Christianity 201

February 1, 2018

Parables of Jesus: The Tricky Bits

by Clarke Dixon

In reading through the parables of Jesus from Mark chapter 4, there are certain parts that have always stood out to me as being difficult to understand. While we might normally gravitate to the familiar parables, I figured that if I found some parts tricky, you might also. So let’s take the difficult path and look at two tricky bits.

First Tricky Bit: Is God keeping secrets, and keeping people outside?

10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;
12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ” Mark 4:10-12

From verse 11 we might wonder if God is keeping secrets and from verse 12 we might wonder if He does so because He does not want people to be forgiven. This seems a direct contradiction of 2 Peter 3:9:

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

So how are we to understand this? First off, the word translated “secret” by the NRSV may be better translated as “mystery”. However, even that word comes with baggage as we tend to think of mystery as something we could never know. Here the idea is that though we couldn’t know it before, it has been revealed to us and can now be known. While a secret is something meant to be kept hidden, this “mystery” is something shared.

However, those “outside” (verse 11) won’t be able to understand this mystery while those on the inside will. The point is not that we should pity the people outside, but that we should invite them in. The point is not that those outside should stay there, but that they should push in. We have seen people pushing in to see Jesus before in Mark’s Gospel. We can think of the paralytic in chapter 2 whose friends were so desperate to get him before Jesus they dug a hole in the roof and lowered him in. Note that the first thing Jesus tells him is that his sins are forgiven. That kind of thing happens when you press in to Jesus.

The parables are meant to get people thinking and questioning. Are you outside, thinking that you know everything you need to know and there is noting about Jesus or yourself that you need to learn? Or are you pressing in to find out? The question is not, “are you stuck outside?”, the questions is “are you coming in?”

Second Tricky Bit: Is God being harsh when those who have nothing lose everything?

24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25 For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” Mark 4:24-25

It seems both harsh and without logic to say that those who have nothing will lose everything. What are we to make of this? Imagine you have nothing, but are given a house. You don’t even send a thank you note to the generous person who gave you the house.  You go on with your life, living in the home, but you put no work into it. You never clean it and do no maintenance of any sort even though water has started pouring in from the roof, windows and foundation. You live in it, but you turn your back on it. Your benefactor, being very generous indeed, offers to give you a much better home, but you turn your nose up at the offer. Though you earned nothing, even what you do have will eventually be lost when the house falls apart. This is like our relationship with God. God has been good to every one of us in that He has given us life. Life is a gift from his hands, a sign of grace. Now suppose, though you live now by the grace of God, you turn your back on Him and refuse to have anything to do with Him. You refuse the offer of a further gift of eternal life. What will happen? Even what you have though have not earned, namely life, will be taken away from you. Separation from God, what we often call hell, is not harsh on God’s part. It is a natural consequence of the sin that separates us from God. It is what happens when we refuse the generous gift of Jesus who deals with that sin.

While the parables reveal truths about God’s Kingdom, they also reveal truths about us. God is bringing His kingdom. Are you pressing into it, or turning your back on it?

God is offering you a love relationship. Are you pressing into that relationship or turning your back? Jesus didn’t turn His back on you when he could have, when perhaps he should have. His back was to the cross.

All Scripture references are taken from NRSV

Read more at ClarkeDixon.wordpress.com

Based on a 32-minute sermon. Click here to listen in full.

 

 

October 25, 2017

The Householder

Today we conclude our midweek series with teaching on The Kingdom Parables from the devotional Living Truth, a ministry of The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada, where for many years Charles Price was the Senior Pastor.

The Householder

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”
-Matthew 13:52

This brief parable begins with a question Jesus asks His disciples. “Have you understood all these things?” “Yes,” they replied (Matthew 13:51). They heard these parables and could possibly recount each one of them, but did they understand them?

Did they understand that some of the seed sown in the field will ultimately come to nothing? Did they understand that alongside the good seed, there will be weeds sown by an enemy, which will threaten to choke the good? Did they understand that the mustard seed, though small in its beginnings, will grow into a tree that may appear impressive, but is a distortion harbouring evil? And just as yeast permeates a loaf, did they understand the kingdom of heaven on earth will be contaminated on every level by sin?

The first four parables teach the reality of human failure within the kingdom, and the disciples needed to understand that this is what will be true. Despite the discouraging images as the world will see the kingdom of God, there is an understanding from God’s perspective that is very different. Do the disciples realize that regardless of setbacks, hardships and difficulties, the treasure is going to be obtained, and that the pearl is purchased by Christ? Did they know that the wheat and the weeds, the good and the bad fish will be separated at the end of the age?

