Sunday, September 24, 2017

16. Mark 4:26-34: The Kingdom of God

The Mystery of God’s Kingdom (4:26-29)

The underlying question still facing Jesus’ proclamation of God’s liberating, emancipatory, life-giving Jubilee junket is the obvious one: “How can any of this be more than pie-in-the-sky moonshine. Look at Rome! Somehow, you are telling us, this New Exodus movement will upend the mighty Empire? Get real! That’s not how things work in the real world.”

Jesus turns to the process they know best – sowing and reaping. This most basic and important process, on which their lives depends, is ultimately mysterious and uncontrollable. We do what we can and have learned to do, but even as we reap a harvest we admit that we really don’t know why this is happening. “The earth produces of itself” – Jesus says.

If God is in control and at work according to his will and plan, humans can never foreclose on old hopes or new possibilities surprisingly opening up right in front of their eyes. And this, Jesus implies, is just what is happening in and through him. The harvest of God’s plan for the world through Israel is at hand – however unpromising that may seem at any given moment.

The Manner of God’s Kingdom (4:30-32)

The manner of God’s kingdom requires vision and patience to embrace a small and insignificant beginning and live toward its full realization. In world of tall trees (empire) it takes both to imagine and hope for that small beginning to result in grand ends. In Ezekiel God promises just such a result: “All the trees of the field shall know that I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree” (17:24).
Large sheltering trees are a symbol in the Bible for political sovereignty (Judg.9:15; Dan.4:10ff.). A small and persecuted dissident movement, like Jesus’, living in the Roman empire knew what such a large sheltering tree was like. And how little its prospects for surviving and thriving in such a situation. And yet, here is Jesus telling them just that!

The smallest of seeds, the mustard seed, could under maximal conditions produce a shrub up to three meters high. Annual growth to that height was unusual. Among garden plants a tree at such height would certainly be noticeable. And provide good branches for birds to perch on. (France, Mark, 216)

Mark concludes with a summary acknowledging again Jesus’ parabolic pedagogy, the different kinds of hearers he faced (the parable of the Sower, vv.13-20), and his private explanation to his disciples. Perhaps a final indirect admonition to readers to test their mode of hearing and seek explanation from Jesus for what puzzles and eludes us.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

15. Mark 4:13-20: Ways of Hearing

The questions the twelve asked Jesus about this parable prompts him to ask how they will understand any of the parables (v.13). His parabolic announcement of Jubilee, then, is paradigmatic of what the Jesus movement is all about. And as hard as it may be even for them (to whom its mystery has been given, v.10) to “get” this parable, they should not be surprised when it “sowing” to their contemporaries issues in much rejection. Thus, Jesus uses its imagery to craft a parable on “hearing.”

Some hearers are on path where the word was sown. They have no chance as Satan himself swoops in and removes the word from them. Enmity to Jesus’ Jubilean word has more than human rejection to deal with. Think here of a balloon lying deflated in your hand. You intend to blow it up but somehow, for some reason, you never get around to it. The balloon lies limp not doing what it was meant to do.

Some hearers are like seed sown on rocky ground. They accept it at first happily but its puts down no roots in them. And when the cost of this commitment rears its head, “trouble or persecution,” poof! they are gone! Think of a balloon inflated, held by fingers at the bottom. The fingers let go, and the balloon flies off erratically around the room.

Yet other hearers are like seed sown among thorns. They accept the word, take it seriously but slowly “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things” strangles their faith and nothing comes of it. Our balloon is inflated again and held by fingers at the bottom. This time, the fingers open slowly allowing the air to escape little by little. But the end result is the same. The balloon lies empty of air, unable to bring joy to others as it was made to do.

Finally, some are like seed sown on good soil. They receive the word, embrace it, it takes root, endures, and bears fruit. Again, 30-60-100 fold. Here our balloon is blown up full of air. And as it is blown up, more balloons emerge from it blown up to full capacity. And more balloons emerge. And more. Each is tied off to contain its air and creates great festivity.

