Truth Before and After Jesus

by Lois Tverberg

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40

Jesus’ words that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor are paralleled elsewhere among the rabbis. About 100 years after Jesus, Rabbi Akiva commented about “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 18:19) that “This is the great principle of the Torah.”1 Akiva could have heard it indirectly from Jesus, but in the book of Jubilees, from about 100 years before Jesus, it is commanded that we should “love each his neighbor, and to behave towards all men as one treats oneself” (Jub. 20:2).2 So here we also read the “love your neighbor” command along with the Golden Rule in a text that precedes Jesus’ words.

It can be challenging to faith to hear that some of Jesus’ most famous teachings are found in the culture both before and after him. We often imagine that the world was utterly black and devoid of sense before Jesus came to utter the great truths of God. In reality, we find that God had spent centuries training up a people to understand him, and in the final years before he came, he had prepared them especially to receive him.

Ark of the CovenantA few hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Jewish people returned to their land and rebuilt their temple after being exiled for 70 years. Knowing that the exile was punishment for disobedience, they bore an earnest desire to observe God’s laws and study the Scriptures like never before.

Some returnees settled in places far from the Temple, and gathered in a new thing called a “synagogue.” There, instead of sacrifices, they emphasized study and memorization of the Scriptures, so that people became deeply literate in the Bible, learning much of it by heart. Even in their homeland the Jews endured terrible persecution by the Greeks and Romans for their piety. Together these things made Jesus’ audience long for God to send someone to save them from their suffering, and search the Scriptures to find God’s promises for the Messiah.

It was then, I think, that the Spirit started speaking to people through the Scriptures, pointing out great truths of God like “love your neighbor as yourself.” These ideas began to emerge from Jesus’ people even before he arrived. God loves all humanity and wants all to be saved, and he gives everyone some sense of truth. But God was preparing the Jewish people to understand Jesus’ profound words like no other time and place. Although some didn’t recognize him as the Messiah, hearing his words in light of the thought of his time is often tremendously helpful.

Jesus and Disciples
People mistakenly believe that none of the Jews of Jesus’ time believed in him. To the contrary, Acts 21:20 reports that “tens of thousands believed” in Jerusalem alone, an area that was more hostile to Jesus than elsewhere. Some scholars estimate that between 10 – 30% of all Jews may have believed in Jesus.3 If this is true, it’s possible that Paul’s struggle with “the unbelief of the Jews” was not that none believed, but that not all of them believed.

Instead of being threatened by hearing that similar ideas to Jesus’ came both before and after him, we can be encouraged that God was giving people insights that would help them see the One who was standing before them.


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

2 The book of Jubilees is from the apocrypha, non-canonical Jewish writings that date about 200 years before Jesus.

New Testament scholar David Bivin discusses the possibility that a sizable fraction of the Jewish population believed in Jesus at this link.

Photo: Vassil and Museum of Málaga

Doing Our Duty

by Lois Tverberg

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Luke 17:10

Jesus’ odd parable in Luke 17 is a head-scratcher for many readers. You may never have heard it mentioned in a sermon, because of its apparent negativity. He said,

Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ Luke 17:7-10

Doing Our Duty 1

What was the point of his message? It sounds as if we shouldn’t approach God as our loving Father, but merely as our master. Why?

It’s likely that this parable was offered as a contrast to Jesus’ many statements about a future reward that God has for those who have been obedient to him. While of course it is faith in Christ that atones for our sins and allows us to enter heaven, Christians rarely note how many times Jesus promises a “reward” which does seem to depend on how a person has lived:

For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. Mt 16:27

And, Jesus even declares that his followers will be rewarded in this life as well.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” Luke 18:29-30

Doing Our Duty 2When a person hears this, the typical human response is “Wow – what will be my reward?” and our focus shifts to that. Indeed, some prosperity preachers focus their entire ministry how God wants to bless us and make us rich. But Jesus’ parable at the beginning of this article teaches us that our focus shouldn’t be on the reward at all, but on doing God’s will. Other rabbis of Jesus’ time said similar things:

Do not be like slaves that serve their master to receive a reward; rather, be like slaves who do not serve their master to receive their reward. (1)

If you have performed many mitzvot (good deeds) [literally, if you have done much Torah], do not think that you have any merit [i.e., that you are entitled to a reward]. This is the purpose for which you have been created! (2)

And Paul also points out that this is our purpose:

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph. 2:10

It’s wonderful that we have a loving Father that enjoys blessing us, and plans for a future together in eternity that we can hardly imagine. But instead of greedily grasping for the pleasures we’ll gain, we should respond out of love to the One who wants to give them to us.