Their reply was, “Yes.” If they have fully understood these things, Jesus said they will be like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old. They will never give up, for despite the difficulties and opposition, they know there are always new and old treasures to bring out. If treasure here is equal to the treasure of the fifth parable in the hidden treasure, then there will always be new and old treasures coming forth; new people for whom Christ died to be brought to Him as Saviour and also established believers to be nurtured and brought to maturity in their walk with Christ.

There are no grounds for disillusionment or disappointment if we see things from the perspective of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is always confidence, always hope, always new treasures and always something to do. If we see the kingdom of heaven, not through the eyes of the world, but through the eyes of God, and submit to the Lordship of Christ, we are going to shine like the sun in our Father’s kingdom.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord Jesus, for these wonderful teachings. I pray the kingdom of heaven is seen through Your eyes, drawing new treasures to you and strengthening established believers. Thank You, Lord.

October 18, 2017

The Fishnet

We’re continuing our midweek series with teaching on The Kingdom Parables from the devotional Living Truth, a ministry of The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada, where for many years Charles Price was the Senior Pastor. We have just one left after today!

The Fishnet

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous. – Matthew 13:47-49

Andrew, Peter, James and John were fishermen who had dropped everything when Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19 NKJV). The symbolism used in the above parable would naturally be very familiar to them.

The casting of the net into the sea would seem to represent the evangelistic ministry of the church. The net is the large dragnet, drawn along by two boats or with ropes from the shore. All kinds of fish and creatures of the sea, good and bad, are caught in the net and hauled up together. This picture may be particularly apt in forms of mass evangelism where crowds are confronted with the Gospel and invited to receive Jesus Christ.  It becomes easy for people to make the same outward response to this invitation, but for varying motives. Hence, the good and bad become mingled together in the one net. True as that picture of evangelism may be, the catching of the fish is not the main point.

Jesus gave an interpretation which focused entirely on the separation of the good and bad fish. “The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:49-50).  This is similar to what Jesus said of the weeds and the wheat. “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and… there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father.” (13:41-43). The final image is of the good seed stored safely in the barn where they will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. In this parable, addressed to the disciples, the final image is throwing the wicked into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (13:49-50).”

To the crowds, Jesus emphasized the prospect of heaven, but to the disciples he gave a vision of hell.  The prospect of hell is unambiguous in Jesus’ teaching and we dare not belittle the reality and seriousness of it. However, Jesus is not primarily teaching about hell, but showing that ultimately the separation of the good from the bad will take place. No matter how compromised the earthly expression of the kingdom of God appears, the day will come when there will be a separation of the good from the bad, and an in-gathering of the true kingdom of heaven.

Prayer: Dear Lord Jesus, I am grateful that there is no deceiving You, and look forward to the day when Your kingdom will be made righteous and pure. Amen.

October 11, 2017

The Pearl of Great Price

We’re continuing our midweek series with teaching on The Kingdom Parables from the devotional Living Truth, a ministry of The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada, where for many years Charles Price was the Senior Pastor.

The Pearl of Great Price

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

The parable is very similar to the last one.  The main difference is in the treasure, specified as a pearl. Jesus did not give an explanation, so again we tread carefully. As the pearl is the distinguishing feature, it is a key to our understanding of this parable.

A pearl is the only precious stone that is produced by a living organism. A grain of sand or other irritants get under the skin of the oyster, hurting and injuring it. The oyster responds by covering the injury with a substance called “nacre,” known as “mother of pearl.” The oyster pours layer after layer of nacre on the injury until the pearl is formed as a beautiful jewel.

The common interpretation sees Jesus Christ as the pearl of great price, but again, this is a misconception, for no price can be put on Jesus, nor do we have to pay for Him!  It is true that to be a disciple of Christ a person must surrender everything to Him, but by no stretch of the imagination is that a purchase. We are to give up everything because Christ comes to be everything in us, and there must be no competition for His place in our lives.  There is no purchase of Christ or of our salvation. As in the last parable, we are the treasure, and it is Christ who purchases us at great cost to Himself.

The image of the pearl holds a beautiful aspect of the Gospel.  By our sin, we have offended God, yet we are being changed by the One we have offended into something beautiful.  Paul writes, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory…”  (2 Corinthians 3:18)  This is like the formation of a pearl. Our injury of God is the means by which He turns us into something beautiful.    The pearl is the response of the injured to the injury done.

