Get Yourself a Friend

by Lois Tverberg

“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” Matthew 18:20

In Western Christian culture today, a common approach to studying the Bible is to have a quiet time where we isolate ourselves in solitary study. In Jesus’ community-oriented culture, however, they had a very different approach. From Jesus’ time until today, students in Jewish religious schools have always studied in pairs – discussing, arguing and grappling with the text together. When one doesn’t understand, the other explains, and together they think of possible interpretations and other Bible texts that help in understanding.

Men Studying Talmud They said that if you want to truly study the scriptures you should “Get yourself a teacher (rabbi) and get yourself a friend (haver).” (Pirke Avot 1:3). The word haver (hah-VAIR) is loosely translated “friend”, but more specifically refers to a partner in studing God’s word. Anyone who has been a part of a good Bible study group knows that the bonds between haverim are often deep and strong. By spending time discussing God’s word and praying for each other’s burdens, people quickly become very close. Their testimonies of how their lives are impacted by their studying reinforces the text, giving real-life examples to inspire others.

Sometimes we feel we need to be alone to hear God’s voice, not realizing that God’s Spirit often speaks best through other people. God desires that we live in community and love him together — not turn inward, ignore others, and seek him alone. The rabbis of Jesus’ time had a fascinating way of describing this. They said, “When two sit together and exchange words of Torah, then the Divine Presence dwells with them.” (Pirke Avot 2:3) It seems that Jesus wanted to reinforce this to his own followers, telling them that for eternity, his Spirit would be with them in their assembling as a body too. He said,”Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matt 18:20)


Photo: Roylindman

A Hot-Tempered Teacher

by Lois Tverberg

“And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must
be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those
who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope
that God will grant them repentance leading them to
a knowledge of the truth.” 2 Timothy 2:24-25

When we have something to share with the world, how should we share it? It is easy when you are passionate about something, especially about God’s word, to use strong, angry words to shake up your audience. Especially if you disagree with other opinions, it is easy to want to denounce those who are so foolish to disagree with you.

Rage of AchillesThere is an excellent saying from around Jesus’ time that relates to this issue, which says: “The hot-tempered person cannot teach.” (Pirke Avot 2:5) Aimed at those who teach the Scriptures, it was a warning that once a communicator loses his temper, he loses his ability to communicate. A related saying can also help us: “Anyone who allows himself to become angry – if he is wise, he loses all his wisdom” (Talmud, Pesachim 66b).

We can learn from this about the damage that occurs when we let anger affect the way we think and communicate. First, when we are angry we often leap to assumptions, especially about the people we are trying to reach. The street-corner preacher who shouts at his audience about their wicked lifestyles has made an accusation that justifiably offends people. He presumes the worst, accusing his listeners of things he doesn’t know, and he loses his ability to reach them.

In the same way, accusing the church of anti-Semitism for not teaching about Jesus in his Jewish context also makes assumptions about people’s motivations that we have no right to make. Just because we’ve grown in understanding shouldn’t make us prideful. Instead, we should be the most humble, knowing that we have had to change our minds about the things we used to sincerely believe ourselves.

Whether we are trying to share the gospel with a non-believer or our knowledge about our Jewish roots to our pastor, we need to remember to guard against an argumentative attitude or anger. Knowing that others have walked different paths but are trying, as we are, to discern the truth, we should always answer “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. ” 1 Peter 3:15-16

Not Yours to Complete

by Lois Tverberg

“Do you not say, `Four months more and then the harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying `One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” John 4:35-38

Anyone who looks at the world as it is today can see the enormous need for God to send out his people to help redeem it. Enormous numbers of people need to know the gospel, broken families and broken people need help, and the hungry need to be fed. Just hearing about the devastation of the tsunami is overwhelming – how can these people ever recover?

Natural Disaster Wreckage

A wise saying regarding this comes from the Mishnah:”The task is not yours to complete, but neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21) It means that we should not use the excuse that our help might be futile to decide to do nothing. We might say that our money, time and effort are just drops in an ocean of need — why bother? But as Jesus reminded his disciples in today’s passage, the disciples were building on the work of others who didn’t live to see the finished product of their faithfulness. We reap from others’ efforts, and those following us will reap from ours.

