Tag Archives: parables

The Servant Prepares for the Sabbath

In 1922 the highly respected Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner claimed that any sound methodology critically examining the historical Jesus must meet at least two requirements. First, critical research must place Jesus believably among the Jewish people in first-century Israel. Second, the historical analysis should explain how the church and the synagogue parted ways, resulting in the formation of the new Christian religion. In 1985 Sanders upheld the validity of these foundational principles in his widely acclaimed book, Jesus and Judaism. Since one-third of the recorded sayings of Jesus appear in parables, these Gospel illustrations have the potential to solve a number of mysteries surrounding the nascent faith. Who is Jesus of Nazareth and how did Christianity originate? How has the presence of Jewish traditions in the parables of Jesus influenced Christianity?

-Brad H. Young
Epilogue: Jesus, the Parables, and the Jewish People, pg 297
The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation

I sometimes (often) think that last question should read, “Do the presence of Jewish traditions in the parables of Jesus influence Christianity at all?” Even in the church I currently attend which is “Jewish-friendly” and “pro-Israel,” I’d have to say, “not very much.” Here’s what I mean:

He thereupon says to them, “Permit me to go repent!” And they answer him and say, “You fool! Do you know that this world is like the Sabbath and the world whence you have come is like the eve of the Sabbath? If a man does not prepare his meal on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath?”

-from Ruth Rabbah 3:3
quoted by Young in
Chapter 15: Death and Eschatology: The Theology of Imminence, pp 281-2

In this rabbinic parable, two wicked men have associated together in doing evil in this world for many years. Before they die, one repents and the other does not. The man who did not repent sees his friend who did repent standing among the righteous while he stands among the wicked. He “reasons” that a wicked man can repent and appeals to the company of the righteous but is rejected, for he failed to repent while still alive.

This compares well to Jesus’ parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens (Matthew 25:1-13) as well as to the following:

“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke 16:19-31 (NASB)

the-teacher2This illustrates that the parables of the Master compared favorably with other rabbinic parables. His audience would have known well what he was communicating since what Jesus taught was similar to the topics and methods employed by other teachers in late second-temple period Israel (and remember what I’ve said before about repentance and eternal judgment).

But what you may have missed earlier is the comparison of the current life to the eve of Shabbat and the life of the world to come to the Shabbat.

Particularly in Orthodox Judaism, Friday afternoon can be a rush to get everything ready before Shabbat arrives at sundown. All the meals that will be consumed during Shabbat must be prepared ahead of time, the Shabbat table must be set, special clothes should be laundered and ready to wear, everything that must be purchased and organized before the Shabbat has to be taken care of, all with an eye on the lowering Sun and the purpose for all the labor…the Shabbat rest and the drawing near to God.

This is a pattern that happens every week. For one-seventh (and a little more) of the week, observant Jews experience a foretaste of the world to come, of the Messianic Era of peace and tranquility when the problems of the world and regular life are set aside and a greater apprehension of God through the Torah study, prayer, and worship becomes available.

But day-to-day life is just like the afternoon prior to Shabbat. We have our work, our labors, our worries, our concerns. What we are working for makes a difference. If we are working just to accumulate wealth and the illusion of material security, when the “Sabbath” comes, when we die, when we are judged, we finally realize that all of our work has been wasted.

If, on the other hand, we are working to authentically prepare for “Shabbat,” that is, to prepare our lives and our souls for an encounter with God in a life beyond this one, after the resurrection, in the face of Divine judgment, then our work is not in vain and will be rewarded. We will have prepared our home in the Kingdom.

But if you’re a Christian who has no true understanding of a Jewish Sabbath, all of this will be missed in reading the parables of Jesus. What a pity.

But there’s more we’re missing:

It is like a consort who had a Cushite maidservant. The consort’s husband went off to a foreign province. All night the maidservant said to the consort: I am more beautiful than you. The king loves me more than he loves you. The consort replied: Let morning come,and we will know who is more beautiful and whom the king loves.

Similarly, the nations of the world say to Israel: Our deeds are more beautiful, and we are the ones whom the Holy One, blessed be He, desires. Therefore Israel says: Let morning come, and we will know whom the Holy One, blessed be He, desires — as it is said, “The watchman replied, Morning comes” (Isa. 21:12): Let the world to come, which is called morning, arrive, “and you shall come to see the difference between the righteous and the wicked” (Mal. 3:18).

-See Midrash Tanchuma, ed. Buber (Num. Rab. 16:23); trans. Stern, Parables in Midrash, 116
quoted by Young, pg 286

Roger Waters
Roger Waters

This parable can be applied in a number of ways, not the least of which is how arrogantly western nations, the mainstream news media, and the sadly deluded BDS crowd believe they are so much more “righteous” than “apartheid” Israel. However, at least historically, this parable also tells us a tale about the Church and how Christianity has viewed itself in comparison with Judaism and the Jewish people. Classic supersessionism is illustrated in the above-quoted parable, with the Church believing itself more beautiful than Israel and more loved than Judaism, as if the maidservant would ever be able to replace the consort in the heart of the King.

Imagine this to be the result of the arrogance of such a belief:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)

I’ve previously applied this parable to those disciples of Jesus who failed to count the cost of following him and thus failed to commit the effort required to serve the great King of Israel. However, as part of being the King’s slave, we must be prepared to serve what he deems as his first love, Israel. If we place ourselves as Gentile servants higher than the Jewish nation, are we not committing lawlessness? For after all, even the Master said “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22) [to the nations], not the other way around.

And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 14:7-11 (NASB)

hagar_and_sarahThere are still many Christians who believe because they “have Christ,” they are inherently better than Jewish people, sometimes even those Jews who are considered “Messianic”. If you believe God replaced Israel with the Church, then you believe you deserve the bridegroom’s place at the head of the banquet table. And you believe you, the maidservant, are more beautiful and better loved by the King than the consort.

And you are wrong.

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive, were grafted in among them and became partaker with them of the rich root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches; but if you are arrogant, remember that it is not you who supports the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” Quite right, they were broken off for their unbelief, but you stand by your faith. Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches, He will not spare you, either. Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?