Another important distinction from the last parable is that the treasure in the first parable is described very generally as hidden treasure, but in the second, it is described specifically as a pearl. If the field is the world, it is true to say Christ died for the whole world, and His work has general application to the entire human race. In this parable, however, the merchant finds only one pearl of great value and sells everything he has to buy it.  It is wonderfully true that Christ died for the whole world, but it is also true He died for us individually. As such he singles us out individually and draws us to Himself.

PRAYER: Dear Lord, I pray for a great gathering of new pearls added to Your kingdom.  May Your Holy Spirit draw them and their lives become a precious jewel in Your sight.

October 4, 2017

The Hidden Treasure

We’re continuing our Wednesday series (sorry about the delay last week!) with Charles Price on The Kingdom Parables. Find more devotions like this at Living Truth, a ministry of The Peoples Church in Toronto, Canada.

The Hidden Treasure

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
 – Matthew 13:44 NIV

We now turn to the Good News of the kingdom of heaven.  After speaking to the crowds, Jesus entered a house with His disciples and conveyed these next four parables to them in private.  They represent the kingdom of heaven from God’s perspective.

A very common interpretation of this parable sees the hidden treasure as being Christ or salvation, and the person who sells everything to obtain the treasure is the penitent sinner who comes to Christ. In light of the entire picture given by Jesus in the eight parables, this would be a wrong  assumption. If we interpret it according to the symbols already used, the man who sells everything to purchase the field is the Son of Man who finds treasure in the world and gives up everything He has in order to purchase it.  Rather than being a picture of how the sinner obtains Christ, it is a picture of how Christ obtains the sinner.  It is Christ finding treasure in the world, and giving up everything in order to purchase it for His own.

What can be described as God’s treasure in the world? On what has He set His heart to the extent He gives up everything to purchase it?  The answer is that God’s treasure is people.  The Psalmist asks, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you visit him?” (Psalm 8:4-5 NKJV)  Job asks, “What is mankind that you make so much of them, that you give them so much attention?”  (Job 7:17)

If the treasure is human beings, the parable states, “When a man found it…” which implies he was looking.  Jesus said of Himself, “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”  (Luke 19:10)   It is a wonderful thing to be described as lost, because it means we are wanted and every human being is of value and precious to Christ. To obtain the treasure, he gave all He had to make our salvation possible.  Jesus did not only die for us, but with His blood, He purchased us outright. To be a Christian is to acknowledge we are not our own. Our salvation may be free, but it is not cheap.  It came at great cost and suffering to Jesus Christ.

The man in the parable did not begrudge the purchase. On the contrary, “…in his joy went and sold all that he had and bought the field.”  This fits what is said of Christ — “…who for the joy  set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame”  (Hebrews 12:2).  It was in joy Christ made the transaction and purchased us for Himself with His blood shed on the cross.

PRAYER:  As sinful as I am, Lord, thank You for looking upon me as Your treasure, for purchasing me with Your blood and making me Yours. You are my life! Thank you, Lord.

 

 

September 28, 2017

The Leaven and the Loaf

We continue our midweek series looking at a few of the Kingdom parables as interpreted by Charles Price, Minister at Large and former Pastor of The Peoples Church in Toronto. Some of his takes on these may be just slightly different from what you’ve heard or thought. Find more devotions like this at Living Truth.

The Leaven and the Loaf

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Matthew 13:33

This is the final brief parable that sums up to the crowd the picture given by Jesus of the kingdom of heaven so far. It is also known as the parable of “The Yeast”, and is often understood as the yeast being a picture of the spread of the goodness of God throughout the world, but it is more likely the complete opposite.

Yeast in Scripture is a consistent picture of evil. From the time of the Passover when God brought Israel out of Egypt, bread eaten in celebration of God’s goodness was to be without yeast. Jesus speaks of the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”, which the disciples understood Him to mean guarding against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6 & 12). Paul exhorted the Corinthian church, “Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast… not with the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

If yeast is consistently used to depict evil in Scripture, this parable is unlikely to be an exception. It is not that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, but that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast mixed into a large amount of flour until it works through the dough. It is the whole picture, all of the dough that is likened to the kingdom of heaven. Evil is contagious; righteousness is not. Cleanliness does not spread; dirt does. The yeast permeates to every part of the dough, which is why we are not given hope on earth of perfection in our personal lives or in the corporate life of the church. As long as we live within a fallen environment we are vulnerable to contamination by sin and subject to failure. Only in heaven is there the prospect of being free from the contamination of sin.

