Saturday, April 23, 2011

New Testament Lesson #17 "What Shall I Do That I May Inherit Eternal Life?"

Mark 10:17-30; 12:41-44; Luke 12:13-21; 14; 16

REAL RICHES

A young man ran up to Jesus and asked him what he could do to inherit eternal life.  Clearly he expected to hear, "You're already doing it all; don't worry."  But, just like many of us who get answers to prayers that we don't like, he found out that there was more required (Mark 10:17-20).

"Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.  And he was sad at that saying and went away grieved: for he had great possessions.  And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!  And the disciples were asonished at his words.  But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:21-24)

So, those of us who are not wealthy are off the hook, right?  C.S. Lewis begs to differ:

"Christ said it was difficult for 'the rich' to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, refering, no doubt, to 'riches' in the ordinary sense.  But I think it really covers riches in every sense--good fortune, health, popularity, and all the things one wants to have.  All these things tend--just as money tends--to make you feel independent of God, because if you have them you are happy already and contented in this life.  You don't want to turn away to anything more, and so you try to rest in a shadowy happiness as if it could last for ever.  But God wants to give you a real and eternal happiness.  Consequently He may have to take all these 'riches' away from you: if he doesn't, you will go on relying on them.  It sounds cruel, doesn't it?  But I am beginning to find out that what people call the cruel doctrines are really the kindest ones in the long run...If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place of training and correction and it's not so bad"  (C.S. Lewis, The C.S. Lewis Bible, p. 1123).

Notice Christ's reaction to the rich young man:  "Beholding him, [He] loved him."  It was out of this love that He requested the young man to give up his goods.  Why?  Because he wanted to open up a space in the young man's life in which He could give him more.

The Lord said that what we are required to give up will be rewarded "a hundredfold now in this time...and in the world to come eternal life" (Mark 10:29-30).  The reward will be much greater than the sacrifice.  "And if ye seek the riches which it is the will of the Father to give unto you, ye shall be the richest of all people, for ye shall have the riches of eternity..." (D&C 38:39) 

You might have heard the little parable of the child whose father asks her to give him her most beloved toy necklace to prove her love for him.  He asks repeatedly while she debates, but when she finally gives up the beads, the father gives her a real pearl necklace as his return gift.  This is a little bit like what we can expect from our Father in Heaven when he asks us to give up that one thing, be it riches or whatever else, that we cling to and hold dear.  As Elder Melvin J. Ballard said, "A person cannot give a crust to the Lord without receiving a loaf in return" (Ensign, November 1980).  We can be sure that the widow, who cast in her mites (Mark 12:41-44), received such a reward, eventually, because the Lord was there to observe her sacrifice, and He is there to observe ours. 

Besides, as Jesus pointed out in the parable in Luke 12:13-21, what earthly goods we give up for the kingdom, might just as well disappear tomorrow on their own.

THE PARABLE OF THE GREAT SUPPER

So a man made a great feast and invited many people to it.  But each of them made an excuse, and didn't come.

Why would anyone refuse an invitation to such a wonderful event?

Because they are like many people today, who are "so busy being self-sufficient or fulfilling their life programs that they spurn salvation" (David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, p. 128).  Also, it's not quite as easy as walking into a banquet hall for a couple of hours.

"We often must make significant changes in our lives in order to attend the feast at the table of the Lord. Too many of us put those changes off, thinking there is no urgency.  Perhaps this parable could be called the “don’t bother me now, Lord” parable. We try to excuse ourselves in various ways. Each rationalization comes from selfishness and almost always relates to something temporal. For some it is the Word of Wisdom. For others it is the law of tithing. Perhaps it is a reluctance to live the law of chastity. Whatever the reason, we who reject or delay our response to the Savior’s invitation show our lack of love for Him who is our King" ("Parables of Jesus: The Great Supper," F. Melvin Hammond, Ensign, April 2003).

"The Lord explained to the Prophet Joseph Smith that the elders of the Church were sent to earth so that “a feast of fat things might be prepared … ; Yea, a supper of the house of the Lord, well prepared, unto which all nations shall be invited. First, the rich and the learned, the wise and the noble” (D&C 58:8–10). If the Lord is providing his own commentary [here] on the parable of the great supper—and it seems that he is—then it is frightening to note that those who declined the invitation were those more concerned with temporal problems—for example, a piece of ground, a yoke of oxen, or a wife who did not understand the significance of the supper. As we look at the part riches play in this parable, we can see that there is great risk in them—risk that concern for material things may cloud our view of what is eternally important" (F. Burton Howard, "Overcoming the World," Ensign, Sept. 1996).

WHAT ABOUT THE SERVANTS?

