Tag Archives: grace

Where Is Your Heart?

A guest who had traveled from afar once visited the saintly Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan zt”l, and was taken aback by the Rabbi’s simple living conditions. The home was lacking the most basic furnishings! When he relayed his surprise, the Chofetz Chaim asked him, “And where is your furniture? Why didn’t you bring it?” The guest replied with the obvious, “I’m just passing through here. I live quite a distance from here, and there I have many furnishings to decorate my home.” “I’m following the same practice,” responded the Chofetz Chaim. “In this world I’m just passing through. My real home is in the next world, and with the eternal treasures produced from my service of the Al-mighty I am furnishing that future home.”

-Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
“Those People Are In Tents!”
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak
ProjectGenesis.org

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Matthew 6:19-21 (ESV)

I know. This is pretty elementary. Most relatively new Christians are taught that what we have in the here and now is transitory while our true home and treasure lies with God.

Rabbi Dixler uses this principle in his commentary on last week’s Torah Portion, but adds that it’s not just living here temporarily that’s important, but our attitude about it.

Bilaam was hired to curse the Jewish nation, but was denied the ability to do so. In fact, he eventually formulated a number of blessings and praises, including “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!” (Numbers 24:5) The Jews were indeed dwelling in tents at the time, but the message was that they not only dwelt in tents, but their attitude was in tents. All the wealth and possessions they had, whatever “stuff” they collected, was understood for what it was — temporary, like a tent. What they really valued and focused on was their everlasting spiritual acquisitions in their service of the Al-mighty. (Sefer Taam V’Daas)

Of course, this is midrash and not necessarily absolute fact as far as the Children of Israel are concerned, but it is also long-established Jewish tradition and this tradition teaches a lesson.

But maybe not the lesson you are thinking about.

Let the faith of God be in you. For amen, I say to you, anyone who says to this mountain, “Be lifted up and moved into the middle of the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but rather believes that what he says will be done, so it will be for him as he has said. Therefore I say to you, all that you ask in your prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be so for you. And when you stand to pray, pardon everyone for what is in your heart against them, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive your transgressions. But as for you, if you do not pardon, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions.

Mark 11:22-26 (DHE Gospels)

This verse is used to fuel the “name it and claim it” theology, which seems to be a subset of the prosperity theology; a gross distortion of the intent of Jesus when he’s describing faith. Faith isn’t about greed and it isn’t about “magic tricks.” We see by the words of the Master in the latter portion of the quote, it’s about mercy, grace, and compassion.

It’s also about conditional forgiveness.

Huh?

I thought God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus and the grace of Christ our Lord was unconditional. I thought we couldn’t merit salvation or buy our way into Heaven. I thought it was a free gift. All I have to do is believe.

Sure. Except that’s not exactly what Jesus said, is it?

There seems to be a bit of craziness involved in some of the beliefs of the church (or at least some churches). If our treasures are stored in Heaven rather than on earth, and we are told everything here is temporary, then why are we so concerned with praying for “stuff” so we can get “stuff?” I don’t get it.

What’s more, we seem to see that while material “stuff” isn’t supposed to be such a big deal, people are. In fact, people are such a big deal to God that Jesus tells us we are only forgiven to the degree that we forgive others.

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but it needs to be repeated from time to time.

According to midrash, the Israelites lived in tents realizing that their true hope was with God and not their physical possessions. When Jesus tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself” in Matthew 5:43 and Mark 12:31, he’s quoting what God said to the Israelites in Leviticus 19:18, so the lessons of Jesus are not disconnected from the understanding and faith of the ancient Israelites.

If you claim to have faith, what is your faith in? How far does that faith go? Is it dependent on what God gives you, or could your faith endure living in a tent as a homeless person or a homeless family? Does your love of other people only extend to how much stuff God gives you (so you have tangible proof of God’s love) or could you love your neighbor, even if you were destitute?

