Tag Archives: Judaism

God’s People, part 134: The Jews

Read John 8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.’”  (John 19:7 NRSV)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Roberts_Siege_and_Destruction_of_Jerusalem

Part 134: The Jews. In the last devotion we discussed the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While all of them tell the account of Jesus of Nazareth, they do differ on the details within their accounts. Often times, we read the gospels as if they are ONE story told four different times; however, the reality is that they are four separate accounts of Jesus of Nazareth told to different people at different times for different reasons. Thus, not all of the details within the accounts match up.

Still, Matthew, Mark and Luke are very similar to one another and a majority of the events in their accounts are parallel to each other. Certainly, they follow the same basic chronological structure: 1) Jesus was born (Matthew & Luke), 2) Jesus’ ministry began following his baptism in the Jordan, 3) his ministry was based in and around Galiliee, 4) at the end of his ministry he went to Jerusalem and stirred up trouble, 5) he was betrayed, arrested, crucified, 6) and resurrected from the dead.

The Gospel of John, however, followed a different chronological structure. Jesus was seen in Jerusalem throughout his career and, in fact, the cleansing of the Temple (which happens at the end of Matthew, Mark & Luke’s account) takes place at the beginning of John. Also, John’s Gospel is different theologically too. All of the Gospels claim that Jesus is the Christ (aka the Messiah) and the Son of God; however, John’s Jesus is barely touching the ground (though his humanity is still on full display, just differently).

One of the biggest differences in the Gospel of John is the distinction between Jesus and “The Jews”. Sadly, this distinction has wrongly been interpreted in anti-Semitic ways; however, it was not written to be anti-Semitic. The community from which this Gospel emerged was inherently a Jewish community. They were not anti-Semitic as they themselves were Semites.

The distinction between Jesus and “the Jews” is actually, in context, and intra-Jewish distinction. In other words, it was a distinction happening within Judaism among differing Jews. In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed all of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Temple. The further away from that event one gets, the more one can begin to see a distinction being drawn up between traditional Jewish groups and those who followed Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

First, the traditional Jewish sects wanted nothing to do with those Jesus followers because Rome crucified Jesus as a traitor of the Empire. To align with this criminal, following a time when Rome had already quelled a major Jewish uprising by destroying all of Jerusalem, was to risk losing the remaining religious leniencies that Rome still granted the Jewish people. Second, while Jews looked to the following of the Torah (the Law) in response as to how to remain faithful to God without a Temple to sacrifice in, the earliest Christians (with an increasing number of Gentile members) saw faith in Jesus as the answer.

Thus, the more pushback that the early Christian communities received, the more they began to identify as a community different than “the Jews”. They were Jewish, but they were pushed to see themselves as being counter to what the mainline Jewish sects were advocating. This was not, again, because they were anti-Jewish, but because they were being expelled from synagogues and rejected by mainline Jewish leaders. Compound that fact with the reality that Gentile Christians began to outnumber Jewish Christians toward the end of the first century, and one can begin to see how this identity metamorphosis took root.

Still, it is important for us to realize that “the Jews” in Jesus’ day were not a monolithic group that altogether were antagonistic toward Jesus or his followers. In John, that language was more representing his time period than it was Jesus’. Some of the Jews did believe Jesus was the Messiah, others did not see him that way. What’s more, while some of the Jewish leadership and the Roman rulers had Jesus put to death, the common Jewish person would not have wanted any Jew to be crucified by the Romans. “The Jews” as a whole were not responsible for Jesus’ death. The Roman Empire, under the leadership of Pontius Pilate, was responsible for that.

The challenge for us is to begin, if we haven’t already, to stop viewing Christianity through an “us” versus “them” mentality. In God there is no “them”, there is only “us”. God created us all and loves us all and calls us all to be in relationship with God. Jesus Christ did not come create more divisions than already exist in the world; rather, Jesus came to unite us all to God through him. Let us be reminded of that and live into it.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Be reminded of Christ and begin to model Christ in your lives and in the world around you.

