Thursday, October 21, 2021

Are We the Angry Brother? (Jesus and Community)

Jesus and community... a subject near and dear to my heart as we face such division in America today.  

Jesus gives us a familiar but powerful parable about how He has come for the one:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:1-7)

After this parable, Jesus goes on to tell about a woman who lost a coin:

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)

Repentance of the lost one was celebrated by the finder--a reminder to Jesus' audience that “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)  Jesus' mission was to offer a deep relationship with His Father to those who longed for mercy.  He moved passed the ruling elites and all of their impediments--excessive rules and a focus on justice, with little or no mercy--and went out to find the lost ones.  The sick ones.  The estranged ones.

I love how the return of the one is celebrated in community--the shepherd doesn't return to his flock with the lost sheep, who he had left in "open country," but he "goes home."  There, with the sheep lovingly carried on his shoulders, he shares his joy with his "friends and neighbors."

The same with the woman:  She gathers her "friends and neighbors together" and celebrates with them her finding of the valuable coin.

The community--the Body of Christ--is a place for celebration.  We gather to honor God and praise Him for the work He is doing in His people.  Just last week in church, a woman came forward to share with all of us how God had touched her.  Her joy was contagious.  She could have kept the good news to herself; just as the shepherd and woman with the coin could have remained silent, thanking God and returning to their lives. But all three (the shepherd, the woman and my church sister) wanted the community to know of the goodness of God. 

Jesus tells of His mission in this last parable, crafting it, however, in more somber tones.  We, as an audience, can smile at a shepherd and a woman with a coin, but a struggling family hits much closer to home.

Then and now.   

The last parable is a sadder one, and shows how division in our spiritual family can be painful and stunt the joy of others.  It's so familiar.  Jesus told it last, and perhaps this parable resonated best with His audience:

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

"When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

"The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

"But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.

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!’

"‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:11-32)

Jesus tells a rather different celebration story here.  Friends and neighbors are not invited in--does the father have any?  Had he been socially ostracized because of his fallen son?  Were there whispers when he went into town about that son of his? A son who fraternized with prostitutes and ate pig food?  Or was the community unaware of how profoundly the son had fallen--all they knew is that he took his inheritance and left his father.  Either way, the pain in the father's heart was unimaginable.  He was, in effect, in a tiny community:  He is surrounded by his servants (two, three?) and his other son.  

The celebration commences with the return of the repentant son and a feast.  But the story says nothing of the neighbors joining the father and his servants.  

Why was the father so alone in his celebrating?  His other son won't even join in the celebration.  His angry words put a damper on the whole proceedings, for he has judged his father and brother.  The father has to plead with him and explain why (how sad) they all are celebrating.  The parable ends on a somber note: a repentant son, a happy father, a celebration, an angry brother and a father's plea to justify a celebration.

No community here.  Just a family in grief and joy, laughter and anger, return and emotional exile.

The community of believers right now in America strike me more as being in the third parable.  Though God is working in individuals and we can rejoice, there are many angry brothers and sisters out there (who can justify their anger, to be sure) who may need to learn from this angry brother in the parable:  We need to humble ourselves before God, and allow Him to celebrate the lost in His way, while we embrace His lost and forgive them.  

Let James have the last Word:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. 

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:7-12)

And all the people said, "Amen."

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Moving Mountains? What Kind?

I find that a lot of people these days point to a verse in the Bible that is seminal to their theology of God always wanting to heal--for their presupposition is that God wants us healthy, wealthy and wise.  I am sure you are very familiar with it:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God. I tell you the truth, you can say to this mountain, ‘May you be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and it will happen. But you must really believe it will happen and have no doubt in your heart. I tell you, you can pray for anything, and if you believe that you’ve received it, it will be yours. But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too.” (Mark 11:22-5)

Pretty straightforward, huh?  If I have cancer, or I am praying for someone who does, and I believe that God wants the person healed, we pray for that "mountain"--the cancer--to be cast away.  Let's look at Matthew's take on this teaching:

He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (Matthew 17:20-1)

Same basic principle:  Believe enough, and it will happen.


But, a text without a context is a pretext.  

