Wednesday, March 25, 2015

No Thrift Stores in God's Kingdom

     I love reading about the circumstances that went before Jesus teaches His parables.  The context in which He teaches is illuminating to the parables themselves.  
     How often do we tell someone a story after they've shared some information with us, or recently experienced something dramatic or amazing?  Stories tie us together.  If I tell you that I received a speeding ticket on the way home from church (!), you might tell me that you let fly a swear word right when a fellow church member rounded the corner at the supermarket.  It connects our humanity and makes us realize that we all have things we go through--for better or for worse.
     So, let's look at what preceded Jesus' teaching on old coats and on old wineskins in Matthew 9:16-17. 
     Starting in Chapter 9, we see Jesus having returned by boat "to his own town."  The friends of a paralytic  man brought him to Jesus.  "When Jesus saw their faith," He then lovingly forgives the man's sins.  
     Obviously, the greater paralysis is of his soul.  How many times was he angry at God for his condition?  How many times did he envy people who passed by him?  How many nights did he cry alone, just wanting for one moment to leap up and run outside?  Sin and sadness, anger and regret, swirled in this man's soul like a tornado, and He saw the many layers of dust in the man's spirit.  
     Of course, the religious leaders are outraged that a mere man would take God's office and forgive the man's sins.  Jesus rebukes them, and stands on His authority "to forgive sins."  He wasn't blaspheming, as they evilly thought.  Why?  Because He is the One of whom the ancients foretold.    
     The man arose, healed in body and soul, and went home, much to the amazement of the crowds.
     Jesus goes on and sees a tax collector.  He calls him to follow Him, and Matthew leaves his post and follows Jesus.  Jesus comes to dinner at Matthew's house and of course, Matt's choice of guests are the very ones that the Pharisees despise.  
     They question Jesus' disciples about the wisdom of their rabbi eating with such folks.  Jesus then pointedly comments that the sick need a doctor.  He quotes a verse from Hosea about how God "'desires mercy, not sacrifice,"" and tells the leaders that they need to learn what that means.
     On the tail end of this, here comes John's disciples, observing with some consternation that they and the Pharisees fast, but Jesus' disciples do not.  Interesting to see John's disciples making common cause with the Pharisees, who despised John.  They were probably hovering about in the crowd, listening to the Pharisees excoriate Jesus and didn't want to tick them or Jesus off.  So, they ask a question as if they and the Pharisees are on the right path with their fasting, and Jesus is either misleading or undermining the law with his practices, or lack thereof.

