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Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi JesusHow the Jewishness of Jesus can transform your faith
By Ann Spangler Lois Tverberg
ZondervanCopyright © 2009 Lois Tverberg and Ann Spangler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJoining Mary at the Feet of Jesus
Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily. —Attributed to Yose ben Yoezer (second century B.C.)
Bethany's steep dirt roads are hard on your legs, especially when you've spent a hot day walking uphill the entire way from Jericho. But the smell of Martha's lamb stew wafting from a cooking pot in the front courtyard of her house beckons your dusty legs to keep climbing. You try to ignore your aching feet and the sweat-soaked dirt that clumps beneath your toes, thinking instead of the cool drink she will soon offer. The long hike has been worth it, because the conversation along the way has been absolutely profound. Didn't you feel your heart burning within you as you listened to the rabbi?
A person has to have some chutzpah and sturdy legs, you think, to push to the front so that he can hear the conversation. But this afternoon you haven't missed a word even on those narrow paths along Wadi Kelt, where only two or three could be in good listening range. Usually Peter, James, and John would angle their way up toward Jesus, but this time you got there first. Finally you had a chance to ask him some of the questions that had been piling up in your head.
But before you have time to make sense of his answers, your thoughts are interrupted by the cackles of chickens that strut across the courtyard and by Martha's joyous laughter greeting you, the sweat beading on her forehead from her last-minute flurry of preparation. She and Mary share a small stone house that seems to miraculously expand to embrace all the guests that enter. Mary is there, too, greeting each person. Before you can even sit down, she asks you what Jesus has been talking about on the walk from Jericho.
When family responsibilities allow, Mary sits in on the study sessions at the local synagogue, and she has questions of her own that she's been waiting to ask. She often joins the group for Jesus' after-dinner discussions, and today, even with supper only half-ready, she sits down at Jesus' feet, oblivious of the look on Martha's face, laughing readily with the others over a heated debate that started along the road (Luke 10:38–42).
Wouldn't you love to have joined the boisterous crowd in Martha's house that evening? To have sat with Mary and those incredibly fortunate disciples who were able to travel with Jesus, to listen to him and learn from him for the three years of his public ministry?
What would it have been like to have been counted among Jesus' closest friends? To have him stay at your house whenever he was in town? Besides being an eyewitness, you would have had the great advantage of being a first-century Jew, someone whose life and experience were shaped by the same culture and religious beliefs that helped shape the life and ministry of Jesus. Like Jesus, you would have observed the laws and traditions of Judaism and would have been familiar with the issues of the day. You would have caught the humor and the nuanced remarks that made his words even more captivating, more life-changing.
Much as we might wish to have seen and heard the Lord in person, we are grateful that we can still experience him in Scripture. And yet the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is not always easy to understand. Partially, this is because we perceive his words at the distance of many centuries, from an entirely different culture, and in a different language. Instead of making our hearts burn, sometimes Scripture makes us scratch our heads in confusion.
I (Ann) remember the first time I met one of my roommates in graduate school. Gladisín was from Panama and had only been in the country a week when we first met. I liked her immediately. We seemed to get along well despite the language barrier. But I recall how stumped I was when Gladisín turned to me one day and declared, "I have a pain."
"What is it? What can I do?" I asked. But Gladisín merely stared at me with wide brown eyes and repeated, this time more emphatically: "I have a pain!" The more I tried to discover what was wrong with her, the louder she spoke: "A pain, a paaaiiiin!" I wondered if I should call an ambulance or drive her to the hospital myself. But before I had the chance to do anything, it dawned on me. She was merely asking for a pen, a ballpoint pen to fill out some paperwork! I was so relieved I couldn't stop laughing. A simple request had mushroomed into a medical emergency—all because I couldn't understand Gladisín's repeated attempts to say, "Can I have a pen?"
Now consider the challenge of communicating across centuries and religious traditions as well as languages and cultures. No wonder we sometimes find it hard to grasp what Jesus is trying to tell us in the Gospels. But what if we could find a way to fine-tune our hearing, so that we could develop first-century Jewish ears? The words of Jesus that electrified crowds, incensed his enemies, and changed so many lives would have a much greater impact on us.
Is it possible to retune our hearing and thinking so that we can understand Jesus better? We believe it is, because that is exactly what happened to us the moment we began studying Jesus' Jewish culture. Passages that had previously left us cold or puzzled suddenly came to life. Lights turned on, stories took on new meaning, and the mist began to clear.
Tuning into the customs of Jesus' time and to the conversations of the rabbis who lived at that time can deepen your faith as it has ours, transforming the way you read the Bible. With that in mind, we invite you to embark on a journey that will take you back to that house in Bethany to hear Jesus' words again—this time from inside his culture. We hope to teach you how to listen to the Gospels with the ears of a first-century disciple. And once you start tuning in, we are confident you will become even more curious, eager to learn more.
Take the current setting. Why, for instance, were Jesus and his disciples camping out in the home of Mary and Martha? If you had been a first-century Jew, you probably would have heard a saying in circulation for at least a hundred years: "Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily."
The Jews of Jesus' day greatly prized the study of the Scriptures. Many of their most gifted teachers walked from town to town teaching from their Bible, asking no pay in return. People were expected to open their homes, providing food and shelter to these wandering teachers and their disciples. So, as much as we honor Mary for her desire to learn from Jesus, this saying shows us that Martha's hospitality was an important help to Jesus' ministry too.
If we were first-century visitors, we would have recognized the significance of something else in that story. It was customary for rabbis to sit on low pillows or chairs while they were teaching. Their disciples would sit on the ground or on mats around them. That's how the phrase "sit at his feet" became an idiom for learning from a rabbi. In Acts 22:3, Paul described himself as someone who had learned "at the feet of Gamaliel" (NRSV). So when Mary was described as "sitting at Jesus' feet," she was being described as a disciple. Clearly, Jesus welcomed her as such.
