Wining and Dining in the 1st Century

dinner party

Jesus first dines with a Pharisee in Luke 7. The text says that the Pharisee invited Jesus to eat with him, and when Jesus arrived he entered the Pharisee’s home and sat down at the table (v. 36). This is normal for us, right? If I receive a dinner invitation, I usually bring something with me to contribute to the meal, and when I arrive I enter the home, we talk, and eventually we sit down to dinner.

People had slightly different expectations for dinner parties in the 1st Century. They were a big deal — people would get gussied up with expensive perfumes and oils, and prepare themselves for the evening. Interpersonally, guests expected their hosts to greet them with a kiss on the cheek, water to clean their feet, and possibly even oil for anointing at some point during the meal. (For an excellent article on “1st Century Dinner Parties” in Luke 7, look into this resource.)

When Jesus walks into the Pharisee’s home, we have no indication that the Pharisee greeted him with the ceremonial cheek kiss, or that he gave Jesus water to wash his feet, or that he offered Jesus oil for anointing. That’s what makes the next moments so shocking — a woman described as a “sinner” from the city enters the Pharisee’s home weeping, and she uses her tears to wash Jesus’ feet, then she dries them with her hair, and finally she pours perfumed oil on him (v. 37-38). In essence, the sinner becomes the host in the Pharissee’s home. She shows Jesus the honor, devotion, and love that the Pharisee withheld from him.

The Pharisee hates this, obviously. He finds it inappropriate, and he expected Jesus to refuse to be touched by a woman he considered sinful (v. 39). Jesus suspects the Pharisee’s concerns and addresses him with a parable. In it, a leader forgives the debts of two men who owe him money: one man owed him a lot of money, and the other owed him a lesser amount. Jesus asks the Pharisee, “Which of them will love him more?” The Pharisee supposes that the person who owed more would be filled with more love and gratitude (v. 40-46). So Jesus then points out the ways the woman showed him devotion, and states, “This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little” (v. 47).

The Pharisee remains so wrapped up in himself, in his appearance, and in his dignity. The sinful woman from the city, in contrast, weeps, cleans Jesus’ feet with her hair, kisses him, and sacrifices greatly out of a deep place of love. When I read the phrase, “The one who is forgiven little loves little” (v. 47b) a quote from Henri Nouwen came mind. Nouwen writes, “We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family” (Check out this and other great quotes by Nouwen here). Forgiveness comes from God; we also receive it, unquestionably, from each other and from ourselves, too. As we forgive one another, and accept the forgiveness of God, others, and ourselves, we practice what the woman in the biblical text and what Nouwen is discussing here. Forgiveness, as Jesus stated, leads to love.

So may we forgive one another, and ourselves, and accept forgiveness from God, one another, and ourselves, and ultimately allow the love within us to abound.

Stand Up!

Stand Up

For many years now, one of my favorite gospel stories has been the healing of the paralyzed man. The first time it stood out to me I was preparing to help lead Vacation Bible School in the Dominican Republic. One of the leaders decided that we would reenact the healing of the paralytic and narrate the story in Spanish. All was going well, until one of the students asked, “So how do we get onto the church’s roof?” You can imagine the disappointment when we informed them that we would not be lowering someone through the ceiling.

As the story goes in Luke 5, a paralyzed man has some very dedicated friends who carry him to see Jesus. The crowd was too large for them to carry him through the door, so instead they climbed onto the roof, and lowered him through the ceiling to place him in front of Jesus. Jesus then looks at the paralyzed man and states, “Friend, your sins are forgiven” (v. 18-20). The Pharisees and Scribes then get upset, accusing Jesus of insulting God, since only God can forgive sins. Jesus retorts, “Which is easier — to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you will know the Son of Man has authority on the earth to forgive sins…I say to you, get up, take your cot, and go home.” The paralyzed man then stood up, lifted his cot, and went home praising God (v. 22-25).

The Pharisees and Scribes were skeptical of Jesus’ ability to forgive sins, so Jesus proved his power to forgive by telling the man to get up and walk. This story describes a very physical manifestation of Jesus’ power to forgive sin, and while you and I may not have been paralyzed physically when we received grace, we nonetheless need to get up and walk as well. We need to share the peace, mission, and call we have received in order to participate in manifesting God’s love in the world.

