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Jesus, Hillel and Other Religious Teachers

If you have ever lived in a city with a large Jewish population, sooner or later you will come across a Jewish center, charity or, perhaps, a campus outreach that bears the name of Hillel, yet few Christians have the slightest idea of who he was or when he lived.  Yet it is important for us to know. He was one of the two most influential rabbis during Jesus’ time and died sometime before Jesus began his ministry. He died sometime between 10 and 20AD. Tradition suggests that he was  120 when he died although his exact year of birth is not known with certainty. It is possible that Jesus met him and his rival, Shammai, when he went to the temple at twelve.

Hillel was born in Babylon and came to Jerusalem to study the Torah – the Law. He was a woodcutter and poor, but was well-liked and when he was unable to pay his school fees, school fees were abolished in his honor. He would become the father of one of the two schools of rabbis that would dominate Judaism for centuries- the Beit Hillel (beit=beth=house(of)). He became the president of the Sanhedrin. The vice president was Shammai, his rival and the founder of the Beit Shammai. Historically, in Judaism, Orthodox rabbis have been identified as Beit Hillel or Beit Shammai. (Shammai died either just before or after Jesus was crucified).

The difference between the two men is generally one of strictness with regard to the keeping of the Law. Hillel was very strict in the main, but believed in practicality. Shammai thought that Hillel was far too lax.

In some cases, it is possible to tell whose disciples Jesus is talking to, Hillel’s or Shammai’s, though this is not possible in most cases. Yet, there is one case where Jesus speaks to the heart of the principles of the Beit Hillel. For Hillel, when asked to give the principal of the moral law in one sentence, said, “What you would not have someone else do to you, do not do to him.”

Jesus plainly contradicted him and you can be sure that the Pharisees and Saduccees caught it immediately and so did Jesus’ disciples. So did many of the other people who were there to hear Jesus. It is found, of course, in the so-called Sermon on the Mount. Jesus said, “Whatever you would that others do to you, do to them.”

Some refer to what Jesus said as the Golden Rule. Some call what Hillel said the Silver Rule. The first compels action, the second does not. The first says that you should actively seek for others what you would want yourself. The second says you should avoid doing to others what would hurt others. It is certainly commendable, but it is possible to just hide yourself away from others, live in a faraway cave and meet its requirements. Run away from everybody else and you cannot hurt  them. The Essenes, who are believed to have written the Dead Sea scrolls did just that.

Certainly, the Silver Rue is commendable and can be found in all the great religions of the world-Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Ba’hai and many others and no one who is a Christian would disagree with it, but it is not the Golden Rule. It is not proactive.

I am writing this because you frequently hear people say that all religions have the Golden Rule, so what is so special about Christianity? It is frequently used by many of today’s loudest atheists. Well, all religions don’t and it is precisely because of Jesus words that orphanages, hospitals and colleges and universities first appear in the Western world. Even things that we consider quite secular like hotels and modern inns are a product of Christian proactivism( ancient inns consisted of a single large room where everyone slept together without any privacy). Today we see well-digging, water purification, radio and television communication in the third world as things that have been done by Christians in remote places. In some cases, people of other religions have gotten on board, but the impetus has begun with people who have faith in Jesus Christ.

We who are Christ’s understand that this all has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit in individuals. But even those who disagree, must concede that me-too-ism cannot take root until there is an original. Jesus Christ makes the originators original.

Doubtless there are other things that other people can speak of that come from this impulse within the church, but what we hear so often today, especially in the academic community, is about all the wars that were started in the name of Christ, as if I decided to war, burn and pillage in the name of Switzerland and called myself Swiss, that that would make me Swiss.

In all of this, we need to decide, those of us who are a part of the Christian family, to approach the world we live in with Jesus’ persective and not our own, to find where we belong and what we should be doing, not only in directly reaching the lost, but in ways that alleviate the suffering that is in the world through sin., starting with our own and reaching out to this dying world.

