Saturday, April 30, 2005

But they made light of it...

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
This would be a nice, feel-good parable about a king who invites "both good and bad" to his son's wedding feast, except that the point of the parable doesn't allow such a happy reading.

All too often Christians have read this as a parable spoken against the Jews and announcing the passing of the kingdom to the gentiles. But surely we can't read it that way today.

Hear then the parable. "Again he sent other slaves, saying, '...Come to the wedding banquet.' But they made light of it and went away." Surely this is a picture of Christianity today. I don't mean our nominally Christian society and the way it is becoming secular. I also don't mean the people who show up at church most Sundays but don't really give it a lot of attention. I mean those of us (and I definitely need to include myself in this) who consider ourselves to be serious Christians.

They went away "one to his farm, another to his business." OK, so hopefully we're not beating and killing God's servants, but how many of us never prioritize our jobs over the kingdom of God?

I don't really know where the right path is here. Coming from the Lutheran tradition, I have a strong doctrine of vocation to draw on that tells me the my job can be part of the kingdom of God. But all too often I feel like that's just rhetoric to help me feel better about my life, to maintain the status quo. It has the feel of "the system" co-opting religion for its own purposes.

But beyond that, I know there are times when my focus is just on making a living, times when I have most definitely turned my focus away from the kingdom of God and gone about my business.

Honestly, I need to not be too hard on myself. If I find myself in this parable, I'm probably not in the first group that refused the invitation to the wedding feast. I probably belong to those ("both good and bad") who were found on the street and invited to the feast and who went when invited. But am I wearing a wedding robe?

John Henry Newman once said, "The aim of most men esteemed conscientious and religious, or who are what is called honourable, upright men, is, to all appearance, not how to please God, but how to please themselves without displeasing Him. I say confidently,—that is, if we may judge of men in general by what we see,—that they make this world the first object in their minds, and use religion as a corrective, a restraint, upon too much attachment to the world."


Thursday, April 28, 2005

Control of the Vineyard

"Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard...
A lot is made of the risky images used to represent God in the parables Luke records, but the image in this parable from Matthew might be equally off-putting to Luke: a landowner. On the surface it seems like a safe choice. After all, "the earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof." But in first century Palestine, the landowners were the upper class, the "haves", while the common people who did not own land often lived at their mercy. So immediately I would wonder, what kind of landowner is this going to be.

But the parable isn't about him (the landowner, God), it's about me, the tenant. The non-land-owning tenants are apparently looking for a leg up. When the owner sends for his produce, twice the tenants refuse to give it. Then when he sends his son, they kill the son, hoping to gain possession of the land.

This happens in Christianity. The Lord has prepared a vineyard for us, and he expects it to yield fruit. But we Christians too often are hungry for God's power and glory and not concerned about the fruit of the kingdom. If we can just eliminate the Son, the inheritence will be ours and we can use the kingdom as we like. We can proclaim proseprity in the name of God instead of love. We can proclaim power and triumph instead of humility and service. If only we can gain control of the kingdom of God, we can use it as we see fit.

One of the things inherent in this parable is that the tenants don't trust the landowner. They aren't satisfied that he will provide for them. Or at least, they want more than they think he will provide.

Lord, increase our faith.

An Open Letter To Brian McLaren

Hi Brian,

I just finished reading your book, A Generous Orthodoxy. I liked it a lot, and I think it will do a lot of good for Christians and the people we meet. Thanks for writing it. But I have to say, I was distressed by the lack of a chapter called "Why I Am Lutheran." So I thought I would write to you and tell you a little about why I am Lutheran to get you started with this chapter for the second edition (which is necessitated by this grievous omission).

It seems to me that Calvinists have a blind spot which prevents them from seeing Lutheranism. It's as if they think we're just eccentric Calvinists. This can be seen in the persistent use of the phrase "Luther and Calvin" -- something you don't hear often in Lutheran circles. I once heard an analogy that imagined Calvin and Luther cleaning out a cluttered dresser drawer. Calvin dumped everything out of the drawer and only put back the things he knew he needed. Luther removed everything he knew he didn't need and kept the rest. The result, of course, is quite different.

