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Biblical Justice by Kim Reisman

Wesleyan Accent

  

Biblical Justice by Kim Reisman

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Scripture Focus:

I will test you with the measuring line of justice and the plumb line of righteousness.

Isaiah 28:17 (NLT)

 

 

While the classical idea of justice, giving each person their due, is important, it only scratches the surface of what justice actually means. The biblical sense of justice, what we call righteousness, goes much deeper.

It’s easy for Christians to think that Judaism’s greatest contribution is the notion of monotheism (belief in one God). William Silverman has written:

The Shema is the first word of the Hebrew sentence: Shema Yisroel Adonoi Elohaynu Adonoi Echod. Translated it means: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This is the watchword, the motto, and the foundation of the Jewish faith. It is the first prayer that the Jewish child learns to utter. It is the last prayer the dying Jew repeats before he yields his soul to God. Historically, the Shema was repeated in every crisis. It is the Jewish affirmation of faith in God. [1]

And yet, Silverman also reminds us that to think monotheism is the greatest contribution of Judaism is a mistake:

The greatest contribution of Judaism is not the belief in one God – monotheism – but rather the belief in ethical monotheism – one moral God who demands morality from those who worship Him. The scriptural keynote of this divine imitation is sounded in Lev. 19:2: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The rabbis amplified this by the following comment: “Even as He is merciful, so be thou merciful; even as He clothes the naked, buries the dead, and dispenses charity to all, do thou likewise.” [2]

Thus, while in the classical sense justice begins with the individual, in the biblical sense, justice begins with God.

Classical justice, particularly as it has come to be understood in our day, has a pronounced legal flavor to it. It’s concerned with the individual and his or her rights within the context of society. Biblical justice, however, has far more of a relational flavor. It’s concerned with what goes on among people and nations as well as the power of God in our life and history. Righteousness is connected with the biblical notion of justice. “But the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.” (Isaiah 5:16, NRSV)

Righteousness focuses on the power of God that sets things right and heals relationships, communities, nations, and the world. “This is what the Lord says: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.’” (Isaiah 56:1, NIV) Where classical justice emphasizes the exterior dimension, how individuals are related to and exist within society, righteousness emphasizes both the exterior and the interior dimensions. Righteousness is concerned not only with the individual’s relationship with society, but the individual’s relationship to God. Thus, while we usually speak about justice in social terms, when speaking about righteousness, we must speak of personal righteousness as well as social righteousness. These two dimensions of righteousness, personal and social, are necessary if we are to gain a full understanding of biblical justice. They’re necessary not only for our understanding, but in order for the power of God’s righteousness to work in us and through us to heal relationships, communities, and the world.

One of the most telling illustrations of the difference between the secular and the biblical senses of justice is seen in the way we speak about it. While in secular society we talk about “getting justice,” the Bible speaks of “doing justice.” One of the Proverbs puts it into perspective: To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Proverbs 21:3, NRSV)

There is a story in the Jewish Talmud that answers the question, “how may man work for God and demonstrate his love?” A king’s subjects came to him and said:

“Oh, our King, we would show our love for thee. What shall we say unto thee? What gifts may we give thee?”

The king answered: “My subjects, I am grateful for your goodness in coming before me to show your love. But what words shall you utter? I know the sentiments of your hearts. What gifts may you give me? Am I not the king, the ruler of the entire realm? If you would show your love for me, attend to my words. I have children, and I cherish them dearly. If you would show your love for me, then go forth and serve my children.”

When we come before God, the King of all Kings, to express our love by words and gifts alone, will this be acceptable before him? We may imagine that God responds by saying: “I am grateful for the expressions of your love, but do I not know the sentiments of your hearts, both the hidden and the revealed? What gifts may you give me? Am I not the Ruler of heaven and earth? If you would show your love for Me, the Father, then go forth and serve My children.” [3]

We “do justice” when we work to set things right or maintain what is already right. This involves our personal lives as well as our communal lives. At its very core, justice refers to love made manifest in spirit and action. We are acting justly, and we show our love of God the Father, by loving kindness and service to God’s children.

