Jan 6, 2012
Continuing with examples of misinterpretation, I would like to present one additional, more recent example of how a teacher’s words can be replicated, but his original message completely obscured by his followers. This particular example, however, has far-reaching implications and one with which the church struggles today. It is that of Martin Luther and the Protestant church.
We all know of Martin Luther as the leader of the Protestant Reformation. He is know by his rejection of the practice of indulgences by the Catholic church (of which he was currently a part), and his theological “discovery” of justification through faith, which has become the foundational doctrine of the Protestant church. His questioning of papal practice and refusal to submit to papal authority caused his excommunication from the Catholic church and forced his hand at creating a “protest” movement against the Catholic church in which papal authority was not at the helm.
Protestants across the globe are indebted to Luther for his revelation in regard to justification through faith. This theological premise has been the cornerstone which has shaped Protestant faith and practice since the time of the Reformation. However, for the last century or more, this confession has experienced a metamorphosis in its interpretation and application. The Christianity of pre-holocaust Germany is an illustration of how this misunderstanding of Luther’s message allowed Christians to believe that their mental acknowledgement of the work of Christ secured their eternal salvation and precluded them from living a life of faithfulness in the present world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian and Holocaust martyr, is best known for his outspoken opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime. In his preeminent work The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer explains the problem that arose between Luther’s original teaching of justification through faith, and the practical application of the Protestantism of his day.
“When he spoke of grace, Luther always implied as a corollary that it cost him his own life, the life which was now for the first time subjected to the absolute obedience of Christ. Only so could he speak of grace. Luther had said that grace alone can save; his followers took up his doctrine and repeated it word for word. But they left out its invariable corollary, the obligation of discipleship. There was no need for Luther always to mention that corollary explicitly for he always spoke as one who had been led by grace to the strictest following of Christ. Judged by the standard of Luther’s doctrine, that of his followers was unassailable, and yet their orthodoxy spelt the end and destruction of the Reformation as the revelation on earth of the costly grace of God. The justification of the sinner in the world degenerated into the justification of sin and the world. Costly grace was turned into cheap grace without discipleship.”
Bonhoeffer is writing in a time when Christianity in Germany had been diluted to the point of almost no-return. It is this context that allowed Hitler to rise to power, and the Nazi party to sweep through Europe like a brush fire. For the most part, Christians were more concerned about theology, doctrine & creed than living out lives dedicated to Christ. Like today, Protestants generally did not see a disconnect between Luther’s doctrine of faith and grace, and their modern application. However, Bonhoeffer observed that at the place where theory and practice should meet, they went their separate ways. In his terminology, the justification of the sin, rather than the sinner, became the preeminent function of grace. Therefore, the Christian became justified in his sin, rather than being justified as a new creation.
Instead of maintaining the bar & recognizing that there will be times in which we fall short as disciples, and thus allowing the grace of God to pick us back up, brush us off and set us back on the path again, we have chosen the path of less resistance. We have chosen to lower the bar (or remove it altogether), and justify our inability to conform to the image of Messiah as merely “who we are.” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world, in fact, in being prohibited from being different from the world for the sake of grace.”
Bonhoeffer saw what persists until today — a diluted Christianity in which confession of creed has swallowed the confession and renunciation of sin. We now have a world in which Christianity has become accepted, but at the expense of its integrity. Bonhoeffer described what he saw as follows:
“It is under the influence of this kind of ‘grace’ that the world has been made ‘Christian,’ but at the cost of secularizing the Christian religion as never before. The antithesis between the Christian life and the life of bourgeois respectability is at an end. The Christian life comes to mean nothing more than living in the world and as the world, in being no different from the world, in fact, in being prohibited from being different from the world for the sake of grace.”
Bonhoeffer summarizes by saying,
“In both cases [which he has previously described – that of which he calls “costly grace” and that of which he calls “cheap grace”] we have the identical formula—’justification by faith alone.’ Yet the misuse of the formula leads to the complete destruction of its very essence.”
Bonhoeffer allows us to see another example of how the teachings of someone can be distorted and misapplied by his followers. As we can see by this example, misinterpretation and misapplication can have alarming results. If we have done so with theologians such as Luther from which we are only a few centuries removed, how much more so have we done with the likes of Paul and Jesus? We will return to this discussion when we discuss understanding the message of Jesus.
