Who is Wise?

by Lois Tverberg

“While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. …Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious…” Acts 17:16-17, 22

From Jesus’ time until now, in Jewish culture it has been customary to confront, discuss and even argue with those whom you disagree. We might think that every difficult question asked of Jesus was to antagonize or trap him, but debating with respected rabbis was a common practice in his culture. Because of the emphasis on argumentation, rabbis had some wisdom about how to deal with those whom you disagree.

They had a saying — “Who is wise? He who learns from all others.” (1) The idea is that a person can always learn from another person’s perspective, even those with whom he disagrees. We see this in the life of Paul – that he didn’t just walk away from the Jews who didn’t believe in the gospel, but spent time reasoning about the faith in the synagogue. And, with Gentiles, even though Paul was offended by their many gods, he learned enough about their beliefs in order to compliment their “great religiousness” and speak as if the true God was the “unknown God” to whom the Athenians had set up a shrine among their many altars. Because he had learned from both groups about their perspective, he was a powerfully effective evangelist.

We can learn from an incident that involved two debating rabbinic groups of Jesus’ time, the disciples of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. (Some of their discussions come up in the gospels, and Jesus usually sided with Hillel.) Both had good insights, but ultimately the opinions of Hillel won out. Why? Because the Shammaites presented their views as absolute answers and ignored those of Hillel, while the Hillelites studied both sides, and then presented Shammai’s opinions before giving their own. Because they considered both sides, they had greater intellectual depth in their reasoning, and their opinions won the day. (2)

rabbi's conversing
This should cause us to look at the way we live today. Do we read and listen to opinions with which we disagree, or do we skip the editorials written by columnists we dislike? Do we know about the religious beliefs of our neighbors, including why they disagree with our own? Learning as much as we can keeps us from becoming intellectually flabby, and should keep us from unkindness and arrogance. Study allows us to better explain the opinions that we hold, and enables us to better share the hope that we have in Christ.

(1) Mishnah, Pirke Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma.

(2) The Book of Jewish Values, by J. Telushkin, ISBN 0609603302 (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York, p. 186-187.

Photo: Dorotheum

Who is Strong?

by Lois Tverberg

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” Luke 16:10

In our sports-minded world we care a lot about who is fastest and strongest. But the rabbis had an excellent definition of strength that we might never think about. They said, “Who is strong? He who can control his evil inclination.” (1)

Spiral StaircaseIf you think about it, most sins come from lack of strength to say no to our inner desires — from giving in to sexual temptation, or getting revenge on someone who has hurt us, or lying because it is easier than telling the truth. Our broken nature always seems to want to pull us downward into the gutter of sin. Getting out of it requires an inner strength that fewer and fewer people seem to have, now that the message from our culture is one of self-indulgence.

Our habits of eating junk food, watching TV and never exercising make us weak and fat physically. Could it be that our habits of gossiping, fibbing, cheating on taxes, ignoring traffic laws and other little sins cause us to get flabby and weak spiritually? Jesus says that if we can be trusted with little, we can be trusted with much, but if we can’t even be trusted to obey in the small things, we certainly can’t be trusted to do the right thing when it is very important.

By contrast, God can use a person who has integrity to do heroic feats of courage. For example, Corrie Ten Boom was a leader in the Dutch underground during the Holocaust, and saved many Jewish lives from the concentration camps. Her actions were not a surprise to those who knew the Ten Boom family, which was very devout and had a history of helping the mentally ill and the needy. Corrie had lived a life of obedience, and in her mid-fifties when the Nazis came to her town to murder the Jews, her inner strength caused her to emerge a hero. Tragically, very few Christians had this kind of moral fortitude, and because of their spiritual “flabbiness,” most did nothing to help the Jews during the Holocaust.

If we want God to trust us with important tasks, then even today we should make sure that he can trust us with the littlest of things. Each time we say “no” to our selfish desires, we strengthen ourselves for greater tasks that God might send our way, giving us strong legs to conquer mountains for the Lord.

(1) Mishnah, Pirke Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma.

(2) Ten Boom, C. The Hiding Place, Bantam Books, ISBN 0553256696 (c) 1984.

Photo: Chad K

Who is Rich?

by Lois Tverberg

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:11-13

Right now as we are in the season of Christmas, as we are doing our pre-Christmas and post-Christmas shopping, it is easy to focus on new things we wish we could have. We live in a culture where TV shows and commercials revolve around having more “stuff,” where our status is based on money, and we are expected to dedicate all our time to achieving financial success. Our culture’s god is Mammon, and at Christmas, we are bombarded by messages to bow down to this god, when we should be worshipping the God who cared so little for money that he came to earth to lay in a watering trough.

This is a good time to reflect on a wonderful saying of the rabbis. They asked the simple question, “Who is rich?” And, they answered it with a profound, yet simple answer: “He who is satisfied with what he has.”

Versailles' Hall of  Mirrors

Certainly there are many in need, but many more of us don’t see the amazing prosperity that we do have. For much of the world’s people, and much of human history, people have known regular hunger, have had only one or two changes of clothes, and have worked hard to just make ends meet with little or no safety net of savings. Nowadays people have large retirement savings, buy pricey vacations and entertainment items, and grow obese eating in restaurants. If we saw our homes as palaces that even kings and queens of former generations would feel comfortable in, we certainly would feel satisfied with what we have.

As we celebrate God’s great gift to us this year in Christ, may we seek first his Kingdom, rather than worrying about the things we have or don’t have. And may we learn to be content in every circumstance, knowing that God abundantly supplies all our needs. Then we will see how rich we really are.

(1) Mishnah, Pirke Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma.

Photo: Myrabella