As you continue your journey of prayer and fasting, reflect on your life stance. Are you more interested in getting justice than in doing justice? I pray that you would come to a full understanding of biblical justice so that the power of God’s righteousness would work in you and through you to heal relationships, communities, and the world.

 

 

[1] William Silverman, Rabbinic Stories for Christian Ministers and Teachers, (Abingdon Press, 1958), p. 30.

[2] Ibid, p. 34-35.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

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Justice is a Natural Grace Marred by Sin by Kim Reisman

  

Justice is a Natural Grace Marred by Sin by Kim Reisman

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But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.”

Jeremiah 31:33-34 (NLT)

 

One of the blessings God has given all of humanity is an intrinsic sense of justice. It’s a natural grace that God freely gives to all people. God created each of us with a finely tuned mechanism that senses when things are unfair. Though not fully realized, God’s law is within us. God has written it on our hearts. Over the years people have referred to it as our “moral compass.” It’s our built-in guide to “rightness” and “oughtness.” To a certain extent, all of us instinctively know what is right and wrong.

In his bo0k, The Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome, Stephen Shoemaker offered another way of looking at justice. He talked about a kind of “fairness meter.” Each of us has the ability to measure fairness. We have an internal meter, or indicator if you will. Originally God created our fairness indicators so that they were sensitive to all types of fairness, whether we were treating others fairly and whether we were being treated fairly.

Of course, like most things God created, over the years we have messed it up. That’s what we call sin! Sin entered our lives and tinkered with that finely-tuned mechanism. Now, when other people are wronged before our very eyes, the meter barely registers a tiny blip and there may be only a hint of moral outrage. But watch out if we are the persons being wronged! The indicator sounds off louder than a fire alarm. Unfortunately, because of sin, not only is the indicator no longer sensitive to justice for others, but a subtle dysfunction is also at work. The fairness indicator is no longer very good at telling us whether we are really being wronged. It can’t help us discern whether we just think we’re being wronged.

It’s much like the two little boys who went to the dentist one day and waited until all the patients had been seen. When the dentist came out, the older boy spoke up, “Doctor, I want a tooth taken out, and I don’t want any gas and I don’t want it deadened because we’re in a hurry.” The dentist was very impressed and smiled at the little boy and said, “Well, you’re a very brave young man. You want a tooth pulled but you don’t want any gas and you don’t want it deadened.” And the little boy said, “That’s right, ‘cause we’re in a hurry.” “Well, okay,” said the dentist, “but first, which tooth is it?” And the little boy turned to his smaller buddy and said, “Show him your tooth, Albert!”

This is the way our fairness indicators are calibrated. We don’t mind pain or mistreatment, as long as it’s not our own. When others suffer under the strains of injustice and oppression, our sense of outrage is never completely kindled. However, if it is us, or someone in our group, then the matter takes on grave importance. Recalibrating our fairness indicators, getting them back into good working order, is the goal of kindling the virtue of justice.

Last week we reflected on the classical definition of justice: giving each person their due. As y0u pray and fast this week, press the justice issue to a more personal level. How finely tuned to you believe your “fairness meter” to be? Reflect on how sensitive you are to things not being right or just. When was the last time you felt you were treated unjustly? When was the last time you observed that someone else was being treated unjustly?

I’m praying that you will become deeply aware of the calibration of your “fairness indicator,” and that it would become so finely tuned that you would sense not only personal injustice, but that it would sound off loudly for others as well.

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Justice: Giving Each Person Their Due by Kim Reisman

  

Justice: Giving Each Person Their Due by Kim Reisman

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Scripture Focus:

So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene.

Isaiah 59:14-16 (NIV)

 

 

In 1963 my family moved from Mississippi to California because of the racial tension at that time and in that place. My father was a pastor and was supportive of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.: unfortunately, the church was not.

