Archives For Parables

Our summer sermon series through the parables continued this weekend with the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21.

“What do you think he’ll do when he comes back?” Jesus asks on the eve of his own destruction. 

“When he comes back, what do you think he’ll do?”

And they said to him: “When he comes back (when he comes back to judge the quick and the dead) he will put those wretches to a miserable death.” 

“What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do when he returns?” 

Here’s another question—

Since today is the fifth Sunday in Eastertide, here’s a resurrection question for you. 

Why is the very first reaction to the Easter news fear? 

Across all four Gospels, the immediate response to the news Christ is Risen isn’t Christ is Risen indeed! Alleluia! It’s alarm and abject terror. Why?

Mark and Matthew, Luke and John— none of them tell the Easter story in the same way.

Except for the fear.

Fear is the feature Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree upon. 

The soldiers guarding the tomb faint from fear. The women, come to anoint the body, run away, terrified. The disciples lock the door of the upper room and cower in the corner. 

When he comes back, everyone— they’re white-knuckled terrified. 

Just what do they think he’ll do?

—————————————

      Before you get to the New Testament, the only verse in the Old that explicitly anticipates resurrection is in the Book of Daniel, chapter twelve. 

     And the resurrection the prophet Daniel forsees is a double resurrection: 

“Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall be raised up, the righteous to everlasting life, and the unrighteous to everlasting shame and contempt.”

It’s a double resurrection the Bible anticipates. A resurrection to reward, or a resurrection to punishment.Those who have remained righteous and faithful in the face of suffering will be raised up by God to life with God in God’s Kingdom. 

But those who’ve committed suffering by their sins— they might be on top now in this life, but one day the first will be last. God will raise them up too, not to everlasting life but to its everlasting opposite.

The “good” news of resurrection in the Book of Daniel is predicated entirely upon your goodness. 

Resurrection was not about yellow peeps and metaphors for springtime renewal; resurrection was God coming back with a list of who’d been naughty and who’d been nice in order to mete out to each according to what they deserved. 

Resurrection wasn’t about butterflies. Resurrection was about the justice owed to the righteous and the judgment owed to sinners. In the only Bible the disciples knew, the Old Testament, resurrection was good news. If you were good. If you weren’t, if you were wicked, resurrection was the first day of a miserable and wretched fate. 

———————-

They all respond to the Easter news with fear not because they fail to understand resurrection but exactly because they do understand. 

They know their Bible— better than you. They knew resurrection was good news or godawful news depending on where you fell according to the righteousness equation. And they know that as God’s elect People in the world God had called them, Israel, to be tenants of God’s vineyard. 

And they know all too well that when God set them apart as his peculiar, pilgrim People, when God gave to them the Law on Mt. Sinai, they promised God not just their effort or their obedience but perfection. 

“All of this we will do and more,” they swore at Sinai, “we will be 

perfect before the Law as our Father in heaven is perfect.” 

When they weren’t—

When they failed to return God’s love with love of their own, when they chose to be like the other nations instead of a light to the nations, God sent them his messengers to call Abraham’s children back to the righteous life owed to God as God’s chosen People. 

First, God sent them prophets. 

And what did the People who’d promised him perfection do the prophets?

Zechariah, who told them that God would redistribute their wealth for the sake of the poor, was killed by the King of Judah on the altar of the Temple. Jeremiah criticized them for turning a deaf ear to lies and making an idol of their politics. They shut him up by stoning him to death. And Isaiah was sawn in two near the pool of Siloam for speaking truth to power. “Thus says the Lord,” Isaiah said, “I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”

They killed the prophets— and those are just three examples.

So next this God of second and third and sixth chances, he sends them still another. 

A final prophet. 

And this messenger makes a way in the wilderness. And he baptizes in the Jordan with a baptism of repentance, and he calls God’s wicked tenants a brood of vipers. 

Wearing camel-hair, he hollers about God’s axe lying near, but in the end he’s the one on whom the blade falls. A king of the Jews serves his head on a platter as a party gag.

Yet this God is not a Lord of ledgers but a Father of compassion. 

After he sends his People prophets, after he sends them John the Baptist (it makes no sense at all) God sends them his only-begotten Son. The Kingdom of God comes in the flesh and our response is my will be done.  God’s People say “We have no king but Caesar.” And then they scream “Crucify him!”

His own disciples—

They’d denied ever knowing him. They’d turned tail. They’d let the wicked world sin all its sins into him. 

And then they left him forsaken on a cross. 

———————-

When the owner comes back— and the word Jesus uses there is kyrios, meaning Lord— when the Lord comes back, what do you think he’ll do?

Everyone in the Easter story responds to the news that Jesus is longer dead with dread because they expect the Lord to put wretches like them to a miserable death.

For the Bible tells them so. They lock the doors. They run and hide. They faint and cower because, according to scripture, resurrection for sinners means judgment. They have every reason to expect the Lord who’s come back to condemn them:

I was naked and you were not there to clothe me. I was thirsty and you were too long gone to give me something to drink. I was a prisoner and you stood in the crowd pretending me a stranger.

If Jesus was risen indeed, then there weren’t any alleluias for them. Resurrection could only mean one awful thing for wicked tenants like them. 

But no—

When he comes back, he doesn’t pay them the wages their sins had earned. He doesn’t put wretches like them to a miserable death. The Lord who’d sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, slips past their locked doors and he doesn’t give them payback. He gives them pardon. 

“Peace,” he says. 

When he comes back, he doesn’t give them what Daniel promised they have coming to them, everlasting punishment. No, he gives them his Holy Spirit that he had promised would come to them. 

He gives them his Spirit. 

He gives them his pardon. 

And he gives to them the ministry of pardon. “Wherever you forgive the sins— any sins— of anyone, their sins are forgiven,” Jesus commissions them. 

Even Peter, who’d lied and denied the Lord thrice, when he comes back to wretched Peter, he doesn’t indict Peter and condemn him. He invites Peter to confess his love for him. 

Three times. 

A do-over:

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

“Yes, Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

When he comes back to his wicked tenants…

Wait—

WHERE’S THE BRIMSTONE?

