Monthly Archives: July 2017

Unstoppable?

In a garden I used to tend, there was a terrace, made up of crazy paving, some years old. I liked it, but the cracks encouraged the weeds, so much so I sometimes ran the lawnmower over the paving to try and keep the weeds under control.

I am reminded of that by the Parable of the Mustard Seed, which Jesus tells in just 2 verses (Matthew 13:31,32).  “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree . .”

The point is the growth, from a tiny seed that you can easily blow out of your hand, to a tree of 10 feet (3 metres) or more. It is an encouragement – the Kingdom of God seems so feeble!  What if people follow Jesus, what if they call themselves his disciples, and do what he wants?  That’s not going to achieve anything in the real world, is it?

Yes, it is.  When the seed is sown in a mind which has integrity and a desire for truth, then it grows, from an interest to a passion, from a passion to a purpose, and it gives strength and shape to a whole life.  When the seed of the Kingdom is sown in a community, there too it will grow, attracting the good and gaining strength, becoming not insignificant, but something of strength and beauty and usefulness.

Historians will be better able than I to chart this through history. I can only suggest that again and again Christian faith has been ridiculed, seen as perverse, obsolete superstition, fit only for the weak and senile. Again and again Christian faith has outlasted its critics, and inspired work for society and its needy.

For that is the other thing. The mustard seed does not only grow into a tree, bringing the encouragement of growth from insignificant beginnings, we are also told: 13:32 “. . when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”  The tree doesn’t just please itself – it fits into God’s wider purpose. The Kingdom of God is not about our belonging to a club, but being part of something which serves God’s purposes.

Do the birds represent the Gentiles, who would come to faith as Paul took the Gospel beyond Judaism? Do they now represent those who need shelter and care in our society? Should we see the refugees or others needing a welcome as some of the birds in our local tree? Or perhaps we might look those on the edge of faith, stressed and pressured by the world we have made, needing the reassurance that God welcomes and loves them delivered by our smile and help.  (That is why I am involved with Christians Against Poverty, among other groups – see “Some Interests”)

The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  Like the weeds on my paving, some people will attack with mower or spray, but the growth can never be totally prevented.  We can hinder the process, producing a weak and brittle stem which will offer no support for any but the smallest bird without threatening collapse.  But there will be other seeds and trees to mock our failure. The Kingdom of heaven, often written off or ignored, is like an insignificant mustard seed, tiny, yet growing strong and useful.

Tolerance and Discrimination

Strange how public morality goes; you can apparently choose your faith, lifestyle and sexuality freely, but you must be tolerant.  In much the same way, you can belong to any group or subculture, but must not discriminate.  The rightness of tolerance and the wrongness of discrimination are seldom argued, just demanded.  At the same time, the popular press make the practical limits of toleration clear – rich fraudsters, terrorists and paedophiles are beyond the pale.  And we all know how to discriminate between a good workman and a “cowboy”, or a real friend and a gossip.

So, will you be shocked if you look in the Bible for these words?  Tolerance is not found in traditional translations (only, of God, in Romans 2:4 Good News Bible), discrimination not at all.  Why?  I suggest that, while there are some similar ideas, the concepts are not quite right for Christians.  Why not?  This weeks gospel parable (Matthew 13:24-43, leaving out vv31-35) may help.

The story of the wheat and weeds is about tolerance and discrimination – of a sort.  Wheat was, and is, an important food.  The weeds in this story are not a nuisance or something that spoils the picture, but darnel, a plant that looks very similar to wheat, but is host to a dangerous, poisonous fungus.  Jesus is suggesting that in human life, and that includes Church congregations, good and bad people are mixed.  We should not try to sort them out, because of damaging the wheat, because we can’t reliably tell the difference, (and because people, unlike plants, can repent.)  That’s not to say “anything goes”, in Church, or in society!  We need to help people sort themselves out – but we shall never gather a perfect group.  There will always be those in process – and those who resist God, but pretend.  There is a place, if not for tolerance, at least for patience and love, and for letting God do the final sorting out.  (We lack the qualification!).

At the same time, there is talk of a division at harvest time.  The harvesters will be under orders how to discriminate into just two categories.  No discrimination?  Well, you can’t tell wheat from darnel until the ear appears just before harvest (wheat turns golden brown and bends over, darnel seed darkens and stays upright), so no premature judgements.  But if “no discrimination” means “nobody can tell me I’m doing wrong” that doesn’t include God!

The idea of being tolerant and not discriminating is one of those half-Christian confusions which can obscure the faith of Jesus.  We don’t want to be intolerant and discriminatory – nothing Christian in that!  Letting him tell the story, and listening carefully, should save us getting it wrong.

 

Sowing?

In Ireland, they take longer over the weather forecast, and even include the statistics for grass growth over the last month in different areas!  Perhaps it is not surprising, given that agriculture is a rather more serious concern for the average person there than in the UK.

It may be that as we read Matthew’s account of the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23 – leaving out v10-17), we are brought up against what we are serious about.  It is meant to be an encouragement (like the rest of the chapter, all about the Kingdom of God).  Reading carefully, we may learn what is beyond our control (and not worth worrying about), and what is going on (to help if possible, and beware the dangers for ourselves).

Jesus knows that when the message of God’s Kingdom is sown (which applied to his ministry, and still to ours today) it is a call to loyalty, obedience and action.  The reaction to that call varies:

  • there are hard places, like the path which will be ploughed after sowing, but loses seed to birds.  Some people just want to know, they have their own agenda, know what they want – and it doesn’t include God.  For anything to grow there, it will have to be tucked into a gap made by the Holy Spirit.
  • The rocky ground is just shallow.  There is no problem getting a reaction here, but it is liable to pass on to the next enthusiasm, and the next.  If this ground can be cultivated (sometimes it can’t), honesty is needed.  To live the Christian life is the best thing you can do – but it will be hard at times.  More than ever you need other believers to watch out for you, pray for you, and need you to help them too.
  • The seed is never sown in sterile compost!  We all come with weeds – past hopes, habits and hang-ups.  To get through these, not only do we need honesty, but also to know the worth of God, and the temporary nature of so much that seems to tempt or threaten.

This parable may be very familiar to you, but I suggest it may reveal how serious we are about sowing God’s Kingdom, and living it.  Don’t be surprised or upset that some sowing of the Kingdom fails to grow – it doesn’t mean the seed is bad, or the sower useless.  Understand the problems, if that will help.  But above all realise that sowing will produce a harvest, a good and significant one.  Jesus’ disciples needed to know that when his ministry hit opposition – and they still do.

Pleasing – some!

Selective deafness is wonderful! Do you know anyone who can hear “I want some help with the washing up!” as clearly as “Dinner’s ready!”?  In Matthew 11:16-30 Jesus is getting opposition, people won’t hear, and he summarises their attitude. John the Baptist came, and they didn’t like his attitude and lifestyle, – too severe, too harsh; then Jesus, but the parties, the doubtful friends – they didn’t like him either. The fact was – and still is – that both challenged the people to change, and they found it easier to complain than to listen.

OK says Jesus, so you won’t listen. Well, look instead!  He thinks of the towns and villages around the Lake of Galilee where he had performed so many healings and miracles, and he denounces them. Why didn’t they look, and see, and react? They had so much more chance than other places that were judged, and will bear the consequences.  (For some reason, the Lectionary leaves out these verses 20-24!)

Of course, Jesus had both the talk and the walk – he explained it and he demonstrated it. We need the same, if we are going to be real disciples, and if we are going to win any other lives for Christ.  But there’s more attraction than that. (v25-27) Jesus reminds us that it isn’t the scholarly and those who spend many hours in study who know God, but the ones he reveals himself to. Scholarship can bring arrogance – the enemy of discipleship.

And what are they going to find, those who accept Jesus direction? A yoke is a way of carrying a load – often a piece of wood that fits across the shoulders, to carry two buckets or loads without having to hold them in the hands, and make it easier and more comfortable. Sometimes in the OT the yoke is a symbol of oppression, a heavy burden.  Jesus doesn’t say that discipleship is always easy, what he does say is that he is easy to learn from because we relate to someone gentle and humble – much easier to accept, learn from, and work for than an arrogant and harsh master.

And, yes, he does say the load is light. We take that with other sayings like taking up our cross, and perhaps remember that we should only carry what we are given. We don’t have to sort out the world, not even our family, just the life we are given.  We don’t have to solve everything, just take the opportunities we are given and use them well.

Jesus’ contemporaries wouldn’t take note of his teaching – it was too challenging, and they preferred what they knew. They wouldn’t learn from what they saw – it might mean they had to do something. And so they missed out, and made themselves liable for judgement.

We have the warning, and the opportunity. Jesus way is lighter than the burden of Old testament commandments and regulations, yet it needs to be heard, and responded to. A tennis player can be on court for hours, and still run, and think, and fight back – training and practise have made it, well, not always easy, but possible, and sometimes fun. A light yoke!

Rewards ?

We read in Matthew 10:40-42 of rewards, but don’t think God owes us a place in heaven.  It is hard to say tactfully that none of us – not even the best – earns favour.  To think of marching up to the gates of heaven and asking for what we deserve would be disastrous.  By comparison with the holy goodness of God, we all fail and cannot hope to meet the standard.  What we deserve – is judgement, a “fail”.

Mercifully, that is not the end of the story!  God’s goodness has made an opportunity for us through Jesus and his sacrifice.  Accepting as a gift what he has done, we are offered not only forgiveness, but also a new life and status as God’s children.  (That is by adoption, not by right, so we talk about God’s “grace”).  So we live as those who are free, turning our backs on evil and walking the Christian way in thanks.  Yes, we still try to do the right thing, but as a reaction to a God whose love is beyond expectation, not as earning a place.

But what about rewards?  They are talked about several times in the New Testament.  Those who welcome Christians will benefit. Their welcome or kindness may help them hear the good news that will free them for ever.  Jesus explains more fully in Luke 18:29,30:

“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

So some of the reward is in this life.  [There is more about rewards, for example in Matthew 6 which has much to say about hypocrisy and “looking good”.  1 Corinthians 3 also has some comments about the rewards of Christian ministry.]

If all this sounds great, there is a warning in the Old Testament lesson.  Jeremiah 28:5-9 is an extract from a longer story of conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah.  Jeremiah had spoken of God’s judgement on an unfaithful people, and his ministry has cost him popularity and his security.  Hananiah prophecies a rapid return of the exiles and life as usual – a popular message, avoiding difficult issues of responsibility and the need to repent of wrongdoing.  While he would like it to be true, Jeremiah emphasises the test of prophecy (does it come true?), and later accurately prophecies judgement on the false Hananiah.  Those who speak for God have to keep to God’s messages; it is a sad warning!

So we have the encouragement of knowing that our Christian mission is not unnoticed, and will be rewarded.  Alongside that comes the reminder to be faithful.  It cannot be right to say just what people want to hear as if it was God’s message.  Indeed, to pretend to know God’s will without understanding can be – fatal.  If that is a sobering thought, it emphasises the importance of the gospel, and our witness to it by action and word.  Getting it right matters!