Romans 11:17-24 (NASB)

See how all this fits together? How can we believe anything else except what Jesus taught and what Paul wrote about?

But some of you reading this may think that I’m saying Christian faith is meaningless because we are not Jewish, we are not Israel. I’m saying nothing of the kind. I just don’t want you to “reverse causality.” It is through the covenant promises God made to Israel that the people of the nations even have a shot at repentance, redemption, and salvation, through faith in King Messiah, the King who is in a far off land but who will soon return.

Let the morning come and show who the King loves, but let us put our hearts and lives in order, as if we were preparing our homes for the coming Shabbat. Then we will be ready when the bridegroom arrives.

In many ways, the Gospel parables belong to the rich cultural heritage and folklore traditions of the Jewish people. No one will grasp the meaning of Jesus’ parables without an extensive knowledge of ancient Judaism. Christian interpretations have tended to sever the parables from their cultural roots and apply them to new situations. In the destiny of humankind, the transcendence of the colorful illustrations goes beyond a single interpretation at one time and place in history.

-Young, pg 298

I sometimes encounter words and phrases such as Sola Scriptura, “let scripture interpret scripture,” and “Biblical sufficiency” as indicators that we only need a Christian reader and a Bible to fully and completely derive all of the meaning of the teachings of Jesus. I hope that I (and Young) have been successful in bringing into question the validity of such a simple equation.

We want the Bible to be easy to understand because otherwise, it would take a lot of time and effort to even begin to comprehend the parables in a similar manner to the original first-century Jewish audience. We want to think that when Jesus was speaking, he was speaking to us…to 21st century American Christians.

He wasn’t. Not even close.

jewish-davening-by-waterNo, I’m not saying that his teachings don’t apply to our lives today, but in order to see just how they apply, we must attempt to grasp how they were understood and applied to Jewish lives nearly twenty centuries ago in a land, culture, and linguistic context far removed from our own.

I can only say that the more I study, the more I’m convinced that in order to understand Jesus, you have to understand the Judaism in which he lived and taught. You have to study ancient and arguably modern Judaism. It is said that a disciple is a student who learns from doing, from imitating his or her Master. We are disciples and we are slaves. Our Master is a great teacher and a King. Learning through imitation isn’t a matter if cheap pantomime or cosplay where we play “dress up” and attempt to superficially mimic our Master, it’s drawing near to his every wish, desire, and command in order to deeply comprehend his meaning and intent in all things. Only then can we apply this to our lives and behave in obedience in every aspect of our daily existence.

Only then will we be worthy of his praise when he says to us, “Well done, good and faithful slave” (Matthew 25:21). Only then will we be properly prepared for the Sabbath. Let the morning come.

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The Cost of Serving the King: Lessons in Discipleship

For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.

Luke 14:28-33 (NASB)

The twin parables of the Tower Builder and the King Going to War (Luke 14:28-33) focus on the self-examination necessary to make a decision for surrendering to the call of Jesus. The ultimate commitment is demanded of every disciple. No one should make such a decision rashly. Just as cost estimation is needed to build a tower in a field and intense strategic planning is required to wage war, the one considering discipleship must weigh the cost. To complete the task successfully, one must consider each demand in Jesus’ teachings concerning the kingdom of heaven. Only after intensive self-testing should the decision be made to follow Jesus in his call to radical discipleship.

-Brad H. Young
“Chapter 12: The Decision: The Tower Builder and the King Going to War,” pg 222
The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation

I can’t believe the day after I published this blog post discussing, in part, what it is to truly surrender our lives to Messiah and acknowledge him as Lord, that I should read the opening words of this chapter which address the same thing.

Many Evangelicals consider their work done when they inspire a person to accept Jesus as Savior and Lord by making some sort of initial statement. That person is “saved.” Move on to the next poor, lost soul.

Except I think the process of “salvation” may be more than a point event. I think it’s a process, sometimes a long process, before anyone actually arrives at the place where they recognize the very real cost of becoming a disciple of the Master and what it will really take to “surrender all” and to follow him. We are told to count the cost of becoming a disciple, making what, for all intents and purposes, is an irrevocable vow, and then binding ourselves in servitude to him, following our Master in all he desires from us.

D. Thomas Lancaster in his Holy Epistle to the Hebrews sermon series, addressed the ancient practice of teaching initiates into Messianic discipleship in two messages: Instructions About Washings and The Initiation. By comparison, what do we do today in the Christian Church to prepare those we have brought to the beginning knowledge of Christ to count the cost, leave their former lives behind them, pick up their cross and to follow him?

Not darn much, for the most part.

No disciple should begin training in the kingdom of God unless he or she has recognized fully the insistent demands of total commitment and has determined to shoulder the responsibilities with unrelenting resolve.

-ibid

How many of us, as believers, possess “unrelenting resolve,” especially in America where we are pretty much fat and happy? And if we are not prepared for the challenges of being a disciple, will be face the same consequences as one who starts building a tower and cannot finish or a King who goes into war and has his army smashed?

An ignominious defeat will ruin a king, destroy his kingdom, and cost him everything. The disciple’s defeat can be just as devastating.

-ibid, pg 223

FallingIn response to a “leap-before-you-look” kind of religious zeal that leads many people to “accept Christ” before knowing anything about him and what he requires, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, in his book Growth Through Torah (pg 358) responds with this advice:

“A Torah scholar should be consulted whenever questions arise.”

In the case of Christianity, the very people who are out evangelizing should be the ones urging each potential initiate to be cautious. Do not be premature. Learn. Study. Discover who this Jesus Christ is and what you must truly pay in order to follow him on his path.

For Luke these parables form a complex of teachings focusing on radical discipleship. Hating one’s parents or dying for one’s beliefs are concepts that perplex and challenge.

-Young, pg 223

Unfortunately, potential disciples are not told the truth of Messiah upfront. Often they (we) take months, years, or even decades to discover (if we are fortunate ever to do so) the cost of following the King of the Jews.

For Christianity, the cross has become more a symbol of salvation than a call to radical discipleship.

-ibid, pg 224

We tell people about salvation, forgiveness of sins as a free gift of Christ, an eternal life of bliss up in Heaven with Jesus, and all the really attractive stuff. We never tell them what they have to do once they “sign on the dotted line.”