I used to think that things had changed a lot since then, at least on the surface. But over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that even on the surface, things haven’t changed. And deep down? Definitely not.

At my ordination service in 1996, Bishop Woodie White, an African American, said that he was welcomed in many churches because he was the bishop, but if he were to be appointed as pastor, many of those same churches wouldn’t accept him because he’s black.

Early in my ministry, I was described as an “out of control little girl” because I was exercising strong and capable leadership. Even now, when I make the necessary decisions that come with good leadership, I can tell when it’s strategically wise to send a man to deliver news. I suppose this is what we mean when we say the more things change the more they stay the same.

We have a crisis today, a crisis of justice. For those of us in the United States, it’s easy to understand this as a global crisis (which it is). But it seems much harder to grasp the depth of the crisis here at home. After all, the United States was founded on the principle of “liberty and justice for all.” We are the country of free speech and the right to assemble for protest. But then suddenly masked protesters decide freedom of speech means freedom to commit violence, and protest means intimidation and calling for the elimination of an entire people group. Our heads reel and we wonder, how could this be happening?

We’re in a crisis of justice, here in the United States, and everywhere else in the world. How easily the modern-day prophet might cry out with Isaiah: “Justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets.” And God must certainly be appalled that there is no one to intervene for the sake of righteousness.

Justice has to do with what we feel, how we relate to one another, what we value, the priorities we set. As we will see, justice has to do with our faith and at its very center, justice has to do with love. And yet, in the classical sense of Plato and Aristotle, justice is simply a matter of giving each person his or her due. It’s a civic virtue that a civil society depends upon.

This sounds simple enough, giving each person his or her due; but history – and current world events – has shown it to be an elusive and difficult concept to put into practice. As Christians, particularly, it helps us to remember that our duty to act justly is derived from the requirement to be just because justice is an attribute of God. When we fail “to give each person their due,” when we ignore the calls of those who are suffering injustice, we are ignoring the cry and supplication of God.

This is a challenging word for us in these days of violence and war, racial and ethnic strife, mass migration and economic instability. And yet, it is a word we cannot ignore. As you pray and fast this month, bring to mind a person in your community who may not be getting their due. What is going on with this person? Are they being denied their due by family? By work? By the larger social system? How might you intervene for the sake of righteousness?

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Courage, Will and Freedom by Kim Reisman

  

Courage, Will and Freedom by Kim Reisman

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Scripture Focus:

Daniel soon proved himself more capable than all the other administrators and high officers. Because of Daniel’s great ability, the king made plans to place him over the entire empire. Then the other administrators and high officers began searching for some fault in the way Daniel was handling government affairs, but they couldn’t find anything to criticize or condemn. He was faithful, always responsible, and completely trustworthy. So they concluded, “Our only chance of finding grounds for accusing Daniel will be in connection with the rules of his religion.” So the administrators and high officers went to the king and said, “Long live King Darius! We are all in agreement—we administrators, officials, high officers, advisers, and governors—that the king should make a law that will be strictly enforced. Give orders that for the next thirty days any person who prays to anyone, divine or human—except to you, Your Majesty—will be thrown into the den of lions. And now, Your Majesty, issue and sign this law so it cannot be changed, an official law of the Medes and Persians that cannot be revoked.” So King Darius signed the law. But when Daniel learned that the law had been signed, he went home and knelt down as usual in his upstairs room, with its windows open toward Jerusalem. He prayed three times a day, just as he had always done, giving thanks to his God. 

Daniel 6:3-10 (NLT)



When my kids were little, we would read them The Story of Ruby Bridges, written by Robert Coles, and illustrated by George Ford. It’s the moving story of a little girl named Ruby Bridges who was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. Each day, escorted by federal marshals, she would walk to school, through mobs of angry people shouting and spitting at her. Each day, on her way to school, a few blocks before she got there, and again on her way home, a few blocks after she left, she would stop and pray for the crowd. In her prayer, young Ruby asked God to forgive the angry mob.

