Which Type are You?

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 secrets 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. Now the parable is this: the seed is the word of God… (Luke 8:4-11)

The parable of the sower is very familiar to Christians, but the punchline doesn’t quite make sense. Right after giving four illustrations of soil as it represents hearts that respond to God’s word, Jesus inserts a line about the “secrets of the Kingdom of God” that sounds as if he deliberately spoke in a coded riddles so that no one but an inner circle could understand.

Many have scratched their heads — is that really what he was saying? Reading this story in light of the Jewish culture in which it was given can solve several mysteries. Knowing more about its language, its use of Scripture, and how it fits into Jesus’ time can help us see its deeper message.

Other Parables About Four Types

First of all, it is important to know that parables were a common style of rabbinic preaching. There are over 4,000 parables in existence even to this day.1 They were used to illustrate a point with a concrete story, not to be secretive. Certainly Jesus’ point is usually quite clear. In the Good Samaritan parable, who can’t see why the Samaritan was a better neighbor than those who ignored the wounded man?

Listening to Jesus’ parables in light of other rabbinic sayings is very helpful for understanding them. He uses a familiar format, but gives it a unique flavor to teach about his kingdom.2 The “sower” parable sounds much like other “Four Types” parables, which compare four possible behaviors and their results:

There are four qualities in disciples: he who quickly understands and quickly forgets, his gain disappears in his loss; he who understands with difficulty and forgets with difficulty, his loss disappears in his gain; he who understands quickly and forgets with difficulty, his is a good portion; he who understands with difficulty and forgets quickly, his is an evil portion. (Pirke Avot 5:15)3

There are four characters among those who attend the house of study: he who goes and does not practice secures the reward for going; he who practices but does not go secures the reward for practicing; he who goes and practices is a saint; he who neither goes nor practices is a wicked man. (Pirke Avot 5:17)

Many parables include a four-fold comparison, but interestingly, these two sayings actually deal with a subject very similar to that of the parable of the sower: the response of a listener to the Word of God. The first is about a disciple remembering a rabbi’s teaching, and the second is about the reward for study and practicing God’s word.

These two sayings show the Jewish emphasis on lifelong study of the Bible, either through attending the “house of study” (bet midrash) at a local synagogue, or by being a disciple of a rabbi. We can see that God chose to send Jesus to a culture that greatly emphasized the study of Scripture. His words built upon and expanded the sayings of other rabbis, and brought them to a new level.

Another parable is similar in an additional way:

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 retains the fine flour. (Pirke Avot, 5:18)

This third parable also talks about the learning of disciples, and this one initially might sound secretive with words like “sponge” and “funnel,” etc. Upon further reflection, however, we can see that the imagery is meant to illustrate a point. Obviously, one doesn’t want to be a funnel that loses everything that it takes in. The best thing not to be the sponge either, a person who parrots answers without discernment. Rather, a sieve is the best, because that person learns what is worthwhile and ignores what is not.

Notice that this parable also doesn’t include an explanation, because the audience was supposed to be able to figure it out. Not explaining a parable was common in rabbinic preaching.

Interestingly, these three rabbinic parables all focus on learning the Scriptures. Like them, Jesus’ words were a call to examine ourselves to see which type of listener that we are. Are our hearts hard to God’s word, or are we shallow, or are we distracted by wealth or daily living?

The same good seed is sown in all places, but whether it bears fruit is dependent on the soil. This parable should therefore be called “The Parable of the Soils” rather than “The Parable of the Sower,” because the point is that the impact of the Word is dependent on the listener, not on the message itself (the seed) and not on God (the sower), who shares with people whether or not they are likely to respond.

If this is the message of Jesus’ parable, it actually unlocks the sentences in the middle. If Jesus was saying that good seed can’t grow well in bad soil, then it follows that the reason people didn’t understanding Jesus is not because his words were deliberately confusing, but because of their lack of desire to obey it. The disciples, on the other hand, were responding in obedience. Only then did God’s truths become clear to them in their own personal experience, so that they would know the “secrets of the Kingdom of God.” (Psalm 25:14)

Prophetic Irony in Jesus’ Words

There are a couple more details that support this conclusion. Another rabbinic habit that Jesus had was to allude to a Scripture passage with the assumption that the audience would know its broader context.3 This was common because Jewish society was well-versed in the Bible. Here, Jesus quoted from Isaiah when he said,

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)

This passage is from the commissioning of the prophet Isaiah as God’s messenger. Knowing its greater context, Jesus’ listeners would have understood its great irony: God commissioned Isaiah to go out and preach to his people, and God certainly gave him clear words to say.

