If You Thought It Was Just a Nice Story, Think Again

flower
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/lydur/251385164/">Lydur Skulason</a>

Mark 4:1-9

He returned to the sea to teach, and such a huge mob gathered that he got into a boat in the water and sat there while the mob remained on shore. He taught them by telling them stories. Here’s what he taught them:

“Listen up! A gardener went out to plant some seeds. And as he scattered seeds, some fell on the road where the birds came and ate them. Other seeds landed in the gravel where they started growing quickly, but with no soil to sustain them. In the heat of the summer they got sun-scorched, and with no roots they wilted. Other seeds landed in the weeds, where they were choked off and never amounted to anything. Other seeds landed in good soil and produced food. Those seeds grew and yielded some thirty-, some sixty-, and some a hundred-to-one what the gardener started with. Anyone with ears can understand this.”

Parables are generally thought of as “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” But they’re not. They are apocalyptic stories.

As Ched Myers explained (see Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 1988) a typical sharecropper in Jesus’ Palestine could expect, in a good year, a 7 to 1 return for his harvest. That was just enough to keep him entrapped on the land, working it for the landowner’s benefit. A 30 to 1 yield would be enough for the sharecropper to pay off his debt and buy his own land, to be for the first time, free.

Think about the consequences to that society, or any society, or our society, if suddenly everyone had the wherewithal to pay off their credit cards, pay off their mortgage and quit their jobs to work for themselves.

Imagine the economic upheaval that would happen:

  • The collapse of the banks, and the whole monetary system based on debt.
  • McDonald’s and Walmart would actually have to pay a living wage to keep employees on the job.
  • Nike and Old Navy, who make their products in third world sweatshops, and claim they are doing those people a favor would find all of a sudden “those people” whose only option had been to work for them as slaves could afford to simply walk out.

Apocalyptic.

And what’s true for this parable is true of all the parables. They’re not about pie in the sky. They’re about what would happen if all the people who said they followed Jesus really did.

The problem (and this is another reality the parable addressees) is that so many seeds (would-be followers of Jesus) never amount to anything. And that’s apocalyptic, too.

Another Day, Another Doomsday Prediction

Harold Camping Billboard
Photo via the <a href="http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2011/1019/Harold-Camping-predicts-the-end-of-the-world.-Again.">Christian Science Monitor</a>

2 Peter 3:8-15a

Friends, don’t ignore the fact that for Jesus, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is only a day. Jesus isn’t putting off making good on his promise as some say. On the contrary, he’s patiently waiting for you to get your act together and change your lives rather than have you die. But the day of Jesus’ return will come like a thief. The sky will fall with a terrible bang, and the very elements will dissolve back into pure energy, and the earth and everything that’s happened on it will be laid bare.

So given that everything will be dissolved this way, what sort of people are you going to be? Shouldn’t you be religious and godly? Shouldn’t you wait for it, and meanwhile do everything you can to make it come sooner? Because that day the sky will burn down and everything solid will melt in flame. Even so, according to Jesus’ promise, we wait for a new heaven and earth where justice is the norm.

So, friends, while you are waiting for all this to happen, make an effort so that when he comes he’ll find you at peace, without any bad spots or rot. And think of Jesus’ delay as your opportunity to be saved.

This passage was written only a couple generations after Jesus to explain why the end of the world had not yet come, and to reassure the faithful that it would. By now according to this reckoning, we’re just into day 3. Still, it’s a long time and we haven’t yet got our act together. Between this early attempt to warn people of the imminent return of Jesus and this advent season, there have been hundreds of predictions and warnings. Two of them made the news in the past year alone. And we still have to get through another next month (December 21).

Sure, nothing lasts forever. But more often than not, and even in this early example, the threat of the end comes off as a desperate manipulation of desperate people’s fear. Even the promise of a new creation in which “justice is the norm” begs the question, “Whose justice?” And the coming of that “justice” with violence, and the encouragement that believers ought to do what they can to hasten it easily leads to a “kill ’em all and let God sort it out” attitude. A far cry from Jesus’ teaching.

2000 years later, it’s not too late to change your life. But please, do it because its the right thing to do. Not because you’re afraid of getting caught with your pants down when the divine SWAT team shows up at 3 am.

Not Quite Like Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat

Quality Control
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/astragony/5427179231/">Daniel Zedda</a>

Matthew 25:31-46

When the chosen one comes in glory, with heaven’s army, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be brought to him. And he will sort them out like a quality control inspector sorts out the “on spec” products from the defective ones, putting the on spec to the right and the defective to the left.

Then the boss will say to those on the right, “Come, all of you and be happy with the owner, for you have achieved the goal for which you were made. Because when I was hungry you fed me. When I was thirsty you slaked my thirst. When I was a foreigner you welcomed me. When I was naked you clothed me. When I was sick, you healed me. When I was a prisoner, you came with me.

Then the vindicated will ask, “When sir, did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and slaked your thirst? When did we welcome you as a foreigner, or clothed your nakedness? And when were you sick or in prison that we cared for you?”

And the boss will answer, “The truth is that when you did it to the weak and helpless, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those on the left, “You cussed things! Out to the incinerator with you, you messengers of evil. When I was hungry you let me starve. When I was thirsty you let me die of dehydration. I was a foreigner and you built a fence to keep me out, naked and you let me go cold, sick and in prison and you left me to rot.”

Then they also will ask, “When sir, did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a foreigner, or naked, or sick, or imprisoned and fail to do something for you?”

