Working With What You’ve Got

by Lois Tverberg

[The Kingdom of God] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. Matthew 25:14-18

Sad Child

We all struggle with our weaknesses, and for some of us, they are pretty profound. We might be plagued by a physical disability, mental illness, psychological problems, or a dysfunctional family background. Jesus’ describes people with different amounts of gifts in the parable above, and many of us feel like the servant who received one talent rather than five. It’s often true that people who struggle with limitations bury their talents and give up on serving God. We feel worthless, like only those who are great in human achievement are worthy of serving God. We may even believe that God is harsh and unfair, as the man in the parable viewed his employer.

The rabbis relay a similar parable with a wise message: A king hires two watchmen over his garden—one blind, and the other lame. The two watchmen decide to steal his fruit, but neither can do it alone. The lame man can’t reach the fruit, and the blind man can’t see where it is. So the blind man hoists the lame man on his shoulders, and together they pick the fruit! When the king discovers the crime, both of them claim they were incapable of stealing the fruit. So the king lifts the lame man on the blind man’s shoulders and judges them both as one. (B. Talmud, Sanhedrin 91a-b)

The point of this parable is that all of us have two aspects —our flesh, that may have disabilities or psychological problems; and our will—our desire to accomplish what we are called to do. Together they determine what we can do, and we can’t ignore our calling to serve God because of our struggles.

We may be tempted to give up and be the chronic “victim,” feeling cheated by a harsh God, having no obligation to help others. Instead, we should look for ways to use our difficulties to serve God. Dave Brownson was tormented for years with schizophrenia and manic depression. His disability made him feel worthless and sub-human, and that he had no calling in life. But then he began a ministry counseling others with serious mental illness, and supplied enormous comfort to people in circumstances similar to his own. It was through his illness that he gained the empathy and experience to reach out to this needy group of people. (1)

God knows the talents he has given you, and he knows that many struggle with enormous problems every day. When we finally stand before him, may we be counted among those who have multiplied what we have been given.

(1) Bill & Helen Brownson, Billy and Dave (Words of Hope, Credo House Pub., Grand Rapids, 2006).

Photo: Wagner T. Cassimiro “Aranha”

Which Type Are You?

by Lois Tverberg

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Matthew 13:3-8

To explain how people would receive his message, Jesus told a parable about four types of soils, representing four kinds of responses to his ministry. Interestingly, Jesus was using a classic rabbinic teaching method — the “Four Types” parable, that presented four possible behaviors and their results. Other rabbis of Jesus’ day also used parables of this style, as the following example illustrates:

There are four types among those who sit in the presence of the rabbis: the sponge, the funnel, the strainer, and the sieve. “The sponge,” which soaks up everything. “The funnel,” which takes in at this end and lets out at the other. “The strainer,” which lets out the wine and retains the dregs. “The sieve,” which removes the chaff and dust and keeps the grain. (Pirke Avot, 5:17)

It is interesting to see how this saying parallels that of Jesus. It also talks about people who listen to a rabbi, describing how they remember and respond to his teachings. Our initial reaction may be to think that it is best to be like the sponge which retains everything, and the worst to be the funnel, that loses everything. But the other two options give us more insight. The wine strainer is even worse than the funnel, because it lets the good wine go right through, but retains the waste. The grain sieve is the best model for us, because it retains the good grain but removes the chaff and dirt.

Which Type are You?

This parable is a good lesson for us as we learn from pastors and spiritual leaders. With the exception of Christ, all our teachers will have some “dross” in with the silver, which means we must listen with discernment. We might be tempted to find a charismatic leader or authoritative author and become a “parrot” who repeats everything uncritically. Or even worse, we can get enamored with odd, debatable points from a teacher, but miss the good ideas that he has shared. If we want to truly grow in wisdom, we need to be like the Bereans1, who held up all teaching to the Scriptures for soundness (Acts 17:11). We then need to subject every doctrine to the mind of Christ, to make sure it reflects his loving, gracious heart.

1 “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” Acts 17:11

Photo: Herrad von Landsberg

Laying Up Treasure in Heaven

by Lois Tverberg

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19-21 (NKJV)

When we read Jesus’ saying above, it sounds like a vague idea about setting our priorities on heavenly things rather than earthly things. In fact, the phrase “laying up treasure in heaven” is actually an idiom with a much more exact idea behind it than just being “heavenly minded.” In fact, it refers to giving to the poor. We can see how it is used from another passage about “laying up treasure” from a Jewish writer before Jesus’ time:

Help the poor for the commandment’s sake, and turn him not away because of his poverty. Lose thy money for thy brother and thy friend, and let it not rust under a stone to be lost. Lay up thy treasure according to the commandments of the most High, and it shall bring thee more profit than gold. Sirach 29:9-11 (180 BC)

