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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.

All Contents ©2004-2007 Stuart Dauermann - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Friday, March 30, 2007

Set Your Course Toward the Lighthouse

Our readings for Shabbat Tsav link us to the themes of the month of Nisan, the season of our redemption, and a time to think deeply about repentance and renewal. Our Haftarah is especially effective pointing to such paths or righteousness. In effect, this passage is one of many lighthouses in Scripture which powerfully orient those who would travel in God’s ways, just as Scripture in its totality constitutes such a lighthouse.

We begin in the seventh chapter of the Prophet Jeremiah.

21 Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat! 22 For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. 23 But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.

Verses 21-23 are something of a thematic prologue for the passage under consideration, which will end with a thematic epilogue as well. And there is much of interest here. When God says “I did not speak with (your ancestors) concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice,” he is of course not saying, “I never mentioned this,” because, obviously he did. Rather, he is saying, “That was not my point.” Rather, his point was, then as now, to command them and us to do his bidding, to walk ONLY in the way that he enjoins upon us, that he might be our God and we his people.

God provides His word as a lighthouse—a fixed point of reference by which we ought to guide the ship of our life, that our lives might move in the right direction, and that he and we might be associated companions throughout life's journey. The assumption in Scripture, demonstrable in our lives and in the pages of the daily newspaper, is that we are surrounded by distractions and dangers that threaten to detour us from God’s pathways into dangerous depths that we little expect. See what follows here:
24 Yet they did not listen or give ear; they followed their own counsels, the willfulness of their evil hearts. They have gone backward, not forward, 25 from the day your fathers left the land of Egypt until today. And though I kept sending all My servants, the prophets, to them daily and persistently, 26 they would not listen to Me or give ear. They stiffened their necks, they acted worse than their fathers.
27 You shall say all these things to them, but they will not listen to you; you shall call to them, but they will not respond to you. 28 Then say to them: This is the nation that would not obey the Lord their God that would not accept rebuke. Faithfulness has perished, vanished from their mouths.

The problem for our ancestors and for us, is when we turn aside from the pathway marked out by God’s lighthouse. And what is the consequence? Falling into deeper and deeper evil and under the judgment of God. So Jeremiah turns to the language of mourning:

29 Shear your locks and cast them away,
 Take up a lament on the heights,
 For the Lord has spurned and cast off
 The brood that provoked His wrath. 30 For the people of Judah have done what displeases Me — declares the Lord. They have set up their abominations in the House which is called by My name, and they have defiled it. 31 And they have built the shrines of Topheth in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire — which I never commanded, which never came to My mind.

32 Assuredly, a time is coming — declares the Lord — when men shall no longer speak of Topheth or the Valley of Ben-hinnom, but of the Valley of Slaughter; and they shall bury in Topheth until no room is left. 33 The carcasses of this people shall be food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth, with none to frighten them off. 34 And I will silence in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of mirth and gladness, the voice of bridegroom and bride. For the whole land shall fall to ruin.

8:1 At that time — declares the Lord — the bones of the kings of Judah, of its officers, of the priests, of the prophets, and of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be taken out of their graves 2 and exposed to the sun, the moon, and all the host of heaven which they loved and served and followed, to which they turned and bowed down. They shall not be gathered for reburial; they shall become dung upon the face of the earth. 3 And death shall be preferable to life for all that are left of this wicked folk, in all the other places to which I shall banish them — declares the Lord of Hosts.

Yet brightness returns at the end of this haftarah, where the lighthouse is epitomized for us in words that are hard to forget. And here they are:
9:22 Thus said the Lord:
 Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;
 Let not the strong man glory in his strength;
Let not the rich man glory in his riches.
 23 But only in this should one glory:
 In his earnest devotion to Me.
 For I the Lord act with kindness,
 Justice, and equity in the world;
 For in these I delight.

The lighthouse is the transferable light of earnest devotion to God and to His standards— Deeds of lovingkindness, righteousness and justice in the world. The standards of Torah display that light, Yeshua epitomized and reflected that light, and we should seek to reflect that light as well.

The other day I found myself driving behind an SUV that had a sticker in its back window that said “Veritas Aequitas,” Truth and Justice, a watchword from the motion picture "Boondock Saints." Not bad guidelines. The light of Scripture not only includes these guidelines, but more . . . and burns brighter still than the motto on the SUV!

