Those who have much will be given more…

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. Matthew 25:29

I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a sermon based on this tough saying of Jesus. The place where I did find this line was in the book I got for Christmas called Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. (By the way, I also loved his earlier books, The Tipping Point and Blink.)

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell writes about hidden patterns behind everyday experiences, and in Outliers he looks at what factors influence who becomes successful in life. His chapter called “The Matthew Effect” is based on the fact that this head-scratching line from Jesus, that “those who have will be given more” comes from the book of Matthew.

Gladwell describes how all-star hockey players in Canada almost always have birthdays in January through March, because being born near January 1 gives boys an edge in the highly competitive training that starts before they are even in kindergarten. Because they are slightly more mature, they are given more opportunities to practice and play.  This effect builds on itself – the more they practice early on, the more they achieve later in life.

I used to notice a related effect when I taught Biology. Some smart students would go out for a game of frisbee golf rather than study early on, and were surprised to find later material much harder. Knowledge builds on itself, the more you know, the easier it is to learn. I used to tell my Human Physiology students to try hard to retain what they learned in their early courses, because they more they packed in their mental suitcases now, the more capable they would be as health professionals later on. What they invest at the beginning will be magnified throughout life.

How does this relate to the words of Jesus? The line about “those who have much will be given more” comes up several places in the gospels. In the parable of the soils (Matthew 13:3-9), the same good seed falls on different patches of ground, and the only place it can multiply a hundredfold is in the good soil. In the parable of the talents, (Matthew 25:14-30) servants are given small sums, and depending on how they invest them, they receive great rewards (or punishments) at the end. Both times a tiny seed is sown, a small investment is made that has huge potential. But whether or not it becomes a great thing in the end is entirely dependent on the recipient’s response.

I don’t think that we should read Jesus’ words as threat of punishment, but as a stiff dose of reality. The simple truth is that if we have enough faith to follow Christ, our faith will grow stronger as we attempt to do his will. If we have so little faith that we don’t respond, the tiny bit we do have will tend to grow weaker. No matter how little we have, we need to turn it into response, or else it will decay.

Don’t misunderstand – God won’t ever give up on us because of his great love. It’s never to late to make a change. But the question to ask each morning is, how can I respond in faith to what I’m called to do this very day?  The outcome of the rest of my life depends on it.

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 1:18 pm  Comments (1)  

Tonight Yom Kippur Begins

Who is a God like You, who pardons iniquity
And passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession?

He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities under foot.
Yes, You will cast all their sins
Into the depths of the sea.
Micah 7:18-20

Tonight, just before sunset, Jewish people around the world will begin the fast of Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the holiest and most important day of the year for Jews. It includes a 25 hour fast from both food and water, and ceasing of all work. It is a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to ask for atonement for the sins of the past year. Even Jews who otherwise are not practicing will observe this day.

Yom Kippur comes after the ten “Days of Awe” when people are to examine themselves and repent of their sins. They also go to each other to confess and be forgiven, because they believe God calls us first to make things right with each other before being right with him. Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried. That is a reminder that our lives are finite here, and we should be prepared to stand before the Lord the day we die.

The holiday was instituted in Leviticus 16, where it says:

This shall be a permanent statute for you: in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall humble your souls and not do any work, whether the native, or the alien who sojourns among you; for it is on this day that atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD. It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a permanent statute. (Lev. 16:29-31)

The traditions of the day are rich and moving. When the temple was standing, special sacrifices were offered, and the high priest laid the sins of the nation on a scapegoat that was driven into the wilderness and killed there. Among the ultra-orthodox, some still lay their sins on the head of a chicken that is then sacrificed, and the meat given to the poor. Throughout the ages, there has been a clear understanding for the need for a means of atonement, even after the Temple was destroyed and the decision was made that prayers alone were sufficient. To Christians, we see the obvious need for the atonement that comes from the death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, it is appropriate to remember God’s answer for our sins as the Jewish people celebrate this day.

