WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. [Proverbs 14:12 (ESV)]

hempvineThe book of Genesis is filled with thoughtless decisions that led to trouble. Although Eve knew the forbidden fruit would give her the knowledge of good and evil, I doubt she asked herself why she wanted it, what she’d do with it, or how God would react to her disobedience when she ate it. Look at Sarah with her bright idea to give Hagar to Abraham to make a baby. Did she pause and consider how she’d feel about sharing her husband with her maid or that Hagar and the child would be a constant reminder of her own infertility? Did Lot’s wife think to ask herself why she’d been told neither to stop nor look back at Sodom before she took that fatal last look?

What about Rebekah? When she helped Jacob steal Esau’s blessing, did she give thought to the ramifications of such deception? Did she think Esau wouldn’t be angry? She ended up losing both of her boys that day—one to safety in Haran and the other to anger and his desire for revenge. After Isaac discovered her part in the ruse, their marriage probably suffered as well.

Did Reuben pause to consider the consequences of sleeping with his father’s concubine? It was at his father’s deathbed that he learned his recklessness cost him his birthright blessing. His brother Simeon and Levi paid even more heavily for their deceit and violence against the people of Shechem when Jacob cursed rather than blessed them. Because of the brothers’ rash behavior, their people would be scattered throughout the land and without inheritance rights. And that’s just in Genesis! It goes downhill from there.

Every time I read through the Bible and see the consequences of people’s impulsive behavior, I ask, “What were they thinking?” What if David had taken five minutes to ask God about moving the Ark or summoning Bathsheba? What was Solomon thinking when he directly violated God’s law by accumulating 700 wives and 300 concubines and then worshipping idols? And he was supposed to be the wise one! What if Rehoboam had consulted God instead of his cronies when deciding whether or not to lighten the burden on his people? It’s bad enough that none of these people bothered to think through the effects of their rash decisions but, worse, they never bothered to consult with God about them. Unlike the people in Genesis, they even had the Torah to guide them!

Some people make their decisions by weighing alternatives and looking beyond the immediate results to the long-term effects, possible precedents, and potential complications. Other people are more gut-feeling emotion-driven choice makers. Most of us probably fall somewhere in-between. No matter how we approach a decision, however, we always want to stay in God’s will. While prayer is a good place to start, God is often silent as to our exact plan of action. Perhaps that’s because He’s already revealed His will in Scripture. It is in God’s Word that we find the wisdom and principles that should guide us in making our decisions: repent, believe, obey, forgive, love, be truthful, work hard, share, serve, trust in Him, and glorify Him in all we do. If we always do that, it’s unlikely someone will ask in disbelief, “What were they thinking?”

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (ESV)]

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THE CANON

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

kildeerTwo days ago, when writing about the prodigal son, I used a scripture verse from Sirach found in the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE). Also known as Ecclesiasticus, this book of wisdom was written by Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, between 200–175 BC and is part of the Apocrypha. Primarily written in the 400 years between Malachi and the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, the books of the Apocrypha include Sirach, 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, Prayer of Manasseh, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and additions to the books of Esther and Daniel. While the nation of Israel was familiar with these writings and treated them with respect (which is why I used the verse), they never considered any of them as true books of the Hebrew Bible.

Evidence that the Jews never considered these books to be “divine doctrine” is found in the writings of the Jewish priest and scholar Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD). Explaining that the contents of the Hebrew Bible were written between the time of Moses and the days of Persian’s King Artaxerxes I (465 to 424 BC), he listed the books considered to be divinely inspired by God and none of the apocryphal books were named. Since a typical Hebrew Bible combines books like the Minor Prophets, Ezra with Nehemiah, Jeremiah with Lamentations, and the two books each of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles into single books, Josephus listed only 22 books. Nevertheless, his twenty-two are the same as the 39 Old Testament books found in the Protestant Bible.