From his perspective as a Seventy and a mission president, Elder Hammond wrote a companion parable.  "The role of the man’s servants in the parable of the great supper is an aspect of the story we seldom think about. Contemplating this, I wrote the following parable: A certain man possessing many riches and desiring to share them with all his friends planned a feast with food and drink. His servants were given instructions, and preparations were made. In the evening the guests arrived hungry, looking forward to being fed. The hall was spacious and the tables beautifully set. But the cups were empty and only crumbs were spread upon the plates. The guests left hungering and thirsting, their loyalty shaken, not anxious to return. And the king wept because his servants, they who had professed total allegiance and obedience to him, did not perform their duties as expected.

"We who have the responsibility to serve, train, and teach in the home or at church sometimes come to our tasks unprepared. Our children or students want to be spiritually fed but frequently go away still hungering and thirsting for the things of the Spirit of God. Every parent and teacher in the Church—whether in Sunday School, Primary, Relief Society, Young Men, Young Women, a priesthood quorum, or even on the music committee—who is not prepared to feed his or her 'guests' runs the risk of leaving the Lord’s children hungry. However, when adequate preparation is made and the Spirit is invited, everyone may leave the meeting edified and rejoicing in the Lord."  (Hammond)

Note on Luke 14:26, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother:" "Hate [here is] prophetic hyperbole [or exaggeration to make a point] for the uncompromising loyalty required toward Jesus and the true family of disciples" (Harper-Collins Study Bible).  "The theme of these verses is not alienation from one's family but the cost of discipleship: nothing, not love for father or mother or even one's own life, is to take precedence over loyalty to God and his Messiah" (Stern, p. 129).

THE CURIOUS PARABLE OF THE UNJUST STEWARD

Lest we take all the messages Jesus taught about not overvaluing money and worldly possessions to an extreme, we find a balancing parable following them in Luke 16.


"The parable of the unjust steward is about a business manager who manipulates his employer’s debts. I have wondered many times why the Savior ever gave it. Some people have even read it and wondered if He was justifying or excusing unethical behavior. It is a curious parable, but one that is also rich with truth, including teachings that show us how to make our way financially in this world" (Tsung-Ting Yang, "Parables of Jesus: The Unjust Steward," Ensign, July 2003). 

Elder Yang points out that this parable follows closely on the heels of the parable of the prodigal (or wasteful) son, and as we know, placement in the Bible is meant to enhance teachings.  In this parable of the unjust steward, the Savior pointed out that worldly people sometimes manage their finances better than do the spiritually-minded.  But it is necessary that we learn to be wise with the worldly blessings the Lord has given us.

"He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.  If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?"  (Luke 16:10-11).

"How sound and penetrating this logic!  Does it not border on the preposterous for us to think that we might be entrusted with the endless resources of eternity and the full powers of the priesthood when we cannot even live within a budget?" (Dennis Deaton, Money-Wise and Spiritually Rich, p. 14).

So what are the specific lessons taught in money management by the parable of the unjust steward?

Elder Yang explains:  "In Jesus’ day owners sometimes overcharged debtors, so the discounts the steward gave could have simply returned the debts to their original amounts. This approach would have satisfied the rich man and gained the favor of the debtors. But whatever the steward did, the Savior described his actions as “unjust,” or morally wrong, for the Lord does not excuse sin for any reason. It is essential we realize that in the parable it was the rich man—not the Savior—who commended the steward.

"After telling the parable, Jesus explained some points that were important to Him.
  1. Those who are spiritually strong need to give proper attention to the temporal affairs in their lives. “For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).
  2. When possible the righteous should be friends, not enemies, with people in positions of authority or wealth, for someday those friends may assist the righteous and the kingdom of God. “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations” (Luke 16:9; see D&C 82:22).  A great example of this principle was carried out by Apostle Thomas S. Monson in the 1970s.  By repeatedly petitioning the Communist government of East Germany to allow the Latter-day Saints living there to attend General Conference or the temple, and then keeping his promise that each one would return to East Germany and not defect (even including the body of an elderly woman who died on her temple trip), President Monson gained the confidence of the government, which led not only to their suggestion that he build a temple in their country (the Freiberg Temple), but which favorably influenced the Church's dealings with many surrounding countries.  (See Heidi S. Swinton, To The Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, p. 299-301.)
  3. Those who wisely manage their temporal affairs are more likely to also wisely manage their spiritual affairs. “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much. … And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10,12; see D&C 51:19). 
  4. Obedience to God is much more important than making money. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13; see D&C 56:16–17)." (Yang)
LAZARUS AND THE RICH MAN

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) circles us back to the beginning of this scripture chain, and the first principle taught:  that riches themselves are irrelevant to gaining eternal life, but if we have them, the way we use them does have an effect on our salvation. 