The Spirit of Life

For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death. – Romans 8:2

What does it mean? Sometimes the translation of what Paul is saying overwhelms us and it is easy to gloss over the parts of the scripture we do not easily grasp.  We know it is saying something wonderful, but, especially if we have been previously reading in chapter seven, and you must be reading chapter seven just before you read chapter eight or you will miss the point- yesterday is not good enough! What’s more, if you have been wrestling with chapter seven, you might well want to get to the “good part” at the end of  chapter eight. The trouble is that this is one of the “good” parts easily missed.

    What is the law of sin and death?

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shalt not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.”- Genesis 2:17

What is the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus?

“But if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwells in you.”- Romans 8:11

Here quicken means to enliven, to make live. Resurrection and life. At the end of chapter seven Paul asks, “Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Spiritual death he speaks of.

And he answers his own question: “I thank God through my Lord Jesus Christ.” A quickening Spirit! Now that’s something to contemplate.It can set you free of more than you can imagine.

Christmas III – Her Father Wept

This is my Christmas story that I wrote a few years ago. Perhaps, you will enjoy it and get a new view of the Christmas story.

A Father’s Tears

  For Hannah it was a new and wonderful experience. Getting away from the noises and the clutter of Jerusalem to the quiet of the little village suburb of a town in the Galilee.

  Everything was new. There was Mount Tabor to the east, Mount Carmel to the west, Lebanon to the north and the plain of Esdralon to the south.

  Her aunt has been so glad to have her help with the arrival of her first and treated her as if she was much older than her twelve years. Hannah had enjoyed being with the other girls her age, but more with the new and interesting women she found there. Their talk seemed so conspiratorial and hidden in that special world that boys and men could not enter.

  Lingering at the well, she could hear bits and snatches of the village gossip, which was far more interesting than standing behind father’s vending stall all day in dusty Jerusalem.

  One woman in particular caught her interest, for she always arrived at the well just as the others were departing. She had a free and winning smile and seemed strangely wise, yet few women in the village were willing to speak with her – certainly not her aunt Rebecca. All that Hannah was able to learn about the woman was that she was Miriam Bat Elie, wife of the well regarded Bar Yakov.

  As each day went by, Hannah’s curiosity about the woman grew until it was about to burst. So, today, with her aunt not feeling well and having the responsibility of fetching the water alone, she decided that she would stay a little longer and speak to the woman.

  But, no sooner than she had introduced herself to the woman than her aunt appeared at the doorway, frantically calling her to come back immediately.

You are never to speak to that woman again. Your mother would not speak to me, if she thought that I had allowed you to speak with a woman like her.”

  An old man, watching from nearby, saw the incident. His eyes were filled with tears. He was Elie bar Matthat, the father of the woman.

** Years Before **

  Elie Bar Matthat’s life had begun with so much promise, but had come to much emptiness.

  He had been born the son of a stonedresser/mason. It was all one job in that time, and, what with the needs of the temple, the government and the palace-like mansions that the wealthy were building, the work was mostly steady and when the work was going slow, there were always smaller jobs and some carpentry that the men of this small stonemason’s community could put their tools to. By the standards of the day, it was a middle class existence. He would live well.

  He also had a wonderful heritage, being a descendent of the great King David. So, his father had been careful that he live an attentive religious life, for he knew that it had been prophesied that one day Elijah would return and that King David’s house would be restored, that the enemies of Israel would be defeated. The anointing oil would fall on a righteous son of David. Perhaps, it would be his son, Elie.

  Elie married, and though it seemed that no crown would pass to him, perhaps he might sit at the king’s table, if a son or grandson became the great messianic king. But only a daughter survived childhood. She would carry the Davidic birthright to another family.

  That, in itself, would be a great asset in negotiating a good marriage for her with any family in the village. Only Yakov’s son could not benefit from claiming the line of David. For he, too, was of the line of David, but of the line that was cursed by the prophet Jeremiah, according to the word of the Lord, the line that was excluded from the messianic line.

  But, as if to mock all hopes, this Bar Yakov was the most virtuous of the unmarried men – hard working, godly, beyond reproach. And though men might argue about her beauty, she was calm, quiet, thoughtful, discerning. So, when he sought her for his wife, and she favored him, there was little that Elie could do to refuse him. He buried his hopes so that hers might live.