But the danger of diluting Jesus’ radical call to action by spiritualizing his practical teachings is never very far removed from the preaching of salvation through the cross. In the teachings of Jesus, in contrast, the image of the cross was a call to radical discipleship. One must hear and obey. The stress was not on salvation but on obedience. The fear of God is rooted in the wisdom obtained through Torah learning and active involvement in fulfilling wisdom’s teaching.

-ibid

By wisdom a house is built,
And by understanding it is established;
And by knowledge the rooms are filled
With all precious and pleasant riches.
A wise man is strong,
And a man of knowledge increases power.
For by wise guidance you will wage war,
And in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Proverbs 24:3-6 (NASB)

Knowledge and wisdom are absolute requirements before beginning to design and build a structure, whether it be a tower or a house. If you go in blind, depending on taking someone else’s word that everything will work out fine if you just “accept Jesus into your heart,” the walls could end up falling down around your ears.

Young ponders whether or not Jesus had Proverbs 24 in mind as he crafted his parables and believes it is likely. I suppose it’s possible Paul also was thinking in that direction:

Brethren, my heart’s desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.

Romans 10:1-2 (NASB)

In my previous commentary on these verses, I mentioned that information was not lacking among the Jewish devout, but specific knowledge about how Jesus was and is the goal, the aim, the focusing crystal and makes the meaning of the Torah so much more clear was lacking in some, just as the basic, elemental principles of Christian faith are often lacking, not just in new converts to the faith today, but people who have been in the Church for years.

It is true that works without faith is dead, but what about an uninformed faith? Can you consent to give your life to something you don’t understand? Are you held accountable to words you cannot fathom? Actually, I believe you can.

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23 (NASB)

awareness-of-godJesus connects lawlessness with those who bear no fruit, that is, they do not lead lives transformed by their faith, and there is no evidence of the Spirit in their daily lives and no obedience to God. How can this be unless they have not actually, truly surrendered all of who they are (we are) to the demands of a very demanding King and Master. If Jesus is the Lord of our lives, then he may command anything and we must obey.

For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.”

Luke 7:8 (NASB)

The Roman Centurion “got it,” but that’s what we can expect of a man who served in a brutal military hierarchy under the reign of an unrelenting Emperor.

Like I said, in America, in the church as well as anywhere else, we’re too “fat and happy”. We think discipline is going to the gym three or four days a week.

R. Samuel bar Nahman said in the name of R. Jonathan: By what parable may the verse just above be explained? By that of a king who lived in a certain principality. When the people of the principality provoked him, the king was angered [and would not abide in their midst]. He removed himself some ten miles from the city before he stopped. A man who saw him went to the people in the city and said: Know that the king is angry at you and may well send legions against the city to destroy it. Go out and appease him before he removes himself still further away from you. Thereupon a wise man who was standing by said to the people: Fools, while he was in your midst, you did not seek him. Now, before he moves further away, seek him out. He may receive you. Hence it is said “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found” (Isa. 55:6)…

See Pesik. Rab Kab., suppl. 7:3 (Pesikta Derav Kahana, ed. Mandelbaum, 2:472; English trans., Braude and Kapstein, Kahana, 491). Cf. the discussion of McArthur and Johnson, Parables, 194, as quoted by Young pg 227

But it is also said:

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?

Romans 10:14-15 (NASB)

And yet in verse 13, Paul states, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

But you can’t call on someone you do not know. And you cannot know someone unless you learn of them, spend time with them, discover the desire of their heart. You cannot commit unless you are willing. You cannot commit unless you understand and agree to the price of commitment. We’re all taught about the “free gift of salvation” but never about the “real cost of discipleship.”

Joshua the son of Perachia and Nitai the Arbelite received from them. Joshua the son of Perachia would say: Assume for yourself a teacher…

-Pirkei Avot 1:6

It’s ironic that in considering the cost, some might believe it is too high and then choose not to follow. However in the end, the cost of refusing to become indentured servants of the great King is higher still.

Seeking Treasure and Pearls

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Matthew 13:44-46 (NASB)

Are the parables concerned about the cost of discipleship or the cost of the kingdom? This is one of the most complex and difficult questions of Gospel scholarship. It is a crucial issue that must be resolved in order to understand the teachings of Jesus.

-Brad H. Young
“Chapter 11: The Find,” pp 220-1
The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation

I didn’t want to review Young’s book piece by piece, but taking each of the parables in turn, something new keeps turning up in my perception of the Master’s teachings and I feel compelled to share.

The scripture from which I quoted above is actually considered two separate but related parables: The Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Parable of the Pearl of Great Price. Christian commentators, theologians, clergy, and the average “believer in the pews” believe they have this one figured out.

Christian interpretations of the parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price show a strong christological interest. Irenaeus taught that the treasure is Christ. Such an allegorical approach has been rejected, however, by the consensus of modern scholars.

To imagine that the historical Jesus told a parable in which he himself appears as the great treasure accidentally discovered…is nonsense. Even though Matthew suggests that these parables were taught to the disciples in private, the Jesus of history did not ordinarily speak about his person in such a way…

Origen, too, understood the treasure and the pearl as referring to Christ, but took the allegorical method one step further when he discussed the meaning of the field in light of salvation history. The field represents the Scriptures and the treasure is Christ. The Jews rejected him, hence the treasure has been passed on to the Christians.

-Young, pp 200-1

Frankly, that all sounds horrible. I know from a 21st century church perspective, it may seem “obvious” and easy to come to such conclusions, but when you fit these words back into their original context, coming out of the Master’s mouth, and that his audience was his Jewish inner-circle of disciples, then it seems ridiculous to believe he was teaching such supersessionism.

Young goes on:

As a kingdom parable, its message is closely tied to other teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. For instance, Flusser properly understands “selling all” as an allusion to “seeking first the Kingdom,” which means that these illustrations are connected to Jesus’ teachings concerning the reign of God (Flusser, “Gleichmisse,” 129-33).

-ibid, pg 202

treasureNow, at least for me, things are starting to make sense. If the “hidden treasure” and the “costly pearl” represent the coming Kingdom of God, then “seeking first the kingdom” can be linked to searching for that “treasure” and selling all we own, that is, making all of our other priorities and concerns subordinate to the Kingdom.