Resurrection is supposed to be a double-edged sword. Resurrection is about reward and punishment. Resurrection is about the justification of the righteous and the judgment of the unrighteous. 

The Bible tells them so— that’s why they’re terrified. 

But when the Lord returns to his vineyard, his tenants do not receive what they deserve. 

They receive what only he deserves.

As though, resurrection isn’t a double-edged sword so much as an exchange.

———————-

Eight years ago exactly to the day, I was in Old Town Alexandria shopping for a black tie to wear for the funeral of a boy I was burying. He’d been a little younger than my youngest boy is now. In a closet filled with Lego pieces and action figures, he’d done it himself with a fake leather belt bought at Target. 

It was a couple of days before the day that Harold Camping, a huckster preacher and president of Family Christian Radio, had predicted the world would end, in judgment and fury, the twenty-first of May. 

Standing on the corner of King Street, blocking my path, were four or five of Camping’s disciples. A couple of the “evangelists” of were holding foam-board signs high above their heads. The signs were brightly illustrated with graphic images of God’s wrath and damnation. 

I remember one image— an image borrowed from the Book of Daniel— was of an awful-looking lion with scars on its paws. At the bottom of one of the signs was an illustration of people, men and women and children, looking terrified to be caught in their sins by Christ come back.

A young twenty-something man tried to hand me a tract. He didn’t look very different from the models in the store window next to us. He gave me a syrupy smile, and said, “Did you know the wicked world is going to end on May 21? The Lord is coming back in just two days. What do you think he’ll do when he returns? To sinners?” 

Then he started talking about the end of the world. I flipped through his brochure.  

“Martin Luther said Revelation was a dangerous book in the hands of idiots,” I mumbled. 

“What’s that?” he asked. 

“Oh nothing, just thinking out loud.”

Now, I’m still new here at Annandale United Methodist Church. Maybe you don’t yet know. Sometimes, I’m prone to sarcasm. Sometimes, my sarcasm is of the abrasive varietal. But that day, the day before I had to bury that boy who’d died by his own foolish hand, what I felt rising in me was more like anger. 

Because evangel in scripture means literally good freaking news.

And these “evangelists” weren’t dishing out anything of the sort.

“Lemme ask you something,” I said, “since you seem to know your Bible.”

The evangelist smiled and nodded. He looked electrified to be, all of a sudden, useful. 

“Doesn’t the Bible call Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the whole world?” I asked, feigning naïveté. 

He nodded a sanctimonious grin. 

“Well then, which ones did he miss?” 

He looked confused, as shoppers pushed past us to get to the bus stop. 

“Sins,” I pressed, “which sins did Jesus miss?” 

I’d raised my voice now, my pretense falling away and my righteous anger welling up in the teardrops at the corner of my eyes. “Did Jesus take away all the sins of the world, or did he only get some of them?” 

No sooner had he started to mouth the word “all” than I was back down his throat. 

“Really?! Because from your signs and pamphlets, it sure as hell looks like Jesus missed a whole lot of sins, that he’s none too pleased with folks who can’t get their act together.” 

He started to give me a patronizing chuckle, so I pressed him. 

“And, wait a minute, didn’t Jesus say, whilst dying for the sins of the whole world, ‘It is finished?’ Isn’t that, like, red-letter?”

He nodded and looked over my head to his supervisor behind me. I was shouting now. 

“And doesn’t it say, too, that in Jesus God has chosen all of us from before the foundation of the world?” 

“I think so,” he said. “I’m not sure.”

“Well, damn straight it does,” I hollered. “Ephesians, and, looking at you all with your bullhorns and pictures of lions and dragons and brimstone and judgment, I’m just wondering how, if God’s chosen us all in Christ from before the beginning of everything, you think so many of us with our puny, pathetic, run-of-the-mill sins—which have all been taken away already—can gum up God’s plan?”

“Riddle me that,” I shouted.

Okay, so maybe I was feeling a little sarcastic. 

“I’m not sure you understand how serious this is, sir,” he said to me. 

“Oh, I got it, all right.”

He suddenly looked like he was trying to remember the safe word. 

“I get how serious it is,” I said, “I just think it’s you who doesn’t take it seriously, not enough apparently to take Jesus at his word that when he comes back he’ll come back already bearing every sin we’ve ever sinned in his crucified and risen body. The Judge has been judged in our place. It’s not about reward and punishment anymore. It’s about promise. The Gospel promise that he has gotten what we all deserve and we’re given gratis what he alone deserves.”

You wonder why I repeat myself Sunday after Sunday—

It’s because this “evangelist,” this preacher, just stared at me like he’d never the Gospel before. He hadn’t.

“The only basis on which God judges now is not our works— not our behavior, good or bad (thank God)— but our belief.  Our faith. The only basis on which he judges now is on our simple trust that he’s gotten out of the judgment game. It’s in your Bible, man: “There is therefore now no judgment for those who are in Christ Jesus.” 

“It’s “There is therefore now no condemnation not no judgment.”” he tried to correct me.  

“It’s the same word,” I said. “Krima. Judgment. Condemnation. Krima. Same word. And when St. Paul says in Christ Jesus, he’s talking not about behavior but about baptism.”

It was right about then I became aware that I was creating a scene.

But I didn’t care.

Standing there, needing to buy a necktie I could wear beside a four-foot coffin for a boy I’d baptized, let’s just say, it was not an academic debate.

———————-

“When the owner of the vineyard comes back, what do you think he’ll do to those wicked tenants? And they said to Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

And Jesus doesn’t respond: WRONG ANSWER.

Pay attention, this is important.

Jesus tells all of his parables of judgment in the space of four days before his crucifixion—

that’s the interpretative key to them. 

We’re supposed to read the parables of judgment as pointers to the cross. 

You see, it’s not that after three years of preaching about God’s bargain free grace and bottomless forgiveness Jesus suddenly gave up and decided to preach instead like John the Baptist. The Gospel is not a bait and switch. Jesus doesn’t take away with these parables of judgment the grace he already gave with his left-hand. 

The judgment at the center of these dark parables is the cross. 

When you read them in light of the cross, you discover that the parables of judgment, every bit as much as that one about the father and the fatted calf, are Gospel not Law. 

