Good News to the Poor

by Lois Tverberg

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed (“messiah”ed) me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. Isaiah 61:1-2, quoted in Luke 4:18-19

Poor womanJesus stood up in in the synagogue at Nazareth and quoted the words of Isaiah 61, and then said, “Today these words are fulfilled in your hearing.” He was applying to himself the role of the “Anointed” one, the Messiah, who was bringing a year of Jubilee, “the year of the LORD’s favor.”

When we hear about a year of Jubilee as a picture of the coming of Christ, we think of it as a joyous year of celebration. We may think about how no one could till their land that year, so it sounds like a wonderful time of ease and rest, like heaven itself. Or we may think of how wonderful it would be to have all our debts forgiven.

The thing that is puzzling is that it describes the Jubilee as “good news to the poor.” Why wouldn’t the Jubilee be good news to everyone? If we look at the observance of the Jubilee year, it really would only be a delight for the poorest people in the land. For the rich who had bought land, they would have lost their holdings by giving it back to the original owners.

For all, it would have been a time of relative lack – they still had to feed their families, but the fields were not to be planted. That meant that for that one year, the farm-based society had to live on savings, or else glean from what grew up on its own, like the poor people did all the time. The day laborer, who earned barely enough each day to feed his family, would find that year especially difficult because he would not be able to get work on farms.

The only person who would greatly benefit from the Jubilee is the poorest of the poor, who had become so impoverished that he had to borrow (which was only done in desperation), or was forced to sell his land, or even be thrown in debtor’s prison. For him, he experienced the greatest joy at being released from debt that was strangling him.

That can actually teach us about Jesus’ mission, because if we see that debt was a metaphor for sin in the time of Jesus, we see his true mission on earth. It was only the truly poor in spirit who wanted mercy from the Messiah. Most of the society was looking for a Messiah who would come as military King who would judge and destroy their enemies and liberate them. They saw themselves as basically righteous, and their enemies as the sinners of the world. Only those who recognized their own sinfulness would see the great debt they were in, and would want a messiah to come who would come with forgiveness for both them and their enemies. For these, Jesus truly had come with the good news of Jubilee.

Photo: Augustus Binu

Laws for the Gentiles?

by Lois Tverberg

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. Acts 15:28-29

When the early church convened in Jerusalem to decide what to do with all the new Gentile Christians, there was debate about whether they must convert to Judaism or not. Some felt that since the Jews had always been God’s people, to be saved one must be Jewish. But Paul and the rest of the early church saw that God is the God of the Gentiles also (Romans 3:29), and ruled that Gentiles could be God’s people without converting to Judaism.

Worshipping an IdolOne thing that we find puzzling is the rules that the early church said applies to the Gentile converts because they appear to be mostly food laws – meat sacrificed to idols, blood, and strangled animals, things that would prevent them from having table fellowship with Jews. But out of all the things that should be prohibited to the Gentile world, why these?

Some scholars have a different answer based on knowledge of the texts and the Jewish culture of the time. They note that in ancient manuscripts, the text of this passage is difficult and often varies between manuscripts, leaving out one or more of the prohibitions. Their suggestion is that the most ancient versions of this passage actually contained a proscription against the three most serious sins in rabbinic thinking of the time – idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed (murder). In Hebrew, the law against murder is shefichut damim, literally, “shedding of bloods.” The Hebraic idiom may have been misinterpreted after translation into Greek to mean the prohibiting the eating of blood instead.

Cain and AbelInterestingly, rabbis often accused the pagan Gentiles of being guilty of exactly the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. And, a prohibition against this threesome of sins is also mentioned in other early Christian literature as well. Later in the Talmud, these three laws were interpreted as part of the laws that God gave to all humanity in the time of Noah in Genesis 9. They were extremely serious sins — rabbis ruled that all of the commands of the Torah could be broken to preserve a person’s life except these three things.

This seems, in my opinion, to be a much more satisfying answer to what we as Gentiles called to do. Of course sexual immorality and murder are universally wrong, and no Gentile worshipper of God can keep worshipping idols as well. The Holy Spirit and early church did not give all of humanity odd food laws to follow; rather, they ruled that we are answerable to God for these most basic, and serious sins.