In this story Lazarus was a hideous begger lying in the street.  As we have seen from the story of Job and the healing of the blind man in the previous lesson, the Jews were accustomed to assuming that sin was always the cause of misfortune.  Therefore, Lazarus would have been the least in the kingdom of Heaven.  The only comfort he received on earth was being licked by the mangy street dogs.  Ugh!

The rich man saw Lazarus daily lying outside his gates, but like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan, he did nothing to help him, despite clearly having the means.

So in the next life, their roles were reversed.  The rich man suffered the pains of hell, while Lazarus "was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom" (v.22).  This is "a rare phrase in early Jewish writing, but not unknown...[It] suggests both being in [Paradise] and being present at the Messianic banquet" (Stern, p. 134). 

Hey!  Lazarus was one who went in to the feast prepared by the Lord after the invitation was rejected by the rich man!

It's interesting that the rich man is not given a name in this story, but the beggar is.  The rich man could be any or all of us, but the beggar's identity is specific:

1) The name Lazarus means "Helped of God" (Bible Dictionary).  It is the same as that of the brother of Mary and Martha who is later raised from the dead (John 11-12).  As the second Lazarus was raised from mortal death by Christ, the first Lazarus was raised from spiritual death by Christ.

2) We can't readily tell by their circumstances who has petitioned the Lord and received the saving and perfecting power of the Atonement in their lives.  The least among us may be at the head of the table in the next life.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Testament Lesson #16 "I Was Blind, Now I See"

John 9-10

"Miracles:  An important element in the work of Jesus Christ, being not only divine acts, but forming also a part of the divine teaching."  (Bible Dictionary, p. 732)

Of all of the miracles that Christ performed during his earthly ministry among the Jews, the healing of the man blind from birth is the only one that takes up an entire chapter.  There must be a lot we can learn from this singular story and apply to our own lives.

(You may want to ask the class to identify all the lessons they can find in this story.  They may come up with better stuff than I have.)

THE HEALING OF THE BLIND MAN


(This image is from the Church's online Gospel Art,
and therefore can be copied and printed up for classroom use.)

"And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.  And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" (9:1-2)

Hmm.  Didn't we already get this question answered in the Book of Job?  Maybe these Jews had not read it...

"Jesus answered, neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him."  (9:3)

Lesson #1:  Birth defects or illnesses are not necessarily anyone's fault.
Lesson #2:  Physical weakness does not automatically indicate spiritual weakness.
Lesson #3:  Without problems, there would be no need for miracles, the manifestation of God's power.

Jesus again proclaimed himself the Light of the World, sent to do the works of his Father, and then he made a little clay with his spit, and put it on the eyes of the blind man, "an act that was a well-known Jewish remedy for diseases of the eye" (McConkie, p. 29).  He then instructed him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam.  This pool is familiar to us:  the same place where the impotent man was trying to get in the water to be cleansed, it is at the end of Hezekiah's Tunnel.  Without any question, the blind man "went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing." (9:7)

Lesson #4:  Miracles can come from the most unlikely raw materials.
Lesson #5:  Sometimes we are expected to work for our miracles.  "Faith is a principle of action and of power" (Bible Dictionary, p. 670)  Although this man did not know who Christ was, his infant faith is shown in the fact that he immediately obeyed.

The neighbors were understandably astonished.  Some thought it must be another person who simply looked like the blind man.  But he identified himself and they asked him how he was healed.  He said he was healed by "a man named Jesus," and told them how it was done.

The neighbors took him to report to the church leaders.  Wouldn't you?  Wouldn't everybody be delighted to hear about this miracle?  Joseph Smith did the same thing after seeing his great vision, and he got about the same flavor of response as this blind man did:  Indignation.  In this case, they criticized Jesus for "working" on the Sabbath.

There were 39 kinds of work forbidden on the Sabbath.  By building something of clay, and by kneading the clay, the Pharisees claimed Jesus broke Sabbath rules (Stern, p. 184).  Applying a healing remedy was also against the Sabbath, "and in addition there was a specific prohibition against the application of saliva to the eyes on the Sabbath," it being a well-known treatment (McConkie, p. 201).

Jesus purposely "broke" these Sabbath rules.  Of course he could have healed without making or applying mudpacks.  Of course he could have healed on another day.  His miracles were to teach, as well as to heal, and here he was teaching about the purpose of the Sabbath day.

The Pharisees falsely accused him in every case of Sabbath healing.  He defended his Sabbath healings perfectly in John 7:2.  According to the Rabbinic discussions recorded in the Talmud, tractate Shabbat, pgs. 128b-137b, which says that it is more important to circumsize a child on the correct day, the 8th day, even if it is the Sabbath day, than it is to keep the Sabbath rules of not carrying tools or doing cutting.  Jesus used what in Judaism is called a "light and heavy" argument:  If you can break the Sabbath to observe circumcision, how much more important it is to heal a person's whole body on the Sabbath (Stern, p. 177).