Dec 19, 2011
First, let me say that I am no expert in mussar. And in all honesty, I haven’t really even started. Right now I am only exploring the middot (character traits – middah, singular) that ring out to me as I prepare myself for the actual practice of mussar. From there I will pick the thirteen which I feel to be most applicable in my life and begin to focus on them one week at a time, journaling about my journey. However, from what I have read in Everyday Holiness, almost every middah hangs on anavah (humility). According to Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, in his book Duties of the Heart (as quoted by Morinis in Everyday Holiness), “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.” And it makes sense. Once I learned the Jewish perspective on anavah, humility, I became drawn to it, realizing my deep lack of understanding of this character trait, as well as my deficiency of its possession. Here’s why…
When the word humility is mentioned, what comes to mind? Too many times our working definition of humility is self-abasement. My new, working definition of humility comes from Morinis in Everyday Holiness. My paraphrase is as follows:
Humility is occupying our proper space, neither too much, nor too little.
I think this is the best definition I’ve ever heard. It makes sense on so many levels. When we break down a character trait into a definition such as this, we are able to truly define it’s parameters, rather than it being some ethereal, elusive non-tangible. Let’s explore this definition for a moment.
If humility is “occupying our proper space, neither too much, nor too little,” it’s obvious the result when we occupy too much space. At the minimum this is pride, and at its extreme, narcissism. We become so wrapped up in ourselves that the boundaries between us and others is unseen. We quickly overstep those boundaries and invade someone else’s space, whether physically, socially or verbally. One example Morinis gave that I thought was really good was in regard to speech:
“…when someone shares a piece of news with you, do you come right back with your own concerns, filling the space they’ve opened, or do you make room to follow up what the other person has introduced?”
I have had this flaw as long as I can remember. I remember when a friend of mine first brought it to my attention. His bringing it to my attention hurt me, but it was a much needed exposure of a flaw in my character that brought it to the surface in order that I could deal with it, and not be oblivious to it. However, since I was only made aware of this, and not given any tools for tikkun (repair / undoing), I still have not overcome in this. Now, I have passed it on to my children. And seeing this blemish magnified in them, it has set off internal alarms that I did not understand until recently. Having a proper definition of this middah with well-defined parameters helps me not only to better identify the breach in our family composition, but gives me a more solid means by which to correct it.
On the opposite extreme is not occupying enough space. If we occupy too little space, we are not fulfilling our God-given role in the world. It is not stepping up to the plate for which you were created. Hillel tells us,
“In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.” (Avot 2:6)
Remember, “Birth is G‑d saying you matter.” And you really do. We all do. We all have our special role to play. And if we don’t fill up our alloted space, we are destined to fail others who are relying upon us.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)
In this quote from the Apostle Paul, he reminds us of the exact same thing. We all have our role, and we must not only fill that role, but we must also be content with that role.
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:20)
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:20-21, ESV).
I believe humility is the starting point for this. Once we realize the space we are supposed to occupy, we can begin filling it properly and neither spilling out onto others, nor shrinking back from our responsibilities. Are you occupying your proper space?
Dec 16, 2011
As we have learned previously, a disciple is to learn his teacher’s traditions and Scriptural interpretations. Let me begin with a saying from the sages:
“Be meticulous in study, for a careless misinterpretation is considered tantamount to willful transgression.” (m.Avot 4.16)
While this seems rather harsh, I assure you that by the end of this teaching we will understand its truth and significance. With this in mind, I would like to begin to specifically focus on the importance of properly understanding the teachings of Yeshua. In order to understand the gravity of this, let us first turn our ears to the words of our Master. In the gospel record of Mark, Yeshua says:
“Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mark 4:24-25 ESV).
In this passage, Yeshua holds his followers accountable for the teachings he is giving them. He tells them that the more diligent they are about understanding his teachings, the more they will be rewarded. He also tells them the converse — that if they are not diligent in regard to understanding his teachings, even what they do comprehend will be taken away.
The Macaroni Principle
A few years ago D. Thomas Lancaster, of First Fruits of Zion, introduced what he called The Macaroni Principle. It’s based on the children’s song Yankee Doodle. I’m sure you know it. The first part of the song goes like this:
Yankee Doodle went to town,
Riding on a pony;
He stuck a feather in his hat,
And called it macaroni
This song’s popularity arose from the American Revolution. Each of us grew up singing this song, but how many of us understand the words? There’s always that question in the back of our heads as to why this man named Yankee Doodle would stick a feather in his hat and name it after some kind of pasta. This song has been passed down to each generation over the last two centuries, yet today the meaning has been lost to the average person. But just like the words of our Master, it has been retained, however, for those seeking to understand it.