The Smithsonian Institute has an interesting posting at about lighthouses to be found at http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/lighthouses/history.htm. From this we can extract five truths about lighthouses that can help us understand the place Scritpure must continually play if it would illumine our lives:

(1) Lighthouses serve to warn of danger from a spot that sailors could see from a safe distance both night and day.

So Scripture should be our constant reference point in order to continually alert us to the dangers confronting us. The passages from Deuteronomy and Numbers which we read in the Shema section of our liturgy remind us or the continual reorientation around Scripture: “ These words which I command you this day shall be with you “when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up . . . remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which lead you astray. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God” (Deut 6, 11; Num 15).

(2) Lighthouses serve as guides into harbors or anchorages.

Similarly, if we are to find the safe harbor and anchorage of eternal communion with God, we must learn to guide our actions by the light of His word. It is not enough to believe in the Light—one must follow it. Some people concentrate so much on right belief that they fail to see how much Scripture focuses on right conduct. This is something which Judaism has to teach the Christian world, something we need to learn, an orientation of our moment by moment lives: a focus on the deed. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Judaism is the religion of the common deed,” and so, we should all focus on our deeds—Is this action I am contemplating one that will commend me on the Day of Judgment? And if not, is there something I need to do to remedy the mess I’ve made? As Paul puts it in 2 Cor 5, “we must all appear before the Messiah's court of judgment, where everyone will receive the good or bad consequences of what he did while he was in the body.” This orientation, found deeply in Scripture, should guide every day, every hour, every minute, in every situation.

(3) Lighthouses provide a fixed point of reference to aid our ability to navigate in the dark when the shore or an offshore hazard cannot be seen directly.

If we were able in ourselves to detect the spiritual dangers confronting us, we would not need the Light of Scripture. But the fact is, we are blind, deaf, and habitually self-deceived. Indeed, Scripture says we not only deceive ourselves, we even tempt ourselves. Without the Light of Scripture we are lost. And it is not enough to say that we already know what Scripture says. This would be like a person saying that he once saw the lighthouse and has no further need to seek it or to orient his journey in its direction. No, we must return again and again to the lighthouse that we might avoid the hazards between us and our goal, and make the repeated course corrections of a God-led life.

(4) The distance at which such a light can be seen depends on the height and intensity of the light. The brighter the light and the greater its height above the sea, the farther it can be seen.

Sometimes people are inclined not to consult the light of Scripture because it is just too bright—its goals seemingly unattainable and far too ambitious. It is easy to see how people can feel that way, especially if their lives are not going very well. But such persons should realize that it is just this brightness, just this height from which Scripture shines, just this radiance permeating Yeshua, that constitutes the power the Light has to rescue us. Were the Light not so bright and so high, it would not penetrate the darkness with which we are so often surrounded.

(5) When the weather is bad, with rain, snow, or fog, visibility can be greatly reduced.

When our lives grow chaotic and compromised in some manner, when sin has held sway in our lives, when we are upset and thrown off course by forces from within and without, when some dark spiritual conspiracy has thrown a pall over of lives—at least for a time--when evil companions have influenced us to our own peril, in such circumstances and more, the light can be obscured and difficult to see. However, there is no darkness that can completely quench and overcome the Light. Yochanan’s Besorah, the Gospel of John, says it this way: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

What shall we do with all of this? Just this:

(1) One can scarcely overdo consulting the Bible constantly as a central habit of life—it is a Light for our path.

(2) Nor can one overdo pondering the holiness of life exemplified by Yeshua, seeking to find there a comparison point and compass for our own ways of relating to God and man.
Therefore, make it your goal to become nothing less than Christlike, and to imitate others whose lives reflect the character of Yeshua.

(3) Powerful darkness and deceit dogs our steps and hinders our journey. Therefore, make it your constant habit to catch your own self-deceit, to edit evil companions out of your life, to always choose or return to the right orientation. The consequences of going deeper into darkness are horrific, involving nothing less than total devastation, despair, and destruction. Therefore, always seek the light, walk in the light.

While it is true that in Messiah we have forgiveness resources, this should never be taken as an indicator that sin is not serious, that wandering from the path of righteousness is not dangerous to our very survival. No, forgiveness helps us to return to the paths or righteousness for His name’s sake—and this is what we must do again and again—returning to the path which the Light illumines.

Jeremiah provides an epilogue that epitomizes what we have been saying here.

