Chapter 3: Parables

001

We all have a perspective on reality. This shapes the way we live our lives and the way we treat people, and what we think about Donald Trump.

Jesus also had a perspective that shaped his life. He had an opinion about his world and about the people around him. He had ideas about reality and about who he was. Reading the Gospels you find Jesus rejoicing in the behavior of some and indignant toward the behavior of others.

Jesus was an itinerant teacher/preacher who traveled the country preaching about the kingdom of God, describing who would enter the kingdom of God and who would not. Jesus has opinions and a perspective.

He did not have a middle-of-the-road perspective on reality, as we value so much in our world today. He did not find a happy medium between the tax-collector and the Pharisee. He was called a drunkard and glutton, yet he accused Pharisees in all their religion of not even being righteous enough to enter the kingdom of God.

Jesus had a radical perspective on the world and the people around him. He was a teacher and a prophet. And he calls us to come to terms with the way he looks at life.

002

“Truth is the agreement of our ideas with God’s ideas.”

We are delusional if our perspective on reality veers from God’s perspective on reality. The extent to which our perspective is consistent with Christ’s perspective is the extent to which we are not out of our minds.

The Apostle Paul argues that no one can know the mind of God, unless we know Christ’s mind.

2 Corinthians 2:16: “‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”

To meet Jesus and to learn from him is to gain a real and true perspective on the world. It is to know the mind of God, and to conform our ideas about God and life and people and work with his ideas.

When we do theology (or for that matter, when we do anything) there is nothing more important than coming to terms with the question, “Is this how Jesus would see it?” Unfortunately, we are usually much more concerned with whether or not we win the argument than whether or not we are thinking like Jesus.

So what do we learn when we learn from Jesus?

What do we learn about life? What do we learn about God? About Jesus? People? Work?

003

There is a store in the United Kingdom dedicated to Bob Dylan.

What if Bob Dylan walked into this store and the cashier didn’t recognize him? What if, on top of not recognizing this legend, the cashier even treated him rudely? What if the cashier scoffed at Dylan’s record choice when he went to purchase it?

Dylan is the very reason the store exists in the first place. Without Dylan the merchandise wouldn’t exist. You could perhaps even say the store’s products were made by, through, and for Dylan.

This is essentially what happened when Jesus entered the world.

He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10).

Jesus stepped into a world that he created, a world that bears his very DNA and goodness and beauty, and yet the world did not recognize him. He is the source of everything we enjoy, and the only reason we enjoy anything is because that thing bears some resemblance to Jesus, and our hearts long for him.

The world is full of people who are content with their Bob Dylan trinkets and t-shirts, while the legend is standing right next to them.

Think of a teen wearing a Steph Curry jersey as he rudely brushes past the NBA star himself on the bus. Not only is Steph Curry the reason the shirt exists, but he is also the meaning of the jersey. The shirt is only a representation, a “type” you might say. Steph Curry is the real thing. How unfortunate would the young fan be to miss a chance to meet Curry himself.

And how unfortunate are we to miss the chance to meet Jesus himself.

004

In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes seven “ego eimi” or “I AM” claims about himself as follows:

I am the bread of life” (6:35).

I am the light of the world” (8:12).

I am the door” (10:9).

I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14).

I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25).

I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).

I am the vine” (15:5).

And lastly, at a climactic moment in the narrative, Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58).

These claims are significant for two reasons.

First, they are significant because Jesus is talking to Jewish people, many of them religious leaders and scholars. They knew that he was referring to Yahweh, the “I AM” of the Hebrew Bible. So when Jesus says “I am the vine” and “I am the shepherd,” he is identifying himself as Yahweh, the Hebrew God.

But these claims are also significant because he is identifying himself as the meaning of all these familiar daily life stuff from the culture of the Jewish audience. He is declaring himself as the meaning of their world. He is acting like Bob Dylan in a Bob Dylan store.

