, who you can’t see, was by showing love to your neighbor, who you can see. This is certainly a central teaching of Jesus too, and the overwhelming importance of this command is echoed in the rest of the New Testament. Peter says “above all, love one another” (1 Peter 4:8), and in the letters of John, that “this was the teaching you have heard from the very beginning – to love one another” (1 John 3:11).

It appears that this idea may have already been circulating in Jewish culture before his time, and the lawyer was repeating it to Jesus. If Jesus also had the first century understanding that loving your neighbor was the clearest expression of your commitment to God, he would have accepted the lawyer’s words as a way of describing how to live out your relationship with God in obedience and authenticity, by showing God’s love to those around you. Thus, the lawyer gave a very good answer, using first century Jewish terminology to say that we need to commit ourselves to the Lord and live our faith out wholeheartedly. And Jesus responds, “Yes, do this!”

The questioner then goes on to ask, “who is my neighbor,” which also was a legitimate question that was debated at the time, and Jesus gives brilliant insight to this too.9

 

The Challenge of A Different Understanding

Although this may be a challenge to our traditional Christian view, it suggests that there was some brilliant thinking going on before Jesus’ time, as God was preparing his people for the coming of his Son.

Certainly if Jesus was going to raise up a congregation of many thousand followers out of this Jewish nation (Acts 21:20), God needed to be preparing their hearts for their Messiah. Studying their thinking allows us to see Jesus’ answer as straightforward and clear. He affirms that we need to have a personal relationship with God, and show our commitment to him by loving others in the world around us.

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This essay is based, in part, on a talk given by Dr. Randall Buth at Mars Hill Bible Church on October 17, 2003. 

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1 Page xiii, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young. Hendrickson, 1995

2 See the article, “Divorce and Remarriage in Historical Perspective” by Steve Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

3 JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, by Jeffrey Tigay. Jewish Publication Society, 1996, p 77.

4 See the En-Gedi Bible commentary article, “What is the Kingdom of Heaven?

5 Excursus 10: The Shema in the JPS Torah Commentary on Deuteronomy, p 438-440.

6 The Mishnah is a book of legal rulings and commentary on the Torah written down about 200 AD that is record of sayings that go back to before the time of Jesus.

7 Berachot 2.2, Mishnah.

8 Midrash Psalms 141 (ed. Buber, pp. 530-531).

9 See the En-Gedi Director’s article, “Loving your Neighbor, Who is Like You.

Photos: Museum of MálagaChris Gallimore on Unsplash; Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Jesus’ Strange Teaching About a ‘Single Eye’

by Lois Tverberg

The Bible is an ancient book, and the honest reader will admit that many passages are hard to understand. Sometimes Jesus’ words can be the most difficult, and prone to speculation and even misinterpretation. A case in point is Jesus’ saying from the Sermon on the Mount:

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. (Matt 6:22-23, KJV)

Every Bible translation attempts to explain this obscure saying by clarifying the phrases about one’s “eye.” Various translations use terms like clear eye/bad eye (NASB), healthy eye/unhealthy eye (NRSV), eyes are good/eyes are bad (NIV). None of these adequately explain Jesus’ idea to modern readers.

This opens the door for all sorts of interpretations. John Wesley, who lived in the 1700’s, interpreted the “single eye” as being utterly devoted to pleasing God, and the “evil eye” as having our interests devoted anywhere else, to distract us from God.1 While his interpretation is well within traditional understanding, others come to different conclusions.

eyeOne author sees Jesus as saying that we should deeply appreciate our physical senses and ability to see.2 In contrast, a well-known New Age teacher believes that Jesus was speaking of the “third eye chakra” or inner eye of enlightenment. When humans were first created perfect, she says, they were enlightened by this third eye, but after the fall, it is now only reached through meditation.3

While Wesley’s interpretation agrees more with the Scriptures as a whole, we still have to admit that he was guessing at the meaning of the strange phrase, without knowing its cultural context. Christians have the frustrating task of defending one interpretation over another, when are all based in subjective interpretation.

A Cultural Perspective — A Good Eye

A better way to discern what Jesus was saying is to look at his words in the context of his first century culture. All languages have idioms — figures of speech that don’t make sense literally, like “raining cats and dogs,” “beating around the bush” or “pulling someone’s leg.” We should expect that Jesus’ sayings may contain cultural idioms that we don’t understand.

Indeed, in the Greek gospels we find many idiomatic phrases that sound awkward or don’t make sense in Greek, even though they make perfect sense in Hebrew.4 By looking at the Semitic idioms in the Old Testament and in Jewish literature of Jesus’ day, we can get a much clearer understanding of Jesus’ teaching, and have more confidence about Jesus’ message.

One interesting hypothesis is that Jesus may have been using a Hebraic idiom that contrasts a “good eye,” ayin tovah, and a “bad eye” or “evil eye” ayin rah. The Hebraic understanding of “seeing” goes beyond taking in visual information in the eyes — it refers to one’s outlook on life and attitude toward others. It can even mean to respond according to a need that is seen. For example, the phrase Jehovah Jireh is often translated to “God will provide,” but it means, literally, “God will see,” meaning that when God sees our need, he will respond.

