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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Some Unique Aspects of Messianic Jewish Mission to the Nations

(In this posting, yet another interaction with Lesslie Newbigin's thought-provoking "The Gospel in a Pluralist Society," we discover that Messianic Jewish mission to the nations, if it would be faithful, must not be identical to such activity by others.)

For Newbigin,

It [authentic Christian missional thought] must begin and continue by attending to what God has done in the story of Israel and supremely in the story of Jesus Christ. It must continue by indwelling that story so that it is our story, the way we understand the real story. And then . . . to attend with open hearts and minds to the real needs of people in the way that Jesus attended to them, knowing that the real need is that which can only be satisfied by everything that comes from the mouth of God [1989:152].

Newbigin sees story as primary, “stressing the priority of the gospel as the message, embodied in an actual story, of what God has in fact done, is doing, and will do. Christian theology is a form of rational discourse developed within the community which accepts the primacy of this story and seeks actively to live in the world in accordance with the story” [1989:152].

Of course, for Messianic Jews, the story, the God-given canonical narrative and metanarrative, is different. In contrast to all other nations, the Jewish story, even apart from explicit faith in Christ, is fully a story of God’s purposeful, even if hidden activity[as in the Book of Esther], and of Israel’s ongoing interaction, in approach and as well as avoidance, with the Living God. The Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm must therefore advocate that Messianic Jews make this Jewish story part of their own, as well as laboring to make their Yeshua faith an acknowledged part of wider Israel’s story.

We must question and resist misguided efforts by some to create a communal narrative which fails to recognize the presence of the Living God in the story of wider Israel. For example, it will no longer do to conceive of the Jewish community as one that simply lost contact with God and lost track of the truth 2,000 years ago. Something far more sophisticated was going on: Like Joseph, Yeshua has remained the hidden, sovereign Presence in the midst of Israel, nurturing and influencing the very Judaism which has sought to exclude or delegitimize Him, and, keeping his brethren alive in anticipation of the day of his ultimate self-revelation.

We might therefore paraphrase Newbigin as follows: “Messianic Jewish theology is a form of rational discourse developed within the community which accepts the primacy of Israel’s story of God, Israel and Torah, recognizes the now hidden, but ultimately to be revealed presence of Yeshua, and seeks actively to live in the world in accordance with this story.”

Newbigin outlines ways in which the theological community can fail to fulfill its calling: by failing to take seriously the world in which it is set, clinging to its holy past instead of “risking its life in a deep involvement in the world;” or, on the other hand “by allowing the world to dictate the issues and the terms of the meeting. The result then is that the world is not challenged at its depth but rather absorbs and domesticates the gospel and uses it to sacralize its own purposes” (152).

The same dangers confront the Messianic Jewish community. We can become withdrawn, cloistered, self-involved, or, on the other hand, we can effectively put ourselves up for sale, making everything a non-negotiable for the sake of being “user-friendly.”

True contextualization accords to the gospel its rightful primacy, its power to penetrate every culture and to speak within each culture, in its own speech and symbol, the word is both No and Yes, both judgment and grace. And that happens when the word is not a disembodied word, but comes from a community which embodies the true story, God’s story, in a style of life which communicates both the grace and the judgment. In order that it may do this, it must be both truly local and truly ecumenical. Truly local in that it embodies God’s particular word of grace and judgment for that people. Truly ecumenical in being open to the witness of churches in all other places, and thus saved from absorption into the culture of that place and enabled to represent to that place the universality, the catholicity of God’s purpose of grace and judgment for all humanity [1989:152]

Here Newbigin confronts us with a question concerning which the Messianic Movement is weak, and where proponents of the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm must be attentive, and that is, our mission to the wider world as a community of witness. Due to our missionary roots, our reflex is to limit Messianic Jewish mission to the nations to the proclamation of the gospel, with both the message and us stripped of specifically Jewish context and clothing. We view this to be essential, because, after all, we ought not to be calling the nations to Jewish life, as some are wont to do. But the alternative I have here outlined, of simply proclaiming some sort of de-culturized gospel will not do because it requires of us to imagine we can become culturally disembodied for the sake of the gospel and it entails divesting ourselves of our own communal call as the Remnant of Israel.

Cultural divestment is no doubt the noble example of missionaries from Ricci, to de Nobili, to Taylor and beyond. But there is something missing here, something biblical, which needs to be factored into the Messianic Jewish equation. The missing ingredient is that our communal obedience to God’s commandments, our Torah lifestyle, as part of the call of wider Israel, is itself part of our God-given responsibility, from which we have not been released, and also a God-given communal means of witness to the nations of the True and Living God [Dt. 4:5-9; Zech 8:20-23; Isaiah 2:1-4].

In addition, Newbigin’s call for our message to be simultaneously one of grace and judgment requires that we embody a sense of our own communal story and its implications. This would include our speaking of how our own people, Israel, from time to time, departed from the pathway of Torah obedience, bringing upon us Divine judgment and exile, and of how He has called Messianic Jews back to empowered and renewed covenant faithfulness thorugh faith in Yeshua the Messiah and the power of the Holy Spirit. To omit these matters, or to contravene them through our own manifest indifference to Torah, results in our converting our message to mere propositions or to our undermining the message through our own disobedience, or both. Therefore, our witness to the nations, while it must be a call to “turn to God from idols [through faith in Jesus Christ], to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come” [I Thess 1:9], must also proceed from a people living in integrity to their own call from God. Imagine the challenging power of a Torah-true Messianic Jewish community which is also engaged in calling the nations to the true and living God through faith in Yeshua the Messiah, but not to Judaism. Such a Messianic Judaism would also replicate the apostolic model.

This case is made all the stronger when we remember the multiple references to restored and renewed eschatological Israel serving God, in Messiah, in the context of Torah obedience [Jer 31:32; Ezek 36:27; 37:24]. I am sure we can agree that it is highly unlikely that prophecies of eventual divine restoration of Israel to Torah faithfulness were given to encourage passivity on the matter ourselves. Rather, it seems to me that if we as a community would both meet with and assist what God is up to concerning His people Israel, then we must become part of the solution and not part of the problem. And it is from our obedience in these matters we as a community may expect spiritual empowerment of our witness to the other nations.

Therefore, both for reasons of Israel’s past commandments concerning Torah obedience as a sign to the nations, and for reasons of the eschatological promise of this being the eventual outworking of the divine will, and due to the fact that the gospel is not a disembodied propositional message, but rather the testimony of a community living out the implications of the gospel story as understood and embodied in its own context, we ought to both share the gospel with the nations, and do so from the foundation of our own faithfulness to the full orb of our calling as part of wider Israel, certainly including the call to Torah-based covenant obedience.