Because neither Jesus nor the Apostles made any reference to any of the apocryphal books, most Christians believe them to be far less significant than the 39 books of the Old Testament. Some, however, do contain valuable historical information. For example, the books of Maccabees give a detailed account of the battles of Judah Maccabee and his brothers to free Judah from foreign rule (167 to 134 BC). It is in Maccabees, with the cleaning and dedication of the Temple and relighting of the menorah, that we learn why Jews celebrate Hanukkah every year. Unfortunately, there also is much in these books that is inaccurate (such as Judith naming Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar as the king of the Assyrians) and some false teachings (such as the forgiveness of sins through almsgiving and a command to use magic in Tobit).

The list of Biblical books accepted as authoritative for faith because they were divinely inspired by God is known as the canon. Since a wide assortment of writings circulated in the early church, many of which were counterfeit, inauthentic, and even heretical, it became necessary to determine which works were genuine and which mixed truth with fiction or were completely false. While there is no definitive date when church canon was determined, the effort to determine it began as early as 170 AD with the Muratorian Canon. By 250, there was nearly universal agreement on the canon of the Old Testament. In 363, the Council of Laodicea affirmed all but the book of Revelation in the New Testament. It was in 367 that Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, provided a list (including Revelation) of the universally accepted 66 books that we still think of as the Protestant Bible. Although the Bishop listed several Apocryphal books as worthwhile reading, he noted that none should be combined with the rest of Scripture.

While none of the Apocrypha is part of the Protestant canon, twelve of its books are considered canonical Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church. It was at the Council of Trent (1546-1563) that the Roman Catholic Church ratified them as part of their canon. While some Bibles, such as the RSV, may include the Apocrypha in a separate section, the Catholic edition of the RSV has those same books mixed in with the Old Testament.

Since it is not the inspired Word of God, the book of Sirach, like the rest of the Apocrypha, is not part of the recognized canon of Scripture. Although the apocryphal books have some historical/cultural significance, they do not possess the qualities of divinely inspired Scripture. While it’s easy to think that the canon was determined by man, we must remember that no man determined what books belong in the Christian canon any more than any man determined what was written in those books. It was God who inspired their writing and it was God who gave men the ability to discern what words were God-breathed. It is those 66 God-breathed books of the Bible that equip us for a life of service and faith.

These are the wells of salvation, so that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the sayings in these. Let no one add to these. Let nothing be taken away. [Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, regarding the 66 books of the canon]

Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ. [Colossians 2:8 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL FATHER (Part 2 – Luke 15:11-32)

Suppose a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they discipline him. In such a case, the father and mother must take the son to the elders as they hold court at the town gate. The parents must say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious and refuses to obey. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town must stone him to death. In this way, you will purge this evil from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid. [Deuteronomy 21:18-21 (NLT)]

When the boy we know as “the prodigal son” comes to his senses and returns home, Jesus never says he was repentant; He says the boy was hungry! Moreover, while he knows he’s not worthy to be treated as a son, the boy doesn’t ask to be taken on as a slave; he boldly plans on asking to be hired as a paid servant. Those hearing the story probably were sure the boy was about to be properly punished but Jesus defied convention again. When the father sees his returning son, he runs to him with abandon. Again, cultural norms were flouted. Because running required a man to lift his garment and expose his bare legs, it was considered improper and undignified for a grown man to run. Perhaps Jesus’s listeners excused the man’s unseemly behavior because they thought he was in a rush to rebuke his boy. Expecting him to perform a kezazah ceremony (a shunning ritual in which he’d break a pot and yell that his son was cut off from his people forever), the father breaks all of society’s rules and embraces his boy.

