Do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing by Jamie Arpin Ricci

Today’s post in the series Return to Our Senses is an excerpt from Jamie Arpin Ricci’s book The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom. Jamie is an urban missionary, pastor, church planter and writer living in Winnipeg’s inner city West End neighbourhood. He is planter & pastor of Little Flowers Community, in the inner city of Winnipeg. Jamie is also forming Chiara House, a new monastic community. He is a third order Franciscan with The Company of Jesus and is founding co-director of Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Urban Ministries Winnipeg with his wife Kim & son, Micah.

StFrancisOfAssisi_3

“When you give to the needy, do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is don in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3).

How should we understand these secret works of righteousness? Interestingly, the Greek word used for “acts of righteousness” is not the same word in every manuscript. Some ancient manuscripts that include this passage use the same word for “righteousness” as the one in the Beatitudes, the righteousness/justice we are to hunger and thirst for. Other manuscripts, though, use an entirely different word meaning “almsgiving” or simply “gifts to the poor.” While the best manuscripts use the former meaning (that is, they refer to works of justice), the reason the other meaning is used at times is because the primary “act of righteousness” in the Judaism of Jesus’ day was almsgiving.

The use of both Greek words suggests that Jesus was referring to the Jewish practice called tzedakah, a Hebrew word that loosely means “charity” but has as its root the Hebrew word for justice (tzedek). Rooted in the gleaning laws of their agrarian past, the complexities of the developing economy led to a more sophisticated set of guidelines and requirements about giving to the poor.

However, consistent throughout that development was the central fact that such giving was always to be done anonymously. What we can glean, then, is that while Jesus is commenting broadly on works of justice, most of his listeners would have thought immediately of tzedakah. And given that Jesus continues by directly addressing the practice of almsgiving in the following section, this connection is obviously intentional.

The connection between righteousness/justice and providing for the poor must not be missed or minimized. Its long history in Judaism and Christianity, and Jesus’ clear affirmation of its continued practice, should be more than enough to make us mindful of its significance for the church. As we have explored earlier, it is not uncommon these days for Christians to believe that God calls us to care for the spiritual needs of others, with material needs being of secondary priority (and often a distant second at that). Some even go so far as to say we are not called meet the material needs of the poor at all. However, most would simply minimize such charity as a secondary, less important aspect to the higher spiritual calling of saving souls.

We cannot miss that Jesus makes no such division or distinction between the spiritual and material needs of humanity (thus making us equally “poor” before God). The righteousness and justice we are called to hunger and thirst after, and the shalom we are called to create in the world—even in its brokenness—is absolutely concerned with the whole person, indeed all of creation. The disintegrative nature of sin is being reversed by the work of Christ’s redemption, moving us toward the intended wholeness of creation, reflected in the nature of the Garden of Eden before sin. It was good! Our commitment to Christ and his mission, then, must be equally devoted to the restoration of the whole person and the whole creation.

When we understand the dynamics at work here, we see that Jesus is not teaching anything new in respect to the requirement of giving to the poor (and acts of justice in general), nor are his warnings about doing so to be seen as righteous by those watching us. This was something all good Jews knew to avoid. However, Jesus is not forbidding us from doing works of righteousness before others (which would indeed be a contradiction of his earlier mandate), but rather he is warning us against doing such works for the purpose of being seen by others. Once again, Jesus is forcing us to examine the intentions of our heart, for the true nature of our righteousness is found there, not in the act itself. We must live in the tension between the interior formation of our hearts and the ethical behavior it gives birth to. We should not be surprised that this was such a common problem in his day. After all, which of us does not like getting praised for our good works? This is a universal temptation that we all face.

Jesus calls such people, with their public displays of so-called righteousness, “hypocrites.” This would have been an even more cutting rebuke then than it is today, for in addition to it meaning those whose expressed beliefs that were not reflective of their heart, the people would have recognized it as the Greek word for actors or performers. In other words, they were fakes and frauds, pretending to be someone or something they were not. After all, it certainly was not about the recipient of the giving or the God who mandated it, but rather it was about the giver receiving praise and honor for his or her devout generosity. Jesus tells them that their acts will mean nothing to their heavenly Father, but that the passing, fickle praise of others will be their only reward. It is here we see for whom we should be doing such good works. Like a child running with their crayon drawing, shouting, “Look what I made for you, Daddy!” so too should our main motivation in such acts of service be about pleasing our heavenly Father, whose love for us is the greatest, truest and only reward we desire. And ex- tending from that love of God, we should be moved by genuine love for others.