An idiom that emerged out of this idea is that a person with a “good eye” is generous — he sees the needs of others and wants to help them. In contrast, one with an “bad eye” or “evil eye” is blind to the needs of others and is greedy and focused on his own self-gain. We find these idioms in Proverbs:

Prov. 22:9 He who is generous (literally, has a good eye) will be blessed, for he gives some of his food to the poor.

Prov. 23:6 Do not eat the food of a stingy man (literally, an evil eye), do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost.

Prov. 28:22 A man with a bad eye hastens after wealth and does not know that want will come upon him.

In fact, Jesus uses the idiom of “evil eye” for greed elsewhere in the gospels. At the end of the parable of the landowner who pays all the laborers the same, the landowner says to the workers, ‘Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye evil because I am generous?’ (Matt. 20:15). The Greek phrase there, opthalmous sou ponerous is identical to that in Matt 6:23, the passage that we are examining.

Interestingly, if this is our interpretation of the passage in Matthew 6, Jesus’ saying suddenly fits into the larger context of this passage. Here is the longer context of that saying:

But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matt 6:21-24, NASB)

Right before the “eye” analogy, Jesus tells his listeners to “store up treasures in heaven,” which is an idiom for giving money to the poor.5 Afterward he says, “No one can serve two masters … you cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt 6:24). If Jesus is using the idioms “good eye” and “evil eye” to mean generosity and greed with money, the teaching about ones “eye” now fits perfectly into a longer saying about how to use money in a way that honors God.

Having a Single Eye

Any hypothesis needs to be re-evaluated in light of new evidence, and one scholar points out that the Greek wording of the passage does not say “good,” kalos, but “single, simple,” haplous. The idea of “singleness of eye” as a virtue is also found in other Greek documents from Jesus’ time, and “singleness,” haplotes, as a virtue is used several other places in the New Testament.6 This can also give us insight on Jesus’ meaning in this passage. One document reads:

“I never slandered anyone, nor did I censure the life of any man, walking as I did in singleness of eye” (3:4)… “And now hearken to me, my children, and walk in singleness of heart… The single [minded] man covets not gold… There is no envy in his thoughts, nor [does he] worry with insatiable desire in his mind. For he walks in singleness, and beholds all things in uprightness of heart… Keep, therefore, my children, the law of God, and attain singleness…7

Here the idea of “singleness of eye” means sincerity, simplicity, and a freedom from envy for money. It is the opposite of having a “double heart” as in Psalm 12:2: “They speak falsehood to one another; with flattering lips and with a double heart they speak.” A person with a “single eye” is one of integrity who does not have a secret agenda of self-advancement. Along with sincerity of spirit, he also has an integrity toward money that keeps him from covetousness and greed. Another passage from about the same time also gives insight:

The good man has not an eye of darkness that cannot see; for he shows mercy to all men, sinners though they may be, and though they may plot his ruin … His good mind will not let him speak with two tongues, one of blessing and one of cursing, one of insult and one of compliment, one of sorrow and one of joy, one of hypocrisy and one of truth, one of poverty and one of wealth; but it has a single disposition only, simple and pure, that says the same thing to everyone.8

Interestingly this passage talks about a man’s “eye” in terms of his caring for the needs of others, and contrasts an “eye of darkness” to a disposition of “singleness.” The contrast is between pretending to care about others with an inward attitude of self-advancement, compared to having a genuine concern for others, without hidden motives.9

Reading Jesus’ Words Again

In light of these idioms, here is my dynamic translation of Matthew 6:21-24, incorporating the idiomatic language he appears to be using:

So give generously to the poor and invest your energy and resources in eternal things, because when you do, your priorities and outlook will change. Your outlook toward others shows your true inner self. If you have a sincere, un-envious heart that wants to help others, your whole personality will shine because of it. But if you are blind to the needs of others and are self-centered and greedy, your soul will be dark indeed. You cannot be a slave to your own greed and try to serve God — you have to choose.

Evil eye - greedIn this entire passage, Jesus seems to be equating how we use our money with our basic attitude on life, and says that our generosity is the true measure of us as persons. When you get right down to it, if money rules us, God doesn’t. It is one of Jesus’ many teachings on money and what our attitude should be about it. In our materialistic culture, his words hit home.

This cultural study of the phrase “single eye” and “bad eye” can shed a lot of light on Jesus’ teachings. It should make us eager to learn more when we see that the strange phrases that we sometimes find in the Bible had parallels in other ancient texts that can help explain them.

Our interpretation of Jesus’ words can be much more solid, so that we have confidence that we are hearing Jesus’ ideas and not just our own. Otherwise, our interpretations are based on speculation from personal experience that can lead us down all sorts of strange paths, as some have gone on in understanding Jesus’ words about “the single eye.”