These parables, Jesus tells his followers, are ultimately revelatory (vv.21-22). Our response to them, how we hear, what the reality is in our case. That is, what kind of soil we have proven to be. Everything depends on how we listen (v.23)!

Jesus word, his announcement of Jubilee, as out-of-the-box as it was, provokes a crisis in hearing that reveals our heart. It’s a life-and-death matter as his severe final comment indicates (v.25).   

Friday, September 22, 2017

Economics as America’s Sovereign Religion: Is it Time for a Reformation?

The most powerful religion in the Western world is no longer Christianity. It is economics.
It can actually be quite instructive to consider economics not as a science or sociology but as a religion, complete with doctrines, priests, and constant references to faith. So says John Rapley in his essay from The Guardian last July.
“Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle” … it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.”
If the economy is the new religion of the masses, then economists are its priestly class replete with their own denominational squabbles and even scandals. The economists are like priests,
“…giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment. For a long time, they seemed to deliver on that promise, succeeding in a way few other religions had ever done, our incomes rising thousands of times over and delivering a cornucopia bursting with new inventions, cures and delights.”
Economics dominates modern ethical discourse. Profitability now equates with ethical virtue. The bottom line ethical question for Western society–the question behind all of our other questions–is no longer “what is true?” or “what is good?” and certainly not “what is beautiful?” The bottom line ethical question of our day is “what is profitable?”

The Church and Changing the World

The church is not called to change the world, it's called to participate in and witness to the changed world brought by Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

I posted this earlier on my facebook status and one friend responded: “I think that would change the world.”

I agree but not perhaps in the sense my friend means and not as I suspect many American Christians, progressive or evangelical believe.

My thesis is this: “Changing the world” is a mantra that has been present in many ways in American Christianity throughout its existence. Some of it came from post-millenial thought. Steven Pointer explains:

“During most of the nineteenth century, American Protestants believed they were living in special times, that current events were hastening the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Hymns like the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" became popular because they so well expressed this hope: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,/His truth is marching on.
“Undergirding this optimism was the doctrine of postmillennialism—the belief that the Second Coming will take place after the millennium of blissful peace and prosperity for the church, which will be ushered in by the divinely aided efforts of the church.” (
Out of the ferment of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy came another strand of postmillennialism, the Social Gospel Movement.

“The Social Gospel was a Protestant movement that was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". They typically were post-millennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort.” (
The period of the two world wars and the Great Depression destroyed the sense of optimism about human goodness and ability and the inevitability of progress. Yet many in the churches continued to expect that God would bring positive change and moral renewal to his world, or at least America, through his faithful people.

The Civil Rights struggle, the war on Poverty, and the movements against the Vietnam war, largely from the liberal side of the church during the 1950’s -1970’s. The 1980’s saw the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right. Thirty years later the Christian right has morphed into the religious right and hitched their star to the Tea Party and Trumpites. Liberalism is in disarray but a progressive movement in the both the church and world has emerged to lead a social justice and peace movement of sorts.

In all this, it seems to me, runs at least an undercurrent of postmillennial hope: if the church will do its job God will reward it with human and moral improvement, however differently those terms might be parsed. The call from all sides of the church to “change the world” reflects this residual hope for the world’s improvement.

Yet, though God will win in the end by his own initiative and power, there is no scriptural warrant I know of that says the church will prevail and lead the world to greater and greater moral achievement and social justice.

I do believe the theology of the cross which says that the resurrection of Jesus validated and vindicated his life is the God-approved way to win through losing. The cross is the criterion of faithfulness. But we still lose!

I do believe that “not cling(ing) to life even in the face of death” is what the Seer of Revelation calls conquering” (Rev.12:10).

I do believe that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" (Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter 50). And why should the fruit of this seed be any different?

I do believe that J. R. R. Tolkien’s statement, “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat'—though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory,” and his portrayal of this view in his magnificent The Lord of the Rings is profoundly biblical.
I do believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is right to say “only a suffering God can help” and that we follow Jesus in the world in the same way he went into the world, by bearing the world’s sin and guilt, seeing the world from the perspective of those who suffering and not by being the world’s moral exemplars and policemen.