The cross is our judgment— Jesus already told you that at the very beginning of the Gospel: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness.” 

He’s talking about the cross. 

It’s likewise with Paul. “God made Jesus to be our wickedness,” Paul writes, “…and through the cross God put to death— krima’d— the enmity between humanity and God.” 

The cross is our judgment. 

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” they tell Jesus. 

And Jesus doesn’t correct them or contradict them because they’re right. We’re all put to death in him. “Do you not know,” the Bible promises, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death…we have been buried with him by baptism into his death for sins so that we might be raised up with him.” 

That promise is no different than the promise with which Jesus ends the parable today. 

Our judgment on the cross is the cornerstone of God’s new creation.

All that the world has to do now to escape judgment is to trust that in Jesus Christ you’ve already escaped it. 

That’s it. 

And that’s red-letter: “God the Father judges no one,” Jesus says, “God has given over all judgment to the Son…and he who trusts in him is not judged.” 

Let me make it plain.

GOD’S NOT MAD AT YOU. 

Even if God should be.

God’s forgiven you for every single thing— and that thing too you’re now thinking about in your head.

God’s not mad at you.

It doesn’t matter who you are. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. 

It doesn’t matter what you’ve left undone. 

On account of Jesus Christ— propterChristum, the first Protestants liked to say— God literally doesn’t give a damn. 

After Jesus Christ announces from his cross “It is finished,” there is now— for those who trust it— nothing but the “blessed silence of his uncondemnation.” 

No matter who you are or what you’ve done. 

There is no case against you. There is no indictment filed. There is no evidence locked away in storage. There’s not even a courtroom for you to exhibit all your good works. 

There is therefore now no judgment.

Because when the Judge came back to his vineyard, he came carrying not a gavel in his hands but nails. He returned wrapped not in a Judge’s robe but naked. 

Forsaken. 

For you. 

What Jesus says at the end of this parable is dead on— the indiscriminate acceptance of his uncondemnation, it crushes those of us who persist in our stubborn belief that God’s judgment is about rewarding the rewardable. 

God’s free grace isn’t just a stumbling block to those of us who insist on supposing that being well-behaved is more important to God than just trusting his forgiveness. 

It breaks people like us to pieces. 

It kills people like us who’d prefer to think of ourselves as good than loved. 

In the end, that’s what’s so scary about this parable of judgment. 

You and I— the quick and the dead— we’re slow to believe that all he’s ever wanted was for us to believe. 

 

     

 

We started a new sermon series on Jesus’ parables that will take us through the summer. First up, Matthew 18.21-35, the parable of the unforgiving slave.

 I presided over a wedding yesterday here in the sanctuary. The bride and the groom, both of whom were in their sixties, said “I do and when we were all done, I went up to Starbucks to write my sermon. I had my clergy collar still strapped around my neck. I sat down at a little round table with my notes and my Bible, and before I could get very far a woman crept up to me and said: “Um, excuse me Father….could I?”

     She gestured to the empty seat across from me. 

     “Well, I’m not exactly a Fa______” I started to say but she just looked confused. 

     “Never mind” I said. “Sit down.”

     She looked to be somewhere in her fifites. She had long, dark hair and hip, horn-rimmed glasses and pale skin that had started to blush red. 

     No sooner had she sat down than she started having second thoughts. 

     “Maybe this is a mistake. I just saw you over here and I haven’t been to church in years…”

     She fussed with the button on her shirt while she rambled, embarrassed. 

     “It’s just….I’ve been carrying this around for years and I can’t put it down.”

     “Put what down?” I asked. 

     “Where do I start? You don’t even know me, which is probably why I’m sitting here in the first place.” She fussed with her hair. 

     “Beginning at the beginning usually works,” I said. 

     “Yeah,” she said absent-minded, she was already rehearsing her story in her head. 

     And then she told it to me. 

     About her husband and their marriage. 

     About his drinking, the years of it. 

     About his lies, the years of it. 

     She told me about how he’s sober now. 

     And then she told me about how now the addiction in their family is her anger and resentment over how she’ll never get back what she gave out, how she’ll never be paid back what she spent. 

     Then she bit her lip and paused. 

     And so I asked her: “Are you asking me if you’re supposed to forgive him?’

    “No, I know I ought to forgive him” she said. “Our priest told me years ago —he said I should forgive but not forget.”

“He told you to forgive but not forget?” I asked. 

She nodded.  

“Well, that’s why God gave us the Reformation,” I said under my breath. 

“What was that?” 

“Nevermind— what’s your question then if it’s not about forgiveness?” I asked.

     “I’ve forgiven him— at least, I’ve tried, I’ve told him I have— but…why can’t I just wipe this from my slate and move on?”

And when she said that (“Why can’t I just wipe this from my slate?”) I excused myself and I walked to the restroom and I closed the door and I threw my hands in the air and I shouted: 

“Thank you, Jesus, for, as reliably as Papa John’s, you have delivered 

unto me this perfect anecdote for tomorrow’s parable!” 

Just kidding. 

But without her realizing it, I did tell her about the slave in today’s text, who even before you get to the parable’s grim finale is in a cage he cannot see. 

———————-

When Peter asks Jesus if forgiving someone seven times is sufficient, Peter must’ve thought it was a good answer. 

     Peter’s a hand-raiser and a rear-kisser. Peter wouldn’t have volunteered if he thought it was the wrong answer. 

After all, the Jewish Law commanded God’s people to forgive a wrongdoer three times. Seven times no doubt struck Peter as a generous, Jesusy amount of forgiveness. Not only does Peter double the amount of forgiveness prescribed by the Law, he adds one, rounding the total to seven. Because God had spoken creation into being in seven days, the number seven was the Jewish number for completeness and perfection. 

Peter might be an idiot, but he’s not stupid. Peter knew seven times— that’s a divine amount of forgiveness. Think about it— seven times:

Imagine someone sins against you. Say, a church member gossips about you behind your back. I’m not suggesting anyone in this church would do that, just take it as a for instance. 

     Imagine someone gossips about you. 

And you confront them about it. 

