The Mustard Seed: Matthew 13:31-32

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.”

Matthew 12:31-32 (NRSV)

This is a mini-parable sprinkled in with explanations of some of the larger parables.  The overarching context is the response Jesus is (or isn’t) getting to his message and works.  He is talking about this phenomenon in stories so that only the people who come to Jesus in faith will be able to understand what he’s talking about.  The rest, by refusing to accept Jesus’ rather forthright message and demonstrations of the kingdom having come will continue not to listen or believe and become signs that the judgement on that generation is imminent.

In this parable, the aspect Jesus brings up is size.  The mustard seed is chosen because it starts very tiny and grows into a big plant.  Mustard bushes can get anywhere from 6 to 20 feet tall and very broad.  Jesus wasn’t trying to make a scientific classification, here, but visually speaking, they can easily get to the size of trees.

This is the main point of the parable – the growth.  Something that seems incredibly small ends up growing into something incredibly huge.  This is an important thing to keep in mind considering that Jesus’ following, overall, has been small – much smaller than he’d like.  This parable tells us that the seed that appears small in Jesus’ ministry will, in time, grow very large.

But Jesus does not just pick a small thing that becomes a big thing.  The imagery he uses is also pulled from the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament, mighty trees are used as symbols of powerful rulers and their empires.  Take, for example, Ezekiel’s message to the king of Egypt regarding how God judged Assyria:

Whom are you like in your greatness?
Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon,
with fair branches and forest shade,
    and of great height,
    its top among the clouds.
The waters nourished it,
    the deep made it grow tall,
making its rivers flow
    around the place it was planted,
sending forth its streams
    to all the trees of the field.
So it towered high
    above all the trees of the field;
its boughs grew large
    and its branches long,
    from abundant water in its shoots.
All the birds of the air
    made their nests in its boughs;
under its branches all the animals of the field
    gave birth to their young;
and in its shade
    all great nations lived.

Ezekiel 31:3-6 (NRSV)

In the rest of the chapter, God hands this great tree over to invading nations who cut it down, and it gets sealed up in the underworld.  God then threatens to do the same to Egypt.

But you see the image – the tree grew above the other trees, the birds of the air lived in it, and it overshadowed the other nations.

Similar imagery is given to Nebuchadnezzar in a dream about his impending fall (and restoration):

Upon my bed this is what I saw;
    there was a tree at the center of the earth,
    and its height was great.
The tree grew great and strong,
    its top reached to heaven,
    and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth.
Its foliage was beautiful,
    its fruit abundant,
    and it provided food for all.
The animals of the field found shade under it,
    the birds of the air nested in its branches,
    and from it all living beings were fed.

Daniel 4:10-12 (NRSV)

Perhaps, however, the passage most closely connected to Jesus’ parable is in Ezekiel 17, where God uses the image to proclaim the future exaltation of Israel:

Thus says the Lord God:

 

I myself will take a sprig
    from the lofty top of a cedar;
    I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
    from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
    on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
    I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
    and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
    in the shade of its branches will nest
    winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
    that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
    I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
    and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
    I will accomplish it.

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

He brings low the high tree and makes high the low tree.  God will bring down the other empires so that He might exalt Israel.

It’s good to note that all of these passages have in common the actual progress of world events.  These are historical kingdoms that will be brought down with other nations, and new kingdoms rising in their place.  They do not reflect (primarily) spiritual conditions or matters of the heart, although obviously these outcomes are predicated on the pride and lack of repentance by the pagan nations and the faithfulness of Israel.

We have to take this seriously when we are reading Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom.  If we make the kingdom Jesus is talking about a primarily spiritual state of affairs, we have bypassed a lot of the point of using this imagery to begin with.  Granted, he could be using the images in a new way, but do we have any indicators that he is doing so?

The Jesus portrayed in the gospels is, in fact, looking for the toppling of wicked power structures to be replaced with the righteous.  It is a vision that is every bit as political as spiritual.  The ruling powers of the present evil age are going down, and the heights they occupied will be given to the faithful.

You don’t have to be a history buff to know that Jesus ends up displacing both the Temple power structure and the pagan Roman Empire.  The Temple is destroyed and is a great heap of stones to this day.  Despite increasing persecution, the religion of Jesus grows until Caesar himself – Constantine – declares Jesus to be Lord of the Empire.  Whatever you think about the success of that project or the modern day spiritual vitality of Rome, you can go to Rome, today, and see very quickly who took control of that city.  These are historical realities that happened in the story of the people of God, and they are just as pivotal to our history as some of the great events written about in the Bible.

Who ever would have foreseen a day when the Sanhedrin would preside over dust?  Who ever would have foreseen a time when Rome’s Caesar would bend the knee and confess the lordship of Jesus Christ?

Well, Jesus did.  The seed that started as the smallest of all seeds grew into a mighty tree that covered the nations, and love it or hate it, the history of the world hasn’t been the same since.

Consider This

  1. The Roman Empire as an Empire is gone, although obviously powerful influences still remain.  The Church has spread throughout the world, although the power Christianity once wielded in society is rapidly vanishing.  What images do you think capture the situation of the Church, today?
  2. What kinds of things threaten our existence, today, and what do you think will overcome them?  Do you think we should look for contemporary political leaders to follow Christ, or do you think the circumstances of God’s people will change in other ways?
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Sunday Meditations: Forgiving Evangelicalism

In a recent conversation with a friend, I pointed out a glaring inconsistency in my own behavior (one of many, I assure you).  I will be congenial and polite to atheists, but I will flame the eyebrows off evangelicals, who are arguably much closer to me in many respects.  Obviously, I’m not saying those roles should be reversed – I should be congenial and polite to everyone.  But it’s interesting how emotionally affected I get when I encounter evangelicals engaging a discussion by quoting Bible verses that “obviously” mean what they think they mean or accusing someone who understands those passages differently as not taking the Bible seriously.

If you recognize a flaw in yourself, and you find that flaw in someone else, it’s hard to react neutrally to that.  We often are either much too complacent about that flaw because we empathize, or we hate that flaw in ourselves so much that we find it intolerable in anyone else.  I have been in that second category most of my life and am trying to move away from that, but nevertheless, because I have come out of a sort of fundamentalist evangelical framework, when I run across people saying the exact things I would have said five years ago, it makes me crazy.  It’s intolerable.  This is something I try to keep in mind when an atheist who has left Christianity seems so over the top in their rhetoric about it.

So, a large part of my disproportionate reaction to fundamentalism\evangelicalism (honestly, whatever historical differences used to exist between those two groups, they barely exist now and are more aesthetic differences than actual differences of content) is a character defect in how I view flaws in myself as well as those same flaws in others.  This is something I know about myself and have known for a long time, and I’m working on it and making progress, although I’m not yet where I want to be.

But there is another facet to this behavior: I believe, in some sense, that I have been wronged by evangelicalism.  Again, I keep in mind this is how some atheists feel who leave Christianity behind.

Let me say at the outset that there is a big difference in an objective sense between feeling wronged and actually being wronged.  Surely, evangelicals did not intend to wrong me and could persuasively argue that the grievances I have from evangelicalism are not real grievances.  However, subjectively, there’s no difference at all.

I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist denomination.  I have run into groups that are more fundamentalist than the one I grew up in, but they’re pretty few and far between.  In this upbringing, I learned the following things:

  • The Bible is, more or less, a transcript of God’s own words, and the best way to understand it is a plain language literalism unless it gets too crazy to do so.
  • Everyone is going to Hell unless they pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it.
  • Once you pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it, you will go to Heaven when you die.
  • It is your responsibility to get as many people as you can to pray the Sinner’s Prayer and mean it.
  • A day is coming when Jesus will rapture all the Christians to heaven and destroy the world.

Now, in fairness, many evangelicals would look at that list and disavow some of the items as written.  The people who taught these things to me would also probably disavow some of the items as written.  I wrote them from the standpoint of a child learning these things.

As I grew older and moved in circles that were less overtly fundamentalist but still thoroughly evangelical, I began to take on more nuance and depth theologically than the statements as portrayed in that list, above.  Yet, at core, all the basic elements were essentially the same.

