Monday, January 17, 2011

Interpreting parables: the prodigal

In Luke 15 Jesus tells the famous parable of “The Prodigal Son.” The younger son demands his inheritance early, wastes it, then returns to the father, groveling to be treated like a servant. The father welcomes him lovingly, returning honor to him, while the older son grits his teeth in anger that the younger son was accepted.

Everyone focuses on the younger son and the father’s love for him.
It is a great picture of a father eagerly accepting a son he thought was lost, even though the son’s actions caused him great pain. We like to imagine this is how God receives sinners. And, to a degree, our imagining would be accurate.

There are two problems with our typical treatment of the story.

First, we leave out the older brother. A key component of interpreting parables is to look for the reason Jesus told them. Though it doesn’t happen always, on many occasions the author who recorded the event tells us why the parable was given. In Luke 15:1-3, we are told why Jesus told the parable of “The Older Brother.” Scribes and Pharisees were out of sorts because Jesus ate with ‘sinners.’ Verse 3 says ‘so he told them this parable.’

Luke actually records three: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and “The Older Brother.” All three emphasize that there is joy when things thought to be lost were found again. But the point of the telling is in 15:25-32, where the actions and attitudes of the older brother are recorded. He despised his father for glorying in the younger son’s return, because he (the older) had always been there, dutifully obeying the father though he apparently did so with no love in his heart.

Jesus was equating the older brother’s hatred with that of the scribes and Pharisees, who thought that ‘sinners’ were not worthy to receive grace. The parable is still hard-hitting today, when many of us look down on those we think are not worthy of mercy, or to hear the gospel, or to receive our time and energy.

Second, we treat the story as an evangelistic tool. That is, we tell the story of the younger son with a view to persuading men to repent and return to God. It is true that the story contains a marvelous picture of a loving father who welcomes home a wayward son, with all its facets of unconditional love and forgiveness. But a crucial element is missing: substitution.

Our sin separates us from God, like the younger son’s greed and waste separated him from the father. But even if we recognized that fact, and wanted to return to God, God would not — indeed, could not — accept us merely on our desire, no matter how sincere. In God’s economy, our sin incurs a debt against his honor that must be satisfied, and because we cannot satisfy it, there must be One who can. In fact, God provides One who can, and Jesus lived a substitutionary life and died a substitutionary death to provide a life of obedience we couldn’t live and to die the death we couldn’t survive.

Is “The Older Brother” a good story of forgiveness? Sure. But the point of the story, as told by Jesus, was to jab us in the eye and make us repent for feelings of superiority over those we consider worse ‘sinners’ than ourselves.

Watson on meditation

Yoga was recently criticized by Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler because Christians suppose that they can employ some of its techniques without jeopardizing the faith.

Mohler correctly points out that if by that we mean we can practice the physical exercises of Yoga without the meditative elements, then, yes, we can, but it is then not really Yoga, but stretching.

A Christian cannot employ the meditative elements of Yoga — or any other system — and remain true to the Christian faith. The reason is that Yoga requires the “emptying” of the mind, whereas Christianity requires its filling, and transforming. And other systems, if they meditate on anything, meditate upon those things that are contrary to God’s revelation of Himself in nature and in Scripture, and Christian must meditate only upon the truth of God.

But most of us don’t need to worry about improper meditation, because we can’t be still enough with our own thoughts long enough to call it meditation. Our error, instead, is that we don’t meditate at all.
One reason is that it seems to be hard work.

But when we consider our behavior in other areas, maybe it is not so hard as we think. For instance, consider the behavior that prompts someone to say that you are “dwelling” on some thing, or “obsessing” with some person. When we think that we have been wronged, it is not difficult at all for us to “meditate” on the event: the precise order of events surrounding the personal insult; who else, other than the offender, knew about the act, helped plan it, secretly enjoyed it, talked about it behind our back; how we might react to save face, show strength, get revenge, protect our own. We meditate, after all, on those things that we value.

Thomas Watson defines meditation as a “holy exercise of the mind whereby we bring the truths of God to remembrance, and do seriously ponder upon them and apply them to ourselves.” To help with the subject, or object, of meditation, Watson suggests:

1. meditate seriously upon the corruption of your nature.
2. meditate seriously upon the death and passon of Christ.
3. meditate upon your evidence for heaven.
4. meditate upon the uncertaintly of all earthly comforts.
5. meditate on God’s serverity against sin.
6. meditate upon eternal life.

These are certainly not all of the things we can meditate upon, but give us a good guide. Scripture itself should be the foundation for meditating upon any of these subjects Watson mentions, and God’s word is always conducive to meditation.