(an edited excerpt from “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom”, IVPress, 2011)

Shalom and the Community of Creation – Randy Woodley

cover-shalom-and-the-comm5

Over the last few weeks I have been enjoying reading Randy Woodley’s wonderful book Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision. As many of you know, the study of shalom has woven through my life in the last thirty years. Working in the refugee camps on the Thai Cambodian border in the mid 80s’ transformed my life and started me on a quest for a deeper understanding of God’s worldview. Shalom is the best word that describes this for me. I put some of my own thoughts together in the booklet Shalom and the Wholeness of Godand you would think that after 30 years there could be nothing new for me to learn. Randy’s book teaches me that this is not so and will probably never be true.

Understanding the shalom of God and the desire of God to see all things restored and made whole again should, I think, be a never ending journey for all of us. Ancient Semitic constructs of biblical shalom have parallel constructs among other indigenous peoples, sometimes referred to as the Harmony Way. Jesus, Randy explains is the shalom restorer of justice and dignity. So often he came to those who had dignity, no rights in society. Like the shepherds whose testimony was unacceptable in a court of law.

Randy is a Keetoowah Cherokee  and brings the richness of his First Nations’ perspective to the discussion. I learned so much from his invitation to view scripture, humanity and all creation through the indigenous lens. One comment that particularly challenged me is:

As people of faith, we should view every drop of oil, every diamond, every lump of coal and every source of water with a theological eye. We should try to see our world through the eyes of the One who created it. All the earth is sacred. It seems quite foolish that only after we have gone too far will we realize that no amount of capital gains, no particular economic system, no modern convenience will be worth the price that we will be forced to pay. Attributed as a Cree Indian proverb, around Indian country they say “Only when the last tree has died and the last river been poisoned and the last fish been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.” I sometimes wonder if modern humanity will drive itself to extinction over greed. (52)

Randy beautifully weaves the story of indigenous peoples in North America and their understanding of the Harmony Way into his narrative. God is not just revealed in the Hebrew scriptures. God’s ways are powerfully portrayed in the beliefs and stories of all cultural groups. Often their traditional beliefs are closer to the ways of God than the capitalistic, creation destroying ways of Western cultures. The atrocities done to natives peoples in many lands has broken God’s shalom not just destroying them and their cultures, but the very land that was taken from them.

God speaks through all cultures and if we only listen to the theologians from our own culture, our understanding of God will be stifled. This is a compelling and challenging book that expresses a different cultural worldview. I highly recommend it to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the truths of God’s shalom world.

You may also like to check out this article I wrote some years ago on theological diversity in a globalized world 

Greater Than the Bible

I am currently rereading E Stanely Jones‘ The WayIt is one of my favourite devotionals and I find myself coming back to it time and time again. This week I am working through a section where Jones talks about Jesus as being greater than the Bible, greater than the Ten Commandments, greater than the Creeds,  and even greater than faith itself. It is a challenging and thought provoking series of devotionals.

Jesus is greater than the Bible, there is only one mediator, ( 1 Tim 2:5) and one way to God. All scripture, all creeds, all revelation must be viewed and judged through the filter of Jesus Christ – his life, death and resurrection. Eternal life is not in the pages of the Bible, it is in Christ who is uncovered through the scriptrues. The Word is not made printer’s ink, says Jones, The Word was made flesh, not a page buta person.

It is true that we would know little about Christ if it were not for the Bible. The Old Testament is the period of preparation for Christ, the New Testament is the revelation of Christ. We need to remember however that the New Testament is the report of various people’s impressions of Jesus, it is not Jesus himself. Yes it is divinely inspired and it has caught the essential meaning of who Christ is but as Jones says: we always have the feeling that they were trying to tell the untellable and express the inexpressible.

All of life is an ongoing revelation of Christ. We see him revealed in the face of friend and stranger. We see his presence in God’s wonderful creation. We see his miracles in our daily provision, in our healing from illnesses and more than anything in loving acts towards one another. He existed before the Bible was written. His presence fills all things, and holds all creation together (Colossians 1:15-20). It is good for us to remember this and give thanks.

Living Christ I give you thanks for what you reveal,
Something fresh each morning, something new each evening.
You are a constant surprise to me,
I hold my breath as new things unfold in every moment,
My soul tingles with expectancy and I thank you.