1. And they say: ‘I’m sorry.’ So you say to them: ‘I forgive you.’ 

     2. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     3. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     4. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     5. And then they do it again. And you forgive them. 

     6. And then they do it again for sixth time. And you forgive them. 

     I mean…fool me once shame on you. 

Fool me 2,3,4,5,6 times…how many times does it take until its shame on me?

     It’s got to stop somewhere, right? 

“What’s the limit, Jesus? Where’s the boundary?”

And remember, Matthew 18 is all one scene. 

It’s Jesus’ yarn about the Good Shepherd, who all but abandons the well-behaved ninety-nine to search out the single sheep too stupid to stay with the flock, that prompts Peter’s question and the parable that answers Peter’s question. 

How many times should the lost sheep be sought and brought back, Jesus?

How many fatted calves does the father have to slaughter for his kid?

How many times do we have to forgive, Jesus?

     And Peter suggests drawing the line at seven times. Whether we’re talking about gossip or anger or adultery or synagogue shooters, seven is a whole lot of forgiveness. Probably Peter expected a pat on the back and a gold star from Jesus. But he doesn’t get one. 

Notice what Jesus doesn’t do with Peter’s question. Notice— Jesus doesn’t respond to Peter’s question with another question. Jesus doesn’t ask Peter “What’d they do?” Jesus doesn’t say “Well, you know, it depends— the forgiveness has to fit the crime. Roseanne Barr and racist tweets, maybe four times forgiveness. But Trysten Terrell at UNC-Charlotte…”

No, Jesus takes it in the other direction: “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times.”

Seventy-seven times— pay attention, now, this is important. 

Jesus didn’t pull that number out of his incarnate keister. 

———————-

By telling Peter seventy-seven times forgiveness for those who sin against you, Jesus hearkens back to the mark of Cain and the sin of all of us in Adam. 

In Genesis 4, after Cain murders his brother Abel, in order to prevent a cyle of bloodshed,  God— in God’s mercy— places a mark on Cain, and God warns humanity that whoever harms Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance. They will receive seven times vengeance, God warns. 

Later in Genesis 4, after civilization is founded east of Eden on the blood of Abel, Lamech, Cain’s grandson, murders a man. And in telling his two wives about the murder, Lamech plagiarizes God’s promise for himself and Lamech declares that if anyone should harm Lamech then vengeance will be visited upon them— guess how many times— seventy times. 

If you don’t get this, you won’t get it. 

When Jesus tells Peter he owes another seventy-seven times forgiveness, Jesus is not fixing a boundary, albeit a gracious and superabundant boundary. No, Jesus is saying here that in him there is no limit to God’s forgiveness because his is a pardon powerful to unwind all of our sin as far back as Adam’s original sin. 

Seventy-seven times— he’s not simply raising the ceiling even higher on Peter; he’s saying that there is no floor to God’s grace. Seventy-seven times. God’s forgiveness for you in Christ is bottomless. 

Make no mistake—This is the radicality and the scandal of the Gospel. This is the beating heart of Christianity. 

I know I’ve said this before, but I also know that not everyone who shows up on a Sunay morning is a believer so I’m going to say it again. 

What makes Christianity distinct among the world’s religions is that, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a religion of do. Christianity is not even a religion, for that matter, it’s an announcement— it’s news— that everything has been done. 

And Jesus gives you a hint of that here in his response. Jesus reframes Peter’s question about the limits of the forgiveness we ought to do by alluding to the forgiveness God will do in him. In other words, Jesus takes Peter’s question about the Law (what we ought to do for God) and he answers in terms of Grace (what God has done for us). 

Think about it—

When you make Christianity into a message of do this instead of it has been done, you ignore the trajectory of the parable Jesus tells where it’s your failure to appreciate just how much you’ve been forgiven that produces in you unforgiveness for another. 

The road to hell here in this story is paved not with ill intentions but with amnesia. What damns this slave is not his sin but his forgiven sin getting forgotten. 

“Lord, how much do I have to forgive?” And Jesus responds: “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…“ 

As if to say, the very question “How much forgiveness do I have to give out to those who owe me?” reveals you’ve forgotten how much mercy has been given to you.

Ten thousand talents worth. 

The key to this entire text today is in the numbers. 

Seventy-seven times of forgiveness. 

Ten thousand talents of debt.

———————-

As soon as Peter and the disciples heard Jesus say that the Kingdom of God is like a slave— a slave— who owed his king ten thousand talents, they would’ve known instantly that Jesus is taking forgiveness out of the realm of do and recasting it in terms of done.  

In case you gave up Lou Dobbs for Lent and are rusty on your biblical exchange rates:

1 Denarius = 1 Day’s Wages

6,000 Denarii = 1 Talent 

This slave owes the king 10,000 talents. When you do the math and carry the one- that comes out to roughly 170,000 years worth of debt. The Kingdom of God is like a slave who owed his king a zillion bitcoin, that’s how Peter and the rest would’ve heard the setup. 

What’s more, ten-thousand was the highest possible number expressible in Greek; it was a synonmyn for infinity.

“What’s the limit to the forgiveness we ought to give, Jesus?”

“There was a king who had a slave,” Jesus says, “and that slave owed that king infinitely more than what Nick Cage owes the IRS.” 

     Ten thousand talents. 

It’s a ridiculous amount he owes his king, which makes the slave’s promise to the king all the more pathetic: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you back everything.” 

I’ll pay you back? To infinity and beyond?

This is what heaven sounds like to God: I’ll make it up to you, God. I’ll do better. I’ll get my act back in the black. Give me another chance, God. Be patient with me. This is what heaven sounds like—a cacophony of our pathetic pleas all of which drown out his promise that a debt we can neither fathom nor repay has been forgiven. 

Look, it’s great that God, as the Bible promises, is patient and slow to anger, but God giving you another chance is not what you need. God’s patience is not what you need. You need pardon. Jesus’ point right at the get-go here in his parable is that God’s patience will not really remedy your ultimate situtation. 

This is why the Church doesn’t charge you admission because of all the outlets in the world only the Church is bold enough to tell you the truth about yourself. Your problem is infinitely bigger than your best self-improvement project. No good deed you do can undo your unpayable debt. Before God, you are like a slave so far in the red it would take a hundred thousand lives to get it AC/DC.  

