Raise Up Many Disciples!

by Lois Tverberg

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:19)

Jesus’ final words were those of what we call the Great Commission — to make disciples of the whole world. But what is a disciple? The ancient, Hebraic picture Jesus had of raising disciples was unique to his Jewish culture. By learning about this practice, we gain fresh insight into how Jesus intended that we fulfill his command.

Jesus lived in a deeply religious culture that valued biblical understanding more than anything else. To become a great rabbi was the highest goal possible, and just to be a disciple of a famous rabbi was an honor. All boys studied and memorized the scriptures until age twelve, and then learned a trade after that. Only a small minority could keep studying, and only a very few were able to go on to learn with a rabbi.

Rabbis acted as wandering expositors who taught in synagogues and homes, and outdoors when a crowd gathered. They taught general audiences, and also had a small band of disciples who lived with them and followed them everywhere. They traveled from town to town teaching, because no mass-communication was available.

They often practiced a trade of their own, but when traveling they were dependent on the hospitality of the community. Indeed, it was forbidden to charge money to teach, but people were expected to support them and invite them into their homes.

Even to the present day, Judaism retains a tradition of discipleship. When Jewish rabbis are ordained, they are commissioned to “Raise up many disciples.” This is the first verse of Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers), from the Mishnah, the Jewish compendium of laws and sayings from around Jesus’ time. Texts like this have much to say about the rabbinic method for raising disciples. Another passage that describes discipleship is this:

Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily. (Avot 1:4)

This text casts light on several stories from Jesus’ ministry in the gospels. Mary, Martha and Lazarus opened their home to Jesus in the tradition of showing hospitality toward rabbis and disciples. Their house would also have served as a place for meetings for him to teach small groups.

We also read that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” to learn from him (Luke 10:39), which may be the sense of the phrase “cover yourself in the dust of their feet.” The phrase may also have meant to walk behind him to listen to him teach, as Jesus’ disciples would have done. On the unpaved roads in Israel, they literally would have been covered in their rabbi’s dust. (1)

What was expected of rabbis and disciples?

Rabbis were expected not only to be greatly knowledgeable about the Bible, but to live exemplary lives to show that they had taken the scriptures to heart. The objective of their teaching was to instill in their disciples both the knowledge and desire to live by God’s word. It was said, “If the teacher is like an angel of the Lord, they will seek Torah from him. If not, they will not seek Torah from him” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 15b).

The disciple’s goal was to gain the rabbi’s understanding, and even more importantly, to become like him in character. It was expected that when the student became mature enough, he would take his rabbi’s teaching out to the community, add his own understanding to it, and raise up disciples of his own.

A disciple was expected to leave family and job behind to join the rabbi in his austere lifestyle. They would live twenty-four hours a day together, walking from town to town, teaching, working, eating, and studying. As they lived together, they would discuss the scriptures and apply them to their lives.

The disciples were supposed to be the rabbi’s servants, submitting to his authority while they assisted him in his tasks. Indeed, the word “rabbi” means “my master,” and was a term of great respect, the same title that a slave would use to address his owner.

This sheds new light on the story of when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Jesus was entitled to having them wash his feet, not the other way around! By his actions he was teaching them a critical lesson in humility — that the one most deserving of being served is himself serving, while they were arguing who is the greatest. Jesus was using typical rabbinic technique: he didn’t just lecture, he used his own behavior as an example.

The rabbi-disciple relationship was very intimate. The rabbi was considered to be closer than a father to his disciples, and disciples were sometimes called “sons.” When Peter said “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you,” he was reflecting the deep love and commitment that disciples had for their rabbi (Matt. 26:35).

In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. Jesus’ insistence that his disciples leave everything behind to follow him would not have been considered extreme in that culture. They held up the image of Elisha as a model of a disciple’s commitment, who burned his plow and left everything to become Elijah’s disciple (1 Kings 19). After Elisha had lived with Elijah and served him for many years, he received Elijah’s authority to go out as his successor, as the disciples did from Jesus.

What light does this shed on the Great Commission?

Jesus’ eastern method of discipleship gives us a new picture of what he called us to do. Our Western model focuses mainly on the gospel as information, and our goal is to be a person of correct understanding. We focus mainly on spreading information about Jesus, not on living our life like him and inspiring others to do the same.

While it is important to teach and defend truth, Jesus’ method of discipleship is much more than that. He began his Kingdom by walking and living with disciples, to show them how to be like him. Then they went out and made disciples, doing their best to imitate Jesus and show others by their own example.