(1) Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:3. (As quoted in “The Rich Man Who Rejected the Kingdom” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, (En-Gedi, 2005) pp. 81-87.

(2) Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, Ch. 31 (ed. Schechter, p. 66). Quotation also from New Light, pp. 81-87.

Photo: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. and little*star

Jesus’ Yoke

by Lois Tverberg

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:29-30

Jesus' YokeWhat did Jesus mean by his “yoke”? The idea of a “yoke” is often used as a metaphor of submitting oneself to a weighty task, or to the leading of another. It is found in quotations- -before Jesus’ time and after. Looking at them can yield some clues as to what one of Jesus’ listeners might have thought of as he or she listened to Jesus.

One interesting quote comes from about 200 years before Jesus. It talks about learning wisdom, and sounds a lot like Proverbs 2-4 that speaks about the value of seeking wisdom.

Draw near to me, you unlearned, and lodge in the house of study. Why are you slow, and what do you say about these things, your souls being very thirsty? I opened my mouth and said, “Buy her [wisdom] for yourselves without money. Put your neck under [her] yoke, and let your soul receive instruction. She is to be found nearby. See with your eyes how, with only a little labor, I have gotten much rest.” (Ben Sira 51:23–27)1

It is interesting how the yoke of wisdom is linked to the idea of gaining rest in this passage. It may seem hard, but it is ultimately the easiest way to live your life. Another similarity is the idea of learning or receiving instruction. Study is never easy—a person must put in effort, make mistakes and be corrected. But ultimately the reward is great. Similarly, Jesus told potential disciples to “count the cost” (Lk 14:26-33), but assured them they would be repaid both in this life and in the next.

Another text uses the word “yoke” in two interesting ways. The text starts with the question of one rabbi, “Why do we say the first part of the Shema (that God alone is their God, and they should love him with their whole heart) before the second part of the Shema (a promise that if they obey all God’s commands he will prosper them)? The answer is they should first “receive the yoke of the kingdom of heaven” and only after that, “receive the yoke of the commandments.”2 Here, the first yoke is a profession of belief in God and commitment to him as one’s own God. The second yoke is a commitment to being obedient to his will. You first must have faith, and then obey.

Jesus' Yoke 2

It is interesting to read Jesus’ words with all these ideas in mind. Certainly as his disciples, we are called to sit at his feet and learn his approach to life. If we learn how he placed his total trust in God, we can have true rest, just as he slept through the storm on the Sea of Galilee. But Jesus often spoke of “his kingdom” and obedience to him, and the second text seems to expand on that. We could infer that we must have faith that he is who he says, and then commit our lives to him. Only after that will we have the empowerment from the Holy Spirit to do his will.


New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus

To explore this topic more, see chapter 4, “Taking on Jesus’ Yoke” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006, p. 23-32.

1 As quoted in “Taking on Jesus’ Yoke” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, pp. 23-32. The Wisdom of Ben Sira is a non-canonical (apocryphal) Jewish text written around 180 – 175 BC.

2 From the Mishnah, Berachot 2:2.

Photo: Cgoodwin

Having a Single Eye

by Lois Tverberg

Have a Single Eye 1The 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. Matthew 6:22-23 KJV

What does Jesus mean in the strange passage above when he refers to having “a single eye”? Figures of speech in other documents from that time help illuminate Jesus’ puzzling words. Several idioms that mentioned the “eye” were about a person’s attitude toward others. A person who possessed a “good eye” was generous toward others, and a person with a “bad eye” was stingy and self-centered.

It has been suggested that Jesus was referring to having a “good eye,” but the Greek in the passage actually does not say “good” (kalos), rather it says “single” (haplous).

In fact, being “single” is not an uncommon idiom in that time, however, not in the precise sense we understand it today. Throughout the New Testament the idea of “singleness” (haplotes) is used to mean “sincere” or “undivided,” often in exhortations to have a “single heart” (See 2 Cor. 1:12, 11:3, Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22). Sincerity and lack of duplicity seems to be the idea of the following passage:

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. (1)

This passage describes 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 seems to be between pretending to care about others with an inward attitude of self-advancement and of having a genuine concern for others, without hidden motives.

And, we do actually find the idiom of having a “single eye” in Jesus’ time too:

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…(2)

Here, the idea of “singleness” was associated with a freedom from envy of money. “Singleness” in this passage refers to a person of sincerity who does not have a secret agenda of self-advancement. This translates into a lack of covetousness and greed.