This is not to put a pessimistic view of the kingdom of heaven in its expression on earth, but to be utterly realistic as history and contemporary experience have served to confirm.

This is the view of the kingdom given to the crowds. It is the perspective from outside the kingdom and is neither attractive nor appealing. It is unlikely to be held up as the ideal of society, and will not draw people in its natural state. There will always be reason to criticize and disregard it, which is how the kingdom of God is seen by the world at large.

PRAYER: : I pray for the world, Lord, and ask for a deeper work of Your Spirit so that Your goodness prevails over evil, both in our lives and in the church. Thank You, Lord.

September 20, 2017

The Mustard Seed

We continue our September Wednesday series looking at a few of the Kingdom parables as interpreted by Charles Price, Minister at Large and former Pastor of The Peoples Church in Toronto. Some of his takes on these may be just slightly different from what you’ve heard or thought. Find more devotions like this at Living Truth.

The Mustard Seed

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.” Matthew 13:31

Though the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, “so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.” Jesus gives no explanation of this parable, so we must tread carefully. If we remain consistent in our interpretation with the first two parables, which also include a sower sowing seed in a field, then it is a picture of the Son of Man sowing seed into the world, but this time specified as mustard seed.

The popular interpretation is that the kingdom grows from humble beginnings into something good and great, which provides a refuge for the birds. This is not a proper understanding. The key to this parable is in the seed being specifically stated as mustard seed. Mustard is a herb and not a tree. It normally grows to about four feet and would not be a place you would expect to find a bird’s nest. This is not a picture of natural growth but of something unnatural, portraying a false greatness. The birds nesting in the branches are not something good, but evil. In the first parable, the birds came and ate up the seed on the path. Jesus described them as representing “the evil one”.

There is a similar image in a vision given to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, in which a tree, representing himself, grows large and strong, “with its top touching the sky, visible to the whole earth… and having nesting places in its branches for the birds of the air” (Daniel 4:20-21). The tree demonstrated Nebuchadnezzar’s arrogance, and in due time, a messenger of God came and chopped the tree down and Nebuchadnezzar was greatly humbled and reduced to poverty.

It would seem what Jesus is saying here is that instead of being characterized by humility and gentleness, the kingdom of heaven in its manifestation on earth has become rich, powerful and, in some instances, authoritative and arrogant. Its strategies are in danger of not deriving from obedience to Jesus Christ, dependency on the Holy Spirit and child-like trust in a heavenly Father, but from marketing tactics, high profiled publicity, public relations expertise and the attempt to woo others with our bigness and noise. It has become a nesting place for the birds!

This parable does not teach the failure of the church as a manifestation of the kingdom of God, but it does predict its distortion and corruption, which history and current experiences have shown to be true. This is how those outside of Christ will perceive the kingdom of God in our world today.

PRAYER: Dear Jesus, grant me a humbled heart that remains in submission to You, and keep me from falling prey to arrogance in those who falsely represent Your kingdom. Thank You, Lord.

 

April 19, 2015

Spiritual Snobbery

When I gave this blog its name, all those years ago, I was thinking in terms of something that would go beyond the surface, move past the superficial. The tag line “Digging a Little Deeper” expressed itself in having deep quotations or worship songs with rich lyrics. I prided myself in telling people that we offered something that went beyond those devotionals.

A few years in however, and the trademark style emerged that you see today.

First, there is always an anchor scripture verse or passage, highlighted in green because it’s God’s Word that has life; not anything any of us has to say.

Second, we try to run about five or six paragraphs, as opposed to those devotionals that only have two or three paragraphs.

But there’s also a third hallmark of this blog that perhaps isn’t so obvious: I have always eschewed stories and illustrations. We never start out with cute stories about children or puppies, hobby interests like photography or gardening, or sports illustrations from rock climbing or running marathons. Again, not like those devotionals.

Do you hear the pride talking?

I’ve always been impressed by pastors who simply jump right into the text. (Note: This includes speakers who preach topically and those who use the exegetical method.) We’ve had the opportunity to visit a couple of megachurches where the message just starts to roar through the auditorium like a freight train. It is good use of peoples’ time, though often you don’t get to know the heart or background of the pastor. (This does solve the problem of churches being personality-driven, however.)

