Matthew 21:19, God Hates Figs

And seeing a fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it but leaves, and said to it, “Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.

//Proclaiming that God hates figs, members of the Bestworld Baptist Church waved homemade posters in the air yesterday and quoted Matthew 21:19. Bystanders tried to soften the message, insisting that God doesn’t hate the tree, he hates its sin. But Pastor Phred Felps argued convincingly that the entire tree was destroyed. The Pastor quoted many other scriptures to make his point:

He struck their vines also, and their fig trees, And splintered the trees of their territory. –Psalms 105:33

The other basket had very bad figs which could not be eaten, they were so bad. –Jeremiah 24:2

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Behold, I will send on them the sword, the famine, and the pestilence, and will make them like rotten figs that cannot be eaten, they are so bad. –Jeremiah 29:17

And I will destroy her vines and her fig trees –Hosea 2:12

He has laid waste My vine, And ruined My fig tree –Joel 1:7

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Psalm 23:4, The Valley of Death

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

//Today’s verse comes from the most beloved psalm in the Bible. It begins The Lord is my shepherd, and commences to tell of the rest and safety of the sheep in the shepherd’s care.

It turns out that there actually is a “valley of the shadow of death” in Palestine, and every shepherd knows of it. It’s just south of the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Kenneth Bailey in The Good Shepherd, page 47, quotes Reverend M. P. Krikorian:

I had the good fortune of having at least a passing view of this valley. … It is a very narrow defile through a mountain range where the water often foams and roars, torn by jagged rocks. … The path plunges downward … into a deep and narrow gorge of sheer precipices overhung by frowning Sphinx-like battlements of rocks, which almost touch overhead. Its side walls rise like the stone walls of a great cathedral. .. The valley is about five miles long, yet it is not more than twelve feet at the widest section of the base. …. The actual path, on the solid rock, is so narrow that in places the sheep can hardly turn around in case of danger. … In places gullies seven and eight feet have been washed.

A descriptive image, isn’t it?

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Luke 10:26, Loving Both Neighbor and Enemy

He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?

//In her latest book Short Stories By Jesus, Amy Jill-Levine pointed out something interesting, and I’m still trying to decide if it’s relevant. She was discussing the parable of the Good Samaritan. A lawyer came to Jesus asking who his neighbor is. The Law commands that he love his neighbor, so he wants to know who he is supposed to love.

Jesus asks the lawyer what he reads in the Law. “How readest thou?” Then he launches into a story of how a Samaritan had compassion for his enemy, a Jew.

It turns out that in Hebrew, the words “neighbor” and “evil” share the same consonants, and since biblical Hebrew is written without vowels, the two words are written identically. “How readest thou?” Jesus asks. Amy wonders if Jesus isn’t asking the lawyer, “Are you able to see in your Torah that your enemy is also your neighbor?”

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Luke 15:28, Who is the Lost Son?

Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.

//In the parable of the lost coin, a woman diligently sweeps the floor of her home until she finds the coin.

In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd searches until he finds the sheep.

So in the parable of the prodigal son, who is the lost son? It’s the prodigal, right? Maybe. Maybe not.

Note that the father never goes in search of the prodigal. He finds his way back home on his own. He’s hardly lost. However, there’s another son in the story. You know the story: This son is jealous of his brother and won’t join in the party when he hears his brother has come home.

So what happens next? Like the woman with a lost coin, like the shepherd with a lost sheep, a father now goes in search of his son. But it’s the jealous son, not the prodigal. The father finds him and pleads with him to rejoin the family.

So which of the two is the lost son?

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Leviticus 19:33-34, Resident Aliens

And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

//This isn’t a political blog. I don’t like to take a strong stance on political issues, and I certainly don’t pretend to have answers. I’m just not that informed on many of the tough issues our nation is facing.

One of these tough issues is the proper stance on immigration reform. How are we to feel about resident aliens in America? What rights are appropriate? What about the children?