Now Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:22-23 gain more clarity in their context. Jesus seems to be talking about our attitude towards others. Do we have a simple desire to serve God by caring for the needs of others? Or are we insincere people who are self-centered and serving our own agenda? If all we recognize is our own needs, we are blind indeed.


To explore this topic more, see chapter 5, “Gaining a Good Eye” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 69-80.

(1) Testament of Benjamin 4:2-3 The Testament of Benjamin is of the body of literature called the “pseudepigrapha” — Jewish writings from 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. that are not canonical, but are helpful for showing the cultural expressions and religious understandings of that time.

(2) Testament of Issachar, 3:4, 4:1-2, 5-6; 5:1 Also from the pseudepigrapha.

For more this, see the article, “If Your Eye Be Single” by Steven Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com.

Photo: Vladimer Shioshvili and Marc Baronnet

Learning from God’s Creatures

by Lois Tverberg

Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. Matthew 10:29

Learning Frm Creation1Frequently Jesus speaks about how God deals with people by using animals as an example. God watches over the sparrow (10:29) and provides for the ravens (Lk 12:24). When Paul argues that preachers deserve to be supported by church, he quotes the law not to muzzle an ox as it treads out the grain, and then assumes that it applies even more to people. (1 Cor 9:9, 1 Tim 5:18).

How is it logical to infer that any law that applies to animals applies to people? A passage in the Mishnah points out the Scriptural basis:

Have you ever seen a wild beast or a bird who has a trade? Yet they get along without difficulty. And were they not created only to serve me? And I was created to serve my Master. So is it not logical that I should get along without difficulty? But I have done evil and forfeited my right to sustenance without difficulty. Simeon ben Eleazar, Mishnah, Kiddushim 4:14

This rabbi points out that in Genesis 1:26, humans were created to serve God. But they were also made in God’s image to reign over creation, so just as a king’s subjects are his “servants,” animals are man’s “servants.” If God gives a rule for how our animal “servants” should be treated, how much more should it apply to human beings.

Learning from Creation 2

This is also seems to be the logic behind Jesus’ healing the woman on the Sabbath. Many laws in the Torah sought to prevent distress to animals, like not yoking together two different animals (Dt 22:10), and letting animals rest on the Sabbath (Dt 5:14). They included even waving a mother bird away from a nest if you took the eggs or chicks to eat! (Dt 22:6) From this, the rabbis inferred that God was teaching the principle of Tzar Baalei Hayim, which means to “prevent suffering to living things.” From this they made special rulings to prevent distress to animals. Even though it was forbidden to untie a donkey on the Sabbath to do any work, taking the donkey to get a drink was permitted, to alleviate its thirst. Likewise, an animal that falls into a pit could wait until the next day to be rescued, but to prevent its distress, the owner was allowed to do work not normally allowed on the day.

Jesus was using rabbinic logic in Luke 13:15-16 to say that if some Sabbath laws can be set aside for the prevention of distress to animals, how much more can they be set aside to prevent distress to humans.

Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her? Luke 13:15-16

We hear the “how much more” comparison when he points out that an animal can be untied to be led to water to prevent its thirst on the Sabbath, how much more- -should a human be released from suffering, and even more, a “daughter of Abraham,” one of God’s chosen people. He’s taking the laws that consider distress of animals and expanding them to apply to humans too.

Christians and Jews both largely assume that Jesus broke with Judaism in his treatment of the Law. But here he employs the same logic and principles as other rabbis of his day—and built upon them to bring them to the highest level.


Photo: Laitche and trialsanderrors

Searching Shepherd

by Lois Tverberg

Which of you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, would not leave the ninety-nine in open pasture and go and look for the one that was lost until he finds it? Then when he has found it, he places it on his shoulders, rejoicing….Luke 15:4-7

Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t the only rabbi to tell parables about shepherds looking for sheep. Another person said,

When a sheep strays from the pasture, who seeks whom? Does the sheep seek the shepherd, or the shepherd seek the sheep? Obviously, the shepherd seeks the sheep. In the same way, the Holy One, blessed be He, looks for the lost.(1)

Searching Shepherd2Both Jesus’ words in Luke 15 (above) and this parable are about repentance. Jesus talks about God having joy at repentance, and this other rabbinic parable says even that when a person repents, ultimately it was God who caused it to happen. It is interesting that even other rabbis had the understanding that God has mercy on the lost, and pursues them to bring them back to himself.