We tend to feel more forgiving when we believe God has forgiven us, but turn the equation completely around. Forgive others first. Grant people mercy, compassion, grace, and hope. Value human beings more than the crap you collect in your living room and your garage.

Then turn to God and ask Him to forgive you.

God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. How does God show love today? By giving us stuff? No. By how much you give your love to others because you love Him.

If you want to receive love and forgiveness, give them away first.

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Forgive

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18:15-22 (ESV)

This is a unprecidented third “meditation” in one day, but I saw the accompanying photo on Facebook and it just fit. It’s been a tough week in the Messianic blogosphere and I’ve got the (virtual) bruises to prove it (It’s been a tough week anyway, but that’s beside the point). Most people who give me a hard time for my specific beliefs and their accompanying statements are actually really nice people who love God and want to do good to others. The vast majority of them, I consider my friends and for those who I’ve never met before, I’d love to get together over coffee or a beer and get to know you better. Most of them actually do perform deeds of lovingkindness and have extremely generous hearts.

Just a tiny few however, seem to have a tough time “letting go,” as if what I’m saying is a direct challenge to the doctrine of salvation and the grace of Jesus Christ. I’m not making any such challenge, but for some believers, any suggestion of change or deviation from the norm, particularly in the arena of supersessionism and anti-Jewish rhetoric, is to be feared and even shunned. I admit that there are moments when I want to snap back (more than I already do) but I don’t because I know it wouldn’t be the right thing. How can I exemplify the teachings of my Master if I allow myself to get caught up in the rapid volley, tennis match exchange of angry and upset comments?

Sometimes, along with everyone else, I get caught up in arguing all of the little minutia of religion; all of the arcane details that would make most Rabbis and Pastors go nuts and want to toss in the towel on the human race, but really, God is very simple.

At the end of the day, when you look back at who you are, who you claim to be, what you’ve done with your time, and how you’ve treated other people, you have to say to yourself, “Stop being a jerk and just forgive.” As someone commented on another of my blogs (this isn’t an exact quote), “it’s more important to do right than to be right.”

How can we enter a Shabbat’s rest with anger and frustration tying our hearts and souls into something that looks like a design by M.C. Escher? Let go. Tell the people who you love, “I love you.” Cup a small child’s face in the palm of your hand. Forget all the words and actions that have caused you pain. Remember what’s important.

Forgive.

If you’ve hurt me, I forgive you.

May God go with us all on our journey of faith.

nightsky1

Who Are We in Christ, Part 3

Dear Rabbi,

If G-d is a mystery to us, beyond human reason and logic, then how can we relate to Him?

Answer:

You’re right, G-d is essentially unknowable. Yes, He makes Himself known to us through His miracles, His prophets, His Torah, and by the very act of creating and sustaining our world and our very existence. But none of that can really provide information that defines who He is. Because He cannot be defined. In the language of the Kabbalists, He is infinite, even beyond “the beginning that cannot be known.”

So how can we pray or have any relationship with a being so unknowable, so undefinable, He can hardly be called a being?

The answer is because our relationship with G-d is not measured by our capacity to understand Him, nor by heightened consciousness or any sublime ecstasy we claim to have from the experience of His presence. Our relationship to G-d is measured by what we do, by our firm adherence to the morals that He has established for us and by our integrity in our dealings with others.

One who claims he has one G-d, but cheats his fellow, has in fact two gods. One who claims he is godless, but believes in a fixed and immutable moral law is in fact a believer. Ultimately, G-d is in your life when you act G-dly—consistently following His ways in all you do. That is why He has given us His Torah, so that by following these instructions, we can bond with Him in our daily lives.

G-d is not an idea that can be grasped with the mind. G-d is real, and reality is grasped by real deeds.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“How Can I Relate to an Unknowable G-d?”
Learning and Values
Chabad.org

I know it seems strange to begin a blog post about “who we are in Christ” by quoting a question to and answer from a Chabad Rabbi, but bear with me. It’s relevant.