  The customary year of betrothal or engagement began uneventfully and Elie was pleased. Then, suddenly, everything went awry. She was pregnant, and not even he could believe that his future son-in-law was the father. Certainly anyone in the village who might have known was not saying.

  He was crushed. He never would have believed that she would betray him, affianced as she was. He wanted to know who the father was, but was afraid of the answer. Beside, it was hopeless. He knew her. She would keep her own counsel. She would not betray the father. And what might he and Yakov’s son do, if they knew? What might the villagers do?

  Now it was all in Bar Yakov’s hands. Would he insist on publicly exposing Elie’s daughter to protect his own reputation, or would he divorce her quietly? Only he and God knew.

  What had come over his daughter lately? First, this, then running off to Jerusalem to visit her aunt? It was bad enough that he should be humiliated at home, but, come Passover, when a thousand Elies would be at the temple, he would be separated out from them: “There’s that Elie whose daughter dared to enter the temple district pregnant and unwed.”

  Where was that girl’s mind? Where was her heart? How could she do this to her father, make him weep this way?

** Back Again **

  Elie walked back from the well to his daughter’s home and sat down.

  He had been blessed and he knew it. Instead of divorcing her and leaving her to the dregs of the village for remarriage or worse, or leaving her to Elie’s lifelong charge, he had married her and pretended, it seemed, that the boy was his – a futile gesture, since everyone still refused to believe that he was the father. Still, there was something to be said for appearances. He had taken her south before the boy was born, then out of the country for a few years. This gave the gossip plenty of time to die down. For that, Elie was grateful.

  But a stonemason must live where he can work his trade, and now they were back in the village and the whispering had started once more. He was now the grandfather of three – the boy and his two younger brothers. The younger ones would argue over some worthless object or fight over petty jealousies until their father or mother appeared, but the older boy seemed too good to be true.

  Often he found himself looking at the boy, seeing something of her, and so, some of his and his wife’s family, but the rest was perplexing. There was nothing in the boy that resembled Bar Yakov or any of Yakov’s kin. That he was not the father was plain – far too plain. Elie had hoped for some ambiguity, something that would make others more uncertain about the truth about the boy’s real father. It would have been a help to Elie and his kin.

  The simple truth was that he did not resemble anyone in the village. Nor did he seem to resemble any of the foreign mercenaries that were encamped in the nearby city. That, at least, was a mercy. All the same, he seemed foreign, yet disturbingly familiar all the same.

  Elie was certain that he ought to know the boy’s father; surely he should be familiar with the person, yet one whose face he did not really know – perhaps, someone he had seen briefly in a crowd or passed on the road as evening was turning to night; perhaps, someone he had seen just before he turned away; or could it have been someone he had met at the temple in Jerusalem. He thought, “Someday I shall see him and know who he is.”

  But his thoughts would always return to the boy, and what would become of him. Could a boy born this way remain so good, so perfect? What curse would he bear? Would he be content to remain a stonemason and a respectable member of the community, or would he, one day, kick over the traces and find himself among criminals and insurrectionists?

  Would he end up in prison, or worse, be stoned or crucified?

  There was no knowing, but Elie wept as though his musings were prophesies. And, sometimes in the night, he would cry our, “Miriam, what have you done to us?”

Christmas II – The Donkey

In all the pictures that we see that represent Joseph and Mary’s trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, we see mary riding on a donkey. Where did the donkey come from? I would hope that she would have had one to ride, just like almost everybody else, but, perhaps, Joseph did not have one. In some third world countries, babies are born in the fields where their mothers were either planting, hoeing or harvesting.

Mary may have had to walk. That may have been why the baby was born just after they arrived. Mary allowed God to take her down a very hard road, as time would tell. This might have been a picture of things to come. But it is better to find God in a hard place than not to find him in a soft one.

Christmas I – When was Jesus born?

The year in which Jesus was born has been the subject of much discussion for years, as has the year of his death. It seems that we will need to find more information before we will be able to solve that problem. But we know that he was thirty-three, thirty-four, at most, when he died.

We also know that he died at the time of Passover, but what season he was born in has remained a question for many years. We know that shepherds were abiding in their fields by night, watching over their sheep. We also know that shepherds don’t do this in the winter in the Holy Land. Nor in the summer for that matter.