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;
 Let not the strong man glory in his strength;
 Let not the rich man glory in his riches.
 But only in this should one glory:
 In his earnest devotion to Me.
 For I the Lord act with kindness,
 Justice, and equity in the world;
 For in these I delight.

The first Psalm puts it this way:

1 How blessed are those who reject the advice of the wicked, don't stand on the way of sinners or sit where scoffers sit! 2 Their delight is in ADONAI's Torah; on his Torah they meditate day and night. 3 They are like trees planted by streams -they bear their fruit in season, their leaves never wither, everything they do succeeds

4 Not so the wicked, who are like chaff driven by the wind. 5 For this reason the wicked won't stand up to the judgment, nor will sinners at the gathering of the righteous. 6 For ADONAI watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked is doomed.

Follow the light. Head toward the harbor. And stay safe.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Sow What? A Meditation on the Parable of the Soils - Matthew 13

I have been sick with something or other lately. I don’t know yet what it is, but I have had occasional vertigo, some listlessness, and alarmingly high blood pressure for the past week. It is not the flu, but apparently something that is “going around.” And yes, I did go to the doctor.

When we experience sudden illness we think of our own mortality—that we’re not going to live in this life forever. Actually, during this past week, when I have at times felt like death warmed over, I have had occasion to be grateful for illness. One of the things it does for us is remind us to weigh what our life ought to be about.

Today’s passage from the teachings of Yeshua is related directly to the issue of spending our lives productively. I invite you to consider four lessons from this text.

1 That same day, Yeshua went out of the house and sat down by the lake; 2 but such a large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there while the crowd stood on the shore. 3 He told them many things in parables: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he sowed, some seed fell alongside the path; and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky patches where there was not much soil. It sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow; 6 but when the sun had risen, the young plants were scorched; and since their roots were not deep, they dried up. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 But others fell into rich soil and produced grain, a hundred or sixty or thirty times as much as had been sown. 9 Those who have ears, let them hear!" 10 Then the talmidim came and asked Yeshua, "Why are you speaking to them in parables?" 11 He answered, "Because it has been given to you to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it has not been given to them. 12 For anyone who has something will be given more, so that he will have plenty; but from anyone who has nothing, even what he does have will be taken away. 13 Here is why I speak to them in parables: they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. 14 That is, in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Yesha`yahu which says, `You will keep on hearing but never understand, and keep on seeing but never perceive, 15 because the heart of this people has become dull -- with their ears they barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, so as not to see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and do t'shuvah, so that I could heal them.' 16 But you, how blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear! 17 Yes indeed! I tell you that many a prophet and many a tzaddik longed to see the things you are seeing but did not see them, and to hear the things you are hearing but did not hear them. 18 "So listen to what the parable of the sower means. 19 Whoever hears the message about the Kingdom, but doesn't understand it, is like the seed sown along the path -- the Evil One comes and seizes what was sown in his heart. 20 The seed sown on rocky ground is like a person who hears the message and accepts it with joy at once, 21 but has no root in himself. So he stays on for a while; but as soon as some trouble or persecution arises on account of the message, he immediately falls away. 22 Now the seed sown among thorns stands for someone who hears the message, but it is choked by the worries of the world and the deceitful glamor of wealth, so that it produces nothing. 23 However, what was sown on rich soil is the one who hears the message and understands it; such a person will surely bear fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirty times what was sown."

A perspective to adopt – What does it mean to invest our lives well? According to this text, we spend our lives well whenever we are growing in understanding and fruitfulness. Notice that the payoff verse of the parable, verse 23, reminds us, “What was sown on rich soil is the one who hears the message and understands it; such a person will surely bear fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirty times what was sown." We live well when we continue growing in understanding and fruitfulness.

What is understanding? Understanding in this context is an ever-renewing clarity on what it means to walk with God in our particular set of challenging circumstances and opportunities. What does it mean to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God not in general, but in the most minute details of my particular day to day life and within the full range of my relationships? Although there will certainly be overlap, my pathway of faithfulness and yours will not be the same, and cannot be the same. The areas where my integrity and love for God is being tested are different from yours, the relationships where my faithfulness must be worked out are mine, as yours are yours. But we do have this in common: growth in understanding means ever-renewing clarity on what the LORD our God is requiring of us in the here and now.

And what is fruitfulness? Fruitfulness is a life that consistently expands our knowledge of God and that pleases Him. As Paul describes this kind of life in Col 1:10, this is a life of “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” Fruitfulness is the kind of life that reflects well upon our Father in Heaven—it means bearing the family likeness. “Live such good lives among the pagans that . . . they will, as a result of seeing your good actions, give glory to God on the Day of his coming.”