Yes, we acknowledged the language in the Bible was shaped by the culture and experiences of the men who wrote it, yet, functionally, it still behaved as if it were a transcript of God’s own words that were best understood in the same way one understands a newspaper.  Yes, we acknowledged that conversion is a matter of the heart and not reciting a special prayer, but the fundamental predicament and solution were the same.  Yes, we acknowledged that it might not be in the best interest of the gospel to badger continually everyone I knew into converting, but the danger was real and imminent and I always needed to find those tactically sound moments to bring the issue up again, engage strangers, etc.  Yes, we acknowledged the rapture idea might be a little iffy and we looked for a new heavens and earth, but it was still a discontinuous destruction of the world in favor of spiritual realities becoming concrete.

In other words, some of the contours got softer and there was a lot more meat on those bones, but the skeleton was largely intact.  Here’s what the Bible is, here’s the core problem it defines, here’s the solution it offers, now go and help fix it before it’s too late.

This core defined my thoughts on God, myself, my relationship to God, the role and meaning of the Bible, the significance of Jesus, what I thought of my fellow man, what were the evils of society and how should they be fixed, my hope for the future, etc.

If it were just a matter of a set of beliefs that I later came to be somewhat critical of, it might not be that big of a deal, but there were a host of practical effects that came from it.  I ruined friendships because of this set of beliefs.  I held people in contempt because of this set of beliefs.  I held myself in contempt because of this set of beliefs.  I threw myself into supporting those who were rich, white, and powerful because I thought they had the best chance of making those beliefs the law of the land.  I held myself back from various experiences because of those beliefs while condemning others for having them.  I was self-righteous because of those beliefs.  I gave up a National Merit scholarship to Harvard and a dream of studying at Oxford for a sectarian college because of those beliefs (and also, the application for Harvard was super long).  I blew off “liberal” professors who tried their hardest to teach me realities about the Bible because they were not reinforcing my beliefs.  I learned nothing from very smart people because of those beliefs.  I could go on and on.

And in the darkest moment of my life (to date, anyway), these beliefs did not help me at all.  In fact, they made things worse.

But it’s not just those effects, either.

Because, you see, I loved the Bible and still do.  The whole time I thought I was “taking the Bible seriously,” I was embroiled in a program designed to keep me from ever doing that.  I revered the Bible, certainly, but I didn’t know the Bible.  Yes, I knew the content of its text very well, but I already “knew” what it meant – it meant the evangelical story.

I was not encouraged to find other possible readings to decide if they might fit the text better.  If someone presented information about the Bible that might undermine the evangelical claims about the Bible or its teaching, that person was to be refuted or ignored.  They were portrayed as “attacking” the Bible when, 90% of the time, they were just trying to understand the Bible for what it actually was as opposed to what we kept tribally saying it was.  Data that supported the narrative was let in; data that contested the narrative was soundly denied and rejected.

In such an environment, I would never get to know the Bible for what it is, because I was already committed to an idea of what the Bible must be.  I would never get know what a given text meant, because I was already committed to an idea of what the text must mean.  And I was committed to the enterprise of protecting and strengthening those preexisting commitments.  If something challenged those commitments, by definition that was false teaching and rejected.  In this way, evangelicalism became infallible by proxy.  Their story could not be critiqued because their story was the only measure by which critique could occur.

At no point did anyone ever intend for any of this to be harmful to me.  People taught me these things out of love and concern, for the most part.  But looking back over my life, it’s hard for me not to see that it was harmful all the same.

I have grievances against evangelicalism.  I was hurt by it, hampered by it, and I am still angry about it and resent it, and that bleeds over into anger and resentment toward those who champion it, even though I would have been right there with them a handful of years ago.

Today, I do not think I have latched on to a higher truth that evangelicalism has missed.  If anything, I’m far more skeptical about anything I think I know.  This is where I perhaps part psychological ways with most post-Christian atheists; they tend to believe they have left lies for the solace of the True Truths of naturalism, positivism, and empiricism.  I just have left a system I believe has truth in it, but is not wholly tenable, and I do not think I have found the True Truth.  I am just profoundly skeptical of any justification I have for being dogmatic.  Or others, for that matter.

Sometimes, I bounce off all kinds of crazy walls, trying things on for size to see if they fit better, and eventually rejecting them when they don’t, or modifying them if they’re close, but always realizing that this is my best guess at the time.

Ultimately, I am recognizing that all my beliefs have a level of tentativeness associated with them.  This has created in me, not a spirit of despair, but a spirit of inquiry and discovery – a spirit of reforming and always reforming.  One might say that it is dangerous to put much trust on a system that is always shifting to some degree or another, and you’re right!  This is why I have to trust God, who is what He is no matter what I or anyone else says about Him.  He is bigger than my understanding at any given time, and He knows I am dust.

And I think He wants me to forgive evangelicalism, and I think He’s my only hope of doing so.

The Wheat and the Tares: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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.’”

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!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (NRSV)

This is another parable where the explanation is separated from the parable, in this case by more, smaller parables, so I put both texts here side by side to deal with them in one go.

Like the first parable of the sower, we have a sower sowing seeds that spring up into the kingdom.  In this parable, the seeds are not the announcement of the kingdom, but the faithful remnant themselves, thus bringing back around the traditional “seed” imagery of Second Temple Judaism.  The sower is the Son of Man.

The Son of Man is an apocalyptic figure from Daniel 7.  In this vision, the Ancient of Days is enthroned on the earth.  He destroys His enemies with fire and gives an everlasting kingdom to the Son of Man.  In the vision, the Son of Man is explained to be the holy ones of Israel – the faithful remnant.  Jesus will take this image for himself – he is the seed, the faithful remnant, and the recipient of the kingdom – the first born of many brethren.

This characterizes Jesus’ activity.  He is out and about reclaiming and re-creating faithful Israel.  A fiery judgment is coming from God, and after this happens, the kingdom will be established and the righteous will dwell in it forever with Jesus as king.  By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus is importing a whole host of meaning and expectations from the Old Testament to explain who he is and what he is doing and why.

But while the sower is sowing faithful children of God, the enemy is sowing weeds.  One might wonder, as do the workers in the parable, why they do not just go through and destroy the weeds.

So, one aspect of this parable is that it answers an eschatological question that faithful Israel surely has.  They are under the rule of evil people, many of which are Israelites, themselves.  There are a lot of weeds in the garden of God.  Why hasn’t God done anything about this?

The answer is given to us in the parable.  If the weeds are gathered prematurely, it will destroy the wheat as well.  It is better to wait until both are ready for harvest, then the weeds can be gathered and destroyed and the wheat can be gathered into the master’s barn.  The long time when the weeds and the wheat grow together is actually for the sake of the wheat – to wait until the time is right when the wheat can be safely gathered and unharmed by the destruction of the weeds.

A similar sentiment is given to believers in 2 Peter:

But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless.  But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient [on your account], not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

2 Peter 3:7-9 (NRSV)

God is holding off on the day of judgement so that He does not destroy believers-in-progress.

Paul expresses a similar sentiment in his letter to the Romans:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 9:22-24 (NRSV)

In this argument, God is delaying the day of judgement so that he might gather both Jews and Gentiles to Himself and not just believing Jews.

So, we see in the New Testament a certain theodicy: why does God not simply judge the wicked and get the whole thing over with so the faithful can enjoy a better world?  The answer appears to be: because doing so prematurely endangers the very people who would otherwise be brought into that new world.

When is this appropriate time, then?  We are not told the specific day or hour (or year), but Jesus explains it is the “end of the age.”

We need to be careful about equating that phrase with “end of the world” or “end of time” or “end of history.”  An age is simply a span of time defined by some notable characteristic.  Even in modern English idiom, we talk about the Stone Age or the Age of Enlightment or (erroneously) the Dark Ages or the Atomic Age.  An “age” is not the entirety of history; an age is a span of time where a present, definitive set of circumstances is in place.  It can be a very long or even a very short period of time (in Jonah’s prayer, he says he was in the belly of the fish for an age), but it is not all time forever.