God was not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though his teaching would be rejected by most. Jesus was saying the same thing — that like the prophets he spoke to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many would not hear or obey him. In both instances, God’s greatest desire was to see his people return to him and be healed, but with frustrated irony, he proclaims that for the most part, they will not.

Another insight comes from the language of Jesus’ words. In Hebrew, the word “hear,” shema, doesn’t just mean to listen, but also to respond and obey.4 When we read the phrase, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” we may ignore it as a common exclamation in Jesus’ day. In this passage, however, it seems to be Jesus’ main point — if you hear, than you must obey as well! The entire passage is about hearing and obedience, and how the state of our hearts impacts how we shema, hear and obey.

The Kingdom and the Hundredfold Yield

Wheat field chaffThe fact that the crop the good soil yields is a “hundredfold” is significant. In biblical times, sowing a crop and reaping a hundredfold was unheard of, while a five to tenfold crop was all that was expected. It is quite possible that Jesus was again using the rabbinic habit of Scripture allusion with the phrase a “hundredfold,” because it occurs only once in all of the Hebrew Bible, in Genesis 26:12, “Now Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold.”

The rabbis loved to discuss the stories of the patriarchs, and Isaac’s shocking yield of a hundredfold would have quite memorable, and completely impossible without divine help. It was an amazing miracle that God alone could achieve! In the same way, Jesus was saying that the impact of God’s word on those who obey him will be obviously miraculous, beyond anything a human could do on his or her own. While responding to God’s call takes our willingness, the spiritual fruit is so miraculous that it can only come from God!

A Possible Reason for this Parable

A question that must have been on his listeners minds was, “If you are the Messiah, why aren’t you a glorious king that has taken charge by now? Where is your army? Why are so many people not following you? Why isn’t your kingdom huge and powerful?” I wonder if this parable, as well as the ones about the yeast and the mustard seed, were intended as a response. Jesus was defending the fact that he truly is the Messiah. God’s reign on earth had begun on earth and was expanding, even though it was not visible yet.

As Jesus tells it, God is like a farmer that sows a field knowing that much of the land is poor — that many hearts are not open to him. He knows that many will not respond to his call, but this will not defeat his purposes. He knows that like a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous tree, when his kingdom takes hold of the few who will receive it, what an incredible impact it will have!5

The Importance of Discipleship for the Kingdom

Understanding the parable can yield insights for us today. Obviously, we need to examine ourselves and look at the “soil” of our hearts. Are we distracted by the cares of this world? How can we be more obedient to do God’s will?

It’s easy for us to insult Jesus’ original audience and assume that he was tossing them aside by telling them how dull they were to his preaching. Are we so different than them, though? Who of us isn’t choked by weeds in our lives? How many of us truly follow wherever Christ leads?

One thing the parable says may surprise us. We often focus on evangelism — the sharing of the Gospel with non-believers — as the central goal of the church, and believe that the most significant event in a person’s life is the day they accept Jesus as Savior. In Jesus’ parable, however, the sprouting of the seed is not the goal, but only an important beginning.

We like to count the number of hands that go up at an altar call as a way of seeing the kingdom expand, but in this parable, the counting is only done at the end, after the fruit has matured. As critical as evangelism is, Jesus is saying that discipleship is just as important to God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ words about becoming a disciple are tough to hear! The road is narrow and we need to count the cost and take up our cross. It’s discouraging to hear how few will really respond, given the thorns and rocks that are so common in this world.