So, while we don’t sit in the Lotus position repeating ‘ohmmm,’ Christians should meditate, upon the reality of God’s character, our nature, His redemption, and our future state in glory.

If the kingdom is "at hand" why do things look the same?

Many unbelievers point to continued suffering in the world as evidence that there is, in fact, no “kingdom” of Christ. How good can the reign of a holy God be when it is attended by oppression, sickness, disaster and continued strife between men? If a “king” has come, shouldn’t we see his throne, his castle, his fortifications and armies?

Unfortunately, many believers look at the world around us and and ask the same question, leading to doubts, insecurity, and a ministry characterized by ineffectiveness and fruitlessness.

Mark 1:14-20 addresses some of those concerns. Even though the arrival of the kingdom is not accompanied by great fanfare (castles and armies and such), it demands radical change in the lives of those who hear of its arrival.

Several conditions attend the arrival of the kingdom.

First, its Context is Immediate. Jesus says that the “time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand.” Unlike ourexpressions in which we use “kingdom come” as a distant event (“you could tell him that until kingdom come”), we pray “thy kingdom come” in recognition that the kingdom is both here and is also coming: it is “already, but not yet.”

Second, its Circumstance is Normal. Mark quotes Old Testament prophets to teach that John the Baptizer was the messenger before the Lord/LORD, and that Jesus is the “one greater than” John. But with the arrival of the king, and of the kingdom, Andrew and Simon still have to fish for a living. Men still need to eat. James and John still have to mend broken nets. The earth still yields thorns and thistles from the curse of the Fall (Genesis 3).

Third, its Demands are Comprehensive. The kingdom is at hand, so “repent, and believe the gospel.” When a king has conquered territory and is establishing the reign in his realm, the occupants have a choice: join the new kingdom or rebel and face the consequences.

Fourth, its Effects are Radical. The king issues a call that is 1) to him — not to a cause or to a principle; 2) to service — to become fishers of men, not to simply know something; and 3) to fellowship — he calls men to follow among others whose names they know, not to a faith that is private or anonymous. And men leave all to follow him. Andrew, Simon, James and John left their business, their family and even those on the payroll in order to follow Jesus.

Are we, too, required to quit work? Not necessarily. But if mending nets and tending family prevent us from following him, they must go.

The fanfare of the kingdom of Christ is the radical change of nature, the wholesale reorientation of mind, will and emotions, that occurs in men when they are exposed to the arrival of the kingdom in the preaching of the gospel, hear the call of Christ, and repent and believe.
It does not matter, then, that the nets are still broken.

God sends the promised Lord

In Mark 1:1-13, the gospel writer introduces us to the “gospel of Jesus Christ.”

His first step is to recall Old Testament prophecy regarding God’s promise to send a messenger to prepare the way before the Lord/LORD (the Old Testament passages use both terms). So we have both a promise from God that he will send the Lord, and also a promise from Him to the Lord that he will prepare the way.

In comes the vivid imagery of John the Baptizer, dressed in camel fur and eating bugs in the desert. Obviously, from the text, he is the messenger preparing the way. But how? And why would the Lord come from God into the desert?

John prepares the way by baptizing people and preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. These are radical departures from the norm for Israel: baptism was for Gentiles and Israel secured forgiveness (atonement) through the sacrifice of animals. John’s preaching included the admonition that there was ‘one greater’ who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Then appears Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee: a nobody from nowhereville. He comes to the desert and gets baptized by John in the Jordan, just like everyone else. Could this be the ‘one greater’? Certainly not. But Mark confirms Jesus’ status by recording what he saw: the heavens opening, the Spirit descending, heaven talking. Then a curious thing happens: Jesus is expelled to the desert.

If everyone was in the desert already listening to John, how bad must it be if you are expelled from there to the desert?

Mark doesn’t leave us wondering at Jesus’ status, though. Even while he is in the wilderness being tempted, angels are tending to him.

So in Mark’s introduction we have Old Testament prophecy regarding the messenger and the Lord; John’s appearance and prophecy that ‘one greater’ was coming; the ‘one greater’ would baptize with the Holy Spirit; Jesus of Nazareth is baptized by John and baptized (to a degree) by the Holy Spirt; Jesus’ baptism is attended by eschatalogically significant events of heavens opening and heaven (God) speaking; Jesus is personally attended by angels.

Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah (Christ), but not only is he flesh and blood — nobody from nowhereville — he is the Son of God, a kinship confirmed by miraculous and prophetic signs