Saturday, October 23, 2010

THE POLITICS OF JESUS, lecture 7

Lecture 7: Parables and Sayings of the Kingdom

We have been sketching Jesus’ politics in the Sermon on the Mount, with its quick summary in the Golden Rule: do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you”; or alternatively the Great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus’ parables and other sayings complement this teaching. Note how the parables begin with the phrase: “The kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven is like…” In other words, the parables are directed to the same subject matter as the Sermon. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon is straightforward and didactic. We now turn to His parables, where we find much of the same teaching through illustration and riddle.

The Extension of the Kingdom

We have already seen that although Jesus’ teaching requires commitment, entering in by the narrow gate, it is not intended for a tiny band but for a political regime, the Kingdom of Heaven. In his first parable, Jesus describes the Kingdom this way:

Then he told them many things in parables, saying: "A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop-- a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear." (Matthew 13:3-9)

I suspect we are all familiar with this parable of the Sower or of the Soils. We can get easily distracted by the fact that three kinds of seed do not sprout to fruition while only one kind does. But look, a farmer is not going to intentionally sow his seed in bad places. He will have prepared the ground to receive the good seed. So we should concentrate on the fruitful harvest – 100 or 60 or 30 times the original seedlings.

What is the secret to being part of the good soil. Jesus puts it this way: “He who has ears, let him hear,” Jesus says. This little saying is making the point that you can hear words with your outward ear but not understand their meaning and not act on them. True hearing involves hearing, understanding and obeying. Now Jesus goes on to say that because of the hardness of the human heart many people refuse to hear as they ought. But His disciples have been given full hearing. And as they hear, they are like the good soil, and they produce good seed of their own. Indeed they become sowers themselves, just as Jesus says He will take fishermen and make them fishers of men. This is what happened to the apostles. After three years with Jesus, they went out in the power of the Spirit and did even greater – not mightier, but more extensive – works than the Lord himself. And in this way the Gospel spread from country to country, from field to field. And the means of propagation was the same: not physical force but the force of persuasion of the Word, of the Gospel.
The Absolute Worth of the Kingdom

The key to right understanding of Jesus’ Word is to realize its absolute worth. Jesus tells the simple parables of the man who found treasure in a plot of land and sold all he had to get it. In possessing the treasure of the Gospel, he had to sell all he had (Matthew 13:44). This “all” comes in different forms. For some it is money. This was Jesus message to the Rich Young Ruler, who kept all the Law: “If you would be perfect, sell all you have and follow me” (Matthew 19:21). This man, sadly, was owned by his wealth rather than owner of it, and he went away downcast. Then there is giving up of power, as when Peter tried to defend Jesus and cut of the priest’s servant’s ear, and Jesus rebuked him, saying: "Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52). Others give up fame or reputation, as when Jesus found James and John debating who would be greatest in the Kingdom. “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory," they said. Jesus rebuked them as well:

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10: 42-45)

Jesus calls others to leave family in preference for his Kingdom: “

"Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-38)

The final price to be paid, Jesus says, is one’s own life, and he uses the striking image of crucifixion to hammer it home. It is well-known that “the blood of the martyrs is the seedbed of the church.” We know in our own day that revolutionary movements – even the fanatical suicide-bombings of the Islamic jihadists – require martyrs, people willing to give their all for a cause or a vision. Jesus demands no less. Only where people are prepared to pick up His cross will the Kingdom spread.

Practical Considerations

There is a danger in the kind of radical response which is required by the Kingdom. Radicals seldom make good politicians or even good neighbours. There are examples among the Christian saints of men who castrated themselves or sat naked on a pedestal night and day as a sign of their commitment to Christ. Others have formed exclusive communities like the Kanungu sect that start out with a religious goal – like keeping the Ten Commandments – and end up in mass suicide. Jesus’ teaching is not radical in this way: indeed he includes a number of parables that counsel prudence or practicality. Let’s begin with the parable of the wedding feast, where the king sent invitations to all his well-born neighbours to his son’s wedding feast. When they failed to respond, he told his servants:

Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.' And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. "But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, `Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22: 9-14)

What was the problem with the man who was rejected? It was not that he was poor or unworthy. He simply had neglected to dress properly. I am often amazed at how well students here dress, even though they are not that well-to-do. But the fact is, they know what it is to be decent. This man seems to have thought it was enough to appear as a guest, but he failed to honour the host. If the naked saint on the pillar had arrived in that state, he would not have fared any better, I think.

Another example is the short parable-like saying about counting the cost.

For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ (Luke 14:28-30)

This parable is about unrealistic planning, perhaps based on excessive zeal or self-confidence. The tower-builder wants a magnificent structure to give glory to, well, perhaps to God, but it reminds one a bit of the tower of Babel. Such projects are often monuments to self more than to God. Ironically, the failure to finish the tower leaves it as a monument to folly.

Now I find it quite common in Uganda to see buildings that are partially built, with several rows of bricks laid and the iron rods sticking up in the air rusting. I remember how amazed people were when we built this assembly hall and completed it pretty much on the date projected. Some of this reflects the problems people have in getting and keeping adequate capital for projects. But some of it reflects impractical views of how much they can do. Sometimes I wonder if the Anglican Church House project is an example of grand planning beyond the resources of the Church. Perhaps the modest upgrade of the Provincial Office is a better witness than a great tower in the middle of Kampala, especially if it is only half-finished. Jesus wants us to extend His kingdom, but he wants us to scale our vision to the reality of our gifts and resources.

The Great Obstacle to the Kingdom

If Jesus would have us be realistic, he would still have us be bold in promoting his vision of a new political reality, of men and women reconciled to one another out of love of God and neighbour. But he is also clear that there is an enemy working against this vision. The enemy is Satan, who is busy sowing weeds of discord in the field of the Kingdom. Much of Satan’s work is done in the human heart through resentment and envy. Hardness of heart is the great obstacle to the realization of Jesus’ new politics.

Jesus has several famous parables on this subject. The first is the Prodigal Son. It is of course a wonderful story of grace and repentance, of the Father welcoming back one sinner to his household. But the attitude of the elder brother stands as a warning:

But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!' (Luke 15:29-30)

The elder son, who no doubt represents the attitude of the Jewish leaders of the day, resents the father’s generosity, even though the father notes that this elder son has been the beneficiary of his grace every day. Again we find this attitude in the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard who had worked all day only to see others paid their wage for one hour’s work: “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” (Matthew 20:12). The attitude of envy and resentment finally culminates in a murderous plot in the Parable of the Tenants toward the Son: 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours’ (Matthew 21:38).

The greatest single barrier, Jesus teaches, to the dawning of a new politics is the small-mindedness of people who care for their own personal honour, the advancement of their family and clan, over the wider benefit of society. I have tried to point this out to students here with regard to the Student Guild government: the purpose of the Guild leadership is not to benefit their party or their promoters, but to benefit the students of Uganda Christian University. If only they would use the Golden Rule rather than secular rules of politics, we could be a truly distinctive body politic.

Don’t give up, the truth will set us free in God’s time. We have the guarantee through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that all will be made new. And this new society is coming into being now in this age, through men and women who will have ears to hear, even as it will be perfected in the final kingdom of God come to earth:

"Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down." (Revelation 12:10).

26 March 2008

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