But Jesus promises that through an obedient disciple he can do truly miraculous things to expand his kingdom — far beyond the dreams of human ability! This is what should make us want to set our hearts and wills to following him. Only then will we know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.

~~~~

1 It should be noted that while thousands of parables are found in rabbinic literature, none are found in intertestamental literature, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo or Josephus. Nonetheless, many NT scholars read only these (and other pre-70 AD) sources but avoid rabbinic material because it post-dates the New Testament.

2 C. Safrai points out the link between study and the kingdom in the sower/soils parable in “The Kingdom of Heaven and the Study of Torah” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, Vol. I, (ed. R. S. Notley et al; Brill, London, 2006), pp 173-175.

3 Pirke Avot is the Hebrew name for “Sayings of the Fathers,” a collection of rabbinic teachings from 200 BC to 200 AD that was collected in a book called the Mishnah.

4 See “Jesus’ Habit of Hinting.”

5 For more on the word shema, see p. 3-4 in Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Tverberg & Okkema (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004).

6 Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, pp. 149 – 151. For more on the Kingdom of God, see “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News.”

Photos: Plant [CC], Elijah Hail on Unsplash, Johannes Plenio on UnsplashSushobhan Badhai on Unsplash

Jesus’ Most Radical Teaching

by Lois Tverberg

When Christians begin to learn more about Jesus’ Jewishness, it comes as a surprise that many of his teachings have parallels in those of other rabbis of his time. For instance, his command to forgive others so that one’s sins will be forgiven (Mt 18:21-35) is found in earlier Jewish writings.1 Even when Jesus disagreed with others, he was not casting aside all of Judaism, but was usually affirming one rabbinic position over another in an area of debate. For example, when asked about divorce, he disagreed with the teachings Hillel, but agreed with those of Shammai.2 Rather than being entirely at odds with his countrymen, his ministry built on the teachings of his day and brought them to a new level.

Learning that Jesus was not the first person to teach some ideas seems to undermine his uniqueness. What about his teaching drew such enormous numbers of passionate followers? What about Jesus’ teachings was unique?

Jesus’ Radical Teaching

According to one scholar, there was one major theme of Jesus’ ministry that went beyond anything any other rabbi taught and was entirely unique to him.3 Not only was it radical, it also was central to his lifestyle, his teaching about the Kingdom of God, and his mission as the Messiah. It is the following:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Mt 5:43-45)

This is probably the most difficult command Jesus ever gave, and even for us today it might seem impossible.4 But understanding them in their context is critical for grasping the implications of Jesus’ ministry and our calling as members of his Kingdom.

“Hate Your Enemy” in the First Century

Scholars used to wonder who Jesus was quoting as saying, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” It is not in the Scriptures, and the rabbis of Jesus’ time did not teach this. The Dead Sea Scrolls finally gave an answer by revealing that one group of Jesus’ contemporaries, the Essenes, took an oath twice each day to “to hate forever the unjust and to fight together with the just.” They referred to themselves as the “Sons of Light” who shared an “eternal but concealed hatred of the men of the Pit,” as they awaited the Day of Vengeance — the great war when they would destroy the “Sons of Darkness.”5

Like others of the time, their understanding from the Scriptures was that God would establish his Kingdom on earth by destroying his enemies. To them it was a good thing to hate their enemies, who were the enemies of God. God’s “enemies” were not just the national enemies of Israel, but all sinners. Many passages in the Old Testament equate sinfulness with being God’s enemies, like “For surely your enemies, O LORD, surely your enemies will perish; all evildoers will be scattered.” Psa. 92:9. Obviously they felt that if they should hate God’s enemies, the sinners of the world, they were among the righteous themselves.

In contrast, among the rabbis there were some who, like Jesus, pointed out that God shows mercy toward sinners. It was said, “The day of rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous.6 Like Jesus, they pointed out that God cares for even those who hate him by providing for their needs. Someday judgment would come to everyone, but before then, God shows his kindness to everyone in the world. Jesus went beyond this, however, to challenge his listeners to share God’s unlimited love to even their worst enemies.

The Son of Man – Judge of God’s Enemies

Jesus pacifies two warriorsJesus’ understanding of God’s mercy toward his enemies was central to his teaching about the Kingdom, and part of his radical challenge to the common belief about the Messiah. Most believed that the Messiah would be a warrior king who would liberate God’s people from his enemies.7 In ancient times, kings acted as the supreme judge of their land, and the Messianic King would do so as well. He would be the judge that would bring the Kingdom of God to earth by destroying the evil of the world.

One of the titles of the Messiah that was most strongly linked to the role of judge was the “Son of Man,” because in Daniel 7, it speaks of the Messiah being led into the heavenly courtroom where the book of judgment was open, and being given authority by God to reign over and judge humanity:

The court was seated, and the books were opened…

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. (Dan 7:10, 13-14)

Several New Testament passages speak about the Son of Man as judge, including, “[God] has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man” (Jn 5:27), and Rev. 14:14, in which the Son of Man carries a sickle for the final harvest of judgment. Often Jesus referred to himself as the “Son of Man,” and he also used the term to speak about the coming judgment: “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). However, he consistently spoke of this as in the future, and stressed that now was the time of God’s mercy.

Fascinatingly, Jesus uses the title, “Son of Man” to show his authority to forgive sins as well. When the paralyzed man was lowered into the room by his friends, Jesus said, “But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home” (Lk 5:24). Jesus is the Messianic Judge with the capacity to forgive or condemn, and he used his power to forgive.