I have been a part of a few congregations that seemed to forget, almost weekly, that they have received forgiveness and that it’s time to get up and walk. The songs in their worship services focused on how we are covered in sin; the small groups discussed how we constantly fail in our faith; and outreach missions often emphasized that we weren’t doing enough. It’s almost as if they believed that in order for Jesus to be especially strong and big and holy, we had to be especially weak and small and sinful. Is that the life of the forgiven?

I am all for honest self-reflection, and none of us gets it right all the time. We mess up and have bad days, but the truth is that God walks with us through those days just as faithfully as God walks with us on our best days. The knowledge of our fallibility should not detract from our celebrating that we have a God who loves us deeply, who hears us and knows us and wants the absolute best for us and for the world.

So get up off your mat. Pick it up, and go show the world the wonder of God’s love.

Scarcity and Abundance

Grape Photo

Scarcity: The experience of not enough. We all encounter it as human beings, and the form it takes impacts us in drastically different ways. For example, the person who is chronically homeless faces scarcity of food, shelter, and safety. Someone with cancer feels the scarcity of health, strength, and autonomy. The person whose marriage is dissolving feels the scarcity of faithfulness, companionship, and love. Each of these individuals faces different forms of scarcity, and those sharply influence how they are able to cope with their circumstances.

Reading Matthew 14 today forced me to take another look at scarcity. In verse 9, Jesus learns that Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, and Jesus decides that he needs some time to himself. While he’s trying to retreat, though, the crowds follow him. Jesus sees them, and the text says that he “had compassion on them and healed those who were sick” (v. 14). The disciples then ask Jesus to send the crowds away so they can buy food for themselves, but Jesus instead tells the disciples to feed everyone. He takes their five loaves and two fish, blesses and breaks the bread, and dispenses them to the crowd. The text says, “Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers” (v. 20).

On the surface, this seems like a story of scarcity that we can apply to the need we witness around us today. The disciples doubted Jesus, yet Jesus was able to use the measly loaves and fishes to feed all 5,000 people with abundance. Certainly if we believe enough, Jesus will do the same for everyone who is hungry here on earth! While I have witnessed God providing for us in miraculous, incredible ways, if we choose to look around for just a little while, we inevitably face the question, “But then why did and why do people still go hungry?” This is where we meet the gritty, uncomfortable truth of scarcity: it exists.

While the truth of scarcity is prominent in Matthew and all around us, the myth of scarcity exists as well. We see the disciples function within a Zero-Sum Framework when they doubt that the five loaves and two fishes will suffice. In Zero-Sum thought, the quantity of any commodity is limited, to the degree that if someone else has, I must have not. If Jeff gets the promotion, I will get relegated; if Cindy gets married, she takes one more off the market; if Johnny gets attention, I will be ignored. In a Zero-Sum framework, we feel the myth of a scarcity that does not actually exist. We quantify uncalculable data to determine that, ultimately, regardless of the situation, we lose.

Jesus corrected the disciples’ thinking. He forced them out of their Zero-Sum frameworks by grabbing those 5 loaves and 2 fish, blessing them and breaking the bread in a foreshadowing of the Last Supper, and distributing them until everyone had their fill. We are not meant to live within the myth of scarcity. Rather, in the face of our doubts and insecurities, we must trust in the One who can provide abundance.

And when we encounter the truth of scarcity, it is then our duty to remember the gifts God has given us, and to do our best to create abundance. As the 16th Century Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, said:

Yours are the feet with which [Christ] walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

When we see true scarcity, we are called to be Christ’s body. We are meant to look one another in the eye, to feel one another’s pain, and to do whatever we can to create abundance. As Christians, we need to hold in tension the reality that God can provide abundance, and that we also must work to create abundance as well.

Silence and Sabbath

Sabbath Image

When was the last time that you experience silence? Not just quiet, but actual, peaceful silence. The kind that allows you to feel yourself breathe, listen to your heartbeat, and embrace your alive-ness a little bit more.

Sabbath was created as a time for rest. We’ve heard this from the pulpit over and over again — on the seventh day God rested, so we ought to rest as well. For many of us, though, the purpose of such a “day of rest” has changed from actually resting to going to church. It’s as though once we’ve attended our church service, we have “Sabbath-ed,” and we can proceed on with our Sundays as we would any other day. But how is that restful?

A true Sabbath in many ways demands rest. If we were to Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do, we would shut down our phones, email, TVs, and go off the grid for 24 hours. We wouldn’t drive our cars or spend hours cooking or finally catch up on laundry. With these options eliminated, how would you spend your time? The Internet and TV are a huge crutch for me — they ensure that my brain is constantly active and stimulated. To shut those off would be a huge change of pace. But it might also encourage my body, mind, and spirit to rest.