How did the idea of repentance become linked together with the image of a shepherd finding his sheep? It likely came from a very important passage very early in the Scriptures, at the culmination of Deuteronomy, right after God had given his covenant. God gave grave warnings of all the terrible curses that will happen to Israel if they forsake him, the worst of which that they will be scattered as a people – the dissolving of the nation itself. But then, after all of that, he promises:

When all these blessings and curses I have set before you come upon you and you take them to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations, and when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers, and you will take possession of it. He will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live. Deut. 30:1-6

People understood this promise was not just one of being brought back together physically, but more importantly that God would bring them back to himself spiritually – that he would give them a new heart to love himself. If they just started to repent, God would do the rest in terms of restoring their relationship.

Jeremiah reiterates this promise in chapter 31, when he speaks of the future hope for Israel:

“Hear the word of the LORD, O nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: `He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’ … “The time is coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Jer. 31:10, 31-34

Both of these passages would have been central to the messianic hope of the people in Jesus’ day. They knew that their nation was in desperate need of redemption, both physically from the Romans, and spiritually from their sins. They longed for God to send the “shepherd” messiah who would give them all a new heart to obey God, making a new covenant with his people for an intimate relationship together.

Now we see why Jesus so frequently uses imagery of a shepherd to describe himself, and why at the Last Supper he speaks about a “new covenant for the forgiveness of sins.” He is saying that he himself is the fulfillment of God’s promise from the very beginning to forgive his people of their sins, and to give them his Spirit and new hearts to follow him.


(1) B. Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, p 192. © 1998, Hendrickson. ISBN 1-56563-244-2. Also, see B. Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, © 1995, Hendrickson. ISBN: 0-80280-423-3. Both books are available at En-Gedi’s bookstore.

Photo: http://pixdaus.com/the-shepherd-and-his-sheep-in-a-beautiful-path-through-the-t/items/view/568897/

Irony in the Extreme

by Lois Tverberg

One key to unlocking many difficult Bible passages is to know that Middle Eastern teachers loved to use irony to make a point. Jesus and Paul frequently did this, but this habit can leave us scratching our heads. In fact, we can make major mistakes in our reading of the New Testament by not grasping the irony that they employed to describe the shocking new reality of the Kingdom of God.

 

NoExplanations

For instance, Jesus’ saying about John the Baptist in Luke 7 often mystifies readers:

I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he. Luke 7:28

The first question that comes to mind is, “What’s wrong with John the Baptist?” But Jesus himself starts out by saying, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John.” Jesus was making an extreme comparison to show that when God’s Spirit is poured out on those who believe, they will be even more empowered to preach and convict than John. Wow!

We find this style of speaking throughout the Old Testament as well as among the rabbis. Proverbs contains many examples of ironic contrast. For instance,

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty warrior, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. Proverbs 16: 32

The point isn’t that warriors are bad—in fact, warriors like King David were considered the greatest heroes of their day, and women filled the streets with dancing and singing when they came home from battle (1 Sam. 18:6-8). We can only grasp the power of such a saying when we see the irony of elevating someone who can simply control his own anger to the same level as a national hero.

One of the most common places to employ exaggeration and ironic comparison was in describing the coming glory of the Messianic reign:

On that day the LORD will shield those who live in Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them. Zechariah 12:8

As in Jesus’ comparison above, we might ask, “What’s wrong with King David, that he’s being compared to the feeble?” It sounds, initially, like an insult to someone or something that we know is great, like King David. But the just opposite is true. We should say, “Wow! In the end times, what amazing glory God’s people will have!” Ironic comparison was a way of heaping superlative on top of superlative.

 

Welcome no parking

It’s critical for Bible readers to see this strong bent toward irony in the New Testament, especially when the kingdom of Christ is compared to the glory of Israel. For instance, in Hebrews, the giving of the covenant on Mt. Sinai is compared to the heavenly Jerusalem:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and a voice whose words made the hearers entreat that no further messages be spoken to them… But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… Hebrews 12:18-24

Once again, this passage makes the event on Mt. Sinai seem very negative. But in the Bible, the meeting of Israel with God on Mt. Sinai was considered a stunningly amazing, wonderful event. Just imagine! The true Creator of the Universe had manifested himself on earth in order to make a covenant with this scraggly little tribe. Still today in Jewish tradition it is seen as a “wedding ceremony” where God betrothed himself to the nation of Israel.

The point of the Hebrews passage is not to say how terrible it was to have been at Mt. Sinai, but to say that as glorious as that was, the coming of God’s kingdom in Christ was even greater.