As it turns out, the "catholic" chapter was the one that seemed to me to be closest to Lutheranism (and, yes, I can imagine Lutherans inventing Mardi Gras -- we call it Oktoberfest). But Lutherans have a good bit to offer in our own right.

One of the great things Lutheranism has to offer to the Church at large is our rich theological tradition, beginning, of course, with Luther himself but also featuring such giants Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann and Tillich and continuing to the present day with the likes of Terrence Fretheim and George Lindbeck. No one will be a fan of all of these theologians, but that's just the point. We Lutherans place a high value on free inquiry (our strongly confessional branches notwithstanding).

A second thing that Lutherans bring to the table is our beautiful musical heritage. If we had no one in the stable but J.S. Bach, he alone would tower over all other traditions, but we do have more than that. Luther himself was something of a musician and gifted the Church with "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" while bringing hymns to a place of prominence in the life of Protestantism. This tradition has continued, and in the present day we have such geniuses as Marty Haugen carrying the torch.

Returning to theology, I would highlight our crown jewel: the Theology of the Cross. Luther said, "The Cross alone is our theology." A theologian of the cross seeks to comprehend God through suffering and the cross. That is, we reject the easy path, the path of glory, in religion and seek to enter into the suffering of the world around us, knowing that God will meet us there. Lutheran pastor Daniel Erlander says it this way:

As we view the cross all of our human attempts to find [God] are exposed as illusions. We do not find God by...
  • proving his existence by the wonder of nature or the power of logic.

  • validating his presence by visible blessings.

  • having a prescribed religious experience.

  • earning divine love by our good works.

  • building glorious religious institutions.

  • reaching a high level of personal morality.

  • saving ourselves through status, wealth, knowledge, consumption, chemicals, positive thinking, correct religious doctrine, self help groups, health foods or exercise plans.

We do not find God. God finds us - in our darkness, our pain, our emptiness, our loneliness, our weakness.

Moving on to brighter things, I am a Lutheran because of the Lutheran understanding of the Word of God. This is the one plug we got in A Generous Orthodoxy. The Anglican J.I. Packer wrote a book about the Bible called "God Has Spoken." Lutheran church historian Karlfield Froelich observes that if a Lutheran had written it it would have been called "God Is Speaking." Lutherans understand the Word of God as a living address that is active and powerful in the world. Luther once said that the Word of God reformed the Church while he slept or drank beer with his friends. "I did nothing," he said. "The Word did it all."

Lutherans have a multifaceted understanding of the Word of God that begins with Jesus Christ and continues to the ways he is made present in the world. As such, we see preaching as the Word of God (which I think is the way the New Testament uses the phrase), but the the words of absolution that follow confession are also the Word of God, as are the words that accompany the sacraments, and, of course, the Bible. But Lutherans often emphasize that the Bible is only the Word of God in as far as it makes Christ present to us. When it does not do that (because we are using it as a club with which to beat our opponents, for instance), it is not the Word of God.

Finally, and this could easily be listed first, I would emphasize the Lutheran understanding of baptism as God's promise and Christ's call. Baptism has the sort of central importance for Lutherans that the Eucharist does for Catholics. Through baptism we are incorporated in Christ and receive all of his benefits, including new life and salvation from sin, death and the power of the devil. We believe that we receive all these things because God has promised them to us and in baptism bestows them upon us. Baptism is like having the Gospel poured over your head. But Lutherans are also beginning to rediscover that in baptism, Christ lays hold of us. When we are baptized, we are called into mission, called to be followers of Christ. In baptism, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We are Christians, and because of our baptism, we are called to live as Christians.

I could go on and talk about such things as Christ coming to us in the communion meal, about the priesthood of all believers, and about our recognition that we are at once sinners and saints, but I've probably said enough already.

So, once again I thank you, Brian, for your book A Generous Orthodoxy -- it is a wonderful contribution to the Christian faith -- and I look forward to an update when you also become Lutheran.


Tuesday, April 26, 2005


A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
The meaning of this parable couldn't be clearer. Jesus asks, "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord' but don't do what I say?"

I think this is the biggest challenge that faces Christians. We're very good about talking the talk of the Christian life, but our record is much spottier when it comes to walking the walk.

