zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the category “Parables of Jesus”

Journey Post 49: While You Were Away…

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Matthew 21:28-46

Jesus was challenged a number of times by the religious establishment about his authority for doing and saying the things he did.  Ordinary people simply recognized his authority.  Jesus was no threat to the “little people”; they were not at risk of losing their power, as the leaders were.  The “Sermon on the Mount,” for example, left people amazed because Jesus did not cite esteemed rabbis as other teachers did.  He said, “You have heard it said…but I tell you….”

To set us up for the parable, picture the scene:  Jesus has just entered Jerusalem on a donkey amid the shouts and praises of the people.  The city is abuzz with excitement because many wondered if he might be their long-awaited Messiah.   He drives the money-changers and dove sellers out of the Temple, then heals many blind and lame.  The angry leaders complain to Jesus about children shouting and praising “the Son of David” (a messianic title).

Then the priests and elders demand to know, “By whose authority do you do these things?”  Jesus answers: “If you will tell me by whose authority John baptized, I will tell you.”  At this, the leaders balk, whispering among themselves: “If we say, ‘from heaven,’ he will ask why we didn’t believe him.  But if we say it was merely human, we’ll be mobbed because the people believe John was a prophet.”  So they say, “We don’t know.”

Things are now coming to a head between Jesus and the religious leaders in Jerusalem: five days later, they will succeed in getting rid of their nemesis—or, so they think.

In Matthew 21, Jesus tells two parables.[1]  The point of the first one is not obvious to the leaders—until Jesus ties it to their rejection of John the Baptist.  The second one hits home right away.

Why is Jesus increasingly angry and condemnatory of these leaders?  After all, in America when some preacher or church is phony or false or just plain weird, we can go to a thousand others.  Not so in Israel.  It’s important to get this point, and to know God’s expectations.  Otherwise, we may read the story only as confirmation of how hypocritical, self-centered, and self-protective the religious leaders were.  Yes, they were false teachers: Could not people just ignore them and walk away?

No.  There were no others.  The religious leaders held positions invested with the authority of Moses himself.  They had been given a charge by God to be stewards of his people, to be “good shepherds” who would feed them spiritually and protect them from spiritual charlatans and wolves.  Instead, as Jesus told them, they loaded impossibly heavy burdens onto the people.

Think about the teachers you’ve had in school, church, military, in all of life—including parents, anyone who has held a certain amount of authority over you.  Some were good, some bad, most were a mix.  We consciously imitate the good ones—but they’ve all left their mark deep within our psyche.

Jesus came for many reasons: to die for our sins, to live a life in front of us that was pleasing to God, to teach us about his Father, and other things.  The apostle John, who was a teen when he became a disciple and an old man when he penned the Gospel that bears his name, left us some vivid imagery about who Jesus is and what he came to do.  One of the most vivid is that Jesus came as “the light of the world.”  Light is reflected and so we see.  In Jesus’s case, he reflected God.

His life was a picture of God far different from the one presented by those who occupied a position of stewardship in behalf of God.

The picture of God they reflected was a distortion, an insidious caricature of a God more interested in people’s external compliance with what they could do or not do, for example, on a Sabbath day, or how they could keep the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit.  Their God was a judge never satisfied, a punisher of imperfect rule keeping.

The God Jesus reflects is a loving wise Father who wants to be known intimately and who intends that his people share his same perspective and values in dependence upon him, a Father who loves self-sacrificially and delights in his children like an ideal earthly father.  His law is intended to instill his values, two above all else:  loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  Everything else comes from these two.  Obedience to this God is a given, but the motive to obey gets tangled up with avoiding hell rather than wanting to please a father who delights in you unimaginably:

“We love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

Jesus explained to the teachers and Pharisees in no uncertain terms what their hypocrisy was really about: “You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).  They were saddling the people with heavy burdens while themselves living hypocritical lifestyles, seeking to maintain their own power and honor.  They were self-righteous, supposing they were keeping the law and deserved cred for that from God himself.  In reality, they despised those they thought beneath them.  They did not value people as God does.  Any value they acknowledged stemmed from compliance to rules, not the intrinsic value God gave the creatures he made in his own image.  Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah to them: “These people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”

Knowing this, you can see there is little mystery about the parable of the wicked tenants.  Even the leaders got the point real fast.  They somehow knew that Jesus was right about them.  And they would see him die for it.

Read the parable of the two sons and then the one about the tenants, Matthew 21:28-46.

Just a few notes are in order here.

If you were asked what made the teachers, the Pharisees, etc., so bad, you might think first of their hypocritical legalism and their rejection of Jesus as Messiah.  Jesus certainly excoriated them for those faults.  But the worst fault might be captured in the term “false teachers.”  They did not truly know the God whom they claimed to represent: If you’ve ever encountered a person who claimed to know someone personally and obviously didn’t—you can imagine the problem.  These men were charged with interpreting and teaching the Scriptures, all the more important because most people did not have direct access to the Bible and were dependent on these teachers to be the voice of God.

Jesus had this to say about them to the people: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  So you must be careful to do everything they tell you.  But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.  They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…” (Matthew 23:2-4).

By contrast, Jesus had this to say about himself: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

Jesus claimed to know the Father in a way that no one else could.  That might lead you to think he was some sort of cult leader.  (I hope, in some future series of essays, to write about the implications of what he taught about the Father, about who God is and what right Jesus had to claim such knowledge.)