It is “bearing fruit in every good work”—a fruitfulness evident throughout the entire range of life experience.

A process to choose—
spiritual avoidance leads to spiritual poverty, spiritual acquisition leads to spiritual wealth. To put it otherwise, those who choose immaturity fail to grow, and those who choose to grow, mature. Yeshua names this process in verse 12: “For anyone who has something will be given more, so that he will have plenty; but from anyone who has nothing, even what he does have will be taken away.”

If we are not constantly acquiring more insight and more wisdom, if our spirituality is not expanding, it is shrinking—that is the only other choice. No one stands still. And there is no neutral place to stand. Yeshua articulates and assumes this perspective frequently: “Those who are not with me are against me, and those who do not gather with me are scattering . . . Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 11:33; 17:33). Spiritual shrinking leads in one direction, downward, and it only grows worse and worse.

It is the sick person who has no appetite. If he/she does not eat, he she will not get well, but will become more and more ill. The spiritually avoidant, the person only feebly and reluctantly engaged with the things of God, the person who just doesn’t want to be bothered right now, and who is too busy to make room for the demands of the Kingdom, the person who cannot be bothered to dig in and devour Kingdom living—living in the power of the Spirit, in unavailable to the initiatives of God. Such people are destined to become weak, enfeebled, and shrink back until they disappear. Not happy news!

And what is Kingdom living? It is wholehearted responsiveness to the invitation to engage with what God is up to in the world—to partner with the Spirit of God in tikkun olam—setting right a world that is out of joint. The invitation to Kingdom engagement is not simply general, but is specific—there are times when God nudges us to “Arise, leave your nets, and follow me.” If we are too busy to respond, or deaf to the invitation, we don’t just stand still: we fall behind.

On the other hand, one CAN choose the alternative—One can choose to knock, to seek, to find, to press on to make our own that for which Messiah has grasped hold of us. One can choose to authentically engage. The spiritually healthy person cultivates a healthy appetite, and grows stronger and stronger, and, as their spirituality expands, so does their appetite. Such persons are engaged today, and will be engaged tomorrow. And such persons continue to grow.

So the choice for all of us is to dwindle or to grow, to decrease or to increase. And if one is going to choose growth and increase, one will need to hear, to learn, to engage, to practice what one learns with conscientious regularity. If you cannot be bothered too engage with spiritual learning and to practice what you learn, you will end up suffering the effects of spiritual malnutrition.

Problems to avoid -
The four environments where the seed is sown, the three soils, describe four mindsets, three of which strangle the productivity of the Word in our lives.

(1) Not bothering to engage, not bothering to understand. This is the seed sown along the path. The inability to understand is not due to a lack of intelligence, but rather to a lack of interest. Yeshua speaks rather caustically here of such people because they could have and should have understood, but such understanding only comes to those who seek it. And if we will not aggressively engage with the things of God, with the life of the Kingdom, we will become ever more dull of hearing As Yeshua says here, “. . . in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Yesha`yahu which says, `You will keep on hearing but never understand, and keep on seeing but never perceive, because the heart of this people has become dull -- with their ears they barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, so as not to see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart, and do t'shuvah, so that I could heal them.'” It is a dangerous thing to close ones ears and eyes to the things of God, to defer engagement with the invitation to the Kingdom.

(2) Superficial non-sacrificial spirituality. This is the second kind of soil, sown on rocky soil. These are people who wrongly imagine that the invitation to Kingdom engagement is only life-enhancing, that it simply fills in the empty places, while making no demands, involving no risks, and requiring no sacrifice. Such a message is prevalent today—it is the common assumption about Yeshua oriented spirituality: but it is a lie. People who accept this lie tend to bail out and back off when encountering the social stigma, inconvenience, or painful consequences entailed in heedin the Kingdom invitation. As Paul put it later, “all who desire to life godly lives in Messiah Yeshua will suffer persecution.” Many people are not up for that: they succumb to their first reflex: to back off, to disengage, to retreat from what God is calling them to, to always protect what they have and minimize risk. And it is my observation that the older we get, the more self-protective we get—younger people take risks because loss does not seem fully real to them, but older people tend to conserve resources they consider to be finite and ever dwindling. The question is, when we hoard our resources of time, treasures, and talents, could it be that we ourselves are dwindling while the resources are protected?

