Christianity 201

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.

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