I read somewhere (maybe it was Kurt Vonnegut) that men build churches to protect themselves from God. I think there's more truth to that than we'd like to admit, especially for Protestants. We Protestants cling to "the sweetness of the Gospel". It's our shelter, our comfort. It shields us from the pain of looking at the state of our souls.

But I noticed something a few years back. Catholics talk about "the Gospel" as if it included obeying Jesus' commandments too. Of course, as a good Lutheran I would shake my head disapproving and mutter something about them not properly dividing Law and Gospel.

Yet the more I read writers like Soren Kierkeaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and George Macdonald and Matthew and James and Paul (yes, Paul), I wonder if maybe it isn't we comfortably orthodox Lutherans who are missing something.

We talk a lot about faith and salvation. What does that salvation look like? My Lutheran blogging friend LutheranChik likes to ask "Saved for what?" That's a very important question, but I think we also need to ask "What's it like to be saved?" And I think the point of both questions is the same.

I'm not talking about morality. I'm not talking about a life free of sin. But I think there's a sweetness to obeying the call of Christ that is nothing less than the sweetness of the Gospel. And obeying that call is nothing less than faith.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Trouble with Co-workers

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard."
He might say to us that the kingdom of heaven is like public transportation, though we would much rather it were like a house on a cul-de-sac.

I think all Christians run into other Christians whom we wish would give up the name. Maybe they don't live up to my standard of righteousness. Maybe they don't take their faith as seriously as I do. Maybe they don't understand grace as well as I do. Whatever the case, surely God isn't as happy with them as he is with me. But the fact of the matter is, we're all on this bus together.

Of course, objectively this is a very good thing. I'm not so bold as to think of myself as one of those hired early in the morning (after all, that would make me one of the grumblers in the parable!), but I have to admit that I do generally think of myself as if I were one of those hired at about nine o'clock, or surely by noon. Yet it is certain that there are other Christians who see me as one of those hired at five.

I'd like to be at the point where I am happy that God extends blessing everyone, and in general I really am. It's those particular people that give me trouble.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Way An Emerald Is Green

I let myself get dragged into a debate about Trinitarian terminology this week. Well, OK, so I provoked the debate and didn't let it drop, but over the course of the discussion a really beautiful thought came to me. Who says nothing good comes of technical theological debates?

In the discussion the point came up that it is right to say Jesus is God, but not to say God is Jesus. So I was thinking about non-reflexive "is" statements. Naturally, I thought of "God is love" and "God is light". That led me to recall a quotation I really like from Simone Weil, "God is love the way an emerald is green." And there it was:

Jesus is God the way an emerald is green.

I'm not sure it works out cleanly as theology, but as a simile it's beautiful.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Pope Benedict XVI

As I write this, Joseph Ratzinger is preparing to celebrate his first Mass as Pope Benedict XVI.

Like a lot of people, I was hoping for an African or a Latin American Pope or at least a progressive European. Yet I'm not unhappy with the cardinal's decision. I think it may have been a wise choice. Whoever was to be Pope has some pretty big shoes to fill, and Ratzinger can handle the heat.

I saw an interview with Ratzinger on EWTN about a year ago, and it endeared him to me. One part of the interview sticks out in my memory. The interviewer asked him about rumors that he had considered retirement. Ratzinger answered:

Yes, I had desired to retire in 1991, 1996 and 2001 because I have studied the idea. I could write some books and return to my studies as Cardinal Martini did. So, it was my idea to do the same thing. But on the other hand, seeing the suffering Pope, I cannot say to the Pope, "I will retire. I will write my books." Seeing him, how he is giving himself, I have to continue.
In the heat of the recent election you might wonder if this was some kind of jab at Cardinal Martini, but when I heard it, I was certain that it was spoken from a servants' heart. If Pope Benedict XVI is not a tender soul, he had me fooled.

Earlier today, the new Pope said, "I am consoled by the fact that the Lord knows how to work and how to act, even with insufficient tools, and I especially trust in your prayers." More of us should have such faith.

May God bless Pope Benedict XVI, and through him bless the Church.

Moral Debt

"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, "Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Why did the unforgiving servant demand payment from his fellow slave? Did he intend to make good on his promise to repay his own debt to the king? Was he the kind of person who strongly believes in the repayment of debts? He saw this slave who owed him money "as he went out" from his reckoning. Certainly the matter of his own debt couldn't yet have slipped his mind.