First, “Yankee Doodle” was not the name of an individual. We still understand that a “Yankee” is a person from the (now) United States, particularly of the northern colonies during the writing of this song. A “doodle,” however, is no longer in our language. But during this time period, a “doodle” was a word that was derived from the German word for “fool” or “simpleton.” Lastly, the term “macaroni” in this case has absolutely nothing to do with pasta. Rather, it has to do with a manner of dress style. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as, “an 18th-century British dandy (a man unduly devoted to style, neatness, and fashion in dress and appearance) affecting Continental fashions.” With this information available, the lyrics of this song take on a whole new understanding.
If the meanings of these words in English have changed that much in just the last two centuries, how much more so have they changed from the time of our Master until now? If this simple children’s song needs unpacking, how much more so do the words of our Master, being distanced from us by way of language, culture and two thousand years?
Another example that I enjoy making use of can be seen in the classic film, The Princess Bride. In the movie, Vizzini (the short, loud-mouthed Sicilian “master criminal”), uses the catch-phrase, “Inconceivable!”, over and over when something doesn’t go as planned. He uses it more for “impossible” than “unimaginable.” At one point where something hasn’t gone as planned and he responds again with “Inconceivable!”, Inigo Montoya (the Spanish swordsman in the film), challenges him saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Albeit comical in nature, this infamous interjection in many ways parallels the typical use of the teachings of the New Testament in our present day. Many of us are quoting the words of Jesus in our teaching and preaching — talking a lot of “macaroni” — but do we really know what they mean? Let me give you a humorous example to illustrate my point.
Misunderstanding the Message
First, I’ll have to confess. I’m a closet Doctor Who fan, particularly the newer series. While at times it can be over the top, I really appreciate the insights into the human psyche, and the British humor that fills each episode. One episode of particular note was about a spaceship called the Titanic, filled with a host of inter-galactic creatures that was on a “cruise” to visit planet Earth. They had timed their arrival to correspond with the Christmas holidays (the writers of Doctor Who always seem to have universal calamity pivoting around Christmas). As they begin to approach the planet and are preparing for sending passengers to the planet in order to observe the holidays in Earth tradition, the ship historian has to give them a briefing about the Earth customs surrounding the holiday. This is his explanation of Christmas:
“Human beings worship the great god Santa — a creature with fearsome ‘claws’ — and his wife, Mary. And every Christmas eve the people of UK go to war with the country of Turkey. They then eat the Turkey people for Christmas dinner like savages!”
While this is a humorous description, it reveals a deep insight into human nature as well as serves as an illustration for how understanding can easily be distorted over the course of time. Think about it this way. If we were to set a course from Virginia to California and start walking in a straight line, but not have any points of reference along the way, over the course of days, weeks and months of walking there would we no way we could continue our straight path. We would inevitably walk in circles, backtracking and crisscrossing our path, never to arrive at our destination. As a matter of fact, it has been shown in several studies starting in the 1920s, that when human beings lose their frame of reference, they tend to walk in random, circular patterns. A recent report on this by NPR says,
“Humans, apparently, slip into circles when we can’t see an external focal point, like a mountain top, a sun, a moon. Without a corrective, our insides take over and there’s something inside us that won’t stay straight.”
With these two examples in mind, think of how for the last two thousand years the message of Yeshua has been carried through multiple cultures and languages, theologies and agendas. Do you think our understanding of his original message has been skewed over the last two thousand years? Are we saying all the right words, but missing the proper meaning entirely? In our attempts to propagate the teachings of our Master, are we saying, “inconceivable” when we are trying to say “faith” or “repentance” or “kingdom of Heaven”? Are we teaching and preaching the words of our Master in a way that would have been foreign to his understanding? Unfortunately, this is how many people, theologians included, talk about Jesus and his message. They use the jargon, but they don’t fully understand what they are saying. Dr. Brad Young makes an interesting observation in this regard by saying,
“While few modern Christians would resort to changing the words of their Bible, they interpret the words of Jesus in a way that upholds their understanding… Prejudiced exegesis can have the same result as altering the canonical text.”
To paraphrase, he says that when we do injustice to the teachings of our Master, it can have the same result as re-writing our Bibles. Really? Let’s look at two real-life examples in which this took place. The first example is from one of the early Church Fathers. The second example is from rabbinic tradition.
