zigzag journey

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

Archive for the category “Teaching of Jesus”

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….

Post Navigation