But as I was getting ready to post today’s article I was very convicted about these verses:

And He was teaching them many things in parables, and was saying to them in His teaching,
Mark 4:2

and

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.
Matthew 13:34

Jesus took the familiar sights and sounds that people could relate to and incorporated them into his teaching. I do need to qualify here that the parables in the Gospel accounts are much more than just illustration or analogy, however. There was a certain richness and even mystery to them sometimes that went beyond the 1:1 correspondence a modern preacher’s story might contain. Often His parables could be processed on several different levels at once. At the website GotQuestions.org they deal with this aspect and include this passage:

‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, because they see; and your ears, because they hear. For truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:10-17).

So… I am repenting of spiritual snobbery today. Who knows that I haven’t tossed out some good devotional material over the past few years because of wanting to quickly jump into exposition of the text?

If the methodology was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be employed by us. And as the passage above reminds us, you can be “digging a little deeper” in a parable just as much as you can from formal, doctrinal teaching.

 

We have a C201-related bonus item for you today, if you’re interested. At Thinking Out Loud, I explained a little bit of why I cite different translations to accomplish different purposes.  Click to read How and Why I Use Different Bible Translations.


July 22, 2014

When God Tells Stories

Many times at Thinking Out Loud there have been references to the sometimes-controversial Rachel Held Evans, but it might surprise you to see her here at Christianity 201. However, she’s been blogging the Lectionary this year, and while the concept of what follows is, at one level, quite simple, I hope you’ll read what she writes and get lost in the wonder of how the Creator of the universe chooses to communicate with us.

To read at source, click here.

I’m blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week’s reading comes from Matthew 13:24-43:

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’ 

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!’

In the Gospel reading for this week, we learn that in the time between Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the events leading to his death and resurrection, the travelling teacher communicated through stories.  Matthew goes so far as to say “without a parable he told them nothing.”

It is an astounding detail when you think about it: The God of all creation, the One who knows every corner of the cosmos and fathoms every mystery, the One who could answer every theological riddle and who, I suspect, chuckles at our volumes of guesses, our centuries of pompous philosophical tomes debating His nature, when present in the person of Jesus Christ, told stories.

  • Stories about farming.
  • Stories about kneading bread.
  • Stories about seeds and trees and birds.
  • Stories that somehow, in their ordinary profundity, “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

Jesus, who certainly could have filled volumes, favored riddles to lectures, metaphors to propositions, everyday language, images, and humor to stiff religious pontification. In a strange burst of joy, Jesus even exclaimed,  “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Religious education is good and important, certainly. But it’s not as important as paying attention. It’s not as important as seeking the Kingdom in the quotidian rhythms of the everyday. It’s not as important as obedience. 

After all, Jesus didn’t come for the rich, the educated, or the right. Jesus came for those with listening ears and open eyes, those who are hungry for righteousness and thirsty for God, those comfortable with metaphors and similes and “almosts” and “not yets,” those content to understand without knowing fully, those with dirt in their fingernails and flour in their hair.

In Matthew 13, we encounter several parables all packed in together, each one worthy of a thousand different reflections. (The one about the seed that grows into a tree is one of my personal favorites.) Each of these parables features Jesus’ very favorite subject, the thing he spoke about more than any other: The Kingdom. 

The Kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed, Jesus said, that grows into an enormous tree with branches wide and strong enough to make a home for all the birds. It is like a buried treasure, a delicious feast, or a net that catches an abundance of fish. The Kingdom is right here, Jesus said. It is present and yet hidden, immanent yet transcendent. The Kingdom isn’t some far off place you go where you die, the Kingdom is at hand—among us and beyond us, now and not-yet. It is the wheat growing in the midst of weeds, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl germinating in a sepulchral shell. It can come and go in the twinkling of an eye, Jesus said. So pay attention; don’t miss it.

This Kingdom knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture. It advances not through power and might, but through acts of love and joy and peace, missions of mercy and kindness and humility. This Kingdom has arrived, not with a trumpet’s sound but with a baby’s cries, not with the vanquishing of enemies but with the forgiving of them, not on the back of a war horse but on the back of a donkey, not with triumph and a conquest but with a death and a resurrection.

And yet there is more to this Kingdom that is still to come, Jesus said, and so we await a day when every tear will be wiped from every eye, when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears shaped into a pruning hooks, when justice will cascade like a river down a mountain and righteousness like a never-ending stream, when people from every tribe and tongue and nation will live together in peace, when there will be no more death.

On this week when our newspapers reveal the ugly reality that evil and good grow alongside one another—in the world and even in our own hearts—the parable of the wheat and the weeds seems especially weighty. As reports of civilian casualties mount, we see that, just as Jesus warned, human attempts to “root out evil” on our own, by force, result in the destruction of innocent lives. 

