Joanne Otto

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Category: Bible

An Expanding View of Hospitality

The patriarch Abraham certainly knew how to make someone feel welcome! In taking a closer-than-ever look at Genesis 18 during a recent Bible workshop, I was impressed by his hospitable treatment of the three “men” (really divine beings with a life-changing message) who appeared near his tent in the plains of Mamre.

First, he ran to welcome them, offering them rest, water, comfort, and food. Later he stood by them respectfully and appreciatively while they ate. And then he listened courteously to the seemingly unfulfillable promise they brought: that a son would be born to him and Sarah, his barren wife, when both of them were well advanced in years. Even though Sarah laughed at the very thought of it, Abraham did not.

Abraham’s hospitality included a generous welcome, respectful attention, and open-hearted listening. And this led me to ask myself: Does mine?
• Am I generously seeking to bless others as he did?
• Am I consistently appreciating their true worth?
• Am I open to the ideas they express even when these may be a stretch for me?
And as I considered this excellent model of hospitality, I began to think: Why should this hospitable attitude be limited to those who enter my home?

Just imagine what a blessing it would be if all of us were hospitable, not only to our guests, but to everyone we have contact with, considering how we can be of support to them, valuing what God has created them to be, and honestly listening with open mind and heart to the ideas they have to share. Can anyone think of a better way to promote the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth?

But I soon realized I had to expand this view of hospitality even further. To actually do this kingdom-promoting work, rather than just delight in the thought of it, requires attention, not just to horizontal relationships with others, but also to the all-important vertical relationship with God that is at the very core of this kingdom. So, as I apply this new-found concept of hospitality to the period I reserve each morning for prayer and Bible study, I must ask myself how I’m filling it.
• Am I wasting a lot of this precious time checking my cell phone unnecessarily, making plans, mulling over yesterday’s conversations? Or am I generously welcoming our heavenly Father into my heart and mind and giving Him my undivided attention?
• Am I dutifully plowing through Scriptural passages or perhaps devoting too much of my study time just to the fascinating cultural and historical aspects of the Bible? Or am I truly drinking in His inspired Word, letting it lead me into a deeper appreciation of His goodness, power, and love and of their relevance to human needs?
• Am I focusing only on the passages that are friendly and familiar? Or am I truly willing to listen to what He’s revealing to me even if it demands moving beyond my comfort zone and perhaps even being transformed?

After I began writing this blog, I realized there was still another expansion needed in my concept of hospitality. Why should my God-welcoming consciousness be confined to what I call my “quiet time”? Why shouldn’t He be embraced, appreciated, and heeded 24/7? Wouldn’t that be the best way to leaven each day’s activities with love, joy, and wisdom? It’s certainly not as easy as it sounds. It takes constant vigilance. But especially in the God-centeredness I felt recently as I went beyond my comfort zone for a long-anticipated meeting that never materialized, I’ve seen some evidence of recent progress.

So, I’m grateful for what Abraham has taught me about hospitality. It’s given me plenty to think about! I hope the ideas it’s brought out for me will do more than just that. I hope they’ll help me to express my love for God and for my brothers and sisters in a more intentional and consistent way. And I hope some of them will bless you and others whose lives you touch. Then together we can walk out that prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” I’d love to hear what you’re discovering as you do that.

Why write about a Pharisee?

As I illustrated in a recent blog, not all Pharisees were sanctimonious hypocrites, and some even provided vital support to Jesus and his followers. So it’s not really surprising that from the moment my Daughter of Jerusalem Pharisee, Eleazar ben Judah, began presenting himself to my creative imagination, I found him lovable and admirable. To me he represented all that is noble and good in the Jewish roots from which Christianity sprang.

My Model Pharisee

At first, of course, he didn’t yet have a name. In fact, I even considered identifying him as the Bible character he most resembles: Gamaliel, the fair-minded Sanhedrin member who urged the Jewish council to let the early Christians alone as they spread their gospel. (See Acts 5:34-39.) Research, however, later revealed that Gamaliel had a son, and, for the purposes of the plot, the Pharisee in my novella could not. His relationship with his daughter Mara is central to the plot, and if a Pharisee had a son, it is unlikely that he would ever have broken with tradition so far as to teach his daughter the Hebrew Scriptures. So Gamaliel had to be sacrificed to be faithful to the historic record, and this led me at last to my fictitious friend Eleazar.

A Remarkable Father-Daughter Relationship

From the very start, Eleazar‘s relationship with his daughter Mara was what drew me to him. I could picture a conservative, dignified doctor of the law in affectionate dialogue with a spunky misfit of a young woman. By teaching Mara the Scriptures, Eleazar has rendered her unsuited to the position she’s expected to occupy in their culture. He has also unknowingly set the stage for her deep appreciation of Jesus (Yeshua) from the moment she first hears him teach. As you can see, these two characters made a deep initial impression on me. The question was: Now what?