In Matthew 12, Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and encounters a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees then ask Jesus if the Torah allows him to heal the man’s hand on the Sabbath (v. 9-10). Jesus responds by asking them if they would rescue one of their sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, and then states, “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So the Law allows a person to do what is good on the Sabbath” (v. 11-12). And Jesus heals the man’s hand (v. 13).

We are allowed to do what is good on the Sabbath. I don’t know about you, but my Sabbaths are often filled with whatever is typical of the rest of my week. Sure, they start at church, but afterward they contain going out to lunch, cooking dinner, calling friends, checking email, tidying the house, watching movies, and ultimately, lots of work.

As my husband and I were discussing Sabbath this morning, he pointed out to me that some evidence exists that early Christians would practice Sabbath on Saturday, and then also worship together on Sunday morning to celebrate the Resurrection. It’s like a mini-Easter every weekend. While most of us, including myself, will find plenty of excuses to not practice such radical resting, I encourage us today to reflect on how we can integrate more restful practices. Whether it is turning off our TVs, computers, and phones for a period of time, sitting at the kitchen table for meals, reading the Bible together with our loved ones and on our own, or going for a walk, may we find ways of honoring the Sabbath and increasing our sense of peacefulness and rest every week.

Building a Fence

Fence Photo

Have you ever given something up for Lent? My husband and I decided to this year, and we have also added a few healthy practices into our daily routines, in an effort to set these 40 days apart as especially sacred and worshipful.

As a child I gave up chocolate for Lent one year. I thought I was doing really well, and then one day my mom saw me with a lollipop in my mouth, and asked which flavor it was. I responded, “Vanilla and…chocolate… But it doesn’t count! It’s a lollipop, not real chocolate!” I desperately tried to justify getting as close as possible to eating chocolate without actually consuming it. Looking back, I think we do this quite often: we step right up to the border between what is good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, pure and sinful, just to see how close we can get.

The fifth chapter of Matthew contains six texts that are often called the “Antitheses.” They’re the, “You have heard it said… But I say to you…” verses. The issue with calling them “Antitheses,” though, is that it implies Jesus is saying something different  or antithetical, in contrast to what was said before. That is not in fact the case. Instead, Jesus intensifies what was already written in the Old Testament. Jesus uses this framework to discuss murder, adultery, divorce, vowing, vengeance, and loving our enemies.

Jewish tradition after the time of Jesus contains the idea of “making a fence around the Torah” (see Amy-Jill Levine’s Jewish Annotated New Testament, pg. 11, and m. Pirkei Avot 1.1). The idea is that rather than getting as far as we can without breaking the laws of the Torah, we should instead build a fence around the laws of the Torah to guard them and to keep ourselves from breaking them. That is what Jesus is doing in these, “You have heard it said… But I say to you” moments.

For example, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27-28). Jesus’ command to not lust puts a fence around the Torah command to not commit adultery, since lust is a necessary element in cheating on one’s spouse. The logic is that if you never even think about committing adultery, then you ensure that you will never commit it physically.

Moreover, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5: 38-39). The “eye for an eye” text in Leviticus 24:19-20 was initially written to prevent violence from escalating — it says that the injured person can balance out the infliction, but cannot impose any additional harm to his aggressor. Jesus then builds a fence around the Leviticus command by instructing us to not retaliate at all, thereby ensuring that we don’t do additional damage.

These texts aren’t about Jesus receiving a new revelation about the Torah that says the “old” laws aren’t good anymore  — rather, Jesus wants us to protect the laws God has given us. In those moments when we could stretch the truth, could push the boundaries a little further, he tells us to step back and to honor the instructions we’ve been given. To build a fence around them. And ultimately, building that fence not only protects and nurtures our relationship with God, but it also encourages loyalty, trust, and faithfulness in ourselves and in our relationships with others.


Finding the Words for Love

Love Photo

“You are a beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox.” — Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation

Finding the words to express the emotions we feel for those we love can be difficult at times, can’t it? The English language has provided us with only one word to encapsulate all of the feelings and the force contained in the multiplicity of relationships we maintain — the word is love. English is really lagging here — while most languages have at least two ways of expressing love, Sanscrit has 96 and Ancient Persian has 80. Can you imagine having 96 ways to tell someone you love them?