The father doesn’t even allow his son to offer himself as a servant; instead, he restores him into his family and calls for the best robe, a ring, and shoes for the boy. We might overlook the significance of these gifts but Jesus’s audience wouldn’t. By calling for shoes, it’s clear the boy is reinstated into the family; masters and their sons wore shoes but servants and slaves didn’t! By covering his son’s swine filth with his best robe, he’s honoring the boy and, since the ring probably had the family crest on it, he’s returning his son to a position of authority. To further establish the boy’s restoration into the family, his father calls for the butchering of the fatted calf. This wasn’t to be a quiet family dinner; a “fatted calf” was saved for a major celebration like a wedding. Treating his son like a dignitary, there was to be a feast for the entire village. Today, this would be like welcoming back a renegade son with open arms, and giving him your Rolex, your power of attorney, a seat on the company’s board of directors, hosting a huge bash at the Country Club, and posting the pictures on social media. The father’s behavior was inexplicable and Jesus’s audience had to have been astonished. Where was the expected condemnation and punishment?

Then we get to the older brother. Again, because we’ve become accustomed to poor manners and insolence in our society, we don’t realize how unacceptable his behavior is. By defiantly refusing to attend the festivities, he snubs his father and family in much the same way his younger brother had. He further disrespects his father by telling a servant to fetch him and making his father come to him. A host leaving a feast was an insult to his guests and a father going to his son rather than requiring his son to come to him was another shocking break with propriety. Then, rather than address his father respectfully, the boy insolently launches into his tirade and further distances himself from the family by referring to his sibling not as “my brother” but as “this son of yours.” Rather than harshly castigate the boy as would be expected, his father lovingly addresses him as teknon (meaning “dearly beloved son”) rather than the more commonly used huios which is used for “son” throughout the rest of the story. Reassuring his belligerent child that he’s not lost his place and that everything he has belongs to the boy, the father lovingly tells him the more important thing is to celebrate his brother’s return.

From the beginning to the end of this parable, Jesus’s listeners would have gasped in unbelief and dismay at the appalling behavior displayed by both father and sons. Like the older brother, they couldn’t understand reconciliation without punishment!

When we put this parable in the context of the times, a far better title than “The Prodigal Son” is the “The Prodigal Father.” While “prodigal” can mean wasteful and reckless, it also means generous, giving on a lavish scale, kindhearted and magnanimous—making it the perfect adjective for the father. By seeing the father’s deep wide love for his children through the eyes of a first century Jew, we truly appreciate the depth of God’s love for us. Indeed, He is our prodigal Father—generous beyond belief in mercy, love and forgiveness. Are we as prodigal with our love and forgiveness as God is with His?

And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. [Ephesians 3:18 (NLT)]

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. [Romans 5:8-9 (NLT)]

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THE PRODIGAL SON (Part 1 – Luke 15:11-32)

To son or wife, to brother or friend, do not give power over yourself, as long as you live; and do not give your property to another, lest you change your mind and must ask for it. While you are still alive and have breath in you, do not let any one take your place. … At the time when you end the days of your life, in the hour of death, distribute your inheritance. [Sirach 33:19-20,23 (RSVCE)]

If one assign in writing his estate to his son to become his after his death, the father cannot sell it since it is conveyed to his son, and the son cannot sell it because it is under the father’s control. [Babylonian Talmud (Baba Bathra viii.7)]

great blue heronThrough His parables, Jesus related profound spiritual truths in stories that were easily understood and relevant to his listeners. Although Jesus’s original audience often didn’t like His message, they clearly knew what He was saying. Because of the vast cultural differences between our world and 1st century Palestine, I’m not sure we fully appreciate the impact His parables had on the people who first heard them.

Nowadays, it’s not unusual to come across indulgent fathers and pleasure-seeking, selfish, and rude children but, when Jesus told the parable known as “The Prodigal Son,” honor and respect for one’s parents were of paramount importance as were the dignity and absolute authority of the patriarch of the family. Jesus’s listeners must have gasped in horror and unbelief when they heard Him describe behavior by both father and sons that defied acceptable conduct and cultural norms.