I don't think this is a picture of just personal forgiveness. I think it's about public morality. We live not under law but under grace. And yet we can't help acting as though we live under law. We have had our debt to the law wiped out, but we continue to plead with God, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything." Then when we see someone else who isn't meeting our standards, we are scandalized. We seize them and say, "Pay what you owe."

All too often this is the public face of religion. Churches are full of forgiven sinners. Not former sinners whose past sins have been forgiven, but current sinners whose current sins are constantly forgiven. And yet we forget this, and so we pick out behaviors that we think are unacceptable, and we chase people out of the church if they don't fit our mold. Maybe they have long hair. Maybe they've been divorced. Maybe they don't share our sexual orientation. Maybe, on the other hand, they're more conservative than we are!

Whatever it is, we forget the terms on which we have peace with God, and we refuse to overlook the debt we believe our fellow human beings owe to us. (We might invoke the name of God, but let's be honest about whose interests we are really looking after.)

And here's where the parable really gets scary. "When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed." This is always how people get into trouble with God. In Genesis, God goes down to Sodom and Gommorah because of the outcry against them. In Exodus, God rises up against Pharoh because he hears the cries of his people. Generally, we don't need to fear God's wrath because of our impiety, but woe unto us when the cry of those we oppress reaches God.

This is certainly a challenge to our churches. The position of this parable in Matthew 18 puts it squarely on our collective eccliastical shoulders. But surely the movements of the churches are driven by individual actions.

May we all remember the terms of our peace with God and may we strive to live in such grace with one another.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Good Fish, Bad Fish

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad."
This parable gives me trouble. The eschatological ending (which I've omitted for the moment) doesn't square with my understanding of Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God. I expect to find in every parable an application for the here-and-now.

Things start out well for me. The net is cast into the sea and catches fish of every kind. This I like. It speaks to me of the universal (catholic!) nature of the kingdom of God. We're sent into the world to offer our gifts indiscriminately.

But then "they" start sorting the fish, putting the "good" in a basket and throwing the "bad" out. What can this mean? Maybe it would help to go back for the ending.

"So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
This draws to mind Jesus' other story of a great sorting at the end of the age, in Matthew 25, when the sheep and the goats are separated based on how the have treated the naked, the hungry, the strangers and the imprisoned. Does that help?

Maybe a little.

It could be that I just don't want to hear this parable. It's a parable of judgment any way I slice it. If I think about the fishing scene, it's all too clear. You bring in the fish, but you don't want them all. I'd have to file this parable under the "many are called, but few are chosen" heading.

One thing that jumps out at me in this parable is the contrast between the fish that were caught ("every kind") and the way they were sorted ("good" and "bad"). The thing it says to me is that fish aren't kept for being the right "kind" nor tossed out for being the wrong kind. It's one of the uglier aspects of human nature that we seem to want to always draw lines dividing who's in from who's out, whether those lines be drawn across boundaries of race, religion or sexual orientation. We always like to know who constitutes "us".

But this parable gives the lie to that sort of thinking. The kingdom of God is like a net that catches fish of every kind. The New Testament tends to be concerned with breaking down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles. We Christians, having apparently forgotten the point altogether, went on to make a nearly identical line between Christians and non-Christians. And now we want to divide things according to who are the right kind of Christians.

Well this parable does indeed say that Christians should be concerned about being the right kind of Christian. "For they are not all Israel which are of Israel." In fact, that's where the link I drew to the parable of the sheep and the goats comes in.

The kingdom of God has gathered us all, like fish in a dragnet. Christ has called us, saying, "Follow me." Now, if we are truly to live in the kingdom of God, we must follow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Investing in Pearls

"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."
A merchant! The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. For whatever reason, I've always thought of the pearl shopper in this parable as a collector. I mean, I've known that it says "merchant," but when I've thought about it, I've always thought that this was just a guy who really likes pearls and wants to possess the best one he can get. But merchants don't generally buy things just for the sake of having them. A merchant buys and sells, accumulating capital as he goes, but the merchant in this parable sells all he owns in order to buy this single pearl.