While there has been no consensus, the majority opinion has been that it was in the autumn. However, some years ago, while listening on the radio to a preacher that I have some respect for, I got a different answer.

He said that he had been interested in the question himself and had done extensive reading on the matter and found something rather interesting in Jewish writings of  the first century BC. Because of the dust they kick up and the smell of herds of sheep, the Sanhedrin had enacted a rule that shepherds could not get within a certain distance of Jerusalem except in the spring as Passover approached.

This circle around Jerusalem included nearby Bethlehem, so that the shepherds would have had to have been some distance from it in any other season than spring. It would not be likely that they would set out on a dark night, if they had a long distance to go: no streetlights in those days.

This makes a lot of sense, for, if Christ is our Passover, if He is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, then why would he not be born when the Passover lambs were born? So, Jesus may well have been crucified on His birthday or very near to it. Something to ponder.

Perhaps, Mary and Joseph set out at the time they did, so, that after they had been enrolled in the census, they could stay on for Passover in Jerusalem, killing two birds with one stone. Travel had to be expensive, if only for the lost work a man could have been doing.

Understanding Thomas

Doubting Thomas. So he is called. But what made him tick? Why did Thomas say the things he did?

Let’s start with his name. Is it really a name or a nickname? We are told that his name means “twin.” Does any parent name one of their twins “Twin?’ Sounds like a nickname to me. We are told that he was called Didymus in Greek, which also means twin.

How do you get the  nickname”the Twin.” I asked myself this question and concluded that the other twin was probably someone who was important or well-known: ” Isn’t that _____?” “No, that’s his twin.”

So, who was Thomas’s twin? Does the Bible tell us or at least give us a hint? I think so. In Matthew 10, Mark 3, and Luke 6 there are listings of the twelve disciples. Of particular interest is that  in both Mark and Luke we read this order: Matthew, Thomas and James the son of Alphaeus. This is interesting because Mark refers to Matthew as Levi, the son of Alphaeus. So Thomas is sandwiched between two sons of Alphaeus (in Matthew, Thomas is named immediately before Matthew: perhaps Matthew thought to honor his brother before himself).

We still haven’t identified which brother he was the twin of, but it would seem that it would be Matthew since he was well-known as the tax collector where he lived.

It must be tought to be an identical twin and yet be thought of as so much less important than your brother, on the one hand and to be hated by those who hated your brother for his occupation on the other. It was a no win proposition. It must have effected his attitudes.

It is a curious thing that only John tells us anything about Thomas. In fact, it seems that John goes out of his way to tell us about him. Perhaps, by the time that John wrote his gospel, Thomas had already gone to India, as far from Jerusalem as any of the disciples had gotten(roughly twice as distant as Paul had gone). There may even have been some interest from others, wanting to know from John something about this man who had gone so far away. Who was this man who no one had said much about up until now?

In our first encounter with Thomas,  John 11:16, Thomas is suggesting that they should all go to Jerusalem to die with Jesus. From Thomas’s point of view no good could come out of going to Jerusalem. It was plain to him that if Jesus went to Jerusalem, he would be killed there. Yet, he says to the others, let’s go there to die with Him.  On the one hand this was a rather negative assessment, true, nonetheless, but on the other hand, he is saying that life would not be worth the living without Jesus. The others must have agreed because they followed Jesus there.

In our second encounter, we find that Thomas is quite confused about what Jesus is trying to say. The others were just as much in the dark, but it is Thomas who asks the question we find in John 14:5. Once more he speaks for the group: we don’t know where you are going and how can we know the way? John tells us that Jesus says to Thomas, specifically, not the apostles as a whole, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except by me.” It will be very necessary for Thomas to hold on to this when he enters into the confused world of Hinduism later in life.

The next time we meet Thomas, we don’t even meet him at all. We are told that when Jesus appeared to the other apostles after his resurrection, Thomas  was not there. We are never told why. When he went into hiding like the other disciples, did he hide himself so well that the others could not find him? Was he too discouraged to join them? Had he left the city to stay with friends or relatives? We are never told.

