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Posts tagged ‘sadduccees’

It’s What’s on the Inside That Counts

Mark 7:1-7; 14,15    

You ever hear this before: It’s what’s on the inside that counts!

Image result for its whats on the inside that counts
You know what it means, right? That your outward appearance is less important than your personality. Or, to take it a step further, that your SOUL [your whole self] is THE most important thing. If that’s what you get out of this, so be it.

Right now I’ll go back in time to consider that this idea is ancient—that our SOUL/WHOLE SELF is the absolute-most-important thing and supersedes what people see.

May be weird, but let’s do this together. Let’s go back in time to the end of the 1st Century in Israel and Palestine. There’s a big issue here: Jews vs. Gentiles [non-Jews] but it’s not fair to say it was just Jewish people vs. non-Jewish people. Really, it was religious elites or religious fanatics vs. non-religious or lower-income people. I don’t think it’s hard for us to imagine this type of situation, considering that in 2018 in the U.S. there are plenty of religious people who criticize, judge, or even shut out others who don’t share their religious moral beliefs or practices.

Image result for gay wedding cake refusal

Well, in the case of the end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine it wasn’t about wedding cakes, but it was about food and clean vs. unclean, which for the religious people was akin to our modern rendition of moral vs. immoral. For those called Pharisees or Sadducees or Temple authorities, it was all about the interpretation of the Torah [whether you had the “right” interpretation] or whether you took the Torah literally and didn’t interpret it at all.

Sound familiar? Yeah, people do that with the Christian Bible all the time.

Image result for taking the bible literally

Image result for taking the bible literally

Back to the story. People were grumbling about Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, hanging out with and even eating with non-Jews who obviously did not follow the Torah teachings, according to those religious folk. But Jesus was no dummy. He knew the Torah well and he also knew well the hypocrisy of the religious folks. I mean, think about it. You can take any scripture right now and come up with an interpretation that fits your lifestyle or worldview. Or, you can say that you don’t interpret scripture and “take it literally” which is just another way of saying “I’m going to hide behind these words written centuries ago for people in a different time and place and not with me in mind.” Either way, it’s hypocrisy—if you choose to cop out and hide behind a literal reading, or if you interpret it to fit your own moral system.

So Jesus, to address this [And I think it’s relevant for us today], kept it simple. Yes, we can interpret scripture or say we don’t interpret it, blah, blah, blah, but if in doing so we contradict ourselves, we are showing our true colors.

In other words, our actions reflect what is inside our heart, and our heart is truly what matters most—what’s on the inside.

We can put certain food or drink in our mouths and absorb scripture teachings, but if what comes out contradicts it all, who cares? We are a walking hypocrisy.

A word about heart. Heart, in this context, an ancient Jewish understanding, meant soul/identity. The common Hebrew word for heart is lev. It was the center of personality and of being. It drives us. This inward self is what actually moves us to do what matters most in the world. It is our heart and not our rules that matters most to our neighbors.

So, what do you think? How can we as a community address those who criticize, marginalize, or judge others based on interpretations of scripture or cultural or religious practices? How can we focus on matters of the heart, what’s on the inside? How can we do that for ourselves, but also for others?

Comment below.


Freedom in the New Life!

Luke 20:27-38 NRSV

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

You may have seen this video before or at least heard about this story. Certainly, sometimes things can get too much media coverage. This is just one story of many around the world related to someone showing compassion to someone left out.

But today we are bombarded with a lot of negative thought and rhetoric. And I’ve seen firsthand that some have chosen to believe all of that trash; some start to think that they are not capable of compassion or empathy. These Olivet middle school students did not save the world from itself. They just ran a football play called the “Keith special” for this certain kid. Keith had touched their lives in a special way and so they felt compelled to touch his life in a special way.

As the kid Justice said at the end of the video, he used to just think about himself.
Players and their parents are obsessed with first downs and touchdowns. In football, you don’t take a knee at the one yard line when you could score a touchdown. You don’t keep secrets from your coaches. But what happens when the rules of football are no longer important—no longer relevant? What happens when a kid is isn’t “normal” becomes your friend?

What happens when life is less about rules and norms and just about acting out of love and compassion?

Luke’s Gospel tells us a story about an obsession with rules and norms and a tendency to not love others. But in order to understand this story, we will have to know a little bit about the Sadducees. Who were the Sadducees?[1] They were a group of priestly Jews, part of a religious sect, who opposed another group of Jewish leaders, the Pharisees. The Sadducees were the ones who insisted on the literal interpretation of scripture. They looked at the first five books of the Old Testament [the Pentateuch, often called Torah or Books of Moses] as the only legitimate holy text. The Pharisees, on the other hand, believed in the Oral Torah or the Talmud, which was all the traditions of Jews passed down from generation to generation since Moses received commandments on Mt. Sinai. So to sum up, the Sadducees rejected anything that was not specifically written down or literally applied from the printed text.

