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Archive for March, 2016

The Tree of Life

The Great Lent Readings: Genesis 2:25-3:21; Isaiah 3:1-14; Proverbs 3:13-34

The reading from the third part of the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 3:13-34 is full of themes from the Garden of Eden. The canonical intertextual connection of the three books- Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs is quite poignant and clear, as is stressed in these Great Lent readings.

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed. By wisdom the LORD laid the earth’s foundations, by understanding he set the heavens in place; by his knowledge the watery depths were divided, and the clouds let drop the dew. (Pro 3:13-20 NIV)

The theme of a Blessed or Happy life it the big theme of the third part of the Hebrew Bible. It begins with Psalm 1.

Blessed or Happy is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither– whatever they do prospers. (Psa 1:1-3 NIV)

Woman Wisdom is the Tree of Life.

It is with Wisdom that God made the whole creation.

Sadly, in Genesis 3, the evil religion of the Serpent, caused the primeval parents to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge. It was a tree created by God. It was good. But, ancient religions misused this tree to commit horrible acts. Kings and priests would abuse women under this tree- usually fig tree, banyan tree or grape tree. This was a religious ritual. They committed these horrible acts after eating and drinking from the fruit of the tree. According to ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian religions, human beings experienced divinity, when they participated in this ritual.

In modern day terminology, this would be called human trafficking of women.

Isaiah the prophet mourns that this is what was happening in his day, as well. Both the men and women of Jerusalem were copying the heinous deeds of the other religions.

The LORD enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?” declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty. (Isa 3:14-15 NIV)

The antidote to these heinous acts is found in Psalm 1 and Proverbs 3. Humanity is urged to find the Wisdom of God. She is a Tree of Life. In biblical thought this Tree of Life is the Word of God, the Torah. When human beings dwell on the Tree of Life, it will wipe away all forms of injustices.  It will bring about the Kingdom of God, here on earth. This is the solution to all forms of injustices promulgated against “the widows and the orphans” of global society.

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Great Lent Readings: Genesis 1:24-2:4; Isaiah 2:4-11; Proverbs 2:1-21

Proverbs chapter 2 ends with the words, “So you will walk in the way of the good and keep to the paths of justice. For the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it (Pro 2:20-21). Unfortunately, when we look around us, we do not see uprightness and integrity.

Why it this the case?

Perhaps the answer is found in a misunderstanding and misapplication for God’s commission in Genesis 1?

Genesis 1:28 is usually translated as God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen 1:28 NRSV). “Subduing” and “having dominion” are rather violent terms. These words have led to so much violence against fellow human beings, and against the environment. A close reading of the Hebrew and the Septuagint Greek terms, in contrast to the usual modern translations, gives us a clear picture that these are terms of gentle messianic leadership. These are not terms of violent dominion theology. In Genesis 1 God created the world, and gave human beings the responsibility to be viceroys, and to be gentle messianic leaders of his good creation. Sadly, the words of Genesis 1:28 have been misunderstood and misapplied in the history of humanity.

The Isaiah 2 text reminds us that the haughtiness and dominion theology of humanity has led to much violence and destruction. Humanity is reminded that on the Day of the Messiah, The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the LORD alone will be exalted on that day.” (Isa 2:17 NRSV)

In these days of the Great Lent, we are reminded of the Great commission of Genesis 1, to be gentle messianic leaders towards the Way of the Good and the Paths of Justice.

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Great Lent readings: Genesis 1:14-23; Isaiah 1:19-2:4; Prov. 1:20-33

Proverbs 1:20-33 urges humanity to listen to the voice of Woman Wisdom. Her voice can be heard in all the open spaces of creation. The voice of Woman Wisdom can be heard in all creation- the lights, which God created on the 4th day; the fish and the birds, which inhabit the seas and the skies; and the creatures of the land which inhabit the earth that he created on the 6th day (Genesis 1:14-23). This voice of Wisdom, leads one to God, and God’s justice & peace.

Sadly, Isaiah mourns that the people of God, in the city of Jerusalem, do not listen to God’s voice, and the voice of Woman Wisdom. The people of God instead use God’s creation, which were supposed to be instruments of justice and light, as instruments of injustice, violence, and darkness.

Thankfully, Isaiah looks into the future. He proclaims that there will be a messianic time, when many peoples’ groups from all over the world will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The Torah will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isa 2:3-4 NIV).

This is indeed the cry of hope on the second day of the Great Lent.

