King Solomon’s Doors; Monday Morning Parable

God gave the honor of building the first Temple in Jerusalem to King Solomon, the third king of Israel and son of the Great King David.  his wisdom for architecture was legendary; his insight into design beyond compare.  But in the land of Israel, building materials were very limited.  King Solomon wished to embellish the great structure with precious metals and exotic accessories, so he sent a man named Nicanor to Alexandria in Egypt to secure two bronze doors for the Temple.

Nicanor boarded a ship with these doors and sailed homeward.  During his journey, a thunderous storm imperiled the ship.  Fearing for their lives, and hoping to calm the waters, the sailors threw one of the doors into the sea.  The storm, however, continued, and the sea boiled over across the ship’s deck.  Again, the crew hoped to appease the storm by throwing the matching door overboard.  At this point Nicanor protested, wrestling the door away from the crew.

“Throw me in with it,” he yelled.”

Without hesitation, they obliged him.

Suddenly, the storm abated.  Nicanor and the door floated nearby and were hauled aboard by the sailors.  Nicanor, feeling that his mission had failed and feeling miserable, watched as they neared the port of Acco with only a single door.  But as the ship docked, an incredible thing happened.  The other door bobbed up beside the ship amid raging waters.  According to legend, a sea monster spit the door onto dry land.

The resurrection of the door prompted Solomon to reconsider the Temple he was building in Jerusalem.  He observed that all of its beams were made of cedar wood, and all its walls were of cypress.  Furthermore, the gates of the sanctuary were all made of gold, with the exception of the doors of Nicanor.  Yet these doors, although made of bronze, glowed miraculously as if they were made of pure gold.

(Talmudic Source: Yoma 38A)

One rabbi interprets this parable as follows, “The ancient rabbis liked legendary stories with exaggerated details that spiced up their lessons.  Many contained creatures and monsters that could cause or obliterate a storm, turn day into night, and so on.  Here, Nicanor’s special doors were designated to stand in a distinct place in Solomon’s Temple because they had inspired miracles.”

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Give to Caesar What is Caesar’s; and to God What Is God’s; Wednesday Wisdom

Today I wanted to share a passage from Luke 20 that deals with Jesus and the Caesar.  This great passage in the gospel accounts really helps me remember what is important, especially in times of intense political debate.

First a little bit of context.  In the first century world of Jesus the Roman Caesars believed they were sent by the gods to renew creation.  Caesar Augustus believed that as the son of god, he was god incarnate on earth, the prince of peace who had come to restore all of creation.  One of his popular slogans was “There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved than that of Caesar.”  Another popular phrase was, “Caesar is Lord.”  These popular phrases and images of Caesar were inscribed on the coinage of the Roman Empire as well.

Think about the implications of this.  The caesars claimed that they were the ones who provided for everyone and saved everyone and made the world a better place.  It is against this backdrop that we find Jesus the first-century Jewish rabbi in Luke 20:26.

20 Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. 21 So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. 22 Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

23 He saw through their duplicity and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

25 He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

26 They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent.

Jesus’ response to the questions is brilliant, as usual.  Think about what he is really saying here.  The money and taxes they belong to Caesar, but you also need to give God what is God’s.  By separating the two entities here (Caesar and God), Jesus is making a very controversial claim.  He is essentially saying, “Caesar is NOT God.”  Sometimes it is very important to remember that God is in control, no matter what political party or leader is in government office.  At the end of the day God is in charge, not politicians.

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The Parable of the Fair Employer and Rabbinic Parallels

One of my favorite parables in the gospel accounts is the parable of the fair employer found in Matthew 20.  What’s really cool about this parable is that it has numerous parallels in rabbinic literature, as is the case for several of Jesus’ parables.  We’ll start out with the parable as it’s told in Matthew 20, and I’ll also include some of the rabbinic parallels after the gospel story.  Matthew 20:1-16 reads:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius[a] for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.

“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.

“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

One parallel account in rabbinic literature is the Parable of the Laborers in the Orchard:

“R. Hiyya taught: to a king who had an orchard into which he brought laborers without revealing to them the reward for planting each of several kind of trees in the orchard.  Had he revealed to them the reward for planting each kind of tree in the orchard, the laborers would have picked out the kind of tree for whose planting there was the greatest reward and planted it; thus, the work of the orchard would have been neglected in one section and not neglected in another section.  Even so, concluded R. Abba bar Kahana, the Holy One, blessed be He, did not reveal to Israel the reward for heeding difference precepts of Torah.  Had he revealed it to them, Israel might have picked out the most rewarding precept and heeded only that one.  Then the Torah would be neglected at one Section and maintained only at another section.” (Pesik. Rab. 23/24)

One additional parable from rabbinic literature that has to do with the topic of grace or works:

“How do the righteous come into the world?  Through love, because they uphold the world through their good deeds. How do they depart — also through love.  R. Simeon ben Eleazar told a parable.  To what may the matter be compared?  To a king who hired two workers.  The first worked all day and received one denarius.  The second one worked only an hour and yet he received a denarius.  Which one was more beloved?  Not the one who worked an hour and received o denarius!  Thus Moses our teacher served Israel one hundred and twenty years and Samuel served them only fifty two.  Nevertheless both are equal before the Omnipresent!  As it is said, “Then the Lord said to me, “Though Moses and Samuel stood before me'” (Jer. 15:1); and thus He said, “Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name” (Psalm 99:6); concerning them and others like them he says, “Sweet is the sheep of the laborer whether he eats little or much” (Eccl. 5:12).  (R. Zeira, j. Ber. 5C, ch. 2, halakah 8) 

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God Will Use You and Me, but Mostly Me! Wednesday Wisdom

The title for this post is inspired by a song from the award-winning musical Book of Mormon that really resonated with me and reminded me of something I often see in church settings.  A sort of spiritual competition where people want to do more mission work than the next person, etc.  It turns out this competition seems to have been going on for thousands of years.  Notice the gospel of John, written by one of Jesus’ disciples, John.  John 20:3-10 reads as follows: 

“3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.” 

