Tag Archives: Jewish

A Die-Hard Tradition

A Die-Hard Tradition (CaD Heb 4) Wayfarer

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:14-16 (NIV)

Priest (prēst) n. : Someone who is authorized to perform the sacred rites of a religion, especially as a mediatory agent between humans and God.

I’m wading into some deeper weeds today, but it’s something that has been important for me to understand in my spiritual journey, and it’s understanding the concept of a priest. A priest is a human mediator, go-between, or intermediary between another human being and God. A human goes to a priest to receive sacraments, confess sins, and be absolved of sin. The priest is a spiritual gatekeeper between the average joe member and almighty God. “Priests” have been a traditional part of religion forever. Growing up, the only “priests” I knew about were Roman Catholic.

The first time I remember stepping into a Roman Catholic church I was about 24 years old. I was there for the funeral of a young person who had taken his own life. In the years of my childhood, there were still small remnants of centuries-old antagonism between Catholics and Protestants. I remember that most towns had separate graveyards for Catholics and Protestants. I remember lectures from fundamentalist professors damning all Catholics to hell, which I found to be silly.

I was actually fascinated by the Catholic funeral that day and the rituals I witnessed for the first time. I was moved by the imagery. My study of the history, traditions, and theology of the Roman Catholic church has led me to a wide range of emotions from great appreciation to rage to honor and to sorrow. To be honest, I can say the same of Protestant denominations, as well. Human institutions are all human systems and are therefore given to the tragic failings of human beings and our nature. My observation has been that Roman Catholics make priests an official part of their system, while Protestants say they don’t have priests before treating their pastors as if they are exactly that.

For the Hebrew people who were first-century followers of Jesus, the priestly paradigm was a cornerstone of their religion for over a thousand years. The system God set up through Moses had a high priest who was the only human who could enter the “most holy place” of God’s presence in the temple. Only descendants of Aaron (Moses’ right-hand man) could be priests. It was an exclusive class of individuals who stood between the average human and God.

In today’s chapter, the author of the letter to early Jewish followers of Jesus is starting to address a huge paradigm shift in this priestly tradition. It’s going to continue to come up in upcoming chapters, and it has tremendous spiritual implications, so it’s important for a 21st reader to understand. Four times so far, the author has referred to Jesus as “high priest” and what the author is saying in today’s chapter is that Jesus was God come to earth, who was tempted but didn’t sin. Any believer can go directly to Jesus in our time of need, He understands our human struggles and will extend mercy (He won’t hold our sin against us) and grace (favor we don’t deserve).

In the quiet this morning, I find this simple truth so powerful. No more human mediators are required. Any believer can seek Jesus directly, access Jesus directly, confess our sins directly, and receive forgiveness, mercy, and grace directly. Why? Because my body is God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in me. Because this is true of every believer, Peter says that every one of Jesus’ followers belongs to a “royal priesthood” (In Jewish history the monarchy and priesthood were separated, but Jesus unites the two as both king & priest). Paul wrote to Timothy: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.”

So, according to the author of Hebrews, according to Peter, and according to Paul, no other human priest is required as a go-between a human being and Christ Jesus Himself. Yet, some institutions and denominations continue the practice based on tradition.

I’ve observed along my life journey that human traditions die hard.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Version 2.0

Version 2.0 (CaD Heb 3) Wayfarer

“Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future. But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house
Hebrews 3:5-6 (NIV)

When I was trained as an actor in college, I was taught that I won’t really portray my character well unless I truly understand that character. This includes learning everything about my character’s life and background. When I played Daddy Warbucks in Annie, I did a lot of study into New York at the time of the play complete with maps and photos to locate and picture what it looked like. I looked up every person, place, and thing referenced in the script. I even made choices about Daddy Warbucks’ own life story, things that weren’t known or referenced, in order to better understand his life, his character, and how he relates to other characters and events on stage. I looked up what kind of Limo he would have had, what life was like for a business and social elite in the stock market crash and during the Great Depression.

Okay, stick with me here.

In my experience, the book of Hebrews, also known as The Letter to the Hebrews, is one of the least read and studied in what we call the New Testament. And, I understand why. The author (who wrote Hebrews has been hotly contested since the Reformation). is writing to a very specific audience (Jewish/Hebrew followers of Jesus) at a very specific point in time (the first century as the Jesus movement was rapidly growing), with a very specific purpose (to explain how/why Jesus changes everything for the Hebrew people).