The merchant is risking everything on this one pearl. That's what the kingdom of God is like.

I've got kind of an intuitive grip there, and I feel like I'm about to make a breakthrough. So I sit here trying to think it through.... Is Christ the merchant and we're the pearl that is his only capital in the world? Are we supposed to be the merchant and the kingdom of God is the pearl we need to give up everything to obtain?

Then I found the sweet spot. It's not a big picture. It's a template. I've seen that a few times already in the parables before this, but I'm a slow learner. This parable is a pattern of what life in the kingdom of God is like. It's meant to be repeated over and over.

"Love one another as I have loved you," Christ commands. He loved us completely, self-sacrificially, holding nothing back. And as we are a part of the kingdom of God, we will love others in this way. He calls us to give ourselves completely for others, risking everything, knowing that they are of great value.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Religion and Politics

Like some bloggers more notable than myself, I have been reading Jim Wallis' book God's Politics lately. I'm about three quarters of the way through the book, and I would say I am in enthusiastic agreement with Wallis' positions.

Still, I'm not entirely sure I agree with his approach. Wallis suggests that we should confront politicians in the name of our religion and call them to act in accordance with Biblical principles. The book is full of anecdotes of Wallis himself doing just this.

But I wonder if that doesn't blunt the impact of his message. When a group of religious people present politicians with a mandate based on Biblical revelation, aren't they supplying the box in which the politicians can file away the appeal? That is, by presenting the message in this way, I think they leave the message open to at least these two attacks:

  1. They're just religious people. They don't understand the complications of politics in the real world.

  2. That's just their interpretation of the Bible. Other people of faith have different interpretations.

Wallis has many laudable ideas, not the least of which is the need to present a sound alternative along with our protest, but when he says, "You should do it this way because the Bible says so," I have to think he could do better.

Soren Kierkegaard once told a parable of a fire that broke out backstage in a theater, but the only person who knew about it was a clown already dressed for his performance. The clown ran out on stage to warn people about the fire, but they thought it was just part of his act. The more frantically the clown tried to warn them, the harder they laughed.

I'm afraid this is all too close an analogy to religious leaders calling for action from politicians on a religious basis. The politicians may use the language of religion to garner votes, but are they themselves really pursuaded by such language.

I wonder if it wouldn't be better to present our call to action as being based on self-evident truth.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Faith and Reason

Why do I have faith? Why am I a Christian? These should be easy questions to answer, right? After all, I've been through the process. I know where I've been. I ought to know how I got here.

The thing is, the reasons that I'm a Christian today are not the reasons that I was a Christian just a few years ago. As my faith has changed, grown I hope, my reasons for being a Christian have changed and, again I hope, grown.

When I look back at some of the reasons I would have given for being a Christian a few years ago, I don't find them very compelling, but they were enough for me then. More surprisingly, it is precisely my journey of faith that has led me to ask the questions that have caused me to reject my old asnwers.

PBS's Frontline had a show on John Paul II this week that included an outstanding exploration of the nature of faith.

Germaine Greer talked about how when she was 15 a nun led her through the philosophical proofs for the existence of God, and she wasn't impressed. The proofs were too full of holes, and shortly thereafter she rejected her faith. Then she went on to describe an incident years later on visiting a church in St. Petersburg.

The huge bass bell, this baritone bell spoke, and it was just an amazing sound. And I thought, "Yes! It's the beginning of Mass." And I flew in the door, and the choir was singing the processional for the Introit.

The physicality of the sound strikes you on the face like velvet hammers, and it's just unbelievable. And I just sort of stretched my throat and just stood there paralyzed. I couldn't move. And the choir sang the full diapason of the human voice, from the darkest bass tones to really floating high sopranos. It sounded to me like the craving of the human spirit for God and the total desolation that God is not palpable to me, even worse because God is not there.
So maybe Ms. Greer doesn't consider herself a person of faith, but she really understands faith. She gets it.

Novelist Robert Stone gave this testimony:

When I was about 15 or 16, for the usual rationalist reasons, I stopped believing, at that time under the impression that belief and faith were the same thing. I since understand that they are not the same thing, but I thought they were, and I stopped believing in all this stuff. And I felt tremendously liberated. And only somewhat later, only years later, did it come to me that half of my head was missing, that I had just cut myself off from a tremendously important part of myself that was no longer available.
So on first glance it might seem that 15 is a dangerous age for faith, but to those of us who have been down this road, we might remember that this isn't really separation but growth. At the time, we think it's separation, but woe to the believer who doesn't go through some form of this.