What happens next?

Decades of my life intervened before their full story evolved, but this father-daughter duo simply would not leave me alone. Their story had to be told. Questions had to be resolved. How would this devoutly Jewish father react to his daughter’s avid interest in the teachings of a young rabbi from Nazareth? Would he go so far as to actively oppose her interest? Or would he share that interest? Or something in between? I suppose I had to wait for Eleazar to tell me himself.

Eventually he opened up to me.  I listened intently, for instance, as he patiently explained to his daughter why the Pharisees opposed Yeshua— both the surface reason and the deeper one. I watched Eleazar cautiously shepherd Mara to the Temple to hear Yeshua teach. And I wept as he regretfully shared with his heartbroken daughter the details of the crucifixion— an execution initiated by the very council on which he sat!

Rewards of the writing

Birthing the character of this Pharisee was one of the most instructive and rewarding experiences of my life. It helped me to better understand how Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would have viewed him and why. And it enabled me to cherish even more deeply the as yet undiscovered gift that Jesus was bringing to them.

So, as I’m sure you can tell, I am grateful I got to write about this Pharisee. He was definitely one of the good ones. If you haven’t gotten to know him yet, I hope you will. And if you have, I would love to hear what message he has communicated to you.

Why bother with the Pharisees?


The Pharisee and the Publican by John Everett Millais, published 1864, from “Illustrations to ‘The parables of our Lord'”

“Hypocrites! Whited sepulchers! Generation of vipers!” With these stinging words, Jesus rebuked the sanctimonious attitude of the Pharisees. And they repeatedly questioned his religious practices, attempted to thwart his mission, and conspired to do away with him. It would be easy for Christians just to label them as the villains of Jesus’ story and simply write them off. But wouldn’t that be a big mistake? After all, there was good in them, as Jesus himself well knew, and there’s a lot we can learn through them if we understand this.

Started with good intentions
To begin with, the founders of their sect, who lived some 200 years before Jesus’ time, had the best of intentions: obedience to God through steadfast adherence to the law (Torah) of Moses. To achieve this, they devoted themselves to in-depth study of the Scriptures. Over time, however, a huge number of traditions evolved from their efforts—traditions that went way beyond the Torah in dictating what was and was not permissible in every area of daily life from food consumption to keeping the Sabbath. It was those petty traditional rules, not the Torah, that Jesus objected to and tended to disregard. By his time those rules had developed into a stranglehold on the practice of the Jewish faith, making complex demands that were all but impossible to fulfill consistently. Referring to these rules, Jesus said, “They bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Matt. 23:4.) So much for the Pharisees’ initial good intentions.

How they got off course
Worse still, by the first century these absurdly demanding rules had lured the Pharisees into self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and scorn for others. Since their rules supposedly defined what a righteous man should look like, the Pharisees prided themselves on at least the appearance of observing them and loved the recognition they received for doing so. They became more concerned with looking good then with actually being good. Furthermore, they tended to feel smugly superior to others who were less scrupulously observant of religious traditions than they were. Jesus portrayed their smug attitude in his parable of the Pharisee and the publican, in which the former boasts of his fasting and tithing, which exceed the requirements of the law, and disdains the publican, whose prayer, by contrast, is one of sincere, meek repentance.

How Jesus treated them
Jesus had often seen the Pharisees display this self-righteous disdain toward him, as, for instance, when he healed on the Sabbath or dined with “publicans and sinners” or when his disciples ate without first washing their hands, a practice demanded solely by Pharisaic traditions. Yet Jesus didn’t return their disdain. On several occasions he dined at the home of a Pharisee, which involved sharing the intimacy of table fellowship. On one occasion when a group of Pharisees came to hear him teach, “the power of the Lord was present to heal them” (Luke 5:17.) Even Jesus’ stern rebukes were given in response to the Pharisees’ spiritual need. He must have recognized their earnest desire for righteousness and deplored its sorry drift into the self-righteousness which was cutting them off from the blessings of heaven.

How some of them supported him
And some of the Pharisees responded positively to his spiritual leadership. Individuals such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea actually became his followers. Though Nicodemus at first came to him in secret, he later spoke out courageously on Jesus’ behalf during a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council (John 7: 50,51.) And after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea showed great courage and love in openly taking Jesus’ body from the cross and giving him a proper burial in a fine new tomb (John 19:38-40.) Yes, it was two Pharisees who made this essential provision for the Master!