What Kind of Congregations Should We Be Planting?

(This is yet another posting continuing my interaction with Lesslie Newbigin's excellent opus, "The Gospel in a Plurlist Society." In this posting I ask and answer the question of what kind of congregations we should be planting in keeping with the insights of the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm.)

We begin this consideration with a quotation from Newbigin concerning whether it was God's will that Gentiles who embraced Christ as Messiah become practitioners of Judaism.
Although the gospel originally appeared in Jewish culture, this should not be taken to mean that Jewish culture is meant to be the world’s culture. This is the perspective of Islam, which views the Qur’an as perfect and untranslatable, for example. Certainly, in the early Church, the issue arose as to whether Jewish culture were to become the norm for the entire people of God. But the Holy Spirit made it clear that Gentiles should be accepted as full members of the people of God without their adhering to Jewish halachic practice [1989:145].

Newbigin asks then, “What, them are the essentials in the way the community lives which cannot be changed? Is all the long schooling of Israel in the Torah, the loving instruction of God, now to be thrown overboard? Do we say, ‘In Christ, anything goes?’” [1989:145-146]. What is the irreducible gospel message we are called to convey and the guidelines for living out our allegiance to it?

Newbigin points out how some answer this question with generalities—Jesus means love, or Jesus means freedom, Jesus means justice. In the process, the Church is bypassed, since one can pursue these ends without recourse to the Church.

He agrees instead with Roland Allen, who argued that the mission task is accomplished wherever and whenever a congregation is established which is furnished with the Bible, with the sacraments and with the apostolic ministry [elders, deacons, etc]. “When these conditions are fulfilled, the missionary has done her job. The young church is then free to learn, as it goes and grow, how to embody the gospel in its own culture” [1989:147].

Newbigin amplifies upon this and says that the livingness of Christ, the communal foretaste of the Kingdom will take place as follows:

It will be in the life of a community which remembers, rehearses, and lives by the story which the Bible tells and of which the central focus is the story told in the New Testament. This remembering and rehearsing will be through the continual reading and reflection on the Bible and the continual repetition of the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. And it will maintain its link with, its continuity with the body of men to whom Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” through a ministry in which the personal call of Jesus, "Follow me,” is continued through the generations, not in abstract moral or political principles but in the actual personal encounters in which men and women who have themselves been called, all others to follow . . . . Once again we have to insist that since the response to the gospel has to be made in freedom, and since all human beings are fallible, there will not be unanimity in the ways in which the Church in any time and place seeks to ‘contextualize’ the gospel, seeks, this is to say, to proclaim and embody the life of Jesus that his power both to sustain and to judge every human culture is manifest [1989:147-148].

To accept this scenario as the agenda for mission to the Jews is to nail shut the coffin on Jewish believers in Yeshua living as Jews in covenant faithfulness.

Although Newbigin is a wonderful man in every way, his paradigm is, from the vantage point of the Jewish people, pure supersessionism. As appealing as it sounds, this paradigm, as regards the Jewish people, must be decisively repudiated, if we care at all that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

This repudiation is necessary because it brings up an issue which most Christians and missionaries to the Jews, and even many Messianic Jews, miss, many wish to avoid, and others strongly dispute, and that is the uniqueness of the Jewish people as the object of God’s outworking of his saving mercies over all He has made. This issue may well be the core issue underlying the necessity and the validity of the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm.

The Bible speaks of Israel as a unique nation throughout time and into the eschaton. Balaam’s prophecy names us as “a people who dwells apart, And will not be reckoned among the nations” [Numbers 23:9, NASB], or, as the New Living Bible says it, “a people who live by themselves, set apart from other nations.” Other texts teach this same uniqueness, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities” [Amos 3:2]; “When the Most High divided their inheritance to the nations, When He separated the sons of Adam, He set the boundaries of the peoples According to the number of the children of Israel” Deut 32:8, NKJV], “19 He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and ordinances to Israel.20 He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his ordinances” [Psalm 147:20]; “He gave them the lands of the nations, and they took possession of the wealth of the peoples,that they might keep his statutes and observe his laws. Praise the LORD!” [Psalm 105:44-45]; "For I am with you, says the Lord, to save you; I will make an end of all the nations among which I scattered you, but of you I will not make an end" [Jer 30:11]. But in addition to these specific texts and others like them, it is clear that Scripture presupposes the uniqueness of Israel, and its distinctiveness as over against all the other nations.

Like Scripture itself, Jewish liturgy and theology affirm this uniqueness and distinctiveness of Israel both explicitly and implicitly. So it is that the blessing before reading from the Torah celebrates the God “who chose us from among all nations and gave us His Torah,” [see Romans 3:1-2]. The Shabbat liturgy celebrates the gift of Shabbat in these words, “Thou, Lord our God, has not given the Sabbath day to the nations of the world; thou, our King, hast not given it as a heritage to those who worship idols; heathen do not enjoy its rest. But thou hats graciously given it to Israel thy people, the descendants of Jacob whom thou hast chosen [Birnbaum Siddur, 1949:354]. Every service ends with the Alenu, which states, “It is our duty to praise the Master of all, to exalt the Creator of the universe, who has not made us like the nations of the world and hast not placed us like the families of the earth; who has not designed our desty to be like theirs, nor our lot like that of all their multitude” [Birnbaum 1949:414].

Perhaps most clearly, the Havdalah service which ends every shabbat, speaks of God “who has made a distinction between the sacred and the profane, between light and darkness, Israel and the other nations, between the seventh day and the six working days.” For Jewish theologizing, the distinction between Israel and the other nations is as marked as that between light and darkness.

This being the case, and supported by ample Scriptural warrant, both explicit and implicit, there can be no legitimate Messianic Jewish ecclesiology along the lines outlined by Newbigin. Rather, we must seek out and honor an ecclesiology and a missiology which pays due regard to the separateness and unique calling of Israel, a people called to honor God in the context of Torah, even as we gather around the Son of David in faith and obedience [Ezekiel 37:24]. This is necessitated by Scripture and by the resultant shape of Judaism throughout time. Messianic Judaism cannot be a true Judaism if it fails to pay heed to the unique calling of the Jewish people, and the proper integration of God, Israel and Torah. And, because Israel is "a people that dwells apart, And shall not be numbered with the nations" [Numbers 23:9], because Israel is uniquely called to honor God in the context of Torah, those who plant Yeshua-honoring congregations among Jews can only truly promote His honor if and as it is done within the context of promoting Torah obedience.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

What Do We Owe God?

