After an Ash Wednesday hiatus, the Saving Jesus class resumed at my former church this week, with one of the participants as leader because the minister was out of town. In his absence, amazingly, several people revealed a deep understanding of and attachment to the Incarnation and salvation by grace. It made me hopeful that this church could once again be on fire for Christ if it had the right leadership. “Shall these bones live?”
The video presentation about Jesus’ teachings focused on several instances where he reversed his culture’s usual understanding of purity: the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, and two brief sayings from Matthew 13:31-33:
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”According to the video, the mustard plant was a weed that could take over the garden. Yeast was considered impure or unclean in Jewish culture. How is God like the mustard plant? Maybe you don’t want Him in your life, because His presence can get out of control. Maybe He’s hiding in something or someone you think of as beneath you. When your openness to discovering God outweighs your attachment to fixed ideas about pure/impure, high/low, you are getting a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven.
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
With the leaven, Jesus gives us a powerful metaphor for the Incarnation. God is not tainted by commingling with impurity. In fact, He becomes the impure substance (takes on human flesh) and dies, is consumed, is merged into a new thing, the bread of life.
In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the priest and the Levite don’t pass by the nearly-dead man because they’re hypocrites. They are simply observing the purity laws that would make them unfit to perform their duties if they touched a corpse. Because the Samaritan belongs to a despised group of apostate Jews who accepted the Torah but not the rest of the Old Testament or the rabbinic laws, this ironically gives him the opportunity to help where others failed.
One of the class participants pointed out that Jesus actually never says that the Law, or the concept of purity (ritual or ethical), is BAD. This is in contrast to the simplistic antinomianism of the theologians on the video, who mainly see Jesus as a revolutionary leader in a world comprised of guilty oppressors and innocent victims. No less than the Levites’ purity codes, this utopian liberalism helps us avoid facing the universality of sin. As the old joke says, there are two kinds of people in this world: the ones who think there are two kinds of people in this world and the ones who don’t.
As the discussion progressed, the class concluded that Jesus spoke in parables and aphorisms because he wanted to frustrate our habits of dualistic thinking. Wisdom involves balancing competing principles in a way that takes account of the individual situation, whereas we love to pick our favorite rule and apply it mechanically to every case. Wisdom begins with actually seeing the other person, instead of first seeing our own ideas about him. Of course, when we rely on our own observations, we must face our responsibility for our mistaken judgments (no more hiding behind the rules), which makes us aware of our need for grace.
That’s the gospel, boys and girls! Enjoy it.