So, when we hear Jesus talking about this age, or the end of the age, or the age to come, our default should be that Jesus is talking about the present state of affairs, the end of that state of affairs, or the coming time when a new state of affairs will be the case.  This is perhaps why Jesus identifies the field as the kosmos – the present world system.

Jesus is telling us that, even though we don’t know when exactly this will occur, the present age and its powers and values and dominions are facing an imminent end set by God’s timing.  When the clock runs out, everything that was evil and oppressive in God’s kingdom will be exiled from that kingdom and destroyed, and the faithful children of the kingdom will find themselves in a new, prosperous existence.

At this point in the narrative, Jesus is concerned about Israel.  He came to save his people.  He sends his disciples to the lost sheep of Israel and explicitly commands them to avoid the Gentiles.  While Jesus may foresee a broadening of this mission in the future, that is not his focus when he tells this parable.  The boundaries for it are the destiny of Israel in the world, just as the vision is in Daniel 7.  For a more detailed exegetical look at this, I direct you to Andrew Perriman’s excellent article “The Parable of the Weeds and the Question of Hell.”

Paul and the other apostles, seeing the conversion of the Gentiles that Jesus anticipated, foresee that this principle may happen to Israel first, but it will roll out to the rest of the Empire as well.  John in his Apocalypse sees this happening to Israel first, then happening to the Empire, and then – at the very end – happening to all creation.  But at this point in the story, we are looking at Israel, the people in Israel, faithful and unfaithful, and what is to become of them.

And in Jesus’ mind, Israel right now is a mixture of good seed (faithful children of God) and weeds that seek to choke them out (unfaithful children of the devil).  They have to grow together for a time so that the good seed can reach its fullness, but when that time comes, they will be separated, the weeds will be destroyed, and the world will look very different.

And this is what happened.  In AD 70 and the few years prior, Rome fell upon Judea with a vengeance.  The Temple was destroyed.  The holy city that God promised would bear His name with a Davidic king on the throne forever was looted and shattered.  According to Josephus, all the Christ-followers packed their bags and fled the city before this destruction occurred.  It may be difficult for us to conceive of this event as the end of an age and the beginning of a new one, but that is because we do not live in the ancient world, we are not first century Jews, and Jerusalem and the Temple and everything around all that just isn’t very important to us.

If you live in America, a very loose analogy would be 9/11.  While the World Trade Center did not have the significance to Americans that the Temple did to first century Jews (although probably not too much less, considering our cult of money) and New York as a whole stayed intact and does not have the significance to Americans that Jerusalem would to a first century Jew, that event left an impact on the national psyche that was very significant.  In a flash, airport security completely transformed and our national enemy shifted from Communism to Radicalized Islam.  Politics, economy, defense, and even our national fears and prejudices were dramatically shifted after that event.

If you multiply that by several degrees, then you might begin to perceive the impact AD 70 had for Jesus’ audience.  Imagine ISIS thoroughly sacking Washington D.C. and destroying all the monuments and buildings and edifices of government, then they sweep through America and establish a fundamentalist totalitarian government based on their version of Islam.  If you are American, would such an event be worthy of apocalyptic language?  Would that constitute the end of an age and the beginning of a new one?

It is true that things were not all sweetness and light for the children of the kingdom after AD 70.  Certainly much persecution was lifted after that event, but then the people of God’s chief persecutor became the Empire, and this dynamic proceeded to play out on that stage, albeit in a different way than anybody at the time of Matthew 13 might have expected.

All these things are ancient history to us.  The urgency of Jesus to his original audience in this parable and its immediate application to their situation does not embrace us in the same way it embraced them.

At the same time, we, too, look at the crises experienced by the people of God in the world, and we, too, wonder why God isn’t doing something about it.  We wonder if there’s any particular reason we should keep testifying to this God and serving Him when He seems so silent and the world continues to do what the world does as if He isn’t there at all.

What Jesus said to those Israelites two thousand years ago gives us an important insight into the mind of God – He will allow a bad situation to exist for a time for our sakes.  We may not be able to see on our side of the fence how this is working to our benefit or anyone else’s, but Jesus tells us that it is.

And even if such benefits seem elusive to us, there’s one thing that history has definitely established – that God will not allow such things to go on indefinitely.  He will act, and when He does, the world will not be the same.

Consider This

  1. What ongoing “wheat and weeds”-like situations do you see the church experiencing, today?  What about other events in past history?  How did they turn out?  Can we learn anything about the way God works in these situations?
  2. One of the reasons given for God’s delay is to wait for the fullness of repentance and a return to Him.  What implications might that have for our own piety?  How about the church’s proclamation?

Hearing, They Do Not Listen: Matthew 13:10-17

Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:

‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.

Matthew 13:10-17 (NRSV)

In this passage, Jesus’ disciples ask him why he speaks in parables as opposed to just plain teaching, and the answer is not what we’d expect.

What we’d expect is something along the lines of what teachers or public speakers might tell us – stories are effective tools for getting your point across.  They create analogies the listeners can relate to, concrete circumstances around abstract concepts, and dramatic or funny moments that help the point really stick in the mind.  I have been to thoroughly secular workshops on teaching that often mention Jesus and his parables in this regard.  Good teachers use stories.

Jesus’ purpose, however, appears to be exactly the opposite.  He tells parables because his audience won’t understand their meaning.  He is seemingly trying to be obtuse on purpose – a behavior I personally find very frustrating when I run across it.

This seems a little disruptive to our ideas about Jesus and his work.  Doesn’t Jesus want people to embrace the coming kingdom?  Doesn’t he want Israel to repent and be saved through the coming disasters?  This seems inconsistent with the general vibe we’ve been getting from Jesus up to this point, where Jesus seems fairly direct and urgent with his message.

One possible option is that Jesus didn’t say this.  Perhaps Matthew in his zeal to indict Israel at the time put this in the story.  Or perhaps a later scribe added it.  This passage drops right in the middle of Jesus telling and explaining a parable, so it’s not a stretch initially to think it might be an artificial insertion.

This seems unlikely, however, because this passage shows up in similar, if shorter, forms in all three synoptic Gospels.  What’s more is that we don’t have manuscripts where this passage is absent.  So, it seems unlikely this is Matthew or a later scribe giving us a helping hand.  Even if Mark made this up, it seems unlikely that both Matthew and Luke would go, “Yep, that sounds about right to me,” and just drop it in without giving it a second thought.  It’s a jarring thing to say, and the additional detail Matthew provides seems to indicate he at least thought about what he was doing and not just copying Mark by rote.

Another possible option is that Jesus wants the spiritual and faithful remnant of Israel to hear what he is saying and respond, but he wants to obscure this from those he plans to fall in the judgement.  This would give the passage a very strong Calvinistic slant – even stronger than Calvin’s own commentary on the passage.  The idea here is that Jesus wants the elect to hear and repent but the rest will not be able to understand him.

This may not be an attractive tack to everyone, but it’s not without precedent.  For example, we think of Jesus’ mentor John the Baptist yelling at the Pharisees, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  There’s this sense that John, having already decided the Pharisees and scribes are worthy of condemnation, doesn’t want them to wriggle out of it with repentance and baptism.  Perhaps Jesus has a similar view?  Perhaps he has already cordoned off in his mind some of Israel who is destined for judgement, and he does not want them to repent and escape?  Maybe the reason he chooses so many agricultural/farming metaphors for his parables is that they are far more likely to be understood by the oppressed of Israel and far less relatable to the wealthy and powerful.

This is possible, and there are some general themes there that are sort of pointed in the right direction, but there are some troubles with this view as well.

One is that Jesus’ own hand-picked disciples also never understand him.  If Jesus’ plan is that “outsiders” won’t understand him, but the faithful will, this plan blows up in his face in a big way.  Nobody understands Jesus with any sort of regularity.  The disciples routinely misunderstand Jesus and need to have things explained to them.  In fact, this very passage arises because the disciples don’t understand Jesus and want him to speak more plainly.  So, if the idea is that we have a spiritual group of “understanders” and an unspiritual group destined for judgement, we’d be forced to conclude that Jesus really called that wrongly, because nobody seems to spiritually understand Jesus with the exception of the occasional “outsider” who shows more insight than the people you’d expect.