(The following is a sermon for Parashat Mishpatim/Shekalim, presented February 25, 2006 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA. It concerns what is involved in honoring or failing to honor our indebtedness to God.)

In the special Torah reading for Shabbat Shekalim, Exodus 30:11-16, we find a profound spiritual lesson that is so pointed that we might want to avoid it. That lesson is this: the things we build for God we build out of our sense that we owe him. To the extent that we avoid or ignore our sense of indebtedness, to that extent we will fail to build anything for His Name’s sake.

For too many people, being on the take is all that their religion is about. Too many talk only about being "saved," being "filled with the Spirit," being "forgiven," and being "blessed." Notice: in each case, the emphasis of our spirituality is upon what we receive, what we get out of it.

Today’s special readings challenge these unholy assumptions. Unholy . . . and very common. Unholy, and usual. Unholy, and in many cases, too many cases, descriptive of us . . . you and me.

Today’s reading tells us that when Moses took a census of the people of Israel, every adult would gave atonement money for his soul . . . that there might not be a plague among them when counting them. And this money would be used for the work of the Tent of Meeting.

How are we to explain this?

First of all, Scripture attaches danger to the taking of a census of God’s people. One reason is that there was always the chance that those taking the census would take pride in their numbers and imagine that the people of Israel were mighty enough to be self-sufficient. This would be an implied insult to the God by whose mercy alone we lived, survived and were sustained. Later, King David would get into great trouble for just this reason. He called for a general census of the whole nation from Dan to Beersheba (1 Chr. 21:1). Joab very reluctantly began to carry out the king's command.

Apparently, David was thinking of his own military prowess and successes, and forgot that he was God's appointee, whom the Lord took "from following the sheep." While Joab was engaged in the census, David became deeply conscious of his fault; and in profound contrition confessed, "I have sinned greatly in what I have done." The prophet Gad was sent to him to put before him three dreadful alternatives. David decided to leave it up to God, "Let me fall into the hands of the Lord." A pestilence broke out among the people, and in three days swept away 70,000. At David's intercession the plague was stayed, and at the threshing-floor of Araunah where the destroying angel was arrested in his progress, David erected an altar, and there offered up sacrifices to God (2 Chr. 3:1).

In effect, God was saying to David, "O, so you're proud of how many people you have, are you? Well, I'll tell you what, how about if I take 70,000 back?" Truly, it IS a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

But here in Exodus 30:11-16, we learn also that census taking could be a dangerous matter for those being counted.

11 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 12 When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. 13 This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel — a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord. 14 Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord's offering: 15 the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord's offering as expiation for your persons. 16 You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the Lord, as expiation for your persons.

In fact, they were required to pay an expiation for their persons, what other translations call "atonement money for their souls." What is going on here?

The atonement money was ransom money of a sort, an acknowledgement to God they were only alive because of God’s mercy to them. The money was a tangible way of saying, "God, I realize I owe you—I owe you my very life. This money is my acknowledgment of the fact that I only live because of your mercy to me. I owe you, and this money shows that I understand that."

It is important to note that they gave this money for a specific purpose, to be used to enhance the worship of God at the Tabernacle. We ought not to miss the fact that the money was given for the glorification of God. Clearly the people were to know that they owed God not only their very lives and all the blessings of life as part of the people of Israel, but also owed him an investment in His glorification in the midst of Israel, where He was to be served, honored, obeyed, and worshipped. We owe Him not only thanks, but also glory.

This idea of owing someone something is very deeply ingrained in human culture. In preparing for this sermon, I was thinking of children and how they hold us to our promises. There is probably not a parent alive who hasn’t heard one of his children say at one time or another, "But you promised! But you said!" God help the parent who says that she is going to take here children to Disneyland, and then forgets about it or gets distracted. The children never forget, and because "You promised! You said!, you owe them.

The Torah reading for Shabbat Mishpatim records that kind of reality in our relationship with God. And if we are prepared to take our relationship with our children seriously, and follow up on when we have promised them something, ought we not to take seriously something we have promised avinu shebashamayim, our Father in heaven?

In chapter twenty-three of Exodus, Hashem reminds our ancestors of what He has done for them. Among other things, he reminds them of the exodus, and tells them to keep Passover as a memorial of his redeeming them from slavery; he reminds them to keep Shavuot and Sukkot as harvest festivals, celebrating His provision for them of food and sustaining them in life.

He also promises them his future protection [vv.20 ff], and his provision of food, fertility, health and a homeland. Clearly, the children of Israel owe their heavenly Father—big time. And, as they were about to enter into covenant with the Holy One, as was pro forma for such ancient treaties, God first reminds them of what He has done and is committing to do for them.

This accounting of the mighty deeds of God reminds us of what happened last week when Moses told Jethro his father in law of some of the mighty things God had done. In today's parasha, we can notice other similarities between the two accounts as well We saw that when he came to accept the fact that Hashem alone was God over all other gods, Jethro ate a meal with Aaron and all the elders of Israel, a covenant meal. In this week’s reading as well, Moses, Aaron, and his sons Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascend into the very Presence of God to eat a covenant meal with Him.

Also, just as Jethro made offerings last week when he entered into covenant with God, so Moses directs youths of the Children of Israel to offer up burnt offerings and bulls as peace offerings to Hashem. Even more solemnly, blood from these offerings is sprinkled upon the people as a sign that they are taking a blood oath, that their lives would be forfeit if they do not keep the promises which they are entering into.

If you read chapter 23 closely, you will see many of the things that God promises in this covenant, As we mentioned, these include protection, food, fertility, health and a homeland. But what do our ancestors promise God? We find the answer to that question twice in this chapter, in verse three and again in verse seven: "Moses came and told the people all the words of Hashem and all the ordinances, and the entire people responded with one voice and they said: ‘All the words that HASHEM has spoken, we will do.’ . . . He took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, ‘Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will obey!’" And then Moses dashed them with blood of the covenant—a gory and visible sign that they had just sworn on their lives that they would obey all that God had said.

I want to return for a moment to the idea of the census and the atonement money that had to be paid by every Israelite.

Jonathan Kaplan, an associate of our friend Jason Sobel, and one of the brightest young scholars in our movement, says this about the tax in their weekly Internet offering, "The Set Table."