Or, it would take just one life. 

———————-

Seventy-seven times, ten thousand talents— one life. 

Remember the amount. 

It’s a kingdom’s worth of cash the slave is in hock to the king. So when the king forgives the slave’s debt, the king dies. 

In forgiving his servant, the king forsakes his kingdom— he forsakes everything— because there’s no way the king can dispose the servant’s debt without the king also sacrificing his entire ledger. 

The king’s whole system of settling accounts, of keeping score, of red and black, of credits and debits, of giving and receiving exactly what is earned and deserved the king DIES to that life so that his servant can have new one. 

     But notice. 

     After the king gets rid of his ledger, who’s still got one? 

     Who’s still keeping score?

    No sooner is the slave forgiven and freed than he encounters a fellow servant who owes him, about three months wages. Not chump change but small potatoes compared to his infinite IOU. 

    He grabs the servant, demands what’s owed to him, and he sends the man to prison, turning a deaf ear— notice— to the very same plea he’d pled to the king: “be patient with me and I will pay back everything…”

How many times do we gotta forgive somebody, Jesus?

     When the king finds out he has failed to extend the same mercy he had received, the king gives to the slave exactly what the slave wants. 

You want to keep living your life keeping score? Even though I died to score-keeping? Fine, Have it your way. But that way of life— I gotta warn you— it’s torture. 

You see, even before the slave ends up in prison, that slave was already stuck inside a cage he couldn’t see. 

———————-

“Why can’t I just wipe the slate clean and move on?” the woman at Starbucks asked me.

     I sipped my coffee. 

“Look,” I said, “provided you’re willing to be exploited for the purposes of a sermon illustration some day, I’ll give you the goods, straight up, and you won’t even have to pay for the refill on my coffee.”

She smiled and nodded.

“It’s not about wiping your ledger clean. It’s about getting rid of the life of ledger-keeping altogether— it’s about dying to it. The ledger is the whole reason you’ve forgiven him but still don’t feel free.”

And I paused, wondering if I should tack on the truth:

“And my guess is as long as you’re holding onto your ledger it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve told your husband you forgive him— my guess is he doesn’t feel very free either.”

She bit her lip. 

“When the Bible says “Christ is the end of the Law,” I said, “it’s just a pious way of saying that Jesus is the end of all score-keeping. He’s gotten rid of all it— the sins and the spreadsheets both.”

And I could tell what she was about to counterpunch me with so, being an Enneagram 8, I interuppted her and talked over her: 

“We say “forgive but don’t forget,” sure. 

But Jesus says: Don’t forget— you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten all your sins in the black hole of his death. Ditto for whomever has trespassed against you and whatever was that trespass against you. Remember that you’ve been forgiven with a forgiveness that has forgotten everything— remember that and, eventually, you can forgive and forget.”

She took off her glasses and wiped the corners of her eyes. 

“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head, “that doesn’t sound fair.” 

“Of course it’s not fair,” I said, “if God were fair we’d all be screwed.”

And then her phone rang and she had to leave as quickly as she’d came.

———————-

The woman at Starbucks and the slave in the story, they’re not the only ones clinging to their ledger. 

Admit it—

Some of you excel at Excel, carrying around a ledger filled with lists of names:

Names of people who’ve hurt you. 

Names of people who’ve taken something from you. 

       Names of people who’ve wronged you. 

    People that no matter what they do, there’s nothing they can do to change their name from the red to the black in your book. 

  Some of you cling to ledgers filled with balance sheets, keeping score of exactly how much you’ve done for the people in your life compared to how little they’ve done for you. 

Jesus says with his story that in order for you to enjoy your forgiveness his death makes possible you’ve got to die too— to that whole way of living that produces questions like “How many times do I have…?” 

No— just as there is no empty grave without a cross, there is no salvation for you without your death. 

You’ve got to die to your life of book-keeping.

Limitless forgiveness— of course it sounds impossible. 

I get it.

Forgiveness without limits comes so unnaturally to us it first had to come to us as Jesus. 

And— no less than then— Jesus comes to us still today. 

Jesus comes to us in his word. He comes to us in wine and bread 

And Jesus comes to us preaching the promise of this parable:

The promise that those who know how much they have been forgiven— ten thousand talents— in the fullness of time, through word and wine and bread, much will they be able to forgive. 

So come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see that God is not fair; God is gracious. 

Come to the table where Christ comes to you. 

Taste and see and enjoy your forgiveness, for the promise that everything has been done for you— that promise alone has the power to enable you to do for another.

THE POWER TO DO IS NOT IN YOU!

THE POWER TO DO IS IN THIS PROMISE OF DONE. 

So come to the table; so that, you might become what you eat.

           

     The present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord, who is yet contending against the Principalities and Powers, should determine how we define the meaning of faith (pistis)

The pistis word group can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But if the stage we occupy in the Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then, as Matthew Bates argues in Salvation by Allegiance Alone, the strongest and clearest definition of pistis is allegiance. 

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him; he cared whether they were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not affectation but allegiance.

Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works’ moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

To be allegiant subjects of this King is not to coerce others into obedience but to conform ourselves in obedience to him, an obedience that might itself call out and invite others to become a part of his people. Added to the scandal of particularity is the scandal that what God has done through a particular crucified Jew is for all people. That Christ’s Lordship is a claim for and over all people; however, does not mean as his subjects we’re tasked with subjugating all people to that claim.

As John Howard Yoder says:

“Our faithfulness to Jesus the Lord entails becoming locally explicit about Jesus” not through Christendom coercion (or attractional manipulation that profits from the vestiges of Christendom) but through “the reign of God being concretely and locally visible in laces around the world.”

“The primary task and indeed mission of the church is its own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Virtually all of the epistles are written to that end. As such, however, the church as a converted and converting people is also itself a constant invitation and call to the citizens of the wider world to enter the life of the people of God.”

Put another way, Christians did not change Rome by attempting to change Rome. Christians changed Rome by living faithfully within Rome as subjects of a different Caesar.