     He sets the tone by equating himself to a bridegroom, and how in this celebratory atmosphere, fasting would be inappropriate.  The time will come, he tells them, when his departure will cause fasting.  But not now.      
     So, given what Jesus just did--forgave sins, healed, called a scorned member of society to be his disciple, dined with more scorned members, and allowed for joy in his disciples and not ritual, he starts to teach in parables:  “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”
     Hmmm...interesting.  Jesus is exploring trying to use both old and new, and what will happen to each.   
     "Unshrunk cloth" is an interesting one--it hasn't been washed, beaten on a rock and left in the sun to dry.  There's nothing wrong with such cloth, as long as the surrounding fibers are the same.  If the whole cloth is "unshrunk," then it will go through the wash in a unified way, each fiber stretching together to face the wear and tear.  
     Now you have a garment that has hole in it--this implies it has been worn a lot, faced many washing days and needs to be repaired in order to be worn again.  Fair enough!  But, unshrunk cloth is not the solution, not because it is not good cloth, but because of its incompatibility with the fabric to which it's going to be attached.  
     So, we have a problem:  a worn-out garment in need of repair and a patch of fabric that once sewn on, will make the hole even bigger as it shrinks.  The new will "tear away" from the old.  Maybe, at first, there seems to be a compatibility between the two:  the new patch hides the hole nicely.  But on wash day--that day when fibers are stretched and pounded in order to be cleaned, then the incompatibility will become painfully obvious and damaging to both the old and the new.  The garment has a bigger hole and the new cloth cannot cover it and is ruined by the stretching of its fibers.
    Now Jesus could have stopped there.  But let us stop for a moment.  The fabric for the Tabernacle in the Old Testament was woven to very specific instructions, as to color and what materials are to be used.  The priests' garments were woven very specifically as well.  God gave His law in an orderly way, by using Moses as His intermediary, and the Tabernacle was a place where Moses met God and received instructions.  The Old Testament is the Old Covenant and Jesus is inaugerating the New Covenant.  But that's our view, looking back.
     All his listeners had was The Covenant--the Law and the Prophets.  Every day of his ministry, Jesus is enacting a new way of thinking and acting before God.  The Pharisees with their not-so-gentle reminders of the Law and the Prophets, represent what will later been seen as the Old Covenant, but only in the light of what Jesus will fulfill on the cross.  That's in the future, however.
     A new fabric is being woven in the work of this man from Nazareth.  The "unshrunk cloth" is Jesus dealing with sinners, forgiving and healing them, and calling the lowly into the Kingdom of his Father.  This is a Kingdom of the Law written on the hearts of those who love God and will act righteously out of love, not out of obligation or ritual.  
    The old garment is in need of repair--the following of rules and regulations, and  hearts acting out of obligation has led to the coldness and snobbery of the Pharisees.  They have a hole in their hearts, exemplified by their contempt of the masses, and their arrogance in thinking they alone know God.
    The two are incompatible.  The day is coming when the old garment will be cast aside for a new raiment, washed in the blood of the Lamb and shining white.  It will endure the rough treatment of the world, and all its threads will face trial united and strong.
     Now, Jesus talks of wine and wineskins.  New wine is valuable.  The old wineskins are just that--they have served well.  The vigorous pouring of new wine into such skins will be a loss for both: the new wine will spill on the ground and the old skins will be torn. Both are ruined.  
     The old garment had its place in covering the sin of the people.  The old wineskins had their place in holding the truth about God.  However, a new wine is coming.  
     The new wine is the New Covenant.  Someday soon, Jesus will take the cup at Passover and tell His disciples that this wine represents His blood that will be poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  He will be THE Passover lamb, whose blood will take away the sins of the world.   
     So, this new wine will be poured into new wineskins:  Jesus' New Covenant will produce a new kind of follower of God, one who is committed and driven by love for those around him and for God.  A person whose heart will be filled with the Holy Spirit and who will serve God well because the old nature "has been crucified with Christ" and we walk as new creations, where the old is passed away and we are empowered from within to live the life He requires.  The Old Covenant is being ful-filled with the wine of the New Covenant.  
     The "new wineskins" and the "new wine" are both "preserved"--they can be used again and again to serve at the table.  With Jesus' blood, we stand in a new relationship to God:  fully forgiven and free to serve Him.  No religiosity, no ritual, no righteousness by works:  He pours His newness into us, and we are free to serve Him and our fellow man.  



Sunday, March 15, 2015

DIY: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders

     Jesus has been teaching a variety of things by the time we arrive at this parable.  He begins with the Beatitudes, then talks of salt and light, and how He come to fulfill the Law.  He covers murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, "an eye for an eye, " loving your enemies, giving to the needy, prayer, fasting, how we are to store up "treasures in heaven," not worrying for our Father supplies our needs, judging others, asking, seeking, knocking, how we are to enter through the "narrow gate," and how we must watch out for false prophets.
     Wow.  In fact, Jesus kicks off His ministry with this Sermon on the Mount.  He was baptized by John in the Jordan, called out into the desert by the Spirit and underwent temptation by Satan.  He called His disciples and is now going about the Galilee, healing the sick. 
      He climbs a mountainside, and sits down.  He is inaugurating His ministry.  My thanks to Ray Vanderlaan for pointing out that Matthew is presenting Jesus as the new Moses.  He is on a mountain and brings forth a new law--one that gives serious consideration to the Old Testament Mosaic law, but with Jesus' added elements of love, compassion and authority.  He is fulfilling the Law, for He will do what the Lord spoke of through Jeremiah:  "'This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,' declares the LORD. 'I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.'"  
     Moses brought down the inscribed stones of the Covenant from Mount Sinai.  This Covenant was  an agreement between God and His people to abide together.  God expected certain things from His people, and their obedience would lead to blessings a-plenty from Him.  Disobedience would equally lead to chastisement from His hand.  
     Jesus, when finished, gets this reaction: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law."
     The crowds rightly sensed a new Covenant was in the offing--Jesus was not simply teaching what the Law said.  He was teaching what the Law foretold:  that God was seeking to inscribe His law on the hearts of His people, and that His definition of "His people" was going to embrace the whole world.  
     Did the crowds understand the bigger picture?  Probably not.  But the times, they were a-changing, and the crowds sensed that.
     So, after Jesus offered His version of the Law, He comments, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
     His listeners are very familiar with the desert and flash floods.  The Hebrews' history is desert history, and the geography influences their analogies.  I thank Ray Vanderlaan  for his teaching on the influence of the desert on the Jewish people.
     A wadi is a seemingly dry stream bed.  The trees are rooted along its outer banks, to make use of the subterranean water.  The wadi is a quiet place, with rocks and sand, and the heat blazing down.