Another is that, theologically, Christians generally believe that Jesus is the clearest example of the image of God in a human being.  While we might debate about how active a role God plays in biblical episodes of judgement, we can all generally agree that He doesn’t like it.  The God of both Old and New Testaments expresses that destruction of even the wicked is distasteful to Him.  He demonstrates that He is receptive to a contrite heart, and in at least one example (that Jesus cited back in Matthew 12) forgave Israel’s oppressors when they repented.

I think our best option is to pay very careful attention to Jesus’ answer.  He does not speak in parables to intentionally cause people to misunderstand; he speaks in parables to fulfill the situation described in Isaiah 6.

The situation outlined in the early chapters of Isaiah is that Judah is threatened by what remains of the rest of Israel allied with Syria.  This is a situation that God says has been brought about by the widespread injustice practiced by all of Israel, and although Judah is portrayed more kindly, she, too, is subject to the same critique, especially her aristocracy.  Therefore, the Lord will call for Assyria who will sweep through the land, putting an end to Israel and Syria.  However, Assyria will also come against Judah as punishment for her sins as well.

Later, we read that God will not abandon Jerusalem to Assyria and will put down that empire as well, also granting a great king to Judah who will rule with truth and righteousness and restore peace to the land.  But first must come the trials and judgement.

It is into this situation that the Lord commissions Isaiah to bring His word to Judah, and this is how that goes:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people:

 

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
    and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
    whose stump remains standing
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:8-13 (NRSV)

This passage is actually tricky all by itself, but notice that the lack of understanding isn’t due to Isaiah speaking in parables.  Instead, the people are already in a state of not understanding, and Isaiah declares this to them.  He tells them directly, “Keep on being blind!  Keep on seeing what God is doing and not getting it!”  The lack of understanding among the people is something for Isaiah to proclaim and keep on going.  Isaiah will continue to warn the people and point out what is happening to them and their allies, and Judah will keep on ignoring him.  This state of affairs is both a sign of and a justification for the judgement of God.

In other words, Isaiah does not use tricky language to confound his audience.  He/God is quite literally declaring that, no matter what he says or does, the people will continue not to get it.  They will continue not to respond, and Isaiah’s preaching will just make the problem that much sharper.  Here’s a guy screaming that Assyria is coming in response to Israel’s idolatry and injustice, and the people around him go, “Hm.  That’s interesting.  Say, do YOU think Assyria is coming in judgement against our idolatry and injustice?  I don’t think so.  Seems a little outlandish to me.  Anyway, I’m off to keep adding to my house until I consume the land of my impoverished neighbors!”

See, the people’s lack of understanding aren’t a result of what Isaiah is saying; Isaiah couldn’t be clearer.  It is the fact that Isaiah’s proclamations produce such a widespread lackluster and unbelieving response that let us know that God’s judgement will surely come.

If you’ve been tracking with me through Matthew 12, you can probably see where this is going.

Jesus is also experiencing this as a prophet.  He is proclaiming an imminent judgement and need to repent, and return, he’s getting, “Say, do YOU think the Temple will ever be destroyed because of our unbelief and our unholy alliance with the oppressors of our people?  I don’t think so.  Anyway, I’m off to charge people a money exchange fee for sacrifices so I can kick some back to the Empire.  There’s an addition I want to make to my house to make it look more like Herod’s.”

Matthew has been on about this for at least a chapter and a half, if not more, and you can see how this fits in.  Jesus quotes Isaiah, not because he is actively trying to create the situation of Isaiah 6, but because his situation is exactly what’s being described in Isaiah 6 and portends the same future outcome.  So, Jesus leaves behind the clear preaching and replaces it with a sort of riddle – the parables – which are much harder to understand.  They are a tool for Jesus to proclaim the grim reality of Israel’s situation.  “Doesn’t matter what I say.  You won’t believe.  So, now I’m going to tell these cryptic stories, and your failure to understand them is a sure sign that the judgement will come.”

Now, that alone might not be the best tactical choice.  I mean, why?  Very few people are believing your preaching.  Ok, I get that.  I get that you’re frustrated.  But how does it accomplish anything to start preaching in parables, instead?  Haven’t you virtually guaranteed nobody will understand you?

Yes, he has.  Except for one thing – the people who are listening to Jesus and responding in faith have the opportunity for Jesus to make the parables clear to them.

I don’t want to steal my own thunder, but Jesus will quote from Isaiah a bit later in the chapter to say this: “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (v. 35b)

The seeing and hearing the disciples are blessed with are not their own spiritual insights into the parables.  Like the rest of Israel, they do not understand what they hear.  But what “the rest of Israel” doesn’t have is Jesus to open their eyes and ears.

Here’s how Jesus introduces his explanation of the parable of the sower: “Hear then the parable of the sower.”  He then proceeds, not to tell the parable of the sower (he already did that), but what the parable means.  The people who desire to understand Jesus are rewarded with Jesus giving them understanding.

And so we see that Jesus’ followers are not smarter than unbelieving Israel.  They are not more spiritually sensitive.  They aren’t wiser.  The Holy Spirit is not doing something in their elect brains that isn’t happening for the non-elect brains.  They are, left to their own devices, just as in the dark as everyone else.  Jesus’ parables are just as cryptic to them as to anyone else.

But what they do have is the conviction, the trust – the faith, if you will – that Jesus has the truth and is who he says he is and is their only hope.

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

John 6:66-69 (NRSV)

And in this way, the differentiator between faithful and unfaithful Israel comes into sharper focus.  The differentiator between those who will make it safely through the judgement and those who will fall in it becomes clearer.  It has nothing to do with who knows the Bible better or who can decipher wise but puzzling sayings.  It has nothing to do with a certain group who has more of the Spirit at work on them than another group.  In fact, even though these lines practically tend to fall between the rich and poor because of their respective attachment to the world system as it is, it actually has nothing specifically to do with being rich or poor.

It is simply this: do you believe that Jesus is who he says he is and that the message he brings is true?

Consider This

  1. Jesus says that his followers are blessed because they have access to the truths Jesus is opening up to them.  For most of her history, those who would be Christians were not able to read or have their own copies of these explanations.  It may seem a bit silly, but have you considered the blessing it is that we have such ready access to Jesus’ explanations of the kingdom that was coming?  What are we doing with that blessing besides writing awesome blog articles?
  2. Do you believe the differentiator that emerged between those who would make it through the judgement and those who would fall in it is still, more or less, a valid differentiator today?  What are some things we tend to consider differentiators that might not be?  How might this affect the message we bring to the world?

A Sower Sows: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (NRSV)

The same day that Jesus has been frustrated with the response he’s gotten from his own people, he tells a parable about sowing seeds and the various kinds of results.

I put Jesus’ explanation of the parable next to the parable.  In the narrative in Matthew, these are actually separated.  Jesus does not initially explain the parable, but after his disciples ask why he speaks in parables, Jesus answers them and goes on to explain it plainly.

Because Jesus explains his own parable, there’s not a whole lot else to add, but some context for this parable may help us to get a firmer grasp on what it means for the word of the kingdom to go out and what Jesus foresees will happen.

In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, the imagery of “seed” represents God’s faithful remnant being sown in the world.  This may go back to the “seed” of Abraham, but regardless, the agricultural version is a well-known image in Jesus’ day.  A little later, for instance, Jesus will tell the parable of the wheat and the tares and explicitly identifies the good seed as “the children of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:38).

The idea is that God’s faithful remnant are a “seed” people who get sown in the world and grow into a rich harvest.  How, then, does this image get connected to “the word of the kingdom?”

The latter chapters in Isaiah are chapters about the return of faithful Israel from exile.  They have been captives, but God has kept His promise and liberated them, brought them back to the land, and the other nations will see what God has done and become worshippers, themselves.  The seeds that were sown spring up in a rich harvest throughout the world.

In Isaiah 55, this image is pulled together with God’s word:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11 (NRSV)

In the context of Isaiah 55, “my word that goes out from my mouth” refers to God’s promises to Israel.  They are not just empty words; they are a covenant that causes Him to act.  He made promises to Abraham, and He will see it through.  If His people are captured, He will liberate them.  If they are exiled, He will return them.  If they are threatened with the sword, He will save them.  If they are killed and dispersed, He will revive them and bring them back together.