Consider how our own ongoing conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ can be conveyed through the liturgy simply by retranslating pistis as allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed could be rephrased so it became more obvious what is at stake in the profession: “I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

And at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…” 

At the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”

Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis in alignment with our confession that Christ is Lord: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.

Or this week’s lectionary Gospel: “Whoever has allegiance [to me] the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.” That’s a mighty word when you remember Jesus has in mind King Herod who, at his despotic whim, had a mountain moved for his palace.

Stanley Hauerwas identifies the essence of Christianity thus:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bulls@#$.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos and the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge and the power of the practices of the Church to call BS becomes more apparent when we translate faith in terms of allegiance.

 

Portrait Karl BarthI’m actually preaching last Sunday’s Jeremiah lection this weekend, but I did notice this Sunday’s Gospel lection is Luke 15.1-32, a trifecta of parables about lost objects and creatures ending with the Parable of the Prodigal Father.

Or is it the Prodigal Son?

I can’t let the Luke 15 parable pass on the lectionary without mentioning what I take to the best interpretation of it from my Mt Rushmore theologian, Karl Barth.

Barth creatively tackles the parable in Part 2 of Volume 4 of the Church Dogmatics, The Homecoming of the Son of Man. Already by the title you can that Barth is framing the parable in terms of atonement or what he terms the Doctrine of Reconciliation. Obviously, to make this parable a story of the homecoming of the “Son of Man” is contrary to how we often treat it, but Barth argued (both creatively and, I think, correctly) that every parable warrants a proper Christological exegesis; that is, every parable Jesus tells is on the first order self-revelation, making every parable about Jesus before it’s about God generically or any of his listeners.

Barth begins his interpretation of Luke 15 with John 1:14, “The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”  Barth writes that the word “flesh” is a statement about God:

“We say – and in itself this constitutes the whole of what is said – that without ceasing to be true God, in the full possession and exercise of His true deity, God went into the far country by becoming [human] in His second person or mode of being as the Son – the far country not only of human creatureliness but also of human corruption and perdition.”

In other words, it is Jesus, who is and remains fully God, who goes into a ‘far away country’ by becoming fully human.

“Without ceasing to be man, but assumed and accepted in his creatureliness and corruption by the Son of God, humanity – this one Son of Man – returned home to where He belonged, to His place as true man…”

Says Barth, the atonement is where God in Christ “goes into a far country” and humanity in Christ “returns home” to the Father’s House. In other words, when Jesus is reconciled with God all of humanity is reconciled with God because Jesus, as ‘fully human,’ is “true humanity.”

David Fitch, in Prodigal Christianity, takes Barth another step by suggesting that Barth’s reading of Luke 15 provides us with a framework for what it means to be missional. Fitch believes that the point of the parable is that God radically sends God’s own Son into the far country to bring back all who are lost. The journey of the Son reveals the radical missionary nature of God, that the Father has sent the Son into the far country to redeem the world and that the Church are those sent out- prodigally- into world by the Spirit to join in the Son’s work of returning all that belongs to the Father to his feast.

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”

lightstock_35237_small_user_274151710. The Form of the Text Should Determine the Form of the Sermon 

What holds true for preaching on scripture in general is particularly so for parables: the rhetorical form of the scripture passage should determine the rhetorical form of the sermon. A sermon on a parable should not be 3 points and a poem; it should be parabolic with a counterintuitive narrative turn that surprises and offends enough to make room for the Gospel.

9. For God’s Sake, Don’t Explain

When pressed by his disciples and his enemies, Jesus seldom resorted to the kind of utilitarian explanation that fits nicely onto a PowerPoint slide. Instead Jesus most often told stories and more often than not he let those stories stand by themselves. Rarely did he explain them and rarely should preachers do what Jesus seldom did. A parable is not an allegory with simple equivalencies between its characters and figures outside the story. Besides dwelling too long on ancient near east paternal customs or the exact equivalency of a talent in order to ‘explain’ the parable is a sure way to kill the parable.

8. Show Don’t Tell 

Similar to #9, the converting power of Jesus’ parables is the emotional affect they elicit in the listener, and they hit the listener as ‘true’ even prior or without the listener being able to put the parable’s point into words.

Preaching on the parables should focus less on explaining what Jesus said and more on doing what Jesus did; that is, the sermon should aim at reproducing the head-scratching affect of Jesus’ parable rather than reporting on it.

7. Who’s Listening? 

Jesus’ closed parables, the stories he explains not at all, tend to be the ones told in response to and within earshot of the scribes and the Pharisees and, about, them.

6. Context is Key 

Where the evangelists have chosen to place a particular parable within the larger Gospel narrative clues one into how they at least took its meaning. Matthew places the Parable of the Talents, for example, just after a parable about waiting for the coming Kingdom but just before another about our care of the poor being love shown to Christ. So is the Parable of the Talents about anticipating the Kingdom? Or is it a harbinger of that story to come, that the 1 talent servant failed to do anything for the ‘least of these’ with his treasure?

5. Create Ears to Hear  

What has made parables powerful is also what makes them difficult to preach. No longer offensive stories, they’re beloved tales whose familiarity has numbed their subversive nature. Preachers need to create new ears to hear the old stories.

To be heard rightly, preaching on parables must play with them, changing the setting, modernizing the situation, positing a contrary hypothesis about the story, or seeing the story from the point of view of one of the other characters.

4. The Idiom is Important 

Jesus’ parables are largely agrarian in imagery because that was the context in which his listeners lived. Largely, listeners today do not share such a context. Not having the familiarity with that context as Jesus’ listeners did, it’s easy for us to miss the glaring omissions or additions that Jesus casts in his parables.

To do the work they originally did, preachers should rework Jesus’ parables into the idioms of our day and place so that we can hear ‘what was lost is now found’ in our own idiom.

3. Own It (Wherein ‘It’ = Hell, Judgment, Darkness) 

Many of Jesus’ parables end with arresting imagery of eschatological judgment: sheep from goats, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and torture.

Rather than acting squeamish about such embellishment, preachers of parables should remember that Jesus was telling parables, stories whose truth is hidden in the affect of the narrative. Jesus was not mapping the geography of hell nor attempting any literal forecast of judgment’s content.

