Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Holy Spirit as "Round-Up"--The Parable of the Weeds

     In Matthew, Chapter 13, look how the disciples question Jesus' teaching method: 

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.
14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.
16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it."

      Can you hear their longing to understand?  Yes, the disciples are concerned about the people who gather, but perhaps the question really is, Why do You teach in such a roundabout way?  Can't You just tell us, straight up, what the truth is? Look at Moses, Jesus...he told the people exactly what to do, when to do it and how to do it.  Simple and direct.  If You are the One that the prophets spoke of, why must You speak in stories? 
     Fair enough.  But Jesus didn't answer them from the His own position:  yes, He is like Moses, in that He is giving a "new" law--He is refocusing the attention away from doing the Law to having it "written on their hearts" as Jeremiah foretold.  He uses Isaiah as His base of teaching operations:  how the people respond is a sign of the state of their hearts.  "Calloused hearts" are impervious to the truth.  Just being a member of the Chosen People is not enough--this is not a club. 
     Why "calloused?"  Sin.  Pure and simple.
    The disciples are being trained to walk with God, not just do the Law and assume He is satisfied.  Jesus is trying to recreate, in the hearts of His disciples, a new law of Love--for God and for one another.  So, the disciples are given the interpretation from the Author Himself.  Jesus will quote Isaiah again in Matthew 15 when He says:  "The Lord says: "These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught"  (Isaiah 29:13).  In other words, intimacy with the Father has been smothered under rules made up by sinful men and Jesus is reclaiming the people's hearts with His words.  Sadly, the calloused condition of them is reaffirming their need for the truth. Not "a truth" from the lips of men, the The Truth"--from God's very own Son.
     So, after the Parable of the Sower, (which I explore in an earlier blog) Jesus launches into another harvest parable.  Harvests don't just happen...they take a lot of work and diligence on the part of the farmers.  The time the seed goes into the ground, how much sun and rain will come and how well the field is maintained all contribute to the final goal:  to reap bountifully.  A careful dutiful farmer will have abundance and a lazy farmer will have scarcity.  In an age where the harvests' outcome meant the difference between literal feast and famine, irresponsible farmers were a liability and the people would pay dearly.  So, farms were at the community's center.  The food grown there would affect everyone.  Not everyone was a farmer, but the farmer affected everyone.  So, let's see where Jesus goes with this:

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ 29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

     This spiritual farm is at the center of the community's heart.  The farmer here is responsible:  he choose "good seed."  He put it in the ground at the right time, confident in the sun and rain to bring it to fruition.  Note that the danger comes while "everyone is sleeping."  Hmmm....sleeping on the job?  Lulled into a false slumber of righteousness?  Thinking that doing the Law was enough? 
    The enemy never sleeps...he is always on the lookout to cause havoc.  Who is the enemy?  Well, ultimately it is Satan, of course, whose very name means "adversary" and his other name, Devil, means "the accuser."  Those names covers his operations well.  But people can also, in the hardness of sin, perpetuate Satan's agenda, by leading them away from God's truth.
     Notice the sowing by the enemy isn't noticed until the wheat springs up.  Evil starts as an idea...something that is contrary to God, unnoticed on the outside, but slowly growing and germinating in the soil of the heart.  It soon springs up and may not be as obvious in the life of an individual at first.  The NIV comments that the weeds are probably darnel, which looks like wheat when it is immature.  It is only when the darnel sprouts its kernels that you know it is not wheat.
      So, notice in order to know what is truly sown by the good Farmer and what is sown by the Evil One, look at the fruit!  Jesus is compassionate enough to know that the people listening to Him are not entirely responsible for their callousness...they have teachers who have furthered Satan's agenda by destroying  intimacy with God with rules and regulations and their own willingness to chase after sin.  Ultimately, though, Satan is behind it. 
     With this, Jesus is reminding the disciples that God never intended for His planet to be a polluted field.  The enemy gained a foothold here because Adam and Eve choose to act on an alternative plan:  making their own decisions and leading lives out of step with God.  So, Jesus, in effect, has come to reclaim His Father's fields.
     Now, let's consider what the disciples are thinking:  Oh, boy!  WE get to get out the scythes and start whacking that wheat!  Take that, Satan!  Take that, Pharisees!  Take that, you sinners!
    NO.  Jesus is not creating a new set of Pharisees.  The disciples would fall prey to the same temptation to tell others how to live for God, instead of gently pointing them to the One Who will guide and strengthen their souls.  The servants must serve and the angels, under the direction of the Father, will harvest. 
    So, our job?  Teach the Word in its fullness:  no cherry-picking comforting verses and excluding the uncomfortable ones.  Serve and love:  let the Spirit convict of sin--let Him apply Round-Up to the sinner's heart.  Know that God is faithful:  He will accomplish His will on earth as it is in heaven.  Rest in the knowledge that He will return: sin and suffering, praise God, have an expiration date.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Parable of Watchful Servants: Where is Your Heart?

