Themes of Elul – Part 1

Elul - Song of Songs

Repentance, Prayer, & Tzedakah annul the evil decree.1

Come away, my Beloved…

Today I begin a series of posts speaking on the themes of the month of Elul, the sixth month on the Biblical calendar. It is the month just prior to the onset of the High Holy Days of the Fall. Here are some ways to understand this holy month from a Messianic perspective.

Each day in the month of Elul the shofar is blown in anticipation of the approaching High Holy Days of Rosh Hashannah & Yom Kippor (and then immediately followed by Sukkot/Tabernacles). On Rosh Hashannah (in the Bible it is only referred to as Yom Teruah – the Day of Sounding), the sound of the shofar is said to awaken the slumbering soul and rekindle a yearning to return to its Creator. For thirty days prior to Rosh Hashannah, the day the books of Life and Death are opened, the shofar reminds us of our need for a spiritual renewal and a reconnection with our Spiritual Source.

Let us hear the sound and be called to remembrance. Continue reading “Themes of Elul – Part 1”

  1. Unetahneh Tokef / y.Ta’aniyot 65b

Jesus, Friend of Sinners – Part 1

Jesus and adulteress woman

This is the first few articles that I will be posting entitled Jesus, Friend of Sinners. This first article only scratches the surface of the various sub-topics to which this broad topic has lead. I hope you will enjoy exploring this subject with me.

Recently, I heard a song by the popular Christian band Casting Crowns called “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” for the first time. The song is a call for unity within the body of Christ, to put down pointing fingers and judgementalism and show the world the love of Christ. The first part of the song, I think, accurately paints a picture of the current state of religious Christianity in our present day, while calling for a radical reform within our ranks. Here is the first verse and chorus:

Jesus, Friend of sinners we have strayed so far away
We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus friend of sinners the truth’s become so hard to see
The world is on their way to You but they’re tripping over me
Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

Chorus:
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open
Oh Jesus friend of sinners break our hearts for what breaks yours

In days when homosexuality and abortion are hot topics and call for hard lines to be “drawn in the sand,” we need to know where those boundaries are between the sin and the sinner. We need to be able to stand firm in upholding the biblical definition and rejection of sin, while extending our arms to the sinner to be embraced by the love of our Messiah. However, the the first part of the next verse is what caught my attention. Here it is:

Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands

Here we have a commentary on Jesus’ encounter with the woman “caught in very the act of adultery” (according to the KJV) from the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John (verses 2-11). We are all familiar with this passage, but let me refresh our memory before we continue.

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” (John 8:2-11)

In this encounter, Jesus is confronted with a test from some of the religious leaders of his day. As he sits down to teach the crowd, a woman is brought before him with the claim that she was “caught in adultery, the very act” (KJV). They then press Jesus with the question regarding the situation of an adulteress in the Torah (vs. 5). Jesus acts as if he is ignoring the accusers, bending down and beginning to write on the ground with his finger. When he is questioned again he stands, responding with the famous quote, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (verse 7). He sits back down and begins to write on the ground a second time. Those around Jesus began leaving “one by one, beginning with the older ones,” until only Jesus and the woman were left. Jesus stands and addresses the woman, asking her where her accusers had gone, and if anyone was left to condemn her. She replies that no one was left to accuse her. Jesus then responds with the celebrated words “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

A Closer Look

Although this passage has been admired by the church over the centuries — and is, in fact, due considerable admiration for the way Jesus, the Master of Torah, uses Torah to uphold the justice of Torah — we have heralded it largely for the wrong reasons. Almost inevitably, when reading the story of the adulterous woman in John’s Gospel, most readers will envision a summary statement that reads like the words of a newspaper headline: “Grace conquers Law.” We tend to think that Jesus overrides the Torah with his decision to ignore the “letter of the law” and show mercy to this woman. However, if we have a good familiarity with the Torah and we understand the actual situation properly, it becomes quite clear what is happening in this encounter. But before we get into the technical details of how Jesus handled this dispute, here is the question to which I have been building up:

Who were those who were holding the stones, eager to deal the blows of death to this woman? Were they really the righteous as the song presumes? If they were truly the righteous, then they would and should be loved of God, as it is said, “the Lord loves the righteous” (Psalm 146:8). Or does this story help us distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous?

Let’s review the lyrics in question again:

Jesus, friend of sinners – the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands

I’m sure the author had noble intentions when penning these lines. Their honesty, however, exposes a truth within our ranks that needs addressing. When we read this passage in John’s Gospel, the vast majority of us make the same assumptions as the author of these lyrics — namely that those who are ready to stone this poor woman are those who are “righteous” by definition of the Law, and are typical of those living “under the law.” After all, aren’t they just doing what the Law has prescribed – stoning an adulterous woman? Don’t we see their actions as the poster child of Judaism, while we see the “grace” of Jesus in this instance as the epitome of Christianity?