Another powerful example is in the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who repented of his corruption. Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:9-10). Jewish tax collectors were considered traitors because they had “sold out” to their Roman oppressors and profited from their own people’s misery. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector who had become very rich at others’ expense, and certainly he was considered a great sinner and God’s “enemy.” But yet when he repented, Jesus used his authority as the Son of Man to proclaim salvation to him from his sins. Jesus, as the King and Judge, was expanding his Kingdom through mercy, as he forgave God’s enemies instead of condemning them.8

Expanding the Kingdom by Forgiving Enemies

The scandal of the Gospel was that everyone thought that the Messiah was going to establish God’s Kingdom by destroying God’s enemies, but Jesus was bringing God’s Kingdom by showing God’s love for his enemies instead. As their King, he personally would suffer for their sins and purchase their forgiveness. Paul says this very thing:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:8, 10)

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col 1:21-22)

For many in the early Jewish church, the most shocking and scandalous application of this truth was that God’s love extended even to Gentiles. Many laws were in place to keep Jews from being defiled by contact with “Gentile sinners” (Gal 2:15), who as a group were thought to be characterized by the three most terrible crimes in Jewish law: idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. With this dim view of the Gentiles as “enemies of God,” we can imagine the surprise when God poured out his Spirit on them! It took a special vision from God to convince Peter that he could even enter a Gentile home (Acts 10:28). Paul was a perfect apostle to them, as a former enemy to all God was doing through the early church. Such was God’s amazing love.

Being a Part of the Kingdom of Mercy

It is only when we see ourselves as God’s former enemies that we realize that our admittance into his Kingdom was because God’s love for his enemies extends even to us. Perhaps the reason that the Gospel was so difficult for many to accept was that Jesus’ listeners saw themselves as already “on God’s side,” as righteous victims of suffering at the hands of the Romans, and felt justified in wanting God to destroy them. They were happy to read about God’s coming judgment in the Scriptures. It was the prostitutes and tax collectors who could see themselves as “enemies” that wanted to take up this offer of forgiveness. Only when we see that we are saved by God’s amazing love do we realize our obligation to show the same kind of love to others as well.

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1 Joshua Ben Sirach said in approximately 180 BC, “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (Sirach 28:2-4) Jesus built on this teaching in a powerful way in the parable of the Good Samaritan — see the article, Loving Your Neighbor, Who is Like You.

2 See “‘And’ or ‘In Order to’ Remarry” by David Bivin, available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

3 From a lecture entitled, “Do this and Live: The Ethics of Jesus,” available as part of an audio seminar from En-Gedi called, “The Gospel of Jesus and John the Baptist,” by Dr. Steven Notley.

4 It sounds as if Jesus is advocating complete pacifism, which was most likely not true. See “Do Not Resist Evil: Jesus’ View of Pacifism” at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

5 See the Manual of Discipline 9.21–23 and The Jewish War 2:139, by Josephus. Quotes are from “Us and Them: Loving Both,” available at www.jerusalemperspective.com.*

6 Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a

7 For more about the common misunderstanding of the Messiah and Jesus’ teachings to challenge it, see “Jesus’ Messianic Surprise: A Kingdom of Mercy,” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is Good News!

8 See “Why Did Jesus call himself the ‘Son of Man’?” for a fascinating theory of why Jesus spoke of the “Son of Man” as both innocent victim and final judge.

* The three articles cited above by David Bivin are available in his book published by En-Gedi, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context.

Photos: Rufus Sarsaparilla, “Brindle Boxer and house cat.” “Jesus pacifies two warriors,” originally painted by Anton von Werner [Public domain].

Learning from Our Rabbi Jesus

Puzzle PieceThe sayings of Jesus can sometimes be a puzzle to us. Much of our difficulty comes from not seeing the nuances of their Jewish style and context. This loss of understanding has come from the church’s movement away from its Jewish beginnings.

Jesus used many rabbinic teaching methods to deliver his powerful message. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

The Parable

Even though Jesus was a master at using parables for his purposes, he didn’t invent them. Over a thousand parables are on record. Most of them postdate Jesus’ ministry but a few come before.

A parable was a way to explain a theological truth in terms of physical images and stories. Just as the Hebrew language uses concrete pictures to express abstractions (God’s “outstretched arm” meant God’s power, to be “stiff-necked” meant to be stubborn, etc), the parable explained truth in terms of everyday experiences. The logic was that we can understand things we don’t see by comparing them to things that we can see and know about.

Typically, a rabbi told a parable to make one major point, often as an illustration of a larger teaching. Many times two parables were told that made the same point in order to strengthen the overall conclusion, because could be proved by the “testimony of two witnesses.” Jesus often told parables in pairs, as when he tells the parable of the leaven and the mustard seed – both describing something that starts out invisible but then grows huge. By reading the two parables together and seeing the parallels, we grasp the common conclusion more clearly.1

Parallel rows in a field

Certain elements were common in many parables, and they usually were drawn from the Scriptures. A king was often the subject of the parable, and the king was almost always symbolic of God (from 1 Sam 8:7). Jesus told several parables about kings, all making a point about the nature of God.

Another motif that was used for God is the shepherd. One rabbinic parable says,

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.2

We hear the similarity between this parable and Jesus’ story about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost sheep. Interestingly, even other rabbis had the understanding that God has mercy on the lost, and pursues them to bring them back to himself.

Both parables use the shepherd image because in several places in the Old Testament, God is described as a shepherd looking for his sheep (Ezekiel 34, Jer. 23). The Messiah is also called the “shepherd” too – linking God to the Messiah. When Jesus speaks of himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10), all of these images would have come to mind.

Kal V’homer

Another teaching method that Jesus used was called “kal v’homer,” meaning “light and heavy.” The idea was to communicate a larger truth by comparing it to a similar, but smaller situation. Often the phrase “how much more” would be part of the saying. Jesus used this when he taught about worry:

“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12:27-28)

LiliesJesus also uses this method when he says, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to you children, how much more will your Father in heaven give what is good to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11) In both cases, Jesus was teaching theology in non-theological terminology.

Rabbis often used this logic even if they didn’t use the very words “how much more.” An interesting example is from Rabbi Gamaliel, the same rabbi mentioned in Acts 5:34. One time at a banquet, Gamaliel got up and humbly served his disciples, going against the tradition that they should serve him. When they protested and asked why, he said,

“Is Rabbi Gamaliel a lowly servant? He serves like a household servant, but there is one greater than him who serves. Consider Abraham who served his visitors. But there is one even greater than Abraham who serves. Consider the Holy One, blessed be He, who provides food for all his creation!” 3

Understanding his teaching is dependent on our grasping the “kal v’homer”. Abraham was the most revered of all of their ancestors, but Gamaliel points out that he acted as a humble servant by serving a meal to God and two angels in Genesis 18. Then he points out that God himself serves us and even the animals when he gives us food. God himself is a model of serving others rather than wanting to be served. Certainly, if one as great as God serves his lowly creation, how much more should we serve each other!

Rabbinic Exaggeration

Some of the sayings of Jesus are so strong that we wonder if Jesus really wants us to take them literally. Should we really pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin? Is it really better to be drowned with a millstone than to lead a little one astray? Is it really harder for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? Jesus’ overstatements make us uncomfortable when we aren’t sure how we should take them.

One thing that we should keep in mind is that Jesus’ contemporaries often exaggerated, and gave commands that went far beyond expectations, in order to underline the importance of what they taught. For instance,

When three eat at one table and words of Torah are not spoken there,
it is as if they ate at the altars of the dead…
But when three eat at one table and bring up words of Torah,
it is as if they ate from the table of God, blessed be He! 4

The point of this teaching is to emphasize that people should try to always include discussion of the scriptures when they eat together. Likening a meal without Bible study to worshipping in an idolatrous temple is a strong overstatement that is intended for emphasis. Or, here is another example:

Let no one stand for prayer without bowing his head…
Even if the king greets you, do not answer him.
And even if a snake is coiled at your heel, do not break it off.5

Once again the importance of concentration in prayer is taught by exaggeration—by saying that even in the most extreme circumstances, you should have single-minded attention on God. People took these teachings seriously, but knew they were overstatements for effect.

Open 8 Days a Week

Knowing this aspect of Jesus’ culture should give us some sense of how Jesus’ words were heard by his audience when he said things like, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt…you can say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and it will be done.” (Matt 21:21). He sounded like many other rabbis who said extreme things to reinforce the importance of their teaching. We must be careful never to minimize Jesus’ high calling away as exaggeration. But at the same time, we grow in our ability to interpret his words when we know how they would have been heard in his time.

Alluding to the Scriptures

It may surprise many that Jesus’ teachings are peppered with “hints” to his scriptures. He often used unique phrases or even single words to allude to passages in the Old Testament. He could do this because he lived in a biblically literate culture, where people knew much of the Old Testament scriptures by memory. By knowing his reference, people recognize the context and heard more complex ideas of the Scriptures behind his words. He wasn’t hiding secret messages—he expected people to catch his allusions. In medieval times the Jews referred to this technique of hinting as “remez,” but the practice actually predated Jesus.

One example of this is when at the cleansing of the temple, Jesus said, “My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!” (Matt 21:13) He was quoting Isaiah 56:6 and Jeremiah 7:11, which contrast God’s greatest vision for the temple (All the nations of the world worshiping there) with the worst possible abuse of it (being used as a refuge for thieves and murderers, which led to its destruction). He was not just protesting the selling of doves – he was speaking about the corrupt leadership that was getting rich from temple sacrifices, and hinting about the Temple’s destruction.6

Nixon leaving after WatergateWe actually use the same practice of allusion today. When a headline reads, “War in Iraq May Be Another Vietnam,” it assumes that everyone knows the history of the Vietnam War. Without saying anything but the word “Vietnam,” people immediately know the reference, and have an emotional reaction to that difficult time in US history.

Or, when we refer to a government scandal as “Travel-gate” or “File-gate,” we are subtly alluding to the Watergate scandal. Just by adding the half-word “gate,” we hint that the issue is a major White House scandal that will cast a shadow over the presidency. Just as we expect people to be literate in history, Jesus expected his listeners to be literate with God’s word.

Another example of this practice in the gospels is the conversation Jesus had with John’s disciples about whether he was the “one who was to come,” in Matt. 11: 2–6:

“When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

Both John’s question and Jesus’ answer are filled with allusions to the scriptures. John was speaking of the “coming one” of Malachi 3:2, and Jesus’ answer was from Isaiah 35:4-6 and 61:1 that speak about the coming of the messiah.8 Recognizing that all those things Jesus mentioned were fulfillment of Scripture underlined that he was the fulfillment of all of those prophecies.

Conclusion

Knowing more about Jesus’ context should both clarify our reading and challenge us to take another look at Jesus’ words in light of his scriptures and Jewish culture. Jesus used methods of teaching that are somewhat foreign to us, so it is easy to assume that his style was foreign to his first listeners too. But we see instead that God was preparing a culture for his own coming, giving them a love for the scriptures and powerful techniques to teach the truth about himself. Jesus used these methods to proclaim truth in an uncommonly brilliant way—certainly he was a master teacher!