This is not to say that the Kingdom of God is all suffering, sacrifice, and martyrdom. Far from it! But it is to say that, like everything else worthwhile, there is a price tag involved. And those who are not willing to pay the price, get nothing in return.

(3) Seduction by other priorities - Verse 22 speaks of this kind of person: “Now the seed sown among thorns stands for someone who hears the message, but it is choked by the worries of the world and the deceitful glamor of wealth, so that it produces nothing. “The worries of the world”—that is the fear response, and “the deceitful glamour or riches”—that is the surfeit response—the person who believes that material possessions and fame will lead to ultimate fulfillment. Of curse this is not so, but people get seduced by priorities and options in such a manner as to blunt the endge

A priority to honor-
This brings us back to verse 23, where we began our contemplations: “However, what was sown on rich soil is the one who hears the message and understands it; such a person will surely bear fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirty times what was sown." We must be a people who above all take care to be receptive custodians of the Kingdom.

Yeshua teaches extensively about Kingdom engagement. Before I did, he used the metaphor of an invitation. Perhaps the bottom line for these teachings can be found in the simple phrase: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” This must become priority one, because that is the only way it works. We need to devour the truth and let ourselves be devoured by its demands. Paul puts it this way: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.

Of course this is paradoxical language: by definition, sacrifices are dead. What is a living sacrifice? A living sacrifice is someone who has allowed him/herself to die to an old priority system, an old way of thinking and being, that something new might live. Paul put it this way. So Paul could say to the Philippians: “For to me, life is the Messiah, and death is gain. . . When the Messiah was executed on the stake as a criminal, I was too; so that my proud ego no longer lives. But the Messiah lives in me, and the life I now live in my body I live by the same trusting faithfulness that the Son of God had, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”

There is an exchanged life here, that Someone else’s point of view and priority system should prevail in my life. This is what it means say a deep “Yes” to the Kingdom invitation.

It helps me to reduce all of this to one sentence, one metaphor. With that in mind, my goal at this time in my life is to make my life a whole burnt offering. It is not a once for all thing, but a daily challenge. I only know this: it is what I feed that will grow. If we sow to the flesh, if we nurture our immaturity and self-centeredness, we will become more and more immature, but if we sow to the Spirit, if we respond to the Kingdom invitation and its demands, we will grow.

What are you sowing to? Are you choosing to grow? Or are you on your way to the vanishing point?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

On the New Covenant Not Simply Trumping the Old

I wonder if it is not a bit artificial for us to imagine that we must find New Covenant texts to support practices coming out of an Old Covenant or Jewish communal context. It seems to me that supersessionism is at the root of this habit, which all of us have evidenced in one degree or another. In such a view, the assumption is that the New Covenant trumps the old in all its aspects, and that the New Covenant community trumps the old as well. Therefore, the only way we can justify practices is to find New Covenant evidence for them. This is supersessionism and leads directly into Hebrew Christian DIspensationalism which states that the Mosaic Code is now rendered null and void, and that the only practices we should entertain are those explicitly affirmed in the New Covenant Scriptures.

I don’t think it correct to imagine that the New Covenant Scriptures were given as a manual of practice for Messianic Jews, and certainly not as a replacement manual. Not all matters are taught in the New Testament—many things are either unaddressed or assumed. So it is that we see the Jewish believers in Jerusalem still leading observant Jewish lives decades after Pentecost (Acts 21). Richard Bauckham, consummate British scholar and expert on the family of Jesus, writes in his commentary on James, “As far as we can tell, the vast majority of Jewish Christians in the NT period continued to observe the whole law, taking for granted that they were still obligated to do so.” Notice not only the content of what he is saying, but also that he says “as far as we can tell.” This means that this is an inference drawn from NT practice and historical data, but not something that is specifically and systematically addressed. Therefore, since the New Covenant does not systematically address every matter, is it not artificial to require New Covenant corroboration for our practice in all points?

Perhaps we should rather assume that generally, things are permitted that are not otherwise forbidden.

