Saturday, October 23, 2010

THE POLITICS OF JESUS, lecture 6

Lecture 6: Jesus, the Portal, the Plantation, the Palace

In the last lecture, I emphasized the central role which the Golden Rule plays in Jesus’ politics: the sense in which we can only love others when we can extend our own (selfish) perspective to include our neighbour. While the Golden Rule sounds simple, it has earthshaking implications for all human interactions, which is the basis of politics.

We are all familiar with our Lord’s words: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). However, in the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, he describes Himself and His teaching in slightly different way, a way that is perhaps a bit more relevant to the political dimension of his mission. Jesus concludes his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with three metaphors for the Kingdom: what I am calling God’s Portal, God’s Plantation and God’s Palace.

Jesus, God’s Portal

The first image Jesus gives is from city architecture.

"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)

Jesus uses two words here: one is gate or portal, the other is road or path. Ancient cities used to have a main entrance gate or portal, a tower-like structure that was heavily fortified and sometimes it was narrow with a jog in it to prevent enemy chariots from coming through. Inside this entry gate would be another area called the city gate, a kind of plaza or reception area. Obviously, the road would run up to the gate, but the access to the city might be quite restricted. Perhaps this is the image Jesus is using here. The wide gate might characterize a poorly designed, militarily vulnerable city – or worse yet, a city whose walls had been breached.

So Jesus is warning that to accept his teaching requires focus – I mentioned this last time – and commitment. One has to follow the road-map and also be prepared to go through the proper gate. The road map is Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon, and the gate may be the Golden Rule. Of course, there is another sense in which the gate is Jesus Himself. You cannot follow along the way without following Jesus as the Way. This requires conversion – giving one’s life to Jesus Christ. That is the starting point. When one enters the narrow door, the interior gate is actually spacious inside the city walls. In other words, Jesus is promising there will be plenty of room for people to live once they have come into the Kingdom. The expanding nature of the Kingdom is captured by the parable of the Mustard Seed. So the gate access is narrow, but the gate area is wide and wonderful.

Jesus, God’s Plantation

Having addressed the question of access to the Kingdom as a path and a portal, Jesus now turns to its distinctive products. To make this clear, he turns to imagery from agriculture.

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (verses 15-20)

Jesus anticipates that His teaching will become so acceptable that there will be teachers claiming to represent it who do not. They are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” It is not enough to say that you speak for Jesus or even to quote his words. Rather, Jesus argues, “you will know them by their fruits.”

Bearing fruit is a natural process for any tree. It is necessary for flourishing and reproduction. Jesus looks to the results of His teaching in order to authenticate the content. It is not enough to say “I love God and then hate your brother” (1 John 4:20). It is not enough to say “Go and be warmed” to a poor man who needs your help and then do nothing to help (James 2:16). Jesus takes a results orientation to discipleship. This is not to say we are justified by our works, but it does explain James’s statement that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

When we think of a tree bearing fruit, we rightly identify ourselves with the tree, and we understand that we are to bring forth good fruits (plural) continually. It may be that some people bear a specific kind of fruit, e.g., hospitality or financial acumen or music ability. However, looking at the image politically, I would suggest that we think of an orchard of trees, or maybe better a larger plantation of many orchards. A plantation is a functional enterprise. It is the kind of enterprise which this country needs if it is to market its abundant crops. Spiritually speaking, the plantation represents a community involved in a variety of works of love. This was the reputation of the early Christian church, that they shared their goods with each other, that they welcomed strangers and outcasts. “They will know we are Christian s by our love,” says the song. Think of a beautiful plantation of trees – mangoes, avocadoes, pineapples, oranges – all loaded down with ripe fruit. That is what the Kingdom of God looks like, says Jesus.

Jesus, God’s Palace

Jesus now wraps up his political teaching in the Sermon with a description of the kingdom in architectural terms:

"Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it." (verses 24-27)

Tying in with the previous image, Jesus makes clear that the wise builder both hears the teaching and acts on it (bears fruit). That builder Jesus says will have chosen a bedrock foundation, which cannot be moved by the elements. On the other hand, the false prophets and false disciples may hear or even repeat His words, but they do not put them into practice. Their commitment and their fruits will fail and be lost, like a house built on sand.

Again, if we expand this image of the house to the political realm, we cannot but think of the great royal palaces and the Temple of God in Jerusalem. Solomon’s temple, for instance, was founded on a rock outcropping thought to be Mount Moriah, where Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac. That rock is still visible under the Muslim shrine called the Dome of the Rock.

Now all political regimes have a theological foundation. Most cities have a myth of a divine founder or at least a divinely inspired man. Most national anthems, like Uganda’s, refer to God as upholding the regime: “Oh Uganda, may God uphold thee…” We have had an astounding development in the political race in USA. The pastor of Barack Obama’s church preached a sermon in which he said: “I don’t say we should sing ‘God bless America,” but rather ‘God damn America.” Obama has had to denounce these words and distance himself from the pastor. To deny the divine foundation of government is a serious charge indeed.

Now of course much invoking of God by politicians is hypocritical. Indeed Jesus suggests that worldly politics is often building castles in the sand. But there is a truth political lip service to God, and that is that any political order must have a foundation in a common truth accepted by all citizens. Jesus claims that His teaching is the true foundation of a new order, the Kingdom of God. When people begin to love their neighbour as themselves, when they begin to treat others as they would be treated, then something new and permanent emerges. After its emergence, nothing else will do.

And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes. (verses 28-29)

Jesus is God’s Portal, God’s Plantation, God’s Palace by virtue of His teaching. The crowds recognized this immediately, “for He taught them as one who had authority” (Mark 1:27). This authority was that of the Heavenly Father, in whom He dwells bodily. Jesus Christ is the Portal, Plantation and Palace through his Personal work on the Cross whereby He freed us from the Kingdom of Darkness and qualified us to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven (Colossians 1:12-13). As He entered into the Kingdom of Heaven through the gates of death on the Cross, so we are called to enter in the same way.

One of our great Anglican Collects for Holy Week sums up this truth about the way of the Cross and the cost of discipleship:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy before He suffered pain and entered not into glory before He was crucified, mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace, through the same Your Son Jesus Christ, to whom with You and the Holy Spirit be all glory, now and for ever. AMEN

19 March 2008

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