To explore this subject further and its relevance to a present-day topic, see Abortion, What the Early Church Said, Our Rabbi Jesus.

New Light

To explore this topic more, see chapter 21, “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006, p. 141-44.

Photo: Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda and Ghent Altarpiece

Punished for Parents’ Sin

by Lois Tverberg

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34:6-7

Hands of 3 generations

This description of God, that He is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness…” is quoted nine times in the Old Testament. The first place that this is heard is on Mt. Sinai, when the Lord passes by and shows all His glory to Moses. This description of God’s mercy comes up several times in the psalms (Psalm 86, 103, & 145 and others) and was probably part of many worship liturgies during Bible times.

Usually when this passage is quoted elsewhere in the Bible, the line about punishing children for the sins of the fathers is not included. This is satisfying to us, because we struggle with that line that seems quite unfair. There is actually a reason for it, if you look understand the culture and look closely at the text.

African TribeAncient tribal peoples like the Israelites saw their primary identity as being a part of a family or clan rather than as an individual. They worked together in everything and prospered or suffered together. It was assumed that the group was responsible for the conduct of all of its members. If one sinned, especially the leader, they would all bear guilt and suffer misfortune for it. I imagine they saw themselves as a tightly-knit team. If one player fumbles the football, the whole team gets the penalty, of course.

In Ezekiel 18, the people were quoting a proverb to that effect: ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezekiel 18:2). Surprisingly, God tells them not to quote this proverb anymore because he strenuously disagrees with punishing children for the sins of their parents!

This chapter in Ezekiel is actually one long argument against the idea that children can be punished for their parent’s sin. It sounds like the prophet has a hard time getting people to agree with him that an individual should be judged on his own terms, not in terms of the actions of his ancestors.

If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. (Ezekiel 18:25-27)

Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30-32)

So, we see that God himself sees that each person himself is accountable before him, and that it is unjust to condemn people for sins committed before their time.

How do we interpret Exodus 34:6-7 in the light of this passage? The picture of several generations being condemned for a sin may be describing the generational pattern of sin that we see in families. A father who abuses his wife often has sons who are abuse their wives. Families do teach and reinforce patterns of sins (or righteousness) to their members that go on for generations. Could it be that the children aren’t being punished for their parent’s guilt, but that the children have carried on in the family sins themselves?

The answer from Ezekiel is that the consequences of sin only extend to the generations that keep on in the sin of the ancestors. There is always hope, if the children will just repent and change their ways. God doesn’t take pleasure in the judgment of anyone, but bids us all to repent and live!

Photo: hannahpirnie and William Warby

Heaping Burning Coals

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Romans 12:20

In Romans, Paul talks about how to deal with our enemies and those who have wronged us. He says many wise things about dealing with others in this passage:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21

As we read this, one sentence sticks out to us that doesn’t make sense – about heaping burning coals on an enemy’s head. We wonder what Paul meant by this. It helps to know that Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” Understanding this proverb will unlock Paul’s words as well.

That saying is in the middle of several proverbs that use physical images to describe emotional reactions. Right before it is the passage, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or one that pours vinegar on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20, RSV). The physical picture of discomfort illustrates that trying to make a person in mourning happy just distresses them more. Likewise, the passage about coals is about the emotional discomfort an enemy will feel when you waken his conscience about his conduct toward you. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia1 :

The word “coal” is often used in a metaphorical sense: 2 Samuel 14: 7 speaks of the “quenching of the coal” of a man, meaning the complete annihilation of his issue; while in Proverbs 25:22 kindness bestowed upon an enemy is called “heaping coals of fire upon his head,” since it tends to waken his deadened conscience and help him to realize his wrong. Sirach 8:10 compares the smoldering and easily roused passion of the godless man to the coal that is easily lighted and breaks forth into flame.

The picture of putting coals on a person’s head initially sounds like a picture of causing burning pain, but it really is not. Instead, it seems to be a picture of stirring up the coals of a fire to rouse it back to life again. It is a picture of stirring within a person a response of remorse, when they see your kindness in the face of their meanness. This must also be the sense of Paul’s passage – we cause our enemies to be remorseful for their actions toward us, and in doing so we overcome evil by doing good.


Photo: sntytact (Talk)