28 May 2021

What Kind of Seed Are You Sowing?

Churches are quite often concerned with their membership. They can't be blamed, it's how they pay their bills. A church needs to grow, to add new members, in order to stay alive. When we read about Jesus in Luke 8, he has expanded his ministry by driving out demons. He has the support of a group of women whom he has healed who are now financing his mission across Israel (8:1-3).

However, this is not the point of his ministry, it is not his message to "put butts in pews," but rather to change the way we look at ourselves, our community, and our world.

Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who scatters his seed. Rather than sowing it neatly, perhaps in rows, he seems to scatter it everywhere indiscriminately. Some falls on the road, some on rocky ground, some among weeds, and only a little finds a home among good soil. Jesus says that this small amount of seed produces a hundred-fold more than all that was sown (8:5-8 ).

Luke then gives a narrative frame for this parable (8:11-15 ); it is a good explanation, but I would like to suggest that this is but one interpretation of the story. Jesus often told stories more than once for different audiences, and sometimes he told them slightly differently.

What other ways might we understand it if we think about it awhile? What is the seed being sown? What does the different types of soil represent? What are the plants? What is the crop? And why is this farmer scattering his seed everywhere rather than sowing it as one normally would?

What type of seed is being sown makes a large difference to the meaning of the parable. If the seed is a grain, say wheat, then the seed is the crop. You sow wheat to get wheat. If the seed is a fruit seed, then the seed is not the crop, the fruit it produces is the crop. You do not sow fig seeds to get more seeds, you sow them to get figs. The type of seed tells us if what is being sown is what we hope to reap or whether we want to reap something unlike what was sown.

In Luke's explanation, what is sown is the Word of God, but this is not what is harvested. Later on, when Jesus turns away seeing his Mother and brothers, he says, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice" (8:19-21 ). What Jesus is looking for is for those whose lives will be transformed by the Gospel and will produce a crop of virtue.

If we sow virtue, will we reap virtue? Is this the point of "do unto others?" The parable works either way. Whether we are virtuous because we are transformed by God's word, or whether we are virtuous because of the example set by others in our lives, the crop is the same. Jesus is saying it is the crop that is important.

Be indiscriminate both is speaking God's word and in showing kindness to others. Scatter goodness everywhere, especially on the "undeserving." Jesus tells us that the kindness of one person might change hundreds of lives, such is the abundance of the goodness that comes from God.

You don't have to hand out fortune cookies with Bible passages or make sure everyone knows that you're so very nice because of Jesus. You just have to be kind. God would rather we be good than right.

21 May 2021

The Pharisee and the Sinful Woman

Luke 7:36-50

While Jesus was eating at the house of a Pharisee, a woman, who had spent her life living in sin, came and knelt at his feet. She said nothing, but wept and dried his feet with her hair and anointed them with perfume.

The Pharisee judges the woman and denies Jesus for not knowing what kind of woman she is. Jesus answers his concern with a parable about two men forgiven a debt. The one who will be most grateful is the one with the larger debt forgiven.

Although many readers may think that the Pharisee too is in need of forgiveness because of Jesus' harsh words towards him, Jesus acknowledges that the Pharisee has done little which requires forgiveness, and he is right in judging that the woman has done much in need of forgiveness. The issue is not the judgment, but the reaction.

Jesus tells the woman that she is forgiven and the other guests are taken aback. They don't know how to react to this. There is nothing divine or supernatural happening here. Jesus is teaching. This is what they should have done from the start.

No one grows up wanting to be a horrible person. Perhaps this woman was cruel to her neighbors, or abusive to her husband or children, perhaps she was a prostitute or an adulteress; the passage does not say. It didn't matter to Jesus because it had led her to a place of regret. Whoever she was, it was not what she wanted to be and she was looking for a second chance. No one in the room would give it to her until Jesus did.

We do not want to live in a world where there are no second chances, or in a world where everyone takes advantage of the generosity of others, but there is so much middle ground between those two extremes. Do not be afraid to be Jesus to someone looking to improve themselves. Do not be afraid to offer that second chance, to offer forgiveness.

14 May 2021

Is Jesus the Messiah?