Earlier this month I talked about courage being more than physical bravery but being a power of the heart. A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the hope that enables us to act despite our fear. Yet the question remains – how does courage, this power of our hearts, get into us? How is it that Daniel had the courage to continue to pray after it became outlawed? How is it that little Ruby Bridges had the courage, not only to be the only black child to attend an all-white school day after day, but to pray for those who were persecuting her? I believe the answer is that courage is a strength of the heart that resides in our will. Daniel used his will to break the law and continue praying. Ruby exercised her will, in determining that each day she would go to school and that each day she would pray.

Courage is an act of the will; and as an act of the will, it’s the exercise of choice. We choose to be courageous or not be courageous. We make a deliberate effort of our will to act according to our principles. If he had chosen to, Daniel could have obeyed the edict. He could have stopped praying. If they had chosen to, the administrators and high officers could have respected Daniel for the committed Jew that he was. If she had chosen to, Ruby could have decided to stay home. If they had chosen to, those in the mob who taunted her could have been supportive, could have chosen not to gather, could have chosen to send their own children to school along with Ruby. Each person makes choices, exercises his or her will in ways that show courage or cowardice.

This may sound like an intimidating word; but in actuality it’s quite liberating. We don’t have to be conformed to this world. Because courage is an act of the will, it will not always be seen in the same way. Courage can, in fact, be shown in many different ways. You can show courage by moving forward, or by moving back. You can show courage by speaking out, or by remaining quiet. You can show courage by bearing your burdens or by throwing them off. You can show courage by dying for a good cause or by living for a good cause. Simply put, you can show courage by saying yes, or by saying no.

Courage is a power of the will that keeps us free. Courage exercised through our will moves us closer to our true selves. Wisdom is a necessary ingredient of courage at this point. Without wisdom, using our will to make choices may or may not be courageous. If we always say no, we aren’t necessarily courageous; we may simply be stubborn. If we always say yes, we’re merely a reflection of our culture. We need wisdom to discern what the courageous choices will be in our lives; wisdom informs us about when to say yes and when to say no.

Life will always provide us with opportunities for courage or cowardice. Our lives are filled with choice after choice after choice; so it’s important for us to foster areas of our lives that encourage courageous choices. We must develop and strengthen our wills so we will be up to the challenge of exercising our wills courageously.

Two ways courage can be fostered in our lives are through stories and community. Plato taught that the way to teach courage to children was to tell them stories. God knew this and thus instructed the Hebrews to tell the stories of the faith over and over to their children. As Israelite children grew, they heard, again and again, how God brought their people out of bondage and into freedom, how God had guided and blessed them, and how God had remained faithful even when they had not.

Sandor Ungvari was an elderly Hungarian scholar who wrote a book called Life and Death of Hungarian Nazism that marked him for trouble when the Nazi armies invaded Hungary in 1939. He was arrested, sentenced, tortured; but he survived. Then the Communists came. They assumed since he had been tortured by the Nazis he would support the new regime; but they were wrong. Sandor organized an underground resistance movement composed of fellow intellectuals. For this he was arrested, charged with sixty counts of spying for the United States, and sentenced to death by hanging.

Fortunately, Sandor’s lawyer was able to negotiate his sentence down to eight years in the notorious Gherla prison, an island prison with the reputation that no one left alive. With the help of three nationalist guards, Sandor escaped. Outside the walls, he swam across the freezing Szamos River and walked at night, from village to village, locating a pastor in each place who would send him on to the pastor in the next town. Through this pastoral underground, he made it to the Austrian border and to freedom. When asked, “Why did you do it? Why did you resist so openly?” Sandor replied, “It was my family. They were all resisters, all of them, right from the beginning – from Janos Ungvari, a Magyar galley slave, to Adreas Ungvari, who was a leader in the Hungarian Reformation. I heard their stories over and over all my childhood days. With such family memories, could I do anything else?