Lesson #6:  The Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8) made the Sabbath for the saving and healing of man (Mark 2:27).

When the rulers of the synagogue asked the formerly blind man who healed him, his answer reflected his growing testimony.  Where he told the neighbors it was simply a man named Jesus, he now said, "He is a prophet" (9:17).

The leaders called the parents of the man as witnesses.  They wanted proof that the man had really been blind from birth.  The parents said that he had been, but denied knowing how he had been healed, "For the Jews [meaning the church leaders] had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue" (9:22).  "The blind man's parents betray him to a fate they fear themselves" (Harper-Collins Study Bible, p. 2032). 

"Judaism has three degrees of excommunication, though none is common today...The most severe, cherem, was a ban of indefinite duration; and a person under cherem was treated like one dead.  For a family so poor as to allow their son to beg--begging charity was to be avoided as much as giving charity was to be practiced--being de-synagogued would have been a dreadful disaster.  For Messianic Jews today social ostracism by family and/or the Jewish community--that is, being treated as if under a cherem--can be a cost to be counted when committing one's life to Yeshua [Christ].  (Stern, p. 184.  An especially poignant comment, considering the author is himself a Messianic Jew.)  (You can also find this information in McConkie, p. 204-205.)

The healed man, however, knew where his allegiance lay.  They called him again and accused his healer of being a sinner.  (Note:  The phrase "Give God the praise" in v. 24 indicates a request for a solemn judicial statement, the ancient equivalent of "Swear to God you're telling the truth." [Stern, p. 184])  The man refused to place a judgment on Christ, but swore that he had healed him.  The leaders pressed him again and reviled him for telling the truth, and claimed they did not know where Christ came from (or got his authority).  I love the healed man's retort:

"Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes.  Now we know that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth.  Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind except he be of God.

"If this man were not of God, he could do nothing."  (9:30-33)

Lesson #7:  True miracles are worked only by followers of God.
Lesson #8:  People who don't want to see miracles won't; evidence will make no difference.
Lesson #9:  Testimonies grow in the bearing or defending of them.

At this, the authorities called him "born in sins," the equivalent of saying he had been born an illegitimate child (I decided I didn't want to put the actual word here--it's not a nice one), and cast him out (9:34).

Jesus, hearing about it, sought him out and asked if he believed on the Son of God.  Again, a wonderful response from the healed man:  "Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him?"  Jesus identified himself, and the man immediately said, "Lord, I believe.  And he worshipped him." (9:35-38).

Lesson #10:  Just because someone else calls you a bad name and ostracizes you, it doesn't lessen you in the eyes of Christ.
Lesson #11:  Jesus is always mindful of his believers and their trials and comes to their aid.
Lesson #12:  Christ will reveal who he is to those who want to believe.

The point of the entire story is encapsulated in these words of Jesus:  "For judgment [justice--or to make things fair] I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind." (9:39).

Lesson #13:  Jesus will reveal himself to those who "see not" but desire to see, but not to those who are convinced they already see perfectly well without him.

THE GOOD SHEPHERD


(This image is from the Church's online Gospel Art,
and therefore can be copied and printed up for classroom use.)

"No figures of speech, no similitudes, no parables or allegories brought greater joy to Israelite hearts than those which led to the glorious pronouncement:  Jehovah is our Shepherd.

"Israel's very lives depended upon the safety and procreant powers of their sheep.  Physically and spiritually their interests centered in their flocks and herds.  From them came food for their tables, clothes for their bodies, sacrifices for their altars...Those who cared for the flocks were not sheepherders but shepherds; sheep were not driven, but led; they hearkened to him whose voice they came to know.  At night the flocks were commingled in one safe sheepfold where a single shepherd stood guard against the wolves and terrors of the night.  In the morning each shepherd called his own sheep out and they followed him to green pastures and still waters" (McConkie, p. 210). 

The allegory of Jesus as the Good Shepherd "is the closest thing to a parable in the Gospel of John.  It seems to present a highly realistic picture of Palestinian sheepherding in ancient times.  The 'parable' focuses first on the gate and then on the shepherd...The explanation, like the 'parable' itself, focuses first on Jesus as the gate and then on Jesus as the shepherd" (Harper-Collins, p. 2033).

I love The Harper-Collins Study Bible, because the commentators in it are honest.  If they don't understand something, if they don't have certain proof, they say so.  In this case, they say, in reference to 10:16:  "The other sheep are probably the Gentiles."  "Probably."  They're not sure.  We, of course, having the additional resource of the Book of Mormon, know these other sheep are the inhabitants of ancient America.  (See 3 Nephi 15:15-22.)


