Monday, October 20, 2014

Bible Study - Leviticus 19:1-2 and 15-18; Matthew 22:24-40

Leviticus 19 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 
15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a slanderer[a] among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood[b] of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

The name Leviticus derives from the Greek Levitikon, "things pertaining to the Levites." This name reflects that this book is for a specific group of people.  The content also reflects that it has to do with a specific group of people, as much of Leviticus deals with the laws of worship and purification, for which the priests in ancient Israel, who were of the tribe of Levi, were responsible. The Hebrew equivalent, torat kohanim which means "instruction of (or 'for') priests," also conveys that this book is for specific people. 

We often have a hard time with Leviticus. 

Society today is struggling with the issue of homosexuality, and it is in Leviticus that we find the strongest admonition against homosexuality.

It is in Leviticus that we are told we cannot eat shrimp or lobster.

Wearing clothing made of mixed fibers is forbidden.

In this very chapter of 19, we are told that it is forbidden to wear tattoos, and that mean are not supposed to shave – two laws, by the way, that I have kept religiously!

Paul tells Timothy in the Bible, “All Scripture is God inspired, and useful for teaching…”  But it is sometimes it is hard to know how literal to take this book.

This section, however, is easy – because the words found here are found in so many places of Scripture.  It is, in fact, examples of what it means to put love into action in our day to day lives.

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. 

We often speak of being holy as being set apart from common use.  It is that, but it is also a sense here of being owned by God.  We are God’s personal property.  Holiness is a matter of BELONGING to God.  Our lives, our actions, our words, are to reflect God’s existence, God’s actions, and God’s words.

At this point, the lectionary skips to verse 15.  Sometimes this is for emphasis.  Verses 15 and following must be tied to verse 2, “You are holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

What is skipped are matters related to not making idols, to food that has been sacrificed to God, how to farm the land so that some produce is left for the poor, a prohibition against stealing or telling lies, and having respect for the blind and the deaf.  Noting is omitted that we should be concerned about, as these themes appear elsewhere in the Lectionary.

So we come to verse 15. 
The verses that begin with verse 15 share a common theme - decency and honesty in interpersonal relationships and activities.  God is concerned with how we relate to one another.

More to the point, these are laws that one might violate in secret, in which the individual committing the crime might think they could be undetected.

These are crimes difficult to prove and whose victims have no remedy.

These are crimes in which the punishment is in God’s hand alone.

15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 

How easy is it to render judgment or to make decisions that favor one person over the other.  Facts can be complex and one might always say, “I made my decision on the basis of the facts” while in truth a decision might be made on the basis of how important or unimportant a person is to you and your life.

I have a lot of admiration for President Truman, and had the opportunity last week to go to his Presidential Library while I was in Independence, Missouri.  He made a lot of important decisions based on what he perceived to be the good of the country.  After we visited the Library, we drove by his home.  It was closed for renovation, but we wanted to drive by just to see it.  When we did we were told that right across the street was the home of his brother-in-law, and that he was a contractor.  I don’t know if this is true or not, but our guide, who was a native of Independence, said that President Truman only awarded contracts to the lowest bidder, and that he always made sure that his brother in law submitted the lowest bid.

Well, right or wrong about Truman, we know these things happen.  We are to treat all people equally.

In our society today, it is a challenge to do this with the poor, the homeless, people of a certain culture, race or educational level.

16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.

The Ten Commandments do not tell us not to tell lies. That is found elsewhere in Scripture, including in this chapter 19 of Leviticus.  The Ten Commandments tell us not to “bear false witness against our neighbor.”  It is wrong to tell lies, but to lie about someone, to bear false witness against someone, is a major lapse in loving actions.

To slander someone is to damage a relationship.  The victim has a hard time fighting it.  The victim has a hard time restoring his or her reputation.

We complain about how bad politicians are in this country – and rightfully so.  Politics has gotten bad.  But we are also guilty in that we lie about politicians.  We spread misinformation and slander them. 

Almost every day I see something on Facebook or in an email about something a politician has done.  I sometimes fact check it, and many times, there is no truth to the story at all.  It is just made up – it is slander.