Origen of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria was a Church Father who lived from the late second century to the mid third century. He was a notable philosopher and theologian and became an influential Christian writer and apologist of his day. One of the more prominent teachings for which he is known is his emphasis on understanding the Scriptures through the lens of allegory. In fact, his stress of looking at the Scriptures allegorically overshadowed any literal or historical understanding of Scripture. Unfortunately, his influence in this area of interpretation has continued to affect modern theologians in their understanding of the biblical text, particularly of the Hebrew Scriptures.
He did take some things quite literally, however. In fact, too literally. Upon studying Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 19:12, he took drastic measures to uphold this teaching. Yeshua said,
“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
Origen’s understanding of this teaching lead to his castrating himself. Say it with me: “Inconceivable!”
Antigonus of Socho
Another example of misapplication through misunderstanding is the origin of the sects of the Sadducees and of the Boethusians (a lesser-known Jewish sect of the Second Temple period).
There is a famous teaching of Antigonus of Socho recorded for us in the Mishnah which appears as follows:
“Antigonus of Socho received the Torah from Shimon the Righteous. He used to say: Be not like servants who minister unto their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you” (Avot 1:3).
Antigonus of Socho lived a couple of hundred years before the time of Yeshua. He was a godly and faithful teacher who wished to impress upon his students the value of sincere spiritual devotion. His first generation of students appears to have understood his message. However, in subsequent generations, his message was subject to hyper-literalism (not unlike the modern Karaite movement of today) and was thus distorted and for many more generations became the antithesis of his original message. Here’s the full account.
“Antigonus of Soko had two disciples who used to study his words. They taught them to their disciples, and their disciples to their disciples. These proceeded to examine the words closely and demanded: ‘Why did our ancestors see fit to say this thing? Is it possible that a laborer should do his work all day and not take his reward in the evening? If our ancestors, forsooth, had known that there is another world and that there will be a resurrection of the dead, they would not have spoken in this manner.’
So they arose and withdrew from the Torah and split into two sects, the Sadducees and the Boethusians: Sadducees named after Zadok, Boethusians, after Boethus. And they used silver vessels and gold vessels all their lives—not because they were ostentatious; but the Sadducess said, ‘It is a tradition amongst the Pharisees to afflict themselves in this world; yet in the world to come they will have nothing.’ ”
According to Jewish tradition, two latter-generation disciples of Antigonus of Socho, Tzadok and Boethus, were the founders of the sects of the Sadducees and Boethusians. They founded their heretical sects based on a misunderstanding of this seminal teaching of their rabbi. They turned the teaching of their rabbi completely on its head. As we know, the purpose of Antigonus of Socho’s maxim was to teach his disciples to serve the Holy One selflessly and without a need for reward. He wanted them to be faithful servants who fulfill their spiritual service under any circumstance, rather than only when they are rewarded for their service.
What was the practical result of this? Because the message of Antigonus of Socho was misunderstood, hedonism became common practice among the Sadducean sect, as well as social elitism, a “caste-like” system that was developed to separate the rich from the poor. Hedonism—since there was no reward in the Age to Come, all rewards must be received and enjoyed in this life. Social elitism—since the wealthy were surely blessed and favored by God and the poor were wicked sinners.
Bringing It Home
Many people today, and throughout the course of the last two millennia, have heard the teachings of Yeshua, and have incorporated them into their spiritual journey as a treasured possession. But how many thousands upon thousands over the course of this time have either not understood them, or misunderstood them. This is the equivalent of being stranded on a deserted island with crates full of canned food and a can-opener, and not knowing how to use the can-opener.
As we have seen by the examples of Origen of Alexandria and of the disciples of Antigonus of Socho, it is not enough to merely know the literal words of one’s teacher. One must be able to also understand them properly as well. Otherwise, misapplication and misinterpretation will be inherent. Ann Spangler explains, saying:
“Since any good disciple needs to understand what the master is saying, clarifying Jesus’ words is a necessary preliminary step to living out his commands.”
Beyond merely knowing the teachings of our Master (as we discussed in the section of memorization), this is indeed the “preliminary step to living out his commands.” And although Christianity has done well to retain an accurate record of the Master’s teachings, we have not done so well by way of transmitting his interpretations. This, in turn, has affected our application of his teachings.