Often Paul employs this same irony in his letters, and it is essential that Christians to recognize his “accent” so that they don’t become anti-Semitic in their disparagement of Israel. For instance, Paul used it in Galatians 4:22-28 when he compared Israel to Hagar and Ishmael, and the Gentile believers to Sarah and Isaac (Genesis 16:4). His goal was to reassure the Gentiles that even though they weren’t born naturally into the Jewish nation, God had accepted them as his true “family.” Just as Hagar despised Sarah for her inability to bear children, they were being persecuted by the Jews for not being the true children of Abraham.1

We often read Paul’s statements about the law and God’s covenant with the Jews as negative, not realizing that in Paul’s own mind, these are extremely positive. He was using strong irony to say that as great as they were, the new covenant in Christ is even greater. Only when we comprehend the comparison he was making, will we see the glory of what God has done for the world through the coming of Christ.


1 See The Irony of Galatians, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2002) by Mark Nanos, a Jewish scholar, who points out that the flavor of much of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is ironic.

(Photos: Albert Herrer, L. Tverberg – “No Explanations” sign outside the Church of All Nations, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem)

Eager to Please

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Matthew 5:6

The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is lovely, but you have to admit that it’s also a challenge. He tells us to “turn the other cheek” and tightens up many laws, pointing out that anger is as bad as murder, and that lust is as bad as adultery. Why does he do this?

Some have thought that Jesus’ goal was to show that God’s standards are impossibly high, so we should give up on trying to do the right thing and instead trust in God’s forgiveness in Christ.

There is another possibility though. Jesus may have been preaching on the Jewish idea of hasidut – (hah-see-DOOT), a later rabbinic term which is often translated “piety.” It means to walk intimately with God and live entirely to serve him. It means to eagerly obey God out of love, asking the question, “What more can I do to please you?”

Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes, which describe what it is like to be a true hasid (hah-SEED), a “pious one.” They are hungry and thirsty to do God’s will, and greatly desire to see God use them to accomplish his mission on earth. They are peace-makers, meek and merciful, and they are pure in heart, earnestly avoiding sin.

Part of the idea of hasidut was that a hasid would go far out of his way to avoid sin, for fear of grieving God’s spirit and breaking the communion he has with God. As a result, the person tightened his own standards and lived beyond the minimum, to make sure he is within God’s will.

Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges us to ask what is the maximum we can do to please God, not what is the minimum required by the Law. So great should our love for God be that we’d tear out our eyes rather than be led away from him by sin. We should be persons of such honesty that we never need to take a vow—our yes is always yes, and our no, always no. We don’t just love our friends, we love even those who are hateful. This should be our goal, even if we aren’t that way right now.

A modern orthodox Jewish commentary describes hasidut 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. As we also saw, this was in direct contrast to the 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—as responsible, thinking beings who make intelligent choices in our religious service. We are to maximize our potential—and to use that potential in service of our Creator.1

Jesus’ words are a description of what our goal is to become as followers of him. As we grow closer, our desire is to have nothing come between us. And the first thing that we pursue is God’s will, not our own.


1Adapted from http://www.torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter2-10and11c.html. (The reason that some Jews spell the word “God” with a hyphen is out of reverence, to not lightly use the holy name of God. This itself is an example of piety*—*hasidut.) See Bivin, *New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus*, pp.55-58, (En-Gedi, 2005).

The idea of *hasidut* is explained in more depth in an excellent talk called, “Jesus, the Sin-Fearer” by David Pileggi, as part of the *Insights into Jesus of Nazareth DVD Series*. See also page 174 of *Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus*, in the chapter called “Jesus and the Torah.”

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

What’s Mine is Mine

by Lois Tverberg

MineWhen Jesus talks about having a “good eye” or a “bad eye,” he was employing a Hebrew idiom about “one’s eye” as one’s outlook toward other people. A person with a “good eye” was one who was generous to others, while one with a “bad eye” was stingy, greedy and self-centered. Jesus was emphasizing that a person’s entire outlook on life can be assessed by whether he puts others or himself first.

Another passage from early rabbinic writings explores this idea in a different way. A famous quote from Pirke Avot reads,

There are four types among men:

He who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours”
— this is the common type, though some say that this is the type of Sodom.
He who says, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is thine own”
— he is a saintly man.
He who says, “What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine”
— he is an ignorant man.
And he who says, “What is yours is mine, and what is mine is mine”
— he is a wicked man. (Pirke Avot 5:13) 1

Once again, people are evaluated on their attitude toward others. Some just mind their own business—“what’s mine is mine” —and believe everyone is responsible for their own survival in the world. This seems neutral, but the comment “some say this is the type of Sodom” means that this attitude can be quite heartless. In the story of Lot’s angelic visitors in Sodom, the townspeople did not protect the visitors from thugs who wanted to abuse them; they just said “Not my problem” (Genesis 19). This attitude captures the idea of the first statement.