Because of this, a casual 21st-century reader fails to understand much of the letter, how crucial it was to those reading it, and how important it is in fully understanding how Jesus fit into the larger Great Story.

Sometimes I apply my actor’s training in character study to my reading of texts like Hebrews. I learn about what life was like for a Hebrew believer in the first century. What I discovered is that, when I read the text wearing those sandals, Jesus has radically transformed everything I was raised to believe.

I was taught that the Temple in Jerusalem is the center of my religion and worship. Jesus is telling me I, my body, is the Temple.

I was taught that there are certain foods that are clean, and other foods that are unclean. Jesus is telling me that all foods are now clean.

I was taught to make regular, ritual sacrifices at the Temple so my sins would be forgiven. Jesus is telling me that the entire sacrificial system is now on the scrap-heap of history and that Jesus was the once-and-for-all sacrifice that forgives my sins and makes me holy.

I was taught that the Hebrew people were God’s chosen people and everyone else should be ignored and shunned because they’ll make me unclean in God’s eyes. And, if I’m honest, I’ve been taught to be smug about this. Jesus is telling me that I’m to love, accept, and be in relationship with all people regardless of their nationality, race, gender, social standing, or religious background. I’m to love those I’ve been forever taught to hate.

All of a sudden, I begin to understand why Hebrews was such an essentially needed text for these Jewish believers. The author is helping me bridge the radical paradigm gap. He is helping me understand how to wrap my head and spirit around what seems like such extreme changes to what I have lived, breathed, learned, known, and practiced my entire life.

For this first-century Hebrew transformed into Jesus’ follower, Moses has been forever held up as the key figure in the history of my faith. Through Moses, the Law was given (all the rules that dictated my life). Through Moses, the sacrificial system, the tent/temple-centered worship, and the arrangement of priests as God’s go-betweens were instituted.

In today’s chapter, the author of Hebrews is explaining that Jesus, who is the author and creator of Moses and the old system, is a higher authority of Moses. Jesus isn’t denying Moses, the Law, and the system that has been in place for over a thousand years. Jesus, the original programmer and author of the code, is finally introducing a massive upgrade to Version 2.0. Most of us know how it feels when our familiar old, foundational, software gets upgraded and suddenly everything is different. That’s what the audience of Hebrews was feeling. That, on steroids.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself thinking about the changes I have experienced as a follower of Jesus in my 40+ year journey. The pomp, main-line, high-church ritual, and corporate worship of my childhood upbringing feel ancient to me now. At times, it is the source of sentimental nostalgia. At times, I can see in retrospect the spiritual metaphors which were completely lost on me while I was religiously entrenched in it. Yet, Jesus was always about growing, expanding, and transforming. My faith is continually updated as I journey forward and add new layers of both information and experience. I don’t even know what version I’m now! This is the way.

And, that I think that was one of the things I most loved about Daddy Warbucks as I stood in his wing-tips on stage. It was the transformation he makes each performance from his first entrance to his final bow. That’s how I’ve experienced my spiritual journey as a follower of Jesus. When I make this life’s final bow, I will be a completely different version of the person who entered the journey.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

From “Members Only” to a “Can of Worms”

As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.
Galatians 2:6 (NIV)

Imagine an exclusive country club that has been in existence in a community for hundreds of years. The club, created by the town’s wealthy and politically powerful founder had always been owned and run by the eldest child in direct generational descendant of the town’s founder. For generations the club has always been “Members Only” and only the “who’s who” of the community leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and established local families were allowed to join. Only they could afford the dues and abide by the upscale dress codes and the strictly taught and practiced rituals of the club’s exhaustive book of social etiquette.

Then, the current owner dies. In her last will and testament she states that the Club will now be open to anyone who wants to join, not only members of the local community, but anyone from any community in the entire region. She leaves an endowment that pays for virtually anyone to belong and states that nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership. From that point on, all members of the club will participate in its ownership and have the opportunity for club leadership.

Almost immediately, residents across a ten county area from every social strata, race, gender and cultural background rush to join the club. The existing club members who have only known the club to be one thing, are quickly thrown into a panic. While trying to maintain an air of acceptance and openness, they insist that all of the “new” members must maintain the traditional dress code (clothes none of the “new” members can afford) and the strict rituals of social, club etiquette (that none of the “new” members ever learned, nor do they necessarily care about).