A couple comments about the meaning of the figures Jesus uses are in order.  Why was the story set in a vineyard with the owner being away and sending his messengers, including his son, to collect?

The owner, of course, is God.  The tenants are the religious leaders, teachers and priests, allowed by the owner to work his vineyard.  “Vineyard” is an important figure in Scripture, representing God’s people (Israel, during that time).  When he sent representatives (prophets) to collect the “rent” (the portion of fruit the owner was entitled to receive), they beat some and killed some.  The tenants, of course, were refusing to be held accountable, rejecting the owner and keeping the fruit for themselves, for their own gain.  The “fruit” God was intending to see produced was the fruit of the two great commands.  Like the fig tree, the false teachers proudly displayed their “leaves,” but bore no real fruit.

The tenants’ actions showed they didn’t grasp that their stewardship of the vineyard was only at the pleasure of the owner: it was his, after all.  They did not value the owner, nor his servants, nor his son.  Nor did they value the vineyard—i.e., those they were supposed to shepherd and steward–except as it was a benefit to them.

When Jesus asked what the owner should do, they knew: kill the wicked tenants and rent the vineyard to others who would produce the proper fruit.

If you’re involved in a church, you hear about false teachers from time to time.  Unfortunately, such warnings are oftentimes couched in terms of doctrinal (teaching) differences that have little to do with the major teachings of the historic Christian faith.  I saw this firsthand at a Bible school in Quebec years ago: one faction believed that Jesus carried his literal blood to the altar of God.  So they split.  Denominations do occasionally split over significant issues, but the details are often esoteric.

I would submit that Christian churches need to let the main thing be the main thing.  The “main thing” is what I referred to above: the two great commandments, i.e., to love God with all that we are and to love others as ourselves.  “There is no greater commandment than these,” said Jesus.  It all starts from these.  Love—genuine, self-giving and, yes, sacrificial—is a one-word summary of all God’s law.

If these two are in place, the rest will sort itself out…whether God is present or away.

[1] Jesus cursed a fig tree, full of leaves but bearing no fruit (21:18-22).  This was likely a demonstration for the sake of the disciples, a parabolic reference to the hypocritical leaders, though Jesus seemed to turn it into a lesson on faith.

Journey Post 48: Good neighbor Sam?

Note:  I was set to publish this nearly a month ago.  But the ending was not right.  I trust that it is, now.

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“Who is my neighbor?”  Luke 10:29                                                                                                                                          —Question put to Jesus by a young law expert

Love … It is the big idea … bigger than any good feelings which may come with it.

Genuine love affects how we act toward others in every area of life.  Simply put, love compels.  Love forgets self.  When love is real, it will at times act contrary to feelings, contrary to self.  Love does the right thing.  I am an inconsistent practitioner of this kind of love.

God’s idea of love is seen in the life—and supremely the death—of Jesus: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:3).  It was this kind of love that St. Paul described in the passage often read at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind…

One of the radical ideas that Jesus taught his disciples—and anyone who would listen—is that “love your neighbor” includes “love your enemies.”  It must have seemed new and radical to those who heard him say this in his first major public teaching, “The Sermon on the Mount.”  Yet it was only as new and as radical as God himself.  Little did they suspect that “love your enemy” is a central premise of how God operates and how he desires that we operate in our relationships.  “Impossible,” you say?  Precisely.

There was once a young man who was confronted with this reality about love—and its impossibility.  Jesus met the young man, an expert in the law of God who seemed confident that he knew what God expected of him.  But he came away from his encounter with Jesus having had a truth adjustment.  It’s a pity that we don’t know what the young man finally did with this truth….

For us, the parable Jesus told him, “The Good Samaritan,” has become a cultural moniker for laws that protect us when we try to do the right thing, such as helping an injured person out of a damaged car at the risk of further injury.  It’s nice to have those laws.  They enable us to do something seriously good for another without regard to negative consequences for ourselves.

For Jesus, the parable he told has to do with doing good (love) for others without regard to self.

The story is simple and well known, as is its basic lesson.  Most people are at least familiar with it:  A man is beat up and robbed on an isolated road and left for dead.  A priest and another guy come upon the man but avoid him and keep going.  They were religious types whom you’d expect would have stopped to help.  Another man, a foreigner from Samaria, sees him, stops, cleans his wounds, lifts him onto his donkey, and takes him to an inn where the victim can rest and recover.  The Samaritan pays the inn-keeper to provide whatever the man might need and promises to reimburse any extra expense.

The lesson here is actually much larger than helping a stranger in trouble.  That can easily be missed in a casual read.  We know we’re supposed to “love thy neighbor.”  But the young man took it further, asking, “who is my neighbor?”  Why would he do that?  Wasn’t he the expert?

If you haven’t done so yet, please read the account in Luke 10:25-37.  As you do so, take note of the young man’s two questions.  These provide the context for the parable.  And, they raise an important question that Jesus leaves hanging….

We’ll begin with the people in the parable.  Then we’ll consider the young law expert himself and what he was after with his questions.

The priest who passes by serves at the temple in Jerusalem.  The second man is a Levite whose job it is to help at the temple.  They probably rationalized their non-action (we humans have a built-in propensity for this), which might have run thus: “If I touch him (he might even be dead), I would be ‘unclean’ and would not be able to serve at the temple.”  So they let themselves off the hook with their own importance.  They didn’t just ignore the man: they passed by on the other side of the road so they wouldn’t be defiled.  That way, they likely told themselves, they would remain “clean” to serve God….