The Sadducees were also the elites. They had money, they had influence and power, and they had political clout. Which brings us to the conflict. The other Jewish sect, the Pharisees, believed that when a person died, he/she would be raised to life in both a physical and spiritual way. Jesus of Nazareth, however, taught that resurrection or new life was more than just a destination after death. Jesus talked about a resurrected life on earth. So the Sadducees were honestly testing Jesus to see if he aligned with the Pharisees, or if what he was teaching was something different. And always this question echoed in the Sadducee mind:

Is it consistent with what the scripture says?

The Sadducees’ example of a woman marrying seven brothers is a desperate attempt to hold onto what some call traditional family values.

You know where this is going, probably.

It is impossible to not find examples of this in our life today. The last couple of years, it seems that every news outlet, every political group, and many religious groups have used this phrase “traditional family values” to define their stance or to push an agenda. The raging debate about same-sex unions—legal marriage for gay and lesbian couples—has risen to ridiculous heights. Sadly, Christian denominations and sects have drawn theological, social, and organizational lines based on this issue alone. People leave churches; people start new denominations; people picket, write, and post hateful comments. What is going on?

And the most disappointing and embarrassing part is that there are still too many people who act in this way, all the while saying:

That’s what scripture says.

Really? Does it? Or are we making the same mistake that the Sadducees made? You see, they were convinced that their view of “family values” was scriptural. But in fact, their idea of “family values” and even marriage came from the Roman Empire—not God. Notice that Jesus referred to marriage as an institution of “this age.” Marriage was a practical solution for society. That way, when someone died, there would be a way to provide for any children still living. Marriage was not some kind of scriptural mandate that God ordained with a lightning bolt. Marriage and the cultural rules established by society were just that—cultural rules established by society. But some religious elites, like the Sadducees and like any today who obsess over a perceived “literal” interpretation of scripture—insist that Jesus would never approve of Bob marrying Jim or Sally marrying Kristina.

This story reminds us of how we can get caught up in theological debate or unwritten rules more than we get caught up in compassionate living.

The thing is, Jesus taught about a resurrected life on this earth.

The kingdom of God was not something to wait for or to discover when someone died.

The mustard seed, the yeast, the pearl of great price, the hidden treasures of God’s kingdom—they were here, in the flesh, and people were supposed to catch the spirit of that movement. And all were invited to the parade—not just an elite few.

But so often we are obsessed with dead debates and conversations that lead us to nothing but separation and hate. So I wonder: if we took this whole “following Christ” thing seriously, how would we reframe our thinking? And how would this affect our living?

I strongly suggest that the Sadducees were given an opportunity by Jesus. He was inviting them to find some freedom in the midst of their trapped and limited perspective. In short, stop being obsessed with the words in a book, and start living. And notice that the Sadducees didn’t argue with Jesus’ assessment. They stopped asking him questions after that. After all, what could they really say? Indeed, God is a God of the living!

So to reframe our perspective, we ought to act more compassionately and focus less on societal norms and written rules.

After all, aren’t people more important?

Keith is a kid with special needs. In many ways, Keith is an outsider. He’s not cool. He’s not someone you would expect to be hanging out with football players. In a society obsessed with competition, Keith doesn’t seem to have a place on a sports team. His hugs make people feel uncomfortable. But who is really “special needs” here? Keith inspired students who previously were selfish. Keith convinced parents, coaches, and players to care more about people than football. Keith is alive. He is a human being who deserves friendship, empathy, and compassion. He, above all the others on the team, deserves to score a touchdown.

But Keith is not the only one.

There are many left out of society just because we see them as different or not fitting into our rules or norms. There are many people who are marginalized just because of words in a book that we think we know how to interpret. We categorize people; we say who is in, popular, normal, and even holy. We see some as dead and dehumanize them.

But Jesus taught that God sees everyone as alive.

Chew on that for a moment.
God sees everyone as alive.

We should be speechless. Perhaps we can talk less and do more?

Friends, let’s reframe the conversation. Let’s stop arguing over literal interpretations of words or societal norms.
Let’s focus on real people—believing all of them deserve our compassion.

We have freedom to do this.
We have freedom to live as resurrected people.
For all of us are alive, too.
And we are capable of love, compassion, and grace.
We are capable of doing the kind thing when no one else will.
We are capable of forgiving past and even present hurts.
We are capable of embracing wisdom and then sharing it.