In years past, I have observed this day with friends using the liturgy below. It was written for Christian believers, but with many traditional elements of the services in the synagogue. It reminds us of our need for our atoning Messiah, and our forgiveness in Him. It’s very meaningful to say it together, and thought you would be blessed through it too.

Yom Kippur Liturgy

Almighty King, seated upon Your throne of compassion, You are gracious to Your people, pardoning sinners and forgiving transgressors, and You deal generously with all human beings, not treating them according to their wickedness. Oh God, You who revealed Your character to Moses on Mount Sinai, remember in our favor Your thirteen attributes of mercy, as it is written:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with Moses, And proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,

“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for thousands of generations,
forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin,
and clearing those who repent.”

Adonai, Adonai, El rachun v’chanun,
Erech a-pa-yim, ve rav chesed ve-emet
No-tsayr chesed la-alafim
No-say avon va-fesha, va-cha-ta-ah, ve-na-kay.

Our God and God of our fathers! Let our prayers come before You, and do not hide Yourself from our supplication. What shall we say to You who dwell on high? You know all things, both hidden and revealed. You search our hearts and thoughts. Nothing is hidden from Your sight. We are not so arrogant nor hardened to say, “We are righteous and have not sinned.” For truly we have sinned. We have turned away from the good commandments You have given us. You are righteous and true in all Your ways, but we have done evil in Your sight.

Thank You our God and God of our fathers, that You forgive all our sins, pardon all our iniquities, and grant atonement for all our transgressions through Yeshua the Messiah. For it is written: If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Return, O Israel to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously, that we may present the fruit of our lips.”

(It is traditional to gently thump your closed fist against your chest in remorse as you recite the following liturgy:)

For the sin we committed in Your sight by sinning willfully,
and for the sin we committed in ignorance.
For the sin we committed in Your sight rebelliously,
and for the sin we committed through weakness.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by slander,
and for the sin we committed through gossip.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by lustful thoughts,
and for the sin we committed by impure actions.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by speaking idly,
and for the sin we committed by speaking cruelly.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by not being merciful,
and for the sin we committed by withholding when we could have given.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by not loving our neighbors,
and for the sin we committed by not praying for our enemies.
For the sin we committed in Your sight knowingly,
and for the sin we committed unknowingly.

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us,
and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by loving the things in the world,
and for the sin we committed by worshipping idols.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by dishonoring parents,
and for the sin we committed by disregarding children.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by preoccupation with wealth,
and for the sin we committed by coveting possessions.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by unbelief,
and for the sin we committed by disregarding your Word.

For the sin we committed in Your sight by failing to pray,
and for the sin we committed by failing to love.
For the sin we committed in your sight by neglecting the poor,
and for the sin we committed by lack of generosity.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by failing to forgive,
and for the sin we committed of hardness of heart.
For the sin we committed in Your sight by not seeking first your kingdom,
and for the sin we committed through pleasing ourselves first.

For all these, O God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us,
and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

Our God and God of our fathers,
forgive us, pardon us and grant us atonement.
For we are your people, and you are our God.
We are your children, and you are our Father.
We are your servants, and you are our Lord.
We are your community, and you are our Portion.
We are your heritage, and you are our Lot.
We are your flock, and you are our Shepherd.
We are your vineyard, and you are our Keeper.
We are your work, and you are our Maker.
We are your companions, and you are our Beloved.
We are your treasure, and you are our Friend.
We are your people, and you are our King.
Forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement, in Yeshua the Messiah.

Se-lach la-nu, me-chal la-nu, ka-per la-nu

May Your great Name be magnified and sanctified throughout the world
Which You created according to Your will.
May You establish Your kingdom in our lifetime and during our days,
and within the life of the entire house of Israel.
Amen!

Published in: on October 8, 2008 at 8:05 am  Comments Off on Tonight Yom Kippur Begins  

Dating the Jewishness of Jesus

How much can we know about the Jewish culture of Jesus?  That’s a pretty fundimental question, since the goal of this blog is to understand the Jewish background of Christianity. I’ve found some pretty important news in my recent reading, and wanted to share it here.