John feels the need to tell us multiple times that he reached the tomb first, and also that he was the one who “saw and believed.”  Interesting.  You’ll also find that in John 21 John refers to himself multiple times as “the disciple Jesus loved.”  So it seems that John, while divinely inspired to convey a critical gospel message, still feels the need to mention he ran faster than the other disciples and also that he was the disciple Jesus loved. 

What’s fascinating to me is that Jesus seems to directly address this type of thinking in John 21.  Jesus speaks to Peter and tells him a few things about his life and where he will be headed.  Peter responds and asks Jesus about John.  Notice John 21:18-22: 

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”  20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”  22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

Jesus’ response to Peter clearly outlines his thinking on this subject.  Focus on your calling and your purpose in life, not on what someone else is doing.  You need to pursue what God has called you to, and not concern yourself with others and how you compare to them.  This message is one I often need to be reminded of.

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Addressed Personally, Monday Morning Parable

There is an ancient rabbinic legend about the disciples of a great rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov.  After evening prayers the rabbi would listen to all students who were seeking advice from him in a group setting.

One evening as the students left the room, one apologized to the others for monopolizing so much of the Baal Shem’s attention.  Throughout the entire audience, the master had spoken to him personally.  His friend to him not to talk such nonsense.  They had all entered the room together, and, from the beginning, the master had spoken only to him.  A third, hearing this, laughed and said they were both mistaken, for their teacher had carried on an intimate conversation with him alone for the entire evening.  A fourth and fifth made the same claim — the the Baal Shem had spoken to them personally, to the exclusion of everyone else.  Only then did they realize what had happened, and they all fell silent.

As Rabbi Kushner says, “So it is with us when we read the Scripture.  The biblical text speaks intimately and demands an intensely personal response.”

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Sukkot and Living Water

In the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), God instituted a religious calendar for the people to follow that involved several scheduled feasts (Leviticus 23).  After the day of atonement (Yom Kippur), the people celebrated the most joyous feast of all, the feast of Sukkot.  This is the only feast where God commanded the people to “rejoice before him (Leviticus 23:40).”

This week-long festival (also known as ‘feast of tabernacles) was celebrated after the fall harvest had been gathered.  Following God’s command the people built booths of olive, palm, and myrtle branches (Nehemiah 8:15).  The booths provided shade, but also left enough space so the people could see the sky, reminding them of their ancestors years spent wandering in the wilderness.

One other special element to Sukkot involved living water.  The Bible speaks of living water over and over again (Psalm 107:9; Isaiah 35:6-7; 58:11; Jeremiah 2:13; Zechariah 14:8).  Living water was different from still water.  Living water stayed fresh and clean, and most springs flowed with living water year round.

Sukkot took place immediately following the dry season, and rains needed to begin immediately in order to ensure a harvest the following year.  Thus, the celebration of Sukkot was often coupled with fervent prayers for next year’s rains.  An elaborate ceremony developed where the priests would lead the people in chants asking God for life-giving rain, for living water.  Scholars believe that the chants and the pleas for living water became more and more passionate as the week-long festival went on.

It is in this context, the context of the festival of Sukkot, and the water ceremony, that Jesus’ dramatically presents his message of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We read that Jesus had gone to Jerusalem for Sukkot (John 7:10) and spent time teaching the crowds who thronged the Temple (John 7:14).  On the “last and greatest day” of the feast (John 7:37), in the midst of the water ceremony, the chanted prayers, and the pleas for living water, Jesus stood up and said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  (John 7:37-38). 

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Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the 12 Steps by Richard Rohr

I recently started reading a book by Richard Rohr on how the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are rooted in the gospel message of Jesus.  An interesting and fascinating topic to say the least.  One passage that struck me was a passage dealing with the shift in the attitude and actions of the church in the fourth century after Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity.

“By the fourth century Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, which left us needing to agree on its transcendent truth claims (for example, Jesus is God, God is Trinity, Mary is a virgin, etc.) instead of experiencing the very “practical steps” of human enlightenment, the central message of our own transformation into “the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:14), and bringing about a “new creation” on this earth (Galatians 6:15). It became theory over practice.

We henceforth concentrated on how to worship Jesus as one united empire instead of following Jesus in any practical ways (even though he never once said “worship me” but often said “follow me”).  The emperors, not popes or bishops, convened the next few councils of the church, and their concerns were usually not the healing of the masses but a united empire; and surely not Jesus clear teaching on nonviolence, simplicity of lifestyle, and healing those on the edge, which would have derailed the urgent concerns of an empire, as we see to this day.

Our Christian preoccupation with metaphysics and the future became the avoiding of the “physics” itself and the present.  Endless theorizing, and the taking of sides, opinions about which we could be right or wrong, trumped and toppled the universally available gift of the Divine Indwelling, the real “incarnation” which still has the power to change the world.

As Tertullian, sometimes called the first Western Theologian (ad 166-225), said, “Caro salutis cardo,” the flesh is the hinge on which salvation swings and the axis on which it hangs.  When Christianity loses its material/physical/earthly interests, it has very little to say about how God actually loves the world into wholeness.  In endless arguing about the Spirit, we too often avoided both body and soul.  Now we suffer the consequences of a bodily addicted and too often soulless society, while still arguing the abstractions of theology and liturgy, and paying out an always available Holy Spirit to the very few who meet all the requirements.”

–Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps

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