Finally, we need to realize that ALL of us and everyone constructs their theology out of assumptions, constructs, and theories we bring TO the Scripture, and not simply derived from the Scripture. When I had the privilege of teaching at Indiana Wesleyan University, I was given a booklet written by one of the faculty there, Ken Schenck. On the subject of hermeneutics (the science of interpretation), he says the following:

“James does not tell us how to connect his ‘a person is justified by works and nt by faith alone,’ (Jas. 2:24) to Paul’s ‘a person is justified by faith and not by works of law’ (Rom. 3:28). An important step toward a mature use of Scripture is the acknowledgment that the glue that holds these concepts together in our thinking is not biblical glue—it ultimately cannot come from the Bible itself. Rather, it is glue that we bring from our personalities and backgrounds, not to mention the broader Christian (and Jewish!) traditions of which we are a part. This is nto a bad thing—it becomes bad primarily when we do not recognize it. . . We note that the most important steps in the appropriation of the Bible for today are steps that the Bible itself cannot tell us how to take” (A Brief Guide to Biblical Interpretation. Marion, Indiana:: Triangle Publishing, 2005:18).

Despite proof texts that many, including i myself, could adduce, it remains true that the life of faith inevitably involves human choices and prioritizations.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On the Greater Responsibility and Offensiveness to Some of the Jewish Way of Life

Recently, one of my students asked this question:

Although I thoroughly agree with anyone who seeks Teshuvah(repentance) and a return to a holy life rooted in Halakhah,Talmud Torah,Shabbat observance, etc., I feel that the “greater riches” issue needs to be firmly tempered with the other side of the balance which would seem to me to be “greater judgement”. Isn’t it this issue of a superior destiny, superior rewards, that makes Gentile Yeshua believers very nervous? Haven’t we over-emphasized the rewards stemming from the overwhelming kindness of the Father in giving the Torah to His people Israel as a standard of behavior, at the expense of the “sternness” (Romans 14) of the Father to those of whom more was expected because more was given?

To which I answered . . .

We cannot escape nor tamper with either side of the equation. If the Laws of Torah are God’s laws to us as Jews, then we do face greater culpability by virtue of our Jewish status, whether we wish to embrace that culpability or not. This is why Paul can say in Galatians 5 that anyone who receives circumcision is obligated to keep the whole Law. It is a covenant obligation—not simply a choice of style. As for whether Gentile believers get nervous or not, is that really the point? I don’t mean that we should be crass and uncaring about the reactions of our Gentile brethren, but neither can we nor should we redraw the boundaries of Messianic Jewish obedience to placate anyone or to include everyone. The laws are God’s laws, the obedience is the responsibility of the family of Jacob. It is our obligation (Gal 5:3), not to be negotiated away.

This does not make us better than anyone else, nor should anyone act as if this is the case. Rather, God has established different households in creation (this discussion in Pauline texts borrows categories from Aristotle). In the Jewish household, these laws, statutes and ordinances are our responsibility—not so for non-Jews. This is why Paul will say that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, but keeping the commandments of God. This statement comes in the context of discussing his principle that each person should remain in the situation in which he/she was called, Jews to remain Jews and Gentiles to remain Gentiles. When he says that what matters is “keeping the commandments of God,” in context, he is advocating that each should keep those commandments appropriate to his/her station—male or famale, Jew or Gentile, child or adult—in each case the halachic standard varies.

You ask, “Isn’t it this issue of a superior destiny, superior rewards, that makes Gentile Yeshua believers very nervous? Haven’t we over-emphasized the rewards stemming from the overwhelming kindness of the Father, at the expense of the “sternness” Romans 14 of the Father to those of whom more was expected because more was given?” Well, I have never used, nor do I choose to use, nor should we ever use the terms “superior destiny, superior rewards.” This is horrendous language, because if one is superior, then there is no category left for the other but inferior! Horrendous! This is neither Scripture’s language nor mine. Rather, Scripture underscores that Israel and Church from among the nations have differentiated destinies and roles. And again, as for people getting “nervous” about this, what are we supposed to do? Jettison scripture? Soft-pedal obedience? Create a new tailor-made lowest common denominator Jew-Gentile Messianic Judaism which offends no one? If the commandments God gave at Sinai retain any mandatory force for the sons and daughters of Jacob, then all of the options just mentioned are a form of apostasy.

Yes, there is a sternness here as well, an unavoidable sternness which we cannot modify away, or trim back. Scripture is always clear on this matter: Amos 3:2 – “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for your iniquities.” Now some will object that with the coming of Christ, we need not fear that punishment. I am not convinced. Should we imagine that with the coming of Christ, since there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, that obedience has become purely a matter of personal preference, “If it’s your style?” Do we believe that Jesus obeyed the Father for us so that we would no longer have to?