I would love to know your thoughts on this.

The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us.

The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us.

A couple of months ago I was asked to review a chapter of Matt Woodley’s new commentary The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. The task seemed simple until I started reading the book and found that I couldn’t put it down. My review of a chapter has become instead a strong endorsement for the whole book. And what an important book to read at this season of the year as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus – God with us. It is also a powerful reference to use as I continue my series Whatever Happened to Our Backbones, and meditate on what I believe about Jesus.

We are made by love and for love,…. at the center of the cosmos there is a personal God, a heavenly community of Father-Son-Spirit who dwell in loving relationship, who also love us and who were willing to spend and risk everything to be present with us.

This is the message that resonates throughout the commentary. In Jesus, God is present with us in a very personal and intimate way. Behind the broken story of our world God is indeed weaving another story – the story of redemption and transformation.

Woodley points out that this story is not a cute Christmas card picture, however. It doesn’t just begin in a stable, it begins with the slaughter of innocent babies, and it ends or at least seems to end, with the slaughter of the greatest innocent of all, Jesus himself. Entering into the story of God is dangerous not just for Jesus but for all of us. It changes our entire life. It places Jesus and the mission of God at the center.

The Gospel of Matthew is broken up into themes rather than chapters..

The identity and mission of Jesus

The public ministry of Jesus

The varying response to Jesus

The growing conflict with Jesus

The death and resurrection of Jesus

It is rich with stories, cultural insights and good theological reflection. It is easy to read and a wonderful addition to my library. I would heartily recommend it to all who seek to understand better how to apply the lessons of Jesus to their everyday lives.

Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes

Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes by Kenneth Bailey

Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes by Kenneth Bailey

I am currently reading Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians by Kenneth E. Bailey.  Bailey is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament studies and spent forty years living and teaching in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus.

As yet I have not read beyond the introduction, primarily because I am finding his book to be a goldmine of information that has already illuminated my understanding of the Bible. Bailey’s knowledge of the Arabic translation of the Bible is unequalled and this coupled with his understanding of ancient middle eastern culture sheds fresh light on our understanding of not just 1 Corinthians but of the entire Bible.

His explanation of how Biblical texts are constructed is fascinating and I find that I need lots of time to process what I am reading.He explains that the structure is more like music than linear sentences we understand today. He uses words like inverted parallelism and step parallelism to help us undertand the complex way the texts are put together and goes on to explain how much we miss of the message because we have no comprehension of these tools which were so easily understood by the Jewish scholars, including Paul, of the day.

Two quotes from the introduction have particularly challenged me:

Middle Easterners create meaning  through the use of simile, metaphor, parable and dramatic action. They do not simply illustrate concepts. Jesus used metaphor, parables and dramatic actions in this way. Paul’s parables and metaphors can also be seen as primary theological statements. (p30)

and:

The New Testament can be likened to a vast ocean. There are two well-known ways to sail upon it. One is to set the sails to the prevailing winds and currents and to use great caution in any deviation from them. The other is to move through uncharted waters, explore neglected islands and inlets and then return and attempt a faithful report on the journey. I have chosen the second. (p31)

It is hard to believe that there are still uncharted waters for us to explore in the Bible but so it is. No matter how much we think we understand, there is still always something fresh and new. I am really looking forward to moving forward into this book. As you know I do not do many book reviews on my blog but this is one book I wanted to make sure that you are well aware of. I would heartily recommend it to anyone who is looking for the challenge of new Biblical understanding that both enriches and challenges their faith.

For example

Celebrating Jubilee – Much to Look Forward to.

I am currently working on the program for our upcoming Celtic retreat.  The theme for this year is Jubilee and New Beginnings, so I have spent a lot of time researching the Jubilee year. I particularly love the concept of rest and release.   I thought that you may enjoy some of what I have read.  – today the OT tomorrow the NT.  So much encouragement, so much in keeping with the concept of shalom and God’s desire to see all things made whole again

In Leviticus, a Jubilee year is proclaimed to Moses by God every fifth years: “You shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family” (Lev. 25:10).  It was based on the theological conviction of God’s sovereignty over the land and all creation. ” The Israelites saw themselves as strangers and sojourners on a land that did not belong to them by right, but which has been bequeathed to them by God as an inheritance: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me.” (Lev. 25:23)  The unusual economic arrangements of Jubilee were directly grounded in this conviction that ultimately the land belonged to God.

