Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Perturbed

by John D Ramsey

A couple days ago, I wrote a post “Be strong and courageous.” I admitted to Lisa that it was not the post that I was burning to write, but rather the post that I needed to read. There are many reasons that I needed to read “Be strong and courageous,” not the least of which are Cara and Daniel and Lisa and Claire and Gabby. Each provide me with different reasons for which I need to believe that God has already delivered . . . I just need to be strong and courageous. That was what I needed to read. What I have been wanting to write deals with the kingdom parables in Matthew 13.

Recently, I realized that Jesus' parables in Matthew 13 have shaped my theology and ecclesiology to a great extent, and yet I avoid talking about Matthew 13. Matthew 13 has changed the way that I see everything. Yet I have a hard time discussing it. If I read Scripture through the filter of my understanding of Matthew 13, and another does not, then it is difficult for me to communicate.

I have wanted to write about Matthew 13, but I cannot seem to get started. I began the Kingdom in Context Bible study in Genesis 10 because working through the Old Testament first, would at least defer my having to explain Matthew 13 while leaving it on my to do list. Yet, I know that Matthew 13 biases my interpretation of other passages, and so it is always in front of me. At some point I must explain why it is so important to me.

Perhaps, I struggle with an Elijah complex (am I the only one?). I would rather think that it is difficult to bring clarity to Jesus' subtle usage of words and phrases. There is no shame in that because Jesus told his disciples that these parables were not intended to reveal but rather conceal the mysteries of the kingdom. Teaching Matthew 13 is not supposed to be easy.

On Sunday morning, Mark taught about culture shock, that is, not feeling at home when we walk out into the world. Lisa passed me a note asking, “What about culture shock when we walk in to the [church] building?” Mark, if you happen to read this, I love you, I value your friendship, and I thought your sermon Sunday was great, but I do not feel any more at home in a church building than I do walking through a ladies' lingerie department. There's something appealing about it, but its not for me. It does not become me. I love the people at church, but church meetings are foreign. Why do I feel this way? I think it comes back to Matthew 13.

Perhaps that is an oversimplification. When I was nineteen years old, I sensed that God was telling me that I would never be a member of a local church. I am forty-eight. Twenty-nine years have not changed my mind. While I have attended churches (some regularly), I have never joined a church. Why? I suppose that I could answer, because God told me not to, but in fact, I find the business and politics of church perturbing. A friend of mine left the Lutheran church because he could not figure out why God needed a gymnasium, and, assuming God did need the gym, why did he need my friend to pay for it. I suppose the church wanted the gymnasium so that they would have something to offer people. Apparently, they had nothing to offer without the gym. That is sad.

When I attend church, I go to be with other Christians, but it is like going to a seedy tavern to be with football fans. Can I not be a football fanatic without risking beer spilled on my lap? Can I not be with fellow Christians without getting church business and politics dropped on my lap? Is this really the way it is supposed to be? I like beer; I like business; I like politics. I do not like beer on my lap, and I do not like business and politics intermingled with the practice of my faith. Are church business and politics necessary evils? Are they really?

The parables in Matthew 13 are often called the Mysteries of the Kingdom. They are that, but I tend to think of them as explaining the economy of the kingdom. They explain how things work in the kingdom of God. In an economy there are positive and negative forces. Likewise in the kingdom of God there is good and evil. As believers we need to discern what is good and what is not. I will assert, and not prove, that the kingdom of God in Matthew 13 is not the church. Nevertheless, the church is a microcosm of the kingdom of God, so the economic rules apply.

The first three mysteries of the kingdom, Matthew 13:24-33, are titled: the Parable of the Weeds, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Yeast. They encapsulate three economic principles of the kingdom of God: Subversion, Appropriation, and Decay, and this is SAD (acronym intended). If this surprises you, think about it. Jesus did not come to earth to tell us that everything here was wonderful.

The parable of the weeds tells of an enemy who plants weeds in a wheat field. The servants of the master ask, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” Matthew 13:28 (NIV). The owner of the field says, “No, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.” Yesterday, Lisa accidentally cut down her zinnias because the back of the garden had become so weedy. She did not realize until later that part of the clutter was her yet-to-blossom flowers. She was sad for her loss. Likewise, we are not to pull the weeds for fear of damaging the wheat. This parable is often used as an excuse to tolerate miscreants in the church, but Jesus interpreted this parable for his disciples and “the field is the world.” In other words, our mission in the world is not to reform society by coercion. In so doing, we uproot those who might be wheat!

Subversion comes into play not because there are weeds in the field, but because we cannot resist pulling the first most obvious, most noxious one. Once we start pulling, there is no stopping. Some Christians are always publicly attacking the morals of unbelievers. If you do not believe me, do a Google search for “boycott Barnes and Noble.” But Jesus said that we are not to pull the weeds because we will damage the wheat. The harvesters, who are the “holy angels” will collect the weeds to be burned at harvest time. Until then we are to let them alone. Similarly, Revelation 22:11 says, “Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.” (NIV)

We are not in the business of reforming society. We are supposed to be in the business of reaching the lost with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only Jesus' blood can make the sinner clean, but a boycott might make our world appear a little cleaner. It is just a matter of our priorities. Ephesians 6:12 tells us that our struggle is not against people, but against spiritual forces of evil. We cannot accomplish spiritual victory by political means. Our enemy wants to destroy everyone for whom Christ died; he must laugh when he convinces Christians to attack unbelievers. How easily we are subverted!