As important as it is to read the Bible accurately, it is even more important that once we understand Jesus’ teaching, we take it to heart and change our lives because of it. Are we people of sincerity and integrity? Do we use our money to help others, and find ways to meet their needs? Or, in our hearts, is our own comfort and wealth our number one priority? Jesus is saying that we can’t be his followers if we are greedy and self-centered. We need to choose who we will serve — God or ourselves.

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1 John Wesley, On A Single Eye – Sermon available at this link.

2 Herbert Lockyer, All the Parables of the Bible (Zondervan, 1988), 149-50.

3 Elizabeth Clare Prophet, The Lost Teachings of Jesus (Summit University Press, 1986), 281.

4 This is the subject of the book Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus: New Insights from a Hebraic Perspective by Bivin & Blizzard, 1994, Destiny Image Publishers.

5 See Matthew 19:2, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22 and “The Best Long-Term Investment: Making Loans to God” at www.jerusalemperspective.com

6 See “If Your Eye Be Single” by Steven Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

7 Testament of Issachar, 3:4, 4:1-2, 5-6; 5:1 (quoted in the article Notley article above). The Testament of Issachar is of the body of literature called the “pseudepigrapha” – Jewish writings from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. that are not canonical, but show the cultural expressions and religious understandings of that time.

8 Testament of Benjamin 4:2-3 (quoted in the article Notley article above). Also of the pseudepigrapha.

9 James speaks about the wrongness of having a “double mind” in vs. 1:8 and 4:8 and the importance of sincerity of the tongue in 3:9-12. He uses a very similar phrase as in this passage in 3:9 — having a tongue of “blessing and cursing” — which should not be the case. A related word to haplous used in the gospels, haplotes, meaning “singleness,” is used often in the New Testament for sincerity, especially in exhortations to have a “single heart” (See 2 Cor. 1:12, 11:3, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22).

It should be noted that Hebrew does not use “single eye” as an idiom for sincerity. More likely, since Matthew’s Greek readers wouldn’t have understood “good eye” any more than we do, he translated this phrase by using haplous, since Greeks used it to mean generosity. Matthew would have been using a Greek idiom to translate a Hebrew idiom. This may also be true for the Testament of Issachar, which is preserved in Greek, even though it was originally written in Hebrew.

 

Photos: Normann Copenhagen; Vladimer ShioshviliInternet Archive Book Images [No restrictions]

Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

The Jews of Jesus’ day were longing for a messiah, but for many, Jesus didn’t meet their expectations. What were they looking for, from how they read their Scriptures? Understanding the issues at hand can shed much light on Jesus’ teachings, which often were addressing these expectations. By situating his message in its original context, we’ll see how radical it was, and more importantly, its implications for us as members of his kingdom.

The Expectations of the Ancient World

The ancient world thought very differently than modern Westerners do, and God chose to reveal himself and the Messiah in ways that they would understand. In the polytheistic ancient Near East, it was understood that each nation worshipped its own “god” or “gods,” and the prominence of each nation showed the power of its gods. Abu Simbel Egyptian templesGod therefore gained glory when Israel won battles against nations that worshiped false gods.1 A major theme of the Old Testament was how God was using this logic to convince Israel and all other nations that he was the supreme God. They believed that God’s intention was to enlarge his nation and to purify their hearts so that he would have a great kingdom of whole-hearted worshippers.

God’s ultimate goal, according to the prophets, was to expand his reign over all the world until one day no other gods were worshiped anywhere: “The LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one” (Zech 14:9).2 One Jewish prayer, the Alenu, which likely precedes the first century AD, expresses that hope this way:

“Therefore do we wait for Thee, O Lord our God, soon to behold Thy mighty glory, when Thou wilt remove the abominations from the earth, and idols shalt be exterminated; when the world shall be regenerated by the kingdom of the Almighty, and all the children of flesh invoke Thy name; when all the wicked of the earth shall be turned unto Thee.

Then shall all the inhabitants of the world perceive and confess that unto Thee every knee must bend, and every tongue be sworn. Before Thee, O Lord our God, shall they kneel and fall down, and unto Thy glorious name give honor.

So will they accept the yoke of Thy kingdom, and Thou shall be King over them speedily forever and aye. For Thine is the kingdom, and to all eternity Thou wilt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah: ‘The Lord shall reign forever and aye.’ And it is also said: ‘And the Lord shall be King over all the earth; on that day the Lord shall be One and His name be One.'” 3

Notice how the focus on the coming of God’s kingdom in the Alenu echoes the Lord’s Prayer — that God would establish his kingdom on earth and that his glory be seen throughout the world.