However, Young also compares the treasure and the pearl to the cost of being a disciple, although, as we see, he believes we must make a choice between the two interpretations:

The cost of discipleship is actually a secondary theme supporting the theme of overriding passion for God’s reign. Jesus is consumed with a passion to see God’s rule realized. The kingdom is above all.

-ibid, pg 221

As a brief aside, I should mention that in Young’s opinion, it is the Kingdom, not the Church that is Christ’s “overriding passion” and the Kingdom is inexorably tied to the primacy of Israel in the redemptive and salvational plan of God.

So we must choose an interpretation for these parables: the value of the Kingdom or the cost of discipleship. Young has come to his conclusion but in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” In other words, is it too much to ask for both?

Yes, I’m suggesting (though not demanding) that Jesus could have inserted more than one meaning into his parables. However, based on other material Young included in his chapter, there may be even more going on in these parables.

The parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price have a rich background in Jewish tradition when viewed in the context of Torah learning. Accepting the kingdom meant entering into obedience to God and searching the deeper meaning of his revelation in Torah. The Gospels portray Jesus as a dynamic teacher; who raises up his disciples for total commitment in the kingdom of heaven. In Jewish thought, the recital of the Shema was the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom, because one was making a declaration that one has chosen the LORD to the exclusion of all other gods, and God’s way of living life. Praying the Shema opened up communion with the one true God. Such devotion to God and God’s revelation in Torah was not without sacrifices.

-ibid, pg 206

ShemaThis paragraph is pregnant with possibilities. The plain meaning, as I take it, is that we can find both the value in Torah study as a means of learning obedience to God’s commandments and by performing them, gain entry into the kingdom, and the cost of discipleship and Torah study relative to the sacrifices one makes as a student of the Master and a servant of God.

In this regard, the story of R. Johanan is of interest, even though it first appears in sources from the Amoraic period. Rabbi Johanan and R. Chaya bar Abba were traveling from Tiberias to Sepphoris. As they passed through some of the most fertile land in the entire country, R. Johanan began to recall how he sold certain plots of land in order to finance his studies. The talmudic legend stresses R. Johanan’s sacrifice for Torah. Rabbi Chaya bar Abba is concerned that his friend will not have the resources necessary for his old age. But R. Johanan is filled with joy because he learned Torah. The exchange was well worth the sacrifice.

-ibid, pg 208

Rabbinic commentary is replete with examples of self-sacrifice for Torah study, with revered sages being depicted as living frugally if not in abject poverty, all for the sake of studying Torah. But these tales tend to give the impression, at least to the outsider, that Torah study was for its own sake rather than for the higher purpose of performing the mitzvot which would be pleasing to God. After all, if all one did was study without putting their knowledge into practice, is a person complete?

While I think we can reasonably infer that Jesus, as a teacher, expected his students to study and learn his teachings within the larger context of the Torah, he also expected them to go and do, spreading knowledge of the Kingdom of God among the lost sheep of Israel and afterward, the nations of the world (Matthew 28:19-20).

I know this once again brings up the question of Gentile disciples and the Torah. Certainly we are not forbidden study of the Torah nor even obligation to the mitzvot, but it is an obligation that has its own distinctive nature and indeed, we Gentiles in the ekklesia of Messiah have a distinct role that we must not abandon if the purposes of God are to be fulfilled through us.

I recently read an article that stated in part, “My friend Aaron just called “Messianic”, Messi-Antics. When I have said Messianic in the past, I mean someone that (sic) believes the Torah is God’s way of sanctifying His elect unto Himself, whether Jew or Gentile,” implying that there is only a single method of obedience to God through the Torah, and that Jew and Gentile were offered the self-same behavioral path of sanctification.

But it’s not performance of the mitzvot that makes us holy, especially mitzvot that are not apportioned to us. Above all else, if we don’t consider ourselves as separated from the values of the world by our faith, our repentance, our turning to God with a pure heart, our steadfast walk in continually desiring an encounter with God in prayer, then donning a tallit and laying tefillin won’t make much of a difference, even for a Jew. Nor will it matter if we call ourselves a “Messianic,” a “Christian,” or anything else. What we value isn’t a name, a label, or a brand, but rather sanctifying the Name of God.

Helping the HomelessYes, obedience, as I said above, is part and parcel with that sanctification of God’s Name and seeking first His kingdom, but obedience isn’t complicated. Most of the  time, it’s not even specific to role:

As a person who wants for nothing, it hit me pretty hard this morning to hear Homeless Shelter’s (name changed for privacy) plea for donations to help the homeless beat the heat. The Shelter believes that every person has a right to safe and adequate shelter and they’ve been sheltering, supporting, and advocating for homeless adults and children since 2005.

Donations are down this time of year because people think, “Hey, it’s warm out. They’re fine.” But as you know, triple-digit temperatures cause many problems. That is especially true for homeless adults and children. And it’s not just discomfort, but heat exhaustion and other serious illnesses.

So because we are a responsible company who likes to give back to our community, we’re collecting donations to help the Sanctuary help those in need.

By next Friday, July 18, please leave with the receptionist any of these much-needed supplies that we may take for granted.

I received that in a company email at my “day job” yesterday as a request for donations to a local homeless shelter. The person who wrote it wasn’t a manager but a regular employee who approached the charitable contributions committee where I work and asked if they would help her in fulfilling what she felt was a personal commitment to help the homeless. Fortunately, my employer is very community minded and thus, we’ve all been prompted to make various donations in cash or goods for the sake of people who have far less than we.

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts…

Romans 2:14-15 (NASB)

What is of value to God? Don’t we in some ways already know what to do to please Him, to obey Him?

This isn’t to negate Torah (Bible) study, since it is by study that our “instincts” to do good are refined and honed and we can not only feel but know what is right to do.

jewsSo far, all of the “different” interpretations of the parables in question seem to fit together. If the overarching commitment is to seek first the kingdom, that hidden treasure, that pearl of great price, then the means to do so is to study the Bible, to enter into discipleship, to subordinate all of our wants and needs to those goals, to perform acts of lovingkindness and mercy to our fellow human beings, even as God has been abundantly gracious and merciful to us. I’m less concerned about “looking Jewish” or having the wrong “religious label” than I am with buying a case of bottled water and various sun protection products and donating them to my local homeless shelter.

