And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the receipt of custom, and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.
//Levi, elsewhere called Matthew, held a contemptible office. He was a tax collector, sitting in the tax office. He was working for the Roman government, taking money from honest working men and giving it to the Empire. His own personal income came from whatever excess he decided to charge, and many in his profession grew rich because of their less than scrupulous ways.
That was how tax collectors were commonly perceived. They were the traitors, among the worst of sinners. Jesus happened upon this man in his hated profession and called him. “Follow me,” he invited. So where did they go?
And it came to pass, that, as Jesus sat at meat in his house, many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples: for there were many, and they followed him.
To the house of Levi. To the house of sin. Levi didn’t follow Jesus; Jesus followed Levi home. And there, he invited many more tax collectors and sinners to follow him. There, he probably received more invitations to more traitors’ homes.
Jesus’s call to “follow him” isn’t into the beautiful homes of the beautiful people. It’s into the nest of the spiritually needy, those we may never think to call a friend … until we get to know them.
by Chris Hoke
Dark and yet hope-filled, this book carries you along on the journey of a young pastor through gangs, prisons, and illegal immigrants. These are desperate people. But these are the people–like the huckster tax collector Matthew in the Bible–that Jesus made a point of befriending.
It’s an emotional and frightening journey. Chris at first felt uncomfortable with the title of Pastor, but that’s what his outcast acquaintances insisted on calling him. Pastor means “shepherd” … in this case, a shepherd to the black sheep. It’s where Chris seemed to belong:
“Growing up in many churches, I never found them to be raw or extremely honest places–not places where you could show the worst side of yourself. But I found the jail to be a place where inmates didn’t have the option to hide their problems. Hard as one may try with weak laughter or macho fronts before guards, you can’t pretend your life is working out just fine when you’re locked in the county jail. Here, people are left staring–innocent or guilty of the specific charges–at the wreck of their lives. And in this place, in these rooms of unadorned life, I found something that clergy call sacrament, mysteries I could feel. More than bible studies, the one-on-one visits with the men were the sites of holy encounters for me.”
The fellowship in prison grew, and Chris’s faith grew alongside it.
“I felt like I was falling deeper in love as all this happened. It wasn’t just with these broken lives at the table with me. It was love for the One through whose eyes I was possibly learning to see. I began to suspect I was sensing the desire of Another–God’s desire for the locked-up.”
Raw and real, this is a book you don’t want to miss if you’re serious about being a Christian. I hope to provide a few excerpts from the book in future posts.
Harper One, © 2015, 367 pages
“‘Without wine there is no joy,’” Matthew quoted a rabbinic saying. He still stared over the wall. “Your tale speaks truly, if it is meant as a parable of today’s age. Remember what Isaiah prophesied? ‘The new wine dries up and the vine withers; all the merrymakers groan.’ And do you know why, John? You know why, Ruth?” When neither spoke, Matthew answered his own question. “‘The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant.’”
“But Matthew …” John lifted a hand, palm outward.
“‘The ruined city lies desolate; the entrance to every house is barred,’” Matthew’s voice fell to a sad whisper as he continued to quote the prophet Isaiah. “I have seen the prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled, John! I have been to Jerusalem and seen the desolation! There is no messiah coming!” A bug scurried along the rock wall, and Matthew squished it with his thumb, as efficiently as God squished his Holy City.
“You’re right about Jerusalem, Matthew, but—”
Turning around, Matthew rumbled over the weaker man’s voice, his peacekeeping objective already faltering. “‘In the streets they cry out for wine; all joy turns to gloom, all gaiety is banished from the earth. The city is left in ruins, its gate is battered to pieces.’”
“And so did Israel feel while yet Jesus walked the earth, Matthew! Even before the war! We have been pinned under Roman oppression for a hundred years! We have suffered under self-serving and irreverent priests even longer! Yes, the Great War was terrible, but our people felt the desperation of Israel for a long time before that.”
Matthew shut up, his point made. But John would not let the matter drop. “Do you remember what Isaiah promised immediately after that prophecy, Matthew?”
Matthew pursed his lips. Ruth could sense him holding back, trying to rein in his crankiness, so she spoke for him: “‘The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine.’”
“Right,” John agreed, impressed by Ruth’s command of the Jewish scriptures. “And that’s the story I have to tell. Now, may I continue?”
–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon
And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
//If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that there is not one right way to interpret the stories of Jesus. There is a richness of ideas and lessons contained in these simple stories and parables that I never imagined.
Take this story of the woman who put everything she owned into the temple treasury. Traditionally, I may have appreciated her willingness to give, even to the last penny. What a trust in God she had!
But what if Jesus wasn’t pointing out her faithfulness? What if Jesus was highlighting the blood-sucking ways of the Temple system, and pointing her out as a victim?
Then the parable says this: “Don’t be like this poor victim. The religious system will leave you empty and broke. This system may work for the rich, but for the poor, it only leaves them more destitute.”
Why would we think this is what Jesus was saying? Read the story in context! Jesus had just issued a warning about the scribes and how they “devour widows’ houses.” Then he points to this poor widow as an example.
In the Bible, the Spirit is associated with creation. In Genesis 1:2, the wind/spirit/breath-of-God blows across the deep. Thus the wind provides an excellent picture of the Spirit, roaming the earth. Breath is merely wind inside us. To be “born of the Spirit” means to be created anew, embracing the meaning of life intended by God. It is God breathing new life into a person. In both Hebrew and Greek, there is only one word for both “wind” and “spirit.” The tendency of the churches of today to conceptualize and personify this spirit costs it much of the meaning. It is wind all around and inside us, cosmic breath, the invisible, spectral life-force.