The parable of the mustard seed illustrates appropriation or usurpation. Though the mustard seed is tiny, it grows into a huge plant. Once it grows the birds of the air come rest in its branches. In Luke 17, the mustard seed is compared to faith. That meaning fits Matthew 13 as well. As the mustard plant grows it attracts the birds of the air. The birds appropriate what is not theirs. Jesus said earlier, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.” Matthew 11:12 (NASB) Power hungry people appropriate and manipulate the faith of others for their own gain.

In Revelation 18:2, the apostate church, MYSTERY BABYLON, is said to have become a “haunt for every unclean and detestable bird.” Power attracts the ambitious, and Christianity has learned to see its leaders as political power brokers. Many Christians may not believe this to be a bad thing, yet it is an appropriation of our faith. It does not win souls for Christ because salvation is accomplished personally. When we rally for a cause other than the Gospel, we make someone powerful at the expense of the Gospel of grace. Jesus warned that our faith would attract ruthless and abusive leaders of men yet we are too willingly manipulated by them. Paul, likewise, warned the Ephesians saying, “Savage wolves will come among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth to draw away disciples after them.” Acts 20:29, 30 (NIV) Do we guard against the ambitious, or do we march them into leadership?

Finally, the parable of the yeast illustrates decay. This verse is often poorly translated, the New American Standard Bible manages to get it right. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven [yeast], which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.” Many translations say that the woman mixed the yeast with the flour because that is expected. Some commentators compare the expansion of the bread loaf with the growth of the church, but that is not what Jesus is saying. He did not say that the a loaf of bread raised; he said that the flour became leavened, ergo, contaminated.

Yeast in the New Testament represents sin and pride. The woman hid the yeast in three measures of flour. Three measures in the New Testament is equivalent to an ephah in the Old Testament. The woman hid the yeast in over twenty pounds of flour! I think that Jesus was referring to a surreptitious practice of hiding yeast during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. When a woman hid the yeast in her week's supply of flour, then it all became tainted.

While we tend to think of yeast as a beneficial organism, it actually causes decay. In the kingdom economy, harboring a little sin, causes permeating decay. Paul so warned the Corinthians saying, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” 1 Corinthians 5:6 (NASB) The bread that the woman would bake from the tainted flour would not have been unleavened for the feast. Consequently, the parable of the yeast should remind us that secret sin will become evident.

As I read Jesus' words in Matthew 13, I read that we are easily subverted. The truth we are suppose to proclaim is appropriated for others' political gains. Our hidden pride ultimately causes decay. These are three economic principles of the kingdom of God. The balance sheet will not be settled until the harvest at the end of the age.

When we seek to influence society with anything other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I wonder whether we are not merely trying to make ourselves comfortable in this world. The Gospel does not make us comfortable; it asks us to carry our cross. When we battle evil using political weapons, have we not already been subverted?

I wonder what expression of Christian faith requires a church building. Did Paul not tell the Athenians that God “does not live in temples built by hands”? Yet we are prone to call a church building God's house. Did any command in the New Testament tells us to build church buildings? Are not our bodies the temple of the Holy Spirit? Did Peter not call us “living stones . . . being built into a spiritual house?”

Paul gave the church at Corinth instructions for meeting together as an assembly in 1 Corinthians 11-14. Yet, we have so far departed from the pattern that Paul outlined that our church services do not resemble first century ecclesiology. I wonder whether modern church practice is not really a lump of leaven. It puffs us up. It looks good, feels good, and tastes good; but the underlying agent is leaven. Jesus told people to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” The Pharisees added overhead to what was commanded thinking they were better for it. Likewise, our churches are not rising closer to the ideal, but rather they are so swollen with decay that they no longer resemble the churches to whom Paul ministered.

Lisa and I knew a teacher years ago who after the show would say, “All this . . . and the Gospel, too!” I wonder whether this was his way of saying, 'All this' is not the Gospel. Wake up and know that the truth does not need to be shilled! Yet the show goes on and keeps getting better. Does it make us love one another more?

In Lisa and my history with church, we have never gotten to know anyone very well by attending church services. When we have bonded in friendship with other believers it has been in a home. Nevertheless, churches spend much energy getting people to congregate within a church building where people can remain strangers. People living in the same neighborhood attend church together for years without ever knowing where the other lives. Our culture is insular, but our faith is not supposed to reflect the selfishness of society; it is suppose to reflect the grace of God.

If I am right, then Christianity as we practice it is truly a SAD affair. When I contemplate these things, I am always drawn to Revelation 2-3 where Jesus gave his sad assessment of five of the seven churches in Asia. I have learned that when we read Jesus' criticisms in Revelation 2 and 3 we tend to see other people, churches, and denominations. Yet I wonder if Jesus would say that I have left my first love. I must ask whether I value personal gratification over my commitment to Christ. I must ask whether I tolerate teaching that I should not. I must ask whether I am dead to sin or dead to God. I must ask whether I am wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked.

I can never feel comfortable in church. In Revelation 2 and 3, the only churches who were doing it right were afflicted and poor, they were persecuted unto death. They had little strength, yet they kept Jesus' word. If this is what it takes to have praise-worthy faith, then I want to experience Smyrna and Philadelphia (by that I do not mean Georgia and Pennsylvania). I do not imagine that the churches in Smyrna and Philadelphia held very many business meetings, or managed much of a budget. I doubt that they contemplated how to be politically influential in Turkey. I think that they must have focused on Jesus Christ and held onto their faith as if it were precious. My heart wants to live where the only thing that matters is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the culture that is laying hold of me. That is where I think I shall feel at home.

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