Messiah as King of God’s Kingdom

Along with the idea that God would extend his kingdom over all the earth was the idea that God would send a great king to establish and reign over it, and therefore, the whole world. This great king of Israel, or “anointed one” (mashiach) is the Messiah, which is christos in Greek, or “Christ.” Many messianic passages describe him in just this way:

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. Genesis 49:10

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One (mashiach) … I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. Psalm 2: 2, 8

These prophecies describe an anointed King who rules over the whole world. Grasping this imagery of the Messiah should help us see the many  messianic claims Jesus made during his ministry. In Luke 4, Jesus read the from Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue, “The Lord has anointed (“mashiach”ed) me…” and said that it had been fulfilled in their hearing. By doing so he was boldly claiming to be the Messiah. Also, whenever he spoke about the “kingdom of God” and referred to it as “my kingdom,” he was claiming the same thing. Messiah flagWhen he told his disciples to proclaim that God’s “kingdom was at hand,” it meant that he, God’s true King had arrived on earth. Jesus’ mission was to establish and reign over God’s kingdom, and he often spoke in these terms.4

The Messiah the People Expected: Warrior & Judge

How would God’s king establish his kingdom? One logical conclusion would be that the Messiah would wage war against the idol-worshiping Gentiles and destroy sinners among the Jews. You might be surprised at how many prophecies in their Scriptures sounded like they confirmed their ideas. 

The Messiah was to be a “Son of David” (a descendant of King David), so people expected that just as David had expanded God’s kingdom by going to war, the messianic “Son of David” would too.

The Messiah was expected to be like Moses, who defeated the Egyptians and established Israel as a nation at Mt. Sinai.5 The idea that the Messianic king would lead a rebellion was a prominent expectation, which was why when Jesus admitted to being the Christ, he was accused of stirring up a rebellion against Rome (Luke 23:2-5). After he multiplied the loaves and fish, his audience became convinced that he was giving them “manna” as another prophet-leader like Moses. They responded by wanting to make him king (John 6:14-15) for just this reason.

Many prophecies also anticipate the “Day of the Lord” — a climactic battle between God and his enemies after which the nation of Israel would come into its full glory (Zeph. 1:14-15, Zech. 14:1-3). It should be noted that the “Day of the Lord” was also to be a day of great judgment on all the sinners of Israel:

“The Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts.

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts. (Mal 3:1, 5)

From these and other passages, people expected that the Messianic King would come to bring war and also to judge the people. This made sense because along with leading the army, one of the main roles of a king was to act as supreme judge in the land. (Ps. 72:1-4)

In the New Testament, we see John the Baptist echoing these sentiments as he warns his listeners that Christ was coming in wrath, to chop down every tree that didn’t bear fruit and burn up evildoers like chaff in unquenchable fire (Lk. 3:17).

The Essenes also combined the roles of the Messiah as warrior and judge into one, imagining that he would lead a great war between the “Sons of Light” (their pure community) and the “Sons of Darkness” – sinful Jews and enemy nations that worship other gods.

Another Kind of Messiah – Shepherd, Servant, Jubilee King

Even though the people found evidence for a warrior Messiah in their scriptures, other passages paint a very different picture. More than one passage describes a king who comes in peace to reign over the earth, rather than in war:

Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion will be from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth. Zech. 9:9-10 (See also Isaiah 9:6-7)

This passage is familiar to us from the scene in Jesus’ life when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. The fulfillment of this prophecy showed that he was not coming to wage war like so many believed.

Jesus also deliberately applied other passages to himself that explained his mission. He spoke of himself as the “shepherd,” a reference to many messianic passages about a shepherd-king who would re-gather the wandering tribe of Israel and give them a new heart of love and obedience to God (Deut. 30:3-6, Jer. 23:3, Ezek. 34:11). He also spoke about being the “anointed” who was announcing a year of Jubilee — freedom from debt, using debt as a metaphor for sin6 (Is. 61:1-3).

Finally and most importantly, he fulfilled Isaiah 53, which describes God’s “servant” who takes all of the sins of the people on himself, who suffers and dies for their sins to purchase their forgiveness. Jesus came to expand God’s kingdom throughout the world by announcing forgiveness to all who would repent, rather than judgment on sinners.

 

The Critical Difference Between these Ideas

People often assume that Jesus was rejected by his listeners because they wanted a “political” messiah, as opposed to a “spiritual” messiah. But the reason many did not accept Jesus was because they were looking for a Messiah to come with judgment on the enemies of God, and he came with an offer of forgiveness and peace instead. It wasn’t that they hadn’t read the scriptures, but rather that Jesus didn’t fit their reading.

They expected the kingdom of God to be established by killing everyone who wasn’t righteous. But instead, God would gain a kingdom of pure-hearted followers, not by destroying all the impure, but by purifying sinners and atoning for their sins himself. The Messiah would indeed come again someday in judgment, but for now he was extending an invitation of forgiveness to everyone who would take it.

ColiseumIt is easy for us to condemn the people of Jesus’ time, but seeing more of the situation can give us empathy for them. The suffering of the Jews in Jesus’ day under the Roman Empire was as extreme as it was for those in Nazi Germany, according to historians. Torture and public crucifixion were commonplace, thousands were murdered, and taxes were overwhelming.

The Jews who were most faithful were persecuted most harshly, and only those who had “sold out” by serving the Romans prospered — the tax collectors and the corrupt Temple priests that colluded with them to exploit the faithful Jews.7

In their anguish, the Jews yearned for God to establish his kingdom of justice by purifying their nation from corruption and freeing it from their Roman persecutors. Even Jesus’ disciples were convinced that this was Jesus’ mission. After his resurrection they asked him “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ message was extremely difficult for his audience to hear — that only by letting go of vengeance could they enter God’s true kingdom.

