Sunday, April 25, 2010

TorahBytes: Waiting for Clarity (Emor)

Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the LORD should be clear to them. (Vayikra / Leviticus 24:10-12; ESV)

There are two important areas of life that this portion of the Torah speaks to: one specific, one general. The specific area of life has to do with establishing a godly justice system. In this instance the community knew that the blasphemer did something worthy of punishment, but was not clear about what it should be. Instead of thrashing out at him based on their assumptions, they put him in custody "till the will of the LORD should be clear to them." Once they received clear direction from God, they enacted justice. I don't know enough about the history of law to say that this is where Western Civilization got the idea of holding a suspect in custody before determining his guilt, but it is likely it did. This allows for protection of the suspect and a rational, clear-headed determination of guilt.

This is a specific application of a more general principle of life, which is when God's will is not clear, we need to patiently wait until it is, before we act. It is not only in justice situations that we know we need to do something, but are unclear as to exactly what that something is. Too often we assume we know what is best in a situation, when we haven't given enough time to seek God for clarification.

Joshua, Moses' successor, brought Israel into an ungodly alliance with another nation, because he didn't wait for clarification from God (see Joshua 9:1-27). When David attempted to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, a man died because they neglected to follow God's instructions regarding how to transport it (1 Divrei Hayyamim / Chronicles 13:1-14; 15:1,2). Relying on God in this way was one of the prime lessons that God wanted to teach the people of Israel in leading them through the wilderness (see Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3). And the Messiah himself said, "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 6:33; ESV). Unless we consider God and his ways first in everything, we will find ourselves going about life the wrong way. This is what Solomon was referring to when he wrote, "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths" (Mishlei / Proverbs 3:5,6; ESV).

I am concerned that many followers of the Messiah assume that they do this, but don't. Either we assume we know God's mind on things or we don't realize that he has something to say about it. We tend not to be aware of how we can be driven more by tradition, peer pressure, and personal desire than God's Word. This would explain why there often appears to be little distinction between those who profess to follow the Messiah and the general population.

In the incident we read about at the beginning, the people were faced with a situation where they had not yet received clear direction from God. So they waited on him for clarity. In that case they didn't know what to do, so they didn't take action until they knew. That's a great example for us to follow. It's best to wait on God when we don't have clarity. But what about when we realize that we have already done the wrong thing? That was the case with David and the Ark. Yet he and the people had the humility to accept what they had failed to do and adjusted their course of action for their second attempt, which was successful. Whether we failed to be attentive to God in the last minute or generations ago, it is not too late to seek clarity and to do things God's way.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

TorahBytes: Love Your Neighbor (Aharei & Kedoshim)

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Vayikra / Leviticus 19:17,18; ESV)

The Messiah was asked the question, "What is the greatest commandment?" (See Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37). It was popular among Jewish religious leaders to attempt to summarize the Torah. Here is Yeshua's answer:

The most important is, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." The second is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is no other commandment greater than these. (Mark 12:29-31; ESV)
Some people take this to mean that unlike the people living under the Old Covenant, followers of Yeshua have only these minimal requirements to follow. But that completely misses the point. Yeshua's summary statement is intended as a perspective by which to view God's requirements, not a recipe by which to ignore them. Yeshua was reminding a people who had become obsessed with the Torah as an end in itself that its directives were intended as the means of loving God and other people. Losing sight of these primary commands results in the failure to properly keep the others. Loving God and loving people is what God's commands are all about.

Hearing Yeshua highlight "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," should draw us to the context of what he was quoting, some of which we read at the beginning. Loving our neighbor is not a vague sentimental concept based on emotion. It has very practical and far reaching implications. For example we read, "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him." This tells us first that when difficulties arise with someone with whom we have relationship, we are not to hate them. Hate is not simply negative and angry thoughts toward another person. It is the tendency to disregard them or not care about them. This may occur with very little emotion. God instructs us that instead of ignoring issues we have with others we need to deal with them through open and honest discussion and thereby avoid even greater issues arising between one other. This is what "love your neighbor" is all about or it is at least one example.

It could be that "but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" sums up a larger Torah section (see Vayikra / Leviticus 19:9-18) that includes being mindful of the poor among us, not stealing, having fair business dealings, not lying to others, not using God's name to justify wrong, not oppressing others or robbing them, paying wages on time, showing respect toward the physically handicapped, demonstrating justice in court without partiality, not slandering, and not taking vengeance or bearing grudges against others. This is not a complete list, though it makes it clear that loving our neighbor is far more and much deeper than what we may normally think it is.

Loving our neighbor is not just having warm affection toward others or showing kindness to them, though it may include those things. God's version of loving others involves a deep understanding of his ways and how they relate to how we are to treat others. To love is to be true to our God-given responsibilities towards those with whom we have personal and work relationships, business and legal dealings, as well as the needy and vulnerable around us. Let's not cheapen God's Word by reducing it to anything less.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

TorahBytes: Worth Investigating (Tazri'a & Mezora)

So they took two horsemen, and the king sent them after the army of the Syrians, saying, "Go and see." (2 Melachim / 2 Kings 7:14; ESV)

This week's Haftarah is part of a slightly longer story that begins in the previous chapter. In those days the land of Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was called Israel or Ephraim with its capital in Samaria; the southern kingdom was called Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. Samaria was in the midst of a great famine due to its being under siege by the Syrian army. The siege and famine came to a miraculous end because God caused the Syrians to think they were under attack, prompting them to flee, leaving all their provisions behind.