I honestly don’t know. However, I do hope those who claim to embrace Christian values are reading what the Bible says. God’s law to Israel is pretty pointed, as you see in today’s verse, and when Ezekiel puts his finger in the pie, it becomes even more direct:

“It shall be that you will divide it by lot as an inheritance for yourselves, and for the strangers who dwell among you and who bear children among you. They shall be to you as native-born among the children of Israel; they shall have an inheritance with you among the tribes of Israel. And it shall be that in whatever tribe the stranger dwells, there you shall give him his inheritance,” says the Lord GOD. –Ezekiel 27:22-23

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Luke 10:28, How To Live

And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.

//A lawyer came to Jesus asking how he could obtain eternal life. Jesus asked what the Law says, and the lawyer quoted: “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Jesus said you’re right, do this and you will live.

The lawyer asks about eternal life and Jesus answers with how he can enjoy life today. This is an echo of what is written in the Law:

Ye shall therefore keep my statutes, and my judgments: which if a man do, he shall live in them –Leviticus 18:5

And the LORD thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live. –Deuteronomy 30:6

So Jesus answers the question with a way of obtaining life in abundance on this side of the grave. This leaves us with a another question: Was the lawyer asking how to obtain a better life here and now, or did Jesus ignore the question about eternity and redirect it to the here and now?

I vote the former. In a long discussion in my latest book, I discuss what Jesus and others meant by “aionios life,” the Greek words translated into “eternal life” in today’s verse and others. It doesn’t refer to eternity the way we imagine; it refers to life in the age of God’s rule on earth. This age began with the arrival of the Messiah 2,000 years ago.

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Book review: Finding God In Suffering: A Journey With Job

by Bruce G. Epperly

★★★★★

I have a love/hate relationship with Job. If I’m reading an insightful exposition, one which highlights the deep, poetic messages of the book, I love Job. If I’m reading a dry commentary drawing traditional conclusions, I want to chuck Job in the round file.

Today I love Job again.

Epperly doesn’t pull punches, yet his writing is tender and honest. As he explains, reading Job is not for the faint-hearted. It is a theology which emerges from the vantage point of excruciating and undeserved pain. It is written in the place where the rubber meets the road. And it is the experience of every man and woman on earth.

The question of why remains unanswered. Are we really supposed to believe that Job’s intense pain is the result of God and Satan sharing a friendly wager? Is God really that amoral, acting no differently than the arbitrary behavior of the surrounding nations’ deities?

God’s ways are beyond our comprehension. Job’s spiritual growth requires stepping out of his comfortable paradigm where the universe is intricately structured, where goodness is always rewarded and evil is always punished, so that he can embrace the unknown and unsolvable … while retaining an intimacy with God even in times of pain. In this chaos, Job finally finds peace.

Here’s an interesting observation by Epperly: “I have found that many people are more reticent to question God’s omnipotence, his unrestricted ability to achieve his will, than God’s love. They can live with God causing cancer or a devastating earthquake, but worry that a loving God might not be powerful enough to insure that God’s will be done…”

Read this one; it’s a journey you don’t want to miss. You may find yourself losing faith in the God you thought you knew, only to find the living God. Comfort hides in deep waters.

Energion Publications, © 2014, 94 pages

ISBN: 978-1-63199-107-3

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Luke 15:22, Another Side of the Prodigal Son

But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.

//Yesterday, I suggested that the apology in the mind of the prodigal son stemmed from the words of Pharaoh in the time of Moses. Today we uncover another strange connection to the Pharaohs in this same parable. Compare today’s verse with this one:

And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck; –Genesis 41:42

So now the prodigal is being compared not to an unrepentant Pharaoh but to a favored son who endured an undeserved hardship. I’m talking about Joseph, of course, who was sold into a foreign land, rather than chasing after riotous living. Is this yet another side of the prodigal?

Think, now, about these words from the father of the prodigal, and see if they don’t also ring a bell as you remember the father of Joseph:

For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. –Luke 15:24

I confess, I don’t know how all these Old Testament echoes are meant to be understood when Jesus told his story of the prodigal, but there are too many to be considered coincidence.

