Congregations Following Yeshua’s Torah #1
There were many Torah-reform movements and ideas in Yeshua’s time. The most famous two groups with ideas about renewing Israel through increased devotion to Torah were the Pharisees and the Essenes. Both emphasized to some degree a separatism, dissociating from people who did not share their zeal for increased sanctity. Yeshua practiced the opposite, a kind of magnetism rather than separation, in which even truly vile people were attracted to him and desired to improve themselves.
The characteristics of the disciple groups that Yeshua was forming during his short career are interesting. These circles were inclusive so that sinful people and even oppressors and colluders with Roman power were welcomed. These circles were to regard each other as family, united by the will of God, and dependent upon one another rather than trying to live independently. They were not concerned with power in the sense of the use of force, but a different kind of power in which the human spirit ignited by God becomes impervious to persecution. They were impelled by a clear vision of the kingdom of heaven which would reverse this present order and which should be, as much as possible, enacted now. They were to be led by scribes and teachers who would renew the old (Torah) with the new (Yeshua’s kingdom teaching). They valued the invisible (devotion) over the visible (showy practices of piety). They were convinced of the need for a divine act that would repair humans and the world (atonement, the Son of Man must be killed). Their practice of Torah was to be inclusive, non-separatist, healing, and prioritizing love and justice over minutiae and stringencies. Their Master taught them to find in every aspect of Torah what was the highest and original ideal and to practice the spirit and the letter.
In this series I want to consider Yeshua’s teachings that make up this type of Torah living. My purpose is to discuss how Messianic Jewish congregations should view themselves and their purpose. I will consider the various characteristics of Yeshua’s disciple groups one at a time.
INCLUSIVE DISCIPLE GROUPS
To me the epitome of Yeshua’s inclusiveness is Zacchaeus (see Luke 19). As a “chief tax collector” he was a rich oppressor of the poor, a colluder with Rome, a person we would love to hate.
Then there was the woman who was a sinner (see Luke 7). Although her story of anointing Yeshua’s feet is similar to what Mary of Bethany also did, they are different people. This sinful woman in Luke 7 is not Mary Magdalene, nor is she Mary of Bethany. She is some unknown woman and her sinful reputation is not clarified.
While Zacchaeus and the sinful woman were real individuals, a fictional character who also stands out as an epitome of Yeshua’s inclusive practice is the tax collector in the parable (Luke 18). He is not, like Zacchaeus, a rich oppressor, but a middle class worker for the rich oppressors. There were many more like him. He seems to have felt trapped and hopeless, as if God was unreachable. His lack of presumption and desire to draw near to God, a desire he thinks is unachievable for him, is what makes his repentance endearing.
Implicit in Yeshua’s inclusive community building as a program of renewal in Torah is the idea that Torah is healing, but Torah is not a weapon of power to be used to conquer. Individuals and groups can be healed by faith in and practice of true Torah. The ways of Torah serve humans and refresh and restore. Religion frequently gets used as a tool to consolidate power, to unite a group of people under leaders who benefit materially from their following. The worst example in Yeshua’s time were the chief priests who collected tithes without redistributing the goods according to Torah, who used the Temple as a source of supreme power. Others wanted to start revolutions and saw Torah as a call to arms. Yeshua said the Sabbath is made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath. In other words, following Torah is to be done in a way that draws people and improves people.
For a modern congregation, Yeshua’s way of inclusiveness should be a sign for us to resist requiring conformity. We should resist the urge to become communities of forced assimilation into practices of Torah. The Messianic Jewish congregation is open and non-judgmental. There are, of course, limitations. Those who would do harm cannot be tolerated in the community. But we should not be a place that encourages people to outwardly conform to a list of practices. The teaching of Messiah and Torah should be a challenge open to all, one in which people see for themselves what is good and pursue it. Forced or pressurized conformity short-circuits every person’s path of repentance. Those who obey to conform miss the chance to obey for pure love of Hashem.
We cannot make people believe. We cannot compel people to keep Sabbath or dietary laws or to dress a certain way or to be good husbands and wives and parents. We can simply share friendship freely without judging and uphold a high standard of love and justice.
The vision of someone like Yeshua is powerful. Love impels change rather than compelling it.
This should be reflected in the way we talk. As we follow Yeshua we will not make self-righteous proclamations. We will not pretend that our group stands out in humanity as morally superior. We will not be about comparing ourselves at all, but looking to God and perfect love as the goal to which we are striving together. The kingdom of heaven will compel us to live together in constant renewal, not to look down on the kingdom of earth and congratulate ourselves on modest gains in righteousness.
The way of Yeshua is evident in all three of these stories (Zacchaeus, the sinful woman, the tax collector):
Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.
I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven — for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little loves little. . . . Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.
-Luke 7:47, 50
This man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Yeshua’s Torah is restoring, winsome, inviting. It is a way of humble family loving each other, being loyal even when disappointed at each other, and being receptive to those who come looking for a place at the table.
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Recently, I remade our congregation’s website (using WordPress). On the home page, I tried to capture what a Messianic Jewish congregation should be like and how we could describe our belief and practice. I sought to emphasize a few distinctives: our belief in Yeshua as the center, our inclusiveness of intermarried and non-Jewish families, and our practice of Torah as interpreted by our Torah teacher, Yeshua.
You can see my attempt here: http://TikvatDavid.com