    So, Jesus starts with wise man building his house on a rock.  Who is this "wise man?"  The man who hears Jesus and puts His words "into practice."  This guy doesn't just go and build his house anywhere.  He is wise in learning where the safe and stable places are. 
     I might build my house near this wadi.  It looks harmless enough--it is in the desert!  How much water could there be?  Sure, the wadi shows evidence of water flow, but I am thinking it flows more like a stream.  The quantity of water can't be overwhelming at any one time.  Besides, in a desert, a cool flowing stream would be nice and refreshing.
    But the wise man looks for truth in where to build.  He isn't dazzled by the location and its calmness.  He wants a firm foundation for when life hits hard.  And it does:
     Where's that sunny day?  Where's that gentle refreshing stream?  This is a flash flood in a wadi.  It rains in the distant mountains, and the accumulating water comes roaring down the wadi.  You might not even know it was even raining until you hear the roar.  But by then, it may be too late to get out of way of the flash flood.
     Isn't this life?  Rains come, the waters rise, and the winds beat against our house.  The very ground beneath our feet is swept away by a raging torrent we didn't even know was in the making.  Boom!
     So, who is the foolish man?  The one who looks at the surroundings:  the sunny day, the heat and blue skies, and says, "This looks good.  All those words of this new Teacher, Jesus...Well, they sound good.  But, I can't relate.  I have the Law.  Good enough.  Yet, when life gets really tough, I am not even sure that God loves me, because I don't uphold all the rules and regulations..."
     Jesus knew that the very foundation of Judaism, the Temple and its system of sacrifices, would be swept away by the raging torrent, as it were, of the Roman army in 70 AD.  His listeners were going to need a stronger, more enduring foundation: not one built of stones, but one built in the heart.  The New Covenant would be written on the hearts of those who believed in Jesus, and even the severest flood could not wash Him away.  He was and still is the Rock.
     Jesus talked of false prophets, whose words and easy demands will seduce us.  They promise us an endless parade of sunny days and blue skies. 
     But Jesus hears the rainstorms in the mountains.  He hears the oncoming torrent.  He wants us to be firmly built on a rock.  He offers Himself:  His blood, which washes away our sins; His love, which reminds us we are sons and daughters of the King; and His grace, which forgives us when we are foolish. 
     Rain, wind and torrents will come, but at the end, you will be standing if you are standing on the Rock.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