Enter the Samaritan.  He was, well, a Samaritan.  He wasn’t just a foreigner, but a very special kind of foreigner.  There could not have been a greater contrast: essential temple workers/despised Samaritan.

Despised?  How do we know that?  Because all Samaritans were … by the Jews back then.

A little background:  Samaria stood between Galilee in the north and Judea in the south of Israel during the time of Jesus.  Long before, Samaria had been the capital of northern Israel.  It had been finally conquered by Assyria in 712 B.C.  The king deported many Israelites (to weaken their state) and brought in Assyrians (Gentiles, non-Jews) to replace them.

Eventually, of course, there was intermarriage, and their seed was considered half-breed and thoroughly unclean.  Samaritans took on many pagan practices.  While they considered themselves worshippers of Yahweh, the God of Israel, they would not go to the Jerusalem temple, but built their own.

Jews assiduously avoided Samaritans.  They despised them so much that they wouldn’t even walk through their land to get to Galilee.  (Jesus made a point of walking right through Samaria, on one occasion stopping to speak with “the [Samaritan] woman at the well,” recorded in John 4.)

Jesus emphasized that all of God’s law was summed up in the word “love.”  While the people were told by their religious leaders to “love your neighbor and hate your enemies,” Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy in this: they would not be any different from pagans, who did the same.  “Be perfect as your Father is perfect,” he told them—like their Father who showers the blessings of his creation upon all.

By using a Samaritan as the one who showed mercy and kindness, Jesus struck a nerve:  This was no theoretical enemy, this was a Samaritan!!  His people had turned their backs on the true worship of Yahweh.  (Jesus had this habit of tossing in unexpected zingers to make his points unmistakable.)

So what about this young law expert?  Jesus certainly put him in his place, right?  Not exactly.  There was something else in play for this young man, though our account doesn’t make it clear just what.

Law experts often appeared as enemies of Jesus, along with their pals, the Pharisees.  Many were, but there is no proof that such was the case here.  The text said that he stood up to “test” Jesus:  the word doesn’t indicate whether he was trying to trip up Jesus or simply trying to find out if he might actually be Messiah.  Jesus never rebukes him.  And while it says that he wanted to “justify himself” (which sounds terribly self-serving) by asking who his neighbor is, Jesus gives him a very straightforward answer—in story form—then sends the young man on his way with a pointed instruction: “Go and do likewise.”

“Likewise”??  This was insult added to injury:  Jesus wasn’t just saying to help people in trouble—which the law expert undoubtedly agreed with—but, in effect, “be perfect, like this Samaritan was perfect,” i.e., it was the despised Samaritan who did what God wanted, not his fellow Jews!

Reading the parable, most, including Christians, focus on the command to love your neighbor.  It feels right, and it is.  But don’t overlook the context.  I did for years, reading past the man’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus, in recognition of the man’s great learning, asks him what the law says, “How do you read it?”  His answer (love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself) elicits this: “You’ve answered correctly.  Do this and you will live.”

Here the young man, “wanting to justify himself,” asks who his neighbor is.  We don’t know his true motive, but Jesus did: no one understood the human heart better than he.  Maybe the man had heard Jesus talking before about loving your enemy; maybe he had self-doubts.  We’re curious.  So was Peter once when he got curious about John: “What about him?” “If I want him to remain … what is that to you?  You, follow me” (John 21:21,22).  Oops….  Anyway, the point is: what is the lesson for us?

You may be wondering why Jesus didn’t tell the young man, “Believe in me and you will be saved”?  His answers, instead, kept coming down to keeping the law more perfectly.  The law expert got the point about the Samaritan … perhaps he even went off determined to love his enemy….

The question that Jesus leaves hanging here is this:  If doing good (i.e., doing God’s moral law, doing his will) is required to “gain eternal life,” what, then, is the role of faith?

Jesus knew that the young man, intent on keeping the law, would eventually run flat up against a wall, frustrated, disillusioned by the law he loved and counted on to make him righteous before God.  No matter how hard he tried.  Just when he thought he was making progress … Did God move the goalpost?

Another story can help us understand the role of faith.  It’s about another young man who came to Jesus and asked the very same thing—and got the same answer—about eternal life.

This second man is known as the “rich young ruler” (e.g., Luke 18: 18-30).  He told Jesus he had kept the commandments since he was a boy.  Jesus said he still lacked one thing:  sell all he had, give to the poor; then he would have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow him.  Jesus loved this man, Mark says.

The rich man became sad; he had so much.  He’d seemed so close: did God just move the goalpost for him, too?  Jesus remarked that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.  Those around him were astonished: they assumed the rich had God’s favor.  So who can be saved?  Jesus: “What is impossible for people is not impossible for God.”

Both young men missed the point: no matter how much they loved, or how much they gave up, they could never put God in their debt.  Of course God wants people to do his will, but when the question becomes “What must I do to enter the kingdom of God?” the wrong question is being asked.

The disciples were still missing the point here, too.  Right before the rich ruler, some children were brought and the disciples had tried to turn them away.  Jesus was indignant.  “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these … anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15-17).  How’s that?