PRAYER
Lord, draw me in closer to you and empower me to witness to others your love and grace. Amen.

God’s People, part 124: Sadducees

Read Acts 4:1-22

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Then Jesus was approached by some Sadducees—religious leaders who say there is no resurrection from the dead.”  (Luke 20:27, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

SadduceesPart 124: Sadducees. The Sadducees were a group of people who existed during the Second Temple period in Jerusalem (516 BCE – 70 CE). They became prominent during the second century BCE and were among the sects of Judaism during a very divided time in Jewish history. The division stemmed around the Hellenization (e.g infiltration of Greek culture) of Israel under the Seleucid Empire.

While some groups, such as the Pharisees, thought one ought to separate themselves from Grecco-Roman culture altogether, the Sadducees worked to regulate relations with their foreign occupiers. This is not to say that the Sadducees promoted Helenization; however, their role was a political one as much as it was religious. They were of the high social class of Jewish society, they were the aristocracy, and they had much influence and power in Judaea.

This was epsecially true when the Romans conquered and occupied Judaea. Annas and Caiaphas were both members of the Sadducees. Annas was appointed to the position of high priest by the Roman governor of Syria, Quirinius. While not all priests and high priests were Sadducees, many of them were. They were responsible for maintaining the Temple and the life of worship. They performed rituals, sacrifices, and other duties related to the temple; however, they also served as politicians and judges.

They were on the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish Council, along with the Pharisees. They managed the state domestically, and represented the state internationally. They collected taxes, including collecting international tax from Jews living in other countries. They also equipped and led the Jewish army, and structured relations with the Romans. On top of all of those political roles, the Sadducees also mediated local and household complaints.

The Sadducees were a people of great prominence and importance. With control over the Temple and the worship life of the Jewish people, the Sadducees held a power that few Jewish groups in that time period had. They were an aristocratic sect that had utilized its status in ways that often benefited them to the detriment of the people beneath them. This angered many, and caused dissident sects like the Essenes and the Zealots to take matters into their own hands to usher in the Messianic age.

As we will soon see, this group would cross paths with the Christ, the anointed One of God, Jesus of Nazareth. The Messiah would not be impressed by their power, nor would he be afraid to hold them and others accountable for the way they abused the authority God had given them. This imminent confrontation would lead to the most dramatic and powerful events the world has ever seen.

The challenge for us is to remember the Sadducees and recognize our own desire for power, control, and authority. We ought to keep that desire in check and remember that it is God who is power, it is God who is in control and who has authority, not us.

Let us submit ourselves to God rather than try to bend God into submission. The latter will NEVER happen and will lead us to our own downfall, just as surely as the power hungry Sadducees went down with their Temple when the Romans finally came in and destroyed it along with the entire city of Jerusalem. Remember, to God be the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Watch out! Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:6, NLT)

PRAYER
Lord, I surrender all to you, and place all that have and all that I am in your hands. Amen.

Vehement Prayer

Read Psalm 137

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever. For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.” (Psalms 37:27-28 NRSV)

BesideTheRiversOfBabylon_VehementPrayer2This is an incredibly hard text to deal with. I mean, what can be possible said to justify the words that we’ve just read. What can possible be said to defend the horrifying imagery that the psalmist has forever etched into our heads? What can possibly justify the killing of innocent babies and/or children? Why would that even be in the Bible? What constructive good could possibly come for such atrocious and violent rhetoric? What’s more, what can I possibly say about this text that will transform it into something relevant for our lives in today’s time?

First, I always think it is important to understand the historical context of the text before trying to understand the text itself. We are blessed with this Psalm because it actually dates itself, which gives us a really good place to start in understanding what was going on there. The psalmist opens the Psalm in the following way: “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 137:1 NRSV). So we know where this Psalm takes place, “beside the rivers of Babylon”, which means that the Psalm was written by a Jew within Babylon.