(See also a previous lesson, "The Shepherds of Israel".  Also check out this excellent article on sheep, shepherds, and Christ:  Homer S. Ellsworth, "Thoughts on the Good Shepherd", Ensign, Dec. 1985.)


SOURCES:

Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, Book 3
David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary

Thursday, April 14, 2011

New Testament Lesson #15 "I Am the Light of the World"

John 7-8

THE FEAST OF TABERNACLES

Chapters 7 and 8 of John are set during the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles.  This was a seven-day harvest festival observed in October.  It "drew many pilgrims to Jerusalem...It...included ceremonies involving the pouring out of water and the lighting of great lights in the temple." (Harper-Collins; also McConkie, p. 133)  To understand what happened during these chapters, and to understand Christ's words given at that time, we must understand the Feast of the Tabernacles.

"It has been calculated that it took 'not fewer than 446 priests,' and an equal number of Levites, to carry out the sacrificial worship at the Feast of Tabernacles.  On each of the seven days, and possibly also on the [eighth] day, one of these sons of Aaron, after the morning sacrifice was laid on the altar, drew three logs of water--somewhat more than two pints--from the Pool of Siloam.  Attended by throngs of worshippers who carried their palm branches, to be waved in the Hosannah Shout, this priest brought the water from the pool in a golden ewer.  A solemn procession carried the 'living water' to the temple; joyous blasts on the sacred trumpets heralded its arrival" (McConkie, p. 134-135).

The water was poured into a basin on the side of the altar, wine was poured on the other side, and the Levites began to chant the Hallel, which is found in our scriptures as Psalms 113-118.  During the chant, the people would respond at certain points with "Hallelujah;" "O then, work now salvation, Jehovah;" "O Lord, send now prosperity;" and "O give thanks to the Lord," while waving their palm branches.

After this point, the special festival sacrifices were made, but there would have been a small break in the action while they were being prepared.  "Now about the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and taught."  "It was then, immediately after the symbolic rite of water-pouring, immediately after the people had responded by repeating those lines from Psalm 118--given thanks, and prayed that Jehovah would send salvation and prosperity, and had shaken their [fronds] towards the altar...and then silence had fallen upon them--that there rose, so loud as to be heard throughout the Temple, the Voice of Jesus" (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messias, 2:160, quoted in McConkie, p. 136).  (Note:  Alfred Edersheim was a Jewish convert to Christianity.)

Wow!  What a spectacle that would have been!  The words Jesus taught at that moment are not recorded, but we can assume that in some way he proclaimed his gospel.  The Jews wondered where Jesus got his knowledge.  (Likely "the Jews" refers to the Jewish authorities rather than the Jewish people throughout this chapter, according to Harper-Collins.)

"Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.  If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself" (John 7:16-17).  Jesus accused the Jewish authorities of not keeping the Law of Moses, despite their many observances of religious tradition.  (See the previous two lessons for evidence.)  Since they didn't live the doctrine of the Father, they did not receive the testimony of Jesus. 

At this accusation, confusion erupted.  Some said he was crazy ("possessed of a devil," in the terms of the day) (v. 20).  Some said he couldn't be Christ because they knew where he was from (v. 27).  "Many" of the people believed in him (v. 31).  The Sanhedrin (called here "chief priests and Pharisees") "which had at its disposal a small force of police, mainly for keeping order in the temple" (Harper-Collins) sent for his arrest (v. 32), but he could not be taken, because his work was not yet finished (v. 30).

THE LIVING WATER

Although the Bible often states that the gospel was to go to the Jews first, it was always intended to be sent to the Gentiles as well.  In fact, the symbolism of the Feast of the Tabernacles specifically emphasized the spreading of the gospel to the heathen nations.  They were "to depict an outpouring of divine grace upon all men of all nations, using water as the symbol of life.  As Edersheim observes, this feast 'points forward to that great, yet unfulfilled hope of the Church: the ingathering of Earth's nations to the Christ,' including the nations of heathendom, for whom sacrifices were then offered...The daily and ritualistic pouring out of the water...was understood by the Rabbis to be symbolical of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit" (McConkie, p. 134).

"It was said that he who has not seen the joy of the drawing of water at the Feast of the Tabernacles does not know what joy is" (Bible Dictionary, p. 673).

At the end of the services each day, the priests walked a circle around the altar, chanting "O then, work now salvation, Jehovah!  O Jehovah, send now prosperity."  And on the last day of the feast, they circled this altar not once, but seven times--seven, hearkening back to the circling of the City of Jericho, and seven, refering in Hebrew to godly perfection.

On this last day, the "Great Day" of the feast, Jesus answered this cry for divine redemption: "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink.  He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.  (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was promised unto them who believe, after that Jesus was glorified.)  Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet.  Others said, This is the Christ.  But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?" (v. 37-41 JST).  "Galilee was regarded by many Pharisees as religiously lax" (Harper-Collins, p. 2028).  "Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?" (v. 42).  Obviously it was not well-known that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem.