I saw an interview with Fr. Thomas Keating once where he talked about growing in faith. He said we go through a series of transitions where we have to abandon our previous ideas about what God is like, and it feels like we are turning our back on God, but we're really just moving past a god who never existed anyway except in our minds.

Robert Stone told the story on Frontline of being on an ocean expedition and seeing the beauty and the variety of life made him think that surely there must be some Providence behind it. Then he added: "And it tempted me to faith."

A lot of people would probably find this a pretty shoddy reason to believe in God. Stone himself might think so now. But he's captured something wonderful. We don't deduce the existence of God. We don't reason our way to faith. We're tempted to faith. God calls, and we can't help but answer.

That's why I'm a Christian.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Theology and Its Consequences

Thursday as I was driving to the MAX station to go to work, I happened to hear Alistair Begg preaching on the radio. The part of the sermon I heard was about the mystery of God's grace, and how all people are undeserving of this grace.

According to Begg, we all, because of our sin, deserve nothing but the wrath of God, and we should, by rights, expect the wrath of God in return for our actions. In response to the question of those who are lost, he replies that we shouldn't be surprised because we all deserve that fate. "The great mystery," says Begg, "is that any of us would ever be saved."

This is fairly standard confessional Calvinist rhetoric. But look at the social implications of this kind of theology. What are we to think of the lower class, the so-called criminal element, the undesirables of society? Classically, "There but for the grace of God go I."

Yes, that's what those people need -- the grace of God (read moral reform). They are "bad people" by nature. The only way out of their plight is for them to repent (with the help of the Holy Spirit and through the preaching of the word, of course) and turn from their current way of life. Drug addicts, prostitutes, street thugs -- they all suffer from moral, not socio-economic, problems. The poor don't need our help, they need a good stern lecture.

Does this sound familiar? If not, read this column.

But this is based on bad theology. It misses the entire point of the gospel. God is not angry with us. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Does God think of the lost as though they deserved nothing but wrath? Is this the same God who would leave the 99 sheep to find the one that is lost? Regardless of what we do or do not objectively deserve, God most definitely does not look at us that way.

If we imagine that the lost deserve God's wrath and receive it by God's choice, it's easier for us to justify our lack of compassion for the socially and economically disadvantaged, especially when they live in non-Christian parts of the world. God, by grace, will lift some out of their plight. The rest receive what they deserve.

But if instead our image of God is of one who cares obsessively for the lost, who would do anything for them, then surely we must be called to a different sort of action. What limit can there then be to what we must do to help our neighbor (in the universal sense) in need?

Friday, April 08, 2005

Hidden Treasure

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."
I've got a favorite interpretation of this parable that I came upon last year while studying the Gospel of Thomas. I'm sure I'm not the first person to read the parable this way, but this interpretation completely turned around the way I thought about this parable.

We, the people of God, are the treasure. It is Christ who found this treasure and sold all that he had to buy the field. Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself. Someone has objected that we aren't treasure when Christ finds us, but we are in his eyes. That's precisely the Gospel.

There's something else here too that I heard tonight. When this person in this parable found the treasure, he hid it in the field. He could easily have carried it out of the field and kept all he owned, but he didn't. He hid it in the field. This is precisely the same image as the woman who hid the yeast in the three measures of flour. Christ finds us and hides us in the field and goes and buys the whole field.

Once again, what is our calling? We are yeast in the dough, treasure in the field, the light of the world. We are hidden in the world to change the world.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Hidden Yeast

He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
This is one of my favorite parables. I just love the image. I also love what it says about the kingdom of God.

I'm convinced, mostly because of this parable, that God doesn't intend for the whole world to become Christian. I don't think it's necessary for the salvation of the world. Instead, Christians are the yeast that leavens the whole lump.

In fact, it's probably misleading to say "Christians" here. Western civilization has gone through many centuries when nearly everyone was Christian, at least in name, but what they accomplished isn't exactly something we'd want to write to the apostles about. Everyone was Christian, but not everyone was yeast. But to expect them all to have been yeast would be a fundamental misunderstanding of what the kingdom of God is like.