It is our job as disciples of Yeshua to seek an accurate understanding of Yeshua’s teachings so that we will ultimately fulfill them in the proper manner. This follows Paul’s admonition to, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). But how do we do so? The first step is to use the proper filter to approach his teachings. There have to be certain assumptions that we must either accept or reject to establish as a foundation before we can approach the individual teachings of our Master. This will be the basis for our next lesson, Understanding the Message of Yeshua. In it I will give specific examples of how we have traditionally misunderstood the message of Yeshua, and how we can seek to better understand his teachings.
Dec 5, 2011
In my introduction to discipleship, I listed the Four Responsibilities of a Disciple. They included the following:
- To memorize the words of his rabbi or teacher
- To learn his teacher’s traditions and Scriptural interpretations
- To imitate the actions of his teacher
- To raise up more disciples
Of the four responsibilities of a disciple, which I discussed previously, memorization of our Master’s teaching is at the core. Does this mean we literally need to memorize every single word that we have of his that has been left to our record? Or does it mean that we are to have a good handle on everything that he taught? While I believe that the former (actually taking a solid translation and meticulously memorizing each and every word) is the ultimate goal, the latter is a very good starting point. But is memorizing his every word even a realistic goal? I believe it is. However, it will take a great deal of effort, and a change of our educational paradigm in order to do so, because in our society, educational potential has been dumbed down. We have devalued a true education, and praised mediocrity, being afraid of pushing our limits. Nonetheless, in other cultures where pushing the boundaries and potential of the intellect is acceptable, lengthy memorization is not only possible, but de facto.
There’s a children’s game that illustrates this point well. It’s a game known by many names, but the two with which I am familiar are “Telephone” and “Gossip.” It’s where you line up a group of people, whisper a phrase in the ear of the first person and then they repeat it quietly to the person next to them and pass the message down the chain to the last person. When the last person receives the message, the received message is spoken aloud to the group. At this point there is usually a roar of laughter when everyone hears how the original message has been distorted to an unidentifiable substitute. However, I remember hearing of a Westerner who was living somewhere in the Middle East and decided to play this game with the children one day. He gathered the children, explained the rules, lined them up and spoke the a phrase in the ear of the first child. The message was passed along until it reached the end of the chain. The child who last received the message, repeated it verbatim, word-for-word, back to the group. The Westerner, thinking this to be a fluke, tried it again with another phrase. Again, the child at the end of the line produced the same results. He tried it a third and fourth time only to find the results to be identical, thus proving that it was indeed possible and even probable for an oral tradition to be accurate, particularly in a Middle Eastern context.
When the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, was alive, he would teach for hours upon hours on Shabbat and other festival days. Since Jewish law prohibits both the use of electronic devices and writing on Shabbat, his teachings were not recorded in the traditional manner. However, there was a group of oral scribes who would put to memory the teachings of the Rebbe as he lectured for hours on end. At the close of Shabbat, they would begin transcribing his teachings from memory in order to preserve them for latter generations. Simon Jacobson was one of these gifted individuals and has passed on volumes of the Rebbe’s teachings in the years since his passing.
On a smaller scale, a waiter or waitress has to do a similar feat. They constantly have to push organized information into their short term memory. A good waiter or waitress will remember what each person ordered, as well as what they are drinking (to be able to properly refill drinks without a mixup). I remember a year or so ago I had a business meeting one morning at a local diner to which I had never been. The following week we had a follow up meeting at the same location, and my waitress (the same one we had the previous week), brought honey to the table along with my coffee without me having to ask. After just one visit, she remembered a small detail regarding my preference for my coffee out of the hundreds of people she serves each week. I admit that my request for honey was somewhat unique and probably aided in her remembering, but it was still impressive, and shows that what a properly developed memory can accommodate.
Bringing It Home
We have all heard of the Mega Memory system and other such systems designed to increase your ability to remember things. It’s not that we are incapable of remembering large volumes of information, it’s just that we haven’t learned how to properly prioritize information and store it in a method for easy retrieval. Why is it that we can remember every play in a ball game, every corny one-liner of a movie, every lyric to every song of your favorite artist, every character and particular dysfunction of our favorite sitcom, but yet can’t remember the Sermon on the Mount? It’s all about prioritization and organization.
Back to the Master. No matter what our mental ability, we each have some capacity to store and retrieve the teachings of our Master. If we are continually pouring over his words, we will have an affinity with them that will not easily be broken, and that will guide us in our day to day experiences. It will also provide the springboard from which the other three responsibilities can take off and begin to soar.