We are alive. And so, let’s live as resurrected, compassion-filled people. Amen.


[1] Tenney, Merrill (1998). Josephus Complete Works, Vancouver.

A Response

Mark 7:1-23     

 The Human Heart Leads Us…

           Today’s story is in the Gospel of Mark. Remember that Mark is known to be the first Gospel written—the one that the other Gospels borrow from. Imagine yourself in Syria. Yes, a long time ago, but in Syria. The authors of Mark may have gathered together this collection of stories there, sometime around 70 C.E. These writings seem to be aimed at a specific audience: Greek-speaking non-Jewish people [called Gentiles], living under Roman rule. So imagine yourself there, in that context. Mark must explain Jewish traditions you see, because the readers aren’t aware. They don’t really know the Torah [books of Moses] or even the Talmud [Jewish oral tradition]. They don’t really know or understand all the religious rules of the synagogue [called the temple]. And they don’t speak Hebrew, they speak Greek. So imagine yourself a Gentile; wait, we are!

          And now imagine Jesus of Nazareth, a man of Jewish heritage, educated in Jewish law, the Torah, the Talmud, the religious practices. This Jesus knew the Pharisees and the Sadducees well. The Pharisees were the Jewish people who believed in authority from the oral law, which was their tradition of interpreting the Torah [Moses Law]. The Sadducees [often called scribes], on the other hand, only recognized Moses’ Law, the Torah. So you can see why these two groups both of the same basic religious belief system were at odds with each other. And notice that they came from Jerusalem, the big city, the religious epicenter, the temple’s resting place. They were the religious elites. But they found Jesus in the towns, in rural areas, in Galilee, far from the temple. And he was with Gentiles who knew very little about laws and religion. They were the marginalized.

          Obviously, the Pharisees and Sadducees noticed that these Gentiles were outsiders; they were different. They ate food without washing their hands properly. Ew! But it wasn’t that the Pharisees and scribes were acting like parents telling their kids to wash their hands before dinner. They were actually more concerned with tradition than they were with germs. They were religiously Gentile-phobic. Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands? they asked. This was a huge barrier between people—all this religious tradition. Jesus knew it and so he was convinced that this issue of Gentiles being unclean needed to be settled once and for all. Otherwise, this kingdom community of God idea, where all were welcomed, would not be viable.

          I’m actually really glad that I never got into a debate with Jesus. He was good. He went right to the Hebrew Scriptures, quoting Isaiah: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. The temple authorities, according to Jesus, were ignoring the commandment of God and clinging tightly to human traditions. That’s a direct reference to the Pharisees’ claim that their oral tradition was of God, just like the Torah Law. But Jesus called it mere human habit. And he brought it home by talking about the family, more specifically, mom and dad. Honor your father and your mother. A big commandment.

          And then he drops a word we don’t know and once again you and I definitely feel like clueless Gentiles. Korban. Korban was a word that meant money or assets willed to the Jerusalem temple. These korban monies could no longer be used by a family once someone made a vow of korban, promising this money to the temple; there was no way to go back on it. It didn’t matter if tragedy hit your household, if someone needed assistance, even if mom and dad were dirt poor. Korban was final. So it was a huge contradiction. Both Pharisees and scribes claimed to follow God’s commandments, and yet, how were they really honoring their father and mother if they gave all their money to the temple and refused to help their families in need?

          This statement seemed to quiet the Pharisees and scribes, because Jesus then had plenty of time to address the Gentile crowds. Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Now the story shifts. Jesus and the religious leaders had been arguing about the body, the external, what was clean or dirty. Now Jesus talked about what was on the inside; the heart. Notice the thematic word-play. The Pharisees and scribes were religious insiders who mocked those like the Gentiles who were outsiders. The Pharisees and scribes were concerned about what was outside the body. Jesus was concerned with only the inside. Now let’s get to the heart of the matter, pun intended.

          For the ancient Hebrews, the word for heart was lev, spelled lamed-beit. The heart was the center of personality and being. As described by Jewish scholars and writers, the heart is the inner self—what it means to be human. It is intellect and rational thought. The heart is memory, emotions, determination, desire, will, and courage. The heart is completely an internal concept. What is external, on the outside, does not affect the heart. This understanding is quite different than much of the Western world’s thinking about the heart, which can often include the idea that “the devil made me do it.” That Western thinking does not exist in the majority of Biblical Jewish thought. Instead, when we as humans act, our action is motivated by our heart—not some external force causing us to be bad or good. Therefore, people have the ability to choose which impulse to follow, a dichotomy of the heart. The two sides to the heart in rabbinic understanding are yetzer hatov [good inclination] and yetzer hara [evil inclination]. But it’s important for us to understand that yetzer hara is not some demonic force that forces someone to do something bad. Instead, it is a drive towards pleasure, property, or security. Pursuing these things is not evil, but if we pursue it without limit, it can lead to evil. This idea is appears in the book of Genesis.

