Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Was Jesus a Uniter or a Divider?

When reading the New Testament, one discovers a great emphasis on love and unity. Indeed, the coming of the spirit at Pentecost is just one story that tells us that one of the primary works of the spirit is to unite together people from all walks of life in the community of faith. And, Paul very often speaks of unity.

Yet, such an understanding of this emphasis on unity does not necessarily mean that Jesus himself was always a uniter. I think we often picture Jesus as having a calm and innocent nature, as he speaks of love and peace.

But is this the total portrait of Jesus?  Perhaps if we look closely at the sayings of Jesus, we will find some that describe him as much as a divider as a unitier.

One of the more classic statements in which Jesus clearly draws a line of division is when he says that if any want to be his disciples, they must take up their cross and follow him. This is clearly a statement that, although not inherently divisive, certainly results in divisions as some do take up the call, while many others do not.

But some statements are even more shocking than these. For example, take Luke 12:51: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Such a view of Jesus does not sit well with those of us who would rather think about unity and togetherness, love and peace. The idea that Jesus was divisive, even intentional in his divisiveness, seems to rub against our common views of him.

I find one story from the Gospels particularly creative in portraying the divisiveness of Jesus. It is a story that involves conflict not only between Jesus and the religious opponents, but also between Jesus and his own kin.

Mark tells the story in Mark 3:20-35 in a narrative structure known as the “Markan Sandwich.” The designation describes a literary structure in which one story begins, but that story is interrupted by another story, which is told in full, and then finally the first story concludes. In this particular narrative, Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders is “sandwiched” between his clash with his own family.

In setting up this structure, Mark is intertwining these two stories in order to show that Jesus equates, at some level, the actions of his birth family with the actions of his critics. Jesus sees both his family and his religious critics standing against him doing the will of God. They also are actively hostile towards him.

We must keep in mind the religious and cultural setting in which Jesus lives. For one thing, in a culture of honor and shame, one was to bring honor to the family name. In the minds of his family, who see Jesus as “out of his mind”, Jesus was bringing great shame onto his family, dishonoring their name among their neighbors.

In terms of the religious setting, instead of bowing to the religious authorities who accuse him of having power by Beelzebub, Jesus works outside the boundaries of religious establishment, thumbing his nose at those who would criticize him. This puts him in conflict with the religious establishment; a conflict that will heat up throughout the story.

And so it seems that both Jesus’ family and the religious leaders think him to be possessed in some sense. His family believes he is insane, which would have been attributed to demon possession, and the religious leaders outright accuse him demon possession.

But what seems interesting is that though his family and the religious authorities come to him with so-called authority, authority they expect him to follow, it seems that Jesus, in response, has drawn a line in the sand, excluding both of these groups from his inner circle.

So, instead of honoring his family by siding with them, and instead of submitting to the authority of the powerful religious establishment in Jerusalem, Jesus has called together those he calls his true family, those who do the will of God. These people, Jesus says, are his family; everyone else is outside.

But what about the parable that Jesus tells in the midst of all of this? What is its meaning?

From a literary perspective, Jesus’ parable about a house or kingdom that is divided is situated right in the middle of the sandwich. This is vitally important to how Jesus sees both his family and the religious leaders.

The parable offers Jesus an opportunity to clearly define his mission in the world. His actions of casting out demons are not accomplished by his own demon possession. They are his attacks against Satan’s dominion which he intends to plunder, and anyone who stands in the way, like his family or the religious authorities, are standing on the side of evil and are guilty of an unpardonable sin; the sin of blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, the power by which Jesus casts out evil spirits.

Both Jesus’ family and the religious elite were guilty of this sin. His family thought he was mad, and so they tried to stop him. The religious elite accused him of siding with Satan, for he did not meet their religious approval. Both of these groups stood in the path that God had laid before Jesus to do the will of God. Both of these groups sided with the kingdom of Satan.

What Jesus saw in his family and in the religious establishment of his day was symbolic of a status quo that held onto the power structures of tradition, refusing to allow God to transform those power structures into communities of love and justice.

This is the meaning of Jesus plundering Satan’s stronghold. The actions of Jesus in casting out the evil spirits function as parables of Jesus’ attack against the social, economic and political structures of his day. These are the strong man’s houses.

Thus, in rejecting his family, and in rejecting the authority of the religious establishment, Jesus made a stark division between those who stood against God’s will for justice and inclusiveness and those who would follow him through doing the will of God; a will that was epitomized by love, service, and sacrifice.

I deeply believe Jesus was a uniter, one who sought to bring together people from all walks of life. Indeed, by redefining his family as those who do the will of God, Jesus was transforming the concept of family from that which was characterized by blood kin, ethnicity, nationality, or religion to that which was exemplified by living out God’s will.

Yet, at the same time, Jesus’ message was so radical and so demanding that it was, and it remains, quite divisive. Jesus was as much a divider as he was a uniter.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Why Did Jesus Speak in Parables?

Those of us who have read the Gospels, or who are even remotely familiar with the teachings of Jesus, know that he often spoke in parables. Indeed, Jesus tells over 40 parables, many that are very familiar, such as the Parable of the Good Samaritan or the Parable of the Prodigal Son, two parables that are well known even among many non-Christians. 