Shabbat Sheqalim commemorates the annual Temple tax which was "required of every one in Israel" and announced on the first day of Adar in antiquity (m. Sheqalim 1:1). It occurs on the new moon of Adar when it falls on a Shabbat or on the Shabbat preceding the new moon of Adar when it falls on a weekday. This year Shabbat Sheqalim occurs on February 25/27 Shevat.

The Maftir reading from Exodus 30 describes the census which God commanded of the Israelite people. The census was to be taken to see who would be responsible for contributing a half-shekel as expiation money. After its donation this money would be assigned "to the service of the Tent of Meeting" (30:16). The Haftara reading from 2 Kings 12 describes the implementation of this tax during the reign of King Joash for the repair of the Temple.

There are two striking aspects to the practice of the half-shekel. First, people over the age of twenty are to be enrolled and to pay this tax not as a duty of citizenship or a membership fee in a club. Rather, the half-shekel is an expiatory offering designed to assuage the obligation they incur by being enrolled in the records. The half-shekel expresses their commitment to the worship of God. If they pay the half-shekel, their account with God is satisfied. If not, they risk a plague, a divine punishment. This point challenges us to remember that our financial commitments to our local synagogues are not merely membership dues but obligations we incur to God for insuring the ongoing service and worship of our communities.

Second, the obligation to participate in this offering is the same for everyone regardless of their station in society. "The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD’s offering as expiation for your persons" (Exodus 30:15). Certainly for the rich such a contribution is not significant, but it emphasizes that they have no greater stake in the maintenance of divine worship than anyone else. All are equal in God’s community.

And, I would add: not only are all equal, but all are equally obligated. All of us owe God.

Reviewing our lesson then, consider the following questions:

1. Why were the children of Israel indebted to God?

2. Do any of those debts still apply to us today?

3. On the basis of today’s Newer Covenant readings (Romans 12:1-3; 1 Cor 6:19-20), what other bases do we Messianic Jews have for owing God? What do we owe Him according to these texts?

4. Are we still bound by the promise made by our ancestors, "Everything that Hashem has said, we will do and we will obey?" Give reasons for your answer.

5. What is your response to the following statement: "Yeshua obeyed God so that we wouldn’t have to."

6. Looking back over your life, in the light of today’s readings and discussion, to you owe God anything?

7. Is your life going to be any different as a result of this lesson, and if so, how?

Finally, we return to what we said at the beginning of our lesson:

In the special Torah reading for Shabbat Shekalim we find a profound spiritual lesson that is so pointed that we might want to avoid it. That lesson is this: the things we build for God we build out of our sense that we owe him. To the extent that we avoid or ignore our sense of indebtedness, to that extent we will fail to build anything for His Name’s sake.

So, if you agree that you owe God, what are you building for His name’s sake?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Contextualization, Recontextualization, and Reconceptualization of the Gospel Message for Messianic Jewish Outreach

According to Lesslie Newbigin in “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” [1989:142], the purpose of contextualization is to enable the gospel to come alive in specific a cultural context in a manner that comes as good news (rather than foreign news) to that context, yet in a manner which does not, for the sake of relevance and reception, sacrifice the nature of the gospel itself. Therefore, he calls us to the imperative of knowing what is the intrinsic gospel we are to transmit.

Of course, for the Messianic Jewish context there is another factor, unique to the Jewish world, which David Stern recognized decades ago in “The Messianic Jewish Manifesto” (1988). That factor is rediscovering the essentially Jewish context and nature of gospel message despite two millennia of other-culture accretions. Here the issue is not one of adapting or communicating the gospel to the contemporary Jewish context, as is the concern of contextualization, but rather of, in Stern’s words,”restoring the Jewishness of the gospel.”

The concerns of the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm which my associates and I are championing run deeper than this. Our concern is not simply the effective, non-imperialistic, culture-respecting communication of the gospel in a Jewish context, nor is it the restoration of the gospel’s original Jewish character and context. Rather, the project of the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm is the reconceptulization of the gospel itself in keeping with a post-missionary, non-supersessionist paradigm which is alert to the eschatological responsibilities of the Remnant of Israel.

The gospel cannot be good news for the Jews if its proclaimers treat the dissolution of Jewish community cohesion as a matter of secondary importance. Nor can it be good news for the Jews if, imbedded within it, is the assumption that the path of Torah faithfulness is a secondary issue, non-issue, or expired priority. Neither can it be good news for the Jews if the gospel we proclaim fails to prepare Jewish people for the eschatological commitments of which the prophets speak, including being “careful to observe” his ordinances [Ezekiel 36:27].

Again, the concerns of the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm are more than a matter of style and of being careful to not be culturally intrusive or imperialistic. It is even more than simply rediscovering what is the essential gospel, which is Newbigin’s concern. Rather, it is discovering, serving, and proclaiming the wider context of the will of God for the Jewish people, the setting in which faithfulness, even gospel faithfulness, is meant to be lived out by Jews, as highlighted in Ezekiel 36-37 and elsewhere throughout Holy Writ. This setting will include Israel's Regathering, Renewal, Repentance, Regeneration, and Recognition of Yeshua as the Messiah formerly hidden from Jewish eyes [as is evident from reading Ezekiel 36-37].

The Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm is post-missionary in its assumptions, in part because the Standard Jewish Missions Paradigm is supersessionist. Even Dispensational Jewish missions that doctrinally decry supersessionism are functionally supersessionist when they treat the distinctive covenant responsibilities of the Jewish people as expired or secondary. One Jewish mission routinely refers to itself as “an arm of the local church.” In doing so, they are acting not as the Remnant of Israel but as Jewish-born emissaries of the new and improved people of God, the Church. They are also committed to treating covenantal Jewish living as but one option among many, and term it "neo-Galatianism” when treated as a divine responsibility incumbent upon all Jews.

By contrast, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm is non-supersessionist, seeing the Jewish people as still beloved for the sake of the ancestors (Romans 11:28), and Jewish Torah-based covenant responsibility not only as persisting since ancient times, thus a continuing obligation from the Jewish past, but also as a necessary and integral component of God’s consummating purposes for Israel, thus a present privilege and responsibility in anticipation of that consummation.

Therefore, we are not calling for contextualization as commonly conceived, nor are we calling for the recontextualization of the gospel, as Stern suggests. Rather, we are calling for a reconceptualization of the outreach task, especially for Messianic Jews, as it concerns being agents of God’s consummating purposes for Israel.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

More on Contextualization and the Messianic Jewish Outreach Task

What is contextualization? Newbigin helps us here.