Let's look at the contexts that the gospel writers recorded these verses.  In Mark, the chapter begins with Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  He then teaches in the Temple, leaves returns the next day.  A fig tree, pretending to offer fruit, is cursed by Jesus for its rich metaphorical example of fake fruit--piety on the outside and prideful reactions to others on the inside.   This so characterizes the leaders Jesus will be confronting in the upcoming week. 

Jesus returns and clears the Temple, defiled with its emphasis on commerce, and using the Court of the Gentiles as a mall, instead of a place where God-fearers (Gentiles sensitive to the things of God) can come and commune with Israel's God.  

The disciples and Jesus return to Bethany and on the way, Peter sees the withered fig, and remembers Jesus' words from the day earlier.  Jesus then says that faith, operating in forgiveness and love, will move the mountains that the disciples will face in the near future:  Evil men, parading piously and using the Torah as a foundation for a pride-filled organization that will kill the long-awaited Messiah and persecute His followers.

Hmm.  These verses are not set where someone needs healing--they are set where the disciples will be facing the mountainous edifice that is Temple system, and its secular counterpart, the Roman Empire.  

The verses in Matthew do contain a healing.  First, the three disciples, Peter, James and John, go up onto a mountain and see Jesus as He was before He came down as a man--He is transfigured into His Deity-self before their very eyes.  Jesus returns with them from the mountain, only to find some chaos in His absence.  A man brought his demon-possessed son to the remaining disciples, and they were not able to drive the demon out.  Once Jesus returns, He chides His men for their lack of belief.  Later they inquire of Jesus as to why they were unable to drive the demon out; He then says the above verses.

The "mountain" here was evil on fearful display in this young boy--having seizures, and him falling into either fire or water.   

A common theme emerges: the seemingly implacable presence of evil.   I don't think the mountain was the child's healing from a disease--though Jesus healed many of disease--it was the evil that had taken over the boy and was threatening his very life.  

So, too was the evil the disciples faced when the Jewish leadership partnered with godless Rome to kill Jesus.

In reading a book on the geography that surrounded Jesus as He taught, the authors made an interesting observation about a mountain having been moved by an immoral leader, Herod:

Josephus describes Herodium as follows:

This fortress, which is some sixty stadia distant from Jerusalem, is naturally strong and very suitable for such a structure, for reasonably nearby is a hill, raised to a (greater) height by the hand of man and rounded off in the shape of a breast. At intervals it has round towers, and it has a steep ascent formed of two hundred steps of hewn stone. Within it are costly royal apartments made for security and for ornament at the same time. At the base of the hill there are pleasure grounds built in such a way as to be worth seeing, among other things because of the way in which water, which is lacking in that place, is brought in from a distance and at great expense. The surrounding plain was built up as a city second to none, with the hill serving as an acropolis for the other dwellings.

Archaeologists believe that the palace was designed by architects and built by slaves and paid workers (contractors). Herod was considered one of the greatest builders of his time and was not daunted by geography—his palace was built on the edge of the desert and was situated atop an artificial hill. [emphasis mine] (1)

Could it be Jesus was referring to a faith that may be small but is untainted by the world because it is born from above by the Holy Spirit, and that such a faith is eternally valuable?  Could it be such a new faith, born of God and by God, is more powerful and is in utter opposition to the worldliness and hypocrisy of leaders like Herod, the Pharisees and Rome, who seemed so tolerate of the religions of the people that they conquered, until faith actually meant something as the new church's faith would?

Was that mountain, in Jesus' teachings, synonymous with evil?  So, if our faith is strong and is utter grounded in who Jesus is, we can overcome that what He is saying?

I don't see that verse being applicable to every obstacle we face: sometimes the obstacles are the natural consequences of our poor choices.

But I do see, when His people really unite and run a mission to the very gates of hell, that love, His love in us, is a powerful weapon against evil.

Using the Word incorrectly divides us, and I see these verses being mishandled by those who do not seem to see the surrounding context in which these verses were used.  

Now is a time where the American church's theology is being tested in fire of affliction.  

Sadly, decades of misusing the Word has created a tremendous amount of dross.  

But God is faithful.  Are we?

One last thing to consider:  The mountain upon which Herod built his palace is right near the Dead Sea.  Perhaps Jesus chose that mountain and that sea to fully illustrate His work in the world through us?



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