The promise (word), the people, God’s actions, and the end result – these are the dynamics and expectations that get packed into an image of a sower sowing seed in the world.

This is what Jesus sees himself as doing.

He is proclaiming a restoration of the kingdom – a return from exile in the sense of uniting faithful Israel and liberating her from the curse that her sins have brought about.  He proclaims what God is doing in word and validates it with deed.  The expectation is the faithful remnant will be delivered and, although Jesus does not explicitly state this, it is quite possible he foresees that the Gentiles will see what God has done and respond by becoming worshippers, themselves.

But the hitch in Jesus’ parable is that the seed is not necessarily producing a harvest.  There are some who hear the news of the kingdom and don’t understand what’s going on.  There are others who are initially happy to hear the kingdom has arrived, but they cannot endure the persecution and trials they are about to experience.  There are yet others who are actually well off under the present circumstances and prefer the known comforts of wealth and power in the present age under Rome than some hypothetical future under king Jesus and the kingdom of God in the next.

These are not hypothetical categories for Jesus.  We have seen these very categories of people addressed elsewhere in Matthew.  Some, like some of the scribes and Pharisees, do not perceive Jesus as the promised Messiah and his actions as ones of liberation and restoration.  Others, such as the crowds who follow Jesus around temporarily or sort of flirt with following Jesus at a distance will not be able to abide the coming persecution and trials.  And Jesus makes no bones about this – enduring to the end could mean losing one’s family or life.  Others, such as Herod or the Sanhedrin or Temple officials, are benefitting from the present state of affairs and prefer that to the arrival of the kingdom of God.

Jesus doesn’t give us hard numbers, here.  We don’t know what percentage of people fall into what categories, but we get the idea that it is far more common for the word of the kingdom not to produce a result than actually to produce the intended result, and this captures Jesus’ frustrations from chapter 12 – all Israel should be delighted that the kingdom has come and be ready to believe Jesus, repent, and weather the coming judgement, but the reality is that few are.

But then there is the seed on good ground.  This seed is dispersed, but it takes root and grows into fruit far beyond a single seed.  This is the faithful remnant of Israel.  These are the people out of whom the kingdom will be made – a tiny seed that will grow into a harvest that fills the world – a miniature Israel that will be in the world what Israel was always meant to be – a harbinger of future glory that, in her present circumstances, is also an incarnate warning to the rich, the powerful, the self-righteous, the proud, the oppressor.

Yes, the effective response and growth may be smaller than Jesus was hoping, but he is no less convinced that God will deliver on His promises and this project will be successful.

Consider This

  1. Jesus outlines a few different reasons why news of the kingdom does not have the desired effect.  Do you struggle with some of the things Jesus outlines?
  2. It could be argued that the kingdom has filled the world, and we are in a sort of post-Christendom state of affairs.  How does this affect our presentation of the news of the kingdom?  Can we take some comfort from this parable as we look at the response around us?

Mothers and Brothers: Matthew 12:46-50

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Matthew 12:46-50 (NRSV)

Jesus has been talking about his disappointment with the relatively faithless response he has gotten from his own people, contrasted with his belief that Gentiles and pagans would have received Jesus in faith if they had experienced his ministry among them – a belief that not only seems to occur in reality in isolated incidents in Matthew, but has also occurred in Old Testament history.  In the Old Testament, Israel historically exiled and killed her prophets, but the pagan city of Nineveh repented in sackcloth and ashes, and the Queen of Sheba traveled to learn from Solomon.

This is the backdrop for Jesus’ seemingly harsh statements about his own family.

Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, we read another harsh saying of Jesus, that he came to set family members against each other, and whoever loved their family more than Jesus was not worthy of him.  As we looked at that verse against its backdrop, we saw that Jesus was talking about upcoming days of persecution against Jesus’ followers.  In those days, some would take them in and care for them, while most would help drag them to synagogues and put them on trial – even family members.  So, Jesus wasn’t saying, in a vacuum, that he wants people to fight with their family members and make sure they love him more than them; he was asking his potential followers to count the cost.  He was warning them that persecution was coming that would even cause family members to turn against them.

Similarly, here, we have to read Jesus’ comments against the flow of Matthew’s narrative.  Here, we have been looking at how Jesus’ own people largely have not responded in faith – only a relative few.  Most have been hostile, suspicious, or apathetic.

In this passage, Jesus makes the same point, but bringing it closer to home.  Jesus’ kinsmen are not those of Israel who are biologically related to him, but those of Israel who respond in faithfulness to their God.

This may seem jarring enough to us, but it would have been even more jarring to a Jewish audience.  One of the commandments is: “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”  It is the first commandment with a promise, the apostle Paul notes.  By honoring father and mother (which means following their faith and instruction), the Israelites will remain in the promised land a long time.  If they fail to keep the ways of their ancestors, they will be exiled from it.

So, this is kind of a big deal.  There are some laws in the Old Testament regarding families and relationships that may seem very harsh to us in modern times, such as the death penalty for an unruly son who is uncontrollable, but we also have to understand how closely connected the concept of biological lineage was to national faith, inheritance, and destiny.  If you have a generation that rebels against their parents and follows their own way, worshiping other gods and doing whatever is right in their own eyes, this breaks Israel’s covenant with YHWH and invokes the curse.

This puts some extra heat on Jesus’ observation: the heirs of Israel’s promises are not those who keep the Law by rote – they are faithful Israel who repent and follow the path of Jesus.  This is a similar observation that the apostle Paul will make as he explains how God is still keeping His promises even though most of Israel has rejected His Messiah.

It is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

Romans 9:6-8 (NRSV)

In Romans (and Galatians, which is basically Romans Lite), Paul draws a contrast between the Israelites who keep the Law but do not have faith, versus the Israelites (and Gentiles, for that matter) who have faith.  The latter group, Paul tells us, is the Israel of God who will inherit the promises given to the patriarchs because they share the faith of the patriarchs.

And this is the point Jesus is making with his striking statement.  We know Jesus cares about his biological mother and brothers.  He is not giving us permission to blow off our families if they do not meet our standards of obedience to God.

What he is demonstrating to the crowds is that true Israel – his true kinsmen – are defined, not by biology, but by faith (a faith that will, in fact, be shared by his actual mother and brothers).

Consider This

  1. What defines the people of God?  Does this apply to you?  What did the patriarchs look forward to?  What does it mean for those promises to be yours?
  2. What does it look like to be the people of God in the world today – to continue the family of Abraham well past the ages described for us in the Bible?

 

They’re Baaaack: Matthew 12:43-45

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

Matthew 12:43-45 (NRSV)

This interesting analogy comes to us toward the end of a larger section where Jesus is expressing his frustration at the response that he’s getting from Israel.  Or isn’t getting, depending on how you look at it.

Jesus is doing wonders and miracles.  He is healing people and casting out demons, forgiving their sins.  He is liberating and restoring the lost of Israel in almost every way they can be liberated and restored short of an actual insurrection against the Roman Empire.  Jesus does foresee a clash with the Roman Empire, but he believes it will end in disaster for the Jews.  The only hope he offers is for the people to repent and follow his path, which will take many of them literally out of the region, but for all he offers hope of God’s protection and resurrection.

But Jesus also believes that this disaster will actually give way to the rule of the Son of Man – that figure in Daniel 7 to whom the Ancient of Days grants an everlasting kingdom.  Jesus believes he is this person – the promised Messiah who will usher in a new age for Israel, but the fulfillment of this plan requires, first, a terrible tribulation and judgement.

The works Jesus is doing are more than enough to validate his message and establish his identity, so we can understand his frustration.  You’d think with all the healing and exorcism that the religious in Israel couldn’t wait to get behind him.  Instead, he’s getting rhetorical traps, suspicion, accusations, and the extremely obtuse, “Ok, sure, but can’t you give us some kind of sign?”

This prompts Jesus to compare Israel unfavorably to historically pagan Gentile nations, some of whom were outright enemies of Israel, declaring that they would have repented and had faith and avoided the disaster that would befall them.  He even refers to a time when this actually happened and the people of Nineveh responded to the preaching of Jonah and were saved.