We also slander people who have hurt us, and all we can do to get back at them is to slander them.  We are too civilized to throw a tomato or a brick at them, but we can throw some misinformation around.

And sometimes when we slander we are simply passing on what we hear, but we have a responsibility to test the words we hear before we pass them on.

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 

The verse here, because it is in a collection of laws, may sound like two different and unrelated laws.  Law one, do not hate in your heart, law two reprove your neighbor.

But these go hand in hand. 

We are not to hate in our heart, but instead we are to rebuke our neighbor.  We are to say to them, “you hurt me,” or we should say, “you done me wrong kiddo!”

We often harbor bad feelings toward those who have done us wrong.  We need to speak up, and to speak privately and one on one with those who have done us harm. 

Matthew 18:
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

The next verse starts easy, ends hard.

18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Really?  I can resist taking vengeance, but it is hard not to bear a grudge against someone who has deeply hurt me.

Forgiveness sometimes comes with great difficulty and takes lots of practice.

It is interesting that this command to love your neighbor as yourself comes in the verse in which we are talking about someone who is, from our point of view, unloveable.

Matthew 22:34-46New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Greatest Commandment

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What Jesus does here is to lay down the definition of true religion, true faith, true spirituality.

First, religion is not so much a list of rules, dos and don’ts.  True religion consists in loving God.

The verse which Jesus quotes is Deuteronomy 6:5.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

That verse was part of the Shema.

Do you know what that is?

It is the basic and essential creed of Judaism.  It is dear to the Jews, much like the Apostles’ Creed is dear to us in the Presbyterian Church.

I am told that this Shema, or this sentence of Scripture, is the sentence with which every Jewish service worship still opens.

It is the first text which every Jewish child commits to memory.

For many years I was able to recite this verse in Hebrew, but now all I can do is the first few words,
Shema Yishrael, Adonai elo-hey-nu, Adonai echa®d.

It is in the mezuzah.  Mezuzah is Hebrew for doorpost, and on the doorpost of virtually all Jewish homes and on many Christian homes, is a small box called the Mezuzah.  Inside there is a parchment with these words of the Shema, which in English, are from Deuteronomy 6:4 to 9:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

We are to love God totally.  Our love for God is to permeate out conversation and our actions.  We should not reach for something without that message of love being on our hands.  We are not to look at something without seeing in the corner of our peripheral vision the box on our foreheads containing this admonition of love.

All religion starts with the love which is total commitment of life to God.

(2) The second commandment which Jesus quotes comes from Leviticus 19:18 – hey, that’s our Old Testament lesson for this week!

We should pay attention to the order in which Jesus gives these commands. 

It is the love of God first, and the love of others second.  Why?  Not only because God comes first, but because it is only when we love God that others become loveable.

Others do not become loveable because they change.  Others do not become loveable because they say they are sorry for hurting us.

Others become loveable simply because we learn to learn to love God.

Again - It is only when we love God that other people become lovable.

In Scripture, we discover that a human being is not collections of chemical elements.  We are more than that. 

We are men and women made in the image of God, and for that reason, others are loveable.

Take away the love of God, and lose the reason to love, as well as the ability to love the most difficult people to love.  We can look at others and say, “that person is worthless” --- but we can’t do that, because no person is worthless.  Every person is made by God, in the image of God, and is loved by God.

Without this, it is easy to be pessimistic, or callous, or judgmental, or hateful about others.  It is easy to bully a person or to slander a person. 

The love of our neighbor, our friends and enemies, is firmly grounded in the love of God.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bible Study on Philippians 4:1-9

Philippians 4:1-9
4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

This is, from my point of view, the way a father might talk to or about son – “my joy and crown.” 

In many ways, this is Paul speaking to his children – the Philippians.  He brought them to Christ and nurtured them as a church – either as one physically present, or over the distances through these letters.

Now that he is approaching the end of his life, his joy and crown are standing behind him, spiritually speaking, providing support and encouragement.