Jesus expects his kingdom will be built in this way: as each person grows in maturity, they live their lives transparently before others, counseling them on what they have learned about following Christ. The kingdom is built primarily through these close relationships of learning, living and teaching.

Paul uses the same model of discipleship in his ministry. He said,

…in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Cor 4:15-17)

We can hear that Paul’s goal for the Corinthians is that they become disciples, who change their lives to be like Christ, not just learn the correct beliefs. Using rabbinic method, he likens himself as a father to them, and he send his disciple Timothy, who he calls “his son.” He wants them to learn by the example of Timothy about his own way of life, which is a reflection of Jesus’ teaching. Paul is using this “whole person” method of evangelism to transform their lives, not just their minds, to reflect the truth.

Through this model of discipleship, we see that Jesus isn’t just interested in having our minds. He wants our hearts and lives too. Once our lives reflect what our minds believe, then the belief has actually reached our hearts. Then our passion for following him becomes a loud witness that inspires others to do the same.

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SittingTo further explore the rabbi/disciple relationship and its implications for Christians today, see chapter 4, “Following the Rabbi” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 51-65.

New Light on the Difficult Words of JesusFor further reading on discipleship in the first century, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006.

 

 

 

(1) Mishnah, Avot 1:4, attributed to Yose ben Yoezer, about 180 BCE. An in-depth discussion of being “covered in the dust of one’s rabbi” can be found at this link.

Photos: Christ Great Commission icon [CC BY-SA 2.0], Duccio di Buoninsegna [Public domain], Ford Madox Brown [Public domain], Wikipedia

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.

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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

What Does it Mean To Hallow God’s Name?

When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name….’” (Luke 11:2)

The Lord’s Prayer is loaded with meaning that we don’t fully appreciate because of cultural differences.1 In particular, the phrase “hallowed be your name” sounds foreign to us. This phrase is very rich in its original context and has an important lesson for our calling as Christians.

God’s Name as His Reputation

In ancient thinking, a person’s name was connected with his identity, authority and reputation. You might not think that God’s reputation would be an issue, but the idea of his reputation growing greater and greater throughout the world is a central theme of the biblical story.

At first, God taught only one nation, the Jews, how to live and he told them to be a “kingdom of priests” and a “light to the nations” so that the world may know about the true God of Israel (Ex. 19:6).2 Then, in the coming of Christ, God made his identity more clear, and sent his people to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).

The overall idea is that God’s reputation would expand over the earth as people come to know who he is. This is the means by which salvation is being brought to the world as people hear good things about God, and accept Christ as their Savior. We can see that God’s reputation, or God’s “name” is of critical importance for his plan of salvation.

In the Lord’s prayer, the phrases “hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” and “your will be done on earth” are related to each other in meaning. All of them are expressing the desire that God’s reputation grow on earth, that people accept God’s reign and desire to do his will.

This is probably the main intent of Jesus’ use of “hallowed be your name,” but an excellent lesson for how it is accomplished comes from the Jewish understanding of the idea of “hallowing (sanctifying) the name,” Kiddush HaShem. The opposite is Hillul HaShem — to profane the name.3 These two phrases are rich with significance in Jewish tradition and are still used today.

Why is Keeping God’s Name Holy So Important?

The rabbis of Jesus’ time closely studied the scriptures and made an interesting observation. Out of all of the ten commandments, only one carried with it a grave threat of punishment. Surprisingly it is not the prohibition against theft or murder, but rather against taking the name of the Lord in vain! The scriptures say “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Ex. 20:7 NASB).

Does it seem strange that this commandment, which we interpret as a prohibition against swearing, is the only one that God promises to punish? Aren’t other sins equally or more serious?

The rabbis believed that this commandment may also have a much greater meaning.4 They pointed out that the command literally says, “You shall not lift up the name (reputation) of the Lord for an ’empty thing,'” and they interpreted that to mean, to do something evil in the name of God which would give God a bad reputation.

In Lev. 19:12, this is called “profaning the name of God”, and is referred to as Hillul HaShem in Hebrew. It is to do something evil and associate the name of God with it, which is a sin against God himself who suffers from having his reputation defamed.

Profaning the Name of God

Some examples of this clarify why “profaning the name of God” is considered an extremely serious sin. When a terrorist shouts out “Allah Akbar” (God is great) before carrying out acts of murder, the response of the world is to say, “What wicked God do you serve who commands you do such terrible things?”