The actual word "contextualization" is of recent coinage. Older discussion used such terms as indigenization, adaptation, and accommodation. The reasons for dissatisfaction with these words are twofold. In the first place they have tended to relate the gospel to past traditions and to underestimate the forces in every society which are making for change. In the second place they have sometimes seemed to imply that what the missionary brought with him was the pure, unadapted gospel, and that "adaptation" was thus a kind of concession to those who had not the advantage of having a Christian culture. But of course the truth is that every communication of the gospel is already culturally conditioned. The word "contextualization" seeks to avoid both these dangers and to direct attention to the need so to communicate the gospel that it speaks God’s word to the total context in which people are now living and in which they have to make their decisions [1989:142].

I would offer the following metaphor: the task of contextualization is to so insert the yeast of the Kingdom into the receptor culture that the yeast has no taste of its own, but is only perceived through its effects.

Newbigin discusses the controversies over contextualization that attended the work of Matteo Ricci in China and Roberto de Nobili in South India. In the latter case, de Nobili sought to communicate the gospel without challenging the caste structure of Hindu culture. Eventually his methods were repudiated by Rome, as by later generations. During the past 150 years all sorts of course corrections and re-corrections have been evident in the Christian missions world. The Western missions power structure has repented of and been embarrassed concerning its own cultural imperialism, and its tendency to too much wed Western culture to the gospel. Ironically, the West has overcompensated so that it applauds Two-Thirds world domestication of the gospel—the Asianization or Africanization of the gospel, precisely the sins of which the West is repenting, in other clothing. On the other hand, progressives in the Two-Thirds world have been appreciative of the Western mission enterprise precisely because of the effects of modernization that it brought [143-144]. In words that apply directly to the Iraq situation in which the U.S. is currently embroiled, Newbigin comments: “Within any community there will be cultural conservatives [radical Muslims] and cultural radicals [Westernized Iraquis]. The former will resist the invasion of foreign ideas, while the latter will welcome them just because they are different from the tradition” [1989:144]

This leaves us with these core questions: “How far should the gospel be ‘at home’ in a culture, and how far should it resist domestication? What is true contextualization?” [1989:144].

Newbigin says we must start with the basic fact that

. . . there is no such thing as a pure gospel if by that is meant something which is not embodied in a culture. [Even] the simplest verbal statement of the gospel, "Jesus is Lord," depends for its meaning on the content which that culture gives to the word "Lord." What kind of thing is "lordship" within the culture in question? . . . Every interpretation of the gospel is embodied in some cultural form. The missionary does not come with the pure gospel and then adapt it to the culture where she serves; she comes with a gospel which is already embodied in the culture by which the missionary was formed [1989:144].

Of course, some engaged in outreach to the Jews will cry “Foul!” at this point. For some, the answer to the question, “What is the gospel?” is very simple, being found in 1 Corinthians 15:

. . . Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them--though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

How are we to answer such persons who simply produce this proof-text, or others, as the all-sufficient, all context, authoritative answer to the question of what is the intrinsic gospel?

The key is at least four-fold. First of all, each community is subjective in the selection of proof-texts. Why this text rather than others? And it will do no good to say, “Because Paul introduces this passage by saying that this is the gospel he preaches,” because one might say, “Well, that was the message he preached to the Corinthians, but is it the whole gospel, is it the gospel for every context and time, and how do you know?” Second, although the kerygma, the core and shape of the apostolic preaching, is discernible and identifiable, it is also true that the expectations of the apostolic gospel preacher in terms of listener response differed from audience to audience and context to context. For example, Paul did NOT expect his Gentile converts to become observant Jews, and in fact, loudly decried this, most notably in his Letter to the Galatians. On the other hand, he did expect Jewish believers in Yeshua to continue living observant Jewish lives, and in fact, adhered to Jewish observance throughout his own life. He even undertook to participate in a traditional Temple rite in Jerusalem in order to demonstrate to all concerned that he himself continued to keep Torah and live a halachic life [Acts 21:24]. Third, the way the gospel is presented will vary from culture to culture because our task is not simply to transmit words and concepts we identify as the gospel, but rather to present the gospel in such a manner that it will both be perceived to be good news by the recipients, and actually be good news for them--culture preserving Kingdom leaven. Some concepts, such as, for example, forensic justification, might be irreducibly foreign to some cultures. To insist on presenting the good news in this fashion, might well doom the entire gospel enterprise in that culture. Fourth, it is the responsibility of the gospel-proclaimer to the Jewish people to have a strong understanding of God’s intention for this people, in order that his gospel proclamation might neither disrupt or neglect that purpose.

In this regard, the Standard Jewish Missions Paradigm has been deficient whenever and wherever it has been negative or non-committal concerning the imperative of Jewish Torah-based covenant faithfulness. When the gospel is presented in this manner, it is not good news for the Jewish people, not simply because of what is said, but also because of what is not said and because of the subliminal messages/metamessages that are conveyed.

A “metamessage” is the unstated and often unintended information that is transmitted along with the stated and intended information. If a Jew who is sharing the good news with other Jews is manifestly non-observant, part of their metamessage is that Jewish observance is either purely optional, unimportant, or no longer required of Jews who believe in Yeshua. For example, Messianic Jews should not present this gospel to other Jews over a non-kosher meal!

Therefore, it is incumbent upon outreach practitioners of the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm to themselves be intentionally, even if imperfectly, observant Jews, living in community with others likewise committed, lest they undermine through their conduct the credibility of their message, which includes the responsibility of Jews to be covenantally faithful. This should be a non-negotiable issue for those seeking to mobilize a core and corps of Messianic Jewish outreach practitioners in accord with the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Ezekiel's Hard Word We All Need to Heed

Masterfully, setting up the treatment on the restoration of Israel, the prophet Ezekiel speaks of the country of Edom, relatives of the Jews and old enemies, who had rejoiced over and abetted the desolations of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians.

“Because you harbored an ancient hatred and handed the people of Israel over to the sword in their time of calamity, the time of their punishment, [you yourselves will be judged/punished]” (Ezekiel 35:5).

This is quite an instructive indictment, not only for Edom, but for me, and for any of us. Even when people in our own lives deserve judgment, when they do the wrong thing or manifest wrong attitudes, it is not therefore right for us to “harbor an ancient hatred”—to bear grudges. Yet this is something I find it exceedingly difficult to deal with because not harboring a grudge leaves me feeling exposed and imperiled. I imagine I am not alone in this dilemma.