 

The Challenge of the Kingdom

Ironically, the only people that would find a forgiving Messiah appealing were the “sinners” themselves. When prostitutes and tax collectors heard about a Messiah who didn’t bring judgment but rather forgiveness, it must have been the greatest news in the world to them.

The rest of his listeners must have felt just the opposite. As the innocent victims of Roman oppression, they saw themselves as the “righteous ones” who longed for vindication. They yearned for a Messiah who judged and defeated their enemies, rather than one who would forgive their sins but then demand that they forgive those who had wronged them.

The most profound thing about the “merciful kingdom” that Christ proclaimed was what it said about God. The ancient world believed that the gods of the nations battled against each other to expand their kingdom, but the true God came to suffer and die for the sins of his people instead. This God was a god of mercy and long-suffering love, who wanted sinners to be forgiven rather than being destroyed in judgment.

To truly grasp the kingdom message of our Messiah, we must be fully aware of our sinfulness and willing to ask for forgiveness, and to forgive those who have wronged us as well.

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1 When God sent the plagues to bring his people out of Egypt, for instance, each was targeted at an Egyptian god to show that God was supreme (Ex. 12:12). Many other Old Testament stories display God defeating false gods, like the fall of the Dagon idol before the ark (1 Sam 5:2) and the contest between Elijah and the Baal prophets (1 Ki 18:21).

2 Revelation also includes this imagery of the final climax to history when it says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Anointed One); and He will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)

3 The Alenu prayer is recited three times each day at the end of the synagogue service. Ironically, even though Jesus may have prayed this ancient prayer, it is now recited silently because Christians persecuted Jews who prayed it, thinking it was said against them. For more on its history, read jewishencyclopedia.com‘s entry on “Alenu.” 

4 Other stories in Jesus’ life are included to show that he was the Messianic king. The visit of the Magi fulfilled the prophecies that kings of other nations would bring tribute to him (Is. 60, Ps. 72). The Holy Spirit descending on him at his baptism was reminiscent of how God’s spirit fell on anointed kings like Saul (1 Sam 10:10) and David (1 Sam 16:13). Also, see the En-Gedi article, “What Does the Name Jesus “Christ” Mean?

5 Especially during this time of great oppression under the Romans, the people looked for another Moses to set them free from their oppressors.

6 See the En-Gedi article, “The Gospel as a Year of Jubilee.”

7 For more on the corruption of the Temple priesthood, see “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week.”

For more on Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God, see the En-Gedi Article “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News.

Another excellent article about how Jews and Christians have understood messianic prophecy is by Glenn Miller

Photos: Ali Hegazy on Unsplash, Mabdalla [Public domain], Mauricio Artieda on Unsplash

The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!

by Lois Tverberg

Throughout Jesus’ time on earth, the focus of his teaching was the Kingdom of God. In fact, he says, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). Even though Jesus’ ministry focused on it, many things he says about it leave us scratching our heads. Is it now or in the future? Why is it so important to him? Why is it good news? Once again, having a knowledge about Jesus’ first century Hebrew culture will greatly clarify his teaching.

Kingdom of Heaven & Kingdom of God

First of all, we read two different phrases in the gospels: “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God.” In Matthew, “kingdom of heaven” is used, while in Mark and Luke, “kingdom of God” is used. This is because in Jesus’ day, and even now, Jews show respect for God by not pronouncing his Heaven imagery name, but substituting another word. For example, the prodigal son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight” (Luke 15:21). So, Matthew is preserving the culturally-correct “kingdom of heaven” while Mark and Luke are explaining that “heaven” is a reference to God. The actual words that came out of Jesus’ mouth were probably “Malchut shemayim” (mahl-KUT shuh-MAH-eem), which was a phrase common in rabbinic teaching in his day. Malchut, which we translate as “kingdom,” actually refers more to the actions of a king — his reign and authority, and anyone who is under his authority. Shemayim is Hebrew for “heavens.” A simple way of translating it would be “God’s reign,” or “how God reigns” or “those God reigns over.”

But what does it really mean?

Apparently, the discussion of Jesus’ day was focused on how and when God would establish his kingdom on earth. They were thinking of prophecies like those in Zechariah that say that one day,

The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name. (Zech. 14:9)

We may wonder why they felt that God wouldn’t be king from the beginning of creation, but they believed that as long as the world was filled with evil and other nations worshipped other gods, the people of the world refused to acknowledge him as its king. Especially in Jesus’ day this feeling was very strong. God’s people, Israel, were suffering at the hands of the Romans. They longed for the day that God would come to save his people and fully establish his reign over the earth.

The reason the ministry of Jesus focuses on the kingdom was because it was the role of the Messiah to establish God’s kingdom on earth. Messianic passages in the Old Testament focus on how God was going to anoint a king from the people of Israel to reign over the whole world, and that he would bring God’s kingdom to earth (see Is. 11, Ps. 2, 72, Dan. 2 and others). Because Jesus was the Messiah, he was describing his own mission as the Anointed King sent by God.

