Prostitutes, Tax Collectors and People Who Are Pretty Much Not You

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I don’t know about you but I grew up learning a lot about Jesus’ parables.  I think we all did.  If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, surely every Evangelical 6th grader is an expert on Jesus’ parables.

I was taught these are the fun little children’s stories that came straight from Jesus’ mouth.  They are clever extended metaphors with cute little object lessons that aid dumb people in understanding who God is.  It is still not uncommon for me to read a book that suggests my teaching and preaching should follow the same path.  In so many words these chapters plead for me to be a good Christian teacher who uses silly stories and illustrations for my poor and super dumb pew sitters.  Only by teaching like Jesus did, can my ministry be effective and prosperous.  I wrote a satire piece on this awhile back but let’s just say if your ministry is going to be effective and prosperous doing things the way Jesus did them is not going to help!  After all, the guy was crucified.

I also hope it goes without saying that the gospels do not corroborate this view of the parables.

Instead, Jesus’ parables are deeply offensive and profoundly critical of the religious elites.  He couched his severe criticism in silly stories so that they would dismiss him as harmless.  Then, when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. (See Mark 4:34).  He probably hid his criticism in this way so that they wouldn’t crucify him until his time had come.

Nowhere is this dark side of the parables more evident than in the ones from Holy Week in Matthew 21-25.  During Holy Week Jesus’ parables are more abrupt and less clever.  The attacks become obvious.  The veneer drops off and everyone who hears them know that these parables have a target.  As such, the authorities begin to catch wise that this Jesus guy is not harmless at all.  He is exposing them for the corrupt hypocrites they are.

The first one, in Matthew 21:28-32, is sometimes called “The Parable of the Two Sons.” It goes like this: 

There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.  “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.  Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

It is not so much a story as a question and when the Chief Priests answer, “The first one” Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  Let me interpret that for you, “Yep the first one is better than the second and you the second!  But the people you consider evil are actually the first!”

Sometimes I do think it is no wonder that they crucified him.  After all they put in huge effort to looking and sounding pretty in order to convince people, or maybe just themselves, that they were doing God’s will.  After all, most religious types will tell you God likes pretty people, especially if they’re also polite.  Jesus uses this parable to rip off their pretty, polite masks.  So exposed, everyone sees that what lies underneath is not pretty nor polite but scorn and violent intent.  So of course they wanted him dead.

But what about you and what about me?  Does this parable unmask us as well?  Do we need to hear it as the offensive slap to the face it is?  Do we need our pretty politeness to be stripped off of us?

What if I reworked it a bit?  Try these ones on for size:

There are two sons.  One is a bit unruly and a lot reckless but the minute you need him to run an errand he is there to do it.  The other will smile at you to your face and say, “Yes, father” but the minute you leave town for the weekend, he’ll steal your Harley and crash it into a semi truck.

There are two daughters.  One is kind of a tom boy.  She swears, chews and spits.  She’s never worn a dress and she hangs out with those goths, who dress all in black.  When you ask her to do something, she’ll roll her eyes at you and ask “why?”  But then she always does it.  The other daughter is very beautiful and super polite.  She always says the nicest things.  She remembers her “please’s” and her “thank you’s” and she compliments all the right people.  But whenever you aren’t in the room she lies to your family and friends about how you are cruel and abusive to her and claims you wish she had never been born.

There are two employees.  One shows up a little late, forgets to shave, wears ragged clothes, tells off-color jokes to your most profitable clients and he curses like a sailor.  Yet, boy, does he know his stuff and work his tail off to meet and exceed quarterly goals.  The other always shows up on time.  He wears nice suits and has perfectly formatted hair.  His smile is broad and his words are charming.  But the minute the manager leaves the room he goes back to playing free cell on his computer.

If you will allow me one more, this one for my own unmasking.  There are two pastors.  One is a bit of a mess.  Her sermons are long.  Her exegesis is lacking.  Her mind is forgetful.  But the minute trouble finds you, she rushes over to your house, or hospital or morgue and cries with you until morning.  The other is professional in the extreme.  Her sermons are meticulous.  Her bible knowledge is unparalleled.  Her board meetings are well organized and always get out on time.  But she can’t remember your children’s names and nobody in the church can get a hold of her any time other than on a Sunday morning.

Which of these brothers, sisters, employees and pastors does the will of God?