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Luke 15:18, The Non-Repentant Prodigal

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.

//Today’s words come from the mouth of the prodigal son in Luke’s Gospel. He rehearses these words to speak to his father when he arrives home.

This apology echoes the words of Pharaoh long ago:

Then Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron in haste; and he said, I have sinned against the LORD your God, and against you. –Exodus 10:16

Is this choice of words meant to insinuate a lack of remorse on the part of the prodigal son? After all, Pharoah was hardly repentant.

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Matthew 8:10, The Two Parables of Lazarus, Part II of II

I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.

//Yesterday, I suggested that Lazarus in John’s Gospel is the same character as the Lazarus of Luke’s Gospel. This has disturbing ramifications for those who read one story or the other literally, instead of as a parable. But there are more reasons to think that they may be linked.

Luke’s Lazarus desires only the scraps from the rich man’s table. The Greek wording echoes the wish of the prodigal son (Luke 15:16) who–like John’s Lazarus–was said to once be dead and yet lives again.

John’s Lazarus is said to be greatly loved by Jesus. John’s Gospel has a mysterious figure throughout known only as “The Beloved Disciple.” Many scholars have speculated that these two figures are the same person: Lazarus is the Beloved Disciple.

Luke’s Lazarus is carried by the angels to the bosom of Abraham. The Beloved Disciple in John’s Gospel rests on the bosom of Jesus. The Greek wording conveys intimacy and feasting in both cases, as feasts were eaten in a reclining position. Lazarus, who has nothing to eat in life, now feasts as he reclines on Abraham’s chest, just as the Beloved Disciple reclines on Jesus’s chest at the Last Supper. Read again, now, Jesus’s promise in today’s verse. The righteous eat at the table with Abraham while the unrighteous Jews are cast into darkness. Does this not describe both Lazarus stories?

So how did these two stories become linked? One possibility: Jesus, in telling parables of the dead and risen, may have often resorted to the descriptive name Lazarus to add meaning, since the name means “God helps.” Two of these “Lazarus” variations made it into the gospels.

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John 11:47, The Two Parables of Lazarus, Part I of II

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs.”

//In my book about John’s Gospel, I tie this Lazarus in John’s Gospel, the man whom Jesus raised from the dead, to the Lazarus of Jesus’s parable about Hades in Luke’s Gospel. This association is speculative, but not without merit.

The most obvious connection is that Lazarus is given a name in both stories, whereas the characters in most parables remain unnamed. While the first Lazarus story may not be intended as a parable, the second one surely is. So why give him a name?

The second most obvious connection is that John’s Lazarus and Luke’s Lazarus both die. Abraham is requested by the rich man to send Lazarus back to his brothers, because “if someone from the dead would come to them, they would repent.”

This brings us to today’s verse. Jesus raises John’s Lazarus from the dead, and the chief priests and Pharisees know that he is risen from the dead, but they do not repent. Instead, they make plans to kill the Son of God. Thus John’s Gospel fleshes out the story that Luke wrote.

But is this enough evidence to pronounce the two Lazaruses to be the same person? More tomorrow.

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Luke 2: 13-14 Angels We Have Heard On High

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

//In a google hangout a few days ago, I mentioned that I have a manger scene in my home, next to the Christmas tree. I admitted that I love manger scenes, the baby Jesus, angels with halos and wings and trumpets.

Is this scriptural? Of course not. I like our angels today better than the angels in the Bible, which were often fearsome creatures. The “angels on high” in today’s verse were not winged girls with golden hair and flowing white dresses, and they certainly weren’t cherubs strumming harps. They weren’t “on high” at all, but were the armies of heaven, come down to earth to worship. The first mention you’ll see in Jewish literature about angels flying occurs in Revelation.

Our manger scenes today are a merger of two honorific stories–Luke’s stable birth with shepherds and Matthew’s house birth with traveling magicians–and for good measure we throw in some adorable singing cherubs floating in the sky. We mash them all together and add a drummer boy. I like it. We take the Bible’s honorific stories (which are only conflicting if you try to read them as history) and find a contemporary, preferred way of welcoming the King to earth.

