Friday, January 26, 2018

WHY I WROTE "PARABLES BEFORE JESUS"

Those of us who are Christians associate parables with our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. Certainly a master of them, He painted with them clear pictures, not only of the world around Him, but also of the world to come — the Kingdom of Heaven — a realm that lies beyond human experience, yet can be illustrated for us humans with homely, everyday objects and actions that all of us know and understand.

In Christian thought, parables are so closely linked to Jesus that many Christians think that they began with Him. He didn't invent parables; they were teachings with which He had grown familiar through Hebrew Scripture as He heard it in the synagogue and in everyday life. As Jesus used parables, earlier prophets had used them to teach heavenly truths in earthly terms — to explain the unexplainable in stories that would stick in a listener's mind. The goal of a teller of parables was to turn a common object — a bramble bush, a lamb, a linen belt, or a clay pot — into an object lesson reminding us — as bread and wine remind those of us who are Christians of the body and blood of Christ given in sacrifice for our sins — of something greater than ourselves — of the God Who is above and beyond our earthly lives, yet connected with them at every instant.

In Hebrew Scripture, parables were generally told by prophets, persons called by God to reveal heavenly truths to God's people. A parable came amid a crisis in an individual's or in the people's life to teach that person or the people what'd gone wrong. Often, we — for a parable to do us any good, we need to see that it may well apply to each of us just as much as it applied to the person to whom it was originally told — have grown blind to a situation around us and need a parable to help us see that situation with new eyes — with God's eyes, which see clearly what we may wish to hide, however much denial may hurt us and those around us. We can thus think of a parable as a divine wake-up call, which comes to us loud and clear when we've fallen asleep to the truth. If we sleep through the wake-up call, we have only ourselves to blame for the consequences of ignoring a warning meant to save us from ourselves.

The earliest parables, given in the time of the judges (leaders called by God to deal with specific crises among the Children of Israel in the Promised Land) or of good King David and evil King Ahab, dealt with political turmoil among the Hebrews, yet have clear lessons for us today. From "King Bramble," we learn that, if good persons refuse to govern a land, an evil person will govern it. From "One Little Ewe Lamb," we learn that, in God's eyes, a ruler has no right to oppress his subjects for personal gain. From "The Lying Spirit," we learn that a ruler who rejects good advice will come someday not even to recognize it when he hears it. The situations to which these parables responded are distant from our own, and the details of these parables are foreign to our modern world, but the truths that the parables teach are as current as today's headlines.

As the kingdom founded by God through good King David fell and went into exile, Hebrew parables reached their zenith through four great prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. In "God's Vineyard," Isaiah shows us how God cares for us with love, yet we discard his blessings and bring catastrophe on ourselves by doing things in our own way. In "The Yokes," Jeremiah shows us how God works through the world's events, and how what we may see as evil, God may be using for good. In the shocking, scandalous "Two Sisters," Ezekiel shows us that the relationship between God and His people is a spiritual marriage — a marriage that we can ruin, with disastrous effects on ourselves, through our unfaithfulness to our heavenly spouse. In "The Bad Shepherd," Zechariah shows us how a people, grown used to the corruption of bad rulers, may spurn a good ruler when he comes.

In presenting and explaining a selection of twenty parables from Hebrew Scripture, I've tried to give you a chronological picture of the life of God's people, Israel, and the crises that arose among it. When we learn what God was telling His people through these parables, we'll see that they're not dry facts from a distant time, but life lessons for all of time — for us today as we face crises that the Children of Israel would've understood from their own experiences. God's light, regardless of the situation on which it shines, is eternal, revealing to those who have eyes to see truths that are always valid. Let's learn from the parables of Hebrew Scriptures what we can use to live at peace with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with God today.


You can learn more about Parables before Jesus by clicking on Look Inside.

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Friday, January 19, 2018

WHY I WROTE "STAND AT THE CROSSROADS"

Few events are more dramatic than is a city's fall to a foreign invader. Such an event awakens in us questions:

what went wrong?
how did a place once strong become weak enough to succumb to outside forces?
did weakness come from within?
could that weakness also be in us?
what can we do to avoid the fallen city's fate?