     As Jesus finishes the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12 (my previous blog), He then goes on to teach about God's provision:  "Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes" (12:22).  He then reminds His disciples of how God clothes the grass and feeds the birds, and that worry over such matters will not "add a single hour" to their lives.  He lovingly enjoins them to "seek His kingdom, and these things will be given to you."
     He then says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (12:32-4). 
     The young man wanting to have Jesus settle a dispute over his inheritance, the Pharisees whose hearts had been captured by the world, and the disciples, who are learning from Jesus just how challenging the future will be and yet how God will provide for them, now hear this parable of the watchful servants.  The question here is, where is your heart?
    The crowds that follow Jesus are starving for some spiritual morsels:  their hearts are searching for some revelation of Who God really is.  Some in the crowd are no doubt curious to see what Jesus was all about:  their hearts for searching for some novelty, a distraction from the boredom of everyday life.
    The young man is looking for justice:  his heart longs for the security that the inheritance money will  provide him.  His heart is also scarred by distrust--obviously he asks Jesus for help because he really didn't trust his own brother to settle accounts fairly.
     The disciples' hearts are calmed by Jesus emphasizing His Father's superintendence of His creation:  He provides food for the birds who are far less valuable to Him than His own children.  Jesus wants their hearts to be set on higher things, not beset by worry over the workings of everyday life.  A heart can be so burdened that God's voice is silenced.
     The Pharisees' hearts are so imbued with pride that it is all about them.  God's voice has been silenced by the sin of pride, of self-sufficiency and of desiring the approval of men.  Not just any men:  the crowds were useless sinners who needed to get right with God, and the Pharisees, of course, would determine just what that "right" meant.  The Pharisees' hearts craved approval from each other and the powerful ruling elites in their own circle and with the Romans.
     Why all of this emphasis on the heart?  What we love, we worship--plain and simple.  What we worship leads to a view of the world that we will then act upon.  If we are afraid, we will shrink from God's call.  If we are prideful, we will avoid God's direction and go our own way.  If our hearts are scarred, we will distrust others and only rely on ourselves.  If we are hungry, we will sometimes settle for less than what God offers.  So?  The days are short, and time here on Earth is immensely valuable.
     So Jesus launches into His next parable: “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Luke 12:35-40).
     We must take care of our hearts, because He is depending on us to be ready.  If we are distracted in any way, we may miss the signs and be caught unaware.  Is this just applicable to His return?  I think not.  I think that He wants us to be ready for divine encounters--a person comes to us needing advice, a prayer needs to go before the Father now, we must act quickly and with discernment in a crisis.  If our hearts are out of contact with His heart, we may lose opportunities to serve in His name.  If the voice of God is quieted or even silenced by worry, arrogance, or distraction, a moment where His light could break through might be lost.  Not forever--God is too persistent with us to only reach out once--but our choices could delay some needed healing.
     We must keep our lamps burning, awaiting of the knock of our beloved Master.  Be watchful and when He comes, we participate in His work as if we were His friends!  Look at the reversal of roles:  the master dresses himself (his servants are now his friends, so they won't be dressing him!) and they join him at the banquet as guests!  He waits on them!  Jesus is saying, Look, partner with Me, and lovingly look to do the work of My Kingdom until the day I return.  Don't do the work out of duty and obligation, or fear or worry, but out of love for Me!  Let your heart be so in love with Me that you long for My return and yet stay busy, with a heart always on the lookout to serve Me!
     It is startling how Jesus jumps from a master/servant idea to a thief breaking in.  Why does Jesus change the comparison from master and servants, who have a close bond, to a homeowner who will not let a thief he knows is coming to break into his house? Jesus says in Revelation 16:15, "Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed." In Thessalonians 5:2, it says, "For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night."
     A master returning seems almost inviting as a comparison; he may be angry if his servants are not ready, but a thief ups the ante.  The thief takes away the master's possessions, and the servants can't just go out and replace them for the master.  The thief takes away when he comes to a house.  So, Jesus is showing two sides of one coin:  He will come for His own, and seat them at the table as friends and partners in the work of His Father.  We like that.  But a thief jump starts us to readiness--we need to be always ready, ever watchful and dutiful to what He has called us to do.
     Jesus is both Lamb and Lion, Master and Thief.  He wants us to dine with Him, but He also wants us to be vigilant:  "You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”  We wait not in fear of the Thief, but in holy expectation of His glorious snatching away of His people.   
     In the meantime?  Serve. Love. Worship. Pray.  We've got a lot to do, you and I.