But the only way for these lyrics to make any sense is to turn the tables and make the unrighteous become the righteous, and vice versa. Why? Because if we were to be honest, the only one righteous in this whole story is Jesus. We know the position of the woman. She has been brought before Jesus on grounds of adultery, a serious charge. Regarding the ones who held the stones, we would have to say that they were not upright in their actions. Therefore, they would fall into the category of unrighteous as well. As a matter of fact, they were the ones breaking God’s Law to a greater degree than the woman. They actually knew the measures prescribed by the Torah for dealing with adultery, yet willfully chose to act in opposition to God’s instructions. This automatically places them in the category of “sinner,” rather than “saint;” “unrighteous,” rather than “righteous.”

Here is where “Jesus, friend of sinners” fails. We would never knowingly call Jesus a friend to these hypocrites who turn God’s holy system of justice on its head. We would never rightly call Jesus an advocate of these who would “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20). Why, then, do we do so in this story? We loath the villains – those who have brought the woman before Jesus – but at the same time we call them “the righteous.” This is a contradiction and we must admit it. In our zeal to show the sinner love and mercy, we often topple the definitions of “sin” and “righteousness,” completely blurring the lines between the two. We must keep in mind that Jesus does not love sinners because of their sin. There is no merit in being a sinner. His heart is drawn to sinners in order that they might turn from their sin and become one among the righteous of his people. He sees their potential and beckons them to leave their present circumstance and allow him to wipe away their stains and release them from the shackles of their sins (Psalm 146:7).

There is a rabbinic saying, which states, “Even righteous people cannot stand in the place of those who repent”. 1 Although worded in a different manner than we are accustomed, this central theme continues to act as the driving force behind the ministry of Jesus. The words that have the more familiar ring to our saintly ears are, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Why doesn’t heaven rejoice over the one who is faithful, diligent and true? Because of the Father’s love for all of His creatures and His longing to have all of humanity reconciled to Himself. This point is emphasized in Luke’s account of the “sinful woman” who washed his feet with her tears (of repentance), anointed them with oil and then wiped them with her hair.

“And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”” (Luke 5:30-32)

Jesus continually emphasizes this point when he tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7), the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10) and the Parable of the Lost (Prodigal) Son (Luke 15:11-32). There are others as well. My point is this: Jesus’ love and longing for the sinner is born out of his Father’s will that “whosoever believeth on him might be saved.” It is not his identification of commonality with sinners. Let me once again emphasize that there is no merit in being a sinner. The point of Jesus’ mission is not to start Club Sinner. His mission is to restore broken people, transforming sinners into saints, and not merely through membership card distribution.

Summary

Yes, Jesus is a Friend to sinners. But his love calls them to leave everything — particularly their sin — in order to follow him. He makes a distinction between the righteous and the sinner, never blurring the lines that define them. The righteous are truly righteous, and the sinners truly sinners.

In my next article we will continue to explore this theme, Jesus, Friend of Sinners, by examining the details surrounding this instance and how Jesus used the justice of the Torah to defend this woman, rather than merely forgiving her and ignoring the Torah’s system of justice.

  1. b.Berachot 34b

Chametz Everywhere!

Invariably, no matter how hard and long we clean in preparation for Chag HaMatzot (the Feast of Unleavened Bread), somewhere around the middle of the week, we open a cabinet or the freezer and there’s a whole package of hamburger buns or something ridiculous like that. This year things are already a little different.

We’ve found a couple of small things that we had forgotten contained vinegar (a type of chametz/leavened food that we have chosen to remove during this time), such as our Ranch dressing that we had mixed up before we had started purging our home. Since it wasn’t labeled, all we thought about was what was in the mix contents. We didn’t think about the mayo that was added to it!

But there was something that was even larger that I, personally found. The actual day of Pesach, I found about three loaves of puffy, white bread in my heart. I allowed my zeal for observing the feast at a higher level than those around me spoil the spirit of the feast. The entire daylight hours of Pesach for my family ended up being a burden, and not a joy. I allowed a conflict of observance to get under my skin and sour our Pesach experience. Fortunately, I was able to work through this with my family prior to our second seder, confessing my sin and asking forgiveness from my family & friends. 

I am admitting this publicly, because we need to confess our faults in order to get rid of them, and I also need a reminder for the following years so that I don’t allow it to happen again. I need to remember that we must continually look into the “Law/Torah of Liberty” (James 1:25;2:12), not falling prey to the “leaven of the Pharisees”—hypocrisy. I wanted to be strict in the minor areas, while allowing the larger, more weightier matters of the Torah (love, compassion, etc.) to fall by the wayside. May Hashem use this as a life lesson to draw me (and hopefully others) to the heart of His commandments. I am thankful for a loving and gracious family. Truly love does cover a multitude of sins.