Monday, January 31, 2011

Matthew 13:44-46 - "The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field..."

These two parables belong together as twin messages of the same truth. In the first parable a man finds treasure hidden in a field and sells all he has to buy that field. In the second a merchant comes across the finest pearl he has ever seen and does not hesitate to sell all he has to buy that pearl. Both men come across something of such great worth they are willing to exchange every worldly possession they own in order to have it. What may look like lunacy to an outsider makes perfect economical sense in their minds. The value of this discovered treasure makes everything else they own seem like rubbish. And at least in the case of the merchant, finding the pearl of great price was the culmination of a lifelong search. He would be a fool not to sell all he had in order to buy it.

To me there is no better summation of the Christian life than what is contained in these two brief parables. All that we call suffering and sacrifice is really, from the clear perspective of eternity, a smart economic exchange where you give up your copper coins for priceless jewels. Faith is what gives you the eyes to see the worth of this unseen treasure. Joy comes from recognizing the great bargain you are getting. Giving up worldly rags for heavenly robes? Forsaking passing pleasures for lasting joys? Leaving behind slavery to embrace sonship? Are you kidding? It's a deal.

But is this works salvation? Is Jesus saying that having the great treasure is conditioned upon whether you have paid the full price for it? That's reading too much into it. Jesus' narrow purpose in telling this parable is to show that the cost of discipleship is really a light and joyful burden when your eyes are fixed upon the prize that awaits you. The point is not that you literally pay for the prize, but to show through what you are willing to sacrifice how much faith you have in the tremendous value of the treasure.

But how does God's grace fit in to the teaching of this parable? It may help to understand that even before we have gone and sold everything to possess this treasure, the treasure is already freely given to us. God has already placed it in our possession. So why go and sell everything to gain what we already have? Because we seek to possess what we already possess. I'll say it again: we seek to possess what we already possess. We have it, therefore we are zealous to possess it daily, laboring to rid ourselves of the world so that we may be found to be worthy possessors. This paradox is really the secret of the Christian life, and it provides a window into the mystery of how God's grace meshes perfectly with our good works so that the former receives all the glory.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Matthew 13:33-35 - "He spoke another parable to them, 'The kingdom of heaven is like leaven...'"

The parable of the leaven is similar to the parable of the mustard seed in that both speak of the kingdom of heaven as something that starts out with small, seemingly insignificant beginnings and slowly develops into something enormous. Much of what I said in the previous post about the nature of God's kingdom would apply here also.

My initial thought with this parable was to compare yeast granules to the mustard seed and talk about how potent they both are. But now it occurs to me that the woman in the parable probably did not view yeast as something you buy from a grocery store in those little Fleischmann's paper packets that come in sets of three. When I cut those packets open with a scissors and sprinkle out the yeast, I see tiny brown granules, separate, dry, and inactive until I add warm liquid. Unfortunately, an Israelite woman in the first century did not have the luxury of shopping at her local Ralph's for such a convenience.

To be clear, here is a picture of what not to think of when reading this parable:

Yeast is actually a gas-producing microorganism that we have, with our advanced technology, somehow extracted from nature and neatly packaged in this way for the convenience of the professional baker or modern housewife, so that it could be stored on the shelf or in the refrigerator for immediate use. But all this is recent stuff. It wasn't until Louis Pasteur's findings in the mid-19th century that we even learned what caused fermentation in the first place. Certainly a first-century Israelite woman would not have viewed leaven as little brown granules that came in packets. For her fermentation was something that existed in nature, in the bubbling foam of beer for instance, or when wheat bran was steeped in wine. A messy, smelly and (in my opinion) semi-disgusting phenomenon that looked like this:

The ancients saw the work of leaven as a spontaneous and mysterious thing, perhaps even magical. Quite often yeast spores would simply be floating in the air and land on bread dough that happened to be lying out in the open, naturally causing it to rise. And once you find a source of leaven that you can utilize for your bread making, you save a small lump of the dough as a starter for the next batch. This starter dough may be what the woman in the parable hid in her three pecks of meal.

If you picture the woman hiding her lump of starter dough into a batch that produces two neat little loaves of bread, that doesn't seem like a very impressive example of the "small beginnings, great results" aspect of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus is trying to illustrate. However, once you realize that three pecks of meal equals about 40 liters, which makes enough bread to serve well over one hundred people, the parable makes sense. A small lump of dough hidden in that huge quantity of meal works slowly and steadily to leaven the entire batch, much like the word of the gospel spreads from mouth to mouth and heart to heart until the kingdom of God has increased over the entire world.