A common approach to studying Jesus is to use Jewish writings that we have that are from slightly after his time. Two major sources are the Mishnah, a record of the debates and decisions of the rabbinic teachers written around 200 AD, which supposedly preserves sayings back to 200 BC. The Talmud (in two editions) is a collection of the Mishnah with yet more commentary, that was published between 200-300 years later. Many who write about Jesus’ Jewishness have quoted the Mishnah and the Talmud extensively. Their assumption is that oral traditions were very long lived, and that even though they were written down later, they are still useful.

But others have protested for quite good reason, because the documents came along much after Jesus’ time. Can they be used? For many decades since the 1960s, the answer of many scholars was a resounding “no.” This was especially the feeling in the mid 1970’s, when a well known scholar, Jacob Neusner, put forth the theory that Judaism completely reinvented itself after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. He suggested that everything written in the Mishnah was very late-all the quotes from rabbis who were supposed to have lived before the time of Jesus, like Hillel and Shammai, were fabricated later. Any scholar who tried to publish something that compared Jesus to the rabbis was laughed out the door.

But in the past decades more and more research has been done to ask the question, how trustworthy is the Mishnah? Can it tell us about Jesus’ time period?  And more and more are saying that with care, it actually is. In fact, Neusner himself is one of the researchers who says so. Some parts seem to be very early and very reliable, and some things were added or edited later. For instance, sayings attributed to rabbis are thought to be fairly reliable. Since we know when rabbis lived, we can check the date of the saying.

This can be really interesting. For instance, one saying that you may have heard is “Let your house be a meeting place for the sages, cover yourself with the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily.” (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:4) It’s attributed to a sage named Yose ben Yoezer, who lived about 200 years before Jesus’ time. If you’ve ever heard David Bivin or Ray Vander Laan or Rob Bell talk about “walking in your rabbi’s dust,” this is where that comes from. It describes the tradition of teachers wandering the land, staying in people’s houses, and having disciples follow after them and sit at their feet when they taught.

Think about it – in the 1970’s, scholars would say, “You can’t trust that saying at all – its from 200 AD. That describes the rabbis of then, not Jesus’ time.” (Even though it sounds a lot like what we read in the Gospels!) Now, they are concluding that this saying is really from the time when it was said – 200 years before Jesus’ ministry. The conclusion is now quite different -Jesus was taking part in a tradition of known by generations before him. This makes all the difference in the world in terms of painting the Jewish reality around him.

Another thing that scholars have decided are fairly reliable in the Mishnah are the debates between the disciples of Shammai and the disciples of Hillel, which date to sometime between 10 and 70 AD. This is very interesting, because their debates come up in Jesus’ ministry. The question Jesus was asked about divorce was about which side he took. Other things, like Sabbath observance and making vows were issues between them too, and Jesus took a side too. Often it helps a lot with Jesus’ context.

This might be too scholarly of a subject for some readers, but it really is fundimental to the study of Jesus’ Jewishness. And it is true that you have to be very careful about your dating, and not assuming something said hundreds of years later describes Jesus’ reality. It’s really not a good idea to assume Jesus and Rashi, who lived a thousand years later, had much in common. Or even quote the Babylonian Talmud (500 AD) and assume it is what Jesus knew. Unfortunately, plenty of people do that, even me.

My reference for this is Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, by David Instone-Brewer, published by Eerdmans in 2004. It’s the first in a series of six that will seek to date saying from the Mishnah and some other early Jewish writings that are relevant to the New Testament era. Dr. Instone-Brewer also wrote a book called Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. It examines Jesus’ words on it in light of the debates between Hillel and Shammai. He makes some interesting conclusions on how to interpret Jesus’ words based on his Jewish context.

More about this another time… I’ll write again soon.

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 10:10 pm  Comments (3)