We agree: “let the children come.”  But we also say, as Dorothy did after the Wizard gave tokens of their brains, heart, and courage to her friends: “I don’t think there’s anything in that black bag for me….”

Have you ever considered what is meant by “the faith of a child”?  They are sweet and innocent, right? “Jesus loves the little children….”  But children are not giants of faith.  They are dependent, helpless little people, innocent because their trust has not yet been violated.  Yet we are wired to trust (have faith).  It’s essential for daily life, for every bite of food, every chair in which we sit.  By the time we’re adults, most of us have had our trust violated enough that we no longer give it easily, and we didn’t notice….

We need help to trust.  The question isn’t always, “whom do I trust?” but “how can I trust?” and “is it safe?”  That requires honesty.  In a moment I’ll never forget—on a hospital bed in Vietnam in June, 1969—I faced the question:  Did I really believe?  Was Jesus real?  I didn’t know—how can I?  Questions—and honesty— flooded my mind when I realized that I really almost died the day before….

I suspect that the young law expert had a moment after he left Jesus when he knew he was up against a wall and could never meet such a high standard as Jesus had laid out for him.  And the young rich man?  Jesus “loved him.”  Surprised?  He doesn’t only love the little children.  Irony:  the disciples likely deferred to him, since he was rich.  The disciples didn’t hinder him.  He had his own hindrance.

Leap of Faith

After my own moment of honesty, I slowly began to understand that God wasn’t asking me to take some blind leap of faith.  Nor was he telling me to sit around and wait on the Spirit to zap faith into me.  I was an historian: I knew I needed to follow the evidence, and especially to investigate the resurrection.

Bit by bit, I began to realize I could trust God’s word.  Jesus’ life and death was the fulfillment of promises made long before.  One day, two years after my moment on that hospital bed, I knew that I believed.  I knew I could trust him.  I didn’t know how little faith I had at that time, but it was a start….

Other people come to faith in other ways.  Some quickly, some slowly, some in anguish, some come quietly.  In my case, there was a clanging bell inside my head (a literal noise), followed by silence….

The big thing that keeps us from God is not sin per se, but our lack of trust in someone else’s love.  God’s invitation is out there for all to hear if they will.  “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).  “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

The first public words out of Jesus’ mouth were: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:3).  There’s no special virtue in being poor: they’re stuck in a place where they have no one to trust but God to provide for their daily needs.  Having that spirit means you have no one to trust but God.  You’d be surprised how he shows up, dresses our wounds, and pays the expense.

I hope those two young men eventually made that discovery.  I’d like to ask them how that happened.

Journey Post 46, What Jesus Taught: The parable of the prodigal son … and other lost things

 

 

 

 

 

Contempt.

It’s a word that reeks: of pride and arrogance, a sentence finalized and delivered by judge and jury to those beneath us.

Most of us have felt contempt, of others and for others.  Good missionary that I was, I remember feeling a mix of paternalism and contempt when we lived among the Manjako people in Senegal.  “They’re certainly fortunate to have us here,” I remember thinking one day.

I was there as God’s emissary to bring them good news!  You may think me arrogant for thinking such a thing.  I certainly was.  By grace I now have been the recipient of untold lessons in humility from the hand of God.  But back then, if the Manjako thought they could see God in my life, the picture they got was certainly distorted….

The religious teachers of Jesus’s day also presented a distorted view of God and who he is.  That’s what we see in Luke 15 and is the reason Jesus tells the parable the way he does.  The religious leaders were supposed to be God’s shepherds to Israel, helping them to know and understand him.  Instead, the people got the message, supposedly reflected from on high: they weren’t worth very much to God.

Is that how God actually looks at people?

Jesus found himself in a situation where that question was hanging in the air.  He decided to tell the onlooking religious leaders what we call “the parable of the prodigal son.”  (Prodigal: “recklessly wasteful.”)

Like “The Sower” and “The Good Samaritan,” the prodigal is among the best known stories of Jesus.  Even if you’ve never cracked open a Bible, you’ve heard it or are aware of its cultural and literary impact in our society, an impact which is—or has been—significant.

Please read the parable before we go on.  You’ll find it in Luke, chapter 15.  There is more to the parable than you may have heard before.  It consists of three vignettes: one about a lost sheep, one about a lost coin, and the third about the lost son.  It’s short, only thirty-one verses.

Okay … now that you’ve read it, we’ll continue….

First, the “tax collectors and sinners.”  Tax collectors were Jews who collected taxes on behalf of Rome.  They kept whatever they collected over what was owed and were, not surprisingly, considered traitors, detested by most.  The disciple Matthew (or Levi) had been a tax collector when Jesus called him.

“Sinners” included a variety of people not generally considered righteous before God, definitely not top tier.  They would have included prostitutes or other ne’er-do-wells.

These people were “all gathering around to hear Jesus;” they were drawn to him and were eating with him.  He welcomed them—and they felt welcomed.  They knew that Jesus was at least a rabbi, maybe more (i.e., Messiah?) yet he welcomed them.  Eating with them showed this because shared meals were traditional times of intimate fellowship, discussion, and enjoyment of others.  Just imagine….

Contrast them with “the Pharisees and teachers of the law,” who were contemptuous of both the people and Jesus.  You can feel the vibe.  The Pharisees prided themselves in strict adherence to all the minutiae of the rules they set up to “help” people keep God’s law.  The teachers of the law (or “scribes”) gave themselves to the laborious hand-copying of the Scriptures.  These two groups had frequent run-ins with Jesus, especially over issues related to Sabbath-keeping.