We may despair that there is any point to doing the little things, like sending a few dollars to help with disaster relief, or caring for an elderly neighbor’s needs. Or we may feel like if we discuss our faith with a non-believer but did not “pray the sinner’s prayer,” our efforts are wasted. But Paul says that he planted and another (Apollos) watered, but God gave the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). God’s plans are much greater than we could ever imagine, and he only expects each of us to do our part in them. All he asks it that we be faithful in what we are given, and let him work through others to accomplish the rest.


Photo: Trocaire

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

Who is Wise?

by Lois Tverberg

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Photo: Dorotheum

Who is Strong?

by Lois Tverberg

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Photo: Chad K

Who is Rich?

by Lois Tverberg

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

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

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

Versailles' Hall of  Mirrors

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

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


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

Photo: Myrabella

Deeds of Loving Kindness

by Lois Tverberg

“We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

Jesus probably knew a beautiful saying that was attributed to a scholar who lived hundreds of years before him, and was written down in the Mishnah in about 200 AD (1):

For three things the world is sustained: For the study of scriptures (torah), for worshipping and serving God (avodah), and for deeds of loving kindness (gemilut hesed).

What this means is that for three great reasons God created humanity and allows the world even to keep existing: for us to discover God’s great love through his Word; to worship him and want to serve him because of it, and then to show God’s love to those around us.

This idea of showing God’s love to those around us was a beautiful concept called gemilut hesed (gem-i-LOOT HES-ed), “acts of loving kindness”. This was different than charity (tzedakah), giving money to the poor. Jesus and many other rabbis emphasized the great need to give to the poor, but as good as it was, gemilut hesed was considered even better.

Poor sharing foodAfter all, only the needy benefit from charity, but we can show kindness to anyone, rich or poor. And, it is easy to hand a $10 bill to somone for a meal, but to invite him into your home for a meal shows God’s love, and causes you to grow in love as well. Because of this, some Jews make a point to use some of their “giving dollars” to do gemilut hesed with their own hands. (2) For instance, instead of just giving money to charity, one woman invested her money in a library of books and then regularly found ways of loaning or even giving them to others. Certainly a Christian could do even more by buying and sharing good devotional books or Bible studies with others.

Considering as much money as we spend on entertainment from movies, cable TV, etc, wouldn’t a wonderful Christian alternative would be to “entertain” ourselves with gemilut hesed? To make a “hobby” out of a particular form of kindness to others? One Christian couple I know invested in a truck to use during snowstorms, to go up and down their country road pulling people out who had slid off the road. Another friend makes a habit of stopping to help or offer a cell phone to anyone stranded with road trouble. Yet another woman, who teaches classes on job hunting, enjoys helping friends find jobs if they need one or want one that suits them better.

What about even making a practice of being kind to waitresses and tipping them generously? Or inviting single or elderly people home for Sunday dinner after church? And, of course, to share your faith in Christ? All these kind acts will have the effect of showing God’s love to others in small and great ways. But they will have an even bigger impact on ourselves and our families, as we see God’s love transform our hearts too.


This article is based on an excerpt of a longer directors’ article, “Acts of Loving Kindness at Christmas,” from December 2004.

(1) Verse 1:2 of Pirke Avot, (Sayings of the Fathers), a collection of rabbinic sayings written about 200 AD in the Mishnah. Many of these saying were attributed to rabbis who lived in Jesus’ time and even before, and many relate to things Jesus said as well. This saying is attributed to Simon the Righteous, who was said to live at the time of Ezra.

(2) For many wonderful stories of the practice of Gemilut Hesed, see the outstanding book, The Book of Jewish Values, by Joseph Telushkin, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York, ISBN 0609603302.

Photo: Peter Isotalo

Which Type Are You?

by Lois Tverberg

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

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

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

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

Which Type are You?

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


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

Photo: Herrad von Landsberg

The Urgent Harvest

by Lois Tverberg

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

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

Workers in field

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

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

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

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

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


Photo: Bridgestone Museum of Art