Helping the Poor

The logic behind this is that God is greatly concerned about the poor. When we give to them, we are loaning to God himself! We can be sure that we’ll be repaid in eternity. As Proverbs 19 says,

He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done. Prov. 19:17

Even more important than our being rewarded is our attitude, according to Jesus. When we share with others two things happen: our priorities with money shift to pleasing God with our money instead of ourselves. We also develop a “good eye” — a generous attitude of concern for others, rather than a “bad eye” — a greedy, self-centered outlook. (Mt 6:22-23) Then we will be taking hold of the life that is truly life, as Paul says:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. 1 Tim 6:17-19

Photo: Jacques-Louis David

The Urgent Harvest

by Lois Tverberg

After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. Luke 10:1-4

Jesus commissioned his disciples to go to the people of the villages around them, heal the sick, and proclaim the kingdom of God. He explained this work as if it were harvest time. The common reading of this passage equates the “harvest” to the idea of reaping souls that are waiting to hear the Gospel and be saved, like fruit ready to be picked and brought into the barn.

Workers in field

While this picture is perfectly true, Jesus may have had a different idea in mind here. Some background knowledge about farming helps us understand the picture better. After weeks of waiting for the crops to mature, a farmer has only days to gather the ripened crop before it begins to spoil in the field or the rains ruin it. Birds, animals and human thieves also threaten to take their toll of the valuable harvest. Farmers will hire as many workers as they can find and even pay them a premium, because time is of the essence. As one rabbi put it,

“The day is short and the work is great, but the workers are lazy; however, the wages are high since the owner is in a hurry.” (Rabbi Tarfon, (130 AD), Pirke Avot 2:15)

The harvest imagery better fits the context of Jesus’ words when we understand it as a message of urgency. He instructed his disciples not to take extra money, clothing, or greet anyone along the way. As preachers of Torah, they would have been able to expect hospitality as they traveled. Their food and housing needs would be met by the villages they preached in. So Jesus told them to travel light, unencumbered by extra provisions, and not to be distracted by long conversations with friends they met along the way. Both would delay them from their pressing assignment.

Likewise, Jesus is saying that our mission has great urgency—there’s much that God desires us to do, and we have less time to get it done than we think! We must eagerly engage every opportunity to carry out his work. As Paul says,

“Make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16).

Photo: Bridgestone Museum of Art

The Joy of Repentance

by Lois Tverberg

I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)

Evangelical Christians all understand the great importance of proclaiming the Gospel to the lost people in the world. We know that all humanity is trapped in sin, and sharing the truth that Christ died for our sins is of extreme importance, so that people will repent and be forgiven and saved. We therefore read the saying of Jesus’ above in that light — of the great joy in heaven with every new soul that claims Christ as their Lord.

Prodigal Son ReturnsBut there is another way to look at it as applying not just to the “lost” of the world, but to those who are already followers of Jesus. Our lives here and now are important to God, and he has a great plan to use us if we will just obey him. But all Christians still struggle with sin, and sometimes we can go for years stuck in a sin or habit that is preventing us from being useful as servants of God. God’s grace doesn’t remove us from his kingdom, but the thorns and weeds of our sinful life stop us from bearing fruit, and we wonder why life seems so frustrating and empty.

Jesus, as well as other rabbis, pointed out that even people in God’s kingdom need to seek out how they can repent. The moment they realize what is wrong and commit themselves to change, God leaps for joy! One rabbi said, “Better is a single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole of the world to come” (Pirke Avot 4:17). The day that we decide to turn around and obey God is an even better day than being in heaven! Each moment that we choose God’s will and die to our own, it is a moment of happiness for God, because he can now use us for his purposes. And, if we only knew the marvelous things God has planned to do through our lives, we would be full of joy too.


Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg,, 2014 (ebook).

Photo: FranzMayerstainedglass

Motivation Not to Sin

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28

The rabbis of Jesus’ day sought to motivate 7 deadly sins in a heartpeople to obey God’s word and stay far from sin. One technique they employed was to point out how seemingly small sins can evolve into much greater sins. (1) This was called kalah ka-hamurah (“light as heavy”), an abbreviation of mitsvah kalah ka-mitsvah hamurah (“a light commandment is like a heavy commandment”). In other words, kalah ka-hamurah relays the sense that breaking a less significant law is linked to breaking a greater law. The same style of logic appears in Jesus’ teaching when he compares anger to murder and lust to adultery (Mt 5:22-23, 27-28).