I wasn’t going to write a part 3 to this series (if you haven’t done so already, see part 1 and part 2 before continuing here), but I received a rather tongue-in-cheek request to do so:

Your gonna have to write a part 3 cause all the Christians are gonna be wondering what the hell your talking about Jew and gentile identity and why you aren’t talking about the spiritual blessings in the heavenlies and the freedom from condemnation and having the miraculous signs and authority to cast out demons and living forever etc. how does all the chiristian good stuff fit in here?

I’m only kinda joking. When I hear “in Christ” it makes me think of the time I spent in church!

OK, not much to build on from those statements, but it did make me realize that I didn’t provide much of a resolution to the question. On the other hand, there may not be much of a resolution to the question. That’s disappointing to hear, but that’s the nature of a relationship with God. We don’t get all the answers, at least in an intellectual fashion. To paraphrase Rabbi Freeman (and quote James T. Kirk), “We learn by doing.”

But what do we do?

For some Christians, the answer is, “we don’t have to do anything. We’re saved by grace.”

That’s true, but it’s hardly the end of the story…well, it is for some.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” –Luke 23:39-43 (ESV)

For some Christians, this is the quintessential picture of salvation by grace. The thief on the cross, dying by inches with Jesus, had no time or ability to do anything except believe and confess his faith…and then expire by slow torture. He couldn’t sing praises (he would have been lucky to even catch his breath enough to make a whisper) to God, give to the poor, visit the sick, or anything else in response to his faith. He came to faith, confessed, and shortly thereafter, died.

And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, even if you come to faith at age 20 and then wait with your faith until age 80 or so to die.

But is who we are in the Messiah just realization of his reality, coming to faith, confessing, and then patiently waiting for the bus to Heaven?

OK, OK. You go to church on Sunday, listen to a sermon, sing hymns, give money when they pass around the plate, go to a Bible class, have coffee and donuts, and then go home. Maybe you go to a dinner and Bible study at your church on Wednesday nights, too. You celebrate Christmas. You get really worked up for Easter.

But is that it?

An observant Jew, who lives out religious details in a day-to-day manner, performing the mitzvot and following halachah might commit more “acts of righteousness” in a week than you will in an entire year.

Yes, I’m being unfair, but how many Christians out there believe that all there is to their faith is being saved by grace, going to church, and getting by until they finally die and go to Heaven to be with Jesus?

broken-crossProbably quite a few. More’s the pity.

That’s why it’s important to ask questions like, “who are we in Christ” and then start pursuing the answer with all available energy and concern. Some Christians won’t get this only because it doesn’t affect their salvation. But what if it’s not just all about salvation? What if “being saved” is only the beginning of the journey, not the conclusion?

Jonathan Stone recently wrote a blog post called Pilgrim’s Progress in which he discussed the matter of spiritual growth (or lack thereof, in my opinion). Stone says in part:

All around us the world is falling apart. We are overwhelmed with constant news of economic collapse, natural disasters, genocides, political wars, all sorts of crimes, starvation, extreme poverty and the sort. All of which reminds me of this, but you get the point. It is NOT the call of the pilgrim to stand idly by while people’s lives are shattered. However, it is the pilgrim’s call to continue on the path. And that path is a path that gets brighter and brighter as one progresses along.

This is a call to actually do something with your life of faith!

Wow! Really? What? What makes the path “get brighter?”

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ –Matthew 25:31-40 (ESV)

You know, if you continue reading verses 41-46, you sort of get the idea that what you actually do for other people does affect your salvation. If you don’t feed the hungry, visit the sick and people in prison, and so on, you can expect an answer from Jesus like,“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

If you claim to love God and still cheat someone or steal from someone, you have two gods.

Oh wow!

So, let’s go over this again. You get saved and then what are you supposed to do (assuming you aren’t nailed to a cross by big, metal spikes and getting ready to die)?

Feed the hungry.

Give water to the thirsty.

Welcome the stranger.

Clothe the unclothed.

Visit the sick and those in prison.