Courage comes into our hearts almost by osmosis when we hear and rehear stories of courage: the remarkable stories of our faith, the extraordinary stories of others. Courage grows and forms within us even as ordinary parents pass on to their children the stories of heroes in their own families.

Our will must be formed to include the strength of courage. That can occur through storytelling; and it’s fostered through community. Courage is an individual thing; no one can have courage for us; yet, behind each courageous person stands a community of people. While courage may be singular, it’s also infectious. When we’re close to others, courage spreads. When we’re part of a community that’s grounded on trust – that provides us with the encouragement and support we need in times of crisis – then courage is fostered. Certainly it takes courage simply to be part of an intimate community. It takes courage to relate to others honestly and openly, to make ourselves vulnerable and to respond with sensitivity to the unguarded openness of others. Yet, once we have the courage to be part of a real community, we will be surprised to find a new source of courage beyond ourselves, hope. Community is the home of hope; and as we already know, hope is the source of courage.

Do you know some stories of courage from your family or community? Reflect on those stories. What role did faith, hope, and will/choice play in each? How were these stories of courage fostered by community

As you continue to pray and fast, I pray you will develop and strengthen your will so you will be up to the challenge of exercising courageous choices. And that you will be empowered by stories of courage and guided by God’s wisdom to know when to say yes, and whey to say no.

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Courage, Fear and Hope by Kim Reisman

  

Courage, Fear and Hope by Kim Reisman

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Courage: Strength of Heart by Kim Reisman

  

Courage: Strength of Heart by Kim Reisman

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Spiritual Health: The Goal of Wisdom by Kim Reisman

  

Spiritual Health: The Goal of Wisdom by Kim Reisman

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Scripture Focus:

Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.

Matthew 18:7-8 (NIV)

 

 

Earlier this month we explored the modern myth that knowledge and wisdom are the same thing. As Christians, we realize that this is not true; rather, we assert that wisdom includes, but also surpasses, knowledge. Wisdom is knowledge coupled with God’s love, presence, and purpose. A second myth is also important for us to explore; the myth that wisdom and knowledge are valuable for their own sake. From the biblical perspective this is completely false. Wisdom, as important as it is in and of itself, and as crucial as it is to the foundation of all the other virtues, is not an end of its own. The end toward which wisdom – and all the virtues – points is relationship with God, and spiritual wholeness and health. Wisdom is the means through which we gain a greater sense of personal wholeness and a restored relationship with our creator. It’s the means through which we redirect ourselves toward our created purpose, goodness.

Jesus was keenly aware of the role of wisdom in regaining our spiritual health. One of the crucial aspects of his message and ministry was to urge people to get smart about their spiritual health. “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away!” (Matthew 5:29, NRSV). If you’re going to take the moral life seriously, make sure to surround yourself with good influences; if you value your safety, don’t run with a dangerous crowd. Paul echoed Jesus’ sentiment when he wrote to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7, NRSV). We must be wise about our spiritual health. We must act in ways that protect, not endanger, our moral lives.

The Bible is one of the main tools available for us as we seek to use wisdom to bolster our spiritual health. Thomas Hobbes used the metaphor of a hedge fence to illustrate this. He talked about a highway where the king had planted hedges on either side. These hedges were not meant to stop travelers as they journeyed, but to keep them safely on the path. Jumping the hedge to take a short cut was always a possibility, but if you chose to leave the highway, you traveled at your own risk, taking the hazardous chance of traversing open country without the aid of maps and gambling with the possibility of encountering unforeseen dangers.