According to The Acts of the Apostles, Pharisees continued to be among Jesus’ followers after his resurrection and ascension. There we read of “certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed” (Acts 15:5.) The most significant of these was, of course, Saul of Tarsus, who expanded the outreach of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire and to Gentiles as well as to Jews. Does the fact that he was a Pharisee make him seem an unlikely candidate for the role of Christian apostle? Or had his training as a Pharisee actually helped prepare him for the call? Was his mistaken persecution of Christian “heretics” motivated by the same eagerness to serve the Lord that later impelled him to support their cause once he’d caught a glimpse of its Founder’s vision?

What we can learn through them
Clearly, dismissing the Pharisees as “the bad guys” doesn’t do justice to that vision. There were two brothers in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, and they both needed healing. After all, Jesus didn’t end the story with the prodigal’s homecoming, but with the Father’s loving appeal to his self-righteous older son. Wasn’t Jesus indicating that the embrace of our heavenly Father is wide enough to include both the sinner and the self-satisfied Pharisee? Didn’t he expect our embrace to include both, too? Don’t folks show up in our church pews who tend to be self-satisfied and critical of others? Can we love them as much as we love repentant sinners?

And most important of all, are we meek and honest enough to catch ourselves when we start going down that Pharisee path? It’s a dangerous one with a big roadblock marked “I”! We can be grateful that Jesus, with some help from the Pharisees, made that roadblock very clear. After all, he did it for our benefit.

Hearing Those Life-Changing Messages

On any given day, a simple, quiet message from God can make all the difference…but only if we hear it. So, the question is: How do we do it?

Psalm 85 declares confidently: “I will hear what God the Lord will speak.” Wanting to know more about this kind of hearing, I hunted down the original Hebrew word on my Touch Bible app to get its full meaning. I discovered that shama’ means hearing intelligently, hearing spiritually, giving undivided attention, and that it can also include agreeing with what is said and obeying it.

Now that, I thought, is an excellent description of how I’d like to receive what my daughter Meghan Williams calls those “downloads from heaven.” But in the clamor of this busy, media-saturated world, giving undivided attention to the “still small voice” that resonates at our heart’s core can be difficult. When we’re plugging through life on autopilot, it just doesn’t happen. But what if, instead of reacting with annoyance when our agenda is interrupted or thwarted, we turn aside for a moment to “hear what God the Lord will speak”? On some occasions, I’ve seen that kind of hearing change the picture dramatically.

For instance, one cloudy spring afternoon, I had just stretched out for a much-needed nap only to be accosted by the roar of one jumbo jet after another passing seemingly inches above our roof. Being a light sleeper, I was more than slightly bothered by it—bothered, that is, until I heard that inner voice gently addressing me. “Would you be feeling this way if you were hearing birds twittering or a breeze blowing?” I had to admit that I wouldn’t. Birds and breezes seemed to me beautiful glimpses of God’s creation, so how could they annoy me? But those jets were just noisy man-made machines. That was an altogether different matter.

What I heard next, however, turned me around a full 180 degrees: “Where do you think the designers of these amazing high-speed aircraft got their intelligence? Who gave those flight attendants their compassion, patience, and consideration? Who gave those travelers the wise, or loving, or productive purpose of their journey?” Suddenly I found myself in awe of what, moments before, had seemed just an annoyance. I literally began to love and appreciate those planes and to embrace them in my concept of God’s creation. Not surprisingly, I was soon peacefully resting.

I’ve had many opportunities since then to apply the message I heard that day to other, more challenging situations. It taught me how to view the very circumstance I was resenting from a more inclusive, even appreciative, God-perspective. And I know such messages are always here to be heard if only I’m willing to give them my loving. undivided attention.

I love hearing about the messages people hear from Him and the difference they make. I hope you’ll post one of your own in the comments below.

Punkt!

Several months ago, I listened to an inspirational talk on YouTube. It happened to be in German, and I was surprised and pleased at how much of it I could understand. The speaker pointed out the human tendency to acknowledge the truth of some inspiring affirmation from the Scriptures and then talk ourselves out of it with a “yes, but…” Instead, she said, we need to follow it with a “punkt!”
“Punkt” (the vowel is pronounced like the “oo” in “good”) is the German word for “period,” but with its single syllable and crisp consonants it has much more of a ring of finality. So I find it helpful–and perhaps you will, too– to remember when I read or think of a statement such as “God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good,” to make sure I’m following it mentally if not verbally with a clear and definitive “Punkt”!
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Punkt!
“With God all things are possible.” Punkt!
“We are the children of God.” Punkt!
End of story!