I have spiritual work to do—to come to the point where I am so confident of God’s presence with me, in me, around me in the midst of my vulnerability, that I am soothed—that I feel I will be alright. I think all of us need to do that work, to relinquish our own "ancient hatreds," knowing that God will deal with our enemies, and, if we fail to deal with our own stuff and our grudges, will have to deal with us as well.

Ezekiel, Personal Responsibility, and Passing the Buck

The first half of chapter 33 of Ezekiel, picking themes found in 3:16-21, and others from Ezekiel 1-9, acts as a transition to the last section of the book, prophecies concerning the restoration of Israel. Two themes predominate in this section. These themes could not be more relevant to our lives had they been written today.

First, the text compares the role of the prophet to that of a watchman. It is the watchman’s responsibility to warn people of coming destruction; if he does and they do not heed him, they bear responsibility for the calamity that comes upon them, just as when the prophet warns people of God’s judgment for their wickedness, if the people do not repent, they bear the responsibility for their own doom. However, if the watchman or the prophet fails to issue a warning, he or she bears bloodguilt for those he/she failed to warn. The second theme is that the righteousness of the righteous will not save them when they turn to wickedness, nor will the wickedness of the wicked condemn them when they turn to righteousness. The argument is summarized in this fashion:

17 "Yet your fellow citizens say, `The way of the Lord is not right,' when it is their own way that is not right. 18 "When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, then he shall die in it. 19 "But when the wicked turns from his wickedness and practices justice and righteousness, he will live by them. 20 "Yet you say, `The way of the Lord is not right.' O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways."

God is not unfair; it is we who are unfair.

This passage and the two points summarized above are amazing and frightening for their moral clarity. The passsage places the responsibility for our divine reward and for our spiritual well-being entirely on our shoulders. Just as it is the job of the prophet or watchman to do his/her job conscientiously, just as people who heed or fail to heed the watchman bear the responsibility for their response, just as righteous or unrighteous persons bear full responsibilty for their spirtitual fate, so will it be with us. We ourselves bear full responsibility for how we respond to God and to the righteous demands of life. We cannot excuse ourselves, arguing that we are controlled by others, or feel we have gotten a raw deal, or by any sort of passing the buck.

This passage reminds us that we are responsible for only one thing: and that is, for the choices we ourselves make in our own life situations. And nothing mitigates that responsibility, not even the irresponsibility of others.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Preparing for Battle, Transitions and Divine Opportunity

This is a sermon on Parshat Beshalach, presented February 11, 2006 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills, CA. In this sermon I challenge us to consider how prepared we are--or not--to play our roles in cooperation with what God is going to do among His people Israel, soon and in our days.

There comes a time when God’s people need to battle, when there is a crisis or a cause that calls for us to mobilize to get things done that need doing, despite the obstacles facing us. At such times, some people will always choose to remain spectators. Others will function as support personnel, far from the front lines. But others will engage in the thick of things, feeling themselves called upon to focus their energies and make a difference at such times of transition, opportunity or threat.

In our readings today, we see God’s people mobilizing His people at such times as these, and there are a few lessons for us to learn.

Let’s look first at the Haftarah [Judges 4:4 to the end of chapter five]. Right from the beginning we can see our first lesson: God uses some improbable people. First there is Deborah the Prophetess, a rarity in Tanach, as a front-line woman leader, and then Barak, the mighty military man who needs propping up, and also there is Ya’el the Kenite. All three of these people were improbable, but each in turn was crucial to winning the battle. Deborah was the visionary—she had a divinely charged inner knowledge of what had to be done. Barak was the functionary—he took care of business and details. Ya’el was the unexpected ally who came forward at an unexpected time to do what needed doing. All three kinds of people were needed for God’s will to be accomplished, each had a part to play. And such people needed to work together for things to reach their best conclusion.

We see Deborah and Barak working together here, but it’s not pretty. The Kingdom of God seldom is. Barak is reluctant to go to battle unless Deborah goes with him—he is a warrior, but appears to lack confidence that God will be with him unless Deborah goes too. So it is that Deborah chides him, telling him that he will therefore lose the glory of final victory, and will have to face the cultural humiliation of a woman delivering the coup de grace instead of him. And that woman will be Yael the Kenite, a woman, an ally of Israel's enemies, not a Jew, but an improbable person who steps forward at the crucial time to make all the difference.

We find more light on this kind of situation in the poetic reflection on this victory, found in Chapter 5. There we find again that progress can be messy: some of the tribes came up to battle, others malingered. Especially commended, in addition to Deborah, Ya'el, and Barak, are the leaders of Israel, the devoted ones among the people.

So we see here a number of lessons. First, there is a division of labor, of gifts and calling. At times of transition, challenge and battle, there will be some who are visionaries, some who are functionaries, some who are unexpected allies who come forward at stategic times. All are needed, and none should despise the other. There are also the troops—like those nameless people who fought with Barak against Sisera. These kinds of people are just as necessary, even if they are not considered superstars.

From our Torah reading, other lessons may be selected.

The first from our Torah reading is the lesson of timing. When Israel came left Egypt, the text says, "When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, 'If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.'"

As it was for Barak, for Deborah, and for the Children of Israel in our Haftarah, so here in our Torah reading, it is God who went with the children of Israel as they left Egypt—in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. And in the bGod prefers to only lead us into battles, challenges, transitions that we are ready for, even if we don’t really feel ready. Secondly, as for Deborah, Barak and the attles, transitions and challenges to which God calls us, He goes before us and with us.

Third, just because God is in the midst, and just because he doesn’t lead us into challenges we cannot face, doesn’t mean we won’t be frightened. Fourth, there is a time for trustful prayer. . .and there is a time for trustful action: neither is any good without the other. This is why we read in Exodus 14:15, that, as the children of Israel were trembling at the shore of the Red Sea, with the Egyptians bearing down on them, God said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward." We must engage in trustful prayer, but that prayer must be accompanied by trustful action.

Finally, we must remember that the challenges he lead us into, the battles we face, the transitions we must handle are not about us. Rather, they are about the well-being of all of God’s people, the advancement of his cause in the earth. We need to beware of our tendency to be so self-protective and so self-involved that we only invest ourselves in things of direct benefit to ourselves, or things that cause us no risk or inconvenience.

This brings us to our New Covenant reading, Luke 14:25-35.

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
34 "Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?f 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!"