Yes, there is a sternness, and there is also an added privilege in being Jews (see Ps. 147:19-20; Romans 3:1-2; 9:1-5). But it is not legitimate to tailor our religion so as to avoid the sternness, to modify the privilege, to relativize the importance of obedience, or to avoid offending those who resent the uniqueness of Israel’s calling.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Which Torah Should We Observe, Written or Oral?

There is a crucial issue imbedded in this question of which few take note: The Torah was not given to any of my Jewish readers, or to Stuart Dauermann, or even to Abraham Joshua Heschel—the Torah was given to the entire Jewish people throughout time. It was the entire people, both collectively and through their representatives, who took upon themselves the yoke of Torah at Sinai (see Ex. 24). This being the case, we ought not to conceive of our task as being (a) Looking at the Law as individuals and as a Movement; (b) Looking at the New Covenant as individuals and as a Movement; (c) deciding what we as individuals and as a Movement are going to do with the former in view of the latter. To so consider the issue is to act as though we are outside of greater Israel, that people throughout time to whom the Torah is given. We must also, on the basis of Matt 23:2-3, if not for other reasons, realize that under God, it is the leadership of Israel, and the people of Israel to whom interpretation of Torah’s demands and the responsibilility for covenant faithfulness have been given. In Matthew 23, when Yeshua says, “do whatever they tell you to do,” he is echoing the very words of Dt. 17:11 ff., which the rabbinic establishment use to support their authority. He is saying in effect, “The rabbis have the responsibility and the right to lead the way in interpreting halacha—the practical working out of obedience to this (Torah) covenant.” We as a Messianic Jewish community must work out the shape of our own obedience in respectful interaction with the history and the current reality of Jewish communal process.

To my mind this is similar to the case of Constitutional tax resisters. These are people who, looking at the Constitution and perhaps the Federalist Papers, draw the conclusion that the Federal Income Tax is unconstitutional and that therefore they should not be required to pay it nor will they. What is wrong with this picture? Just this: they have arrogated to themselves the right to interpret the Constitution independent of those bodies charged with its interpretation and the entire history of its interpretation since its inception.

Could not the same be said of us when Messianic Jews and MJ organizations act as if the task of Torah interpretation were ours, to be carried out in implicit separation from the very community to whom it was given and whose processes and leaders are the divinely appointed means toward its authorized interpretation?

Does this mean that we may not beg to differ, and may not have differences of opinion with the mainstream Jewish consensus? Of course not! Does it mean that we might not have contributions to the process which God wants us to insert, and which are important? Of course not! But it does mean that we must address the task of interpretation through respectful interaction with the tradition and those charged with its shaping and stewardship, and that when we do take exception, we do so in dialogue with that community and process, as participants, and not solitary isolation or disapproving removal from the wider Jewish community and its halachic process.

Finally, these are not decisions to be made by individuals—halachic norms are not only established by long and broad communal agreement, but also by broad-based contemporary communal process. In other words, the halachic norms your congregation adheres to should not, indeed, must not, be the product of your considerations alone, but should be the consequence of the knowledgeable and respectful deliberations of a broader group of rabbis. Such a group has formed within our Union, but is, as you may know, controversial for having done so. Sigh . . .

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Kind of Person God Won’t Use

The following is a sermon for the Haftarah of Shabbat Zachor, ! Samuel 15. It concerns King Saul, the first king of Israel, and how his grandiosity and lack of integrity cost him everything.

Through Samuel, God told Saul to blot out Amalek—to deal radically with a cancer that had to be removed. But Saul had a better idea. And by failing to deal with matters the way God intended, Saul became the kind of man God could not use.

If we would avoid Saul’s fate, we must learn from his mistakes and not repeat them.

The thing about Saul was that he not only disobeyed: he lied to himself about it. He was a person whose sins were not his responsibility, but always someone else’s fault. Saul was someone who imagined his disobedience to be completely understandable.

It was not simply that he committed sin, it was that he was dishonest with everyone about his sins, begining with himself. And so the sin survived to grow—symbolized in this case by his allowing Agag the King of Amalek to live because he found it flattering to do so. (Jewish tradition posits that this surving Agag became the ancestor of Haman the Agagite, a notorious enemy of the Jews, who almost wiped out the Persian Jewish population, as recorded in the Book of Esther.

Another key indictment here is that people like Saul can and do sometimes substitute religious performance for obedience. God is not impressed. He says, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” This is not a passage against sacrifice—it is a passage against presuming to try and snow God, yourself, and others.

