Parables of Jesus. The Tricky Bits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While the parables reveal truths about God’s Kingdom, they also reveal truths about us. God is bringing His kingdom. Are you pressing into it, or turning your back on it?
God is offering you a love relationship. Are you pressing into that relationship or turning your back? Jesus didn’t turn His back on you when he could have, when perhaps he should have. His back was to the cross.

(All Scripture references are taken from NRSV)

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Redefining Family

Who feels more like “family” to you, the family you were adopted or born into, or a group of friends? There was an article some time ago which lamented the breakdown of the family. Though I don’t remember much about the article, the author looked at how tv shows were helping to redefine family with “Friends” leading the way.  Many shows portray one’s family members as the last people you would go to for empathy or understanding. However, one’s friends are portrayed as always being there for love and support. With family being redefined in our day how are we supposed to define family? Jesus tells us in Mark 3, and you may be surprised:

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:31-35

Considering the importance placed on family in Old Testament law, Jesus’ redefinition of family was shocking to the people of that day. It may be just as shocking today. We may find ourselves asking if Jesus should have been a better Christian and taken the opportunity to affirm the importance of family. Instead he redefines his family as those who do the will of God. What are we to make of this?

First, Jesus redefinition of family as those who do God’s will is good news for those with no family, or whose family has abdicated their role. You might lose out on the ideal family, but you never need lose out on a family. This, of course, speaks to the nature of the Church. If one’s experience of church is to just show up, sing a few songs, hear a sermon and go home, then we are missing out on part of what God’s will for the church is. Reading the New Testament, you never get the sense that people just went to church. You get the sense that they are the church, in relationship with God and with each other. While some churches practically demand a quiet sanctuary prior to worship as a sign of reverence, I pastor a very noisy church. I prefer to look at the positive side of this and celebrate the fact that people are relating to each other. Many churches, including ours, are known as being friendly. However, churches need to go beyond just being friendly, to being family.

Second, Jesus’ redefinition of family is good news for world peace. We have family everywhere, and that family transcends political, racial and language boundaries. Moving from Ottawa I do not miss city life. I do, however, miss the diversity we enjoyed at Fourth Avenue Baptist. Each Sunday I could look around and see people from Jamaica, Russia, Iran, England, Northern Ireland, Haiti, Benin, and often other nations besides. My favourite Sundays were the combined services with a primarily Congolese church. We would worship in up to four different languages with our love for decorum before God Almighty mixing wonderfully with their excitement about Jesus. One is reminded of what’s ahead:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .  Revelation 7:9

Third, Jesus’ redefinition of family is not a rejection of our genetic family, but a call to enter into it with passion. When someone does the will of God as the brother or sister of Jesus, it is good news for one’s family. What is the will of God within family life? We can think of specific instructions for a wife to “respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:3), and for husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Such sacrificial love and mutual respect is good for family life. We can think of instructions for children to “obey your parents” (Ephesians 6:1), and for parents to not “provoke your children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4). Many other passages pointing to God’s will for us are beneficial for family life also. Like, “love one another” (John 13:34), and “do to others you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). Those things work well in family. Also “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), and “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). Sobriety and faithfulness are always good for family. And one more on God’s will:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Many a dysfunctional family could use more justice, kindness and members who walk humbly with God. Far from a call to renounce family, God’s will is that we do family well.

Finally, Jesus’ redefinition of family points forward to the wonderful possibility of being God’s child. You may say, “But Pastor, I try to do God’s will and find it impossible to always do it. I always mess up at some point”. Keep reading the Gospel of Mark until you get to that place where Jesus prayed “remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36). God’s will was that in Jesus’ death and resurrection death should be defeated and we would be reconciled to God. Jesus did the will of the Father and now we have the wonderful opportunity of being adopted into His family, not because of our perfection in keeping His will, but because of His.

Should we be surprised that Jesus redefines family? We should not be surprised for it is an act of love and grace. God calls us into a new kind of family, then calls us and enables us to do His will within our family of origin.

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.)