          All human beings, therefore, have the ability to choose. This is the basic concept of free will. In the Talmud [the Jewish oral tradition], it notes that all people are descendants of Adam. Therefore, no one can blame his/her own bad impulses on their ancestry. Everyone makes his/her own choices; everyone is responsible for those choices. You can see why this more Jewish understanding of the heart is important if we are to better understand what Jesus was teaching. In the Western world, we most often associate the brain with thought and the heart with emotion. The ancient Hebrews, however, saw the heart as the mind—including both thinking and feeling. Apply this to Deuteronomy 6:5: Love God with all your heart. This is not just an emotion, but also a thoughtful process of making decisions and acting on them.

          I’m fascinated and encouraged by such an understanding of the heart that in the American Christian church we have misunderstood, or in some cases, pushed to the side. It’s easy, you see, for us to verbally attack the Pharisees and the scribes, noting their legalistic nature and obsession with religious rules. They exclude; they marginalize others; they are hypocrites. But let’s keep in mind the story in Mark. Jesus doesn’t just criticize Pharisees and scribes; he makes a statement about human beings in general, including his disciples. We are all hypocrites—all of us. We are all legalistic; we all marginalize others with our religious rules. The question is: will we admit it and turn away from such attitudes that indeed, come from within our hearts?

          In Christian circles these days, there is a lot of focus on who belongs in or who is left out of the church. Some draw the line with certain sexual behaviors or orientations. Still others invite into their church only those who vote just like them and agree on certain political and social issues. Other churches are just fine with everybody being Anglo-Saxon; or English-only. Many churches welcome people of the same social level and leave out those who have less material wealth or a limited educational background. It’s tiresome. Really. I’m weary of all this. Thankfully, Jesus has something to say about it. All of us who think we’re church insiders who know what God’s law is and which religious rules people ought to follow—we are left on the outside. This is ironic to be sure, but it’s what Jesus taught. It’s also what Paul taught, even though many have misinterpreted much of his writings. Paul wrote in Romans 2:29: But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.

          So why do we continue to keep discriminating by the letter and neglecting the heart? Why are some out and others in? Why do we keep focusing on external rules and neglect the inward heart? The Christ teaching is that sure–we can follow doctrines, religious rules and rites, but they do us no good if we neglect the heart. Our inward self is what actually moves us to do what matters most in the world. It is our heart and not our rules that matters most to our neighbors. Yes, friends, we are all more than capable of evil, of stealing, of killing, of cheating, lying, gossiping, selfishness, envy, and cowardice. But we are also fully capable of good, compassion, love, sharing, healing, justice, truth, encouragement, generosity, gratefulness, and courage.

          What Jesus asked his disciples to do was to consider what matters most in life. Do we care more about external religious rules? Or do we care more about the internal heart? Do we care more that people see us performing pious acts so they will call us a good Christian or a religious person? Or, do we care more about being honest with ourselves and with God, claiming our decisions [good and bad] as our own, not blaming or judging others? Jesus of Nazareth made it clear: in God’s community of reconciling love, dirty hands and feet, people who cannot follow all the rules, they are welcome and accepted. The Pharisees, the scribes—they are also welcomed and accepted. The people who pray and the people who don’t know how; those who read the Bible a lot and those who are afraid to; people who marry, divorce, drink, smoke, dance badly, sing well, speak languages other than English; those who laugh and those who cry; people who have hope and those with none; kids, babies, teenagers, adults; religious and non-religious alike. This is God’s community.

          And we are invited in—even if we’ve felt like we’ve been on the outside. And we’re invited to accept responsibility for those times when we hurt someone or caused evil. And we’re encouraged to ask for forgiveness, humbly and honestly. And as broken human beings who daily struggle with our heart’s motivation, we can encounter hope in the message of Jesus. For God knows our hearts, knows what we are capable of. And this Still-Forgiving God extends compassion and mercy to us so that we can remember that we are capable of doing good in the world. This is the heart of the matter. This is the core of life. We are to listen to our hearts. We are to cultivate all that is merciful and compassionate within it. We are to recognize also its imperfections so as not to hide them. We are to love God and our neighbor by using our brains, feeling emotions, and moving our feet. What is on the inside will always bear fruit on the outside. Amen.

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