What this ultimately means is that this is a Psalm that comes out of the Exilic Period in Jewish history. This period happened in three waves between 605 BCE and 538 BCE. The Exile of the Jews lasted until the Persian king, Cyrus II, decreed that the Jews could return to their homeland following the Persian takeover of Babylon a year earlier in October of 539 BCE. (NOTE: Before Common Era (BCE) years count backwards.) This means that the Psalm had to be written sometime between 605 and 539 BCE.

The dating of this Psalm is further evidenced by the fact that the psalmist is “remembering Zion, implying that it was laid to waste. What that means is that this psalmist was among those taken captive back to Babylon during the third exilic wave (July or August of 587 BCE), following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple built by Solomon. Let’s put this into perspective. When Babylon came in and seiged Jerusalem for the third time (due to Judah rebelling against King Nebuchadnezzar), they were made a bloody example of for anyone else who would dare challenge and conspire against the Babylonian Empire who they were previously conquered by and subject to.

So, to be precise, at the time of the Babylonian attack on Judah, there was an estimated population of 75,000 people living in Judah, and Jerusalem was probably much of that population being that it was the main city. Of that population, 20,000 people were deported and brought back to Babylon in exile. That’s over 25% of the population. Now, we all remember what happened on 9/11, just imagine if, on top of the attacks, 25% of all Americans were taken to another country to live.

Just put that into perspective of how horrifying, how awful, and how humiliating that must have been. Twenty-five percent! The remaining 75% were either dead, or were left in Judah to watch their countryside, villages, and the city of Jerusalem smolder, literally. Jerusalem itself, destroyed and depopulated, lay largely in ruins for the next 150 years. Many of their men, women and children were dead, the rest exiled to a foreign land or left to rot in a smoldering land, and they were the utter and absolute laughing stock of an empire.

This psalmist is letting out his or her violent reaction, and getting it out in the open, and that is perfectly okay. Does God condone violence, or dashing infants’ heads on stone? No, I do not believe that God does. Nor does this psalmist even claim that God states that. The violence in this psalm is really a vehement prayer of anguish to God and God does understand the wounded heart of the anguished psalmist and of all people who suffer injustice and pain. God not only understands the oppressed, but stands in solidarity with them, working to bring about justice to those who are suffering under the weight of evil.

It is important for us to know that it is okay if we cry out vehemently to God when we are desperate for justice, for God knows our pain and is working to bring about justice in our situations and in the world. What’s more, we are also challenged to check to see where our own allegiances lie. Are we standing in solidarity with the oppressed, just as God is, or are we among the oppressors who are adding insult to injury? In the end, justice ALWAYS prevails. It did eventually in Babylon, and it will in our world too. Evaluate yourself. Which side are you on?

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Prayer is the tearing open of your rib cage so that your heart can breathe.” – Rob Bell
PRAYER
Lord, hear my own vehement prayers anguish and also lead me to become an answered prayer for those who suffer. Amen.

The Sermon, part 12: Sixth Anthesis

Read Matthew 5:43-48

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Therefore, the proud may not stand in Your presence, for You hate all who do evil.” (Psalms 5:5 NLT)

Risen “You have heard the law says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” Jesus proclaims his sixth and final antithesis to what must have been a stunned crowd. Honestly, these words should stun even us today! As of 2012, there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world, which makes up about 31.5% of the world’s population. Out of that 2.2 billion, how many of us truly give a wholehearted attempt to love our enemies?

As was mentioned in the previous devotion, there is NO COMMANDMENT in the Hebrew Scriptures stating that one should hate his/her enemies. Jesus’ language here is hyperbolic and rhetorical. What Jesus is doing is taking the conventional wisdom and purposfully conflating it with the law, not for any dubious purpose but because individuals and societies have often conflated the two. In the Hebrew Scriptures it says that God hates all evildoers (e.g. Psalms 5:5). What’s more, it follows that God’s people would hate evildoers as well (e.g. Deuteronomy 23:3-7; 30:7; Psalms 26:5; 139:21-22).