The New Testament utilizes three words that translate to English as love. I’m going to discuss them in this post, and then show how they play out in our everyday lives. My hope is that we can contemplate which types of love are most prominent in our relationships, and then consider how we can increase each of them in the most healthy, whole ways so as to ultimately love God, others, and ourselves even more. So here we go…

The first word used is phileo love, or brotherly love. It’s a love based on fondness, affection, appreciation, and companionship. One of the most powerful uses of phileo love in the New Testament occurs in John 11, in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. In verse 3, Mary and Martha approach Jesus and say, “Lord, the one you love is ill.” Jesus takes a bit of time before he goes to care for Lazarus, and by the time he arrives, Lazarus has already died. Upon seeing Mary crying, Jesus begins weeping as well (v. 35). That is phileo love — one who shows up, who is brought to tears, and ultimately, who brings life and light in dark moments.

The next form of love that appears in the New Testament is storge love. This word doesn’t show up nearly as often as phileo, but it demonstrates a distinctive and foundational form of love, and that is affection or devotion. It can be linked to the love between family members, and the deep loyalty and connection that is sacred in those relationships. One example of storge love shows up in Romans 12:10, which states, “Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other.” The sense of honor, reverence, and belonging all come out of a feeling of storge love.

The final and most common form of love in the New Testament is agapeo love. This is a love based on esteem, on self-giving, and on unconditional well-being. We see this love over and over again verses like “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 5:43), “You shall love the Lord  your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Matt. 12:30), “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Phileo. Storge. AgapeoFriendship. Devotion. Unconditional Love. This Valentine’s Day most of us will be thinking of those we love. May we use this time to express our appreciation in whatever language we can find for those whom we love, as well as for God and for the Spirit within us.

Coping with The Wilderness

Temptation Photo

As I’m writing this post I am also preparing to bake a King Cake for the first time. A King Cake is a traditional Mardi Gras dessert that’s essentially a hybrid between cinnamon rolls and birthday cake, and it is delicious. I am bringing it to a Mardi Gras-themed Birthday Party and Crawfish Boil tonight. Had we gone the more traditional route, this party would have happened on Tuesday this past week, as it was Mardi Gras: a day dedicated to gorging oneself with food, beverage, and  celebration in preparation for the solemn season of Lent that begins the following day.

Mardi Gras is often associated with the idea of temptation: parades, drinking, food, parties. Yet, the picture of temptation that we see in the biblical text is far different.

Matthew 4:1-11 tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and was tempted by the devil. The whole fasting for 40 days and 40 nights thing points us back to Moses in Deuteronomy 8, 9, and a number of other texts, all emphasizing the connection between Moses’ and Jesus’ stories. The temptations that the devil then poses to Jesus are: 1) to turn stones into loaves of bread (he’s hungry from the fasting), 2) to jump off the Temple to prove that he’s the Son of God (Psalm 91 says that the angels would catch him), and 3) to worship the devil, and in return receive power over the entire world. In each instance, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy — the book in which Moses instructs the Israelites on how to best live in relationship with God — to explain why he refuses to give into the temptation.

While we could get into the minutia of each of the temptations and what they mean for us, at the end of the day we have the devil trying to get Jesus to abandon Deuteronomy, the words of Scripture, and therefore to let go of God. The devil tempts Jesus to do something antithetical to what God desires of Jesus and of us.

Jesus wasn’t comfortable when this temptation took place — he was starving and alone in the sweltering heat of the wilderness. I don’t know about you, but it takes so much less than that for me to start doubting and questioning God. There have been times in my life when a good traffic jam could have me asking, “What’s the point, God?!” I’ve become a bit less melodramatic over time, but you get the point: Jesus was actually struggling during his temptation. He easily could have given in — he could have abandoned his faith and his God, and taken actions that would have provided the food he craved, the safety he desired, and power over the earth. Instead, he chose to cling to God by citing the verses that speak of what God desperately wants of us: relationship.

We all have moments of doubt, concern, disbelief, and struggle. They are foundational elements of the complex lives we live. The lesson Jesus demonstrates in his temptation is that we are never alone in those moments — we have been given a guide to strengthen and to lead us in our darkest trials. At the end of the narrative, Matthew writes, “The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him” (4:11). The God who accompanied Jesus during his temptation is the same God who goes with us every moment of our lives. And, in the end, God shows up to provide the comfort, the care, and the love we’ve needed after our time in the wilderness.