The reason I recap all of that is, when we look at the analogy in our passage, we want to make sure that whatever we say this passage means, it should probably fit into the larger point Jesus is making.  It’s a point about people who are witnessing the deliverance Jesus is bringing, but they do not turn to him in faith, and are therefore signing their own death warrants in an upcoming disaster.

Because of this, it’s unlikely that Jesus’ statement about evil spirits is meant as a sort of bestiary entry on Spirits, Unclean – as if the point of this is to give us information on how demons behave after you cast them out and what to watch out for.  As if Jesus stopped right in the middle of talking about the faithlessness of that generation to give us a small discourse on demonology.

No, Jesus clearly identifies what he’s saying as an analogy, and specifically an analogy for that wicked generation.  This is all conditioned by Jesus’ specific historical situation when he says this.

The analogy Jesus sets up is of a person who has an unclean spirit cast out of him.  The unclean spirit leaves, and the man has a reprieve.  He enjoys a period of sanity that he can use to put his life back together.  The problem is that the spirit that was cast out gets tired of wandering and decides to come back and finds that their human host hasn’t been idle.  Their life is orderly once more (I hope we can agree that Jesus is not being literal, here – you do not come back to a human being to find them “swept”).  The spirit is not cool with this turn of events and calls his friends, and now the man is in even worse trouble than he was when the spirit was there, originally.

I think this passage is best explained if we understand Jesus to be talking about Israel’s current oppression.  The evil spirit is metonymy for Israel’s situation prior to the coming of Jesus.

We have seen, before, that the physical ailments, the sinfulness of the people, the evil spirits, and the Roman Empire are all different aspects of the same thing to Jesus.  Sometimes the connections between these things are implied; sometimes they are overtly stated (cf. Mark 5:9).  It is no good to try to make Jesus a minister of the “spiritual” distinct from the “physical” or the “political.”  It is all a ball of wax to Jesus.  Israel is under the curse of the covenant, and as such, is suffering holistically.  Poverty, demons, pagan rule, sickness, and sinfulness are all facets of a greater whole.  They are the lions that form Oppression Voltron.  They are the teenagers whose rings summon Captain Enslavement.  I’m running out of my childhood cartoon analogies, here.

But now Jesus has come.  The sicknesses are being healed.  The sins are being forgiven and people are repenting, embracing lives of faithfulness.  The unclean spirits are being cast out.  And Rome?  Well, Rome’s days are numbered – slated to be defeated by the exaltation of Jesus as king, but there is some road to cross before we get to that stage of the liberation.  We see bits and pieces of it with stories like the centurion’s faith in Jesus.

So, the spirit is being cast out.  Israel has a time of respite and healing.  This is precisely the time to turn to Jesus in faith – the very thing one would hope would happen if Jesus cast a spirit out of someone.  Jesus performs these signs showing that he is the Savior, and you believe him and follow him in faith.  Makes perfect sense.

Except that isn’t what’s happening.

Yes, among the people are those who are doing this.  But, by and large, Jesus is rejected by his own people.  They do not believe his claims.  They do not trust him in faith.  They do not believe his warnings.  Instead of his acts of deliverance being a catalyst for national repentance and obedience, they are a time of unbelief and persecution.

And because of this, those spirits are coming back with a vengeance.  Israel may have been suffering before Jesus showed up, but that will be nothing compared to the devastation that will occur when those evil forces come rushing back in – on that day when they feel they have been “away” for too long.

Historically, this is what happens.  Under Nero’s reign, false prophets and rebels stir up the people, even going so far as to attack and kill other Jews, stirring up rebellion against Rome until, as Josephus describes it, “all Judea was filled with the effects of their madness.  And thus the flame was every day more and more blown up, till it came to a direct war.” (Of the War, Book II, Chapter 13, v. 7)

And then Rome sweeps over Judea and destroys Jerusalem.

What we must keep in mind is that Jesus says that present, evil generation listening to him is like a man who is cleansed of an evil spirit and has a season of recovery, but then the spirit and all his buddies come rushing back in to create an even worse state of affairs than they originally had.  This isn’t about demons; this is about the unbelieving generation who will not repent despite the healing happening in their midst.  A much, much worse situation is waiting for them.

Consider This

  1. Although we do not have Jesus walking among us healing people and casting out evil spirits, what works have you observed in the world where people are being liberated by the things that oppress them – physically, spiritually, politically, economically – any and all of those?
  2. What do such works tell us about what God is doing?  How do they help us interpret His works in the present?  How ought we to respond?

Sunday Meditations: God Incarnate

There’s an old joke that is in every preacher’s Bag o’ Sermon Illustrations that goes something like this:

A man’s neighborhood began to flood.  Many of his neighbors had evacuated.  Others left with early rescue efforts.  But this man was a man of faith and believed God would save him, so he prayed earnestly.

Presently, some people in a long rowboat came by.  “Get in the boat!” they yelled.  “We have enough room and can get you out of here!”

“Thank you, but no,” said the man.  “I have faith that God will save me.”  And he returned to his prayers.

Over time, the waters rose.  The man had to move to the second floor of his house.  Outside, a motorboat pulled up outside his window.

“Come out the window!” they called.  “We’ll get under you and you can drop to the boat!  We’ll take you to safety.”

“No,” replied the man.  “God Himself will save me from the flood.”  And he went back to praying.

The waters rose, and the man had to climb up onto his roof.  Eventually, a helicopter flew overhead.  A man leaned out with a megaphone and said, “We’re going to drop a ladder down to you!  Climb up and we’ll take you to safety.”

The man cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “No!  God will save me!”

Eventually, the waters rose over the man’s head, and he drowned.

As he was ushered into Heaven, he made his way to God’s throne room and said, “I don’t mean to complain, but I died in a flood, and I prayed constantly for you to save me!”

“I know,” said God, “but what else did you want Me to do?  I sent you a rowboat, a motorboat, and a helicopter.”

*rimshot*

The reason this joke plays to us is because we understand that the man in the story is expecting God’s intervention to be a dramatically supernatural affair, and because of this, he’s not only blinded to, but actively rejects, the more mundane forms of salvation that get presented to him.  Because they are mundane, he does not discern the salvation of God behind them.

When we read the Bible, we are drawn to the big fire and light shows of God’s supernatural intervention.  But the glare from those displays obscures the much more common portrayals in the biblical stories – that perfectly “natural” things occur, but God’s purposes are behind them.

When Israel goes to battle with nations far more powerful than herself, she does not expect that a giant warrior surrounded by blazing light will appear before her or that a horde of angels with fiery swords will carve a path through the enemy.  Yet, she does expect to win the battle – with swords and spears and casualties.  However, because God is with her, she expects success even in the face of overwhelming odds.

The spread and cure of disease.  The intervention of nations.  Peculiar cattle breeding results.  The kindness of strangers.  All of these perfectly “worldly” things are presented to us in the Scriptures as (potentially) manifestations of God in the world.  The Semitic concept of a miracle isn’t necessarily something that disrupts the natural order of things, but rather is a clear sign from God.  This may include the sun standing still in the sky, but it also includes the birth of a baby at an opportune moment.  A man levitating in front of his house is not a miracle because it signifies nothing, but meeting a foreigner who waters your cattle for you or receiving a child you’ve prayed for can be miracles because of what they signify.

This continues through the New Testament as well.  The sharp division we draw between “physical” and “spiritual” or “natural” and “supernatural” just does not seem to exist in the New Testament.  The upcoming war with Rome, casting out demons, the spiritual reformation of Israel, the manifestations of the Spirit, the spread of the worship of Israel’s God to the Gentile nations – these things are all part and parcel together and roll together as a narrative about what God is doing in the world.  It is we, not the Scriptures, who have filtered anything out of the narrative that reeks of the material or political.

And we do this to our detriment.

Sure, this principle can be misused.  Every time a hurricane hits, some televangelist ascribes it to the judgement of God for some perceived sin or another.  And if you and I should meet when I am experiencing tragedy in my life, you are not allowed to mention “God’s plans” to me for some time.

