The Coming of the Jubilee

by Lois Tverberg

“A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”
– Luke 7:41-43

In the parable above that Jesus tells after the sinful woman has anointed his feet, he likens the person who is a sinner to one who is a debtor. He also does this in the parable of the unmerciful servant, who has a debt to the king that he can never repay (Matt 18:23-35).

Jesus frequently uses the image of debt as a way to describe guilt from sin. To us they aren’t parallels because borrowing money or possessions isn’t sinful. But one of the words in Hebrew, hayav, that means “debtor,” also is used to describe a person who is guilty of sin. There is an overlap conceptually, because both require restoration – either of the money borrowed or reparations to the victim of the sin. In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus was most likely using the word hayav when he said “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Jesus' Feet WashedIt is interesting to relate this idea to another one that Jesus used in his ministry – the Year of Jubilee. During the Year of Jubilee in Israel, all debts were to be forgiven, and any land that a family had been forced to sell in a time of famine could be reclaimed by them. It is interesting that the prophets and rabbis connected this thought of the year of Jubilee with the coming of the Messiah. In fact, one of Jesus’ first public statements about his ministry was to quote Isaiah 61, which says that he was anointed to proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor,” meaning, the Jubilee year (Luke 4:19).

Through Jesus’ use of the image of the Jubilee, we can see God’s enormous grace – those who have been forgiven the greatest debt, like the sinful woman in the painting, love the most in return. It is good news to the “poor in spirit,” the humble and contrite of heart who see the need to be forgiven of sin (Isaiah 66:2). Through Jesus’ gift on the cross, those who will become a part of his Kingdom receive a forgiveness of debt far greater than they could pay themselves, and a chance to start over with life anew.

Photo: Ermitage, Sankt Petersburg

I’m Glad I’m Not Like Him!

by Lois Tverberg

“Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: `God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.`I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:10 – 14

We usually don’t get the full impact of this parable because of our assumption that Pharisees were all hypocritical and judgmental. The parable just reinforces our negative bias, and it loses its impact because the conclusion seems to be self-evident: God dislikes pride, and the Pharisees were the most prideful.


To hear this story more authentically, we need to understand the many positive qualities of the Pharisee movement. Most of the greatest rabbis of Jesus’ day were Pharisees, and their teachings were similar to his in many ways. They had nearly the same words of self-criticism as Jesus had for those who fell into hypocrisy and legalism. Several joined Jesus’ movement, including Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, and the famous Pharisee Gamaliel actually argued for the release of the apostles, saving the early church from destruction (Acts 5:34-39)!

Even when they argued with Jesus, this was typical of the confrontational debate that rabbis used. We should see them as well-respected, learned men who occasionally fell into the errors that Jesus critiques.The parable above takes on new meaning if we see the Pharisee as a favorite pastor of ours, someone who is an admired teacher who really does go the extra mile to be an example to others with his lifestyle and attitude. Then we see the true irony – that even the best of people should not come to the Lord with a sense of self-satisfaction and comparison to others. If we miss that point, we can actually fall into the same trap that this man fell, by taking pride in the comparison of us to him, with the conclusion, “God, I thank you I am not like that Pharisee!”

We all stand in need of God’s forgiveness, even the best of us, and we should always be on the look out for when our prayers are more concerned with other’s sins than our own in God’s sight.

*This essay was based on the chapter, “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector”, p. 181-194 of
Jesus the Jewish Theologian, by Brad Young, Hendrikson Publishing, 1995.

The Good Samaritans

by Lois Tverberg

“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 Chronicles 28:15

Probably the most familiar parable of Jesus’ is that of the Good Samaritan. But we can get more insight when we see it in light of the Scriptures that Jesus knew.

In 2 Chronicles 28, a scene takes place after the nation had split into Israel and Judah. Judah fell into idolatry, even sacrificing children to idols. Because of this, the Lord let Judah be attacked and defeated by Israel. The Israelites were on the verge of taking 200,000 Judeans away as slaves when a prophet reminded them that God let them defeat Judah as a punishment for idolatry, and they were guilty for worshipping idols too. He tells them that if they took their own brothers captive, it would compound their guilt before the Lord. So some of the leaders of the tribes repent and set the captive Judeans free, as it says in today’s passage.