Don’t take that as a hard and fast “religious formula” whereby you perform exactly those deeds and because of that are promised a life in the world to come. Consider those behaviors as fitting into this general category:

And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. –Matthew 22:39 (ESV)

ReflectionA day or so ago, I was talking about love; how we are to love each other and how Jesus loves all of us. Paul described this kind of love in Ephesians 5:25-32 when he compared a husband’s love for his wife to Christ’s love for the church. Paul called it “a profound mystery.”

Here’s another one:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” –John 13:34-35 (ESV)

Add to the list, someone who makes peace with fellow Christians and who loves them.

So who are we in Christ?

We are people who love those who are like us and those who are unlike us. We treat everyone the way we want to be treated as human beings. If someone has needs like food, water, or companionship, we do our best to provide for those needs, not just because the other person needs them, but for the sake of our love for God and His love for us. When we show this kind of love, we’re telling people this is how God loves all human beings. Our actions are our witness and speak much, much louder than all the sermons ever spoken and all the religious tracts and pamphlets ever shoved into undesiring hands.

Now compare what the Bible says you’re supposed to be to that person you see in the bathroom mirror every morning. We know what Jesus says about who you’re supposed to be in Christ. Are you that person?

You should be able to answer that question now.

Venom

the_womans_serpentWhen people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake” – their evil inclination – into a force of good…The evil inclination impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement. When we convince it that the truest comfort, pleasure, and excitement lie in holiness, it plunges headlong into fulfilling G-d’s purpose on earth, endowing our drive toward divinity with much greater power than it could have had otherwise. Thus, the initially evil inclination becomes the source of merit and goodness. The snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life.

From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe;
adapted by Rabbi Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky
“Transforming the Primordial Snake”
[Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 13, pp. 75-77]
Kabbalah Online

It’s widely assumed that Jews do not believe in the doctrine of original sin. The notion that infants are born carrying the burden of Eve’s taking a bite of forbidden fruit is considered one of the main theological distinctions between Jews and Christians. But Alan Cooper, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, says it’s not that simple.

-Rebecca Spence
“Bible scholar to put Jewish spin on original sin”
jweekly.com

On many occasions, my wife has told me that a major difference between Jewish and Christian beliefs is “original sin”. Last summer, I attempted to discuss the Jewish perspective on original sin in a three-part series on this blog, starting with Overcoming Evil. I found that the Jewish presentation of the first “sin” by human beings is remarkably different than that of the church.

The typical Christian perspective is that humankind inherited the initial rebellion of the first human beings, Adam and Eve. As a result, we are all born in a “fallen” state, with the primary desire to do evil. Judaism, by contrast, has a more complex set of beliefs based on the original “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil” event. The upshot is that people have an equal capacity for good or evil and that we constantly make choices as to which “inclination” we lean toward. People are neither ultimately good or ultimately evil.

Frankly, even a casual review of human history seems to reveal the nature of the human race as rather dismal, but that’s just my point of view.

The brief interview with Alan Cooper at jweekly.com reveals that the difference in perspective on original sin between Christianity and Judaism may not be based solely on theological understanding.

When Jews nowadays ask themselves what are the basic ideological differences between Judaism and Christianity, one of the most prominent differences that many Jews will cite is the doctrine of original sin, which really gets down to basic anthropology. What is basic human nature according to Jewish teaching and according to Christian teaching, and what are the religious consequences of adopting one view or the other?

There’s two things to note here: the choice of how to view basic human nature, and the choice of theological interpretation of the first act of disobedience by people toward God. For the past 2,000 years, Christianity and Judaism have been defining and redefining their viewpoints in relation to each other and tending to present more what separates them as religions rather than what makes them alike. I spent some time talking about this concept of definition and “otherness” in yesterday’s morning meditation. Judaism seems to have a more “optimistic” perspective on human nature while Christianity comes off as decidedly more pessimistic. Yet, as the Cooper interview reveals, those differences may not be all that clear cut.