But these abuses do not change the fact that the narrative we receive from Scripture is that, while God is capable of doing big, supernatural, dramatic things, these are noteworthy for how unusual they are.  What is far more common are the simple mechanisms of biology, physics, politics, and the human heart operating at a level that everyone can observe, but with eyes of faith see that God is in them.  The spiritual work of God is incarnate in the dirt, spit, and blood of history, both in the larger picture of God’s people through history and our individual lives as well.

How often, for example, have we prayed and prayed to God for guidance, for internal peace about a stressful situation, or to sanctify us in a particular area and help with our struggle with a particular sin, and yet we don’t tell a single human being about any of this?

One of my favorite, wonderful, messy passages in the Bible is James 5:13-18:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

James 5:13-18 (NRSV)

I love that passage for bundling all that together.  You pray, you talk to your elders, you confess your sins to one another (as opposed to God alone), and it is through these mechanisms that you will be healed.  Healed physically?  Healed spiritually?  Forgiven?  yes, all of those things.  It’s all a ball of wax to James, and it involves other people.

Because, you see, barring some dramatic supernatural event, God will not verbally assure me that my sins are forgiven.  God will not verbally counsel me or offer me words of encouragement.  God will not physically hug me.

But a human being – created in the image of God and a temple of His Spirit – can do all those things.  The search for communion with God ought not create lives of isolation, but rather lives of community with those who carry His image into the world.  The search for His mighty works should not focus on fires from heaven or a miraculous cure of disease, but rather the spread of His love and justice in the world and the powers of death being beaten back in laboratories, hospital tents, revitalized communities, and disaster recovery centers.

And perhaps an individual whose life is on a direct course to its own destruction begins to course correct.  They have an internal prodding to be different.  They find hope, support, and guidance from others who have walked that path before them.  Perhaps a life of patterns and behaviors that have all but stripped that divine image from them begins to fracture and a new life begins to emerge.  Is that simply healthy human interaction or good psychology?

Yes.  I also call it a miracle.

Sunday Meditations: Hope of an Afterlife

I’ve been a little blog silent for a while.  The series on how ethics are pursued in the Bible (and beyond) was an intensive effort for me, and I was all meditated out.

When I was in college, I asked a guy in my Intro. to Philosophy class if he would still be a Christian even if he would still end up in Hell.  After class, he caught me on my way out and said, “Probably not.”  That kind of honesty is what spurs good spiritual growth.

The ideas around what happens to us after we die are a big part of the messaging in the evangelical world, today.  The entire story of God and His people is told in a way that orients it around what is perceived to be the key problem: sinners who die go to Hell.  This begs a solution: Jesus paid the penalty for your sins so, if you believe, you will not go to Hell and will go to Heaven, instead.  This also defines an ongoing ethic: Try to help as many people not go to Hell as possible and, along the way, make sure you are living/believing in such a manner so as not to end up in Hell, yourself.

I’ve written before about some of the weaknesses I think this story has, both from a biblical perspective and a practical one, and I don’t plan on revisiting all that.  I do want to use it to stage a question: how much of our Christian hope hangs on a specific idea of the afterlife?  It’s a worthwhile question for a couple of reasons.

One reason is that, even though the subject of what happens after death does arise in the Bible a fair amount, it’s hard to take all the biblical data and create a picture that makes all the data fit nicely and neatly.  Depending on what passages you look at, some sound like death is simply the end.  Others sound like our spirits all collect in some common place.  Some indicate an ongoing spiritual experience that can include reward or punishment.  Other passages seem to indicate a physical resurrection.  Some passages indicate that we are conscious and aware after death, while others describe the experience as being “asleep.”

Arranging the material chronologically helps some, especially as we pull in commentary and extrabiblical literature to help us out.  We begin with the idea that everyone dies and goes to a final rest that is more or less common to everyone.  The way your life continues in world history is through your descendants, hence a huge Old Testament emphasis on having lots of children that is not really picked up in the New Testament.

As we move forward, we pick up ideas like their being places of imprisonment or bliss after you die.  There are pictures of national resurrections of Israel that cause / overlap with / become a nascent hope of a physical resurrection.  By the time we get to the end of the New Testament, we have two resurrections: one of the martyrs at the time of the coming of the Son of Man, and one at the final judgement.

But even this does not give us sharp boundaries.  These historical ideas of the afterlife are not like Neapolitan ice cream with well-defined strata.  Bits and pieces of these ideas end up in places we would not expect them, going in both directions.  Diversity exists on the issue at many points in biblical history and in the church going forward.  So, today, while we might generally agree on some common eschatological elements (e.g. the Apostles’ Creed “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”), what happens to us after we die is murky and seems always to have been – for obvious reasons, I guess.

But the second reason is more practical.  I sometimes wonder if our conception of the afterlife does not become our source of trust and hope as well as our motivator for action.  In other words, it becomes an idol.

Death is a scary prospect, and the older I get, the more this specter likes to hang around.  We don’t want to die; we want to go on.  But there is a subtle, yet important, difference between saying, “I am not afraid of death because I trust that God will take care of me, even beyond death” and saying “I am not afraid of death because I know I’ll be in Heaven after I die.”  One of those commitments urges us to commit our spirits into the hands of God believing He will do the right thing.  The other commitment urges us to believe in a particular metaphysical outlook and draw our confidence from our certainty in that concept.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that trust in God for what happens to you after you die and a belief in Heaven are incompatible.  But my question is: where is your trust, really?  What if you don’t go to Heaven when you die?  What if you wink out of conscious existence until God restores you in a new earth?  Or, to really challenge ourselves, what if God had given no indicators about resurrection at all?  What if, when we died, we just stayed dead and that was that, as far as we know?

My point is this: if we take away your certainty about the afterlife, do we also take away your devotion to God?  What is the basis of your faith?  On what grounds is God worthy of worship?  Are loving God with all one’s heart and loving your neighbor as yourself worthy pursuits even if the reward of an afterlife isn’t waiting in the wings?  Is your pursuit of following Christ primarily a mechanism by which to ensure your own survival?

Like most things, this is a process.  I believe at this point in my life, I am slowly (sloooooooooowly) coming to the position of trusting God instead of my cherished outcomes, and I like to think this is a deepening of what it means to have faith – to recognize that my Self is not something I created and does not belong to me by right.  It was given.  It’s a gift.  When the time comes when I no longer have that gift, I can throw myself into God’s arms trusting that, whatever He’s going to do, it will be right.

And when we look back at those little intrusions of the hope of resurrection into the earlier parts of the Old Testament, we discover something interesting.  This forecast does not come from supernatural revelation, but from someone assuming that God will keep His promises and concluding that the grave cannot be the end.  The faith of those saints was not in a doctrine of the afterlife or a specific conception about exactly what would happen, but their trust was in the faithfulness of God.

And if God has made promises, and God is trustworthy, and God is capable of delivering on them, there is nothing that will prevent that from happening, not even death itself.  In this way, the hope of a life after death is a negotiable byproduct of first and foremost being convinced about who God is and what He is like and placing your trust in that God, both for the trajectory of this life and whatever may come afterward.

Thursday Meditations: Biblical Ethics, Pt. V – Conclusions

There are a few more case studies that would be interesting to cover.  I would have liked to have covered the laws on where to offer sacrifices – laws that changed completely three times along with Israel’s circumstances.  I would have liked to have looked at the dietary laws and their oddly selective transformation in the New Testament.  But I think we’ve looked at enough data to be able to draw some conclusions, and there are other things I’d like to get on to.  Matthew isn’t going to devotionalize itself.

The first thing I want to say isn’t a conclusion from this data so much as a frame of reference.  If you are a Christian, whatever your position is on homosexuality or gay marriage, any discussions we have about those issues must come from the standpoint that LGBTQ Christians are your brothers and sisters serving the same Lord you are.

They have the same Spirit that you do.  Their sins have been completely forgiven as yours have.  They are co-heirs of the promises as you are.  They have entered the kingdom as you have.  God is as pleased with them as He is with you.  He loves them, is delighted by their presence, protects them, and is for them – just as He is with you.  He will bring them safely through any eschatological crises, as He will you.  They confess the same Lord, share in the same baptism, and eat the same spiritual food and drink the same spiritual drink.  Any discussion involves you sitting on the same side of the table in genuine communion and fellowship and love, one with another.