In Greek there are two words for CROWN.  One is diadema, which means the crown of a king.  The other is stephanos, which is the crown worn by a victorious athlete in the Greek games – it is made of olive leaves, interwoven with green parsley and bay leaves. 

Which word do you think Paul would use?

It is the stephanos- Paul loves sports and uses a lot of athletic imagery in his letters.

Paul is saying that the Philippians are his reward for his hard work.

4:2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.

Imagine being mentioned in the Bible, and you are mentioned because you were not behaving! 

Poor Euodia and Syntyche – their names are written on the blackboard for all to see as Paul encourages them to agree with each other “in the Lord.”  We do not know the conflict, but we know that conflicts happen, even in churches.  Sad, but true, but in the church we need to be able to put our differences aside and work for the Lord.

4:3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

This is a tantalizing tale – what in the world is this about?  We will never know.  Who were these people?  Don’t have a clue.

But they were women!

The early church allowed women to have a full leadership role.  In Greek society, it was the role of a woman to subservient to the men.  The did not appear on the streets alone.  They had a private apartment in the house away from the husband.  They did not eat meals with the men.  Women played no role in public life.

Sounds like the Taliban or ISIS!

Philippi was in Macedonia, however, and the Macedonians did things differently from true Greek society.  Women had a place in society unheard of in the rest of Greece.

What is important is that the women had a place in thechurch  they were workers for the Gospel, alongside Paul.  To say this in a Presbyterian Church is perhaps to speak to the choir, but many of our sister churches do not believe that women should have a place of authority – and the Bible does say that, but it was speaking about specific women in a specific church.  Overall, there are many times when women had authority in the church.

This active role that women had in the church was always important in Philippi.

When Paul arrives in Macedonia, his first contact at a meeting for prayer by a river and he spoke to the women gathered there (Acts 16:13).

Lydia was obviously a leading figure in Philippi (Acts 16:14).

Elsewhere, we see the prominent role women had.

There is another person in this list of coworkers who is not a woman – it is Clement.

This is important because he is our connection between Paul’s generation and all future generations.  He is the only person mentioned in the Bible who wrote a book but whose book is not included in the Bible.

Euodia and Syntyche go down in history as people who fuss.
Clement goes down in history as a peacemaker.

I’m pretty sure which we would like to be.

4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

4:5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

Two great Christian qualities are evident here.

1)     The first is that of joy. ‘Rejoice … I will say it again – rejoice!’

So here is Paul in a prison and he is saying, “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”

John Adams was one of the most interesting of our founding fathers.  He was a man of great faith, but his faith evolves over time.  His theology changes.  At one point he suddenly embraced the concept of joy, but with the regret that he had not discovered it earlier. 

Paul was lying in prison and he had an almost certain death facing him.

Paul is pretty much saying, “I know what cards I’ve been dealt.  I know what I’m facing.  I know everything that can possibily happen”  But I still say, “Rejoice.”

Christian joy is not dependent on earthly circumstance.  It is independent of it.  We are able to be joyful NOT because we have good fortune, but because of the continual presence of Christ.

2)     The second quality is gentleness.

American Standard Version (ASV)

Let your forbearance be known unto all men.

English Standard Version (ESV)

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.

1599 Geneva Bible (GNV)

[a]Let your [b]patient mind be known unto all men

Good News Translation (GNT)

Show a gentle attitude toward everyone. 

Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)

Let your graciousness be known to everyone.

King James Version (KJV)

Let your moderation be known unto all men. 

New International Version (NIV)

Let your gentleness be evident to all.

The word (epieikeia) translated as moderation, gentleness, patient - is one of the most untranslatable of all Greek words.

The Greeks explained this word as ‘justice and something better than justice’.

It was used when strict justice became unjust because it was too general and not specific to a particular situation. 

A person demonstrates a quality of epieikeia if he or she knows when not to apply the strict letter of the law and when to relax justice and introduce mercy.

It is opposite of a Pharisee, who always applied the strict letter of the law and not the spirit of the law, and remember Paul is a Pharisee who moved beyond the strict letter of the law.