And he will answer, “The truth is that when you ignored the plight of the weak and helpless, you ignored me.” And they will burn in hell. But the vindicated will live forever.

When you get to Hogwarts school for wizardry you get sorted out. But this is not Hogwarts. For one thing, there aren’t four options. Either you pass inspection or you don’t. When you get to the end of that great assembly line in the sky and have put together as much of your life as you are going to collect before you go out the factory door you have to pass QC. And either you’ve exercised your humanity or you haven’t.

Notice what’s not on the list: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savoir?” It’s just not there. Why? Because it doesn’t matter whether you say Jesus is your Lord and Savior. What matters is what you do. What matters is that you used your life to become fully human. That you engaged with the whole of the human condition. That you did what you were made to do.

There are a bunch of other things people often say are required to make the final cut that aren’t on Jesus’ list.

  • Are you heterosexual?
  • What’s your position on abortion?
  • Do you go to church regularly every Sunday (and on Wednesday evenings)?
  • Do you tithe?
  • Do you believe in God?
  • If you believe in God, did you believe the doctrine of the Trinity?
  • Can you please tell me the date of your “born-again birthday”?
  • Do you believe the Bible is 100% literally true?

Over the years I’ve had people ask me each of these as litmus test questions to determine whether or not I was in with God. But never once has Jesus seemed even the slightest bit concerned with any of the above.

Notice what else is not on the list: “Have you been perfectly good all the time?”

Because of course, nobody is. Perhaps this is why those why make the cut are so surprised. Perhaps they know they just how not perfect they are. Even so, it’s probably their awareness of their own imperfections and flaws that make them more able to show compassion to the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the sick, and the imprisoned.

Take heart then, if you’re not perfect. It’s only human – which, of course, is the whole point.

Behind the Scenes at Bernie Madoff’s: A Parable

Bernie Madoff
Image Credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/3612816175/">Thierry Ehrmann</a>

Matthew 25:14-30

Its like Bernie Madoff leaving on a trip, called his employees and entrusted them with his fortune. He gave one of them $81.5 million. He gave another $32.6 million. And to a third he gave $16.3 million. Then he left.

The one with $81.5 million went off and invested it, and doubled the money. The one with $32.6 million also invested it and doubled the money. But the one with the $16.3 million went home and stuffed it under the mattress.

After a long while, Madoff came home and called them all in to audit their accounts. So the one who had started off with $81.5 million came in with $163 million and said, “Look, I’ve doubled your money.” And the Madoff said, “Well done! Dang, you’re good! Since you’ve done so well with this little bit, you’re getting a promotion! And, by the way, you should come to my office New Year’s eve party.”

Then the next employee, who started with $32.6 million came in and said, “Look, here’s your money doubled: $65.2 million.” And Madoff again replied, “Well done! Dang, you’re good, too! Since you’ve done so well with this little bit, you’re getting a promotion. And, by the way, you should come to my office New Year’s eve party.”

So it was the third employee’s turn, the one who started with just $16.3 million. He came in and said, “Boss, I know you’re a hard-ass, and you’re a robber baron, and you’re the worst kind of venture capitalist. I was so afraid of losing any of your money, I kept the whole wad under my mattress, and here it is, safe and sound.”

Madoff replied, “You lazy bastard! If you knew that I’m the worst sort of venture capitalist and a robber baron you should have at least put the money into a CD so I could have had some interest on it. Your fired! I’m reallocating your money to the guy with the $163 million. It takes money to make money, but I’m going to wring every penny out of the little guys. And send this no-good former employee to slums where he can cry and worry himself to death.”

Again we have the kind of story that is traditionally interpreted as an allegory in which the Madoff character stands for God, the Christians are the employees, and somehow, this situation is supposed to be like heaven.

But this story doesn’t sound like any kind of heaven, and if the world’s Madoffs are stand-ins for God, it’s a religion to which only the Madoffs would willingly ascribe. So what’s really going on here?

This is the third of four apocalyptic parables Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel following his teach-in at the temple. As such, it’s not about what the kingdom of heaven is like, but what it’s like at the apocalyptic moment on the verge of that kingdom.

Jesus has already admonished his followers to be able to read the world’s signs of the approaching change in the same way changes in a fig tree indicate the approaching change of season (Matt 24:32-33). These four parables are the signs. And they’re not meant to be cryptic. They’re pretty obvious. Then and now. They’re signs that the present reality is simply unsustainable. Madoff’s ponzi scheme fell apart.

Note, this is not just sour grapes at some people being rich. It’s about a social order that leaves people with only two options: Either participate in the robber baron’s crime or live in a state of perpetual weeping and anxiety. Either choice is a losing proposition: to be complicit in the crimes against humanity is to be swept from power when the whole thing crashes (as it will in the next parable). But the one who ends up in crying and worry has been worried all along. So his situation is the same whether he’s in or out of the robber baron’s graces.

So the sign that the kingdom is near is the simultaneous widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the narrowing of options to the two end states of complicity in inhumanity on one hand, or misery and fear on the other.

At that point, where people have been reduced to the point of having nothing to lose, a third option becomes thinkable: leaving the old social, political, and economic system altogether and letting the cards fall where they may. And that is exactly what Jesus was contemplating on the Mount of Olives.

Two days later, he’d be crucified.

A generation later, the temple would lie in ruins.

Who knows what empire may fall tomorrow.