They enjoyed society’s respect and deference, though they seldom returned it—most assuredly not to those they regarded as beneath them.  But such a group sat before them now….

Jesus was aware of their hard hearts.  While we might want to “do contempt unto others,” Jesus sought to win them by providing an opportunity to understand the father heart of God towards those before them.  He knew most of the leaders would walk away, allowing the birds to snatch the seed; still, he continued to reach out to them.

Watch Jesus closely.  His parable doesn’t start with the father and sons.  He knew that even hard-hearted religious types understand the value of a lost sheep or a lost coin (likely worth an entire day’s wage) and would extend the same effort and be just as joyful as anyone upon finding them.  But, of course, other humans—especially one so thoughtless and contemptable as this recklessly wasteful son—well….

How odd it was that Jesus inserted a statement about more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than a gazillion who don’t need to where he did: in the two vignettes about a lost sheep and lost coin.  It was not lost on the Pharisees and teachers that Jesus was saying explicitly:  “God rejoices greatly when a sinner repents.”  (Don’t be thrown off by the reference to “in heaven” or “in the presence of angels” because that was a common device used by the Jews to not say the sacred Name.)

So, if you’re familiar only with the vignette about the father and his two sons, you may have been missing the punch line of the whole parable. The central point is the joy experienced by God when one single sinner “comes to his senses” like the prodigal did.

Can you picture Jesus’s Father running up the road to welcome that returning child?  You can’t?  Beneath his dignity and majesty?  Not your picture of God?  However you picture it, joy is the point.

You can bet that Jesus’s joy knew no bounds at these “tax collectors and sinners” who wanted to hear.  They had their ears on.  How might they have had their picture of God changed by the presence of Jesus?

Does the “good son” in the story remind you of anyone?  Those religious hypocrites?  Their need to repent was painfully obvious to everyone—but them.  Their blindness is evident all through the Gospels.  Outwardly, they supposedly did the right thing.  But God wanted their hearts.

As to the prodigal himself, we don’t hear any more about him after the father runs up the road, hugs him, orders the best robe, ring, and fattened calf.  But the older son, well, that’s another matter.  He refused to come to the celebration once he heard about it.  He complained bitterly to his dad.  He considered himself perfectly justified in what he thought and said, but his father did not have his heart.

If you are waiting for me to explain the meaning of each part in the story, I won’t.  Some parts are obvious. The father is God, no doubt, and he reminds the older son that his inheritance is still there.  But he has missed something fundamental about the nature of doing the “right thing”:  love and compassion, particularly for those who were lost and now are found.

It was part of Jesus’s overall message that the Father accepts all who come to him, whether “sinners” or Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews): those who understand their true poverty, their need for him, and turn to him (or, come to their senses).

I have my ideas about all this, but it’s worth staying with the main point: how much does God rejoice?  What is the value of a soul to God?  What is your value to him?  What is God really like?

“What comes into your mind when you think of God is the most important thing about you.” (A.W. Tozer)  It would be good to know your honest answer—not one you’d tell a Sunday school—but what you think when you’re alone, in the dark.

I hope, through these postings, to give some accurate indication of the answer.  God forbid that any Manjako or anyone else has a picture of God based on the contempt and other un-God-like qualities I once displayed while acting as his representative.  My Father’s grace, mercy, and love didn’t give up on the prideful young man I have been on this long road I call my Zigzag Journey.

Thanks, Father.

Journey Post 45, What Jesus Actually Taught: The parable of the sower

Painting by Malcolm Guite

The Key to Understanding the Kingdom of God:  “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”  (Jesus)


NOTE:  The parable of the sower is recorded in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8.  I’m focusing here on the account in Matthew 13:1-23.  I suggest reading it first.  You can Google the reference on another browser page.

First, a parable about windows.

I grew up in a house (built in the 1920s) with wood windows and sashes.  If you ever lived with those kinds of windows, you’ve experienced what I’m about to say:

Those windows stick … anytime, anywhere … when you least expect it … it just happens.  Why?  Maybe lack of use, maybe someone painted over the dirt, maybe the earth shifted or some other mysterious force of the universe was at work….

How you went about raising these windows was critical.  The least bit of uneven lifting made them refuse to go anywhere but crooked!  Those windows never would do what you wanted.  If you ask me, I think they had free will … or were possessed!

Such windows are a part of American lore: they show up in old movies, really old TV shows.  I’m mentioning them because those windows are me.  I am the Donkey, the epitome of stubborn.

You can draw your own conclusions about the causes for a stubborn window (i.e., stubborn heart).  I still can’t explain some of my own stubbornness.  It just was … is.

I never figured out how to fix such windows.  I didn’t want to, anyway.  I knew it would be hard work.

Fixing the stubborn heart is simple, but it’s hard.  The hard part is the willing: “whoever has ears, let them hear.”  What Jesus was saying was that, if you truly listen, consider and honestly seek to apply what you hear, there is a great payoff: you will understand the Kingdom of God and its secrets.

I’ll not get into theological arguments here about how to be willing, or whether you can even be willing if God doesn’t do something first.  I am here dealing with what is:  if you are willing.

The parable of the sower is a story about listening.