This is not to say that all Jews advocated for hating one’s enemies, and I would be amiss to even possibly imply that. That is not the case at all, nor is Jesus making that case. What Jesus is doing is shifting the extension love from just “God’s people” to all people, for God created all people (including the evildoers). I would also be amiss to not state that Jesus isn’t basing his command on some sort of humanitarn and/or human rights ideal or principal; rather, he is basing it solely on HIS AUTHORITY to set his own command and appose it with the Torah. He does so based off of his knowledge of the nature of God who loves and shows no impartiality (Matthew 5:45).

What’s more, his juxtapositioning of his command with the Torah reminds us of God’s eschatological (end-time) plan being enacted in the coming Kingdom. Jesus saw himself as the advent of God’s Kingdom, and he saw his disciples as children of God and “citizens” of that Kingdom. Thus, Jesus commands that his disciples conduct themselves in a way that is consistent and appropriate with their status as children of God and citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Jesus then uses two interesting examples to further his point. “In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much” (Matthew 5:45-46 NLT).

While Jesus was known to be “friends of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19), and while we know that Jesus saw his messages a being inclusive of Gentiles (aka “pagans”, Matthew 28:18-20), he uses these two examples because of the general disdain among Jews for tax collectors and Gentiles. And there was good reason for that disdain. Tax collectors were unpatriotic Jews who were employed by the Romans to collect taxes from their own people. What’s more, they would jack up the taxes so that they could increase their profit.

Also, it was the Gentiles (aka the pagans) who were occupying and tainting the Holy Land. It was the Romans, and the Greeks before them, and the Babylonians before them, and the Assyrians before them, and the Phillistines before them, and Egypt before them who had continually kept Judah and Israel from being an independent and sovereign nations. On top of that, the Jews were divided against themselves, with some wishing to become even more like the Gentiles.

Thus, Jesus is showing the extent of God’s impartiality, and the extent in which he EXPECTS his disciples to be impartial in their showing love to others. How can you call yourself God’s children if you are doing no different than the corrupt tax collectors or the idolatrous Gentiles? How can you say, “I am God’s” if your actions scream “blessed be the WAY OF THE WORLD!” Therefore, Jesus concludes his series of antitheses with this command, “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Reflect on this. Do not dilute Jesus’ call for perfection in order to find comfort and shelter from what is seemingly impossible and unattainable. Let it, for the next several days, sink in and stir up in you a desire to understand what Jesus means by perfect. Let it cause you to reflect on your own actions and on whether or not your life has lived up to God’s expectations. In our next devotion, we will take a deeper look at this seemingly impossible command.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
To hate anyone is to participate in evil. To participate in evil is to become an evildoer.

PRAYER
Lord, steer me away from hate, especially when it is an easier path than love. Keep my heart righteous, my thoughts pure, and my actions holy. Amen.

Understanding Paul, part 6

Read Romans 15:22-33; Acts 21-22

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 CEB).

Decapitación_de_San_Pablo_-_Simonet_-_1887To sum up this series, I think it is beyond doubt that Paul is the most influential theologian in the history of Christianity. As this series has attempted to show, much of the problems that Christians run into when it comes to interpreting Paul arise directly because Paul is interpreted as a “Christian” theologian. Yet, the truth of the matter is that, while he was an Apostle of the Risen Christ, the Apostle Paul was NOT a Christian but a Jewish theologian. He just happened to subscribe to the Jewish sect known as “the Way” and believed that Jesus had called him to preach the Good News of an open Jewish covenant, through Christ, to all the Gentile world.

Throughout the centuries and especially in Christianity Today, Paul has become a conservative icon of the church and a guardian of the faith. Thus, his words and writings have been used to uphold church doctrine and dogma in support of slavery, against women clergy, and for the definition of marriage between a man and a woman. In fact, the Apostle Paul’s words on marriage are also the foundation of the Roman Catholic doctrine on clerical celibacy. For those supporting such doctrines and positions, Paul’s words have become a rallying cry; however, by and large the Apostle Paul’s writings have divided more people than they have united. While those seeking to keep things as the perceive they’ve always been find Paul to be their champion, others who are frustrated by the Church’s resistance to change find Paul to be irritating at best and downright egregious at worst.