And which are you?

And are you really going to let the others enter the kingdom of God ahead of you?  Are you going to let them beat you to Golgotha?  Or are you going to pick up your cross and follow?

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Holy Monday Reflection: The Kind of Hero We Need

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For those of you closet Christians, this is a quite notable week in our faith.  It all began yesterday as we celebrated Palm Sunday, the reenactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  From today to Wednesday we study the teachings of Jesus in the temple.  Then on Thursday we gather together for a “Maundy” or “New Commandment” Service where we wash feet and sing about love.  Friday night we descend into darkness as we extinguish candles during a Tenebrae service.  On Saturday we wait.  And then on Sunday the party gets going!

If you are a Christian, this is our week.  It is our time to fast, to pray, to meditate and to attend the special services and to long for the salvation that only Christ can bring.  The goal of Holy Week is to give ourselves over again to the story that we believe changed the world.

But there is another story happening Friday that my news feed won’t shut up about.  It is the epic showdown between Batman and Superman.  And don’t get me wrong, I am kind of excited for Batman Vs. Superman, or BvS as us cool kids are calling it now.  And like most cool kids I am more excited for the “B” than for the “S.”  I fell in love with the Batman mythos through Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, whose stunning second act, “The Dark Knight,” is considered one of the best movies ever made.

The closing act of that movie gave us an iconic line about heroes as Commissioner Gordon tells his recently rescued son, “Batman is the hero we need but not the one we deserve right now.”  That line, right up there with the best of all movie lines, still resonates today.  Sometimes our hero doesn’t look the way we want the hero to look.  Sometimes the hero we need is not the one we want or deserve.  Sometimes the conquering king is actually a crucified criminal.  Sometimes the way, the truth and the life is a carpenter’s son from the middle of nowhere.

That can be quite unsettling.  As a pastor friend and New Testament scholar once reminded me, “The good news doesn’t sound like good news to some people.”

In Mark 11, after Jesus’ triumphal entry, those in established authority roles get nervous.  To them Jesus is not gospel.  He is threat.  He threatens to steal their followers.  He threatens to expose their arrogance and ignorance.  He threatens their long held beliefs.  He threatens their prejudices and power.  And they are not cool with that,  In fact, to them he just might be the kid in the crowd who yells, “Wait, that emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!”

So the chief priests go to Jesus and ask, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things?  Who gave you this authority?” (Mark 11:28).

Jesus is rather coy.  He asks them a question about where John the Baptist’s authority came from, a very clever question because there is not a right answer.  I imagine they stuttered and stammered as they weighed their lack of options before spitting out, “Um, we don’t know.”

But then Jesus tells them a parable about the misuse of authority.  Like most parables it points out to the Chief Priests that they had asked the wrong question.  They wanted to know the source of authority.  Jesus wanted them to know about the misuse of authority.  Jesus told them about a vineyard owner who sent several messengers to collect his share of the profits.  They beat and killed all of the messengers who were sent until the owner finally sent his son, whom they also beat and killed.  Then Jesus closes the parable with, “But the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Mark 12:10-11).

This is not good news to those in authority.  Jesus is not the hero they want at this point and the gospel has become threat.  The stone we builders rejected has become the stone that holds the entire building up.  That tells the world we don’t know much about building after all.

In the same way the gospel reminds us that we are not all that great about religion.  The prophet the theologians and pastors and good church people rejected has become the savior of the world.  The vigilante the police force is trying to capture has become the symbol of justice in our city.  The ingredient the expert chefs threw out is now on the menu of every restaurant in America.

One of the reasons we take great care in telling the Easter story during Holy Week every year is because we need constant reminder that we are the foolish builders, the misguided theologians, the over zealous police force, the lousy cooks.  Yes, we don’t want the world to know it.  Like most people, I would prefer if you all believed I knew what I was talking about.

But in the end our salvation can only come by accepting the truth that the hero we rejected, the one we crucified has become and will always be the savior of the world.

We should not be like those chief priests who immediately wanted to arrest Jesus on the spot.  Instead we should accept the truth of our errors for what it is and turn towards Jesus the author of eternal life.  Only by admitting our ignorance and arrogance and repenting towards the truth can we enter into the glorious Easter morning.

Dear heavenly father, help me to accept the cornerstone and grant me newness of life this Holy Monday morning.