Although some fathers at that time might distribute their estates prior to death, they would continue to receive the income while their sons managed it. What is extraordinary in Jesus’s parable is that, by brashly demanding his inheritance, the younger son really is telling his father, “I wish you were dead so I could get on with my life!” Although the expected response would be to slap the boy and immediately disinherit him, the father does as his boy asks. When we read that the son “gathered together” his things, we think of it as packing up his belongings. The Greek word used, however, was sunago which, in this context means the son turned his inheritance into cash. Although preserving family property was of utmost importance to the Jews, the boy blatantly defies the Talmud by selling his share of the estate (thus depriving his father of its income). Since he leaves home within a few days, the implication is that he didn’t even try to get top dollar for the land.

By then squandering his entire inheritance, the son shows contempt for all that his father accomplished over the years. As if the story weren’t shocking enough, he compounds his sin and further dishonors his father by moving to a distant country (meaning Gentile land) and eating with pigs. Picture a son demanding part of his father’s business, selling it at a loss to a competitor, quickly squandering his money in wild living, and then going off to join the Taliban and you get a vague idea of how astonished Jesus’s audience might have been by this story. While the behavior of the father was baffling, the behavior of his son was absolutely unforgivable!

Both the Torah and Talmud were quite clear about one’s behavior toward parents and you can be sure Jesus’s listeners knew how this story was supposed to end. Jesus, however, had a way of turning people’s expectations upside down. This was the rabbi who spoke of the first being the last, praying for one’s enemies, walking by faith rather than sight, turning the other cheek, being weak to become strong, leading by serving, giving to receive, and losing your life to save it. If His audience was shocked at how the parable began, they were probably scandalized at how it finished.

“Cursed is anyone who dishonors father or mother.” And all the people will reply, “Amen.” [Deuteronomy 27:16 (NLT)]

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DON’T ADD OR SUBTRACT

Do not add to or subtract from these commands I am giving you. Just obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you. [Deuteronomy 4:2 (NLT)]

tri-colored heron - snowy egretIt’s easy to have misconceptions about Scripture. If you were to ask someone the identity of the forbidden fruit, chances are the answer would be an apple. Scripture, however, never names the fruit. The Hebrew word used was peri which is a generic term for “produce,” “results,” or “reward.” We probably got the idea that it was an apple from later translations of Scripture into Latin since the Latin word “evil” is mălum, a word quite similar to the Latin word for “apple,” which is mālum. Renaissance painters continued to perpetuate the myth with their depiction of an apple at the temptation. Scripture, however, never identifies the fruit because its identity is not important; the evil wasn’t in the fruit but rather in Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

The three kings were neither three nor kings. Rather than kings, they were magi or wise men, perhaps philosophers, astronomers, or counselors of kings. Familiar with Hebrew Scripture, they knew and understood the various Messianic prophecies. It is merely tradition that their names were Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior. While we know there were at least three gifts, we don’t know how many magi there were.

If asked about Mary Magdalene, most people would say she was a repentant prostitute and probably the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet but there is no evidence to support this. All four gospels do mention this Jewish woman from Magdala who helped support Jesus and the disciples, witnessed the crucifixion and Jesus’s burial, and saw the risen Christ at the empty tomb. Although Luke tells us tells us that Jesus healed her of seven demons, we have absolutely no reason to think of this once mentally ill woman as immoral or wanton; she was no more a sinner than were any of the disciples.

If you were to ask most Protestants about the “Immaculate Conception,” they would probably say it refers the conception of Jesus in a virgin’s womb, but it doesn’t. While Jesus was, indeed, born without sin, this Roman Catholic doctrine refers to the conception of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and states that, unlike the rest of mankind, Mary had no original sin and remained sinless throughout her life. Scripture, however, never describes Mary as anything but an ordinary, although godly, woman: a woman who needed a savior as much as the rest of us.