But beyond all of that, there is still another treasure to consider.

Clearly, these two parables (See Mekilta Derabbi Yishmael on Exod. 14:5) have a different reality behind their word-pictures than the Gospel parables of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price. Nevertheless, the images used in the colorful dramas as well as the action of the plot in each story are quite similar. The rabbinic parables illustrate the undiscovered treasure of the people of Israel, while the Gospel texts portray the intrinsic value of the kingdom and the cost associated with obtaining it.

The people of Israel became the precious treasure of God while the pharaoh of Egypt failed to comprehend the intrinsic value of the great nation he had released. By the same token, the disciple should recognize the intrinsic worth of the incomparable kingdom of God as he or she surrenders all to obtain it.

-Young, pp 212-13

Young compares the more traditional rabbinic parable of the treasure as the people/nation of Israel to the value of the kingdom of God and the cost of discipleship, but I want to take that comparison a step further. I want to say that we can bind these interpretations of value together, seeking first the kingdom, study of Torah, the cost of discipleship, and the preciousness of Israel. I think they’re interdependent. I don’t think you can separate them out into self-sustaining components.

For if you toss even one of those elements onto the trash heap, the rest will go with it.

Consider the recent abandonment of Israel by Evangelicals. Consider what I wrote about Yom Hashoah in the church. There is more than just human compassion in praying for the peace of Jerusalem. Even the Master said, “Salvation comes from the Jews” (John 4:22).

How can we seek first the kingdom? How can we search out the hidden treasure and then sell all we own to possess the pearl of great price? The kingdom isn’t just Torah study, nor is it just performance of the mitzvot (however we choose to interpret what “performance” means). It is also loving your fellow human beings and particularly loving and supporting your Jewish fellow human beings and the Jewish nation of Israel. That is the physical seat of the Throne of David and the center of Messiah’s Kingdom.

In order to assert that value, we “join the army,” so to speak, by making a commitment to Messiah as his disciples. We are students who learn by studying and by doing. We apply what we have learned by showing to others the mercy and kindness God has shown to us. Above all other nations, God has chosen to love Israel, so in that too, we must emulate the Almighty.

We are partisans or freedom fighters, declaring fealty to our Lord, holding our ground, defending his Land as he even now is on the journey to return and to re-claim that which is his own.

hopeAll of this constitutes the hidden treasure, the costly pearl. Am I saying in absolute terms that Jesus meant to imbue his two parables with the meaning I am assigning to them? No, of course not. How could I?

I am saying that a parable can contain more than one literal meaning. I am also saying that parables can be inspirational. Interpreting a parable is like interpreting a poem or an artistic painting. The reader or observer can often extract meaning from these works that the writer or painter never meant to convey. But the meaning is just as real and, in this case, I think, just as Biblical.

It’s what I hope to do with these “meditations” I write. I’m not just out to make some sort of theological point. I want what I write to inspire someone to do what they might not have done before, to entertain a thought that had never occurred to them before.

It’s quite possible that the Bible contains far more than we’ve given it credit for. I don’t mean to manufacture false interpretations or to add my own words to the Bible. However, I believe that the Spirit is with us when we read the parables of Jesus and the inspiration we feel when we consume his teachings goes far beyond just a series of words printed on paper, which is what they are without the Spirit.

Seek first the kingdom by seeking first the treasure beyond which all other treasures pale by comparison. Seek first God. His Spirit will provide all the wealth we will ever need.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem and learn the true origins of the current (and historic) conflict between Jewish Israel and the Palestinian Arabs.

Forgiveness: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:23-35 (NASB)

Christian tradition has upheld the high ethical teachings of Jesus concerning forgiveness. While the parable of the Unforgiving Servant is found only in Matthew’s Gospel, its message is stressed in the Lord’s Prayer, which became a vital expression of Christian faith. The prayer for Jesus’ disciples with its dynamic petition, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors,” finds a prominent position in the Didache, which demonstrates that the early Christians emphasized the theme of forgiveness in the life of the church…Could the Lord’s prayer as recorded in the Didache have been influenced by the wording of this parable?

-Brad H. Young
Chapter 6: The Merciful Lord and His Unforgiving Servant
“The Parable in Christian Tradition,” pg 120
The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation

I’m only a little more than half way through Young’s book but each chapter follows a similar pattern, taking a particular parable of Jesus (Yeshua) and running it past a specific analytical matrix. This isn’t unlike what Roy Blizzard has done in his book Mishnah and the Words of Jesus which I reviewed last spring. Blizzard compared various teachings of Jesus to those of the Rabbinic sages within a generation either side of the (earthly) lifetime of Jesus and determined that Jesus very much taught within the Rabbinic context of the late second Temple era.

The ParablesYoung, chapter by chapter, takes a specific parable of Jesus, shows his readers the traditional Christian interpretation, and then re-examines the parable through the lens of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, as well as later Jewish writings. This method also reminded me of a teaching by First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) founder and president Boaz Michael that he gave a few years back called “Moses in Matthew” which I had the opportunity to listen to (as an audio recording) and review nearly thirteen months ago.

This method of understanding the words of the Master brings into question traditional Church exegetical concepts such as “the sufficiency of Scripture” and “let Scripture interpret Scripture,” both of which suggest that all you need to understand the Bible in general and Jesus in particular is you and a Bible translated into your native language (which for me is English). While most Evangelical Pastors will also say that a good concordance is helpful and it’s even better to understand the original languages along with something of the context in which the Biblical writers authored their works, they tend to neglect understanding the Judaism in which each Bible writer lived, worked, learned, and taught.

Apprehending Scripture from within an ethnically, religiously, historically, linguistically, culturally, and experientially Jewish framework often yields different interpretative results than the traditions handed down by the Christian Church in its many denominational “flavors”.

Although humor is difficult to define and understand because of cultural barriers, Jesus’ dry wit comes through in this story of one very fortunate servant.