If you are not there, and especially if you are unwilling to get there, then you ought to keep your Statements to yourself and work on the beam in your own eye before you help your brother or sister with theirs.  I think the whole tenor of the discussion of homosexuality in evangelicalism would be radically different if everyone actually befriended at least one gay Christian and walked the road with them of being a Christian in the world – a struggle and opportunity we all share.  Perhaps, then, these discussions would take place in an arena of genuine love and concern for each others’ welfare and not the BS “it’s loving to point out sin!” kind of “love” that is a sad veneer over disgust, ostracism, and often straight-up hatred.

As we looked at various ethical cases in the Bible, we had an eye on how ethical reasoning around that issue worked within the Bible itself and how that impacted later reasoning in the church.  What we discovered is that even the most serious and elevated of commandments were open to discussion, change, and sometimes even outright elimination.  When these things happened, it was rarely because of some new instance of divine revelation, but rather changing circumstances that confronted the people of God in new ways.

The Bible itself seems to contradict strongly the idea that a given ethical injunction is automatically a timeless truth to be rigorously and universally applied regardless of circumstance.

When we looked at the Sabbath, we saw laws that were universal in their outlook, rooted in a creational ordinance, and carried the death penalty for violation.  We saw those same laws challenged by Jesus.  We watched them morph into matters of personal preference in the Pauline epistles.  In the course of early church history, we saw the “special day” move from Saturday to Sunday.

At each of these pivot points, no new Scriptures had been written to change, say, Paul’s mind on the issue or establish Jesus’ ad hoc hierarchy for breaking the Sabbath.  Surely nothing was received that told anyone to move Saturday to Sunday.  All these things were the product of God-honoring reasoning reflecting on these laws and the current circumstances and changing landscapes in which the people of God found themselves.

Note, these are not just weird little side laws – this is the Sabbath, and the penalty for violating it is death.  To us, it’s just a matter of course that the “special day” is Sunday, and how one chooses to observe it – strictly or not – is a matter of personal devotional practices.  We cannot appreciate the gravity of these changes until we can place ourselves in the mindset of Jews who would rather let the soldiers of Antiochus Epiphanes kill them than to break the Sabbath laws given to them by God through Moses.

We looked at circumcision and found that it was the only way for Jews or Gentiles to be considered in covenant with God, and refusal to be circumcised was grounds for expulsion from the community.  When an influx of Gentiles became believers and received the Spirit, there were certainly those who, naturally, insisted they follow the laws for Gentile converts.  Because, you know, they were Gentile converts.

Yet, the church debated the issue.  Much debate, the Scriptures say, on an issue that is clearly and expressly set down in Scripture.  This council did not have the benefit of Paul’s later theological rumination, nor did Jesus say anything on the subject.  Yet, they saw fit to discuss the issue and, at the end of the discussion, decided not to require the Gentiles to be circumcised, even though the Bible told them to.

And on what grounds?  Solid exegesis?  No, the apostles just offered testimony to their experiences that the Gentiles were receiving the Spirit even though they weren’t following the Law of Moses, so what was the point in forcing them to do so?  This phenomenon is the keystone argument in Galatians.  Once again, today, circumcision is a matter of indifference, even though we have Scripture informing us that if the Galatian converts became circumcised, they would be required to keep the whole Law and Christ would be of no value to them.

When we looked at the issue of slavery, we found the principle upheld in both Old and New Testaments.  The only evolution in thought on this issue seems to be that, within the church, there was no partiality shown between masters and slaves, and they were instructed to care for one another because they both served the Lord.  But slavery as an institution is never challenged, nor the idea that a slave is property.  We looked at how slavery was and wasn’t different in the ancient world from slavery as we’ve seen it in the past few centuries, and we noted that in the American evangelical debates on slavery, the conservative, white, exegetical position was pro-slavery, accusing their opponents of theological liberalism and conforming to social pressures.  The black theologians argued, also from the Bible, against slavery, and their views were taken up by revivalists (perhaps they saw the activity of the Spirit among slaves?).

Today, almost everyone agrees slavery is wrong.  They argue that people are not property no matter how nice you are about it.  They argue this from biblical grounds, although we have forgotten this is at least one issue where white, conservative theologians exegeted wrongly where black “liberal” theologians were correct.  The appeals to the broader, more dominant themes of Scripture trumped the letter of the law in this case.

Finally, we looked at deception in the Bible and discovered that, as roundly and solidly condemned as lying is in the Scriptures, there were still situations where the letter of the Law was trumped by the particular circumstances at the time.  Higher values came into play, and we saw how the Bible lauded the moral choices of people like Rahab who lied to her government to protect spies.

One thing that often unites Christians and atheists is a craving for certainty.  We want to feel like we know what we know, and what we know is rock solid.  Ambiguity does not sit well with us and, especially for those trying to construct a moral system from theism, we especially don’t like ambiguity in our ethics.  We want to know what’s right and wrong so we can always try to do the right thing and avoid the wrong thing.

The problem is that this desire for certainty, which can be a good desire (it can also be an idol), often keeps us from seeing how the Bible actually operates.  We want it to be a manual or a textbook.  We want it to lay out plainly that this is true, that is false, this is right, and that is wrong.  Because that’s what we want, that’s what we construct.  The Bible becomes that thing whether it actually is that thing or not.

Unfortunately, the Bible is not actually a manual.  It is not an instruction book for life.  It is an anthology of writings that testify to a people’s journey with the God who created the heavens and the earth.  It’s stories, songs, governing documents, letters, and collections of wise sayings.  It is from this collection that the people of God prayerfully reason together and find it to be useful in lighting the way forward.

In the Bible itself, we have seen that even the most serious of laws are up for genuine discussion.  Nothing in the realm of the church’s ethical reasoning is ever settled simply by appeal to a proof text (or many proof texts).  And, oddly enough, not only can our understanding of laws change, our relationship to those laws can change, too.  We see this in the Scriptures.

And we certainly see it as the church moves forward from age to age.  Was it wrong, for example, for Christians who were part of the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape from their masters in light of 1 Timothy 6:1-4?  Were such people actually heroes with whom God was well pleased?  What Scripture would you point to in order to establish that?  The fact is that there is no text that says that people who help slaves escape their masters are behaving morally.  That is a conclusion the church drew from looking at her circumstances and understanding the commands in Scripture through the lens of higher principles taught in those same Scriptures.

Does this mean, then, that homosexuality is ok and gay marriage ought to be the law of all lands?

It does not necessarily mean that, but what it does mean is that the church is acting biblically when she re-examines her understanding and relationship to the commands in Scripture as her circumstances change.

The majority of the LGBTQ community are Christians.  This is something that was not on Paul’s radar.  Many of them want to express their sexuality within the confines of a monogamous covenant of marriage – the same covenant that sanctifies heterosexual relations.  This is something that definitely was not on Paul’s radar.  Wherever you stand on these issues, we need to have a better response to these dear brothers and sisters in Christ than, “Well, sorry, the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, so… I guess we’re done, here.”

We’re not done here.  The people in the Bible itself weren’t done, there.  If we want to be “biblical” about these issues, we should be creating the Nashville Question.  Agree with me, disagree with me; I hope you can see that I’ve taken pains to deal with the Bible on this topic, and from what I see, when the church is confronted with new circumstances, or even individuals confronted with extenuating circumstances, what you’re supposed to do is hear all sides and figure this out, not simply appeal to some texts and declare the issue settled.  For most Christians, this issue is settled before we even start talking, and this is not biblical.

And if we want to approach our moral reasoning like Jesus, we absolutely must see law through the lens of love.  Loving our neighbor as ourself was Jesus’ plumb line for whether or not you were interpreting and practicing the Torah correctly.  And for the record, he did not seem to think that viewing the Law through love simply meant pointing out violations of the Law; the Pharisees were happy to do that.  Satan is happy to do that.

Jesus seemed to think it meant actually showing actual love in concrete ways to actual people.  If we can decide up front that showing love in concrete ways – not legal compliance – is our goal in these discussions, then I’m optimistic that, wherever we land, it will be in a place that benefits everyone and pleases God.