The Bible is our hedge as we travel on our spiritual journey. There are many places where the hedge is quite clear: the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, the moral teaching throughout the entire book. We can always jump the hedge. But we do so at our own peril because then we enter open country, where there are no maps and many risks. Granted, there are many places where discerning the hedge is difficult because it’s sparse or indistinct. God’s
Word is not always clear, particularly as we attempt to apply it with integrity to our post-modern world. It’s easy to enter uncharted or poorly mapped moral territory. Yet, the existence of moral ambiguity shouldn’t be used as an excuse to jump over the clearly marked and well-defined hedges. Wisdom recognizes that there are moral principles that are always right and breaking them is always wrong.

Wisdom is badly needed in our world today. History has shown that when we rationalize our jumping off the hedges of morality, destruction awaits. Unfortunately, we are destroying the hedges and have made loopholes in God’s word. We have focused on right motive rather than on right behavior, on the love that is “in the heart” rather than on the love that has been shown to the neighbor. We have allowed the ends too often to justify the means; but, unfortunately, no one can accurately calculate all the consequences of our deeds. Wisdom understands that we need more than motives and consequences to guide us; we need hedges and a willingness to follow them.

Reverence for God is the beginning of wisdom. When we move from feeling that we ought to obey God to actually wanting to obey God, we have begun to cultivate wisdom and will begin to see the hedges that will foster our spiritual and moral growth and well-being.

Jesus’ parable about the two men who built houses sums up our discussion of wisdom well (Matthew 7:24-27). There were two men who each built a house. The wise man built his house on rock, but the foolish man built his on the sand. Eventually, storms came and destroyed the house on the sand, but the house built on rock withstood the wind and rain. Jesus tells us that the wise man, the one who built is house on the rocks, is the one who hears and obeys Gods word; and the foolish man is the one who hears but doesn’t obey. Wisdom guides us to build our houses on solid ground, the ground of faith with guidance from God. We must seek that wisdom. Our lives depend upon it.

Think about the hedge metaphor for the guidance available to us. What things or persons or experiences make up the hedges which mark and keep you on your life-path? I pray that you would continue to be aware of those markers and seek to build the house of your life on solid ground.

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Greater Than Knowledge by Kim Reisman

  

Greater Than Knowledge by Kim Reisman

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Scripture Focus:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not rely on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.

Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)

 

One of the great myths of the modern era is that humanity can experience perpetual, boundless progress through the application of scientific reasoning. If we look back at events of the twentieth century, it’s easy to see how this myth took shape. Electricity, the telephone, automobiles, airplanes, smallpox and polio vaccines, organ transplants, computers, all turned the world into a place where anything seemed possible. Unfortunately, the inadvertent side effect of the remarkable achievements of the last century was the capacity to kill unimaginable numbers of people. As the world became smaller, people were confronted with other perspectives, and cultures began to clash. Only in the twentieth century has the struggle between ideas and convictions been backed up by such advanced weapons as the tank, bomber aircraft, and even nuclear weapons. Countless numbers of people, civilian and military, have been lost in battles of belief.

With all this progress, with all the new technology that seems to be appearing every day, we have not been able to produce a better human being. The myth of limitless progress may be perpetuated by science’s ability to make people better on the outside, but there has been no improvement on the inside. Human beings are still plagued by the age-old problems of hate, anger, jealousy, greed, and a hunger for power.

For some, the modern myth of progress continues to hold sway; but for many in this post-modern era, the continued collapse of this myth has some very compelling lessons to teach us. During this month when we’re focusing on wisdom, one of the most important is that knowledge isn’t enough. We may be able to probe the surface of Mars, to place unfathomable amounts of information on a computer chip smaller than the size of your fingernail, to bring life to the dying through organ transplantation, but we seem unable to bring justice to the oppressed, reconciliation to the estranged, hope to the brokenhearted.

Wisdom begins where knowledge ends. Over the years I’ve heard that wisdom is our intelligence plus God’s love, presence, and purpose. Proverbs says that reverence for the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10). True wisdom begins when we recognize the limits of our own human wisdom, when we perceive our need for the sustaining power of God in our lives. It begins when we turn to God in reverence. It flowers when we follow God in obedience.