In the Book of Jeremiah, we witness the fall of God's holy city, Jerusalem, and get answers to our questions about that fall — answers valid for us today. The answers come through a prophet — a person called by God to reveal God's word to the world — a young man born to be a priest, but repurposed by God for a thankless, but needful task. He'd face relentless opposition to his work in revealing God's will, yet would persist in that work through the fire of God's Holy Spirit within him. He was a hero of the faith because he stood up for the truth amid a world in which all things had become relative to the people's short-term desires and fears. In facing opposition, he felt all of the fear natural to one in deadly danger. He was not a superhero, but an ordinary person like any of us. From him, we can learn how to rely on God's promises to enable us to do what fear would keep us from doing.

Tragically, Jeremiah had to oppose rulers whose authority had come from God. The kings of Judah, the kingdom in which Jeremiah lived, were legitimate successors to David, the shepherd — the man after God's own heart — whom God had called to reign from the holy city of Jerusalem. The priests in God's temple were, as Jeremiah himself was, legitimate descendants of Aaron, the high priest whom God had called to start the cycle of offerings and sacrifices still going on at Solomon's Temple in Jeremiah's day.

Sadly, the leaders were legitimate, but their beliefs, their speech, and their actions weren't. As the leaders had gone, so had the people. They'd chosen short-term, material benefits in the here and now at the cost of abandoning the long-term, spiritual benefits of staying faithful to God. They'd chosen to justify their choice of wrong beliefs, speech, and action at the cost of oppressing those who desired to believe, say, and do what's right in God's eyes. They'd chosen to make peace with a world that'd fallen into apostasy, idolatry, materialism, aggressive war, slavery, and political oppression — a world more like our own than we may wish to admit it is.

Whether we know peace — our living safely and prosperously with one another in right relationships rooted in a right relationship with God — depends on the kind of shepherd that we have over us. We don't like to think of ourselves as sheep, but, in terms of our acting blindly, going astray, and harming ourselves and others through unwise choices, we often are. To make things worse, we're sheep with the nature of wolves, preying on other members of our flock. It takes a good shepherd, whether of sheep or of human beings, to ensure that a flock's physical needs are met and that it's protected from outside predators — in the case of human beings, sometimes from its own members. Sadly, in Jeremiah's day, many of the shepherds had become wolves, preying on the weak and the needy whom they were supposed to protect. What was the people of Judah supposed to do? What are we when we face bad shepherds?

In the short term, the faithful citizens of Judah suffered. They watched their beloved city go through a siege and be burned to the ground; they went into exile in Babylon, a city that's become a byword for godless, self-indulgent, oppressive materialism. There, they faced choices: they could fall into despair, they could strike out against their oppressors in vengeful violence — or they could choose hope. Jeremiah's word to them was to choose a lifestyle based on trusting in God and doing the right thing: building homes, raising families, praying and working for the good of the evil city in which they lived, and waiting for God to restore them to their homeland of faith.

In the long run, Judah's faithful citizens expected the coming of a heaven-sent deliverer, the Branch — Messiah, the anointed ruler who'd deliver the faithful from oppression and rule the world with righteousness. Those of us who are Christian identify Messiah with Jesus Christ, the Son of God — our Savior. The Branch, Messiah, would be a faithful shepherd who'd put the flock's needs ahead of his own and win for the flock safety in which it could serve God, not with outward ritual, but with inner belief resulting in outward service of love for God and of love for neighbors.

Through the examples of Jeremiah's successes and failures, and through God's word as he revealed it, we can learn how to handle hard times. While we wait, as the faithful in Judah waited, for Messiah's coming, we can believe, think, and act as God wants us to. We can be witnesses to a fallen world by living in faith rather than surrendering to despair. We can be lanterns shedding the light of God amid the world's darkness.


STAND AT THE CROSSROADS: Lessons from the Book of Jeremiah is available in Kindle format. You can read the book's opening chapters by clicking on Look inside.

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