But why did Jesus speak in parables? This is the question that his closest followers asked him, trying to get a sense of the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ parables, and it is a question that many of us have when looking back at Jesus’ life and ministry. Indeed, when considering the importance Jesus seems to place on his authority as the teacher of God’s will, one wonders why he talked in stories that are riddles that are hard to understand and interpret.

Would it not have been easier, and much clearer to his audience, and certainly to us living two millennium in the future, if Jesus would have been more forthright and straightforward in his speech, offering to his listeners lists of commands that are not difficult to comprehend?   

Could Jesus have not done a better job of teaching his followers exactly what he wanted them to learn if he had not been so mysterious by using parables? For sure, Jesus is clear at times, but when he communicates in parables, his meaning is very often unclear.
It is true that there is a sense that Jesus understood his own surroundings and his own culture and people, who lived in an agrarian Palestine, and who understood the cultural norms of the society in which they lived from day to day. The parables, then, are connections to the hearers through relevant allegory. Thus, the parables Jesus tells utilize images and ideas his contemporaries would have understood, and if we look at the parables, we quickly see how earthy many of them are.

So, in a real sense, Jesus was using everyday images and practices to speak about deeper theological and ethical issues.  Some have said Jesus did this to make these ideas easier for his listeners to understand.

But is this correct?

Yes, Jesus does use everyday images and practices in the stories he tells, but his parables do not necessarily make theological and ethical issues easier to understand. In fact, several of Jesus’ parables are confusing.  For example, the one he tells in Mark 4 about the sower who goes out to sow seed is very confusing.
Who is the sower? What is the seed? What do the different types of soil mean, if anything? Sure, Jesus explains his parable to the disciples, the only time he ever explains one of his parables, but even his explanation is confusing. We still do not know what the meaning of the parable is. Is it a call for us to be better soil so that we can receive the seed that will grow? If this is so, do we have any control over this? Can soil actually change its own capacity to be more or less fruitful?

But in an interesting answer to the disciples’ question about the meaning of the parables, Jesus seems to imply, or perhaps is very straightforward as to why he speaks in parables. He says in Mark 4:11-12,
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”   
In his allusion to Isaiah 6:9, Jesus is clearly stating that his parables are difficult to understand, and they are intended to be difficult to understand. Although he uses images and practices that the people of first century Palestine would have understood, the use of these familiar images does not translate into his audience actually understanding what he is saying. 

So, again, why did Jesus use these parables, which he himself admits are difficult to understand?

Perhaps the answer as to why Jesus used these stories is that he himself was struggling to understand the mystery of God in the world. And, if it is true that Jesus was himself struggling to understand God’s purposes in the world, and was therefore struggling to make his understanding known to those around him who came to hear what he had to say about God, then we might say that the parables connect us with Jesus’ own imagination as he thought about God and God’s rule in the world.

If this is correct, then the parables are not declarations of fixed truths, but are rather journeys of the mind that Jesus invites us to take both as a community of faith, but also as individual pilgrims seeking God. These journeys of the mind, and indeed of the heart, are never ending quests for God. Perhaps this is why the parables have many various meanings, and why they, for the most part, are open-ended and ambiguous.

And this also may be why Jesus tells his disciples that he speaks in parables so that those who hear might think they understand, but they do not. He wants his hearers to struggle with the images and the actions within a parable not to find an easy answer so that they can go on their way. No, Jesus’ use of the parable is to invite those willing to invest in the struggle to take the journey with him, and to struggle to seek God.

But, in their elusiveness, Jesus’ parables describe the kingdom of God itself as elusive. If the parables about the kingdom are difficult to comprehend, how much more so is the kingdom difficult to comprehend? 

Just when we might think we have it all figured out, we are confronted with a new understanding of the kingdom of God that we never expected. This is why Jesus commands us to “Seek first the kingdom of God.” This is no one time seeking as if searching for an object we can see and touch, and once we find it we can stop seeking.  No seeking the kingdom of God is a continual seeking; an eternal searching for God’s kingdom that cannot be measured or adequately described by human language.

And so, Jesus uses parables to speak about the kingdom of God because these stories lend themselves to open-ended elusiveness that lead us to more seeking, more searching, and more questioning.  And, because these stories lead us to further seeking, searching, and questioning, they draw us slowly out of our lives of safety, security, and comfort, to imagine the reality of God.

The parables lead us from the world we know, where we feel safe and comfortable, to imagine a world we do not know, one in which God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done, just as he taught his followers to pray.

Jesus tells parables to draw us into the stories, not as observers, but as participants. We are meant to find ourselves in these stories as part of our journey to discover who we are in light of God’s rule and how we respond to that rule.

In this sense, Jesus’ parables invite us to imagine a God beyond our descriptions and our qualifications, to contemplate our own lives in God’s rule, and to imagine a world different from our own. And, if we are willing to participate in the journey of the parables, wrestling with hearing and understanding, we may experience more deeply the God about whom Jesus spoke through these little stories called parables.