We often quote scripture that isn’t Scripture. Money isn’t the root of all evil; in fact, it can do all sorts of wonderful things. The Apostle Paul, however, warns us that it’s the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evil, which is not quite the same. While “it came to pass” occurs about 400 times in the King James Version of the Bible, “This too shall pass,” never does. God does work in mysterious ways but that sentiment comes from a 1774 hymn by William Cowper. “God helps those who help themselves,” is nowhere in the Bible and probably came from one of Aesop’s fables and, while the Old Testament has lots of rules about cleanliness, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” is not one of them. In fact, Jesus tells us to worry more about the sin in our hearts than the dirt on our hands!

The Bible is the written testimony of God’s word. When we quote the Bible, we want to be sure that what we’re quoting actually is in the Bible and, when we’re telling Bible stories, we want to tell the story correctly. God told the Israelites to neither add nor subtract from His commands; neither should we. We are to seek what Scripture actually means, not what we’d like it to mean. “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you,” said the Psalmist. [119:11] Let’s make sure the words we’ve put in our hearts actually are God’s!

Oh, how I love your instructions! I think about them all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are my constant guide. … Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. … The very essence of your words is truth; all your just regulations will stand forever. [Psalm 119:97-98,105, 160 (NLT)]

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KILLING THE MESSENGER

Then the leaders plotted to kill Zechariah, and King Joash ordered that they stone him to death in the courtyard of the Lord’s Temple. That was how King Joash repaid Jehoiada for his loyalty—by killing his son. Zechariah’s last words as he died were, “May the Lord see what they are doing and avenge my death!” [2 Chronicles 24:21-22 (NLT)]

“Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” sings Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the musical The Wiz as she tells the Winkies she’ll accept any news as long as it’s good. In the Old Testament, we find that same unwillingness to hear bad news on the part of Judah’s and Israel’s kings. What they didn’t seem to understand was that, while they could kill the messenger, they couldn’t kill the message.

Being a prophet was a risky business and Zechariah wasn’t the only prophet who suffered or died because his message was unwelcome. When Hanani was sent by God to rebuke King Asa for allying Judah with Aram, the enraged king responded by putting the prophet in stocks and imprisoning him. Jeremiah prophesied God’s judgment on Judah for its disobedience. Not wanting to believe that such a condemning prophecy could come from God, the people called him a traitor and demanded his death. Reminding them that Micah had given a similar prophecy, the elders stepped in and Jeremiah’s life was spared. Although he escaped death that time, the prophet suffered beatings, imprisonment, and being put in stocks before being killed in Egypt. After Uriah prophesied against the evil in Judah, King Jehoiakim had him hunted down and killed. Wanting to wipe out the worship of the Lord and replace it with Baal worship, Jezebel sought to kill Elijah; although he escaped death, several other of God’s prophets weren’t so fortunate. Not wanting to hear John the Baptist’s bad news, Herodias urged Salome to demand his severed head on a plate.

The common theme of the prophets was repentance – turn from your evil ways and back to the Lord. For the most part, the typical response was like that of Evillene: “Don’t nobody bring me no bad news!” We still have the words of those prophets and much of their censure applies to us today. Moreover, many of their prophecies remain unfulfilled and we’d best not turn a deaf ear to them. Like Evillene, we only want to hear what we want to hear but God doesn’t work that way; He tells us what we need to hear!

When reading the words of the prophets, think of how they apply to the world in which we live: a world plagued with poverty, deficient health care, food insufficiency, human rights violations, climate change, diminishing resources, religious conflicts, genocide, wars, lack of economic opportunity and security, corruption, inequality, poor sanitation and water insecurity to name a few. Those problems are not that different from the ones addressed by the prophets thousands of years ago.

We no longer kill the prophets; we just ignore them. Let us learn from the fall of Israel and Judah; ignoring God is done at our own peril.

The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it. [George Orwell]

Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. … If you will only obey me, you will have plenty to eat. But if you turn away and refuse to listen, you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies. I, the Lord, have spoken! [Isaiah 1:16-17,19-20 (NLT)]

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