The mother of a woman in a church I served was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was a serious diagnosis, and she began treatment immediately. Not too long after treatment began, the woman herself was diagnosed with the same cancer. She began her treatment, and her mother continued in hers. Then a remarkable thing took place. The mother, in an act of complete self-giving determined that she would forego the remainder of her treatment in order to be available to nurture and support her daughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren through their medical crisis. This was a decision that, when viewed through the lens of knowledge alone, made no sense. We all know there is no guarantee in the treatment of cancer. With treatment we may have a chance, but without it we face certain death. Knowledge alone cannot explain such a choice. Yet this determination was certainly guided by wisdom. No other course so fully embodied the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ. No other course so completely personified the love God feels for each of us. The woman survived her battle with cancer; her mother did not. But the legacy of love, rooted in the wisdom of a courageous choice, lives on.

Wisdom needs knowledge, yes; but wisdom surpasses knowledge. When we open ourselves to God’s direction in our lives, when we follow the urgings God plants in our hearts, when we utilize our knowledge for the sake of love, we come close to living a life of wisdom. That wisdom can then guide us and strengthen us as we seek to incorporate the other virtues in our lives as well.

Spend some time in reflection. Bring to mind an experience of wisdom that transcended human thinking and knowledge. Reflect on the past two or three years, locating occasions and relationships when you were given a wisdom not your own. As you continue to pray and fast, I pray you would be open to God’s direction in your life and his desire to provide you a wisdom that surpasses knowledge.

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Trees Which Yield Their Fruit by Kim Reisman

Scripture Focus:

Oh, the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join in with mockers. But they delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. They are like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season. Their leaves never wither, and they prosper in all they do. But not the wicked! They are like worthless chaff, scattered by the wind. They will be condemned at the time of judgment. Sinners will have no place among the godly. For the Lord watches over the path of the godly, but the path of the wicked leads to destruction.

Psalm 1 (NLT)

 

Many years ago, my grandfather planted six pecan trees on his little farm. I don’t know what happened. Maybe he planted them too close together and my hunch is he probably never fertilized them. Every time we would visit my grandfather, my father would comment about how disappointed he was with those trees. They never fulfilled their purpose. They remain barren to this day.

The bible is full of stories about trees and fruit. Jesus told a parable about a barren fig tree which the master of the vineyard would have cut down had the gardener not convinced him to give him time to work with it, fertilize and cultivate it for one more year (Luke 13:6-9). Then if it did not bear fruit, he would cut it down. In one of Jesus’ most challenging teachings he used the metaphor of trees and fruit. “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush” (Luke 6:43-44). One of Jesus’ harshest acts came one day when he was hungry and sought fruit from a fig tree. Finding nothing but leaves when it should have had figs, Jesus cursed it: “May no fruit ever come from you again!” (Matthew 21:19).

Our Scripture focus provides a challenging metaphor: trees which yield their fruit. The psalmist presents a graphic parallel. The godly person is like a tree planted by the riverbank, which produces fruit each season. The picture of the wicked, the “ungodly,” is in stark contrast. The writer changes the metaphor. They are like “worthless chaff, scattered by the wind.”

The prophet Jeremiah paints a similar contrast.

This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans, who rely on human strength and turn their hearts away from the Lord. They are like stunted shrubs in the desert, with no hope for the future. They will live in the barren wilderness, in an uninhabited salty land. But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit. (Jeremiah 17:5-8, NLT)

The message is clear in both the psalm and the prophet. There are two choices. Trust in ourselves or trust in God. Those who trust in themselves will be like chaff that’s scattered by the wind, like a stunted shrub in the desert. But the person who trusts in God is like a tree planted by the riverbank that yields its fruit each season.