The Messiah has come!

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Luke 5:5-7, The Fate of the Lost Sheep

“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’”

//Read this parable closely. We all know the moral of the story, because after Luke presents the parable, he presents an interpretation:

“I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance.”

But did Luke interpret the story correctly or did he add his own flavor? One wouldn’t normally relate the sheep in this story to a repentant sinner, since it doesn’t do anything except wander away. Rather, the sheep’s fate seems a little darker.

When the man finds his sheep, he lays it over his shoulders and … goes home! He doesn’t take the sheep to the barn or the sheepfold. He carries the sheep home and calls his neighbors to come rejoice with him.

It’s not unlikely that the man served mutton at the celebration.

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Luke 15:21-24 Who is the Prodigal Son?

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”

//Today’s verses are found in the parable of the prodigal son. A wayward son requests his inheritance from his father, and then takes it to a strange land where he squanders it. When he returns, repentant, he finds himself still firmly within his father’s grace.

Ever wonder if this story of the prodigal son has a real person behind it? It might surprise you to learn that one of the earliest interpretations is that the prodigal son represents Jesus! Jesus was dead and came alive again, then went home to his welcoming father. But how did they make sense of the prodigal sinning and feeling unworthy?

The “decoder key” is found in the writings of Paul:

Christ Jesus,who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name –Philippians 2:5-9

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Matthew 13:45-46, The Dark Side of the Pearl

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

//The Bible’s parables are fascinating for their many interpretations. I’m sure most of you are familiar with this parable, and most of you already know what you consider to be your “pearl of great price.”

But did you know that the meat of the oyster is not kosher? Not according to Jewish law. You could say then that the pearl is discovered by digging into a place where you don’t belong. In this story, a presumably successful man–a merchant–gives everything he has for something of no practical value, something which he should have stayed away from in the first place.

So, let’s cast a different light on this parable. It’s recorded in Greek, and the Greek word for pearl is … wait for it … margarita. Hmmm. Suddenly, I realize I’ve seen this parable played out over and over. Everything in life traded away for the pearl.

Suddenly, this doesn’t sound much like a Kingdom of Heaven, does it?

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Mark 14:62, The Son of Man

And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.

//As I was reading Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories By Jesus, I was reminded of how many mysteries still remain about the man we consider our savior. Do we really know what Jesus meant by each of his parables? Do we know what he meant in some of his obscure sayings, such “I have not come to bring peace but a sword?” Do we even know what he meant when he called himself the Son of Man?

Jesus might have been speaking about himself as just an ordinary man, in the language of Ezekiel. You can find many references to Ezekiel as the “son of man.”

Jesus might have been elevating himself along with all mankind to the near-divine realm, as in Psalm 8:4-5, where the “son of man” is described as a little lower than the angels.

Jesus might have been alluding to the “son of man” in the book of Daniel, which describes a messiah sent by God, who is promised dominion over the earth in an everlasting kingdom.

Or he might have been using the phrase merely as an Aramaic idiom for “I”, which carries no connotations whatsoever.

So was Jesus depreciating himself, elevating himself, or neither? The answer may seem obvious to you, given what you’ve been taught–I certainly have my opinion–but do we know, really?

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Luke 24:44, What is the Tanakh?

Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.”

//I usually try to stay away from words which may be unfamiliar to general users, but sometimes they slip into my posts. So let me go back to the basics of Hebrew scripture and settle a little of the confusion.

The Hebrew Bible is different from our Christian Bible. Jews today don’t have an Old Testament because it was never replaced with the New one. They have one set of scripture, all written before Jesus came along, known as the Tanakh … an acronym for Torah (the first five books of the Bible known also as the Pentateuch, and which I habitually refer to as the Law or the Law of Moses), the Nev’im (known also as the Prophets) and the Ketuvim (known as the Writings, books like Psalms and Proverbs). This is the scripture Jesus was familiar with. So when Jesus refers to “the Law and the Prophets,” he’s talking about written word: the books in our Old Testament traditionally thought to be authored by Moses and various Jewish prophets.