The shock at the end of many of these parables is what helps deliver the shock of the parable itself. Rather than run from such imagery or explain it away, preachers should own it and be as playfully serious about it as Jesus.

2. They’re about Jesus 

Jesus’ parables do not reveal eternal truths or universal principles about God that are intelligible to anyone.

The parables are stories told to Jesus’ disciples even if others are near to hear. They reveal not timeless truths but the scandal of the Gospel and what it means to be a student of that good news. As Karl Barth liked to point out, the parables are always firstly self-descriptions of Jesus Christ himself. Christ is the son who goes out into the far country and is brought low.

As with preaching on scripture in general, preachers would do well to remember: It’s about Jesus.

1. Would Someone Want to Kill You Over a Story Like This?

The Gospel writers tell us that the scribes and Pharisees sought to kill Jesus in no small part because of the stories he told.

Preaching that renders the parables into home-spun wisdom, pithy tales of helpful commonsense advice or truths about the general human condition betrays the parables.

Preachers of the parables are not exempt from Christ’s call to carry their cross and preaching of the parables is one way in which we do so.

I just love Jesus’ annoying habit of spinning parables so obviously designed to wipe the s#@$-eating grin off our faces.

Example:

In Luke 16, Jesus serves up a story that contradicts all the pious niceties we perpetuate at church, a story in which, despite everything we teach our children in Sunday School, Jesus sides with Gordon Gecko and says in essence: ‘Greed is good.’

Untitled4

We continue our Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies, this weekend by looking at Greed.

The text will be the story of the ‘dishonest manager,’ a parable that, while it does come up in the lectionary, most preachers treat it like was the latest Joel Osteen book.

Here it is:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  

In case you’re a Methodist and just skipped over the scripture, here it is in a nutshell:

Manager gets fired with cause.

Decides to save his own skin.

Knows he can’t do X, Y or Z so he criminally halves his Boss’ debtors’ debts to win their favor.

Jesus says: ‘Well done.’

Actually Jesus says: ‘Make friends for yourselves through dishonesty.’

And all the church people said: ‘What the_________?’

Jesus praises the bad guy, the cheating little blank, and tells us to mimic him?

Jesus’ point and how it jives with our picture of Jesus has long been the cause of head-scratching for preachers.

Here’s one thing, though, that hit me this week.

The chapter divisions in our bibles weren’t there until the 4th/5th century.

Meaning, in Luke’s original Gospel (the ‘Director’s Cut so to speak) this parable followed immediately after, without division, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

What changes in the reading of the parable, I wonder, when its read as a companion to the Prodigal Father who had two sons?

the-sower-sower-with-setting-sun-1888

‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’– Mark 4

Listen.

There was a man I knew. Andy. And if you had just one sentence to describe him, you would probably say that Andy was a hard man. His eyes were as dark as pavement. His voice and even his bearing were as rough as gravel.

He’d been a cop, and I’ve always wondered if his jaded personality came as a result of his career or if his career had been the perfect fit for his personality. He was a hard man.

I remember one time I was sitting in my office. I was on the phone and I heard Andy’s gravely voice in the foyer- barking in his cop’s voice: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. Move on out of here. You don’t belong here.’ 

I hung up the phone and I walked out to the little foyer to see what the barking was about. A hitchhiker- a homeless man- had stopped into the church earlier that morning, looking not for money but for a meal. And so when Andy had come into the church office that day, he found this hobo sitting on a dirty, green army duffel in the corner of the foyer near a stack of Upper Room devotionals. The man was eating ham and sweet potatoes from a church luncheon the day before.

The door to the church office had a little electric bell that went off whenever someone entered the building. That morning, before the bell even stopped ringing, Andy had appraised this stranger and was ordering him away: ‘Get up. Get your stuff. You don’t belong here.’ 

For Andy, ‘church’ was just another word for wishful thinking. For Andy, the ‘real’ world was the world he’d retired from- a world where people will do anything to get ahead and where scores are settled certainly not forgiven. For Andy, that was the real world not the world as it’s described in stained glass places.

He’d grown up in the church. But he’d never really become a Christian.

In his moments of need- when his dad had died, when he’d lost his job, when he’d struggled with alcoholism- God had not been the one he’d turned to. He had two daughters, a wife and a house. Andy was happy with his life but not grateful. And he’d be the first to admit he’d made mistakes in his life, but he’d never call those mistakes sins.

If you asked Andy if he was a Christian, without thinking, he’d say: ‘Yes, of course.’ But if you asked his friends or his neighbors, they’d have no idea. They wouldn’t know.

Andy came to worship not regularly but often enough- whenever one of his girls was singing. Every time he came he looked distracted and inattentive- like he was restless to get to the main event, which for him never came.

When I preached, Andy would squint at me suspiciously, searching for the agenda hidden beneath my words. And whenever I saw Andy sitting in the pews, I would preach straight at him. I’d throw the Gospel at him every which way like he was target practice, hoping that some Word would take root in him. Nothing ever did.

When I heard Andy barking ‘Get up. You don’t belong here.’ I got up and walked out to the foyer and, in my pastoral tone of voice, I asked Andy: ‘What are you doing?’ 

And Andy smiled at me like I was the most naïve child in the world and he said: ‘He doesn’t need to be here. He’ll only bother the old folks for a handout or scare the kids.’ Meanwhile, the hitchhiker was looking up at the two of us unsure of what to do.

And I said: ‘This is a church. We can’t treat him like that. Whether he bothers the old folks or not, whether he scares the kids or not, we’ve got to treat him like he’s Jesus.’ 

My words just bounced off him like seeds on a sidewalk. Andy just responded with a blank face.

As Andy went to leave he mumbled: ‘Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.’ 

You know it’s not that he was a bad person because he wasn’t. It’s just that he had let the world harden him so that the Word never had much chance to take root in him.

Listen.

There was a family I knew for a short time. I met them at the hospital in Charlottesville back when I worked there as a chaplain. The husband and wife were maybe in their early forties. They had three boys. Their oldest boy, Chad, was 12 or 13.