And yet, he was so remarkable that even the temple guards wondered, and they refused to arrest him in a rather understated act of bravery (v.45-46), and a prominent leader of the Sanhedrin spoke in his defense.  (For more Nicodemus's defense of Christ, see a previous entry.)

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

A significant ceremony during the Feast of the Tabernacles was the lighting of the temple courts by four golden candelabra (Bible Dictionary, p. 673), a perfect setting for Christ to proclaim himself the light therefore represented.  "Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (8:12).  The words used as "I am" are ego emi and refer to the great "I Am That I Am," the Jehovah of the Old Testament.  "It functions virtually as a divine name, based on Old Testament assertions of God's identity" (Harper-Collins, p. 2029).  It was clear to everyone that Christ was proclaiming himself their God.

The authorities said, "Thou bearest record of thyself; thy record is not true" (8:13).  Then ensued an argument about whether there were witnesses enough, blah, blah, blah...all the same stuff the Sanhedrin was always going off on.  When it was over, "Then said Jesus unto them, when ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am [ego emi] he." (Note that the word "he" is italicized in the New Testament, indicating that the King James Translators, not understanding the significance of the phrase "I am" added it for grammatical clarity) "I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.  And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.  As he spake these words, many believed on him" (8:28-30).

But a little later in the record, when he identified himself once again as Jehovah, saying, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am" (8:58), the leaders tried to stone him for blasphemy.

"'So there was a division among the people because of him,' just as there is division in so-called Christendom today, because of him, because some--again at the peril of their salvation--choose to worship a Christ of one sort, some of another" (McConkie, p. 138).  It is of vital importance in each of our lives that we learn who Christ is, who it is we worship.  Testifying of himself, although it inflamed the Sanhedrin, was a key part of the ministry of Jesus Christ, so that we could know where to find our salvation.  (See John 6:68-69.)

"WHO IS THIS SON OF MAN?" (John 12:34)

Gospel concepts are so multi-faceted, and actually beyond our comprehension, that Christ uses multiple explanations, symbols, and words to teach us the entire ideas, bit by bit.  It is definitely the case as Jesus tries to let us know who he is.  So let's look at some descriptions Christ has given to himself, all linked in with the introductory identification "I am."

"I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12).

"In him was life, and the life was the light of men" (John 1:4).

"I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).

"I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world (Ether 4:12).
 
So all of these words seem to be nearly synonymous descriptions of Christ: The Light, The Truth, The Life, The Way.

Knowing Christ is The Truth, it makes sense that Jesus said to his disciples, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32).  Christ himself is The Truth.  "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3).  To know Jesus Christ is not just to know about him, but to become unified with him, to keep his commandments (John 7:17), to receive of his grace, to be sanctified.  The more we know Christ, the more free we will become:  Free from the bondage of sin which so ensnared the Jewish authorities (John 8:33-47), free from fear as we trust in the Lord, free from the darkness that swirls around this fallen existence, free to progress, free to feel peace, free to know what to do on a day-by-day basis through the spirit, free to become like Christ.  "If the son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:36).

Knowing Christ is The Light, it makes sense that Jesus said to the Nephites, "I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments; wherefore inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall be led towards the promised land, and ye shall know that it is by me that ye are led" (1 Nephi 17:13).  When we are lost, confused, trapped in darkness, Christ is the light, the only way out.

Knowing Christ is The Life, it makes sense that Jesus said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.  Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (John 5:24-25), and "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).

Knowing Christ is The Way, it makes sense that Paul taught, "[God] will with the temptation also make a way to escape" (1 Cor. 10:13), and that Nephi testified, "I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save that he shall prepare a way for them, that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth" (1 Ne. 3:7), and that Jacob taught, "[Christ] is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God" (2 Ne. 31:21).  Christ is the only way up.

THE ADULTEROUS WOMAN

We are all familiar with the story of the adulterous woman that took place immediately after this festival (John 8:3-11)--how the Sanhedrin dragged this woman into the temple demanding a judgment from Jesus, not caring about her or about the sin she commited, but simply trying to trap him into either breaking Roman law or the law of Moses with his edict.  And of course, since he was the Master, he gave a masterful response which defeated their purpose and taught a valuable lesson:  Not to accuse others, since there is also sin in you. 

But there is one significant detail of this story that is missing from our LDS King James Version, but is recorded in the Joseph Smith Translation*:  "Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.  And the woman glorified God from that hour, and believed on his name."  (8:11 + JST)  Where in the former tradition of the Jews, this woman had merited death by stoning, Christ offered forgiveness through his atonement and she became a disciple.  She then would very likely have been in the group that heard Jesus testify, "I am the light of the world" (8:12), and just a little later, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (8:32).  In these hopeful words to this sinner-turned-convert, we find hope for every one of us.  Christ offers to us, as he did to her, freedom from sin, endowments of truth, light in the wilderness, and the way to everlasting life.