How do we know that Jesus is the Christ? This is the very question John the Baptist sent messengers to Jesus to receive an answer about in Luke 7:18-35. He tells them to "report on what you have seen and heard." There are two parts to the truth of Jesus, the Gospel, and the experience of Christian community. The Gospel is the good news. It is the message of scripture which heals the human soul. It is at once the same message proclaimed to all people and at the same time a deeply personal message as it is sent from God to speak to each person's situation. To receive the Gospel is to come into the very presence of God, to understand that you are loved, you are blessed, and that God accepts and calls you just as you are to serve a holy purpose. The other evidence for Christ is the experience of Christian community. In John 13:35, Jesus says that this is how Christians will be known, "by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." If Christians do not live in fellowship, do not love one another, they are not Christians, just like the salt which has ceased to be salty (Mark 9:50). To believe that we are loved and to live it is the call of Jesus. It is the evidence that he is Christ and the method by which he saves. Jesus saves us from guilt, doubt, and self deprecation, because we are called by God to serve a purpose which God has in mind for each of us. We may not be perfect, but we are the perfect vessels for God's purpose. Jesus then saves us from the world by creating a community which supports its members. If every Christian reached out to support one another, our communities would never know need. Once the messengers depart to report this to John, Jesus goes further, reminding his own disciples that just as important as the message is the way in which it is received. He reminds them that they went out to see John. He did not preach in the square, but in the wilderness. He did not wear fine clothes, nor did he drink, he was the very image of a prophet. The people who went out to be baptized by John were of open hearts and minds and so received the word, but the Pharisees and teachers of the law were too well established and too well educated to receive any teaching which threatened their status. To those who did not receive the word, any excuse would suffice to denounce it. John the Baptist they called a wild man because he did not drink, fasted, and lived an ascetic life. Jesus they called a drunkard because he ate and drank with sinners at their parties. To this, Jesus answers simply that "Wisdom is proved right by all her children," referring to Proverbs 8. The Pharisees cannot denounce the teachings of Jesus and John, so they attack their lifestyles. They tell people not to follow their example because they are wicked men. Do good men live like Jesus and John? Jesus goes to parties while John abhors all decadence. But the proof of their message is in its impact. As Jesus said, "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor." As for his example, Jesus says, "blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me." We expect to hear the word of God from pastors and preachers on Sunday morning. We expect to hear it preached in churches while we sit in comfy pews. Jesus and John show that the word of God can be found in bars and brothels, in the bad parts of town and out in the wilderness. The word isn't what we expect it to be, and neither is its preacher. I think Ray Stevens put is best in his comedic song, "would Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?"

07 May 2021

How is a Centurion Like a Widow?

Throughout the gospels, teaching is always followed by the performance of miracles. The miracles illustrate the transformative power of Jesus' teaching in an allegorical, rather than literal, way. In his gospel, Luke takes this tradition a step further by giving the reader stories to compare and contrast. This gives Luke's gospel numerous layers of meaning to explore through multiple readings.

In Luke 7:1-17, Jesus has just finished teaching and gone back home to Capernaum where he performs the first of two miracles. He is told that a centurion has a servant who is sick and in need of healing. This centurion is a foreigner, an agent of the Roman Empire which occupies and oppresses Israel. Nevertheless, Jesus is told that that he deserves to have his servant healed because he a friend of the Jewish people and built their local synagogue.

I can't help but hang on that word, "deserves." By what standard do they determine that he deserves this miracle? That he has done good for their community certainly illustrates that he loves his neighbor. Does this also imply that there are those who do not deserve God's kindness?

Jesus goes to the centurion, but is stopped before entering his house, where the servant in need of healing is staying. The centurion sends word to Jesus that he is not worthy to have Jesus enter his home, instead if he only gives the word, his servant will be healed.

Jesus praises the centurion's faith, saying that it is greater than he has seen in all of Israel. Jesus gives the word and the servant is healed. Does this mean that Jesus agrees that the centurion is deserving, or is there some other reason Jesus heals the servant? Does it even matter whether the centurion is deserving?

In this passage's second story, Jesus visits the village of Nain, where he witnesses a funeral procession. He finds that the one who has died was the only son of a widow, a widow who is now completely alone in the world. In an act of compassion, Jesus raises the widow's son, restoring him to life. Just like in the previous story, he does so with a word, saying, "get up!"

There is no mention of the widow being deserving. Jesus heals her son because "his heart went out to her."

We want God to act because we deserve it, because we are good and others think well of us. We want good things to happen to good people and bad things to happen to bad people. But just like the centurion and the widow, God doesn't always bless the "deserving." He is kind to whom he is kind. There was a man who was about to lose a loved one, and God chose to be kind. There was a woman who was all alone, and God chose to be kind.

Perhaps God does not choose who is deserving and undeserving, he simply travels from town to town, looking for those who need his kindness. It doesn't matter if you gave everything or if you have nothing left to give, God's kindness is not only for the deserving.