-Young, ibid

I quoted this short sentence to illustrate both the point of “cultural barriers” and how we could miss something so elementary as humor. When we read the Bible, we tend to believe that it is always written in the utmost seriousness and, in many conservative Fundamentalist churches, the literal meaning of the text is always given tremendous weight. But what if the writer is saying something ironic, using Hebrew and Aramaic wordplay, rabbinic idiom? What if the writer is telling a joke?

Delitzsch BibleIf we don’t access resources to support our understanding of how Jesus most likely was teaching and how his immediate audience (those listening to him) and extended audience (the originally intended readers of the Gospels and Epistles) were expected to understand what he said, we are left with what we think it all means from a 21st century Christian American point of view.

Please keep in mind that point of view almost never takes ancient Judaism into account let alone immerses itself in said-Judaism as a pool of interpretive wisdom. In other words, we’re probably making a lot of wrong assumptions and coming to many erroneous conclusions.

In the cultural context, the sacred calendar of the Jewish people may provide the setting in life for this parable. The ten-day period between the Jewish New Year and the day of Atonement was designed for seeking forgiveness between individuals. A person was not prepared to seek divine mercy during the great fast on the day of Atonement if he or she had not first sought reconciliation with his or her neighbor. The day of Atonement was the experience of the community as every person participated in the fast. The preparation for this collective experience, however, focused on the necessity to forgive one another on a personal level so as to approach God without a bitter heart. Mercy from above depended upon showing mercy to those below (Compare to Matthew 5:23-24).

-Young, pp 123-4

We can see a corollary in Talmud:

For transgressions that are between a person and God, the Day of Atonement effects atonement, but for the transgressions that are between a person and his or her neighbor, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if one first has appeased one’s neighbor.

-See m. Yoma 9:9 (Mishnah, ed. Albeck, 247)
quoted by Young, pg 124

We see the scene of the parable being unpackaged right before our eyes in the pages of Young’s chapter to illustrate what we should plainly see Jesus teaching: that the forgiveness of God and atonement for sins is dependent on our forgiveness of others who have sinned against us. If we believe we have been forgiven by God and our sins washed away, and yet fail to forgive those who have sinned against us, will the God of Heaven truly forgive? If we have sinned against another and asked God alone for favor rather than first seeking out the forgiveness of the one we have offended, will God forgive in the stead of the person against whom we have sinned?

Of course, if we have sought forgiveness and been spurned, we can only be held responsible for our own part. We cannot make another person forgive us if it is not in their heart to do so.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.

Romans 12:18 (NASB)

A Rabbi TeachingThe lack of forgiveness in response to our sincere desire to repent to one against whom we have sinned is on the other’s head as long as we’ve done all we can to make amends and repay them for the wrong we have done.

There’s another implication in Young’s interpretation of Jesus’ parable based on his invoking the time period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Particularly in Orthodox Judaism, it is believed that a Jew is written into the Book of Life year by year. It is an opportunity to have God hit a sort of “cosmic reset button” for the year to come, but it requires great effort on the part of the individual to make amends for sins committed, both against man and God, to perform good deeds, and give to charity.

This is quite foreign to a Christian’s point of view, particularly if you believe “once saved, always saved.” The moment you confessed Christ as Lord and believed in him, you were saved from your sins and guaranteed a place in Heaven when you die. You need to nothing else, and in fact, it’s impossible for you to do anything else.

That’s the truncated version of the traditional Christian understanding of the Gospel message, anyway.

It is said that there are two resurrections. The first is called the “resurrection of the righteous” and only those who “died in Christ” will be resurrected at the second coming of Jesus. They/we will all be raised into the air to meet him, and according to traditional Evangelical doctrine, the Church will then be raptured into Heaven to wait out the full fury of the Tribulation on Earth. Then, when all the bad stuff is over, Jesus leads the Church back down to Earth to establish his Kingdom where the Church will rule with him over a New Earth.

Or so it goes as far as many Christian churches are concerned.

The second resurrection is called the “great white throne” judgment where everyone who has died is resurrected and judged by God, with the righteous living in bliss for all eternity, and the wicked being cast into the lake of fire to suffer torment for all eternity.

But how does that judgment work? If we just believe in Jesus will we be saved automatically? Will we be given a free pass into Heaven? What about being forgiven by God as we’ve forgiven others?

What if the final judgment is like the ultimate Yom Kippur service? Have you ever been to a Yom Kippur service? It’s the single most solemn day on the Jewish religious calendar, full of tears, fasting, remorse, repentance, trembling, and fear.

It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews 10:31 (NASB)

The unmerciful servant does not forgive like his master. The lord of the servants, however, is not only merciful but just. The one who would not forgive will not receive a reprieve. His fellow servants recognize the injustice and report the actions of their unmerciful coworker to the lord. He is enraged.

-Young, pg 128

MessiahBelief in Jesus is hardly sufficient by this Biblical standard. What you think and feel is only part of the equation. What you do out of your faith is what really matters.

They were passing through in the morning, and they saw that the fig tree had withered from its roots. Petros remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed is withered!”

Yeshua answered and said to them, “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 transgression.

Mark 11:20-26 (DHE Gospels)

If this is so as we are judged by God day-by-day, how much more so is it true when we come before the Throne of God at final judgment and the great day of atonement?

Yet, for all its importance, the ritual of the synagogue is but a means to an end. In Judaism, behavior takes priority over belief. Faith without deeds will not change the world.

-Ismar Schorsch
“The Root of Holiness,” pg 553, July 12, 2003
Commentary on Torah Portion Balak
Canon Without Closure: Torah Commentaries

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?

James 2:14-20 (NASB)

It is doubtful that Schorsch meant to parallel the teachings of James the Just, brother of the Master, but this may reflect the fact that principles from ancient Judaism (for the teachings of Jesus and James are wholly Jewish), some at least, have survived the passage of time and endure in modern Jewish practice. As Christians, for anything we find good and gracious in our theology and doctrine, we must give thanks not only to God but to Judaism for its origins.

Ismar Schorsch
Ismar Schorsch

However, if we accept that, we must also accept that a Jewish understanding of the teachings of Jesus place a much greater burden on the shoulders of a Christian than many Pastors have led us to believe. Fortunately, I currently attend a church where this burden is taught and where sincerity of repentance and love and forgiveness of our neighbor and brother is held in great value.