Friday, February 7, 2014

You Can't Take It With You, Nor Should You--the Parable of the Rich Fool

     It is always interesting to see the context in which Jesus is telling His parables. 
     In Luke 11, Jesus is invited to a house of a Pharisee to eat with him.  The Lord did not wash before the meal, and the Pharisee comments on this.  Jesus then recites quite a list of woes against the Pharisees.  The house no doubt falls silent as Jesus lets fly His grievances against such men who should know better.  They are in daily contact with God's word, and yet they are miserly in their hearts. He admonishes them to give to the poor, practice justice and the love of God and stop wanting to be the center of attention at the synagogue.  He then excoriates the teachers of the law, because they load burdens upon the people that are too heavy.  They kill God's prophets.  These "experts in the law" are castigated for wallowing in ignorance and preventing others from obtaining knowledge.   Needless to say, as He is leaving, these men throw angry questions at Him.  They seek to comfort their bruised egos, as well as discredit Him in front of the ever-growing crowd that is gathering outside. 
   The crowd is so huge that Luke says the people are "trampling on one another."  The Pharisees are there as well, no doubt quite flummoxed by the crowds.  Luke is contrasting how, when Jesus teaches, the crowd jostles one another, perhaps roughly, to hear Him.  No one gathered in huge numbers to hear the Pharisees.  The people may gather out of respect, but never in such numbers.  The crowd hungrily gathers to hear Him, to see Him and maybe even to touch Him.  The crowds are a testimony to Jesus' earlier indictments of the Pharisees:  these spiritual leaders have left the crowd desperate to hear of God's love, not of another failure.      
   Before Jesus tells this parable, He is confronted by a man with an interesting request:
"Someone in the crowd said to him, 'Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.'”   Uh-oh.  Jesus is appalled at this man's focus.  Jesus' reputation is not of a judge, but of a prophet and a healer.  This man is squandering an opportunity to learn the deeper things of life from this Rabbi of Nazareth.  He even calls Him "Teacher" but he does not want not to learn, but to dispute.
   You can hear Jesus' exasperation with the man: "Jesus replied, 'Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?'”   The time is short and the men who should be teaching you of My heavenly Father have traded in their sacred position to become theological bean-counters.  Not only is your focus wrong, sir, but Pharisees...are you listening to this?  See what happens when you don't love as my Father loves, and live in the beauty of holiness?  You get disputes, conflict and a heart hostile to the things of God.
     Jesus turns to the crowd, and says, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
     The man standing there is probably aghast at this.  He figures Jesus is willing to step in and do what teachers do--settle disputes, right?  No.  This was no ordinary teacher. 
     Jesus then drives the point home with a parable, not just to him, but to the whole crowd:  “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
     “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”
     “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-21).
     Earlier the Pharisees were put on notice that they needed to be generous to the poor, not burden the community with useless rules and not bustle about with outward shows of righteousness that does not please God.  Their hearts are cruelly calculating and ultimately, they are part of a long tradition that silences those who speak of God's demands and the need for repentance.  In other words, they are not serving God and will not hear otherwise.
    Look at the parable.  This rich man had been blessed with an abundance--all he needed had been provided.  Instead of falling on his knees to thank God and looking to bless the community with this surplus, he wants to build barns to effectively hoard the grain.  He will use his wealth not to provide for others who have nothing, but to store it away so he can live the high life.  No more work, just party and let the world pass us by!  I am at the center of my self-sufficient world and I don't need to care.  Let others take care of it! 
     Then God drops a bomb onto this rich man:  your life is over.  Who will get your inheritance?  Will you take it with you?
     The young man who had wanted Jesus to arbitrate his dispute over his inheritance and the Pharisees are both this rich man:  When you stand before God when this life is over (and that may come sooner than you think) what will you have to show for it?  Money?  Rules?  Possessions?  Prestige? 
      Jesus reminds them that being "rich toward God" is the greatest "wealth" that someone can have.  It motivates you to love others, to serve others, and to live in such a way that when you are called up to heaven, you will open up your empty hands and say, "My life is Yours, precious Lord.  You are all I have ever desired and needed." 
     The Father's heart will swell with joy and He will say, as His arms enfold you, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

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