Other rabbis applied this same technique to make listeners aware of the potential damage that their words can do. The question was asked, to which sin is lashon hara  (the “evil tongue,” gossip) more closely related—theft or murder? The answer is murder, because a robber can always give back what he has stolen, but a murderer, as well as a gossip, can never repair all the damage that he or she has done. (2)

Not to be outdone, another source compares gossip to the murder of three persons! (3) It observes that not only do you “murder” the reputation of the object of your gossip, but you “murder” yourself, showing you are a person who savors ugly ideas about others and can’t be trusted not to betray those around you. By bringing someone else down, you bring yourself down too. And finally, you “murder” the person who listens to you. You load them down with information that will create disgust for the gossip’s subject, and tempt them to spread the word to yet more hearers.

Yet another rabbinic source asserts that gossip is like committing the three worst possible sins in Jewish thinking: idolatry, adultery, and murder! (4) Murder, of course, for what you are doing to another’s reputation. Adultery, because you are betraying a person’s trust; and idolatry, because you are acting as if you don’t believe God is listening to your words.

The rabbis’ purpose in conflating small sins with greater ones was not so much theological, but motivational. They were reminding their audiences of an important truth—that if we want to avoid sin, the time to scrutinize our conduct is when the choice is easy and the temptation is small. We do that when we consider the consequences of even our most minor actions.

(1) Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal (Quill, 1996) p. xx

(2) David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, (En-Gedi, 2005) p. 97.

(3) Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b.

(4) Ibid.

Photo:  Moreau.henri

Anger Unleashed

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. Matthew 5:22-23

Rabbis of Jesus’ day sought to motivate people to obey God’s word and stay far from sin. One technique they used in their teaching was to pointing out that seemingly small sins can lead toward much greater sins.1 We see this in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount when he first describes how in the Scripture, murder requires judgment, but then he says that even anger and insults put you in danger of judgment. A rabbinic source actually derives this same point by linking together several verses in Leviticus:

“He who violates, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself [Lev 19:18],’ will ultimately violate, ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart [Lev 19:17],’ and ‘You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge [Lev 19:18],’ and even, ‘He shall live with you’ [Lev 25:35], until in the end he will come to shedding blood.” 2

It is fascinating how the commentary here pulls together several commands from Leviticus and points out the progression between them. It draws a slope of sin that is a natural progression:

Not loving your neighbor –>

Hating him in your heart –>

Taking revenge on him –>

Driving him away from you –>

Taking his life – murder!

Both Jesus and the rabbis are emphasizing that the time to confront a sin is when it is still minor, so that you can forgive and your relationship can be repaired. If you just internalize your anger, it will eventually lead to contempt, hatred and thoughts of revenge. After that it is a short step between insults, fighting, breaking up relationships, and even destroying life.

We all should examine our feelings toward others and consider whether we harbor grudges toward people around us. The time to confront and forgive is now—before we slip any further down the slope. Like Cain, sin is crouching at the door of our hearts. We need to keep ourselves from sliding down this terrible incline that can eventually lead to death.

1 & 2  Sifre Deuteronomy, Shoftim 187.11. As quoted in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, p. 98.

Photo: LilRoloHere

Honoring Others

by Lois Tverberg

When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:7-11

Woman Anoints Jesus Feet

In the passage above, Jesus notices how competitive the guests are being at a feast, where seating indicates ones’ social status. He charges his followers to take the lowest position until being asked to move up. Is he teaching us social etiquette? A cynic might say that Jesus wants us to adopt a mock-humility and self-abasement just so others will deem us worthy.

A rabbinic comment concurrent with Jesus’ command in Luke 14 offers a better perspective. It was said,

Who is worthy of honor? The one who treats other human beings with honor. As it I said: “For those who honor Me, I will honor, and those who scorn Me, I will scorn.” (1 Sam. 2:30) 1

This principle is called kavod habriyot —“honoring others”—and it means to respect others with a knowledge that all people are precious in God’s eyes. Simple examples of this respect range from not keeping others waiting or not taking all of something because you are first, to not being obnoxious in a group to get attention. When we view all as equally important in God’s eyes, respecting others in these ways is an obvious response. In bestowing this respect, you are humbling yourself.

When we examine Jesus’ command to take the lowest position we are convinced to look at it not as false humility but as kavod habriyot —honoring all others. A person with this attitude would arrive at a banquet and recognize the value and contributions of all the people around him. He would forget about himself, happily taking the lowest place, wanting all to receive some recognition for their presence there. In doing so he would be Christ-like in his humility, and in God’s eyes, worthy of the most honor.