The Board of Directors and its membership committee, packed with long-term, upstanding club members agree to embrace the owners wishes to welcome everyone into the club, but insist that the new members must hold to all of the long-held traditions of the country club even if it’s a terrible burden to them and offers no real benefit.

One influential member from one of the oldest, most well-established blue-blood families in the club’s history stands and confronts the Board and membership committee. The owner’s last will and testament said that “nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership.” To expect new members to buy expensive dinner clothes and hold to social rituals they’d never learned was the exact kind of hinderance that the owner was referring to in her will. He demands that they drop their requirement of historic dress codes and social etiquette rituals.

Can you feel the tension of this situation?

Welcome to the first century Jesus movement.

It’s hard in today’s world to understand just how huge a rift the risen and ascended Jesus created among early believers from different backgrounds. The Jewish believers came from a deep historical and cultural tradition that was a core part of their identity. In many ways it was like a private, “members only” club. When Jesus made it clear that His followers would embrace persons of every tribe, nation, culture and tongue He opened up the proverbial can of worms. It deeply rattled those who had lived their whole lives in a system of exclusivity.

As Paul continues to write his letter to the Galatians, the subtext of his words drips with tension. Paul is a life-long, blue-blood member of the formerly exclusive club. Peter, James and the rest of the Twelve are in Jerusalem trying to balance the enraged emotions and daily struggle of traditional, Jewish believers trying to embrace the new reality. Paul, the maverick, has gone all-in on the side of the non-Jewish Gentiles. This is the conflict threatening the faith of the early believers.

Paul is convinced that the believers must let go of the ancient Jewish traditions and rituals of their members only club as it relates to non-Jewish believers for whom these traditions and rituals are totally foreign and meaningless. He sees Peter and the other leaders as equivocating and trying to accommodate the powerful, established Jewish members of the new paradigm. Paul is pissed off, and is not going to shy away from a confrontation on the subject.

This morning I’m reminded that the struggles we experience in this time and place are not new. I’m reminded that learning to work together, embrace one another, love one another, and accept one another despite our differences is always going to be a messy human endeavor. My job, as I see it, is to follow and abide by the law of love that Jesus modeled and called me to obey. Following Jesus should always lighten the load, not increase the burden.

featured photo courtesy of Chuck Moravec via Flickr

The Pros and Cons of Tradition

 

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
Galatians 1:10 (NIV)

Wendy and I went to see Union Street Players’ production of Fiddler on the Roof yesterday afternoon. It has been a long time since I’ve seen the show. I was a bit surprised how the musical, about changing times within a small, Russian Jewish community in the early 20th century, resonated with me.

We live in a small community with very deep Christian convictions, and our “Traditions” are very much like those of Anatevka, the community portrayed in Fiddler. For many, our Christian traditions provide a deep sense order and temporal peace in a rapidly changing world. When our traditions are threatened by change, it usually meets with loud and passionate objections fueled by anxiety and fear. As with Anatevka, there has historically been strong societal pressure to conform to the community traditions.

Paul was dealing with a very similar situation when he wrote to Jesus’ followers in Galatia. Most of Jesus’ early followers came from Jewish traditions which were then being threatened by non-Jewsish (a.k.a. Gentile) believers. The changes this wrought within these fledgling communities of believers was immense and the passionate divisions it stirred was intense. Those from Jewish traditions saw their faith in Jesus as a mere extension of their Jewish traditions.  Those from Gentile traditions did not wish to adopt Jewish traditions to be followers of Jesus.

Paul, addressing these divisions, makes it clear that he has no interest in doing things simply to bow to human traditions and become a people pleaser. As Tevye and the residents of Anatevka discover in Fiddler on the Roof, the times, they are a changing. Paul makes it clear that he will follow Jesus, even if it means abandoning many of his traditions and raising the ire of the society in which he was raised and from which he came.

Today, I’m thinking about my own traditions, the ones passed down to me by family and community. Some I honor and obey because I feel Jesus clearly commands His followers to do so. Some I honor and follow because I find them beneficial to me and to my life, relationships, and community. Some, I find silly and don’t care about whatsoever. Traditions are a good thing right up to the point they become more about keeping up appearances and pleasing the community than they do about sincere faith and personal spiritual benefit.

Of Sneetches and Circumcision

sneetches quote

So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Acts 11:2-3 (NSRV)

I love Dr. Seuss. I find the illustrations, the rhymes, and the created words even more entertaining as an adult than I did as a kid. As an adult, I also have an even greater appreciation for the lessons that Dr. Seuss taught us about human, though he did it through the most creative of fantastical creatures.