But when Thomas is finally found and the other disciples tell him that they have seen Jesus resurrected from the dead, he refuses to believe it. But his doubts are not hard to understand. He had seen Jesus raise others from the dead, but how does a dead man raise himself? Even more to the point, how is it that Jesus appears to the other apostles and not to me? How is it that he appears to the women and not to me? How is it that he appears to Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaeus, neither of whom were apostles, yet He did not show himself to me? All pretty hard to take for a man who no one ever bothered to call by his given name. “The Twin.” It was like saying, “The Nobody.” Would this Jesus he knew treat him as a nobody as well? No, it just didn’t make sense. He would not, he could not believe it.

Would you have believed it? None of us likes being left out and, in this case, Thomas was being asked to believe something beyond his imagination, as well.

When Thomas finally sees Jesus, Jesus tells him to touch his wounds to see that it is true, yet, we are not told that he did, but, rather, in a moment of imputed faith, he sees beyond his vision and declares, “My Lord and my God!”

Years ago, I thought that John had it in for Thomas. After all, he was not the only faithless disciple, but I have changed my mind.  John wants us to know that Jesus can deal with our doubts. He is not offended by them. Proof? In John 21, when John mentions the ones who go fishing with Peter, the very first name he mentions after Peter’s is Thomas. Two of the disciples he doesn’t even bother to mention. This is particularly significant since Thomas wasn’t even one of the fishermen that Jesus called. Interesting, isn’t it?

A Parable Retold

Now there was a certain man who lived in a city that is called The City of God. But he was not content to remain there. He was looking for other opportunities and he found one. He would leave the mountain city he lived in and descend to a plain below to a city that was called The City of Destruction. There his talents, his strength, his personality could all be used to make his way in life.

Now there was a little problem that he had considered, but then brushed aside. You see, the road from The City of God to The City of Destruction was a treacherous one and it was well known that there were thieves and murderers along the way. Certainly some people were indeed robbed and beaten, even killed, but the odds were against something like that happening to him. So, he set out, resolute in his delusion and as you might suspect he was robbed and left for dead.

Now there were two men each traveling alone, who came upon him. They were set on going to The City od God and not wanting to defile themselves with blood or worse yet, enter The City of God with a corpse. So they, in their pursuit of religion, passed him by, leaving him in his misery.

Then, something very strange happened, someone who was considered a half-breed and a heretic came by and, seeing the man, he had compassion on him. He did whatever he could for him and then carried him to the local inn.

There were no hospitals in those days. No one had even imagined such a thing back in those days. So bringing him to an inn to get him out of the elements was the only thing possible.

Of course, this would be a burden on the innkeeper, but the heretic, so-called, paid up front for his trouble and promised that he would return and then settle with him for anymore that he might owe.

If you have any knowledge of the Bible, you should recognize this as the story of the Good Samaritan.

You might ask if the story refers to a real person or was it just another one of Jesus’ parables. I believe it is both.

Beside the young man who asked Jesus the question, “Who is my neighbor?,” he was surrounded by Pharisees and no doubt Saduccees( there were far more Sadducees than Pharisees). Do you recall what the they had said to Jesus?

Then answered the Jews, and said unto him, Say we not well that thou art a SAMARITAN, and hast a devil? John 8:48

How about that? Could Jesus be the Good Samaritan, as we call him?   When  some one called Jesus “good teacher,” he rebuked him by saying only God is good. Are you saying that I am God?  The hidden thought is that you shoulld not go around calling all teachers “good teacher,” God alone being worthy of that title. So, unless you are calling me God incarnate, don’t do it. So, if we are going to call someone the Good Samaritan, it should be Him and not another.

If we return to the story this way, we see that religious people are so involved in their own religious affairs that they cannot get involved wiht the needs of the wounded and dying.

But, if Jesus is the Samaritan of the story, what is the inn?  Where does Christ bring the wounded and dying? Is it not to the church? And then He gives us resources to help them and says if I have not given you enough for your labors, when I return I will make it good.

I don’t suppose that when we see Him we will have a bill to present Him, but our labors in the Lord are not in vain(1 Corinthians 15:58).