All too often we force what someone else says into our box of understanding. We hear what we want to hear rather than what is true. Consider the parables of Jesus. Talk about ambiguity! His statements, stories and parables were designed that way. The 'righteous' would hear one thing and 'sinners' would hear another. Ambiguity was a design feature of Jesus' parables. Ambiguity may even be a method of defense in the Gospels.
For various reasons I am being increasingly convinced that really and truly the only real direction for the Church to take is to become poor. When I say poor, I don't mean only poor in spirit, I also mean poor financially and poor materially. In doing so, a number of interesting things will happen to us and to our churches.
It never ceases to amaze me how parables are twisted to fit our desires. The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is at the top of the most-twisted list. What do we expect, it's about the love of money. How often is it preached that we should be shrewd like the shrewd manager because the master commended him? But does Jesus want us to be shrewd? Shrewdness implies a level of trickery. And who is the manager's master anyway?
The Parable of the Sower may be the most important parable, not only because it is here that Jesus teaches us how interpret all the parables, but more so because Jesus lays out a map for building a good and noble heart. Even though Jesus explains this parable literally, we still cannot understand it without the encryption key. And even with the key, which he does clearly give us in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, you still may not understand, because it is the shape of the hole in your heart that is needed for the key to fit.
How much time do you spend primping your life so you'll fit in with the crowd? We all spend time trying to fit in with our social groups. It's natural for the human species. Nevertheless, Jesus explains when we do this we live in very dangerous territory. We focus on belonging rather than being loved by Christ. Being loved by God should be our highest aspiration. But how can we make ourselves good enough to be loved by God? We can't.
Who do you think Jesus loves most? You may be surprised at the answer.
The more we learn about Jesus the more we realize how unworthy we really are. We hear about how "faith" saved and healed the people who flocked to Jesus. Our response can be like that of the disciples, "Why don't I have that level of faith." In the Parable of the Unworthy Servant, Jesus explains to his disciples exactly how to increase their faith.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan might be the most well known of Jesus' parables, partly because it is so simple to understand and also because churchgoers learn it in Sunday School at an early age. But how well do we really know it? In order to really understand it we must put on our sinner's ears and our repentant heart and look deeply inside.
Once again, with the Parable of the Ten Minas (or the Parable of the Talents from Matthew), we find a parable that has deep layers of ambiguity where sinners will hear one thing and the false-righteous will hear another. This parable has been cited to support usurious lifestyles and to justify the rich's oppression of the poor. It has also been used to explain how some in heaven will shine brighter than others. But what did Jesus really mean by it?
We sinners must drink deeply of the new wine that Jesus offers us. But you'll find the Pharisees of today still trying to keep the new wine from the lips of Jesus' disciples. In the Gospel of Luke, the Pharisees once again try to trap him when they ask why his disciples drink and eat with Jesus rather than fasting like John's disciples. Jesus responds to the Pharisees saying, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." The Pharisees are implying that association with sinners is desecrating. But the opposite is true. When Jesus associates himself with sinners he consecrates them.
The Parable of the Wedding Banquet is the last in a series of parables which indict the chief priests and elders in their efforts of keeping the kingdom of heaven from the people. In Matthew 23 Jesus exclaims, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." This series of parables directly accuses the leaders of spiritual fraud.
Each autumn we usually make a bucket of sauerkraut for the winter. To prepare it, my wife buys an enormous cabbage from our local market. I shred the cabbage, put it in a sterilized bucket with salt and spices, and beat it with a 2x4. After I put a weight on top, I seal it up with a one-way air valve, so oxygen can't spoil the lactose fermentation process.
Salt-curing was the main way of food preservation for ages. When Jesus talked about salt to his listeners. They knew it was all about preservation. They knew they were learning how to be preserved and preserve others for the kingdom of heaven.
"Keep watch," Jesus says. But keep watch for what? When we are vigilant for Christ should we be watching for just the right guy to rise to power? I doubt it. Just the other day, I was driving down the highway by myself and missed a chance to pick up a hitchhiker. I chose not to stop for him because I was in a school district vehicle. But was Jesus in that man? Could my relationship with Christ have grown deeper by helping him down the road? I was off in my own head, rather than being ready to help someone out in the name of Christ. Vigilance was key, but I missed the opportunity.
Autumn has settled in and slowed us down here on the Olympic Peninsula. The big-leaf maples are turning yellow. The rains have begun. It's the time of year that we gather our winter supplies and we cozy up together. We glean apples with friends from the unused orchards for cider pressing. We spend a good deal of time canning fruits and storing up the other beautiful vegetables from our garden. I enjoy taking the kids out to the state lands to cut wood for our firewood stack for the following winter. Both my wife and I just love this time of year. We drink a lot of tea and spend the darkening evenings warming up next to our wood stove. What a life, right? But doesn't Jesus call that sort of activity folly in the Parable of the Rich Fool?
How often have you prayed and prayed about something and God did not respond with what you considered a just and right response? This is a common experience in the life of all Christians. Why? Doesn't Jesus tell us, "If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" How do we reconcile our prayer life with God's words? Does he really give us what we ask for?