CrusadesThis not only occurs in other religions, but unfortunately in Christianity as well. When televangelists commit fraud, it hardens non-believers to the message of Christ. Or, consider the Crusades, which happened almost a thousand years ago. They are still remembered with hatred because Christians murdered Jews and Muslims in the name of Christ. God’s reputation in the world has been slandered, and evangelism is seriously hindered because of the evil actions of those who bear his name.

Even in the lives of average people, this can happen. How many stories have we heard of people who were treated unfairly by church members, and have never returned to the church? They have said in their hearts, “I don’t want anything to do with you or your God.” When a church-goer is dishonest in business, rude to his neighbors, or regularly uses profanity and dirty jokes, it is a witness against Christ to the world around us. Each of us is easily capable of profaning God’s name, a very serious sin indeed.

To Sanctify the Name

Just as evil actions can damage the reputation of God in the world, good actions can bring honor to God, and this is called “sanctifying God’s name,” Kiddush HaShem. This means to live in such a way as to bring God glory — as when Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

The rabbis described it as one of three things: to live a life of integrity, carefully observing the biblical commands; or to do some heroic deed, like risking one’s life to save another; or even to be martyred to honor God. We think of spreading the gospel through information, but they point out that the world is watching our lives too. When we think of sanctifying God’s name, these stories speak volumes:

  • Many En-Gedi supporters contributed money toward the installation of some water units for villages in Uganda. When the site preparation team was visiting these sites, they were welcomed enthusiastically by each village with a ceremony of thanks. Our local coordinator, Rev. Titus Baraka, made a point to explain that these water systems were brought in the name of Jesus Christ, who brings living water to the world. He also explained that this water is not only for Anglicans or Protestants, or Catholics or Muslims, but for everyone in the community.
    One local water committee member stood up to make the following remark: “I represent the Muslim community here. When I see that you have come here at great expense… when I see the way you do your work… when I see that you want to show love to people you don’t even know, I realize that you serve a greater God than I do. It makes me want to “cross over” to become a Christian.”

  • Jonathan Miles is a Christian who has a ministry of bringing Palestinian and Iraqi children to Israeli hospitals for heart surgery.5 His work has a powerful impact on the Muslims and Jews who see him and his staff regularly risk their lives, in the name of Christ, to serve others.
    One time, while he was waiting to pick up an infant in Gaza, he was verbally assaulted by a Hamas member for several minutes. When the man finally asked him why he was there, he explained that he was trying to locate a certain infant who needed medical care. When the man heard what his mission was, he was like a balloon quickly deflated!
    He immediately asked how he could help and took Jonathan all around town searching for the infant. They actually became friends over time! Jonathan said that the man is now even considering becoming a Christian. What a profound change came over this man from Jonathan’s actions to serve God.

Hallowing God’s Name with our Lives

We have all heard of heroic Christians like Corrie Ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who by their actions make people ask the question, “Who is this Christ, that you would sacrifice so much to serve him?”

The ultimate example of sanctifying God’s name, however, is Jesus himself. As God incarnate, his death on the cross has proclaimed to all the world that the God of Israel is a merciful, self-sacrificial God. No one who believes that Jesus is God himself can claim that God is cruel or uncaring because Jesus has proven otherwise through his own actions. Because of his great sacrifice, God’s reputation has expanded to the ends of the world.

As Jesus’ followers, we are commanded to be like him, as a “nation of priests” and a light to the world. We need to be always aware that the world is watching, so that our actions always reflect the holiness and love of the God that we serve.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9).

We are under constant scrutiny whether we are aware of it or not. Let us always try to be a favorable witness to the Holy Name whose image we bear.

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1 A series of articles on the Lord’s Prayer in its Jewish context by Dr. Brad Young can be found at www.jerusalemperspective.com. (Premium Content subscription required.)

2 See the En-Gedi article “Letting Our Tassels Show” for more about the idea of being a “kingdom of priests.”

3 H. H. Ben-Sasson, Kiddush Ha-Shem and Hillul HaShem, Encyclopedia Judaica CD-ROM, Version 1.0, 1997

4 J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, p 197. Copyright 2000, Bell Tower. ISBN 0-609-60330-2. (This is an outstanding book on ethics for living. Available at Barnes & Noble or online.)