St. Francis of Assisi is a great example of someone who was yeast in the world. In his own time, St. Francis was light in a dark time, and even today his spiritual heirs, and there are many, continue to make a difference.

But St. Francis is just a very visible example. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like yeast that a woman took and hid in three measures of flower. Everyday, there are Christians leavening the world in ways that go unnoticed, maybe even in ways that they themselves don't notice.

I'm sure it's no coincidence that this parable immediately follows the parable of the mustard seed in Matthew's gospel. I don't have to be St. Francis to make a difference in the world. I don't have to be the talk of the Christian world. All I have to do is be faithful.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

While Everybody Was Asleep...

Moving on to Matthew 13...

He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well."
One of the classic answers to the problem of evil is simply to point to free will. There's evil in the world because people are able to choose evil as well as good. But all problems in Christianity must ultimately become practical problems. Why is there evil? It doesn't matter, really. There is. A better question is, what are we going to do about it?

At first glance, this parable would seem to suggest that we shouldn't do anything about it. Let it go and God will sort it out. But there's more than that here. One thing that jumped out at me when I read this last night, something that I hadn't noticed before, was that the enemy came while everybody was sleeping.

A Jewish man on Beliefnet once related to me the story of a man who died and came before the throne of God. "It terrible down there," he said. "Wars, disease, hatred.... Why don't you do something?" God answered, "I did. I sent you."

We can't just attribute the presence of evil in the world to the free choice of others. We must also think about what we can do about it. And ultimately, all of us must do something. I could get on a soapbox here about any number of issues of social justice, and maybe I should, but the point is that we need to live our faith into the world.

This parable, I think, isn't about weeds among the wheat -- it's about wheat among the weeds. The Christian faith can't be about withdrawing into our churches and waiting for the Rapture. We're called into the world to make a difference. But the Christian faith also can't be about going out and condemning the world. We must go out and bear fruit.

To translate this parable into something that I, as a resident of American Suburbia, can relate to, I'd say the kingdom of God is a green lawn that was left untended until dandelions appeared. I know from experience that if you spray the dandelions with weed killer you get a big bare spot in your lawn. I'm told that if you nuture your lawn, the good grass will choke out the weeds.

That's what I think this parable is about.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Mustard Seed

He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
The first thing that strikes me about this parable is that it obviously comes under the heading of "the last will be first," but that doesn't help me much because that whole category of sayings gives me trouble. I always try to overthink them. So with this one I had to make a conscious step back and try to picture the parable.

The kingdom of God is like a seed which is sown and grows up into a large plant. Maybe it would help to know something about mustard plants. But, no, it's about the seed. The kingdom of God is like a seed that we sow and a wonderful plant comes forth. What kind of seed is it? It's the smallest of seeds (more or less).

A lot of Christians today are concerned about growing a big plant, and so we try to build a better seed. I want to live the life of a great saint or give a miraculous and compelling testimony or write powerful and widely-read blog. Whatever it is, I want to do something amazing, something beyond myself, something I know will make a huge impact.

But the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

So what's the alternative? What's the tiny seed? Simple obedience. While I'm busy dreaming about the world-shaking impact I could have with my life of great faith, I'm leaving the simple things undone in my life. But I don't want to make this all negative. I'm not here to beat myself up. There's good news here, amazing news. The little I can do, simple faith, makes an enormous difference in the world. It lets the kingdom of God into the world.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Earth Produces of Itself

He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
"The earth produces of itself." I heard John Polkinghorne recently on Speaking of Faith talking about how the God has made creation capable of creating itself. Polkinghorne says, "God brings into being a universe; it has great potentialities, great possible fruitfulness, but creatures are allowed to explore and bring that fruitfulness to birth."

That's what this parable makes me think. Of course, creation isn't fruitful completely by itself. We plant the seed (the Word) and something amazing happens. This is the true beauty of the kingdom of God. As we take share the love of God with the people around us, new possibilities -- but not really new, just possibilities we hadn't seen before -- emerge. The world blooms around us, bringing forth the wonderful potential that God built into it.