The second statement is that the truly righteous person says “what’s mine is yours”—meaning that he or she looks for ways to bless others in whatever way possible. They maintain a constant attitude of “how can I help you?” and the problems of others burden them as much as their own. If they can’t be generous with money, they’ll donate time and energy to help. Few people are truly like this, but we can easily recall those who have poured out their lives in this way.

What's mine is mine

The last statement is that the absolute worst type of person is the one who says, “what’s yours is mine” —a person who wants to greedily benefit from others. You might think this only applies to pickpockets and snake-oil salesmen, but it can describe what we see as innocent actions too.

Sometimes what we call “frugality” can be a way to legitimize having a “bad eye” — looking at your own wallet and not considering others. We do this when we avoid tipping to save money, when we underpay people for their work, or when we go overboard to get a deal at someone else’s expense.

We should be careful to examine whether our pious efforts toward “good stewardship of God’s resources” isn’t just greed in disguise. Are we frugal or are we stingy? A good test is to examine whether we save money by denying ourselves, or by denying others. Stinginess is when we say, “what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine,” and our gain comes through someone else’s loss.

Both Jesus and the rabbis around him taught that the issue of generosity really goes to the heart of who we are as people. We should turn our eye on ourselves and examine which “type” we really are.


To explore this topic more, see chapter 5, “Gaining a Good Eye” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 69-80.

1This is one of the “four types” rabbinic sayings that is of the same genre as Jesus’ parable of the “four soils.” This style of teaching is always a subtle call to self-examination. For another example, see “Which Type are You?

Pirke Avot is a collection of sayings of rabbinic teachers from between 200 BC and 200 AD. Some are contemporaries with Jesus, but even earlier and later sayings are often pertinent to his Jewish context.

(Photos: DeviantArt, Peter Isotalo)

Aiming for Perfection

by Lois Tverberg

For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses [goes beyond] that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven…You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven;…You are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:20, 43-45, 48

Jesus gives one of his most challenging teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. He frames it at both the beginning and the end with an exhortation to perfection. He says that those who do and teach others to do even the least of God’s commands will be called “great” in his kingdom. And then he says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees” you are not a part of God’s kingdom. He continues by stating several rulings about divorce, anger and lust that each go beyond the laws of the day, and then ends with words about aiming to be perfect, like God himself.

Many people read this passage as saying that these are the qualifications for earning your way to heaven, and an extremely tough list of rules to follow. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by this interpretation.

It’s important to understand that the phrase “enter the kingdom of heaven” is idiomatic, not meaning “go to heaven when you die.” It means to be a part of God’s redemptive reign on earth right now—to live with God on the throne of your life and do his will. Rabbis from Jesus’ day used the phrase “kingdom of heaven” frequently in this way, and his Jewish context allows us to unlock this passage. Jesus is describing how to do God’s will, not how to earn your way to heaven. Our salvation is based on Jesus’ atonement for our sins and the trust we place in him, not that we “earn our way.”

Another thing that can help us understand this passage is insight on the difficult line: “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees.” The verse sounds competitive – as if we are trying to beat certain people in their strict observance of regulations. But it’s likely that the idea of the phrase about “surpassing the scribes and Pharisees” is not about them as people, but about them as interpreters of the law. The passage isn’t about outperforming them in one’s stringent piety, but about seeking to do God’s will beyond the official interpretation of the law.

The word that we translate “surpass” is from the Greek word “perissos”, meaning “to abound, overflow, exceed.” One translation says “Unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law…” (NET Bible).

We can interpret this line as, “do more than what the finest interpreters of the law say that you must do.” Then it fits the rest of the passage where Jesus points out various minimums set in the law, and instructs his disciples to go beyond that. The law says “don’t kill” but you should try not to even stay angry. The law says, “don’t commit adultery” but you should even avoid lust. Not only should you not seek revenge against your enemies, you should find ways to show them the love of God. Loan them money, carry their burdens. Anything.

This whole passage is not so much about a list of toughened rules, but about encouraging us to change where our aim is. It is easy to look for what is the minimum 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.

~~~~

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.