5 Jonathan Miles’ ministry is called Shevet Achim.

Photos: Yoav Dothan [Public domain]; Jenaer Kodex [Public domain]; Painting “Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet” by Ford Maddox Brown)

Say Little, Do Much

What wisdom can we learn from Abraham, the man whom God chose to make a covenant to bless the world? The rabbis were delightfully sensitive to little details in each biblical story, and their favorite stories were those of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — who they considered superheroes of faith. Certainly, they thought, we can learn from them how to live.

Bosom of AbrahamListen to what they found in the story of Abraham and his heavenly visitors in Genesis 18. When three strangers came to Abraham’s door he said, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant” (vs. 4-5).

Instead, he told Sarah to kneed three seahs (about 50 pounds!) of their finest flour into bread. He next ran out to his herd and chose one of his best calves, choice and tender, and found a servant to prepare it. Then he brought some curds and fresh milk too. It would have taken most of a day to prepare this luscious feast. The bread would need to rise, and the calf would need to roast for hours. I think there would have been enough food for fifty people or more.

Abraham had no idea who these strangers were who came to his door, and all he promised them was a little water and just a bite to eat to tide them over for their trip, but instead, he rolled out the red carpet and prepared a luxurious feast for them. Wow.

The great rabbi Shammai (who lived about fifty years before Jesus) shared an excellent comment on how to live by Abraham’s example: “Say little, do much.”1 A later rabbi added, “What does this mean? It teaches that the righteous say little and do much, whereas the wicked say much and do not even a little.”2

Jesus said a similar thing when he told the parable about the two sons in Matthew 21:

What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted? (Mt 21:28-3)

Vineyard

One son had the shocking chutzpah to say “no” to his father, something a son didn’t do in those days! Yet he then he went and did what he was told. The other respectfully said, “Yes, sir!” And then he didn’t actually do what he was supposed to.

I’ve been feeling convicted about this in my own life recently, because I’ve said that I’d do things and then backed out of them. Or I’ve forgotten my words in the midst of the other things that became important later. Or I’ve simply changed my mind! If I have a good reason, I apologize and usually people forgive me. If I forget, it just doesn’t get done, and in my mind I think, “Well it must not have been too important — maybe the other person won’t mind.”

Then I remembered one friend who made some exciting plans with me. I was very enthusiastic about what we’d do together, but then he canceled out later. Then he had the gall to do it more than once! I admit that I was irritated at him for years. It wasn’t until that I saw myself in him that I got over my anger. In his mind he genuinely wanted to do the thing he promised when he made the promise, just like I did. We were both a bundle of good intentions! Good intentions, however, aren’t the same as follow-through.

As much as I see this lack-of-follow-through in myself, it seems to be a common trait among us nowadays. I wonder if it isn’t part of our easy-going American culture. I remember reading a booklet for newly-arriving international students that warned, “When Americans tell you, ‘We will have you over to our house for supper some time,’ don’t be disappointed if they don’t invite you the next week. They may not ever invite you, but this is just their way of voicing their general intentions of welcome.”

Ouch. I imagine that this advice came out of the experience of many an international student who felt crushed and angry when their phone didn’t ring. I may have even issued some of those “mock invitations” myself.

As it says in Proverbs 25:14, “Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give.”

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1 Pirke Avot 1:15

2 Avot d’Rabbi Natan 13:3

Photos: Herrad von Landsberg; Brocken Inaglory [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Lame and Blind Man

by Lois Tverberg

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

Jesus and others in his culture used parables to teach, which were an effective way to explain complex ideas about life and God. One parable from the Talmud1 gives a clever answer to a difficult question that we discuss even today. How does God deal with the fact that the “spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”? To say it another way, sometimes our physical nature influences whether or not we are prone to a certain sin. We wonder how God deals with an alcoholic who has a family tendency toward alcoholism. Or, how does he look at a man who struggles with homosexual thoughts? The rabbis told this parable:

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

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

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

Knowing this can give us wisdom for living. On the one hand, realizing that we have a background or personality type that will tend to lead us into a certain sin (like an abusive family or a tendency to anger), we must go out of the way to avoid what we might do impulsively. We can’t plead innocence, because we are responsible for what we have been given and what we have done with it. On the other hand, we should be careful not to condemn each other because we can’t know all of a person’s struggles, insecurities, or what they might have lived through. Two people may be similar in action, but one may have triumphed over great trials, and the other not using their many gifts. Only God knows these things, and only God is fit to judge us justly.


(1) The Talmud is the compendium of Jewish commentary from Jesus’ time and after, written down about 500 AD.

Photo: Emily Walker