*For more information on the Joseph Smith Translation, follow this link to a previous post.
SOURCES:

The Harper-Collins Study Bible
Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, Book 3

Friday, April 1, 2011

New Testament Lesson #14 "Who Is My Neighbour?"

Matthew 18: Luke 10

The commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself was not new with Christ's earthly ministry.  It is found as early as Leviticus (Lev. 19:18).  So when the young lawyer came up to Christ "tempting him" and asking what he could do to gain eternal life, Christ knew he knew the answer, and he replied with a question:  "What is written in the law?  How readest thou?"

The lawyer replied, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself."  Jesus said that was correct and if the man did it, he would achieve his goal of eternal life. 

But then the lawyer wanted to qualify the commandment:  "And who is my neighbour?" he asked (Luke 10:25-29).

Aha!  There was his trick question!

But there was no trick.  There was no qualification.  All mankind was his neighbour.  And that is what Jesus taught very bluntly in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN--THE PRACTICAL VIEW


(Illustration of the Good Samaritan in a Chartres Cathedral window)

The practical meaning of this parable is so obvious that, unlike other parables, its meaning was not hard to grasp, and the young lawyer would clearly have understood it, as would everyone around.  The priest and the Levite were more concerned with being made "unclean" themselves (by touching a "half-dead" man) than they were with helping ease suffering.  Their adherence to "the Law" actually prevented their living the gospel.  Yet the Samaritan, the low-life half-breed foreigner in the Jewish opinion, acted as a kind and compassionate savior for the traveler.  He was not a "neighbor" in the traditional sense, because he was a visitor from a strange country.  Yet he was prepared to help others, having oil and wine (natural medicines) with him.  When he saw the victim, he went to him.  He was aware of others, not trying to avoid them.  Then he went well beyond what might have been hoped for, leaving money for the innkeeper to continue the care of the injured man until his healing was complete (Luke 10:30-37).

And now, at the end of the parable, Christ turns the question.  It is no longer a question about the person being served: "Who is my neighbor?" Now is a question about the person doing the service: "Who was neighbor unto him?" (Luke 10:29, 36).  If you are a "neighbor" or a "good Samaritan," it doesn't matter who the other person is.

THE GOOD SAMARITAN--THE ETERNAL VIEW

In the ancient Christian cathedrals of Europe, stained-glass windows were made to teach and remind the members of gospel truths and scripture stories.  The windows in several of these ancient cathedrals have depictions of the story of the Good Samaritan, surrounded by illustrations of the Garden of Eden and the crucifixion, as if they were related.  Curious!

A Good Samaritan Window
in a French Cathedral.
The diamond-shaped insets depict, top to bottom: 
the crucifixion, the Garden of Eden, and the Good Samaritan.
The panes all around these three tell the story of the
plan of Salvation, from the Garden of Eden to
the Empty Tomb.

"This parable's content is clearly practical and dramatic in its obvious meaning, but a time-honored Christian tradition also saw the parable as an impressive allegory of the Fall and Redemption of mankind..."

"This allegorical reading was taught not only by ancient followers of Jesus, but it was virtually universal throughout early Christianity, being advocated by Irenaeus, Clement, and Origen, and in the fourth and fifth centuries by Chrysostom in Constantinople, Ambrose in Milan, and Augustine in North Africa"  (John W. Welch, "The Good Samaritan: Forgotten Symbols," Ensign, Feb. 2007, p. 40).

Here are the symbols understood and taught by the early Christians:

The man = mankind
Jerusalem = God's presence (the elevated Holy City
          housing the temple)
Jericho = the fallen earth (being the earth's lowest city at 825
          feet below sea level)
Thieves = the devil and his co-workers
Raiment = immortality, grace (this is the only thing the thieves
          were after)
Half Dead = spiritually dead
Priest = Law of Moses (it cannot save)
Levite = the prophets (came close, but cannot help)
Samaritan = a foreigner not of this place who came purposely,
          prepared to heal (Christ)
Compassion = Greek for "divine mercy"
Wounds = sins, disobedience
Oil = can be the Gift of the Holy Ghost (the oil in the
          Parable of the 10 Virgins was the Holy Ghost--see
          D&C 45:56-57)
Wine = Christ's atoning blood--initially it stings (godly sorrow),
          and then it heals and purifies
Beast = Christ's mortal body
Inn = the Church
Innkeeper = the church members
The promise to return = the Second Coming of Christ

"This interpretation is found most completely in...medieval stained-glass windows in the French cathedrals at Bourges and Sens [and Chartres]" (Welch).