Powerful Men React to Jesus

Falling prey to a “research project”, my wife and I sat and listened to a lengthy sales pitch  for an air purifier. The punchline of the presentation was “if you want to live longer you will buy our product”. To that I asked the salesman if he would like to live even longer than what he suggested and began to talk about Jesus. We listened to his sales pitch for about three quarters of an hour. Within minutes of my mention of Jesus, he was out the door.

It is interesting to note how people respond, or more accurate sometimes, react, to Jesus. In our passage for this week, Mark 2:1-3:6, we have several different reactions to Jesus.

In verses 2-4 we see people crowding into a house to see Jesus. Some even dig through a roof in an effort to get their friend into his presence. In verses 6-7 the scribes respond by assuming that Jesus has committed blasphemy when he pronounces  forgiveness upon a paralyzed man. The crowd then responds with amazement and glorify God when the man is healed. There is more excitement in verses 13-15 with a crowd gathering again, Matthew Levi responding favourably to the call to follow, and the tax collectors and sinners wanting to be with Jesus. Then the scribes react again by questioning how Jesus could possibly hang out with sinners in verse 16. They are then upset with Jesus in verses 18 and 24 over his disciples’ lack of religious observances. When Jesus heals on a sabbath day, they conspire with the Herodians in 3:6 to destroy him. To put this reaction to Jesus in perspective, Pharisees wanting an alliance with Herodians would be like Hillary Clinton seeking an alliance with Donald Trump. That is how much the religious leaders want Jesus dead.

There are a few things to notice about all this. First we see two very different reactions to Jesus. One is full of excitement and the embracing of Jesus. The other is full of fear and rejection. We see different results based on the reactions. Those who respond positively to Jesus experience healing and growth. Good things are happening! On the other hand, those who respond negatively end up thinking about murder. We also see two different kinds of people; those who know they have needs, and those who think they are needed.

Do you notice something further about those who reject Jesus and seek his destruction? They are powerful men, men of influence. The very first person to have tried to destroy Jesus was King Herod, another powerful man. Herod, representing political power wants Jesus dead and in trying to destroy Jesus, kills many infants. The Pharisees of Mark 2, representing religious power, are also bent on destruction. Unfortunately, bad things still happen around powerful men.

What lessons are here for powerful men today?

First, when powerful men meet Jesus, they should be prepared to trade in their pride for humility. They should learn a lesson from King David who had learned to say “The Lord is my Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). While our minds tend to run to the thought of a shepherd’s protection and care, the thought is also of the shepherd’s authority. King David knew that he was answerable to a higher authority. He was not the true king. God was, and is. Powerful men do well to remember that.

Second, when powerful men meet Jesus, they should be prepared to trade in their fear for trust. Herod feared losing his Kingdom to a baby born in Bethlehem. The Pharisees feared losing their grip on the people through religion. Both would have done well to trust what God was doing in their midst, and in fact to join in.

Third, when powerful men meet Jesus, they should be prepared to trade in their religion for relationship. Not only are the scribes powerful, they are also religious which can be a deadly combination. We have many examples of this with a fundamentalist form of Islam leading the way. When you see darker moments within Christianity look deeper and you will see people exercising religion without a solid and growing relationship with Christ.

Fourth, when powerful men meet Jesus, they should be prepared to trade in their own evil and embrace the goodness of Jesus. Jesus raised the question of good and evil:

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. Mark 3:1-6 (NRSV emphasis mine)

It is ironic that the religious leaders do not respond by stating the obvious correct answer but instead react by living out the wrong one. They succumb to the evil in their hearts. They storm out on the very person who can help them with that!

In our day powerful men are being called out for bad deeds. We can think of #metoo and the “Time’s Up” movement. People in our day are realizing that even in a secular society, morality matters and sexual freedom is a myth. There must be limits and boundaries, but who, or better, Who gets to set them? Just think of how these powerful men would have treated women differently had they been embracing the goodness of Jesus.

You may not be powerful, or a man, but do you need to make similar trades in your life? Trading pride for humility, fear for trust, religion for relationship, and our evil for His goodness? Not to rush you, but the trade deadline is coming up!