One of my favorites as both a kid and an adult is the story of The Sneetches. Some of the big yellow creatures had stars on their tummies, and some did not. What follows is a zany study of how we tend to discriminate through our prejudices and will go to great lengths to belong with the crowd.

The Sneetches came to mind this morning as I read about Peter’s return to Jerusalem from the house of Cornelius. The early followers of Jesus were an almost exclusively Jewish sect. And, like the star on a Sneetches tummy, the physical determination of whether you “belonged” to the Jewish faith as a man of that day was whether your penis was circumcised and the foreskin ritually removed. The practice went all the way back to Abraham and the Jews took great pride in having this physical evidence of their “belonging” to the Jewish faith.

So, when Peter returns from the house of Cornelius the non-Jew he is confronted by the Jewish followers of Jesus asking why he ate with the unclean, uncircumcised, lower class, dirty, rotten, don’t belong, non-Jewish Gentiles. The very question smacked of prejudice and socio-arrogance. I find it interesting that Dr. Luke saw fit to repeat Peter’s story in exacting detail rather than writing, “Peter told them what had happened.” A writer repeats things when they are important, and I believe Luke repeated the story he had just written because this was a big deal. The times they were a changin’. Think of telling southern Klu Klux Klan members a century ago that they had to start accepting African-Americans into their membership. This was going to shake things up in a big way.

But, God gave this experience to Peter who was the unquestioned spiritual leader of their faith and who had been placed into leadership by Jesus. This was a top down policy shift, and Luke records that the initial response of the believers in Jerusalem was acceptance. We know from other sources, however, that it wouldn’t be a peacefully and universally accepted paradigm shift.

In the end of Dr. Seuss’ tale of The Sneetches, the Sneetches with stars and the Sneetches without stars get so mixed up that it ceases to be relevant. It’s hard for us to relate to how radical it was for God to command Peter and the early Jewish followers to love non-Jewish Gentiles and accept them into the fold. People are people, however, and we have our own prejudices and forms of socio-arrogance.

Today is another good reminder for me to acknowledge my prejudices, and to let them go.

Chapter-a-Day Hebrews 7

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pi...
Image via Wikipedia

Jesus became a priest, not by meeting the physical requirement of belonging to the tribe of Levi, but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed. And the psalmist pointed this out when he prophesied, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Hebrews 7:16-17

Some sections of God’s Message are difficult to understand outside of the context of the time and situation in which they were written. Because Jesus was Jewish, and his initial followers were Jewish, the early followers of Jesus were simply one of many sects of Judaism that have existed through the centuries. As Jesus’ followers began sharing that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah that had been prophesied, they encountered a myriad of questions about their claim as it related to Jewish law and tradition. The book of Hebrews was, in fact, a letter written to address some of these questions.

For example, a priest is one who stands in the gap between man and God and who represents man before God. In Jewish tradition only the high priest can enter the holy place of God and he can only do so once a year to make atonement for the sins of all the people. Jesus’ followers has been explaining that Jesus, God’s Son, was the Great High Priest who came from Heaven to Earth to make atonement once for all with His sacrificial death and resurrection.

“Point-of-order!” their good Jewish brethren responded. Jesus could not be a High Priest because Jesus was from the tribe of Judah and the law of Moses states quite specifically that only members of the tribe of Levi can be priests.

In today’s chapter, the author of Hebrews addresses this question and refers them back to a verse in the Psalms in which the messiah is described as “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” Melchizedek was a mysterious figure who enters the Biblical narrative during the time of Abraham, 500 years before Moses and the Jewish law. Melchizedek was recognized as High Priest by Abraham before there was a Jewish law or a Jewish tradition because Abraham was the father of the Jews. The author of Hebrews explains that Jesus was not a High Priest as defined by the constrictions of Jewish law of Moses. Rather, Jesus fulfilled the prophesy in Psalms and was a High Priest in the tradition of Melchizedek. Melchizedek presupposes and represents a higher, more ancient order of priesthood.

Today, I’m reminded that what I believe is a story that has been planned and revealed in chapters that span thousands and thousands and thousands of years. The story began long before my lifetime and will carry on long after this Earthly sojourn of mine is completed. While I believe that the great story is already written, today I continue to live out my own chapter of that same story in my life, my words, my actions, and my relationships.