The MedievalArt website has beautiful pictures of the entire windows, with a detailed description of every single panel, and its typological explanation.  (Typological means "doctrinal studies of the symbols."  I looked up that word so you wouldn't have to.)  Not only that, but you can click on an individual window pane, and a pop-up will show it isolated and large enough for detailed viewing. 

Click here for the link to the Bourges Good Samaritan Window.

Click here for the link to the Chartres Good Samaritan Window

Click here for the link to the Sens Good Samaritan Window.

BEING A NEIGHBOR

All of the messages of these two chapters, Luke 10 and Matthew 18, are elaborations on this same theme: our treatment of others.  Jesus teaches us in Matthew 18:
  • we must be humble in order to be a great member of his kingdom (1-4)
  • the importance of avoiding offence (5-10)
  • the value of the individual, even the stray (11-14)
  • how to treat one who has offended you (15-17)
  • God will honor even tiny gatherings of saints and their covenants (18-20)
  • the vital principle of forgiveness of others (21-35)
Note on the parable of the unforgiving servant:  10,000 talents of silver was a ridiculously exaggerated amount, a sum the servant could never expect to repay in his lifetime.  One talent alone was 750 ounces of silver!  (v. 24)  An hundred pence was less than 1 ounce of silver (v. 28)--a pittance.  (Institute Manual)  David Stern writes, "In Roman times one talent equalled 6,000 denarii, a denarius being roughly a day's wages for a common laborer.  If a day's wages today is in the neighborhood of $50, 10,000 talents would be $3 billion!  In the Tanakh [Old Testament] a talent weighs 75.6 avoirdupois pounds.  This amount of gold, at $350/troy ounce, is worth nearly $4 billion; the same amount of silver, at $4/troy ounces, comes to over $40 million" (Jewish New Testament Commentary).

THE MINISTRY OF THE SEVENTY

In Luke 10, Christ sent out his Seventy, commanding them to heal the sick and preach the gospel.  We can see a tremendous spiritual growth in these men if we notice one thing.  In Matt. 17:14-21, the disciples were unable to cast out the devil from a child and asked the Lord why.  He said it was because their faith was immature:  "For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting."

Thomas Mumford, in his Horizontal Harmony of the Four Gospels in Parallel Columns, places the sending forth of the Seventy much later in Christ's ministry than it appears in the New Testament, showing up as it does in the very next chapter.  Certainly the return of the Seventy would have occurred much later.  This chronology aligns with the increase of their faith.  Now, "The seventy returned again with joy, saying, Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name.  And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.  Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy" (Luke 10:17-19).

As our faith increases, our power to "be a neighbor," or a rescuer or savior, increases as well.

THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACEMENT

It is always good to ask why one thing is placed next to another in the Bible.  The parable of the Good Samaritan is placed right after this brief report of the travels and ministry of the Seventy and Christ's reaction of joy, which we have already discussed above.  Even though Bible scholars believe they did not happen chronologically in that order, they relate to each other and the message of each is enhanced by their placement.

So why is the story of Mary and Martha placed right after the parable of the Good Samaritan?

MARY VS. MARTHA

As The Harper-Collins Study Bible points out, and as we may easily realize ourselves, "Interpreters find in the story of Martha and Mary conflicting messages on service and listening...Mary is depicted as a disciple. [A disciple sits at the feet of the teacher to learn.]  This was exceptional for women.  [Martha was giving "much service."]  Discipleship is later defined in terms of service" (p. 1980). 

Mary was listening to the Lord, which is the act of a disciple.  But Martha was serving the Lord, which is also the act of a disciple. Following directly on the heels of the stories of the service of the Seventy, and the service of the Good Samaritan, how can we imagine that Christ would be telling us that studying, as the priests and Levites did constantly, would be better than serving?  It is possible that Jesus is making sure we understand that there are times when we need to sit down and listen to the voice of the Lord, no matter what else seems to need doing.  It is also possible that he was telling us that being stressed out or going to excesses in our service is not consistent with being a disciple.

But there could be another message that isn't about discipleship at all, but about what the rest of the chapter was about:  how we treat others.

Martha was "[worried] and troubled about many things," and most notably at this moment she was worried and troubled about what Mary was doing.  "Mary," the Savior said, "hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her" (v. 41-42 including footnote).  He didn't necessarily say it was better than Martha's choice. 

We come closer to Christ through studying his words ("Thou shalt love the Lord thy God..."), and through serving others ("...and thy neighbor as thyself").  What we need to do is to listen to the Spirit and choose what "good part" we should be doing right now, do it wholeheartedly, and let others do the same.  If this story is placed here because it is about relationships, about "neighbors," about how to treat others, the message is simple:  Stop worrying about what other people are doing.