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. It is fascinating to see the parallels between this passage and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke. Jesus mentions the town Jericho, one of the few times he 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, as the earlier Samaritans had done with the Judeans.

Good Samaritan

The Samaritans in Jesus’ time were despised by the Jews, and they despised the Jews themselves. They also had a history of attacking Jews who were traveling to the Temple for festivals. This makes the irony of the Samaritan as the one who helps the wounded man especially powerful. Jesus was using this hatred between Jews and Samaritans in His time to make the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” especially clear. He surprises his audience by bringing one of their worst enemies into his story. But, more than that, he reminds them that at one time, these same men from Samaria did one of the most merciful things ever done. They had recognized their sin against the Judeans, and realized that their enemies were not only their neighbors, but even their brothers! Jesus was saying that “our neighbor” is even our hated enemy, who really is our brother too.


A Good Parable for a Sukkah

by Lois Tverberg

Why do you call Me, `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. “But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.
– Luke 6:46 – 49

In a week, Jewish people will be celebrating Sukkot, when they build booths to remember how they lived in tents for 40 years when God led them through the desert to the Promised Land. Jesus would have celebrated this every year of his life, and probably made the walk to Jerusalem often to celebrate at the Temple with millions others.

SukkahThe booths of Sukkot are built according to a tradition that mandates that they are not a permanent structure. They are made of natural materials and open on one side, and branches are laid loosely across the roof, so that you can see at least one star above. Nowadays, it is often a family project to build one, using a few poles or boards and some cloth and branches. Even though people are supposed to sleep in them or at least eat meals in them, it isn’t unheard of that they will blow down before the week is over.

In Jesus’ time, Jerusalem would have been filled with booths, as travelers would have used them as temporary housing in the city. Rabbis often taught using physical examples around themselves, and I wonder whether Jesus was standing next to a sukkah, giving it a strong shake, when he said the words of today’s passage. Even if it was a particularly well-built one, because it didn’t have a foundation, it would have rattled and swayed violently with a tug from his strong carpenter’s arm.

While it is good to learn the lesson from the Sukkah that our lives are fragile and God is our true protection, Jesus teaches that we should learn another one – that we need to move out of the fragile house of a life without foundations to one built on rock, and the only way to do that is to build our lives according to the master builder’s plan.

Photo:  German Federal Archives

How Will God Judge Us?

by Lois Tverberg

I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds. – Jeremiah 17:10

Jesus grew up hearing parables, and when he taught, he used this colorful method to illustrate his ideas. In a Hebraic culture which didn’t usually use abstractions, but rather talked in stories and pictures instead, parables were a way for them to develop and explain complex ideas about life and God.

One parable from the Talmud (1) gives a clever answer to a difficult question that we still discuss today. How will God judge us in light of the fact that our flesh tempts us? For instance, how does God deal with an alcoholic who has a family tendency toward alcoholism? How does he look at a man who struggles with homosexual thoughts? They tell this parable:

FigsTo what may this be compared? To a human king who owned a beautiful orchard which contained splendid figs. Now he appointed two watchmen, one lame and the other blind. One day the lame man said to the blind man, “I see beautiful figs in the orchard. Put me on your shoulders so that we can pick and eat them.” So the lame man got on the shoulders of the blind man and they gathered the figs and ate them.

Some time later, the owner of the orchard came and asked them, “Where are those beautiful figs?” The lame man replied, “Do I have feet to walk with?” The blind man replied, “Do I have eyes to see with?” What did the owner do? He placed the lame man upon the blind man and judged them together. So the Holy One, blessed be He, will bring the soul, replace it in the body and judge them together…. (Sanhedrin 91a-b)

The king in the parable is God, which is usually the case in parables, and gives us a clue to who the king is in Jesus’ parables. Each of the two disabled men represent part of a person – the lame man is the person’s will, and the blind man is the flesh. Neither part is capable of sinning on its own — both act together in order to do anything. The point is that when God looks at us, he sees us as a whole — he knows what we are made of. We are a combination of factors including family history, mental make-up, religious upbringing, etc, and both our background and our own will work together to influence our actions.