~~~~~

SittingTo explore this topic more, see Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009.

1 See “Jesus’ Twin Parables” by Robert Lindsey at jerusalemperspective.com (Premium content membership needed.)

2 Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, p 192. © 1998, Hendrickson. ISBN 1-56563-244-2. Also, see Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, © 1995, Hendrickson. ISBN: 0-80280-423-3.

3 Mekhilta Amalek 3. It’s interesting to hear the close ties between Jesus’ foot washing and Gamaliel’s serving at the banquet. His ministry was during the time of Jesus and afterward, and Paul studied with him. Even though he was not a follower of Jesus, he defended the disciples (Acts 5:33-39) and may have been influenced by Jesus’ teaching.

4 Mishnah, Pirke Avot 3.2-3. The Mishnah was the Jewish commentary on the Torah that was in effect from a few hundred years before Christ until it was written down in 200 AD. Much of it was observed at the time of Jesus.

5 Mishnah, Berakot 5.1

6 See “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week” for a list of allusions that Jesus makes during his last week that all hint toward punishment on the corrupt temple leadership and destruction of the temple. Also, see the article “Remember Shiloh” by J. Frankovic at jerusalemperspective.com. (Premium content membership needed.)

7 See “Jesus’ Habit of Hinting” and “Hearing Jesus’ Hidden Messages” for more examples of this technique of alluding to scripture.

Photos: Chris Downer, Oliver Atkins, Olga Berrios

Humility in Prayer

by Bruce Okkema

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “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.’ ” Luke 18:9-12

It would be surprising if any of us reading this article would admire a prayer such as this. Yet one does not have to go far, perhaps only inside our own hearts, to find someone trying to justify himself through comparison to others. To do so, is to forget that the God to whom we pray already knows all about our accomplishments —and all our sins.

Picture an example in which a boy has stolen some candy from a store. The proprietor has reported the theft to the parents, but has left the discipline up to them. Then the child goes to confess his sin unaware that his parents already know exactly what he did. How forgiving will the parents be if their son makes excuses, or blames someone else, or lies about what was taken? Will anything less than a complete, truthful confession do any good? Likely not.