What kind of people live this way? How do they participate in and witness to the changed world Jesus won for us if we’re not out changing the world ourselves? Tolkien well describes

Whether or not we think our world is in decline is up to each one of us. But in application, we see this life principle guarded against pessimism by love and hope. Fighting the long defeat is not meant to protect our hearts from suffering or lead to resignation. I am reminded of a wise counselor's words to me when I complained that, after all this counseling, I seemed to cry more frequently than before: “What made you think counseling would cause you to cry less?       . . .
If anything, we find that most of the characters in LOTR cast their whole hearts into their endeavors. What they love is on the line: their friends and family, their gardens, a mug of ale in the company of friends. They hope and long for these things to be protected and offer themselves as sacrifices to make it so.
In other words, if fighting the long defeat does not lead us to risk our reputations to love the outcasts, to stay with the chronically ill in love, to support ministry to those with Alzheimer's disease, or to prepare week in and week out for a one-person Bible study, we have misunderstood it. This is what we have to offer to the world, is it not? A love unrestrained by success or timetables or ambitions? . . .
We fight the long defeat because results are not as important as our Father's delight. We fight the long defeat because we are not the authorities over “success.”
We fight the long defeat because the final victory is coming.”           (
Living this long defeat allows us to let go of our residual post-millennial illusions of “changing the world” and the political absorption of faith that seems its ever-present companion. To live in this world with patience and hope even if signs of the changed world seem few and our efforts at changing the world always fall prey to the need for success upon success and for us “world-changers” to be successful as well. We do what we can in terms of political involvement and the improvements that can be made that way but our lives and faith do not depend on them. But, rather, on the reality of the changed world of Jesus Christ. And our participation in and witness to this reality is the way we change this world (to the degree it can be changed) even as we wait for the full and final establishment of God’s new creation at Christ’s return.

This, I submit, is what Jesus means in the gospel of John about his followers living in the word but not being of the world. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

God-given Weirdness


Much of the literature on the fundamentalist – modernist controversy of the 1920’s and 30’s is described as the struggle of fundamentalists against modernity — its science, its ways of thinking, approaches to Scripture, and, in particular, the theory of evolution. But what we don’t talk about very much is the way in which the desire not be thought of as fundamentalist has shaped mainline Protestantism. If you read the history of that period, you will discover that big donors to Riverside Church in New York City — where Harry Emerson Fosdick was the preacher for so many years — gave to the building of Riverside, precisely as an effort to stem the spread of fundamentalism. If you read the steady stream of blogging, there is no end to the skewering . . .


14. Mark 4:1-34: Parables (I)

“Parables have typically been preached in North American churches as ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” That, however is exactly what they are not. Rather, Jesus is describing the sovereignty of God in the most concrete possible terms, using images that any illiterate peasant could understand. The genius of parables is that they offer recognizable scenarios, drawing listeners in, then throw surprise twists is order to challenge listeners’ assumptions about what is possible.” (Myers, Say to This Mountain, 39.)
The Parable of the Sower: More Jubilee (4:1-9)                                                            (See here Myers, Say to This Mountain, 39)
The parable of the Sower is its own parable. It does not require to be “explained” by vv.14-23. The intervening section, 4:10-12, puts that latter Sower parable in a new and different context than the first.
This first Sower parable announces the radical Jubilee agenda of God’s New Exodus movement. Jesus preached to peasants who toiled against the odds to eke out an existence on the marginal plots of land they were left by the wealthy.
This dry soil method of farming was well-known to Jesus’ hearers with its ¾ failure of the land to yield a crop. This meager output usually led to debt which led to taking a loan from a wealthy landowner which led to loan default which led to selling one’s labor. When Isaiah speaks of “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field” (5:8), this cycle is what he has in mind and was still the situation when Jesus came.
A six-fold yield was the very best a peasant farmer could hope for. A 30-60-100 fold yield was unthinkable! More than enough to bust the debt-loan-servitude cycle to smithereens for a whole village.
If one has “ears to hear” this is Jubilee language. Abundance for all. Freedom from debt. Communal well-being. Liberation in real life terms. This is the world God wants and in Jesus is bringing into being. This is good news, gospel, indeed!
The Purpose of Parables (4:10-12)
After this mind-boggling parable, Jesus retreats with the twelve. They were probably as dumbfounded by what Jesus just said as his other hearers. Not surprisingly, they pepper him with questions. Jesus’ answer: the “mystery” of the kingdom of God has been given to you. The mystery (which in the Bible always means something we would never know or figure out unless God tells us) of what God is doing in the world, mind-boggling as it is (as we have just seen), has been given to those who have committed to follow Jesus.
For those who have not committed to him, all they hear are parables, impenetrable riddles, because they remain obdurate and hard-hearted. Or, perhaps better, because they are obdurate and hard-hearted, all they hear from Jesus are impenetrable riddles, fantastical stories far-removed from any world they know and how it works.
Jesus cites Isaiah’s prophetic commission from Isa.6 as his rationale. Isaiah is commissioned:
“And (God) said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