Two aspects of Jubilee, release and rest, recur throughout Leviticus 25 – a release from any bondage that holds individuals captive and a rest (or freedom) from work for the Israelites, their land and cattle.  Israelites enslaved because of debt were freed and their debts forgiven.  Land was restored to families forced to sell it out of economic need during the last 50 years. (Lev. 25:28). While its roots were clearly theological, the Jubilee Year was in essence an economic institution. It prevented ownership of the land becoming exclusive to the wealthy few.

The English word “jubilee” is derived through Latin (jubilare) from the Hebrew “yobel,” meaning “ram’s horn” or trumpet, the instrument sounded on the Day of the Atonement to inaugurate this special Sabbatical year.  Liturgically, by connecting the beginning of this holy year with the solemn Feast of the Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Israelites made it clear that the spirit of the Jubilee was to be one of repentance and forgiveness.

In the OT view of Jubilee, we get a prophetic glimpse of what God was planning in Christ,  but which wasn’t wholly available until he came (Heb 11:39-40).  This is a wonderful glimpse into a world in which all can rest without striving, a world in which all are set free physically, emotionally and spiritually to live in harmony, peace and abundance together.  Christ is the key that unlocks our understanding of the Mosaic law and our full understanding of the year of Jubilee.

Friendship and the Trinity by Lynne Baab

This is the last article in the series of posts by Lynne Baab.  I really appreciate these posts from Lynne based on her new book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, .  I am looking forward to reading the book this week.

Lynne is the author of numerous other books, including Sabbath Keeping and Reaching Out in a Networked World. Visit her website lynnebaab.com for reviews and other information about her books. Lynne is a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister with a PhD in communication from the University of Washington, currently a lecturer in pastoral theology in Dunedin, New Zealand.

In the second half of the twentieth century, theologians engaged in a burst of writing about the relational Trinity. Stanley J. Grenz, in Rediscovering the Triune God: The Trinity in Contemporary Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001), uses the words “renaissance” and “rebirth” to describe the rise in interest in trinitarian theology in the twentieth century (p. x). He goes on to say: “By the end of the twentieth century, the concept of relationality had indeed moved to center stage. In fact, the assumption that the most promising beginning point for a viable trinitarian theology lies in the constellation of relationships among the three trinitarian persons had become so widely accepted that it attained a kind of quasi-orthodox status” (p. 117-118).

When Jesus invites us into friendship with him in John 15:12-17, he is inviting us to participate in the “constellation of relationships” among the three persons of the Trinity. The relationality of the Trinity isn’t just something we are called upon to emulate; it is actually something we are gathered into. This intriguing way of looking at our relationship with God, and also our human relationships, has some comforting and challenging implications for human friendships.

When we engage in any relationship – with God or friends or family members – we are not inventing the concept of relationship. Because we were made in the image of a relational God, we were created for relationships with God and with others. We have to take action to be a good friend, to be sure, but we don’t have to strain at it. We can relax a bit, in the knowledge that God created us for relationships, that God wants to help us be good friends and that we are not engaging in relationships on our own, as independent beings. We engage in relationships as participants in the love between the persons of the Trinity.

We can expect that a relationship with God through Jesus Christ will help us grow in our ability to nurture human friendships. God’s business is relationships. Love is the hallmark of God’s personality and priorities. As we draw near to that God, the Holy Spirit will help us to grow in love, which will spill over to all our relationships. God will help us forgive, share, reach out and show compassion and kindness. We can draw near to God and expect that over time, our ability to live in communal love with others will grow because of God’s Spirit at work within us.

As we grow in experiencing intimacy with the relational God who loves us from the soles of our feet to the top of our heads, and who knows through and through and loves us anyway, the more secure we will feel. That security will help us show love and affection in relationships. So many conflicts between friends grow out of insecurity and pride. The more we know deep inside that we are loved, the more we rest in the embrace of the God who loves us, the less we will need to bolster our pride and prove something to the people around us. As we receive love from God, we will feel increasingly peaceful and harmonious internally, and that peace and harmony will spill over into relationships with others.

Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World

Writing my recent book on friendship, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, was an enormous privilege, because it gave me the opportunity to ponder the love of God and the way God’s love impacts our friendships. Truly our friendships help us rest in the reality that we are loved by God, and help us reflect that reality to others. Truly our friendships are a place where we are shaped increasingly into Christ’s image.