Most of us at one time or another have asked, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" But I'm not so sure that's a valid question. It's like asking, "What's nine divided by zero?" Rather, I feel we should be asking, "Why do bad things happen in God's good world?"
How often are you tempted to forgive someone only when they ask for forgiveness? In Matthew 18, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother. Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven.” Note that the question is not posed like this: “If my brother comes and asks for forgiveness, how many times should I forgive him?” We are called to forgive others even before the person asks. Forgiveness is a continuous process that happens throughout our lives.
Do you isolate yourself from sinners or dive headlong into the dirty and broken world and love the people you encounter? The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and the surrounding context helps us to understand who God befriends and who will stand justified before God.
Like all of Jesus' parables, it's tempting to interpret the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree in a way that makes us feel good and points to the other guy. It's easy to see that Jesus was talking about the Jewish establishment of the time. The fig tree long represented the people of God and Jesus was nearing the end of his three year public ministry. However, that wouldn't do the parable justice. We must look at the parable with sinner's ears and a repentant heart.
What reward will you receive in the Kingdom of heaven? I've been present at various Bible studies (Protestant and Catholic) where people have discussed the merits that we receive when we get to heaven. The opposite has been also true, people have discussed the demerits—the low rungs of the heavenly ladder. I'm always floored by the conversations. Each time I'm stricken by the arrogance. I always feel like waving my hand, so I can say, "Is this about your crown or about Jesus?"
Before Jesus went to the cross, his disciples rarely understood who he really was or what he was doing. "Do you still not understand?" Jesus would ask them. We are really no different today than we were then. We go about living in the world like we're waiting for something to happen to us. Rather than engaging in the kingdom of heaven now.
How much does it cost to be a disciple of Christ? We learn the answer in the mini-parables of the Tower Builder and the King's War Plan: Entering the kingdom of heaven is free, yet it requires everything of us. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the price for all of our sins. Yes, this is Christianity 101. Christ's work on the cross was not something we could ever do. He and only he could redeem us. However, we learn from these parables, as elsewhere, that we must also actively participate in the healing of the world. In fact, our relationship with Jesus enables us to directly assist in the consecration (making sacred) of the world.
Who or what occupies your inner most self? Most of us are periodically plagued by terrible thoughts. Where do they come from and what are we to do about them? The Parable of the Unclean Spirit teaches that even if we take extraordinary measures to clean up our heart, our soul, and our life in general, it will do no good if we haven't filled our heart with Jesus. Our cleansed and empty heart will just be taken over by things more terrible than before.
Jesus has always and will always make a ruckus in the world. While many misunderstand him and many people gawk at him, there will always be those who truly love him and that brings him great joy. In the series of parables from Matthew 13, there were all sorts of people were gathering in great numbers to listen to him, so many that he had to get into a boat and teach just offshore. I imagine it as a calm day with glassy seas, with his devoted disciples straining their ears, while rubberneckers, religious leaders and the bored churned up ill sentiment about him.
When people gathered around Jesus what did his listeners expect to hear? Just his presence must have been an extraordinary event to witness, yet fully ordinary at the same time. Who did the people expect to see? A prophet? God himself? For me, when I heard Jesus speak the Sermon on the Mount in my heart, it changed my life. It put the nail in my coffin. The old me died. I realized that God himself was speaking to me. I now realize that God was speaking to all of humanity.
The gospel of John contains very few of the well-known parables of Jesus. But John did record a number of brief parable-like allegories. What could be called the Parable of Walking in Daylight is an extension of a repeated theme from John's gospel which beckons us to the "light" of Christ.
This Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent, named Gaudete Sunday in the Catholic church, referring to Philippians 4 when Paul tells us to "Rejoice in the Lord Always." Today is the Sunday of Joy. The Parable of the Lost Son, like the Parable of the Lost Sheep, is a parable that should strike joy in the hearts of sinners like us. Does it for you? Or do we react like the older brother who is jealous? We can become cold and bitter as we await our beloved Jesus. Be careful not to, because it is then that our faith begins to die and if our church starts feeling that way, it starts to die as well.
Jesus laments in Matthew 17, "You unbelieving and perverse generation. How long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?" Have you ever felt frustrated and disappointed with the indifferent, blasé people that follow Christ?
All day long we cast judgments, some benign others not. If I'm a grade school student, I soon learn to judge a fact as true, such as 5 plus 3 equals 8. If I don't, my grade suffers. Now as an adult, I make more complex choices. I weigh them on a mental, emotional and ethical scale. Should I choose this path or that? I also engage in judgments that are outside my personal domain: They have no right to... Look who he's talking to... I can't believe she did that! And this is where I get into trouble.
During my travels to Latin America when I was in my twenties, I visited many cathedral ruins in parts of Mexico and Guatemala. Living in the United States, we just can't comprehend the profound legacy that the church has brought to the cities south of our borders. Hundreds of cathedrals are found there, many of which are in now ruins, not because of warfare, but because our neighbors live in a highly active seismic region. I enjoyed walking among the walls of stones and living gardens even before I became a true disciple of Christ. A quiet peace fills those spaces like the calm after a storm. They remind me of when Jesus' disciples looked upon the grandeur of the newly rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. Jesus said to them as the stood in awe, “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.” (Mark 13)