Matthew once again reminds us, in dead-horse-beating fashion, that Jesus speaks these parables to confound the multitudes, not necessarily to enlighten them. Psalm 78, from which Matthew quotes, recounts the history of God's faithfulness to Israel despite being continually provoked to anger by their rebellion. It is only fitting that Jesus speaks these parables to the unbelieving multitudes which talk about how God's kingdom will continue to increase like a great tree, or like an enormous quantity of leavening dough, regardless of whether they choose to believe.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Matthew 13:31-32 - "He presented another parable to them saying..."

After seeing the total scientific accuracy of Jesus' account of the wheat and the tares, we now encounter the parable of the mustard seed which is fraught with problems. First of all, the mustard seed is small but it isn't the smallest seed of all. This doesn't bother me much since it's possible that in Jesus' time the mustard seed was viewed this way by the culture of his day. It's not meant to be a universal statement for all time. Besides, the seeds are still pretty small.

The bigger problem is that the mustard seed as we know it today doesn't grow into a tree. And even though it is capable of growing to surprising heights, it's not the sort of plant that flocks of birds would nest in. I'm sure you've seen mustard plants with their bright yellow blossoms covering an entire field like weeds.

In view of Jesus' spot-on observations about the nature of the tare (Persian darnell) in the previous passage, I can't believe he'd be this far off about the mustard plant. Maybe there is a translation problem here. Or maybe the mustard plant he is talking about is a different plant than the one we're familiar with. In any case, the plant he is talking about has a very small seed and grows into a very large tree that outstrips the growth of the plants around it, offering branches where the birds can gather and take refuge.

The kingdom of heaven is like this seed, starting with humble and seemingly insignificant beginnings. Jesus lived humbly among us and taught for only three years. He had twelve disciples and a few hundred other followers. None of these men were great by the world's standards, holding no significant positions of power in government or in the religious establishment. Jesus' popularity did not increase but diminished toward the end of his career, to the point where the mobs among whom he once ministered called for his execution. His resurrection transformed his disciples, yet there were only five hundred witnesses of even this miraculous event. Then Jesus ascended into heaven and left his disciples behind, who were armed only with the knowledge of what they had seen and heard.

It does not appear to be possible that such a man and such a ministry could change the world. Throughout history many great men have risen and gained followers, many spiritual men have claimed to perform miracles, many charismatic leaders have died as martyrs, yet their causes have died with them. Jesus' disciples only increased after he left us. Over the generations and throughout the world he continues to add disciples to his number. The kingdom of heaven is like a small seed, the smallest of all seeds, that grew up into a large tree and spread its branches over all the surrounding plants, where the creatures of the earth could go to find rest and shade.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 - "He presented another parable to them saying, 'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man..."

After you're done reading 13:24-30 be sure to skip ahead to the parable's explanation in verses 36-43. We'll return to the portion of Scripture we skipped next time.

This parable of the wheat and the tares uses many of the same symbolic elements as the parable of the sower we just looked at (see the previous three posts), except here these elements correspond to different realities. In the parable of the sower the seed is the word, and when the seed lands on the good soil of a believing heart a fruitful life results. In the parable of the wheat and the tares the seed no longer represents the word, for now there are both good and bad seed. Here the good seed are the sons of the kingdom which the Son of Man sows, but then the devil comes along and sows the bad seed which are the sons of his evil kingdom. The field is the world, a neutral arena that plays no part in the outcome. So in this parable it is not the soil that determines the result, but rather the kind of the seed and who has sown it.

Jesus' audience would have known that wheat and tares bear a close resemblance to each other. For the sake of us citified folks who can barely recognize a wheat stalk, let alone an impostor, here are some visuals.

This is wheat.

This is a tare
(aka Persian darnel).

The wheat and the tare in these photos are both fully mature. Yet I understand when these plants first spring up young and tender, they look almost exactly alike. That's unfortunate since tares are poisonous. They also have stronger roots than wheat so if the two plants are sown together, an attempt to pull up the unwanted tares would also uproot the desired wheat. Scattering tare seeds over someone's wheat field is a good way to sabotage their valuable crop, which is why the practice was forbidden under Roman law. Jesus was talking about a real life problem familiar to his listeners. No wonder the landowner in the parable exclaims, "An enemy has done this!"

The only solution to the problem is to let both the wheat and the tares develop to maturity until they have distinguished themselves fully. The wheat grow heavy with grain, their stalks often bowing under the weight, whereas the tares are light and stand straight even when fully matured. Someone once pointed out that the wheat are a fitting picture of the believer: the fruit he bears that teaches him to bow in humility. The worldly tares carry no such burden.