We can imagine that there would be much speculation in Jesus’ time about how God would establish his reign over the whole world. Obviously, they thought, when the Messiah came, he would establish God’s reign by conquering the enemies of Israel. They read many prophecies about the Messiah that were images of a mighty king who defeated his foes and then took the throne, for instance:

The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One (Messiah, in Hebrew). … Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill. … You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery. (Ps. 2:2,5-6, 9)

And, they read about the great and dreadful “day of the Lord” where he would come to judge the enemies of Israel, and they longed for that day. Messianic prophecy also talks about a “suffering servant” and a “Prince of Peace,” but the people of Jesus’ day expected that the Messiah would bring God’s judgment. This attitude was pervasive in Jesus’ time. The Essenes formed ascetic communities in the desert and called themselves the “sons of light,” waiting for the great war when God would destroy the “sons of darkness,” which was everyone except them. Even Jesus’ disciples were convinced that this was Jesus’ mission. They asked him “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And, in the words of John the Baptist, we hear him warning his listeners that because the Messiah was here, the judgment of God was imminent:

Boy with axe cutting tree

Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

His winnowing fork is in his hand to thoroughly clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:9, 17).

Jesus’ Teaching About the Kingdom

Jesus teaching about the kingdom was to correct his people’s expectations of his messianic role, and even their understanding of God’s nature itself. Those around him wanted God to reign over the earth by destroying anyone who didn’t acknowledge him as king. Jesus, in contrast, says that God would establish his kingdom on earth, not by judgment, but by mercy to sinners, who would be reconciled with God through Jesus’ atoning death. This is the fundamental message of Jesus — the good news of the kingdom of God is that the Messiah had come, and was building his kingdom by bringing forgiveness to anyone who would repent, rather than bringing God’s judgment to the world.

If we see this as Jesus’ message, it gives insight on parables about the kingdom that are hard to understand otherwise. One seems to be directly intended to correct John the Baptist’s picture of the Messiah coming in judgment to establish God’s kingdom. We hear from John that “the axe is already laid at the root of the tree“, ready to chop it down because it doesn’t bear fruit. But Jesus tells the parable:

A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, ‘Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?’ And he answered and said to him, ‘Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down. (Luke 13:6-9)

Vineyard grabes vineThe point of this parable is to emphasize God’s mercy rather than his imminent judgment. Jesus seems to be speaking about the same tree that John was, only here the tree is given another chance, rather than being chopped down. Was John the Baptist wrong about Jesus? No, actually, because Jesus will eventually return in judgment, just as John said. When Jesus speaks about his return, he says that then he will come to separate the sheep from the goats, and judge the world. John was just premature in his timing, as were Jesus’ disciples. This is probably why John asks Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” He was expecting Jesus to bring the judgment of God, but this was to come later.

What are the implications of Jesus’ teaching?

Even though the main difference between Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of God and those around him was in the timing of the judgment, this difference had profound implications for the kind of kingdom it is, and the character of God himself.

The picture that most had about the kingdom is that it would be established through God’s judgment. It seems to be a logical answer to the problem of evil. In one sudden event, God would assert his power and vanquish his enemies, the “wicked” of the nations around them, and those of their own nation who were “sinners.” Only the righteous would be left to be God’s Kingdom. They assumed that they were the righteous that would survive the judgment, and that their enemies would not survive. This was good news to those who were the “righteous,” who were on God’s side, because they would have the victory.

Jesus utterly disagrees with this. He says that God’s kingdom had come to earth, but it would be a time of healing and forgiveness. He said that his kingdom would start out small like a mustard seed, but would grow as people would accept Christ and enthrone God as their King. In Jesus’ understanding, a person was brought into the kingdom of God when the person decided to accept God as his King, and it is something that happens in a person’s heart, not a political movement or visible display of God’s power. His idea was very close to that of other rabbis who said that when a person committed himself daily to love God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength, that he had “received upon himself the kingdom of heaven.” This kingdom would be invisible, like leaven that some how works its way through bread to make it rise. We can hear this in this conversation:

Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20 – 21)

Jesus is saying through this that he was the Messiah, and he truly had brought God’s kingdom to earth. But it would be a very different kind of kingdom because it would grow through forgiveness of sin rather than judgment. It was good news to the sinners who knew that if God came in judgment, they would be the ones to be judged!

Also, because the kingdom was growing slowly by God’s mercy toward sinners, it would be like like wheat that grows up among “tares,” or weeds (Matt 13:24-30), representing evil. When the tares were found growing in the field, instead of pulling them out, the farmer waited until the end. The farmer was merciful, preferring to leave the weeds alone in his desire not to harm the wheat. Once again, this contrasts with John’s saying that the Messiah would come to winnow — meaning to separate the wheat from the chaff, or good from evil, for destruction. Again, Jesus is saying that God’s kingdom had truly come to the earth, but evil would not be ended, so it would not be a kind of utopia. Rather, it would grow in the midst of evil because of God’s mercy, so that there was still hope for the enemies if they chose to repent and enter.

