Friday, October 28, 2005

Light and Darkness (Part Two)

In Part One of this three part study, I discussed Matthew’s Gospel and the context within which the light under a bushel metaphor is presented. In Part Two, I will likewise explore the context within which Light and Bushel imagery is presented in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark’s Gospel

Matthew presented his explanation of the Light under a Basket teaching immediately following the Sermon on the Mount. In contrast, Mark makes no direct mention of the teaching of the Beautitudes. Instead, Mark explains Jesus’s teaching of the light we are to be immediately following the Parable of the Sower.
The Parable of the Sower Explained

13 And He said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables? 14 The sower sows the word. 15 And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown. When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts. 16 These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; 17 and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time. Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word’s sake, immediately they stumble. 18 Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, 19 and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. 20 But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred.” (Mark 4:13-20)
The Parable of the Sower describes evangelism and the spreading of the Gospel, the Good News, to a hungry world. Quite intentionally, Jesus uses an agricultural example for what His disciples would experience. The lesson here is not about where to sow and where not to -- people are sometimes far harder to read and spiritually navigate than the highways and byways – but rather describing what causes some “soil” to be more fertile than others.

Throughout the Old and New Testament, God through His prophets speaks the metaphor of shaking the dust from your sandals when confronted with those hostile or resistant to the work of God. But not here. Here in the Parable of the Sower, Mark captures Jesus’s teaching that is so much more about the fertile and infertile ground, those who He would have us witness to, not anything of substance about the sower. For truly, it is Jesus who sows, not us, we are merely His messenger.

The ground, hearers of the word but not yet doers, are described as: the wayside (think the shoulder of a modern highway perhaps); stony ground, hard and allowinf no roots to penetrate; ground overgrown with thorns; and good, fertile ground that bears fruit in abundance. The seed we sow is that which we carry from God, a message of good news that will be tidings of great joy to all peoples.

Mark relates how Jesus taught on the quality of the soil. For some who hear the word, Satan comes immediately and snatches away what seeds have landed in their hearts. The enemy confounds the good news, distracts the hearer, and causes that which might have taken root to be pushed aside before any good can come.

For some who hear the word, they take an immediate interest and experience an immediate but transitory joy from the good news. Jesus describes these who “have no root in themselves, and whatever grows from the witness they’ve received will not long ensure. Troubles, tribulations, or persecution for His sake will cause them to stumble. They are stony in that they have no depth of soil, no permanence or rootedness to their faith.

Some hear the world amid a tumult of competing desires and cares, and while the good news may cause peace and understanding for a time, ultimately these will fall away into distraction. The thorns are the cares of this world, “deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things.” Just as with trials and tribulations, riches can pull us away from the perfect peace and fulfillment that God seeks to give us through the Gospel.

Jesus sums up the goal of the Sower, as providing listeners with the opportunity to “Hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit.” When hearers of the word become doers of the word, as admonished by James 1:22), they bear the fruit that Jesus speaks of in this parable. And in completion of the cycle, when they then proceed to witness to others themselves.

Jesus spoke of soil, of sowing seeds. Mark then relates how Jesus spoke of the need to be the Sower he speaks of, and not keep all the seeds to oneself.
Light Under a Basket

21 Also He said to them, “Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed? Is it not to be set on a lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light. 23 If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
24 Then He said to them, “Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given. 25 For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” (Mark 4:21-25)
Granted, Jesus speaks of a different metaphor here, but it is a continuation of a train of thought. You get the sense, reading the Gospels, that Jesus often shifted from one metaphorical construct to another as necessary, to press home the messages He needed to communicate, in terms His listeners needed, in order to fully understand. And as we know, they were sometimes still confused, although things became clearer as the mystery of faith was revealed in Jesus’s death and resurrection.

Jesus says these words often, “Anyone who has ears to hear, let him hear,” words not only of hope, but also of caution and admonition. Today, perhaps they would be rendered something like, “Alright, Listen up!”

The image of a lampstand may be somewhat alien to modern ears. We may think of a night table, a lamp for reading perhaps, something alongside the sofa or easy chair. I think this misses an essential element of Jesus’s meaning here.

The lamp on the lampstand would form a primary means of illumination, used for all purposes of work, cooking or other food preparation, other household labor. Light was a valuable commodity, as were the implements of sustaining it, oil, oil lamps, wicks, lampstands, and often these objects were prominently featured in religious observances, as well. Lighting the lamps, stories of lamps, figure in major legends of the Hebrews in the Old Testament, as well as sacramental practices (the Mennorah, etc.)

I mentioned in Part One, that the image here is of a central communal lamp, by which the members of a household might gather for an evening meal, or share stories, or otherwise go about making a life extend beyond the natural limits of daylight. It creates possibilities where they would not exist otherwise. And in doing so, this light brings things to light, it is part of a process of revelation. In fact, Jesus here claims that there is “nothing hidden which will not be revealed,” and that any secrets kept will be revealed.

Here in Mark, there is a subtle transformation of the light that Matthew introduced as the light of believers, sharing the gospel. Mark’s description of Jesus’s light under the bushel takes on a deeper significance, as the light is the revelation of God to all humankind, and that that light will not be restrained, and the secrets and mystery of faith from the beginning of the world will be revealed, with witnesses to that light, but without any particular witness.

Jesus exhorts His disciples to hear the words He speaks, and to “take heed.” As they listen to His teachings, as we listen to His teachings, we are to carefully measure His words and their meaning. By constraining the Gospel into our preconceptions or prejudices of what we want it to mean (or sincerely but wrongly believe it to mean), we constrain and limit what God can do with us, the ways He will use us.

Jesus promises that, as we fully hear and take to heart, even more understanding wikll be given us. As we respond to His call into our lives, we are made more ready for the more He has in store for us. We grow in God, we grow in Jesus.

Yet there is a warning of contrast, as well. Those who cannot or will not hear, will lose even that which they have. The sense here is not so much physical or material possessions, but understanding and wisdom. As we receive, hear, absorb, and put into practice His words for our lives, we grow into better containers for the light He gives us to share with others.
The Parable of the Growing Seed

26 And He said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, 27 and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. 28 For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29)
Mark chronicles how Jesus now returns to the earth, for images of growth and harvest. Yet something more, Jesus now speaks of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus describes it here, is that which is part of the ‘natural order” of things, with the Sower spreading seeds, but God in His wisdom growing the harvest. And in the natural order of things, when the harvest is ready, the Harvester will put “in the sickle, because the harvest is come.”

This is another image that a modern reader might not fully appreciate. The allusion here is of a great burgeoning of a plentiful harvest, one that grows by the grace of God, but as men sow, they may watch in wonder as His bounty proliferates. But this very growth, explosive and vibrant though it may be, is a harbinger of something much more serious. As a latter Hebrew Prophet warned, “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Come, go down; for the winepress is full, the vats overflow – for their wickedness is great.” (Joel 3:13).

In another parable, Jesus describes that the tare (weeds) will grow along with the wheat, but in the harvest, the seed will be gathered while the tares will b e bundled and tossed in the fire, with “great weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Harvest metaphors often speak to fond experiences of seasons, regeneration and rebirth. But in a spiritual sense, the harvest is a “day of reckoning,” as well. When those of us who have been charged with “sharing the light,” may also be held to account for what we shared, and what we did not share, what seeds we sowed, and what seeds we let fall to the ground, or get devoured.

In Part Three, I will complete my exploration of the context within which Light and Bushel imagery is presented, in the Gospel of Luke.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Christian Carnival XCIII is Up!

Christian Carnival #93 is up over at White Ribbon Warriors.

The first part of my series on Light and Darkness is featured. Lots of fine and enlightening reading up at the Carnival, check it out!

Friday, October 21, 2005

Light and Darkness (Part One)

In looking up the Bible reference for Jesus’ teaching related to hiding “a light under a bushel," I discovered some variances on how this parable is presented in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The nuances of the three presentations suggest something very remarkable about what I believe Jesus taught in this example. What’s more, the adjacent passages in all three gospels demonstrate the difference in emphasis that each of these disciples may have attached to this teaching.

As the first of a three part study, I first examine and discuss Matthew’s Gospel and the context within which the light under a bushel metaphor is presented.

Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew is the primary source for some of the most powerful and evocative rendering of the Christian Gospel in the New Testament. Jesus’s cautionary teaching about keeping our light under a bushel is sandwiched between the Beautitudes, in which God describes those who receive special favor in His heart and eyes, and the assertion that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law of the Old Testament prophets, to whom God had promised to “write the Law upon their hearts.”
3 “ Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. 12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew’s gospel presents the Beautitudes immediately prior to the passages that present Jesus’s teaching on the light under a bushel. These aptly named verses beautifully capture those who are closest to God’s heart. God is especially attentive to the people and situations that this passage describes, the meek, the peacemakers, “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

God provides a special blessing for those who are persecuted for His sake, and promises such as these a greater reward in heaven.
Believers Are Salt and Light
13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
In contrast, the opening of Matthew’s verses on the Light we are to be, speaks about believers as the “salt of the earth.” Commonly understood, this would be the natural occurrence of salt inland, far from the ocean, which in the days of Jesus would signify a rare and valuable find. It would be that special blessing by God, and a thing of need and value for the people of a community.

Salt was a preservative, and it often meant that people could preserve meat and fish longer than this sustenance would last without preservation. That could mean life or death for people who had to live hand to mouth in an ancient economy.

People in those days would spend great sums of money or trade dearly for salt, which would otherwise be acquired from a trader who had arranged transport from an ocean coastline or other salt deposit. Given that salt mines were widely known in history and legend as places of terrible toil, having a community of believers perceived as “salt,” would mean that their availability would preclude having others mine that same salt themselves.

In this way, by sharing the good news, Believers whose “salt” retains its flavor can spare those who hear and respond to their invitation the toil associated with mining their salt “the hard way.”

The worst thing that could happen is for believers to lose their purpose, and be “good for nothing,” like salt that loses its flavor. God has called out those followers who He entrusts with His good news, the Gospel of His Son Jesus. He makes them salt for those who need “preservation.”

Matthew’s account then moves into the reference that began my search, speaking of how believers are the Light of the World, “a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden.” This is the Biblical source of the “Shining City on a Hill” allusion most recently popularized by President Ronald Reagan.

The Founders and many admirers since frequently refer to America as the “shining city on the hill,” not least because of our widespread Christian faith, but also because of the particular way in which America has been chartered as the foremost exporter of liberty and freedom for more than 200 years.

As followers of Christ, God clearly charges us in the Gospel to share our faith and join Him in His purposes, with our family and friends and in our communities. In these places, our faith is to be like the lamp placed on a lampstand, “giving light to all who are in the house.” This is in the days of oil lamps and cooking fires, not candles, and certainly no kind of artificial lighting.

The image here is of the central communal lamp, by which the members of a household might gather for an evening meal, or share stories, or otherwise go about making a life extend beyond the natural limits of daylight. This is an intentional harkening to a time and place of closeness and connection, by which the believer is the light by which the connection is established.

Lastly in these middle verses, Matthew describes the urging of Jesus upon His followers, that they would so shine that those around them, their community, the people with whom they shared, could see their good works. In seeing, those who would see will glorify the God who is the Author and originator and inspiration for those works.

This is an important admonition, too, that our good works should be cause for witnesses to give the glory to God. If they give the glory to us, it may well be that we distract their attention and detract from what God intends: namely, that the light we shine be merely a reflection of the Light He brought into the world, for all mankind.
Christ Fulfills the Law
17 “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. 18 For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
Matthew ends his account of Jesus’s teaching with Jesus cautioning His followers that He did not come to lead His followers to abandon their scripture or faith, as exemplified by the law of the Prophets. Jesus plainly declares that not until the end of time, “One jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law until all is fulfilled.” (In other words, not one bit will pass away.)

This last segment of Jesus’s teaching actually led to great dissension within the early church. Jewish believers thought Jesus meant that one had to be an observant Jew first, and obey all of the law, following “every jot and tittle.” Gentiles, urged on by Paul among others, asserted that the critical portion of Jesus’s pronouncement was “Until all is fulfilled,” and hold that Jesus’s death on the cross represents the fulfillment of all for the purposes of this teaching.

Still others would hold that the law is still intact in its entirety as God gave the law to Moses and the Prophets, but that that is the grace and mercy of faith in Jesus, that while we were still sinners, our faith allows us to stand as if we stand righteous in all fullness of the law. We are presented before God blameless, and counted as heirs with Christ.

Matthew is back where he always prefers to be, where Jesus fulfills the prophesies of Torah (Old Testament). But we as believers, function in the text, as we are to function in the world, as a bridge between God’s unwarranted favor and the fulfillment of the Law in the hearts of those who would seek Him. For it is only because a fellow believer brings the “good news” to us that any of us became believers in the faith.

In Part Two, I will likewise explore the context within which Light and Bushel imagery is presented in the Gospel of Mark.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Death and Rebirth (Part Two)

A continuation to an earlier post, Faith and Adversity.

In the first part of Romans Chapter 5, Paul spoke of how faith perseveres and even triumphs through adversity. It is the refiner’s fire, where gloss is burned away leaving that which is pure and unblemished. But Paul speaks of more, of something else God is doing in these experiences, not just scourge, but succor and restoration. We are chastined, but we are also rebuilt from the inside out.
Christ in Our Place

6 For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)
Paul explains how the Reconciliation spoken of here allows those of us who sin to be reconciled to the Perfect Lord and God of all creation. This is one of the great mysteries of faith, and perfect resolution to the problem of sin since the Fall. For God to be God in any meaningful sense, He must be that Perfect Divine Will before which no impurity or fault can stand. We are ungodly before we come into saving knowledge and acknowledgement of the One True God. This is the ultimate separation between those things that seem good to a man, a sense of good enough or earned acceptance, and the standard that would need to attain for the Supreme Being, Creator of all Life and Substance, He that spoke all things into existence and answers the question of who He is with the essential, “I AM that I AM.”
Death in Adam, Life in Christ

12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned— 13 (For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. 14 Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. 15 But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by the one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. 16 And the gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned. For the judgment which came from one offense resulted in condemnation, but the free gift which came from many offenses resulted in justification. 17 For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.) (Romans 5:12-17)

18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. 20 Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, 21 so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:18-21)
That reconciliation makes all the difference in this world, and the next. It eliminates all the generations of rebellion, it ends the intergenerational curse, it perfectly and completely obliterates any sense of the sin of the Fathers being transmitted to their children, not to any generations at all, let alone the third and fourth in the fullness of time.

That reconciliation starts the process of redemption, rejuvenation, renewal. All things are new again. We become the promised new creations. As sin entered the world through our Ancient first born, with the arrival of consciousness and intellect, so too God’s restoration and redemption, through the atoning sacrifice of One, the Perfect One. For with perfect wisdom and precision, God finds the way to turn our greatest defeat into His greatest victory through us His created. In striving to be like gods unto ourselves, we fell. By being made co-inheritors with Christ, we are made His children, and this sanctified and made whole in His eyes.

What once was lost has now been found.