Looking at YourselfKnowing this can give us wisdom for living. On the one hand, realizing that we have a background or personality type that will tend to lead us into a certain sin (like an abusive family or a tendency to anger), we must go out of the way to avoid what we might do impulsively. We can’t plead innocence, because we are responsible for what we have been given and what we have done with it. We’re capable of overcoming our weaknesses, at least to a point.

On the other hand, we should be careful to not to condemn each other because we can’t know all of a person’s struggles or what they might have lived through. Two people may be similar in action, but one may have triumphed over great temptations, and the other not using their many gifts. Only God knows these things, and only God is fit to judge us justly.

(1) The Talmud is the compendium of Jewish commentary gathered about 500 years after Jesus’ life.

Photo: Gyfjonas and Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Did Jesus Use Parables to Hide His Meaning?

by Lois Tverberg

“The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up. “Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. “Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out. “Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.”

As He said these things, He would call out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant. And He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. “Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. ” – Luke 8:4-10

Sometimes parables make us scratch our heads, and it can seem that Jesus was using them to deliberately confuse people. But even though they seem strange to us, they were a traditional teaching method that was always used to clarify rather than obscure.

Sower and SoilLooking at this passage in more depth, Jesus is actually explaining why his parables make sense to some people and not to others. Here he tells the parable of the sower – that the same seed that grows well in good soil does not take root on the path, and produces little in rocky or thorny ground. The seed is always good, but the soil of human hearts may or may not be. The reason people don’t understand Jesus’ teachings is not because he is hiding anything. The lack of understanding is a problem with the hearer, not the speaker.

The difficulty is beyond just the ability to understand, but to receive his teaching in order to obey it. In Hebrew, the word for hear, “shema,” also means to “obey.” In fact, almost every time the word “obey” is found in English, it has been translated from “shema.” That is how one can hear, but not “hear.”

Another way he says this is by his quotation from the Old Testament. He is quoting Isaiah 6:9-10, when God commissions Isaiah as a prophet to Israel. God did not send Isaiah to confuse the people with obscure teachings, but to clearly proclaim God’s word to them. But God says to Isaiah at his commission almost sarcastically,

Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. – Isaiah 6:10

Really, God is not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though God knows his teaching will be rejected by many. Jesus is saying the same thing – that like the prophets he speaks to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many will not hear or obey him.

Photo: Sts. Konstantine and Helen Orthodox Church, Cluj, Romania.

Why Parables?

WHy Parables?by Lois Tverberg

All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. – Matthew 13:34

It comes as a surprise to some that Jesus did not invent the parable, but he was employing a traditional method of teaching that was used widely in first century Judaism. Because of this lack of knowledge, at some times in history Jesus’ words have been misunderstood. At one point, it was thought that parables were allegories – stories where each character is a hidden reference to a certain person or situation. For example, Augustine read the parable of the Good Samaritan as an allegory – the man traveling on the road was Adam, the man who helped was Jesus, the inn was the church, the innkeeper was Paul, etc. Among first century rabbis, however, this interpretation would have been foreign to the way a parable was told .

In Jesus’ culture, a parable was a story from human experience that helps explain a spiritual reality. It is the product of the language of Hebrew which does not have many abstract terms to describe God, so instead uses physical imagery, describing God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm.” The rabbis used parables especially for theology – to explain why God does things the way He does. (1)

Why Parables 2Jesus, like other rabbis, teaches theology at a very high level by describing God as a king who throws a banquet and invites the outcasts, or a shepherd who looks for his sheep. Beyond just defining him, Jesus paints a picture of God’s character in vivid colors. His stories go beyond just defining and explaining, they elicit an emotional reaction. People can feel viscerally the irony of a majestic king sitting at a table with beggars and outcasts, and sense the shocking grace the king is showing them. And they can imagine the anguish that a shepherd endures and his great joy when he finds a lost sheep. This is exactly the point – Jesus was a passionate teacher whose goal was not just to give people an intellectual knowledge of God, but to teach them about God’s powerful love for them, and cause them to return that love to Him.

1 An excellent resource is The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, by Brad Young, Hendrikson Publishers, 1998.

Photo: Brooklyn Museum and Guercino