That is evident, since Jesus concludes by saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”  He quotes from the prophet Isaiah about those who never hear and never see.  Actual hearing and seeing depends on the condition of the soil (the heart).

I’d like to clear up some confusion that many, both Christian and non, seem to have.  This parable is fairly straightforward, but there are statements here that can lead one to conclude, as I once did, that either they’re stupid or else God has made them blind.

God wants to communicate.  He wants you to understand his ways, and this parable provides hope that we can understand spiritual truth, what Jesus calls the “secrets of the Kingdom.”

I learned an important lesson as a middle school teacher about how to learn.  I was teaching young people with learning disabilities how to read.  It was often a disheartening battle.  At that age, you may remember, many/most students weren’t exactly focused on learning.

Yes, there were always a few who were determined to learn.  But by the time they came to my classroom in 7th or 8th grade, many were already convinced they couldn’t learn.  They thought themselves stupid.  Some teachers even wrote them off as such.  They had stopped listening to the cheerleaders who said, “You can do it!” and ignored the exhorters who said, “Try harder!”

I wanted to find a way to give them hope, to motivate them.  I discovered that the only way for that to happen was for them to see that they could achieve some success, however small.  That would be something to build on, something to rekindle long-quenched hope and lead to more success.

My objective here is limited.  I won’t explain everything in the parable passage.  That would only be giving you predigested learning.  It’s more important to encourage those who feel like they don’t really “get it” to know that there is, indeed, a way to get it, and it’s within their reach.

I’ve realized that, in this parable, Jesus is not simply giving an apt illustration of how different people hear his message.  He is also providing an assurance—even a promise—that those who are honestly willing to listen, can understand the things of God and learn what he actually taught.

In previous posts, I sought to provide some useful and simple tools for “getting” Scripture.  Remember the question:  “What’s the main idea?”  If you look for this first, you’ll spare yourself thinking too much about the little stuff.  Also, always remember to think about context (with a capital “K”).  Considering context is important at every level.  As the saying goes, “You can prove anything from the Bible”—if you simply take it out of context.

These guidelines don’t sound especially spiritual, you might think.  Anyone can, after all, learn them in school.  But don’t forget: God uses human language to communicate with us.  Perhaps you’re wondering, what about the Spirit?  Isn’t the Spirit essential for understanding?  God indeed gave his Spirit to help his people understand and apply his word: he promised to write it in our hearts (see, e.g., Ezekiel 36:26,27).  And even if you’re a non-Christian, his basic message is there for you to hear, and, if you are willing, God can make it real in a way you’ve never imagined.

Jesus constantly faced large crowds, most of whom, he knew, would be ever hearing yet never understanding.  That’s a disheartening prospect.  But he knew there would also be some who genuinely wanted to understand.  And that is why he said what he did at the end of the parable: “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear….”

That phrase is more important here than you might think at first glance.  It is more than a rhetorical flourish used to get them to pay attention.  It was like a code phrase, a reminder of what prophets had consistently said to warn the people about the consequences of not paying attention to what God wanted to tell them.  If they kept that up, their hearts would eventually become “calloused,” and they would be taken into exile as judgment.  That is why Jesus quoted Isaiah.  (After Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D., the people were scattered in the Jewish Dispersion.)

Along with the warning there was hope.  There’s this little word “otherwise.”  If they did listen, Isaiah was saying, “they might see … and hear, understand with their hearts and turn,” i.e., they would recognize their need of God and turn to him for deliverance, “and I would heal them.”  (Mark’s account uses the word “forgive” instead of “heal.”)

The parables were not meant to confuse people.  They were a sign that God was doing something wonderful (see 13:34, 35).  God was now doing something that had been hidden even from righteous people: namely, the Messiah was here!

Parables were also designed to promote understanding.  A parable is an analogy in story form.  The story form makes it easier to remember, and analogy is one of the most effective means of communicating in any language.  Analogies are word pictures that say more than any lengthy, explicit exposition on the same topic; they are packed with an incredible amount of detail simply because the pictures were based on familiar things in their culture.

Jesus’s stories were vivid, pungent, memorable—and short, mostly.  Even if you know little about agriculture, for example, you can understand most parables without knowing all the cultural cues.

Let me address a part that has confused many, including me.

When you read Jesus telling his disciples the “knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but not to them,” you might conclude that only the inner circle elite (or elect) can get this.

But the point is that understanding spiritual truth (the secrets of the Kingdom) is not generally held back from those who genuinely want it.  As I’ve written before, God wants to communicate; spiritual truth is mostly pretty simple; but it takes a willing heart to “get it.”  The key to understanding is the willing heart, the listening heart that hangs on to what it hears, considers it, and seeks to put it to practice.

The seed is Jesus’s message of the Kingdom.  The soil is the human heart (soul, inner being, what we really hear or see with).  When someone pays no real attention and so does not understand, what little they have is taken away by the evil one.  The one who has no root is not allowing the word to penetrate—they may be joyful at first, but trouble causes them to abandon it in a relatively short time.

The ground with thorns represents the heart whose own agenda squeezes out God’s.  The good soil, of course, receives, understands, and produces fruit.  The fruit they produce is not the same for everyone.  Some produce just a little, some much more.

If you are just now beginning to understand some truth, take heart.  You may understand only a tiny bit, and produce just a little bit, but this will set you up to understand more.  Jesus often mentioned this basic principle of learning:  “Those who have will be given more….  Those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them” (13:12).