Ordination Exams for those seeking to become ministers are very tough, and one of the things that makes them difficult is that the student has spent 3 years studying the letter of the law of the Book of Order, which is the rule book for our denomination.

One common question has to do with a request from parents who have just had a child die after just a few hours of life.  These two grief stricken parents want the dead child to be baptized.  What do you do?

In most cases, the students will give a theologically correct answer, backed by the Book of Order, in which it is explained to the parents that we do not baptize the dead.  That is the incorrect answer.

The correct answer is to ignore the rules of the church, to go against the Book of Order, and to follow the pastoral approach and to baptize the child.

That is letting one’s gentleness be evident.  That is letting your moderation be known to all.

Jesus encountered a woman caught in the act of adultery.  The community brings her to Jesus.  Jesus could have applied the letter of the law, which meant she would have been stoned and killed.

But Jesus applied a justice that was better than justice by granting forgiveness with the admonition to go and sin no more.

There is no one of us who deserves anything other than the judgment and the condemnation of God.  However, God goes beyond justice and grants mercy.

We need to do this as well.  We need to be like God.


Because the Lord is at hand.  This may refer to the Second Coming, or it may refer to the very nearness of Christ.  Either way – good reason to let our gentleness be evident to all.

4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

4:6 Do not worry about anything,

There is that frivolous song, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

This is not a frivolous “don’t worry,” but a call to take your anxieties to God in prayer. 

This is not a flippant, meaningless word we might say to someone casually, but a serious word we would say to someone who has cancer, someone who has lost a job, someone who is in fear or discouragement – but by itself, the phrase, “do not worry about anything” is an insult. 

You would dare not say simply these words to someone seriously ill or in deep trouble.

The phrase “do not worry about anything” has to be connected – cemented – to the words and phrases that follow:

but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

We can take EVERYTHING to God in prayer.

I sometimes question if my prayers are selfish, especially when I present to God trivial concerns.

For example, my car is making a strange noise.  It may be nothing.  But I need to take it in.  I don’t have time.  I worry about how much it will cost to repair it.  I worry if I have to buy a new car.

To pray – “Lord, fix my car,” would be trivial and selfish.  But to take to God in prayer my anxiety about finding the time and money to repair it is not selfish.  To ask for wisdom to know how to find the time to deal with it, is to ask for guidance, it is not a selfish order I place before God.

In some way or other, everything in our lives can be taken to God in prayer. 

Part of this is to take these things to God in prayer WITH THANKSGIVING.

It is so important that every prayer have an element of thanksgiving, and I think this is an area in which we often fail.

I recall my father contemplating the death of my sister.  She had just celebrated her 7th birthday.  In his prayers for her healing, he always gave thanks for the gift God gave our family to be entrusted with her for her life, no matter how long that life might be.

Giving thanks in all things is something Paul encourages us to do, and to give a word of thanks in a prayer enables us to be less self centered and more God focused as we lift up our every request to God.

4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 I truly love verse 7.  I think it is great literary style.

There does come a time when you have the peace of God which passes all understanding.  It is a wonderful experience. 

Now here is an interesting thing about this verse – or at least I find it interesting. 

Paul talks about peace, and how this peace stands guard on your heart.

Just as it is in English, this phrasing in Greek is military.

The word that Paul uses (phrourein) is the military word for standing on guard.

This peace of God is beyond human understanding.  That means two things – first we cannot comprehend it.  There is something about God’s peace that is a mystery to us.

Second, it is beyond our ability to devise.  We cannot create or bring about this peace, because how to receive it is beyond our intellectual capacity.

4:8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

4:9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

 We always focus on something.  Our minds are always busy. 

Paul wants us to put our minds on things of good value.

If we think on things that make us angry, or if we think hateful thoughts, if we think lustful thoughts, if we think greedy thoughts – then we will build a rut in our lives we have trouble getting out of.

Build that rut out of positive things, and it is not a rut, but a good foot hold.

4:9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Keep on doing the things – in other words, practice, practice, practice.  Make these things habits.  We think of habits as negative, but a positive word is discipline!