The devil has multiplied his own sons among the true sons of the kingdom, but Jesus is willing to wait until the harvest of the world fully ripens before he comes in judgment. While the Son of Man's ability to read men's hearts might enable him to render judgment on that basis alone, he knows that the most sound and prudent judgment is rendered on the basis of visible, tangible evidence: the deeds of righteousness versus the deeds of lawlessness. Even the angels whom he will send out to reap will be able to tell which are the true and false sons of the kingdom. The unrighteous are cast into the furnace like weeds, but the righteous are gathered into the barn.

People are always asking, "Where is God?" whenever they see evil running rampant, as if God is expected to act like the police rushing about to stop every crime whenever someone dials 911. A hard reality for many people to swallow is that God purposely allows evildoers to ripen in their evildoing so that one day his judgment upon them would be fully vindicated. He is letting the tares mature into their tare-hood, patiently withholding his wrath while they blossom into their true nature. In the meantime he expects the wheat to show themselves to be wheat by being patient in the face of present injustice, returning good for evil, and forgiving transgressions. That may sound harsh, but anyone who believes in the coming Judgment would gladly bear suffering for a little while under the brief reign of evil than suffering for eternity in the furnace of hell.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Matthew 13:18-23 - "Hear, then, the parable of the sower."

Jesus tells this parable to an audience that has neither the ears to hear nor the eyes to perceive its truth, and ironically the parable is about why they are like that. A sower goes out to sow and the seed he scatters falls upon four different types of ground, producing four different results, three of which bear no fruit at all.

As I have mentioned earlier, the difference does not lie in the sower's technique of sowing nor in the seed itself, but where the seed falls. Jesus says that the seed is the word of the kingdom, so presumably the sower is anyone who proclaims the word and the ground upon which the seed falls represents the hearts of the hearers. The parable offers no critique of how the sower sows, as if the preacher should be targeting a certain type of hearer or using a certain style of speech or anything of that nature. The seed isn't faulted either, as if the message of the gospel should be adjusted to fit the various types of hearers to maximize its success. By all appearances this parable assumes the faithful, indiscriminate proclamation of the gospel of salvation to anyone who might willingly listen. The lesson is: don't think you can guess the result, because even after you've done your part, the most critical component of this equation lies entirely beyond your control.

When someone hears the word of the kingdom and doesn't understand it, the devil comes and takes away what he has heard. I used to think that the reason the hearer doesn't hear the gospel is because the devil has already taken the word away. But in view of what Jesus said in verse 12 ("whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him"), a better understanding might be that it is the initial rejection of the gospel that gives Satan the opportunity to remove it further from the heart--so it's the other way around. And God permits Satan to do this as a part of his judgment on the hearer.

Then there are those who hear the word and immediately embrace it with joy. This is scary because it sounds very much like a true conversion. I don't know of any Christian who sees a person embrace the gospel message and immediately thinks, "Hold on, let's not get excited yet. We've got to see whether or not this is rocky soil." Hardly any one of us even considers that possibility. But Jesus warns that many people's understanding of the gospel is only superficial, like shallow roots in rocky soil. Faith never takes root in the soil of their hearts, though it appears to at first, and when persecution arises like a scorching sun these once-enthusiastic types shrivel and fall away. It may appear to be a case of someone "losing their salvation," but actually the problem is that this person had only the appearance of faith. True faith had never taken root in the first place.

In the case of the seed that was choked by thorns, I'm realizing for the first time that there had to be thorns already rooted in this soil. If the soil symbolizes the heart and the thorns symbolize the worries of the world, the problem with this "heart-soil" is that it has embraced both the gospel and the world simultaneously. The seed of the gospel and the seed of worldly desire grow up side by side. But no one can serve two masters, no one can serve both God and money, so the gospel loses out. In such corrupt soil it never really had a chance to begin with.

Some Christians I used to know argued that the thorn-choked seed still represents true believers, it's just that these are "unfruitful Christians." But if Jesus says, "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matthew 7:19), how is there room for these so-called unfruitful Christians in the kingdom? Since Jesus also warned that the gate is narrow that leads to life and the path is broad that leads to destruction, I don't think we should kid ourselves by creating a novel category called the "unfruitful Christian." Jesus asks us to examine our lives for fruit to verify that our faith in genuine. If we have no fruit, then what evidence is there that we truly believe?