People can only see and hear what they are willing to see and hear. Prolonged unwillingness to hear God’s word of judgment and call to repentance creates ear-lids and heart-guards that make gibberish of further divine words. This was the case with Israel in Isaiah’s time. So he was told to preach to them what they could not and would not hear as judgment against them. And that until the full consequences of their idolatrous preoccupations had reamed them empty (Isa.6:11).

If I may veer away from The Lord of the Rings for a moment, a scene from C. S. Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles seems apropos. In the Magician’s Nephew, Uncle Andrew, a pompous and arrogant scientist wants to use his science to ultimately rule his world. Through Narnian magic he finds himself in Narnia at the moment Aslan sings it into existence:

“When he first hears the roar of Aslan at the creation of Narnia, he recognizes that the sound is indeed a song. But he tells himself that the source of the noise is ‘only’ a lion, remarking for his own benefit, ‘Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ (MN, Ch. 10, p. 75) Lewis comments that Uncle Andrew ‘tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring, . . . [and] the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song.’ When at last Aslan spoke and said, ‘Narnia, awake!’ we find that Uncle Andrew ‘didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl’ (MN, Ch. 10, p. 75). (

This, I submit, is the best commentary we have on Isaiah and Jesus’ use of Isaiah here. Israel knows conflict with Rome is coming and the various groups (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots) are competing for the right to define the kind of Israel God expects his people to be. Jesus is among them as the “mystery” of the kingdom of God in person. His parables have the function of good news for those who can still hear (even as God assures Isaiah a remnant of faithful will remain for him in Isa.6:13), his followers, but for the majority, his riddles confirm them in their resistance to him. And Rome will be the consequence of that resistance!

Myers notes the Isaianic reference to a “holy seed” (6:13) may have been Jesus’ inspiration for his following application of the sower parable (41).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

13. Jesus and Family

No doubt family is important to humanity. So important that it is one of the two things almost every human being would kill and die for. The other is, of course, the nation-state. Interestingly, neither merit that kind of commitment according to Jesus. One’s nation is way down the list of priorities for God’s people. Family is a lot higher but not high enough to kill or die for. Only God is atop the priority list meriting such level of commitment. And while Jesus does promote the possibility of giving one’s life for God, he never supports, indeed, rejects in the clearest and strongest manner, the taking of life. Even for the family.
That’s why Jesus talks about “hating” mother and father. It’s hyperbole, to be sure, but the reality is Jesus will not accept or tolerate any other commitment or relationship that dilutes, distorts, or denies the ultimate priority of following him.
And why he foresaw family members rising up against each other before the authorities on account of him. And why he would not let the man who had to bury his father first, join his movement.
Jesus’ most programmatic statement on family is this:
“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he 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.” (Lk.18:28-30)

Jesus completely relativizes natural family times. Not only are they not ultimate, they are replaceable with ties formed from faith in Jesus and participation in God’s New Exodus. In our world which idolizes the so-called nuclear family and allows nothing to challenge its primacy, Jesus is breathtakingly and scandalously radical. A radicality we westerners have still yet to truly engage.