Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Wednesday in Lent 2: Separating the true from the false

Opening Sentence
Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Mark 8:34

Commemoration: Perpetua and Her Companions
O God the King of saints, who strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Psalter: Psalm 72

Lessons: Genesis 42:18-28, 1 Corinthians 5:9-6:8, Mark 4:1-20

The most enduring, and unfortunate, innovation of the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the replacement of the biblical understanding of the kingdom of God with the utopian ideal of the universal fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man. We see the continued influence of this ideal today in the so-called "Emergent" movement which has recycled and repackaged much of mainline Protestant liberalism, which standardized and institutionalized many Social Gospel innovations. Thus, the image of Jesus as a great teacher of peace and harmony among all persons remains a prominent feature of pop culture Christianity. Today's Gospel reading, however, challenges that image.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus is painting a picture of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God which brings not unity, but division--and a most uneven division at that. Some will want nothing to do with it. Others will fall out as quickly as they rushed in. Still others will miss out because they are too invested in the current order of things. Only those who have "ears to hear" will come into the kingdom and prosper. In other words, only one fourth of those to whom the kingdom is proclaimed will ultimately be brought into it. This is not exactly "good news" in the popular sense of the term. N.T. Wright, comparing Jesus' parables to political cartoons, explains:

Everything Jesus does creates division within the Israel of his day. The parables not only explain this, but are themselves part of the process. They work, they function, as a sharply focused version of Jesus' entire ministry. Hence the comment in the middle. Jesus is not only telling them the dream, but giving them the interpretation. He is not only sketching the cartoon, but explaining the code. But those outside, who are fascinated by the story and the picture, can't understand it.

Why not? Doesn't Jesus want everybody to get the message? Yes and no. What he is saying is such dynamite that it can't be said straightforwardly, out on the street. Any kingdom-movement was dangerous enough (if Herod, or the Roman authorities, heard about it, they'd be worried); but if word got out that Jesus' kingdom-vision was radically unlike what most people wanted and expected, the ordinary people would be furious too. It was doubly dangerous. Put the cartoon into plain prose and somebody might sue.

It's a 'mystery' (verse 11): not just a puzzle, but a divine secret which Jesus is revealing. But as with all divine revelation, you can only understand if you believe, if you trust. (Mark for Everyone, Westminster John Knox Press 2001, p. 44)

This is not the only parable of Jesus which speaks of separation and division. The trap we often fall into, trying to apply them to our own day (as opposed to understanding them, first, as they would have been understood--or misunderstood--in Jesus' day), is that we try to interpret them in terms of the kingdom's final consummation, rather than in terms of its initial inauguration. There is, of course, a deep eschatological element to the parables. Jesus' purpose, however, in telling them to a first century Jewish audience immersed in misguided expectations of the coming of the kingdom was, precisely, to separate the true Israel--those who had "ears to hear" and put their trust in him as the long-awaited Messiah--from those, like the religious establishment, who claimed a spiritual birthright on the basis of purely natural circumstances. To that audience, Jesus declared that the kingdom of God was already breaking forth in their midst and the time for decision was imminent. The parables themselves were part and parcel to the kingdom's breaking forth. By speaking in the language of mystery, Jesus was beginning the process of separating out the true children of the kingdom from the pretenders, a separation that continues to this day whenever the Word of God is preached and its hearers either receive or reject it.


Lord of the Dance