I teach at a liberal arts Christian university. A central mission of a Christian liberal arts education is to listen to the voice of the Wisdom of God in all the arts and the sciences, and therefore become the fertile ground of God’s justice and peace, in a world which is so full of injustice, violence, and hopelessness. A central hope at a liberal arts university is to look towards the times of the Messiah, when there will no violence and injustice. It will be return to Genesis 1.

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Today, March 5, 2016, North Park University hosted Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Oxford University- one of the most important thinkers of the Orthodox Church of our time. Anderson Chapel was filled with Orthodox clergy and laypeople. In his talk Metropolitan Ware regretted the general concern that the people of the Orthodox Church are not known to be people who read the Bible. He urged the people to concentrate on reading the Bible, and especially underlined the reading of the scriptures during the time of the Great Lent.

I teach a freshman course called Introduction to the Bible. It is a required course for all incoming freshman. One of the first thing I do, when they enter my class, is to administer a simple test, to see how much they know of the Bible.  My incoming freshmen can hardly mention any more characters than Adam, Eve, and Jesus. It seems clear that this lack of knowledge of the Bible, and reading of the Bible, is a problem not just in the Orthodox Church. It is a general problem in society, at large.

I thought it would be good to take up Metropolitan Ware’s urging, and write brief devotionals on the Eastern Orthodox Church’s Lectionary during this season of the Great Lent, which begins with Forgiveness Sunday on March 13, 2014. The next day, Monday, March 14, begins the 40 days of Lent in the Orthodox calendar.

We must note that the Orthodox calendar matches well with the Jewish calendar. In the Jewish calendar, Passover is April 22-29, 2016. In the Orthodox calendar, Good Friday is April 29, and Easter is May 1, 2016.

In the Orthodox Church calendar, the believers are at meditate on three books from the Old Testament- The Books of Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs. One from the Pentateuch, one from the Prophets, and one from the Wisdom Literature of the Bible. These, interestingly form the three parts of the Hebrew Bible.

On first Monday of Lent, the readings are Genesis 1:1-13; Isaiah 1:1-20; and Proverbs 1:1-20.

My goal in this series is to focus on the inter-textual themes which connect these three sections of the Bible, and their relevance to the season of the Great Lent.

I would like to begin with the Wisdom reading of this Great Lent readings, Prov. 1:1-7. This text brings together the core mission of the Hebrew Bible, “To know wisdom and instruction, to perceive the words of understanding, to receive the instruction of wisdom, Justice, judgment, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, To the young person knowledge and discretion–A wise will hear and increase learning, a person of understanding will attain wise counsel,To understand a proverb and an enigma, The words of the wise and their riddles. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Pro 1:2-7)

The goal of the book of Proverbs is “rightness, tsedeq, justice, mishphat, and equality, yashar.”

The core source of rightness, justice and equality is, “The fear of the LORD.” This is “the beginning of knowledge.” (Prov. 1:7) There are two words in this core text, which in the minds of the original Hebrew readers, linked rightness, justice and equality, to the creation narrative.  One is the word beginning, Reshit. It is the very first word of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God is the true source of all beginnings. In fact, the Aramaic translation of Genesis 1:1 is, “In the Beginning, the Son of God, who is the Word of God, with Wisdom and Understanding, created and perfected the heavens and the earth.” (Targum Yonatan). The second word is in the phrase, “fear of the LORD.” The Hebrew word “fear” goes with word Hebrew word “see,” as in God “seeing,” 7 times, when he has created (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). In the minds of the original readers, when one “fears the LORD,” then one truly “sees,” and therefore becomes the vessel of wise rightness, justice, and equality.

The Prophets reading in Isaiah 1 mourns the fact that in history- Israelite history and human history, this has not happened. In fact, the opposite has happened.

Isaiah the prophet laments, “Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him . . . Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! “The multitude of your sacrifices– what are they to me?” says the LORD. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations– I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. (Isa 1: 2-4; 10-17 NIV)

The prophet Isaiah also calls attention to the three crucial themes of “rightness, justice and equality.” He exclaims the humanity has destroyed the beautiful “rightness, justice and equality,” which God created in Genesis 1. Humanity has instead done the opposite- unrightness, injustice, and inequality. Religious holidays are observed from one year to the next, one era to the next, but the core themes of the mission of God in global society is utterly neglected.

The season of lent reminds us today to reflect, lament, and mourn the utter loss of “rightness, justice, and equality’ in global society, and to pray that this mission of God be accomplished, through God’s people, today.

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