If we have this understanding, many of Jesus’ sayings make more sense. His kingdom is made up of the poor in spirit, those who know they are guilty of sin, who come to God for forgiveness. The tax collectors and prostitutes were the first to enter Jesus’ kingdom of mercy, and the last were the outwardly religious who really were hoping for God to judge their enemies. The merciful, who do not want to see God’s judgment come on others, are shown mercy themselves. One day, the kingdom would come in power when Jesus returns to judge, but he would wait as long as possible to allow as many to enter as can.

Wheat field chaff

Jesus’ picture of the kingdom of God gives us a profoundly different understanding of God’s character. It shows that God is, at his very heart, merciful and wanting no one to perish. He teaches us to love our enemies, because he himself is merciful toward his enemies, giving them time to change their ways. It is easy to see what our response must be to Jesus’ message. We must examine ourselves, know that no one is righteous in the eyes of God, and repent and receive God as our King. Only because the Messianic King came to die to establish his Kingdom, rather than to kill his enemies, can we, his former enemies become members of his Kingdom and children of his Father.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

 

Photos: Johannes Plenio on Unsplash, Annie Spratt on UnsplashDavid Köhler on Unsplash, Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Loving Your Neighbor, Who is Like You

The first of the two great commandments, according to Jesus, is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul and strength. A second one is like it — to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:35-37). The overwhelming importance of this command is echoed in the rest of the New Testament. Peter says “above all, love one another” (1 Peter 4:8), and in the letters of John, that “this was the teaching you have heard from the very beginning – to love one another” (1 John 3:11).

While the incredible richness of the words “love your neighbor as yourself” is already apparent to us, hearing more about Jesus’ words in their Jewish context will deepen our understanding of this saying and link it to his other teachings.

The Link between Loving God and Your NeighborNeighborhood

Just as the first of the two great commandments, to love the Lord, originates in the Old Testament (Deut. 6:5), the command to “love your neighbor” comes from there too. In Leviticus 19:18 it says,

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

Even before Jesus came on the scene, early rabbinic teachers had asked the question, “what is the great commandment of the Torah” and answered it by linking the two passages: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and all of your soul, and all of your strength,” and, “and/but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Why? Because these two passages share the Hebrew word ve’ahavta, which means, “and you shall love.” This exact phrase is used only in these two Old Testament passages and one other place. The rabbis noticed that similar passages could be often interpreted together. The practice of connecting verses that share a unique or unusual word or phrase is called gezerah sheva.

They suggested that since both verses start with the command to love, that they could be understood together as if one was expanding on the other as an explanation of how to love. So the greatest commandment of the Law, the klal gadol ba Torah (great principle of the Torah) was to love your neighbor, by which you demonstrated your love for God.

Indeed, Paul and the other New Testament writers were echoing both Jesus and wider rabbinic thought when they said, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Gal. 5:14), or that loving your neighbor is the “royal law” (James 2:8).

Interpreting “Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself”

The commonly understood interpretation is that we should love others with the same measure that we love ourselves, which is certainly very true! But the rabbis also saw that the Hebrew of that verse can also be read as, “Love your neighbor who is like yourself.” While either interpretation is valid, their emphasis was less on comparing love of ourselves with love for others, and more on comparing other people to ourselves, and then loving them because they are like us in our own frailties.

This actually fits the original context of Lev. 19:18 better, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor, as/like yourself; I am the LORD.” When we realize that we are guilty of the same sins that others are, we see that we shouldn’t bear grudges against them, but to forgive and love them instead.

The rabbis of Jesus’ day saw it as a challenge to realize that we are to love those who do not seem worthy because we ourselves are unworthy, and all are in need of God’s mercy. All people, including ourselves, are flawed and sinful, but we need to love them because we ourselves commit the same sins. One rabbi said,

If you hate your neighbor whose deeds are wicked like your own, I, the Lord, will punish you as your judge; and if you love your neighbor whose deeds are good like your own, I, the Lord, will be faithful to you and have mercy on you. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, chap. 26)

Another rabbi said:

Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (28:2-4) (Ben Sira, c. 180 B.C.)

While our traditional interpretation that we should love our neighbor as ourselves still remains true, the rabbis’ perspective highlights the fact that the time when we need to show love most is when we need to forgive the sins of others against us.

Now we can even hear the background of the verse of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” We could almost say, “Please love us even though we are sinners, as we love other sinners like ourselves.” Forgiving sins is one of the strongest tests of love — it is easy to love someone who has treated us rightly, but to love someone who has hurt us is far more difficult. God must love us greatly if he keeps forgiving the sins we commit against him!

Another thing that the rabbis would point out from the phrase “Love your neighbor who is like you,” is that all humans are made in the image of God, and all are precious to him, even the very worst of us. Every genocide starts with the idea that the enemy is not fully human. But if we remember that even the most wicked person bears the stamp of God’s image, we still must treat them justly and never forget their humanity.