These three categories are in order by reverence. The Law of Moses was the most highly esteemed portion of the Tanakh, followed by the Prophets, and finally the Writings, which to many of the Jews was more like words of wisdom than scripture. I say “to many”, because different Jewish sects had different priorities. Sadducees did not elevate even the Prophets to the level of scripture, let alone the Writings. That is why Paul could say the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection; you won’t find any promise of an afterlife in the first five books of the Bible. But other sects sprang up which prized the prophets more highly; the Pharisees is an example. Another one in particular was founded on the idea that the Messiah had arrived. A man named Jesus. This sect soon spread to the Gentiles, became known as Christians, and began adding their own books to scripture … books meant to supercede the Tanakh with a new testament! So this final set of writings, revered most highly of all among Christians, is rightly considered a sacrilege by observant Jews!

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Genesis 9:25-27, The Curse of Ham

And [Noah] said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

//I’ve heard it. Unless you’re under fifty, you’ve probably heard it too. Ham was a black man, and his son was cursed by Noah such that his descendants would become slaves.

The idea of black skin stems from a misnomer relating the name “Ham” to the Hebrew word for black, brown, or burnt. The sons of Canaan–Cush, Mizraim, Phut–are thought to have populated Africa. Psalms 78, 105 and 106 refer to Egypt as the “land of Ham.” Thus, says the logic of Christian thinking dating back to the 17th century, black people are biblically destined to be slaves.

This may seem like silliness today, but overcoming this logic in the church was very difficult and caused great tension. In 1845, the Southern Baptists split from the northern Baptists over the issue of slavery. Only 20 years later, the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in the states. Yet it was another 130 years before the Southern Baptist Convention voted to adopt a resolution apologizing for its defense of slavery and its promotion of racism.

In 2012, the Southern Baptists elected their first black president, a pastor named Fred Luter Jr. Overcoming our prejudices may take time, but Christianity is slowly moving in the right direction.

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Matthew 12:22-24, The Battle With Satan

Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” Now when the Pharisees heard it they said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.”

//Let me start today’s topic with a quote from Rick Herrick’s new book, A Man Called Jesus, that I’ll be reviewing in the next few days:

“The understanding of disease in first century Palestine was different from what it is today. Disease was not caused by biological processes in the body breaking down, but by Satan. Disease occurred when evil forces invaded the body. When Jesus healed disease, he was battling Satan. It was war.”

Herrick is correct. First-century healers, including Jesus, were not fighting germs, they were fighting supernatural forces. They were performing exorcisms. The “Son of David” in today’s passage was a warrior. In the Bible, the Pharisees don’t question Jesus’s ability to cure disease because that’s what religious figures were expected to do … to fight evil forces.

This begs the obvious question: How did they do it? How did healers who could not grasp the nature of their enemy succeed? Was Jesus correct that the recipient’s faith is the primary ingredient in healing, so that understanding was of secondary importance?

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Matthew chapters 13, 20 and 22: Parables of the Kingdom

The kingdom of heaven is like…

//Hello again, friends! Thanksgiving was wonderful, but it’s good to be settling in at home again. To get our blog back on track, I chose the parables of Jesus as a grounding topic.

It’s been argued that the most authentic statement of Jesus is “The kingdom of heaven is like.” The parables he told are original, they contain Aramaic idioms (the language of Palestinian Jews), and they reflect the culture of rural life. And almost all of them are about the coming Kingdom, the age of God’s rule on earth.

Beliefs about the Kingdom differed from sect to sect, and even with the Jewish sect we know as Christianity, the beliefs evolved over time. I believe Jesus’s vision of the coming Kingdom differed from the apocalyptic views of later Christian writers. His vision was much more earthy, much more concerned about the transformation of this world. It was not about floating off to heaven.

This humanitarian purpose is the view argued for in my latest book, The River of Life, and the foundation of my own discipleship.

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