All of this division, all of this animosity, all of this tension coming from a man who literally spent his life trying to unite people in Christ Jesus. While Paul was Jewish and firmly believed that Jesus was the JEWISH MESSIAH, he also firmly believed that this Christ, through his death and resurrection, had opened up the Jewish covenant to all Gentiles, through their faith in Jesus Christ. This set him at odds with both the Jerusalem church, as well as with the majority of Jewish people as a whole. Yet, rather than abandon one side for the other, Paul spent the rest of his shortened life and ministry trying to make peace with all parties and he tried to unite them in the grace, peace and love of the Risen Christ.

Throughout his ministry, Paul collected money from his Gentile church communities in order that he might bring a peace offering and financial support for the church in Jerusalem. In Romans 15 he wrote to the church community in Rome to pray not only that he be rescued from those who don’t believe in Judea, but that the leaders of the church in Jerusalem (e.g. Jesus brother, James, among others) find his monetary gift to be acceptable. We also learn, in Acts 21, that Paul’s worries were founded as the church wanted him to prove he was a committed Jew by going to the Temple and going through a purification ritual with his fellow Gentile travelers. In complying with them to solidify the unity he was seeking, Paul sealed his own fate, was arrested by the Temple guards, was sent to Rome and was, eventually, martyred.

Paul literally died in order to bring unity to an already divided church. He was not the conservative icon of the church in his day, but a progressive (to use today’s language) visionary of an INCLUSIVE church. He believed and died for a church that would INCLUDE all people who share faith in Jesus Christ. He strived for a church that would live in LOVE and live out Christ’s commandment for us to LOVE ONE ANOTHER. Paul died to witness to his belief that we “all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 5:28). This, for Paul, was the Gospel message and it should be the message that we, too, embrace as the Gospel Message.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Talent perceives differences; genius, unity.” – William Butler Yeats

PRAYER
Lord, build me into a peacemaker. Even as I hold firm to my convictions, keep me convicted to bear your grace in all things. Amen.

The Ultimate Reality

Read Ruth 4:13-17

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (Mat 1:17)

11-Moab-MapDo you know Ruth? Some people might be saying, “sure, I know a ‘Ruth’ or two.” So, I will ask this question again, do you you know Ruth? I am not referring to someone you might know with the name “Ruth” who may or may not be among your family, friends, and/or neighbors; however, I am referring to the Biblical character of Ruth, who happens to have her own book in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, out of all of the books that bear a person’s name throughout all of the Bible, Ruth is just one of two books bearing the name of a woman. What’s more, Ruth wasn’t even a Hebrew by birth; rather, she was a Moabite. In fact, the author of Ruth reminds us that she is a Moabite seven times, and that she was from the land of Moab (in other words, she’s a Moabite) four times; that’s a total of eleven times within four short chapters, which is the length of this small, yet important, book.

Now let me ask, how many of you know Moabite when you see one? The fact is that Moab was a kingdom that existed in what is now modern-day Jordan. The Moabites worshiped the god Chemosh and would, as was customary for the time and geographical location, often offer human sacrifices to their god. This kingdom also found itself at odds with the Kingdom of Israel, which eventually split into the kingdoms of Israel (in the North) and Judah (in the South) following the reign of Solomon. To make matters worse, in the eyes of the Israelites, Solomon had built a temple to Chemosh to help promote trade between the two kingdoms. That may have been a wise political move, but it did not sit well with the devout followers of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.