Jesus does not speak about himself as if he just happens to be similar to a tree or a shepherd, as if he has discovered a clever metaphor using “vines” or “doors” as an illustration. Jesus, in his authority which astonished everyone who heard him teach, is saying, “I have arrived, the Shepherd of all shepherds, the Bread of all bread. I AM the Creator and the Meaning of your world.”

Jesus is not only God in human form. He is also the meaning of life in human form. Christians often emphasize Jesus’ claim that he is God. But just as strong is his claim that he is the meaning of everything in your life. Jesus’ claim that he is God is simultaneously a claim that he is Creator and that he is Purpose and Meaning.

005

In Matthew 13 Jesus tells the parable of the sower.

The sower spreads seed on the ground and some seed sprouts and some do not, depending on the condition of the soil where they are scattered. The story teaches that humans have a need to grow spiritually, that receiving the Word of God is the healthy means of spiritual growth, and that there are real threats to spiritual growth in this world. A simple story and illustration.

Upon hearing this story Jesus’ disciples ask him why he speaks in parables. He tells his disciples that they have been granted the ability to know the secrets of the kingdom, while the world remains in mystery and darkness and ignorance.

He quotes Isaiah 6:

“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
 lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
 and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.”

According to Jesus, his usage of parables fulfills these words of Isaiah.

At first glance this is troubling. These verses would perhaps lead us to believe that God goes to length to keep people from understanding and healing and salvation. It might also lead us to believe that Jesus tells parables to confuse his listeners, to make sure they don’t get access to the secrets of the kingdom.

Are the parables just smoke screens meant to keep seekers from entering the kingdom? Many have suggested so. But the full scope of Scripture would tell us the opposite. The heart of God, especially in Isaiah and Matthew, is to invite all people, even the worst of sinners, into the kingdom:

Isaiah 55:1

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Matthew 11:28-29

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The strong and consistent message of the Bible is the love and pursuit of God in spite of the stubborn rebellion of people. This is the case for the parables as well. Jesus is not creating a convoluted message by teaching with parables. Instead, he is using simple examples and illustrations from the daily life of his listeners.

The parables teach us that the Kingdom of Jesus is right under our noses. The work of the fisherman and the contracts of the businessman proclaim the character and kingdom of God, even more so than the lingo of doctrinal statements. God is not primarily found in philosophical speculation. The parables teach us that the philosophy club is no closer to the Kingdom of Jesus than the farmer. The character of Christ saturates our world.

It is precisely the clarity of the person and work of Jesus which brings about the hardness of heart and the judgment of the world:

“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).

005

My college chemistry professor viewed his whole world through the lens of chemistry. When he washes his hands he imagines the chemical reactions which peel the dirt from his skin. When he drives to work he has an entire scientific framework for the combustion happening in the vehicles all around him. Most of us never even consider these things, even though our life is saturated with molecules and chemicals combining and reacting. All we see is the surface.

In a similar way, the teaching of Jesus shows us that he viewed the world spiritually. He did not see the digestive process merely as a series of chemical reactions eliminating food. Rather, he saw this as a God-designed metaphor teaching about the kingdom of God.

Jesus is astonished that Nicodemus is not able to grasp the spiritual reality of physical child birth: “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10). For Jesus, the fact that a teacher of the Hebrew Bible like Nicodemus is unaware of the great spiritual reality of the physical world is astounding.

In Mark 8, Jesus tells his disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and beware of the leaven of Herod.” But his disciples are unable to see past the physical circumstances of their shortage of bread, and they assume he is being passive aggressive about their oversight.

Jesus’ responds:

“Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?  Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?”

006

In the Gospels alone, the word “sign” (σημεῖον “semeion”) is used forty-eight times. The idea is that behind the surface of what is happening (miracles, stormy weather, the preaching of the good news, etc) there is a spiritual meaning. Nothing is merely the physical event alone, but rather these events are “signs” which points to the reality of Jesus and his kingdom.