Some of you will remember that in our Water From the Rock article entitled “Da’at Elohim – Knowledge of God,” Lois wrote that the Hebrew word used for knowledge is “yadah” which means to know intimately.1 Several places in the Hebrew scriptures, in different contexts, this same word is used for “confession.” So one gets the sense that this is an intimate, personal knowledge of one’s own sin, perhaps a private act known only to ourselves in some cases. How can we rightfully petition Our Lord and expect Him to act justly if we are not honest with Him?

We can learn from the practice of observant Jews who recite the Sh’ma in the morning upon rising, and in the evening before retiring to affirm their commitment to God. Prior to the evening recitation, they will also say the following:

Blessed are You, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me – whether against my body, my property, my honor, or against anything of mine; whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carelessly, or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought or notion … May no man be punished because of me. May it be Your will, my God and the God of my forefathers, that I may sin no more. Whatever sins I have done before You, may You blot out in your abundant mercies …. May the expressions of my mouth and thoughts of my heart find favor before You, my Rock and My Redeemer. (Ps 19:4)2

So in the words of James,” … confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (5:16). Finally, listen carefully to our Lord’s opinion of these prayers and apply it:

But the tax collector, standing some distance away, unwilling even to lift up his eyes to heaven, but rather 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 18:13-14


(1) See Da’at Elohim, by Lois Tverberg
(2) The Book of Jewish Values by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, Day 270, quoting a prayer from the ArtScroll Prayer Book pg 288-89.

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

Sower and Soil

To explain how people would receive Jesus’ message, he 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 lets the dirt fall through and retains the grain. (Pirke Avot, 5:17)

It is interesting to see how this saying parallels that of Jesus. It is also talking about people who listen to a rabbi, and it is also 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 and removes the dust and dirt that aren’t wanted.

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 may be so interested in a few odd, debatable points that we miss the good ideas that a teacher has shared. If we want to truly grow in wisdom, we need to be like the Bereans,1 who held up all teaching to the scriptures for soundness. 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

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)

The Other Lost Son

by Lois Tverberg

“Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.” (Luke 15:29-30)

In this parable, we focus almost all of our attention on the prodigal son. But according to Brad Young, the parable really should be named, “The Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons.” (1) Dr. Young points out that neither son understands their father’s love, and neither has any love in his heart for the other. Both sons see their father as a paymaster, a source of blessing and gain. The younger son first sees his father as a source of cash that he could spend by claiming his inheritance, and then he sees him as an employer who might take him in. The older son has a similar attitude – he expects his father to give him some reward for his loyalty to the family, and doesn’t care about his brother who has come home.

In this parable we can see all types of relationships toward God. We certainly see the person who has rejected God in the prodigal son. Indeed, by asking for his inheritance, in this culture he would have been saying that he wished his father was dead, because he just wanted to live life enjoying the wealth he had gained apart from his family. In a similar way, many people show that they “wish God were dead” by their desire to ignore him and just enjoy all the material blessings he has showered on us, living life just to satisfy their desires.
Prodigal SonWe often don’t consider that the older son is a picture of a broken relationship too, who even though outwardly he is part of the family, he really sees the father only as a source of reward. He is a person who may be quite religious, but misunderstands God’s enormous love. Rather than valuing an intimate, trusting relationship with God, his feeling is that he must somehow earn God’s favor, and doesn’t see that he is loved in spite of all of observance and good works.

The true hero of the parable is the father who displays amazing love to his very broken family. If only we would love him with the limitless love he has for us!


(1) “The Compassionate Father and His Two Lost Sons” in Jesus the Jewish Theologian by Brad Young, Hendrickson 1995, p 143 – 154.

Photo: 7AEgfhxf52pz-Q at Google Cultural Institute

A Gift That Grows

by Lois Tverberg

“…And others are the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these are the ones who have heard the word, but the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.” – Mark 4:18-19

Growing flower

One year for Christmas I bought two gift boxes of potted bulbs that would bloom as a beautiful bouquet in the middle of winter, if the growing directions were followed. I kept one for myself, and I wrapped the other up and gave to some ladies at my workplace. When they unwrapped their box they “oohed” over the beautiful flowers in the picture on the box, thanked me appreciatively and set it aside. I set my own box aside for a week, and then discovered that the bulbs had sent up stems, and had been growing inside the box on their own with no light or water.