Every. Single. Time. 

Like it or not, this parable challenges, (perhaps even mocks), our notion of “precision airstrikes,” of getting rid of the “bad guys” without hurting the “good guys.” The fact is, we don’t see the world as God sees it. We are not equipped to call the shots on who deserves to live and who deserves to die, who is evil and who is good—especially when, if we’re honest, we can feel both impulses coursing through our own bloodstreams.

While we could certainly digress into an eschatological conversation about exactly what Jesus means when he talks about throwing evildoers into the fire, the instructive call of this parable remains the same: to let God do the farming. God is the judge—not you, not me, not kings, not presidents.

“Without a parable, he told them nothing.” 

Yet still we struggle to understand. Still we struggle to obey.

Two-thousand years after Matthew recorded these parables about seeds and wheat and yeast, we’re still combing our theology books for answers. We’re still talking about airstrikes and minimizing civilian casualties. We’re still seeking power and vengeance, knowledge and stuff.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle tells of a young woman who told the author, “I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was eight or nine. I didn’t understand it, but I knew what it was about.”

That’s often how I feel about the parables of Jesus. I don’t understand them exactly, but I know what they’re about.

L’Engle concludes: “…One does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding—that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of—there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which you are not yet able to understand…As long as we know what it’s about, then we can have the courage to go wherever we are asked to go, even if we fear that the road may take us through danger and pain.” 

The God of the universe has beckoned us into His lap to tell us a story, to teach us to pay attention.

Let those with ears hear.

August 12, 2010

The Manager Looking Out For Number One

I used a short piece from Canadian pastor Kevin Rogers from the blog Orphan Age here on April 27th, but I thought it might be good if you were to read a more typical post from his blog; this one looking at the Shrewd Manager in Luke 16


Jesus told the story of a manager who goofed up his job.  Whether the man was crooked and skimming profits for himself or had poor job performance, we do not know.  What was clear was the boss being unhappy about this particular employee.  The manager was getting fired because the boss was unhappy.

Luke 16: 1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’

3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’

5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

6” ‘Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’

7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
” ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’

8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.  For, the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.

Not strong enough to dig ditches and not wanting to end up as a beggar on the street…

How many people feel that same way?  You may be in a job that is redundant and where you have outlived your usefulness.  What are you going to do?  Perhaps someone is gunning for your position and you are faced with an unplanned career change.  It would be easy to get stuck at blaming the economy, an unethical employer or believing that you can do no wrong.

While the manager had some problems that lead to his dismissal, his final days of work showed a praiseworthy strategy that caught Jesus’ attention.

Though assessed as a poor manager of the master’s business, he decided to leave on a high note.  He gave a 50% discount on the olive oil and 20% discount on the wheat bill.  He realized that his business contacts were potential employers that would appreciate his kindness.

Where did the discount come from?  Was the manager giving up his commission or was he intentionally cutting into the employer’s profit margin?  If he was giving up his commission, he used his last pay cheque to buy a positive influence on the customers.  Not only would they remember the good deal he gave, they would think it came from the employer.  This would benefit all parties involved.

If the manager was cutting into the employer’s profits, he was doing something bad to protect his own interests.  Would Jesus praise him for this?

Blogger Anne Robertson suggests a way of looking at the ethics of this story.

Let’s say that a man is convicted of murdering his wife and is sentenced to prison.  Further, let’s say that on his way to begin serving his sentence he goes past a burning house with a child left inside.  Figuring that misery awaits him anyway and figuring that saving a baby can’t hurt his reputation, he dashes into the building and saves the child.  A pastor is watching and goes home to write a sermon.  “Why is it,” he says the next Sunday “that this murderer can figure out that saving a child is a good thing and the 16 churchgoers who were there watching the fire burn, did nothing?  This convict is smarter than all of them.  Use the opportunities life presents to you to enhance God’s reputation.  The one who risks his own life to save another is living out the Gospel.”

If we look at the shrewd manager of Jesus’ story in this way, we see a man who was clearly guilty of wrongdoing, but was able to change his focus to help others in a meaningful way.  Jesus was not disregarding the wrongs, but recognizing the futuristic thinking of a man with nowhere else to turn.  Just because you have been very bad, you are not prohibited from doing something very good.


A day later on the blog, Kevin posted more on this same passage, saying that the story and its definition of  “shrewdness” was largely intended for the Pharisees in the audience.   Continue reading that article here.