Who is my neighbor?

In Luke 10, when Jesus is having a discussion with a lawyer about “loving your neighbor,” the lawyer asks him the question “And who is my neighbor?” We assume that this is not a legitimate question, but it actually was a very good question.

In Hebrew, the word reah was used for “neighbor,” but it was even more commonly used for “friend.” So the verse could be interpreted, “Love your friend who is like you” or “Love your friend as yourself,” which isn’t much of a challenge at all. The lawyer probably already understood that it didn’t just apply to one’s friends, it applied to one’s neighbors in a broader sense. The rabbinic debate was about how far that circle went, and he is asking Jesus just how far he thought that circle extended.

The good SamaritanJesus gave the lawyer a brilliant answer to how far the circle went: he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then asked the lawyer who was the neighbor to the dying man, which was the despised Samaritan (Luke 10). We would expect the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor” to be “the dying man.” But Jesus asked the question in such a way as to force the man to say that the neighbor was in fact, the Samaritan. In Jesus’ time the Samaritans and Jews despised each other as enemies, so Jesus’ implication is that we should go so far as to love even those who are not our friends.

By telling this parable, it appears that Jesus brilliantly used rabbinic technique to elevate Leviticus 19:34, the third and final verse in the Old Testament that contains the word ve’ahavta, to the level of the other two.:

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.

The Samaritan would have been the stranger and the alien among them, and Jesus shows that the stranger and alien was the neighbor that the man should love! It appears that Jesus is tying “Love your neighbor” with “love the stranger” and even “love your enemies”! This saying was utterly unique to Jesus, and while he built it on rabbinic thought of his time, it goes far beyond that. It is amazing to see how our rabbi Jesus began with this rich material and brought it to its pinnacle.

More light on the Samaritan

Jesus’ teaching grows even richer if the parable about the Good Samaritan in the light of a story in his scripture that his hearers would have recalled. (Remember that Jewish culture was very knowledgeable of their Scriptures, and rabbis frequently alluded to their scriptures to give more depth to their stories.)

In 2 Chronicles 28:8-15, a scene takes place after Israel is divided into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ahaz, the king of Judah, led the nation into terrible idolatry, even sacrificing children to idols. Because of this, the Lord let Judah be attacked and defeated by Israel. This is the first time that Israel actually took prisoners of the tribes of Judah.

The Israelites were on the verge of leading 200,000 Judean victims away as slaves when the prophet Oded chastised them by reminding them that God allowed them defeat Judah as a punishment for idolatry, and Israel was even more guilty of worshiping idols than their brothers. If they took their own brothers captive, it would compound their guilt before the Lord! The  leaders of the Israelite tribes repented of their sin and set the Judeans free. The text says,

Then the men who were designated by name arose, took the captives, and they clothed all their naked ones from the spoil; and they gave them clothes and sandals, fed them and gave them drink, anointed them with oil, led all their feeble ones on donkeys, and brought them to Jericho, the city of palm trees, to their brothers; then they returned to Samaria. (2 Chron. 28:15)

We rarely read of a story of such compassion between nations at war, where one binds the wounds of the other and gently restores them to freedom. This was a remarkable moment of grace between the tribes of Israel.

These “good Samaritans” appear to be in the background of Jesus’ character of the Samaritan in his parable for several reasons. In the parable, Jesus mentions the town Jericho, one of the few times he ever mentions specific places in parables. The victim is stripped naked, like some of the Judeans were, and the Samaritan anoints the man and puts him on a donkey and carries him to Jericho, like was done with the Judeans. His audience easily could have brought to mind this story.

If Jesus had this in mind, it shows us even more brilliance packed into his parable. In this story of the ancient “good Samaritans”, the point at which they repented and decided to love their enemies was exactly when they became aware of the truth of Leviticus 19:18 — that their enemies were their own brothers, and that they were sinners just like them!

They were loving their neighbors, because they realized they were alike both in humanity and sinfulness. To the audience of Jesus’ parable, they would have remembered that the Samaritans actually did at one time do this act of great compassion for their enemies. And that they should act like these people (and love these people), who then were their worst enemies.

It is hard to overstate the depth and brilliance of Jesus in his rabbinic teaching. He builds on Old Testament stories and rabbinic thought to express an idea that was unique to him — that we should even love our enemies. Why? Because they are human beings, made in the image of God like ourselves, and because we are all sinners in God’s sight. Just as God loves both the just and the unjust, how much more, we who are sinners, should love other sinners like ourselves.

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To explore this topic more, see chapter 4, “Meeting Myself Next Door” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 55-66.

This essay is based in part on the following: “Jesus’ Jewish Command to Love” by Dr. Steven Notley at jerusalemperspective.com; and talks given by Dr. Randall Buth, “What be Commandment Big of the Law”, and by Dr. Steven Notley, “Do this and Live: The Ethics of Jesus.”

Photos: Eric T Gunther, “Arboretum neighborhood Washington DC.” Dalziel Brothers, “The Good Samaritan (The Parables of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ).”