The heart of true faith bears fruit like seed producing a crop of a hundredfold, sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. What is this fruit? I don't think this is about merely serving at church or something task-oriented. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Most of this fruit has to do with the way you treat other people, especially when you are wronged. It's not saying, "You know you're a Christian when you're patient, kind and good to people who are good to you." It must be talking about having that fruit even with people who are harsh, selfish and manipulative, about having a love that triumphs over every circumstance, that shines the way and brings people to the truth the way you bring in a crop during harvest time.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Matthew 13:10-17 - "And the disciples came and said to him, 'Why do you speak to them in parables?'"

Jesus just told a parable to the crowds that is itself an explanation for why most of them won't be able to understand his parables. There are ironies upon ironies here. But privately to his disciples, Jesus explains what's going on in plainer terms.

The rule is: "Whoever has, to him shall more be given . . . but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him." Those who listen with the receptive heart of faith will be given yet more faith and an increasing ability to receive the truth. Those who listen with an unreceptive heart, rejecting Jesus' teaching, will become increasingly unable to find their way to the truth. The good get better, the bad get worse. So when God takes away someone's ability to hear the truth, it is a consequence of the hardness that already resides in their hearts in the first place. It is a judgment, you might say, and a sobering warning to all of us who are exposed to the Word of God on a regular basis as these Israelites were.

The function of the parable is to accelerate this process, to hasten people toward their ultimate fate, whether good or bad. For those who believe, the parable forces them to search harder for the truth, to inquire, to meditate. The truth they eventually come to understand is hard-earned and therefore well treasured. But for those who disbelieve, the parable presents only greater confusion. They dismiss the parable as foolishness and turn their backs even further on the truth. As Jesus says, "Seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear nor do they understand."

The prophecy of Isaiah tells how most of Israel progressed from bad to worse. So much history and so much revelation for generations on end, and yet the trajectory of their belief did not increase to glory but declined into judgment. At the heart of their unbelief, according to Isaiah, was their unwillingness to return to the Lord and be healed. They rejected Yahweh, that's why they refused to believe. That's why their judgment is just.

But amidst every unbelieving generation there are those few who do believe. The prophets and righteous men of Israel's day were such people, and they eagerly received what little revelation was given to them. They desired more, but the time had not yet come for the truth to be fully revealed in Christ. With Jesus' coming, the disciples are the faithful few amidst their generation. Yet they are not only blessed with hearing ears and seeing eyes but possess this blessing at a time when the all the ancient promises are being fulfilled right in front of them. We already know how their lives turned out, what an abundance of faith would be given to them in the face of sufferings and persecution, and how much fruit they would someday bear in laying the foundation for the Christian church. "Whoever has, to him shall more be given."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Matthew 13:1-9 - "On that day Jesus went out of the house, and was sitting by the sea."

Jesus has to teach this parable while sitting in a boat because he got crowded off the beach by the multitudes. Yet instead of basking in his great success as a preacher--relevant, dynamic and cutting-edge, who addresses the felt needs of today's Jewish audience--he launches into a parable that is specifically designed to mystify and discourage his hearers. Ironically, it turns out that this parable, which the multitudes don't seem to grasp, gives the explanation for why they can't grasp Jesus' parables. But we'll get to that in our subsequent posts. For now let's just make a few observations about the parable itself.

There is one sower who goes out to sow. The varied results of the sowing are not tied to different sowers, and therefore the point of the story is not the skill or technique of the sower. Nor are the results tied to the nature of the seed. This seed that the sower scatters at random is the same seed with the same potential for fruitful growth. The difference lies in the ground upon which the seed is thrown.

The road upon which some of the seed falls is hard ground. The seed doesn't sink into the dirt at all. Instead it goes bounce, bounce, bounce, and now it's just lying there waiting to get snatched up by the birds. Other seed falls upon rocky ground where the soil is thin. Oh sure, it springs up fast because the roots don't have to burrow down much, but that proves to be its downfall. Without deep roots, without any firm establishment in nourishing soil, it shrivels and dies under the first blast of the sun's heat.

Still other seed falls on soil where thorns also find a home. The seed sprouts and begins to grow, yet the growth of the thorns outstrips and chokes it. Evidently the soil is more suited for nourishing thorns than good plants. Lastly, some of the seed falls upon good soil. The dirt is soft and moist, solid roots are established, and thorns do not thrive there. This seed grows up healthy and strong so that over the years it yields crop after crop, thirty, sixty, even a hundred times over.

"He who has ears to hear, let him hear." Do the multitudes hear what Jesus is truly getting at? Why don't they hear? And why does Jesus speak in a way that eludes them? He'll explain more about that in the following passage.