God's Economy

     So, let's review.  In Matthew 13, Jesus goes to the lake, and because of the size of the crowd, he steps into a boat, and teaches them a little distance from shore.  He teaches the parable of the sower, which shows that the Word will produce a harvest, but not with everyone.  The soil of the heart must be open and ready to receive the Word, or you have crop failure.
    Soon afterwards, the disciples ask Jesus why He uses this teaching method.  He explains that the Kingdom of Heaven is being revealed to the disciples and because of the hardness of the people's hearts, the teachings will not be understood by the crowd. 
     I think He is also warning them not to harden their hearts, or they will lose the privilege of unpacking the secrets of the Kingdom.  
     He then tells them that the prophets and the righteous people of old would have loved to  have heard what the disciples are now hearing.  He tells the disciples, "But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear."
      The Hope of the Ages, the very One promised so long ago is now standing in front of the disciples.  They are blessed in ways they can't even imagine.  They are to possess "the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven."  They will walk in the very presence of the Messiah, and are learning of the Kingdom of God from God Himself.  The "Word was made flesh, and made his dwelling among us." (John 1:14)    
       Wow.  Then Jesus expounds on the meaning of the sower.  It describes perfectly how the crowd will receive His teachings:  some will not understand, and instead of seeking earnestly, the devil will show up and snatch the seed away.  Some will joyfully receive the word, and then when any conflict arises, they fall away.  Some will hear it and yet the cares of this world and its lure of wealth will cause the word to disappear in their hearts.  
      But those who hear and understand the word?  Abundance!
      Then Jesus talks about the wheat and the tares.  They look similar as they grow, but at the harvest time, it will then be evident who really walked in the ways of the Father, and whose actions were a mere cover for an uncaring and dead heart.
      See a pattern here?  Jesus is talking about sowing and reaping and what makes for a fruitful harvest.  This will happen when someone hears the Word and takes the next crucial step:  They seek with all of their heart and mind to understand it. 
     That includes the disciples as well--Jesus calls everyone to seek and find.
     Next, in Matthew 13, Jesus tells the parables of the mustard seed and the yeast:  seemingly insignificant things that will, in time, have a huge impact.  
     Then the disciples ask Jesus to explain the wheat and the tares, once Jesus left the crowd.
     Obviously, when Jesus is teaching the crowd, the disciples listen along with everyone else.  Then, when they can have a private moment, they ask Jesus the meaning of His parables.  
     Jesus says earlier that "The knowledge of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance.  Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him." (Matt. 13:11-12)
     While He is speaking of the crowds, I believe that a subtle but imperative warning is aimed at the disciples:  You will be tested with what you have learned when I go to the cross.  You will need to cling to what you have learned in order to stand tall.  You will have an abundance if you seek Me with all of your heart, let your roots go deep, and not allow anything--including death on a cross--deter you from doing what you have called to do.
     Now, Jesus switches from the insignificant--little seeds, wheat, mustard seeds and yeast-- to what everyone will agree is important:  treasure and fine pearls. 
     In God's economy, whatever you have that you use lovingly and willingly for God it what makes it valuable, no matter what the world says.  
     So, let's go to the field where a man found a treasure in verse 44.  What was he doing in that field?  He was out evaluating the parcel of land before buying it.  Was he walking around checking the quality of the soil?  Was he looking for underground water?  Was he seeing any areas that needed improving:  rocks that needed removing or burrowing animals that needed to be chased out of there?  Before he took possession, he looked carefully at what it contained. 
     But:  he was out looking...seeking and then, guess what!  Finding!  That is the key.  He didn't just buy any field sight unseen and then go his merry way.  He was looking closely at this particular field and look at what he found!  A treasure!  Someone hid it there for safe keeping, and now it's his!   But to make sure that the treasure is truly his, he reburied it, "and in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field." 
     In looking closely at what this field contained, he found something even better.  But he was looking.  
     Then he was willing to liquidate his earthly assets to obtain something far greater:  the kingdom of heaven!  Earthly things pale in comparison to heavenly riches!
     Then Jesus switches to a merchant--another seeker of valuable things--who finds a pearl of "great value."  He see a lot of pearls on his buying trips, and all sorts of other things he can potentially sell.  
     But one day, as he is looking, he finds not just any pearl, but one of "great value."  Meaning that yes, there are other pearls out there that are valuable and will compete for the merchant's money and attention.  But his eye is attuned enough to spot one far greater than the others he's seen.  He is willing to sell his inventory and with the cash, buy that one pearl.  
     He probably told the buyer to hold it for him.  He may have even given him a deposit.  But he wanted it so much that he was not willing to risk it being sold out from underneath him.  He hustles to liberate his assets and then hustles back to buy that pearl. 
     Once he's holding it in his hand, nothing else matters.  He will not miss his other possessions.  He will not miss his money or trade.  He has found what he has been searching for his whole life.
     Jesus then finishes His teaching with a net bursting with fish.  It has all kinds of fish in it.  The net was cast far and wide, to collect up as many fish as it could hold.  
     Then comes the sorting.  The good fish are put into the baskets and the bad fish are hucked away.  
      Jesus then parallels this sorting to the "end of the age."  The angels will sort the fish of humanity and those who do not possess the kingdom of God in their hearts, by accepting the Word made flesh, will go into the "fiery furnace."
     Who are the "bad fish"?  They are the ones who don't give their all to find out Who this Messiah is, and then follow Him wholeheartedly.  Their hearts are calloused by sin and they don't see anything of value coming from this Man.  They aren't willing to give up earthly things to obtain the riches of heaven, and they aren't willing to see things from God's perspective.  Yeast and seeds need time to grow and flourish, and the "bad fish" are too much in a hurry--only wanting to gratify the flesh and leaving the spirit neglected.  
    Jesus finishes His discourse with asking His disciples if they "understood all these things?"  They reply "Yes."
    Now, He says that "Therefore every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."  (verse 52)
     Interesting.   The disciples are now being designated "teacher(s) of the law about the kingdom of heaven."  Whoa.  They are not the teachers of the law that are in the Pharisees' club...Jesus excoriates those teachers.  He is saying that with great knowledge comes great responsibility, and the disciples now bear this.  The "house" is filled with treasures, bequeathed by the Old Covenant (the Law and the Prophets) and the New Covenant, which is Jesus Himself.  
     Paul puts it this way in Romans 3:21-24: "But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."
     Seek, ask, knock:  The Kingdom of God is for those who actively want what God has prepared for them. 
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