Think about this:  The first thing that Jesus did, after his temptation and baptism, was to begin preaching the gospel of the Kingdom.  When he said, “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” here was another sort of code, announcing that the one the Jews had been expecting, the Messiah (Christ), was arriving.  This was the first “secret of the Kingdom.”  Even Judas understood that.  But his expectation of what the Messiah came to do was wrong (others thought the same thing).  He thought Jesus would throw out the Romans.  When he finally realized that Jesus would never meet his expectation, his heart was open to Satan—so even what he had was taken away.

Take heart, my friend.  “If you have ears to hear, listen!”  Take it in, mull it over, ask for understanding, hang onto it, seek to put it to practice.

Journey Post 44, What Jesus Actually Taught: Those pesky puzzling parables — Jesus may have left the building, but he’s still around

Donkey running

 

 

The Donkey understanding of Christianity, part 4a

“…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.  When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”  (Matthew 13: 45-46, NIV)

pearl-of-great-price1

Jesus told many, many stories during the course of his ministry.  He used allegory extensively, including parables and other figures of speech to communicate his points.  Many of his sayings and parables have become deeply embedded within the cultural fabric of our nation, in its history and traditions.  The good Samaritan.  The prodigal son.  The sower and the seed.  The pearl of great price (above).

If you’re a bit uncertain about what Jesus was getting at in these stories, you’re not alone—whether you’re a devoted Christian or non.  Take the one from Matthew 13 about the pearl.  What do you think he meant?  The pearl:  is it people, God, Jesus, salvation?  The merchant: God, Jesus, a sinner?  Why did he sell everything and buy the pearl?  Is he saying I have to give up everything?  Go to Africa as a missionary?  Give all my money to the church?  Become Mother Teresa II?

There’s a lot of confusion:  Different people have different understandings of this and other parables—even in the same church.  What I want to do here, in this first post about parables, is not to give what I think are all the “correct” interpretations, but to provide some useful tools to help you do that.

Growing up in church, I figured I knew what the parables were about—and wouldn’t let on otherwise.  Even after attending Bible school, I was confused about many of them.  I came away from our training with the remarkable impression that the Gospels weren’t all that relevant for Christian life today.

Why then, bother with the parables?  Because they are important for us to understand.  They tell us a lot about what Jesus actually taught.  About what he was trying to say to us.

About a decade ago, I began to look at the parables again.  That’s when I took time out from any other Bible reading or study and just read the four Gospel accounts over and over.  I found then that most of them yield a simple, obvious explanation, though I’m still uncertain about some of the particulars.

lincoln-telling-storiesJesus was not “A. Lincoln, master tale spinner,” who could entertain (or get votes) in his inimitable style—though I can imagine Jesus sitting around with his disciples sharing a yarn and laughing, heartily.  The stories recounted in Scripture were given to hammer home serious points, vital spiritual truth to help us know God.  They help us know ourselves.

Jesus was a master at using vivid pictures and familiar illustrations in that agricultural society, memorable stories that made the kingdom of God come alive in a way that no preacher today with polished rhetoric could match.

When finishing a story, Jesus often left listeners an exhortation such as: “Those who have ears to hear, hear what the parable is saying….”  He urged them to listen carefully—and mull.  The story form facilitated remembering, and the word pictures communicated so much more than erudite explanation.

jesus-teaching

The crowds didn’t always understand, and even his disciples were stumped sometimes.  The difference between the masses and the disciples (i.e., those who wanted to learn and apply what he taught, like any good apprentice) was that the disciples went and asked what he meant.

“Gee, thanks, Walt,” you say, “Jesus isn’t exactly around to ask.”  But the premise of Christianity is that, yes indeed, Jesus is still very much around.  He rose from the dead and sent his Holy Spirit to help us know God and to understand his mindset.  You may not claim to be a believer, but I’m guessing you might want to know if Jesus is relevant for your life, even if you don’t want to hang around church.prayer

This leads us to another premise of Christianity: i.e., God wants to communicate with his creatures.  He doesn’t hide the meaning of what he says from those who truly want to know and are willing to apply that meaning to their lives.  That’s what Jesus meant when he exhorted “those who have ears to hear….”  Even if you believe that the Bible and Christianity is a complete crock full of superstitious nonsense or deliberate deception, you can understand, too.  You can go to the Source.

Another premise of Christianity is that what God wants us to understand is pretty simple.  Intellectually.  But to truly “learn” it requires a willing heart.  We Americans are so brain centered that we think academic smarts are more important than wisdom.  I know I did.  My “zigzag journey” is really about me getting my “self” out of the way, though sometimes the Lord had to hit this Donkey upside the head to get my attention.  My brain, my faith in my own intellectual ability to build a system wherein God made sense, was generally in the way of finding out what he thinks.

Spiritual truth, if from God, is generally much simpler than we want to think.

God has promised that those who seek him will find him, if they seek with all their heart (Jeremiah 29:13).  He promised his people (in Jeremiah 31) that he would write his law on their hearts.  I’ve never known him to break a promise.  It’s his Spirit who makes what he says (i.e., in the Scriptures) comprehensible and doable.  The brain (intellect, cognitive ability) submitted to him, will know his truth.

In a similar vein, Jesus once said (John 7:17):  “Anyone who wants to do the will of God will know whether my teaching is from God or is merely my own.”