We’re working through the cardinal and theological virtues defined by the Church as wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, faith, hope, and love. We’ll also look at the fruits of the Spirit which Paul named as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). As we look at all of these, the image of fruit will be important to keep in our minds. As we pursue a life of goodness, as Christians we’re pursuing a life of faith in God and our “delight is in the law of the Lord.” Trusting in God, enable us to be like trees planted by the riverbank. As Jeremiah says, no matter what happens – how much “heat” comes or whether “drought” pervades our lifescape – we’re not anxious and don’t cease to bear fruit.

The classic virtues we’re exploring are disciplines we exercise and ideals we seek in our quest for goodness and the life to which God calls. They are also the fruit that grows as our lives become like trees with roots going down deep into God’s grace.

As you continue in your prayer and fasting routine, think of two people who embody the image of a tree planted by the riverbank. What are their characteristic traits? How do they relate to others? How do they reflect integrity and genuine goodness? How do they earnestly seek to be good? I pray that you might use their example to strengthen you as you seek to become like a tree with roots going deep into the waters of God’s grace.

Wisdom: The Foundation of Virtue by Kim Reisman

Scripture Focus:

Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth… I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion… I have good advice and sound wisdom; I have insight, I have strength… The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.”

Proverbs 8:1-7, 12, 14, 22 (NRSV)

 

 

Wisdom has always been the first of the virtues. It holds this distinctive position in part because it grounds all the other virtues. As we’ll see as we move through the year, the virtues are interconnected, each adding and enhancing the value of the others; each needing the others to make it what it is. Yet, while the rest of the virtues work together to deepen the individual meaning of each, wisdom appears to provide a foundation for all of them. Wisdom is the stage upon which the roles of the other virtues are played out. Justice is crucial, but we’re lost as to how to achieve it without wisdom to guide us when interests compete. Courage is laudable, but it’s mere rashness without wisdom to steer it toward a moral cause. Patience is important, but it becomes sabotage without wisdom to help us discern when the time for response is upon us. Love is the more excellent way, but it becomes simple sentiment without wisdom to shepherd us as we seek to put it into action.

When we speak of the virtues, we are speaking of the mystery of goodness. There is much we’ll never be able to comprehend or achieve. Wisdom, however, is the search for the truth in the midst of that mystery. For the Greek philosophers, wisdom was the intellectual virtue of knowing the truth. There are two stumbling blocks to truth: ignorance and ideology. Ignorance is simply not knowing; it’s not having wisdom because we don’t know the truth. In contrast, ideology is the twisting of the truth for the purpose of power; we don’t have wisdom because we’ve altered the truth for our own purposes.

In the biblical sense, there is more to wisdom than simply having knowledge. Thus, while ignorance was a great enemy in Greek philosophy, from the biblical perspective, ideology is the far greater evil. In the Christian sense, you can be wise without a great deal of knowledge; but you will never have wisdom if you seek to twist the truth. Rather than being an intellectual virtue, biblical wisdom contains a distinctly moral component. That component is prudence. We can have intellectual virtue but without the moral component of prudence we will not have wisdom.

Wisdom as prudence is a form of practical and moral reasoning. It’s the art of taking the time necessary to think things through and anticipate what might happen. It’s the common sense virtue of discerning what is true, what is right, and how to live. As we explore the virtues, we’ll discover how badly we need, as individuals and in our various societies, to awaken the virtues. As we seek to awaken them, we must first begin with wisdom. We no longer live in a world where order prevails, where there is one prevailing way and one prevailing truth. We live in a world of chaos, of diversity and competing truths. It’s in this world that we must rediscover wisdom and in so doing approach the mystery of goodness and draw closer to God.

As you pray and fast this month, bring your community to mind. What sort of conflicts exist – warring forces, each claiming to have the truth? Begin making a list of some of them. How might these forces be twisting the truth for the purpose of power? Within your Christian community – local and national – do you see signs of “competing truth” which threaten the unity of the Body of Christ? List those as well.

During the coming weeks, I pray you will become more aware of situations where ignorance and ideology are blocking truth and wisdom, and that you would press on toward a rediscovery of wisdom which moves you closer to the good, whole self God intended you to be.