It is not as if Jesus is unconcerned about the physical things. He has compassion on people and he heals and he feeds. But nevertheless, he exhorts them to have spiritual eyes, to not merely see the physical bread in front of them but to also see the spiritual reality of the kingdom of God.

In the Gospel of John, crowds seek Jesus after he had multiplied bread for them, and Jesus says,

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

Jesus exhorted the crowds because they were unable to see past the physical event to the spiritual reality.

How we need to hear this exhortation today!

We have entered the scientific age and have therefore given the events of our world a scientific explanation. This is of course good and true, but it is not the whole truth or the entire picture. Jesus – though he would not deny the scientific or psychological realities of the world – saw a deeper and more real layer of theology behind the world which teaches us about himself and about his kingdom, teaching us about God.

007

But is it possible to take this too far? Don’t some people need to be brought back down to earth, so to speak? We are all aware of the hyper spiritual Christian who finds Jesus under every rock, whose life is riddled with “God-things.”

Is there a danger of reading spiritual meaning into everyday life?

I don’t think that Jesus would respond to the hyper spiritual person by telling them to not be so spiritual. Just as the righteousness of the Pharisees was not enough to enter the kingdom, so the spirituality of the hyper-spiritual person comes nowhere close to really seeing God at work in your life.

The irony of “God-things” is that they suggest that the other events in your life are not “God-things”. They suggest that these unique events stand out as exceptions to the normal course of things. They therefore isolate the work of the Holy Spirit to a select few emotional moments. But for Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is not only like resurrection; it is also like fishing.

The cure for hyper spirituality is to come to terms with Jesus’ vision of the world, to break down the unholy divide between the sacred and the secular and to understand the presence and life of Jesus in everything. Just as the cure for the Pharisees’ self-righteousness was the more deep and true righteousness of Christ, so the cure for hyper spirituality is the more deep and true spiritual vision of Christ.

The world of Jesus is saturated with spiritual reality. We are therefore foolish to rush to hokie “God-things”, as if we must desperately grasp to figure out what God is doing in our lives. Instead, we must be patient to learn from Jesus, and to trust that he really does saturate our lives with his presence, and to trust that the things we care about are indeed filled with his life and his meaning.

008

We must learn to learn from Jesus.

I love philosophy. But I do not believe God is found first and foremost in apologetic arguments for the existence of God (although he is found there). When Jesus talked about God or the kingdom of heaven, he was engaged with people’s ordinary life. He told stories of farmers and fisherman using metaphors and illustrations which his listeners would recognize.

Jesus relates to this world is as if he were Bob Dylan in a Bob Dylan store. The faces on the t-shirts don’t just happen to be similar to his face. They are similar by design. Bread does not happen to be similar to Jesus. Bread is similar by design.

If Jesus entered our world he would (and he does) speak with the same authority.

009

A good teacher does not resort to merely providing facts to be memorized. A good teacher shows a student how to learn a subject matter.  A good teacher casts a vision for a student to pursue. A good teacher teaches passion.

Bad students cram factoids to get a good grade on a test. But good students are changed by their teachers. Good students pursue the vision and acquire the passion.

I believe we have been terrible students of Jesus. We memorize the parables and the beatitudes and the I AM statements, but we fail to see that Jesus is teaching us how to live and how to think. He is showing us his perspective. He is giving us a sneak peak into the lens by which he views the world.

The good student considers and meditates on the examples which the teacher gives, and learns how to continue the good work. Let us consider and meditate.

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One thought on “Chapter 3: Parables

  1. Jesse
    The first 2 chapters I found on the FB posts……..good reading! Today I saw chapter 3-5 and I will continue now. CHAPTER 3 just now finished, is parallel to the John BSF so definitely awesome and all about Jesus. The contrary is always difficult to read and understand but the GOOD JESUS (feeding, healing, teaching) wins every time! Fulfillment spiritually wins, thank you Lord! On to chapter 4………

    Like

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