Also fortunately, the God of Justice is also the God of Mercy:

Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”

Exodus 34:6-7 (NASB)

He remembered His covenant for them and relented in accordance with His abundant kindness.

Psalm 106:45 (Stone Editon Tanakh)

…but if that nation repents of its evil deed of which I had spoken, then I relent of the evil [decree] that I had planned to carry out against it. Or, one moment I may speak of concerning a nation or kingdom, to build and establish [it], but if they do what is wrong in My eyes, not heeding My voice, then I relent of the goodness that I had said to bestow upon it.

Jeremiah 18:8-9 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

God is eager to do good to all those who call upon His Name in sincere repentance and who do what is right, but to those who call upon Him yet continue to do what is wrong, there is no mercy, but instead, righteous judgment.

As Christians, we cannot afford to take our (so-called) salvation for granted, for who is to say that God won’t keep His word as He has given it and as Jesus has taught it? Who is to say that our forgiveness (or lack thereof) of others won’t be the model by which God will (or won’t) forgive us?

Young writes this by way of conclusion to his commentary on this parable:

The parable shows the deep roots of Jesus’ teachings in ancient Judaism. Jesus’ Jewish theology of God saturates the drama of the story as the action moves from scene to scene. The listener is caught up into the plot of the mini-play and participates in the trial, triumph, and tribulation of the servant. What happens when it is impossible to pay one’s creditor?

…The cultural and religious background is based on the teachings concerning the great day of fasting in Israel’s sacred calendar, which each person seeks forgiveness from God. The creation of humanity, in the very image of God, demands full accountability, which means that one must be merciful in the same way that God shows mercy. The images created by the parable lead the listener to join the actors on the stage. Each individual must ask God for forgiveness of a colossal debt. To what extent, however, do I extend mercy to others who have wronged me?

-Young, pg 129

The answer would seem obvious and Young addresses it again in the following chapter, “Chapter 7: The Father of Two Lost Sons,” his commentary on the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32):

Jesus makes this a major theme in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” On the day of Atonement, the Mishnah instructs the people to make things right one with the other before seeking forgiveness from God (m. Yoma 8:9). Thus the idea of human forgiveness is strong in Jewish theology.

-Young, pg 134

These parables are not cute little sayings of Jesus to teach us some interesting moral lesson. They are cautionary tales, warnings to the disciples, including us, that what we do and why we do it really does matter, and, looking back to the words of the prophet Jeremiah, what we have been given can be taken away at any time should we prove to be faithless and insincere, both to God and to our fellow human beings (also see Matthew 25:14-30).

coffee-and-studyWhile I suppose it’s not absolutely necessary to study the Bible from a culturally and religiously Jewish perspective and still live a good and upright Christian life, we see here, as I’ve pointed out many times before, that without a little extra “help” through an understanding in the wider body of Jewish religious literature, we can often miss the point, giving more power to Christian traditional interpretations than in what Jesus said in context. The Church has been taught to avoid that context because it has been taught that (if not the Jewish people) Judaism has been sitting on the shelf long past its expiration date. The Law is dead. The Jewish people just don’t know it yet.

Except that’s not the case and can’t be. Without a Jewish understanding of the teachings of Jesus filtered through an ancient and arguably modern practice of Judaism, the words of Jesus are just words on a page, devoid of some or much of their actual meaning. And without that meaning, the depth of our faith and how we actually live it out, including forgiveness, is just as absent of meaning. It may be good and even sufficient, but it could be so much more.

To what then may we compare (entry into) the Kingdom of Heaven?

I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or provoked me or sinned against me, physically or financially or by failing to give me due respect, or in any other matter relating to me, involuntarily or willingly, inadvertently or deliberately, whether in word or deed: let no one incur punishment because of me.

-Bedtime Shema from the Siddur

FFOZ TV Review: Speaking in Parables

ffoz_tv18_mainEpisode 18: It may be surprising to many Christians that the use of parables was not unique to Jesus but was rather a Jewish literary art form that had been developed over centuries. Viewers will learn in episode eighteen that Jesus used parables not as riddles but stories to help clarify his points. Jesus’ parables attempted to make it easier for his listeners to grasp his words. Like the other rabbis of his day, Messiah used parables to serve as simple explanations and illustrations to help us understand his message about the kingdom.

-from the Introduction to FFOZ TV: The Promise of What is to Come
Episode 18: Speaking in Parables

The Lesson: The Mystery of Speaking in Parables

This is another First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) perspective on a common “attribute” of Jesus, in this case, how he taught using parables, that for me, revealed more about how Christians think than about the topic itself. I always assumed that the parables of Jesus were metaphors designed to communicate complex concepts and ideas in a simple manner. This is probably because in my previous career as a psychotherapist, using metaphors was a common method I employed to accomplish the same thing.

But apparently, it’s generally understood in the Church that Jesus used parables to confuse his listeners and to hide the truth from the Jewish people. He spoke in riddles in order to prevent the Jews from repenting and returning to God, which, if repentance had occurred, would have resulted in Israel entering the Messianic Age.

According to FFOZ teacher and author Toby Janicki, it’s easy to understand why modern Christians might get that idea:

His disciples approached him and said, “Why is it that you speak to them in parables?” He answered them and said, “Because to you it is given to know the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not given. For to one who has, it will surely be given, and he will have extra, but for one who does not have, even what he does have will be taken away from him. That is why I speak to them in parables. For in their seeing they will not see, and in their hearing they will not hear, nor do they even understand.

In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Yeshayah that says,

‘Listen well, but you will not understand. Look closely, but you will not know. Fatten the heart of this nation, and make its ears heavy and seal its eyes, so that it will not see with its eyes or hear with its ears or understand with its heart or repent and be healed’.”

Matthew 13:10-15 (DHE Gospels)

ffoz_tv18tobyThis seems to be another case of misunderstanding what appears to be a plain message because we are not approaching the words of the Master using a historical, cultural, and Rabbinic Jewish lens. Toby used to introduce himself in earlier episodes by saying he is a Gentile who is practicing Messianic Judaism, but in the past few episodes, he has described himself as a Gentile who studies Messianic Judaism. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that such a framework is truly required by Gentile Christians if we’re ever to get past our own cultural and historic misconceptions of the Gospels and hear and understand what Jesus is actually saying to his original audience and to us. Maybe we could use a few parables to get that message through our own “thick skulls.”