So, Ruth was from a Kingdom that the Israelites detested; yet, there we see her not only prominently displayed in Hebrew religious literature, but also prominently revered in Hebrew history. As it turns out, this Moabite woman named Ruth ended up marrying a Hebrew man named Boaz (read the book of Ruth for the full story) and bearing him a son named Obed. From there we find out that Obed was the father of Jesse who, in turn, was the father of David. Yes, as in King David…arguably the greatest King that Israel ever had. What an odd, odd story. What kind of people attest to their King being born of a woman who was not even one of their own? And don’t forget the ancient Mosaic law that forbid the Israelites from marrying outside of the Hebrew gene pool for fear that the they would forget their covenantal relationship with God (Deuteronomy 7:2-4). Yet, here is Ruth, a convert to Judaism from Moab (the enemy of Israel), shown to be the mother of Israel’s greatest King…and the ancestor of, if we believe the Gospel recording of lineage, Jesus of Nazareth.

The power of this story is that it reminds us that GOD does not choose sides, or favor one people over the other. It does not matter who we are, what religion we do or don’t claim to follow, or anything else we humans choose to be divided over, God is the LORD of us all. And God will choose ANYONE who is open to the call to LOVE GOD with all of our being and to LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR as ourselves.

That is what the LORD requires of all creation…LOVE. Ruth was filled with LOVE. She LOVED GOD, she LOVED HER NEIGHBORS, she even LOVED HER ENEMIES, and God blessed her for it. And, as with all people who have been truly blessed, Ruth BECAME A BLESSING to and entire kingdom of people, and went on to be a BLESSING to many throughout the whole world through the followers of her descendant, Jesus of Nazareth. I pray that you, too, will open yourself up to GOD, who is the ULTIMATE REALITY, just as this remarkable Ruth did so many years ago!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” – Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17)

PRAYER
LORD, build up in me the faith of Ruth that I may boldly go where you lead me and boldly love everyone, no matter how different they are from me. Amen.

Defined By Faith

Read Esther 2:1-20

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build My church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it.” (Matthew 16:18)

EstherA few weeks ago I wrote about how much we invest in our names. I spoke of my reflecting on my own name, and what made me a “Todd” as opposed to any other name. From the time we’re born to the time we die, we learn, define ourselves by, and completely invest in our names. Some of us, certainly exceptions to the rule, bemoan the names we have been given and even change them. Whether we accept our given names, or we rename ourselves, we certainly settle on a name and invest all of ourselves into that name.

This must have been the case for Hadassah, a young Jewish woman who lived in exile in Babylon with her uncle Mordecai. The root word of her name means Myrtle tree, which had a pleasant fragrance. The righteous were often referred to as hadas (or Myrtle) becuase they were likened to good trees with a pleasant smell. What a name that she was given, a name that surely reminded her that she was called to be righteous, to be pure, to be faithful to her God. In that day and age, a righteous woman was one who married, was faithful to her husband, and was one who gave birth to and raised her children. All of these definitions, and I am sure more, were embedded in Hadassah from the time she was born.

Yet, as is often the case, circumstances ended up changing everything for this young Jewish woman. The King of Persia, who happened to be Xerxes who also fought against the 300 Spartans (for those of you who are history buffs), had banished his queen for disobeying him and commanded all of the beautiful, young, virgin women in the Persian empire to come to his harem in Susa, which was where the King ruled his empire from. Unfortunately for Hadassah, she was one of the many women who were brought to this harem, which the part of a palace where the king keeps all of the virgins that he exclusively claimed conjugal rights on.

This means that Hadassah went from being a righteous and pure girl (according to Jewish law) to the sex slave of the King. He would sleep with those women in his Harem. If he was pleased with one he could pick her as his next queen; however, if he wasn’t he could put her in the second harem as a concubine and move on to the next woman. Before being sent to be at the King’s disposal, Mordecai renamed Hadassah with a Persian name, Esther. He told her to use that name so she could hide the fact that she was Jewish. The rest goes down as legend. Esther does win the heart of the King and, eventually, saves her people from genocide. But let’s not cheapen Hadassah had to do. She had to abandon who she felt she was called to be, she had to abandon her own name and identity, in order to become a “disgrace” to the very law that she tried so desperately to fulfill and uphold.