We notice first of all that there were large crowds following Yeshua. He does here what Scripture shows him doing elsewhere: he tries to thin out the ranks, to either get people who are following him for the wrong reasons to disengage, or to call them to more appropriate engagement. So it is that he makes a number of very striking statements. At times of battle, of transition and of divine opportunity, as in the case of military maneuvers, it is crucial to be fully engaged, fully focused, fully committed.

He says that to follow him we must be prepared to hate father, mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself. This is a semiticism which strongly contrasts two sets of priorities: Yeshua and the Kingdom of God on one side, and the strongest of human relationships on the other. In times of battle, transition and divine opportunity, we must be focused on the voice of the Commander and the priorities of the battle, even if it means ignoring the voices of other core relationships.

The second lesson in this passage is that of realistically assessing your resources. Don’t underestimate what it takes to bring things to completion. The Kingdom of God, the purposes of God, the things of God in times of battle, opportunity and transition, demand full investment of all we are and have. If you are going to be half-hearted or semi-committed, it would be better if you just stayed home.

The final lesson is the lesson of character. What are you made of? Are you Kingdom stuff?
Are you one of those people who will say “Count me in” when you realize God is up to something because you can’t bear the thought of not helping to make it happen and of not being there as God changes things? Or are you wishy-washy, a dilettante, a mere nibbler at the feast of God’s purposes? We are supposed to be people of salty character, people who taste like the Kingdom of God.

I believe and teach that we are approaching a time when God will be bringing extraordinary, unprecedented and ultimate spiritual renewal to the Jewish people. It will be a time when the Jewish people will return in massive numbers to covenant faithfulness to the God of Israel, to Spirit-filled commandment keeping, observance of holy times, and ritual life, in and through Yeshua the Messiah. This will be a time when Jewish people and the Messianic Jewish movement will not be asking, “How much do I have to do?” but instead will be saying, “God has given us commandments, statutes and ordinances we are responsible to keep. How are we going to fulfill that responsibility? He is our God, and we want to serve Him well! We really need to know what to do!” For such a time as this, we will need visionaries, functionaries, unexpected allies, troops, and support personnel. Are you any of these, or are you a mere spectator, or worse yet, are you AWOL?

These times are fast approaching, indeed they may already be here. If Scripture is true, then many of you will desert the battle lines, and only a few will say, “Count me in.” Which are you?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Why is Ezra 7-10 in our Bibles?

The following brief essay was sent as a letter to two friends who are leaders in the Messianic movement. It is part of a wider correspondence on the necessity and shape of covenant faithfulness among Messianic Jews.

In Ezra 7-10 we have a very sobering account of how Ezra and a group of returning exiles return to Jerusalem to honor God at the Temple, bringing with them offerings. At that time, the people beome aware that they have transgressed Torah by marrying foreign/pagan wives, and even some of these people have had children with these wives.

The people, and especially Ezra, realize that this disobedience has dishonored God and brought them into covenant jeopardy, the anticipation of God's rightful wrath. So what do the people do? They institute a procedure whereby those who have taken foreign wives will put them away-divorce them.

There are a few matters of special interest for us here. First, this is a pivotal time in the people's history. At such at time attending to matters of covenant fidelity is especially urgent. Second, the leaders themselves were singled out for their own compromise of the covenant. Third, the people realized that the patterns of past history would be again fulfilled in their lives if they did not repent and reverse their covenant disobedience. In Ezra 9:13 we read: "And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, since You our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this, 14 should we again break Your commandments, and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations?" Fourth, there was some dissent in the ranks over what was being contemplated, but still it was done. Fifth, this was certainly a severe measure, and involved very hard decisions undertaken with due sobriety.

The last time I brought this up in tne context of a denominational e-mail discussion. I was treated as if I had exposed myself at the annual Conference shabbat service. But I will bring this up again, because I must and because we must deal with it. I will also give you my answer to the question, "Why is Ezra 7-10 in our Bibles?"

I do NOT believe that this passage is here to tell Jews in the Messianic Jewish movement to give up their Gentile wives. After all, these are not pagans, and with the blessings of the Newer Covenant, the issue of intermarriage, while still important and calling for better thinking and living than is our wont, is a very different issue than it was for Ezra and the exiles. This is NOT in the Bible to call us to put away our Gentile wives. But why is it there?

It is there to remind us that at pivotal times, such as this time when we are anticipating the culmination of God's restoration of His people Israel, we should become urgently concerned with matters of covenant faithfulness, as were our ancestors in this passage. We should realize that the patterns of the past are a warning to us not to repeat the errors of our ancestors. Like those in this passage, we should ask, "should we again break Your commandments, and join in . . . committing these abominations?" In other words, just because we are Messianic Jews, should we assume that matters of covenant violation will be any less jeopardizing for us than they were for our ancestors? Yeshua didn't die for us to legitimize our disobedience! Furthermore, at such times, we should, and especially leaders should, be prepared to make very hard decisions for the sake of covenant faithfulness.

So the question confronts us, which I leave with all Messianic Jews reading this, especially those in leadership. What hard decisions are you prepared to make, and are you prepared to require of our movement, for the sake of covenant faithfulness? Or are we to assume that covenant faithfulness has become more user-friendly since Ezra was around?

The Messianic Movement prides itself on being a biblical movement. I don't think this is really so. In fact, in matters of Jewish covenant fidelity, it is obvious, plain, and incontrovertible that we are not biblical at all. We only use biblical texts in these areas when they serve to limit our inconvenience.

I am certain, absolutely certain, that matters of covenant faithfulness will be a very divisive issue in our movement, chiefly because we have within our borders different religions not coexisting very well. Messianic Jewishism and Messianic Judaism are two different relgions. On the one hand we have among us Charismatic Protestantism in e-minor, with all the presuppositions concerning matters of personal liberty and autonomy that this entails, and on the other hand, we have some among us who are seeking to develop a Messianic Judaism which honors Israel's God and the halachic covenant obligations to which He called us as part of wider Israel. These are two different religions, and conflict between them is not only inevitable, it is necessary. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that these two religions can be harmonized or their differences ignored. And let us not imagine that matters of covenant faithfulness can be dummied down so as to not make waves. Ezra 7-10 is here to remind us that the opposite is true.

It is for the sake of confronting us and our movement with questions such as these that I believe this passage is in our Bibles. We dare not ignore it simply because we don't like the way it makes us feel, or because it makes us dread the flack such passages might arouse.

For us, as for the people of Ezra's time, it an inconvenient thing to fall into the hands of the Living God.

We ought not to kid ourselves that it could be otherwise.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Does God Play Favorites?