Toby said the way to understand Matthew 13:10-15 is to go to the section of the Book of Isaiah from which Jesus was quoting:

He said, “Go and say to this people, ‘Surely you will hear, but you do not comprehend; and surely you see, but you fail to know. This people is fattening its heart, hardening its ears, and sealing its eyes, lest it see with its eyes, hear with its ears, and understand with its heart, so that it will repent and be healed’.”

Isaiah 6:9-10 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

Toby told his audience that the conjunction “but” as in “but you do not understand” would better be rendered as “and”. If we substituted the word “and” for “but” in the scripture from Isaiah 6, it would read more like God telling Isaiah that He wants the prophet to relate a message of repentance, but that the people are not going to listen to him.

Otherwise, it looks like God is saying, through Isaiah, that He wants the people to repent, but He also is making it impossible for them to hear the message and obey. Sort of a cosmic “bait and switch,” with God playing the role of the infinite trickster in relation to Israel. This is very reminiscent of how some Christians say God only gave the Torah (Law) to Israel to prove to them that it was impossible to obey, setting them up to understand why they needed grace and Jesus Christ in order to be saved; setting them up to realize that the Torah was never, ever meant to be a permanent lifestyle for the Jewish people, even though the Torah, Prophets, and Writings are replete with messages indicating that both the Torah and the Jewish people would forever exist before God.

Jesus quoted Isaiah 6:9-10 in order to explain that he was like Isaiah, a prophet preaching repentance to an Israel that was already spiritually blind and deaf, unable to see or hear or understand in order to repent and be healed (although in a Jewish context, being healed wasn’t just individual salvation, but the healing and restoration of the entire nation of Israel).

We have arrived at the first clue:

Clue 1: Jesus did not use parables to blind eyes or deafen ears.

ffoz_tv18_aaronIn fact, the opposite seems true. Jesus knew his audience was already spiritually blind and deaf, and maybe he thought using simple parables instead of complex theological arguments would make the message of repentance and restoration easier to understand.

But what exactly is a parable and who typically uses it as a teaching method? For the answer to that question, the scene shifts to Israel and FFOZ teacher and translator Aaron Eby.

Aaron said that parables were used long before Jesus as a common teaching tool by prophets and even by other Rabbis who were contemporaries of the Master. Aaron quotes Ezekiel 17:12 and the parable of the eagle that plucks off a treetop (watch the episode to hear Aaron’s explanation of the parable) to make his point.

Aaron related that the word for parable in Hebrew is mashal, and that the Sages often used a mashal to explain something that was highly conceptual and difficult to understand. Aaron, like Toby, told his listeners that a mashal was designed to make something easier to understand, not take a plain idea and turn it into a riddle. In fact, in the day of Jesus, it was completely normal and expected for a Rabbi to teach using parables, so the disciples and followers of Christ expected it.

We return to Toby in the studio and come to the second clue:

Clue 2: Parables were a common teaching device used to simplify complex concepts.

Toby takes us to another Gospel scripture to further explain why Jesus taught in parables:

With many parables like these, he spoke to them the word according to what they were able to hear. Other than with a parable, he did not speak to them. But when his disciples were with him and no one else was with him, he would explain everything to them.

Mark 4:33-34 (DHE Gospels)

This still seems like Jesus is using parables to obscure the truth but explaining everything to his disciples privately, however Toby said we need to consider another perspective. One that, once I heard it, I realized I’d been taught before.

The Rabbis of that time taught using a dual teaching method. They taught the common people, the simple farmers and shepherds, using parables in order to make difficult theological issues better understood. However to the disciples who continually studied under their Rabbinic Master, the teacher would relate these same concepts in a more formal and legal manner, since they were better equipped, being the Master’s students, to understand in greater depth.

Clue 3: Jesus taught the common people as they were able to hear him.

Remember that Mark describes Christ’s use of parables as, “he spoke to them the word according to what they were able to hear.” He used parables because that’s what the people were able to hear. They wouldn’t have understood a more detailed and technical explanation in the same way the disciples understood.

What Did I Learn?

ffoz_tv18_dhe_markosI had a basic understanding that parables were metaphors in the purpose of their use, but this episode presented parables and their nature in greater detail than I had access to previously. It’s also another example (for me) that God does not desire to hide information, to trick people, to be an agent of confusion, but rather, He wants us to understand, to trust, to believe, and to realize that a Sovereign God is a just and honest God. Sovereignty doesn’t mean God will pull a “bait and switch” just because He’s entitled to as Creator of the Universe.

I also saw again how in lacking a proper Jewish contextual, legal, historical, and cultural framework when we read the Apostolic Scriptures or any other part of the Bible, we will misunderstand, sometimes tremendously misunderstand, who Yeshua is, what he taught, and why he taught it. The Messianic “good news” will be tinted an alien shade of “Gentile,” resulting in a “Goyim-friendly” New Testament that is required to remove continual Jewish Torah covenant obligation so that it can be replaced with something newer and “better.”

As I said before, when Toby introduced himself as a Gentile who studies Messianic Judaism, it revealed something about me and how I approach my faith. I really do believe and accept the FFOZ premise that Messianic Judaism is a method by which non-Jewish believers can and must study in order to comprehend God, the Messiah, the Bible, our Jewish companions in the faith (and outside the faith), and ourselves better. Otherwise, we’re missing out on a great deal of understanding and truth.

I don’t think anyone intended this part of the episode to be adapted in this way, but I wonder if when Jesus (and Isaiah before him) said that “this nation, and make its ears heavy and seal its eyes, so that it will not see with its eyes or hear with its ears or understand with its heart or repent and be healed,” they realized these words could possibly be applied to much of the Christian church today?

Oh, one more thing. The top image on each of these FFOZ TV reviews is just a screenshot, not an embedded link to the video. The link to the video is just under the italicized introduction to the review as the title of episode, such as in today’s case, Episode 18: Speaking in Parables.