Chad was in the hospital with leukemia. Except for occasional respites at home, Chad was in the hospital for almost a year. And during that time I saw him and his family once or twice a week.

Ministering to strangers in a hospital can be more than a bit awkward. Not knowing the people or their religious background can make conversation both more delicate and unduly forward.

When I first met Chad’s family the first thing I did was survey the hospital room, glancing at their stuff, hoping to get a sense of them. There were newspapers on the floor, movies on the window sill and a Play-Station controller on Chad’s bedside table.

Chad’s mom, I noticed, had a silver cross around her neck and, even, a symbol for the Trinity tattooed on her ankle.

The afternoon I first met them they welcomed me with…joy. We talked about what they did, where they lived, the friends Chad was anxious to get home to, how the Cavaliers were forecast to do that season. And when I asked to pray with them, they said yes, even though they were visibly uncomfortable about it.

That first afternoon I met them, when I’d told them I was a Methodist pastor they told me that they were Methodists too. So I asked them if I should contact their pastor for them. They said: ‘No, he probably doesn’t know who we are.’

I asked if they had a small group or friends from church that I could call for support and again they said ‘No.’

They blushed and then told me that they’d gone to church a few years ago. ‘We wanted to expose our kids to it’ they said, ‘but we never went any deeper than that. We never made it a regular part of our lives.’ 

I didn’t really say anything. Then Chad’s father added: ‘We believe in God though. We’re good people. That’s enough isn’t it?’ 

And because of where we were and the situation they were in, I said yes. Even though I knew it wasn’t true.

I spoke with Chad and his family countless times after that first afternoon. Every time I tried to do what a pastor’s supposed to do. I tried to model the presence of Christ. I tried to get them to articulate their feelings and name their fears. I encouraged them to affirm their faith and to identify where they felt God was in their struggle.

I tried, but I could never get past the surface things with them. And I think it’s because they never let their faith get any deeper than the surface of their lives.

One of the last conversations I had with Chad’s parents happened one winter morning. They’d just been given some bad news, a setback in Chad’s treatment. We talked about it for a while and when I asked if I could pray with them they said: ‘No. We’ve lost our faith.’ 

Now, it’s not that I don’t understand their feelings or empathize with them. And it’s not like seeing one of my own boys in Chad’s place wouldn’t stretch my faith to the breaking point.

And I would never dream to say it to them but the fact is that had their faith been a deeper part of their lives it might not have been so easily blown away. The fact is they never let their faith take root in their lives. And when they got to a point in their lives when they needed a faith to grab onto, it wouldn’t hold them.

Eventually, Chad returned home.  I don’t know if his parent’s faith ever did.

Listen.

There was a man I knew in the first church I ever served. In New Jersey. Sheldon.

Sheldom reminded me a lot of the fastidious character in the Odd Couple. He had a vaguely aristocratic accent, the kind of voice you can still hear in the parts of New Jersey that you don’t see from the turnpike.

He was seventy or so. He’d been a teacher, a principal and a professor. He’d served on township board and city councils and task forces. He’d coached sport teams and led Boy Scout troops. He’d traveled all over the world. He had a family. His life was a thicket of activity.

In the short time I served as his pastor, Sheldon was always asking me questions: What does the bible say about X? Is it true that Jesus…Y? I’ve always wondered….Z, what do you think? 

Initially I thought the barrage of questions was because he was an educator and, thus, naturally curious. But that was only part of it.

One Sunday morning, well before worship began, I met Sheldon for breakfast at a nearby diner. It was the Advent season and Sheldon was the scripture reader that day.

The passage that Sunday was from the beginning of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

Sheldon commented on the dense, philosophic language and asked me to unpack the rhetoric for him.  ‘What the heck does it mean?’ he asked. And I just said that it’s John’s poetic way of saying that Jesus is God.

Now that’s a pretty basic concept, I thought, so I just said it kind of quickly, matter-of-factly. But Sheldon said: ‘What?’ like he’d missed the punch-line.

I just repeated it again: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. It’s just a pretentious way of saying that Jesus is God.’ 

Sheldon sipped his tea and he said, softly: ‘I don’t know why I’ve never heard that before.’

By the time he set his tea back down on the table, he was crying.

And I had no idea why.

I waited for him to say something. After a moment he told me how he had a PhD after his name, how he could point to schools he’d built, how he could rattle off the names of children he’d taught- teachers he’d taught, how his savings was flush with the fruit of his life’s work and how his home was filled with pictures and trinkets from all the places he’d been.

And then he confessed to me: ‘I’ve never given my faith a fraction of the time I’ve given to other things. I’ve been a Christian all my life but I don’t know any more about my faith than I did when I was twelve years old. 

     I tell people all the time ‘You’ll be in my prayers’ and that would be true, if I did. But I’ve never learned how to pray, not really. 

      I’ve been a Christian all my life but my faith is the one thing in my life I don’t have anything to show for. 

     I can point to kids who know math because of me, but I can’t point to anyone who knows God more deeply because of me.’ 

The frankness of what he’d said winded him.

A moment passed. He patted my hand and said: ‘It’s not that my faith wasn’t important to me. It’s that so many other things were important too.’ 

Listen.

I’ve known other people. I know some here.

People in whom the faith has grown and flowered; people whose lives are beautiful. And I don’t understand them. It’s like their lives are fertile soil for the Gospel.

I mean…Andy, I get. I meet people like Chad’s parents all the time. Sheldon is me all over.

But genuine, truly humble, serving Christians- they are a mystery to me.

I mean- they live in the same world as Andy. They work in the same places as Chad’s parents, and they have the same sorts of friends as Sheldon does.

But there is something different about them.

They love. They care. They go. They do. They give. They serve. They share. They embody. And if you were to recite all the fruit of their faithfulness they would be embarrassed.

I’ve known people like that. I know some here.

When the crowds press in on Jesus to hear him preaching, I’m sure there were plenty by the lake shore who wanted to hear clear-cut, practical kinds of teaching: Do This, Don’t Do That, Follow These Three Steps.

What Jesus gives them is stories. And Jesus never says it. He never makes it obvious, but what he’s doing is inviting them to consider who they are in the stories- who they really are- and who God would have them become.