A third indictment in this passage is that such persons, often narcissistic persons, are generally prone to make cboices that make themselves look good. So it is that Saul looks good when he has an enemy king as a prisoner. He also looks good when he gives all his henchmen the plunder which he was supposed to destroy.

The upshot of these indictments is the removal of Saul from his position of privilege. He loses it all.

You may find a little or more than a little of Saul in yourself. Or perhaps you are afraid that you might repeat Saul’s mistakes. In that case, there are some things you can do.

First, make it a point to constantly tell the truth to yourself about your own compromises and sins. Be unflinchingly honest.

Second, decide now to stop the blame game—the reflexive habit of blaming others for your sins—“I wouldn’t do this, but they did that to me, so can you blame me?” “I can’t help myself!”

Third, beware of trying to impress God with religious camouflage. “To obey is better than sacrifice.” This means that you and I should not be concentrating on appearances, but on obedience, especially hidden obedience, obedience in the little things.

Fourth, examine yourself honestly to see if you have an overdeveloped need to look good. This means you deeply resent and obsess about anything that makes you look bad. It means you are always choose roles where you will come out looking good. IF you find in yourself a sickening need to always look good, realize that this is warped and immature. It is far better to do the right thing and look bad, than to do the wrong thing and look good.

Finally, realize that God can always knock you off your high horse, God can always remove you from your position, no matter how high and secure it is.

The bottom line then is this: learn to walk in the fear of God. Saul didn’t—and he lost everything.

As New Covenant believers, we have additional resources and insight into this dynamic.

17 By God's grace, you, who were once slaves to sin, obeyed from your heart the pattern of teaching to which you were exposed;

Verse 17 tells us that when we become Yeshua believers, there should be a standard of teaching to which we are exposed. This standard of teaching should include a very high standard of holiness—of walking in righteous character, maturing into the kind of person who makes progress instead of making excuses. I am afraid I have not done a good job here proclaiming that kind of standard. I will try and do better, But meanwhile, we need to set a very high standard and hold ourselves responsible to it.

This verse also reminds us that we ought to obey this pattern of teaching from the heart. There’s that word again: obey, or obedience. We must obey from the heart. I fear that too many of us are half-hearted about obedience to God. We need to do the hard work of holding ourselves accountable—and of working toward this standard like we really mean it—from the heart.

If we don’t do that, then the rest of this verse won’t be true: “You used to be slaves of sin.” If we do not learn to obey from the heart, to give to God heartfelt obedience, we will remain slaves of sin—that is, people who are characterized by patterns of immature, self-serving, blaming, shoddy and ungodly behavior. The only way to freedom in Messiah in the area of personal sin is to “obey from the heart.” Another word for this is to “take responsibility.”

Verse eighteen says gives us a broad strokes picture this kind of perspective. We should see ourselves as those who have been set free from sin’s dominance through the work of Messiah, persons who therefore choose to no longer live immature, other-blaming, self-indulgent, narcissistic lives. Instead, we should be people who make an increasing habit of yielding ourselves to God.

I spent the past week with a godly man—with a man mature in the things of God, who is the world’s greatest expert in his field. What impressed me most of this man was his humble faithfulness in little things. Here he is, the world’s greatest expert in Christian ministry in his field, and he is working on an article long-hand, driving himself around, at the end of a long work day, going to his room to complete this article which will appear in Christianity Today in a couple of months. What will not appear in Christianity Today is the record of his humble service, and dependability in the simple details, that is so much better than sacrifice.

As James Kugel points out in his book, “On Being a Jew,” true spirituality involves being Klein instead of Gross—small instead of large. It involves learning to color within the lines that God has laid out. For too many of us, our ambition is expansive, as was the case for Saul. Could it be that it is far better to be modest in our service of God, attending to the little things, rather than looking for the next big thing?

As Luke 16:10 puts it, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” We would all do well to become focused on the small things, the little details. Saul, on the other hand was grandiose in his ambitions . . . and unfaithful to God.

Saul was the kind of person God couldn’t and wouldn’t use. If you want to be part of what God is doing in the world—don’t repeat his sins. Above all, you must wipe out Amalek in your life .. . . those things God says “No” to but which you habitually allow to survive because it makes you feel better to do so. Deal radically with Amalek in your life. And make it a constant habit to tell yourself the truth, stop blaming others, and to take responsibility to be and to do according to the call of God on your life.

It makes all the difference.