But what about the phrase that speaks of "covering yourself in the dust of their feet"? Some scholars think this is yet another reference to the practice of sitting on the floor as a way of honoring a rabbi and submitting to his teaching. Others think that it refers to how disciples traveled from place to place by walking behind their rabbi, following so closely that they became covered with the dust swirling up from his sandals. Both ideas describe the context of the story of Jesus' visit to Mary and Martha's house with his disciples and add color and meaning to God's Word.
Yearning to Dig Deeper
Now that you've begun to get a taste for why we think it's helpful to understand the Jewish background of Jesus, we want to let you know how Lois first became intrigued by the topic. The granddaughter of Lutheran missionaries, she had plenty of Sunday school knowledge. But Lois didn't get serious about her faith until her last year of college. Even then, she was wary of classmates who seemed overly pious. Still, she longed for a way to dig deeper into the Bible—a way that challenged her mind as well as her heart. So she signed up for a course on the New Testament, hoping it would provide some insight. "Instead," she says, "I was discouraged to learn that my professor believed, as did many others, that the New Testament was generally unreliable, composed of documents that had been written very late and were filled with legends from the early church." Her first exposure to the world of biblical criticism deterred her from further academic study of the Bible. Instead she channeled her efforts into obtaining a doctorate in biology.
Many years later, after Lois had become a college professor, her church hosted an adult class on the land and culture of the Bible. The emphasis was on archaeology, history, and the Jewish cultural background of Jesus. "I wondered," she says, "why the presenter didn't share the radical cynicism that my college professor had displayed about the historicity of the Bible." Uncertain what to believe, her instincts as a research scientist drove her to examine the sources behind the course she had recently attended. Her efforts led to a surprising conclusion. In the past few decades an emerging field of study had unearthed a wealth of information confirming and strengthening the Christian faith. In the years since her college class, many new discoveries had changed the way scholars have understood the New Testament texts, particularly in light of their Jewish setting.
The more Lois read, the more fascinated she became with how much richer Bible study can be when you know about Jesus' first-century context. That's when she started some serious study on her own. Each day seemed to bring some new insight, another a-ha moment, like the one from the story that follows. It takes place in the home of Martha and Mary, this time toward the end of Jesus' ministry.
You are probably familiar with a dramatic gesture Mary made one day, sitting at the feet of Jesus once again. John 12:3 describes the scene like this: "Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."
Without understanding the cultural background in which this event occurred, it's easy to miss the full significance of Mary's gesture. What exactly was she trying to communicate? Jesus himself clarified one aspect of the story by commenting that Mary was preparing him for the day of his burial (Matt. 26:12). We understand that her act of devotion pointed toward Christ's death at the end of the week. But we miss something else that the disciples would have immediately realized, something so obvious that Jesus didn't even need to mention it. By anointing him with expensive fragrances, Mary may well have been making a statement about who she believed Jesus was, proclaiming him as Messiah. In fact, the Hebrew word for Messiah is Mashiach, which literally means "the Anointed One." Christos, or "Christ," is the Greek equivalent.
But why "the Anointed One"? The word "Messiah" alludes to the ceremony used to set apart someone chosen by God, like a king or a priest. Instead of being crowned during a coronation, Hebrew kings were anointed with sacred oil perfumed with extremely expensive spices. Only used for consecrating objects in the temple and for anointing priests and kings, the sacred anointing oil would have been more valuable than diamonds. The marvelous scent that it left behind acted like an invisible "crown," conferring an aura of holiness on its recipients. Everything and everyone with that unique fragrance was recognized as belonging to God in a special way.
In the ancient Middle East, the majesty of a king was expressed not only by what he wore—his jewelry and robes—but by his royal "aroma." Even after a king was first anointed, he would perfume his robes with precious oils for special occasions. Listen to a line from King David's wedding song:
You love righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy. All your robes are fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia. (Psalm 45:7–8) Consider, too, this passage about King Solomon:
Who is this coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense made from all the spices of the merchant? Look! It is Solomon's carriage, escorted by sixty warriors, the noblest of Israel. (Song of Songs 3:6–7)
During royal processions, the fragrance of expensive oils would inform the crowds that a king was passing by.
Now take a look at another scene from the Old Testament. It describes a newly anointed Solomon being led into Jerusalem from the spring of Gihon, just outside the city, and then parading through the streets on a mule while people stood by and cheered:
So Zadok the priest ... went down and put Solomon on King David's mule and escorted him to Gihon. Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the sacred tent and anointed Solomon. Then they sounded the trumpet and all the people shouted, "Long live King Solomon!" And all the people went up after him, playing flutes and rejoicing greatly, so that the ground shook with the sound. (1 Kings 1:38–40)
Now consider a striking parallel in the life of Jesus. It happened the week before his death, right after Mary anointed him with the expensive perfume. Just as Solomon had done a thousand years earlier, Jesus rode a donkey on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Imagine the scene as recounted in John 12. The crowd was not greeting an ordinary rabbi. No, people were shouting out: "Hosannah! Blessed is the king of Israel." They were remembering Solomon, the son of David, who long ago had ridden through their streets on a mule, and now they were proclaiming that Jesus was the promised "Son of David," whom God had sent to redeem his people.
But the significance of Mary's action doesn't stop there. It seems likely that the smell of the perfume with which Mary anointed Jesus would have lingered for days. God may have used Mary's act of devotion to telegraph a subtle but powerful message. Everywhere Jesus went during the final days of his life he had the fragrance of royalty. Jesus smelled like a king.
Excerpted from Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus by Ann Spangler Lois Tverberg Copyright © 2009 by Lois Tverberg and Ann Spangler. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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