This surprising turn of events was discovered by four outcasts who were lepers. They had decided to surrender to the Syrians, thinking that it was worth taking that chance, since the situation in the city was so desperate. When they came to the Syrian camp they found it deserted. So they began to feast and to help themselves to the goods that had been left behind. Eventually, they realized it was wrong of them to keep this all to themselves. So they announced the good news of their discovery to the gatekeepers of the city. When the news got to the king, his immediate reaction was to think that the Syrians were trying to trick them in order to lure them into an ambush. A servant suggested, therefore, that some men should be sent to investigate. As they surveyed the area it became clear to them that everything was as the lepers said, and so the people of Samaria plundered the Syrian camp.

It was right for the king to be cautious. It was his responsibility to care for his people. It would not have been wise for him to send his people out into what could have easily been a trap. At the same time, the lepers' claim was suffciently reasonable and the situation desperate enough to, at least, check things out. Once the report arrived, confirming the claim of the lepers, the people ran to take hold of God's miraculous provision.

Sometimes good news is too good to be true. When we are presented with extraordinary offers for little or no money, and without effort or time spent, it is wise to be cautious. This is not to say that such things don't exist, but they should be carefully investigated before accepting them.

The good news of Yeshua the Messiah, like the claim of the lepers, also may seem too good to be true. Through Yeshua, God offers forgiveness of every wrong we ever committed, direct continual access to him, his commitment to actively work for our good forever, empowerment by his Spirit so that we can live blessed and effective lives, his joy, his peace, and an eternity free of pain and sorrow. All this can be ours in response to our turning from our sins and trusting in Yeshua as Messiah and Lord.

People find many reasons to reject God's offer. They, like the king of Israel, may think that there is a good chance that it isn't as it seems to be. They may think that people who present the claims of Yeshua may have ulterior motives or be deluded. After all, some things are too good to be true.

But is not Yeshua's offer worth investigating? What many people don't realize is that it can be investigated. What convinced the investigators in our story was that they found all sorts of items scattered over a large area and this fit the lepers' claim. Similarly history is strewn with evidence of Yeshua's reality. Most of the good in the world over the past two thousand years is due to the transformed lives of Yeshua's followers. Yet most people refuse to leave the city of their preconceived ideas and take the time to examine the abundance of evidence. There is no reason to continue in the desperation of spiritual famine when the abundant provision of God is available to all who put their trust in Yeshua the Messiah.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

TorahBytes: The Basis of Acceptance (Shemini)

And Moses said, "This is the thing that the LORD commanded you to do, that the glory of the LORD may appear to you." Then Moses said to Aaron, "Draw near to the altar and offer your sin offering and your burnt offering and make atonement for yourself and for the people, and bring the offering of the people and make atonement for them, as the LORD has commanded." (Vayikra / Leviticus 9:6,7; ESV)

This section of this week's Torah portion describes the rituals that were to be performed as part of the commencement of the service of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). The Mishkan was the large tent-like structure that was to be the sole place where sacrifices were to be offered. Moses told the people what was to be done in preparation for an extraordinary manifestation of God. After everything was done as prescribed, we read
And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting, and when they came out they blessed the people, and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the pieces of fat on the altar, and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces. (Vayikra / Leviticus 9:23,24; ESV)
One of the striking aspects of the preparation is the person doing them - Aaron. We know why Aaron had a leadership role; God chose him for that. But it wasn't too long before the above passage that he was in the middle of misleading the people in the worship of a cow statue, which he claimed was the God who delivered them from Egypt. Should not such behavior disqualify him from being the Chief Priest? It could not be that God simply overlooked this. Many people died as a result of that sin. Was it that Aaron was given preferential treatment just because he was Moses' brother? There is no indication that this was the case. God makes himself clear that he doesn't treat people that way. So how could it be that such a person could continue to play such a crucial role in the service of God?

We are told how. Aaron had to make atonement for both himself and the people through certain sacrificial offerings. Acceptance by God depended on the poured out blood of these offerings.

Whenever I refer to biblical sacrifices, I am conscious of how such a concept is completely foreign to most contemporary societies. Many people find the slaughter of animals for any reason distasteful, not to mention doing so for some religious purpose. But what it really comes down to is that we don't understand the implications of sin. If we could only grasp God's original intention for the world and the devastating effect of sin upon it, then we might be more able to accept what it takes to deal with sin. The death of innocent, helpless animals served to dramatically illustrate the sacrifice of God himself. The shedding of the blood of animals as prescribed in the Torah foreshadowed the shedding of the blood of the Messiah, through which we can be made right with God.

Notice Aaron's acceptance by God was dependent on Aaron's personal involvement in the offering of the sacrifices. Aaron could not just offer sacrifices for the people without doing so for himself as well. True sacrifices require intimate identification with the sacrifice offered. This is why later on God would chastise the people for offering meaningless sacrifices. Unless a person grasps the seriousness of their sin and looks to God for mercy, humbly regarding that the animal is dying in place of their own life, the ritual would do them no good.

The same is true with regard to the Messiah's sacrifice. I get the impression that some people think that since Yeshua paid the price for our sins, that God now accepts all people and that our alienation from God only has to do with our ignorance regarding his acceptance. According to this view, the sharing of the Good News of the Messiah's coming is about informing people that they are already forgiven and accepted. But the Bible teaches no such thing. While what Yeshua did is sufficient for all people to be forgiven for their sins and be restored to right relationship with God, receiving the benefits of his sacrifice requires an acknowledgement of our sin and an acceptance of Yeshua's death as the substitute for our own.