Bible Adventure – Part 2

Well, I have spent about 6 weeks working with Professor Horner’s Bible-reading system, and the results have been mixed. I very much like his idea of reading from different books of the Bible on the same day. It enables me to see how amazingly their ideas coincide in spite of the many intervening years and also how they developed over the centuries.

However, ten chapters a day has been difficult to keep up, and the skipping around between the Old and New Testaments has proved rather confusing. in addition, his plan requires reading some books much more frequently than others.

So I have come up with a simpler plan which I think will work better for me: a chapter each from Genesis-Deuteronomy, Joshua-Esther, Job-Solomon’s Song, Isaiah-Malachi, Matthew-Acts, and Romans-Revelation, in that order. I’ve already started making the transition, but I am still grateful to Professor Horner for launching me on this inspiring journey.

Lost in Translation?

In setting out on my Bible adventure, I had to be certain I was choosing a translation that would encourage me to stay with it. I grew up with the King James, and its beautifully wrought language speaks to me as no other translation does. But it includes words that are either obsolete or now have a meaning quite different from what they did in 1611. How could I continue to enjoy the beauty of the KJV, yet not miss the meaning? My solution was The 21st Century King James Version. Unlike the New King James Version, it keeps “ye” and “thou” and “thee” (which I like because I can tell if the second person is singular or plural) and other words that have dropped out of use but which we still understand. In fact, it reads just like my old familiar friend except when a word like “conversation” (which then referred to one’s conduct or way of life) or “prevent” (which then meant “precede”) comes up. And it helps me out with words like “gins” (traps) or “reins” (literally “kidneys,” which were once considered the seat of the emotions as the heart is today.) It’s also helpful to have the poetry printed in verse form and the prose in paragraphs. So with The 21st Century King James, I am off to a successful start on my adventure, happily balanced between linguistic beauty and clear meaning.

New Bible Adventure

Though I do in-depth study of portions of the Bible daily, I have been feeling the need of a better acquaintance with the Scriptures as a coherent whole. My read-throughs in different translations have been helpful, but extended over too long a period to really give the coherence I was looking for. Recently, though, I discovered Professor Grant Horner’s Bible-reading system online. It divides the Bible into ten sections ranging in length from 28 to 250 chapters. The idea is to read one chapter from each of these sections every day. This meant I’d be starting in the gospels, then moving on to the Pentateuch, the epistles, wisdom literature, psalms, proverbs, history, the prophets, and finally the Acts. Wouldn’t that be somewhat dizzying for my tidy little mind? Well, I have been at it for four days, and so far I’m happy to report that I’m really enjoying it and making connections between the Old and New Testaments that I’ve never made before. Plus I’ll have read the whole Bible in 250 days and some parts of it multiple times. I’ll admit to jotting a few notes, which is not part of the system, but even so it takes me only about 35-40 minutes. A great time investment, as I see it, as well as an adventure!

Writing a Story About Jesus

Picking up on last week’s observations re biblical fiction, I can think of no more challenging or more thrilling subject for an author to build a story on than the life of Jesus. The challenge, of course, is in doing him justice–catching even a glimpse of what made him who he was and presenting it in a way that rings true for today’s readers. In attempting this, I had to see Jesus through the eyes of my fictional characters, especially Mara. I found myself asking: What sort of scriptural teaching has she heard up to this point, and how would Jesus’ teaching have been different? What would draw her to him? How would her one-on-one encounter with him be initiated in an age when women’s interactions with men were so restricted? The answer that came to that third question was straight from the Jesus I knew from Scripture: he’d have known she wanted to speak with him. And the moment of this realization was nothing short of soul-stirring. It was insights like this one that made “Daughter of Jerusalem” the most thrilling writing project I’ve ever undertaken.

Biblical Fiction

Why would someone who loves the Bible want to use it as a springboard for a novel? Wouldn’t that tend to trivialize it? I asked myself this question years ago after reading a fine biography of Paul. Why, after writing this factual history of his life, did Henrietta Buckmaster want to rewrite his story in her novel “And Walk in Love”?

After reading it, however, I began to understand. Her research and scriptural study had given her intriguing insights into Paul’s life and character. I think she wanted to take them even further–to envision what it would have meant to actually walk his walk. For this she needed to extend herself beyond the boundaries of historical scholarship and plunge into the deeper waters of the creative imagination. But this plunge of hers has value for Bible readers primarily because she was already well acquainted with the world Paul inhabited and the ideas that shaped his interaction with it. Far from trivializing the Bible, fiction–when rooted in fact–can bring it to life for its readers and allow them vivid glimpses into the Bible’s inhabitants and their world.

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