1 Rabbi Ben Zoma, Pirke Avot 4:1

Photo: Ermitage, Sankt Petersburg

The Weightiest Law

by Lois Tverberg

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31


Christians have traditionally understood all of the commandments to be of equal importance, but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws potentially conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow. For instance, the command to circumcise on the eighth day took precedence over the Sabbath (Jn 7:22). This came out of an effort to live by God’s laws in all situations, rather than arbitrarily ignoring some and observing others. They would describe the laws in terms of being “light” (kal) and “heavy” (hamur) in relationship to each other. 1

Jesus was likely using this terminology when he spoke about the “least of the commandments” in Matthew 5:19, referencing the laws that had lower precedence compared to others. Also, in Matthew 23:23, Jesus chides the religious leaders for neglecting the “weightier” matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness, while being careful to tithe each spice, a less important law.

The idea of “weighing” the laws of the Torah was likely the rationale for the question, “Of all the commands, which is most important?” (Mark 12:28-30) The lawyer was asking, “What is our ultimate priority as we try to obey God?” Jesus’ answer was to quote two laws found in the Torah, from Deuteronomy 6:14 (love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor). About 100 years later, Rabbi Akiva said essentially the same thing a different way: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself —this is the great principle (*clal gadol*) of the Torah.” 2

This is a very wise word as we discern what to do when two commands conflict with each other. If you must choose one over the other, choose the one that shows the most love. If you have a worship meeting one evening, but a sick friend needs you to visit during the same time, the friend should take priority. If you don’t do yard work on Sunday (or Saturday) but your elderly neighbor really needs her lawn mowed, and its the only day you can help, you should do it then. Jesus himself would probably do the same thing in your situation, and indeed, he is using you to do it.

The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Gal 5:14

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 For more on “light and heavy” in regards to the law, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, pp. 96-98.

2 Sifra 89b; a comment on Lev. 19:18. Sifra is a very early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus.

(Photo: Dey)

Who Were the Wicked Tenants?

by Lois Tverberg

“A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” …The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Matthew 20:9-16

The parable above has been used as a justification of Jewish persecution for thousands of years. Some have interpreted it as a blanket condemnation of the Jews by Jesus, concluding that God would nullify the covenant he made Workers Tend to Vineyard with them and replace them with the Gentile Christian church. A careful reading of the parable in light of its first-century Jewish context can yield important insights.

This parable alludes to Isaiah 5, which describes Israel as a vineyard that God planted. Many early Jewish sources spoke of Israel as God’s “vineyard,” and the logical conclusion was that the “tenants of the vineyard” were the ones charged to take care of it, which would be the priestly leadership. The people, of course, were the vineyard itself. (1)

One little-known detail that is critical for understanding this parable is that in the hundred years preceding Jesus’ ministry, the priestly leadership, particularly the “house of Annas” had become extremely corrupt. This mafia-like dynasty used its wealth to buy off the Romans, who allowed them control of the lucrative money-changing tables at the Temple, which were called “booths of Annas.” They charged inflated prices for sacrificial animals, extorted money, and stole funds intended to support priests who had no other income. (2) A poem from that period describes the plight of the people under their abuse:

Woe to me because of the house of Boethus, woe is me because of their staves. Woe to me because of the house of Hanan [Annas], woe is me because of their whispering. Woe to me because of the house of Kathros, woe is me because of their pens. Woe to me because of the house of Ismael ben Phiabi, woe is me because of their fists. For they are high priests and their sons are treasurers and their sons-in-law are trustees and their servants beat the people with staves. (3)

These details reveal that the Jewish priesthood was not representative of the people — their corruption robbed people of the ability to worship God in the Temple that he established. It was their hatred for Jesus, not the people’s, that brought his death. Matthew 20:16 says that the priests desired to seize him immediately but could not, because of Jesus’ popularity with the people. The same group of corrupt priestly leaders were responsible for Jesus’ trial and execution, and in the book of Acts, were the main persecutors of the early church. (Acts 4:1-3, 5:17-18)

Even in the details surrounding the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, we see that Jesus was speaking to the leadership rather than the Jewish people as a whole. The teachers and priests in his audience who heard it were incensed because they knew that he had aimed it against them specifically.

Though the sin of mankind is to blame for Jesus’ death, the Jewish nation is not deserving of pointed condemnation. Ironically, God used the corrupt leadership of Jesus’ time to establish him as King and High Priest of a kingdom that would have no end.

To explore this topic more, see the En-Gedi article “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week.”

(1) Luke and the Wicked Tenants, Richard H. Anderson, Journal of Biblical Studies 1:1.

(2) From Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.2 (205-207). See also “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week.”

(3) Babylonian Talmud Pesahim, 57a; Tosephta Menahoth 13:21. As quoted in Luke and the Wicked Tenants, above.

Photo: Henry Zbyszynski