The next time I saw the ladies I saw that their box hadn’t been opened, so I told them that the bulbs were growing already. But it fell on deaf ears, and their box sat unopened in clear view of everyone for some weeks beyond that. I can only imagine that when they opened it, they were saddened to find stems that had grown, gotten yellow and never bloomed because they were not cared for.

What hit me is that this was a little like Jesus’ parable about the seed that was sown on various types of soil. In Jesus’ parable he speaks about people for whom wealth and daily cares act to choke the seed of the Word in their lives, making it unfruitful. In a related way, many of us are excited to get the “gift of salvation” and like to look at the picture on the box, but we don’t open the box and do the work of prayer, discipleship and study. We would rather be busy with our own daily activities and just be glad we are saved.

But God desires more than to give us a box with a lovely picture on it. He gave us a living gift, just like the bulbs in the box! Just like them, the gift of the Holy Spirit is alive in us too, but only can grow in us as much as we let it. How sad if the beautiful bouquet that the Lord had intended to grow from our lives would remain stifled and yellow inside of us. We need to become true disciples so we can bloom in the way he intended.


Photo: stux

Nathan’s Story

by Bruce Okkema

King David and Nathan“The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” – II Samuel 12:1-7

This story is a biblical masterpiece. As we watch the story unfold, we see Nathan setting up David mercilessly, using details that pull at the heart strings. A poor man uses his precious money to buy their only lamb — it becomes the family pet, it eats at their table and it lays in his arms. There is a strong sense that this poor man is sacrificing much for his family to care for this little lamb, but then it is stolen and killed by a rich man who had many of his own.

Nathan tells the story in such a way as to extract David’s words of conviction from his own mouth. It is almost too painful to watch, since David was such a man of honor who, even in the midst of his sin, shows his love for the Lord and his passion that justice be done.

The impact of the story is heightened when we consider that Uriah is from the Hittites who were enemies of the Israelites. He must have been a convert, since we see him living near the palace, eating with the king, faithfully serving the God of Israel, and his wife is observing the Jewish purification laws. When David tries to cover up his sin by coaxing Uriah to go home to his wife, Uriah self-sacrificially refused to do so because his comrades were on the battlefield.

It must have felt like a sword piercing David’s heart when he heard Nathan say, “You are the man.” Nathan goes on to confront David that he has killed Uriah with “the sword of the sons of Ammon,” sons of Lot by his daughters. In his Hebraic culture, David would certainly have seen the double meaning that they too were offspring of sexual sin. As a result, God’s word to David is that the “sword will never depart from this house” (II Sam. 12:10). We read later about all the terrible things that happen to David’s family because of this.

We had times in our own lives when we have failed, just like David. Be encouraged that there is no sin too great for God to forgive. He loves us deeply and wants us to be restored, but sometimes he needs to send a “Nathan” to bring us to confession, so praise the Lord when he does.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:9.


Photo:  Paris Psalter

A Good Day’s Pay

by Lois Tverberg

“The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard… When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius…When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, `These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he said, `Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? `So the last shall be first, and the first last.” – Matthew 20:1, 9-13, 16

Jesus often used parables to describe the character of God. He did not try to define or categorize him with theological abstractions, but he did paint a picture of God’s personality with colorful stories that grab our attention and sometimes surprise us.

Field Workers

This story is one example of Jesus’ way of showing God’s grace to his audiences. His picture is that of a farmer at harvest time when the grape crop is ripe and needs to be brought in. There was probably some urgency to get the crop in before the fruit spoiled or the weather changed, so that the farmer would keep hiring workers to have as much help as possible. While this may be the case, the reason that he hired the last workers was that they had not found work for the day, so that they would have nothing to bring home to their families. Day workers usually had only sporadic work and lived in poverty. Giving the last workers a full-day’s pay demonstrated his great compassion for them and desire to supply their needs.

The problem comes from the workers who began work at the beginning of the day. He had shown them the same grace by employing them as day-workers too, and they would have known the desperate needs of the other laborers. But instead of appreciating the owner’s compassion, they expected him to shower them with even greater gifts. If the man is generous, certainly he must be rich too, they assumed. His compassion made them greedy for more.

The lesson we should learn is that God is not a paymaster, and we shouldn’t serve him with the expectation of being entitled to his favor. God is just as likely to answer the prayers and bless those who have not “earned it.” And most of all, we should be careful to not resent the “latecomers” – those who may have lived terrible lives and only repent at the very end. By God’s mercy he gives grace to us all, and does not repay us according to what we deserve.


Photo: Vincent Van Gogh at Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow