Do you ever find yourself struggling with bridging the horizons from ancient to modern?
Recently, I was allotted the task to preach the Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32). Realizing that this passage is difficult to understand apart from its context, I decided to expand the sermon to Matthew 21:23-32.
As I was drawing things together and preparing for the “application” section of the sermon, I became cognizant of the fact that sometimes we try to squeeze (read force) “timeless truths” out of Jesus’ message, when the fact of the matter is that Jesus’ message was temporal—directed first and foremost to his contemporaries. Sure, we could extrapolate that the recipients of this parable bore the brunt of the storm, because they talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk (i.e., they were guilty of lip service). Thus, we could very well deduce that Christians should do the will of God, and dive into what that entails (see Matthew 7:21–27; 12:46-50; 25:31–46; 26:36-42). Or, we could discuss the topic of authority. What kind of authority does Jesus have (see Matthew 7:29; 8:9; 9:6-8; 10:1; 28:18), and where does his authority originate (God)?
But what actually set off this parabolic trifecta (as you can read further on in Matthew 21)? Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem and subsequent actions in Jerusalem were highly charged symbolic actions, which basically announced, “there’s a new sheriff in town.” This set off a chain reaction all the way up to the top of the pecking order. So, once again, his actions were aimed at his contemporaries. But maybe Jesus’ pattern of action (both doing and saying) cues us on how to bridge the ancient-modern gap.
I was challenged by N.T. Wright when I read this comment in his little For Everyone series:
What should Jesus’ followers be doing today that would challenge the powers of the present world with the news that he is indeed its rightful Lord? What should we be doing that would make people ask, ‘By what right are you doing that?’, to which the proper answer would be to tell, not riddles about John the Baptist, but stories about Jesus himself?
Jesus often did things that drew – or repelled – people towards or away from himself. Once he grabbed their attention, often accompanied by questions or challenges, Jesus would frequently respond with parables. That Jesus spoke in parables is highly significant. As a friend recently pointed out to me, Jesus didn’t speak theological jargon; one of his primary forms of communication was…parables. He acted in highly symbolic fashion, eliciting questions, to which he told strange, cryptic stories about how God’s dominion was making its impact on earth. Jesus’ audience sometimes left confused, or, as in this parable – they knew exactly what he meant. No matter the result, he invited them to enter into a story, wrestle with its interpretation, and consider its implications.
What if this is how we lived? What if we lived in such a way that people asked us questions? Not “why are these Christians different?” – that should be a given – but not an entitlement to baptize social awkwardness) – but rather “why do you do these things? By what authority are you acting that way?” To which we are empowered to respond with stories that declare that Jesus is Lord.
An aside: I do not believe that this means going out seeking to cause trouble. Jesus’ actions were directly related to his vocation. To help us think through this, Wright, in his The Challenge of Jesus, suggests we ask ourselves how our profession is slanted. “Is it slanted toward the will to power or the will to love?” Or, in relation to the vocation of being an image-bearer of God, “is it developing in the service of true relationships, true stewardship and even true worship, or is it feeding and encouraging a society in which everybody creates their own private, narcissistic, enclosed world?” He thus concludes,
Your task is to find the symbolic ways of doing things differently, planting flags in hostile soil, setting up signposts that say there is a different way to be human. And when people are puzzled at what you are doing, find ways—fresh ways—of telling the story of the return of the human race from its exile, and use those stories as your explanation.
This is the parable-life.
Wright’s proposal, as thought-provoking as it is, raises the question of why Jesus told parables. Were they designed to reveal or conceal? Though answering this question goes beyond the confines of this post, I think Wright’s challenge is worth considering.
Just ponder with me for a second. Don’t we live steeped in stories? Doesn’t everyday consist of myriads of stories: songs, dances, movies, shows, the news? Do you ever ask your spouse or roommate, “how was your day?” Do they respond with a story? We are storied beings, who find stories to be like centripetal forces that draw us in.
Maybe we should think outside the box – being creative like Jesus. Tell stories about how God’s kingdom has made itself manifest, how Jesus defeated sin and death, and how the restoration of the cosmos and humanity is the hope that is found in Jesus’ resurrection. Tell others what it means to follow the true Human, the second Adam.
If you live the parable-life, I suggest that, like Jesus, you will become a centripetal or centrifugal force. Get ready: you’ll be a force to reckon with, and it could cost you your life – metaphorically or physically. Expect opposition from the enemy (see Ephesians 6), but remember the Holy Spirit is there for guidance, protection, and victory.