There are a couple places in the Talmud where it’s asked, “When did the pollution of the serpent cease?” The very phrase “pollution of the serpent” is surprising, and is probably reflective of what it would mean if Jews were to adopt a Christian premise of human nature.

the-joy-of-torahThe fact that even Cooper calls the phrase “pollution of the serpent” surprising seems to indicate that it’s not a concept that is commonly understood in today’s Judaism. Of course, Cooper also points out that it’s “unfair to characterize a uniform Jewish view on just about any topic. As soon as you start talking about different periods [in history], it’s almost impossible to answer any question unless you specify what Jews, where and when. Essentially, uniformity of Jewish thought is impossible to find.”

I’m sure Cooper didn’t intend to address the idea of “Messianic Judaism” or those Jews who claim a faith in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah within a wholly Jewish context, but his last comments in the interview are extremely relevant to that group.

Even if we agree with Christians that humankind was born in a state of grace, fell, and now requires divine salvation, where we find that salvation is very different. For Christians, it’s Christ, and for Jews, it’s Torah. The Christians tell the Jews that the law doesn’t save you, and the rabbis say that, in fact, the law is the only thing that can save you. The only antidote to the pollution of the serpent is Torah.

If I go over to the other side and accept Jesus and I’m saved, why would I keep putting on tefillin and observing Shabbat?

This continues to illustrate a major separation point between Christians and Jews and a continuing wedge between Jews who are Messianic and the rest of Jewry. Cooper says that he, and by inference any modern religious Jew, would no longer follow the Torah if they came to believe that they were saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. In contrast, many Jews who live as observant religious Jews and who are disciples of Jesus as Messiah, attempt to integrate the core tenants of Christianity while also accepting the Torah lifestyle, seeing grace and law as coexisting rather than mutually exclusive.

If we look at the doctrine of original sin as one that was created to define a difference between Christians and Jews, the question comes up as to whether “original sin” is even valid. It is scripturally based on Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22 and according to Wikipedia (quick and dirty research here), “began to be developed by the 2nd-century Bishop of Lyon Irenaeus in his controversy with the dualist Gnostics.”

Apparently, not all Christians accept the idea of original sin and some believe that there is “nothing inherently sinful about our emotions or bodily pleasures. Sin is a commitment to what pleases us without regard to God’s will.” This fits a little better with how Judaism sees original sin, but it also introduces the idea that both Christian and Jewish theology, and particularly the points where they differ, may be driven by the need for Christianity and Judaism to be different from each other, in order to establish their distinctiveness and their separate paths to salvation and to God.

A significant number of the Gentile Christians who align with the Messianic movement do so because they see the church as apostate and pagan and view Messianic Judaism as more “pure” and much more closely aligned with what Jesus originally taught and the worship practice of first century “Jewish Christianity”. In fact, we see that all of our modern religious interpretations have been somewhat muddied by twenty centuries of religious haggling and jockeying for position by Jews and Christians. Even the traditionally observant Jews in the Messianic movement aren’t so much returning to the past as attempting to forge a Jewish future as adherents to the Messiah, and in doing so, defy Cooper’s assertion that praying with tefillin and observing Shabbat are inconsistent with the behavior, teachings, and grace of Christ.

graceThe “antidote to the pollution of the serpent “ for a Messianic Jew or for any Jew is the Torah, but the Torah, however significant, is not meaningful when isolated from faith in God. That faith is exemplified in Abraham and the seed of Abraham, the Messiah, is the living Torah and the reversal of the poison that struck the heel of man in Genesis 3:15. For the non-Jew who does not have Torah, we can still be grafted into the “antidote” by adopting an Abrahamic faith in the Messiah of the Jews who allows us to be accepted by the same grace and to be nurtured by the same love of God (Galatians 3:28).

As fascinating as I find my studies into religion, it is not what I have learned that sustains my faith. It is God speaking to me in the lonely spaces and the empty regions of my soul, when people continually fail and the poison proceeds to work its way through my veins, that enables me to take another step forward, when everything else in the universe tells me to give up.