(This is a sermon on Parashat Bo presented February 4, 2006 at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue, Beverly Hills. CA)

Many people find aspects of the Bible unfair, and they think that God plays favorites. But what is the answer to the question, “Does God play favorites?” Before answering that, we have to take another look at the question.

People who ask “Does God play favorites?” need to always remember two things—who they are and who God is. Paul reminds us of this in Romans 9, when he states,” But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, "Why have you made me like this?" 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?”

We must remember that we are human beings, and that God by definition is one who gets to do what he chooses: indeed, God defines what is right. Because He is a holy and righteous God, who always acts in a manner consistent with His nature, by definition what he does is right and just, even when we don’t understand what He does. In such cases, the fault is not in God, but in the small dimensions of our understanding.

Nevertheless, God has called us into relationship with Himself. For this reason, in His relational kindness he does, within limits, explain Himself to us. And the first principle of understanding who he Is is this::

1. We must always remember that God is God and we are not.

Turning to our texts for today, we may discover information which will help us answer today’s question, “Does God play favorites?”

In today’s Torah reading we read of how God killed the first-born of all the land of Egypt but saved the first-born of Israel. For some of us this is a problem because we read our 21st century values and sense of entitlement into this account. We think that we have a right to stand against God and to tell Him what is fair and what isn’t. In such cases, we must remember our first principle: that God is God and we are not. But there is more.

In this account, we must remember that Israel is God’s covenant people—a people to whom He has promised His protection, a protection which is most evident whenever His people walk in His ways. God always keeps His promises, and slaying the Eqyptian firstborn while saving the Israelite firstborn was necessary for Him to keep his covenant promises to Israel. This brings us to principle number two:

2. God always acts in a manner consistent with His covenant promises.

Our Haftarah passage illumines this principle further for us. In Jeremiah 46:27-28, we read this:

But as for you, do not be afraid, My servant Jacob, and do not be frightened, O Israel, for behold, I am saving you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity, and Jacob shall return and be tranquil and complacent, and none will make [him] afraid. You, do not be afraid, My servant Jacob—the word of Hashem—for I am with you; though I shall make and end of all the nations where I have dispersed you, but of you shall not make an end; I shall punish you with justice, but I shall not destroy you utterly.

I direct your attention especially to this clause in verse 28: "though I shall make and end of all the nations where I have dispersed you, but of you shall not make an end."

God accords to the descendants of Jacob what we might term “Divine Most Favored Nation Status.” In the political realm, Most Favored Nation Status is an international commercial arrangement which binds the signatories to extend trading benefits equal to those accorded any third state. It guarantees equal commercial opportunities, especially concerning import duties and freedom of investment.

Divine Most Favored Nation Status is more exclusive: God deals with the Jewish people in a unique manner of all the people groups on the face of the earth.

In Jeremiah 30:11, the same thought is expressed: “`For I am with you,' declares the LORD, `to save you; For I will destroy completely all the nations where I have scattered you, Only I will not destroy you completely. But I will chasten you justly And will by no means leave you unpunished.'”

And perhaps the most glaring expression of this sentiment is to be found in the words of the prophet Amos, in Amos 3:1-2: 1 Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up out of the land of Egypt: 2 "You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.

Here we find a paradox that must always be maintained, and it brings us to our third principle

3. The descendants of Jacob have unique Most Favored Nation Status with God, but with that unique status comes greater responsibility.

Finally, we come to our Newer Testament reading for the day, which further develops this principle on both a national and individual basis. [read Luke 13:1-5]

Part of what inspired today’s message is the sinking of the ferry boat in the Red Sea with almost 1500 people aboard. Even with some rescued, the death toll of this disaster exceeds that of the Titanic. And this reminds us of the Tsunami disaster of just over a year ago.

Perhaps, in reference to the tsunami, you heard people comment how Thailand is after all a Buddhist country, and that one of the sins to be found there is a trafficking in children for sexual purposes. Some people commented that the disaster must surely be divine retribution for idolatry and sin. And of this Egyptian ferry disaster we are most assuredly going to hear someone say, “Well, some of them were returning from an idolatrous Muslim pilgrimage, and, although we don’t always understand or agree with God’s ways, God took them down because they weren’t his people, as a severe merciful sign that they are not worshipping God in the right way."

Our Newer Covenant reading helps us to evaluate and respond to such statements. It has at least five more principles embedded in it. It is not insignificant that the inquiry Yeshua handles concerns people from Galilee, because Galilee had a low reputation for piety, and some mixed breed people, and even Gentiles, not part of the covenant people, lived there. No doubt the people who approached Yeshua with these questions assumed that in part, this disaster was due to the fact that these were the wrong kind of people with a defective religion. His answer to these inquirers is twofold> First of all, we are forbidden to think of ourselves as better than other people, as less deserving of God’s wrath than they are. Second, we must always remember to concentrate on dealing with our sins rather than theirs. These are a stiff rebuke to current conservative religious attitudes. They are a blow to our pride. And they are meant to be. It is for this reason that Yeshua also mentions a catastrophe that struck some people in religiously respectable Jerusalem. Those people upon whom the Tower of Siloam fell were not defective people---we should not assume that the tragedy came to them because of their defective character or their defective religious practice. Instead, we should take such incidents as a spur to examine ourselves and to repent of our own sins.

So here are five more principles for you:

4. We are forbidden to think of ourselves as better than others: “man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.” These people we despise may have better hearts in the sight of God than we do.

5. We must always remember to concentrate on our own sins, and never on the sins of others.

6. Even if we are part of God’s chosen covenant people, whether the seed of Jacob, or the seed of Abraham by faith, we must realize that if we do not deal with our sins, God may well have to deal with us.

7. In this world, sometimes things just happen, and we must not read theological significance into every event. As in our Newer Covenant reading, tyrants kill people, even in the midst of their religious rites, but this is just something that happened rather than God’s veto of the people or their religion. And towers fall, tsunamis happen, ferry boats sink, calamities strike people down at random. We may read nothing into such events except that such things happen.

8. At all times, it behooves us to be humble. This is something that religious people are very poor at, and we all must work harder at it all the time.

So, returning to today’s question: Does God play favorites? Yes and no. God does accord special treatment and protection to those who are in covenant with Him, but with that special treatment comes additional accountability and no bragging rights.

Let us all become more humble, more aware of and concerned with our own sins rather than those of others, and let us always stand ready to be a source of comfort and assistance to those who suffer calamities of any kind. Chances are they are far more precious in the sight of God than they are in our own eyes.