Unfortunately, even churches get caught up in what a friend of mine calls “cognitive discipleship.”  It’s the path of least resistance: learn enough Bible verses to build a correct doctrinal system and you’ll be okay.

jesus-confronting-phariseesThe Pharisees and other religious leaders had the intellectual part down.  But they didn’t truly “get” the point of God’s law, which is why they kept having run-ins with Jesus.  They practiced legalistic minutia, but missed the “weightier matters of the law,” things like justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Matthew 23).

A good Jewish boy growing up in Jesus’s day should have known that God’s law could be summed up by two commandments:  love God with all your being (heart, soul, mind, and strength) and love your neighbor as yourself.  The problem was that their teachers’ minutia kept getting in the way of God’s simpler will.

Here’s a couple simple things to keep in mind so as not to get lost in the minutia of a parable.

whats-the-main-ideaFirst simple thing:  Remember your English teacher asking, what’s the main point?  the big idea?  This is the critical question about any parable, because it’s so tempting to try figuring out each little part.  There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s hard to avoid, really.  But focusing on every detail makes it easy to miss the main thing.  It’s missing the forest for the trees.

capital-kThe second simple thing is this: always consider the context (Kontext with a capital “K”).  I’ll never tire of saying this.  And I hope you listened in English class.  Context simply is what comes before and after in a sentence, paragraph, story, or a book in the Bible or the whole Bible itself.

Two very familiar parables illustrate the importance of context.  One is the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  The other is the story of the good Samaritan in Luke 10.

prodigal-son-iThe prodigal son is a favorite story, a nice, heartwarming read or tell.  The younger son asks for his inheritance and goes away, wasting it on wine, women, and song in a relatively short time.  He’s reduced to slopping pigs, yearning to eat their same delicious repast.  (Pigs are unclean for Jews.)  He comes to his senses, repents, and goes home.  The father, who has been watching for him, sees him coming up the road and runs to meet him, (so much for the dignity of the dad).  He prodigal-son-iithrows a great feast to celebrate—though the older brother refuses to come.

We’re rightly touched by the story.  You may stumble around looking at the parts to figure out what’s what.  Is the father God?  What did the older brother represent, the religious leaders?  Is each piece important?  The larger context is important:  The first verse in Luke 15 tells us about the Pharisees and teachers complaining that Jesus eats with and welcomes “sinners.”  In answer, Jesus tells a parable, composed of three parts, about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and then the lost son.  Looking at context will put you on firmer ground to think about the possibilities.  We’ll come back to this parable at a later time…. 😊

Another example is “the good Samaritan,” Luke 10:25-37.  The story seems unconnected to any surrounding context.  Is that so?  The story illustrates what it means to “love your neighbor,” and by extension, what it means to love God.  The man to whom Jesus told the story was an expert in God’s law.  The man, whose motives are suspect, asks “and who is my neighbor?”

good-samaritan-neighborJesus’s answer packs a double whammy:  being merciful to a neighbor means getting involved with a beaten-up stranger.  Two men pass by, one a priest, the other a Levite, who should’ve stopped.  The generously merciful one who stops is a Samaritan, a member of the race regarded by Jews as half-breeds and enemies.

There are at least two points that Jesus is making in the parable: how to love is only one point.  Remember the expert’s original question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The answer to that is an important part of the story.  Jesus threw the question back at the man, telling him he had “answered correctly….  Do this and you will live.”

Wait … what?  “Walt, Christians say the Bible teaches that eternal life comes by faith, not doing good works.”  That’s right, it does.  “Well then, is Jesus saying that we gain eternal life by living ‘correctly’?”  No, he is not.  It’s important to know the larger context (bigger “K”) of the Bible: what did Jesus and others say elsewhere?

If our eternal destiny depends entirely on how well we live … well …. the Bible states explicitly that no one can live rightly enough to earn a place in heaven.  It states very clearly that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” i.e., they cannot, on their own, attain to a place in God’s glorious presence, (Romans 3:23).

Scripture makes abundantly clear that no one can live up to God’s standards.  The law expert seemed satisfied that he was doing okay, and Jesus almost lets him think that.  There’s enough in the story to tell us that the man wasn’t really interested in loving his neighbor the way Jesus described it.  The parable picture Jesus used would—hopefully—haunt the man until he asked more honestly.  We don’t know if he did.

A more complete answer would have included reference to the idea that no person can be righteous in the sight of God without depending on his merciful and gracious heart.  Being truly righteous is beyond the reach of human effort.  That’s part of the bigger story (i.e., the context) in the Gospel accounts and the rest of the Bible.

If you were to ask why Jesus came, the stock answer is that he came to die on the cross to pay for our sins.  It might include the idea that if you believe this, you will have eternal life.  But believing can be tricky: it includes both mental assent to facts and trusting God that he will keep his promises.  You cannot trust someone you do not know.  So God sent Jesus to display to his creatures who he is and what he is like, to correct the errors foisted on the people by their religious leaders, so that those who follow Jesus can know the Father, can know he is trustworthy.

Please join me as we explore what Jesus actually taught through his parables.  We won’t look at all of them, and I’m not sure yet where we will end.  We will begin next time with the parable of the sower and the seed.

If you have ears, hear what the parable says.  And don’t forget to ask.  Jesus may have gone to heaven, but he’s still very much around….

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