Are You Ready for Deliverance?

Jonah in Nineveh
Image via <a href="http://clipart.ochristian.com">Christian Clipart</a>

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

God spoke to Jonah again: “Get up and go to Vegas, that great city, and tell them what I told you.”

So, following God’s direction, Jonah got up and went to Vegas. (And indeed, Vegas was a huge city. It would take three days to walk from one end to the other.) And as Jonah started into the city, he started yelling, “In forty days, Las Vegas will be wiped out.” And the people of Las Vegas believed God and put on funeral clothes, from the Mayor all the way down to the street people.

When God saw their response, how they gave up their vices, God overturned God’s own decree, and decided not to destroy the city after all. And so, God didn’t.

Regardless of how it is often misused (a test case for adherence to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy), Jonah is about deliverance, first, second, and third.

First, it’s about deliverance that comes to a ship of storm-tossed sailors.

Second, it’s about deliverance that comes to a faithless prophet.

Third, it’s about deliverance that comes to a city of wicked people.

In the Christian context, it is, Jesus says, the single sign a faithless generation will ever receive: no matter how far gone a person or a community is, deliverance is still possible.

There is only one requirement: willingness to repent: to do what doesn’t come naturally.

The whole story of Jonah is a parable. This part about Jonah’s arrival in Nineveh (Las Vegas) is an invitation to imagine yourself in two different positions. What if you’re Jonah? And what if you’re a Ninevite?

If you’re Jonah, the parable invites your reflection on what it means to be called to go to a place you don’t want to go, to a people you despise, taking a message nobody wants to hear, on the remote chance that instead of running you out of town they will be delivered. Your job, Jonah, is to announce the truth that might be in order to set in motion a better alternative: deliverance.

If you’re a Ninevite, the parable invites your reflection on what it means to realize the futility of your current path, and what it will take to change it. How will you realize the deliverance that is available to you, even in your far-gone state?

Any given community might find itself in either of these positions, or both: so far gone that it seems impossible to take an unwanted message to a “depraved” society. (Sounds like a lot of churches I know of.) In any case, the deliverance of the two go together. Deliverance takes embracing the prophet and the society simultaneously.

Did it really happen? Not likely. But the point isn’t whether or not it did. The point is that, hearing it, you’ll make deliverance a reality here and now.

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.

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.

Things that Go Wrong at Weddings

wedding at midnight
Photo credit: Joe Shlabotnik

Matthew 25:1-13

The moment when goal happens is like this:

Ten women, five foolish, five wise, took flashlights and went off to the wedding. The foolish among them brought their flashlights, but failed to bring spare batteries. The wise brought spare batteries along with their flashlights.

As it happened, the groom was late, and everyone fell asleep waiting. But at midnight someone shouted, “Look! The groom is finally here! Everyone come! And the women all woke up and turned on their flashlights.

The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some batteries, our lights are going out.” But the wise women replied, “If we give our batteries to you, we won’t have light ourselves. Go to that convenience store down the street and get some for yourselves.” But while they were gone buying batteries the groom came, and those who were ready went with him to the wedding behind closed doors.

Later the other women came and said, “Let us in, too.”

But he answered, “I’ve got no idea who you are.”

So, be ready! You never know when it’s going to happen.

First, the word often translated bridesmaids is the same parthenos translated virgins elsewhere. And, while it makes a certain sense, given the wedding context of the story, to call them bridesmaids the early church of Matthew’s community would have also understood this term as referring to that new class of women within the first generation church capable of making their own decisions. One might think of that famous line from the Spiderman movie, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

The other details surrounding the wedding make very little sense as weddings go: the delay of the wedding (though I did officiate at a wedding a year ago to which the groom was over 2 hours late), the midnight hour, the need for everyone to bring their own lamp, it’s taking place behind closed doors, and the groom’s sudden amnesia (which may correspond to his being so late and, come to think of it, is no so rare). But this also relates to the point, which is that the wise will be prepared, even when the world seems out of joint.

And that is exactly the situation, as Matthew tells it. Jesus, having staged his teach-in at the temple and having been repudiated by the religious and political authorities there is now having his apocalyptic moment: the moment where the world is coming unhinged and is on the edge of choosing to be remade into another day or plunge into eternal night. It’s the midnight hour.

The situation of Matthew’s community a generation later is similar. Following the desolation of the Temple and with it the whole system of government and social order it represented, they are also in their apocalyptic moment.

In 2011 as the tides of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement, and unprecedented climate change sweep around the globe, it may be yet another apocalyptic moment.

So, what are people newly capable of making their own decisions to do when the world seems to be coming unhinged?

The wise ones will be prepared.