Yet, as we see in the story, God does not define us by the names or definitions we give to ourselves. My mom always told me that God knows our heart and measures us on where our heart is. Clearly, this is the case for Hadassah. Initially her name, her family, her religion, her dreams and aspirations all defined who she was; however, God saw who she truly was. She may not have felt righteous in the harem at the fortress in Susa; however, she was righteous in her heart and, as a result, God brought her honor and the adoration of both a King and an entire people. She went from a girl exiled, to the queen of the very kingdom she was exiled to. In the end, her FAITH and her FAITHFULNESS defined who she was!

We can learn from Hadassah. We cannot change the way our lives often play out and we cannot always control the circumstances that affect our lives; however, we can trust in God and look to God to define who we are. Our FAITH and our FAITHFULNESS defines who we are. Place your faith in God, and trust in God to lead you through the curve balls that life throws at you. Be a person of FAITH and watch the wonders that God will work in and through you!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“God doesn’t judge us on what’s outside; rather, it is what is inside that counts.” – Katherine A. Lattig

PRAYER
Lord, you know my heart, even when my actions don’t line up with it. Please, allow me to be who you have called me to be as that is my heart’s true desire. Amen.

What’s Religion Got to Do with It?

Read Micah 6:1-8

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Then [Jesus] turned to His critics and asked, “Does the law permit good deeds on the Sabbath, or is it a day for doing evil? Is this a day to save life or to destroy it?” But they wouldn’t answer Him.” (Mark 3:4, NLT)

I-praise-you-oh-God-christianity-30793563-1658-1387If I were to ask what Christianity is, I would no doubt get a variety of answers starting with, Christianity is a major world religion. That answer would be followed by a host of other answers such as Christianity is a religion that is based around Jesus the Christ. Some might respond that Christianity is a religion that teaches about God’s unconditional love, about God’s forgiveness and about Grace. One might say that Christianity is a religion centered around Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and a religion that celebrates a new life through Christ’s resurrection from the tomb.

Regardless of what answers one might come up with in order to address what Christianity is, they would all most certainly be centered around “religion.” Yet, did Jesus come to establish a new religion. There is no doubt that Jesus was a Jewish teacher who lived and breathed his Jewish faith; however, was it religion that Jesus was focused on?

Let us look at what Jesus did and taught. Jesus taught about loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus taught about recognizing and valuing the image of God in all humanity. Jesus not only taught those things, but lived them out and modeled them for the people he taught, often times at the expense of getting in trouble because he was going against what his “religion” told him he should do. In reality, Jesus was much less about religion and more about relationships.

For Jesus, it was important that people were living in right relationship with God and with each other. If religion helped guide people in that direction then it was doing its purpose; however, often times, religion gets caught up on the rules and regulations, on the structure and hierarchy. Often times, religion becomes more about pleasing the system than it does about pleasing God. What’s worse, pleasing the system is sold to people as being “pleasing to God.”

But Jesus, and the prophets who came before him, knew that what was pleasing to God had little to do with religion and EVERYTHING to do with relationships. So, why go to church then? Why should we be involved in a religious institution, one might ask? The reason is because God calls us to be in relationship with one another, to be in a Christian community that will encourage us…and to be in a Christian community that we can be an encouraging presence in. God wishes for us to build each other up, support each other, celebrate our triumphs together and support each other in our weaknesses.

It is in the Christian community where we find spiritual growth and nourishment. It is in the Christian community where we find opportunities to be a part of the work of Christ in the world. It is in the Christian community where we find accountability as well as the grace to learn from our mistakes and grow into the person God is calling us to be. It is within the Christian community, not within the Christian “religion”, that we find that the presence of God is truly with us…it is within that community where we find that we are NOT alone! Remember that while God does wish for us to get hung up on dogma and religious rules and regulations, God very much does want us to be present in a community working toward seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. The challenge today is to find your place in the Christian community. God is calling you!

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“Personal relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, all achievement in real life grows.” – Ben Stein

PRAYER

Lord, work in me and through me to strengthen the relationships I do have as well as to begin to build new ones.  Place me in the midst of your community. Amen.