Try to picture the moment Jesus rose from his baptism in the Jordan waters and felt the Spirit descend upon him. Have you had such moments? For many, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, impossible to forget. The moment arrives in transcendental form, and we feel bathed in a foreign substance.
In such moments, it’s common to be overwhelmed by an indescribable feeling of joy, peace, and love.
–The River of Life, Energion Publications, 2014 by Lee Harmon
And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him.
//Continued from yesterday: Suppose, in the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac, that the two names for God–Yahweh and Elohim–refer to different beings, rather than to the same god. Suppose that Yahweh is the god who called Abraham out of Ur, while Elohim refers to the gods he once worshipped.
Yesterday’s post ended with Elohim calling to Abraham, enticing him to return to his polytheistic, blood-sacrificing ways. The gods he once worshipped invite him to Mount Moriah to sacrifice his son on an alter.
So Abraham goes. He binds his son, places him on the altar, and raises the sacrificial knife. Today’s verse is what happens next. (Hint: when your Bible reads “God,” the original Hebrew reads Elohim; when your Bible reads “the Lord,” the original Hebrew reads Yahweh.)
Did you catch it? It’s Yahweh back on stage now. Elohim calls for sacrifice, but Yahweh calls it off. Israel’s God has a different idea:
For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. –Hosea 6:6
And Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.
//Yesterday I introduced the Documentary Hypothesis, and how it assumes two different Biblical authors contributed to the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. This assumption stems from the use of Elohim as a name for God by one author, and by Yahweh as a name for God by the other author. But what if this different naming is intentional? What if the story means to use two different names for God?
The story of Abraham (known as Abram in this verse) begins in the land of Ur. This might be significant. Ur is modern-day Iraq, and the religion of the Chaldeans there was polytheistic. They believed in multiple gods who demanded blood sacrifice. Yahweh instructs Abraham to leave this land and its gods and travel to another.
In this new land, there eventually comes a day when Abraham is “tested” by God. But this testing is by the god of another name; not Yahweh but Elohim. The title Elohim is often read as plural, the plural of El, meaning “gods.” It is also often used to refer to Canaanite gods. It’s as if the God of Israel (Yahweh) calls Abraham out of Ur, and then the gods of Ur (Elohim) entice him to return to his old ways, even asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. They tell him to go to the “land of Moriah,” which may mean the land of the Amorites. In other words, to leave Yahweh’s land and take his son to the land where human sacrifice was practiced.
The story continues tomorrow.
And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.
//This story disturbs an awful lot of Bible readers. God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering. Abraham does what God demands, taking his son up a mountain, building an altar, and binding him on the altar. As he reaches for the knife to slay his son, God finally intervenes and tells Abraham not to kill Isaac.
Yes, God intervened. But what loving God would ask this of a person in the first place? What father would obey such a request? Which of you, today, could imagine that it is God doing the asking if such a thing were demanded of you?
It gets worse. Bible scholars recognize that there are multiple authors contributing to this story. Those familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis know the two authors as the Elohist and the Yahwist. The Elohist refers to God as Elohim; the Yahwist as Yahweh. The Elohist tells the story of Abraham’s call to slay his son, and tells also of Abraham’s descent back down the mountain after the sacrifice, apparently alone. It’s quite possible that in the Elohist version of the story, Abraham really does slay his son. The Yahwist adds the narrative of God intervening, providing a ram as a replacement for Isaac, so that Abraham doesn’t have to kill his son.
But there is another way to make sense of Elohim and Yahweh, and it doesn’t require the Documentary Hypothesis. This alternative interpretation is much more in line with a compassionate, loving God. The story continues tomorrow.
by Doug Pagitt
Don’t miss this one. Pagitt has the interesting writing style, fresh Bible interpretations, and anecdotal stories to keep you turning pages while he presents his Progressive Christian outlook. He even throws in a little Einstein as he explains what it means to be the light of the world.
Flipped is about turning everything over and seeing it fresh. Your concept of God will be turned on its head. Here’s a clue: Pagitt’s favorite phrase may come from the book of Acts: “In God we live, move, and exist.”
Pagitt wants to free us from what he calls an If/Then service, or a Transaction System, in which we bargain with God. If we do this, then God will do that. If we believe this, God will provide that. If we can discard the idea of conditional existence in God, then we become free to just be. To live in the moment, to become part of the whole, to see every human being as existing “in God.”
I really enjoyed this book.
Convergent Books, © 2015, 212 pages
“And so ends the Jewish nation,” Matthew pronounced, wagging his head appropriately.
Samuel smiled wryly at his son’s language, probably a phrase he had heard from his teacher. He sounded so grown up! “Yes, so ends the Jewish nation, a time of great darkness for the people of God. Did not the prophet Amos tell us these events would signal the end of times? God said, I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.”
“Imagine if that really happened, Father! Children would be screaming in fright,” Matthew giggled.
“It did really happen, Son—just one more way we know that the final days have come! The Gospel tells us that when our Lord died on the cross, darkness fell at noon and lasted for three hours. It seems to me that a spiritual darkness began also on that day and hasn’t lifted yet.”
“Were you afraid when the war began, then?” Matthew teased.
“My son, I know you jest, but you must understand. Many felt afraid, but this was not the fear of a man for his life. While the Jews don’t all agree about doctrine, most know the scriptures well, and all of us recognized this war as an act of God. In times such as these, every man looks into his own heart and searches there to see whether or not he stands right with God. Many fled and hid in caves hoping to die, trying to escape the plagues God promised to inflict upon his people if they broke his covenant. Even now, Son, more plagues draw near; John has told us so.”
–Revelation: The Way It Happened, 2010, pp. 21, by Lee Harmon