Monday, March 24, 2014

I love a good story

Crash Course 7

            I barely tolerated the non-fiction cards in the SRA reading program we used at East Brook Elementary School in Park Ridge, NJ. I happily worked through the fiction cards and then begrudgingly read non-fiction when I’d completed fiction. 

            As I matured, I developed a tolerance and then an appreciation for non-fiction. But stories are still best. For every non-fiction book I read, I probably read twenty novels. 

            Jesus told great stories; we call them parables. 

            I relied on William Barclay when preparing to teach my students about parables. Barclay taught me how to recognize a parable. The most obvious way:  The Gospel writer says it is, like “And he taught them many things by parables…” (Mark 4:2) Some other good ways:

  • ·         It sounds like a story:  “A certain man had two sons…” (Luke 15:11)
  • ·         It makes a comparison:  “It is like a mustard seed…” (Mark 4:31)
  • ·         It begins ““What shall we say the kingdom of God is like…?” (Mark 4:30)    
           Barclay also gave guidelines for interpreting a parable. Sometimes Jesus comes right out and says what everything means, like in the parable of the farmer and the soils in Mark 4.

  • ·         If Jesus doesn’t explain it, look for one main point, usually at the end.
  • ·         Parables are not highly developed allegories where every blade of grass stands for something. In the parable of the two sons, starting at Luke 15:11, the pig slop was just pig slop, a great detail to add description to the setting. No secret meaning, just pig slop.
  • ·         What circumstances or questions led to the parable? The three parables in Luke 15 are preceded by the complaint, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Verse 2)
  • ·         Finally, notice how the original audience reacted to the parable. In Mark 12:12, “Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” 
            Jesus told three stories of lostness—is that a word?—which are recorded in Luke 15. He told about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. 

            The sheep was naively lost. It just wandered away. I’ve heard that sheep are not the brightest animals. 

            The coin was unwittingly lost. We can’t even give it as much blame as the sheep. The coin was not even alive and self aware.

            The son was willfully lost. He chose to get lost, to get away from rules and responsibilities.

            I see two threads connecting the three stories:  The desire of the owner to find each lost item and the overwhelming joy when each item is found. 

            Whether we are naively lost, unwittingly lost, or willfully lost, we are valuable to God and he wants us back. Jesus not only hung around with people disapproved of by self-called good people, he also told these three stories comparing sinners and tax collectors to items of great value in his day—livestock, gold, and sons.

            If we doubt God’s joy at finding us, look at the tenderness of the shepherd toward the found sheep:  He carried it home on his shoulders. Look at the tenderness of the father toward the returning son:  He ran to greet him, hugged and kissed him, cleaned him and clothed him, and barbecued a huge rack of baby back ribs.

Luke 15
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
The Parable of the Lost Coin
“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
The Parable of the Lost Son
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Luke 15, NIV, via

Friday, March 14, 2014

Inside the Miracle

Crash Course 6
            Sixteen verses in the KJV Gospels contain the word “miracle.” Only eleven verses do in the NIV Gospels. (Thanks to Except the word “miracle” doesn’t exactly exist in the Greek New Testament, the source of all other translations.
            There are actually three Greek words that may be translated "miracle" in English.
  • Terr-as means “wonder;” we get the word “terrible” from teras.
  • Doo-na-mis means “power;” we get the word dynamite from dunamis.
  • Same-e-on means “sign.” 
          I regret I can't impress you with the Greek letters. When I pasted the Word document into the blog, they disappeared. Turned back into a pumpkin like Cinderella's carriage. 
          These three words fit well into the definition I shared in Crash Course 5. A miracle is an unusual event (wonder) requiring the act of a supernatural agent (power) performed to authenticate the message or messenger (sign).
            John uses “sign” to mean what we would call “miracle” seventeen times in his Gospel. He features seven signs as he does seven “I am” statements of Jesus. (Except there’s really a bonus sign and a bonus “I am.” I love bonuses.)
            The first sign, John writes, occurred at a village in Galilee.
            There had never been a celebration like it and there hasn’t been one since—a wedding with Jesus as a guest. The bride and groom and their families and friends were honored by Jesus’ first miracle…and they didn’t even know it. The wine had run out and Jesus instructed the servants to fill six huge stone jars with water. He then told them to dip into a jar and take some to the master of the feast—a wedding planner in today’s lingo—who marveled that the best wine had been saved for last.
            A little phrase in John 2:9 grabs me: …the servants who had drawn the water knew. The wedding planner didn’t realize he was drinking a miracle, but the servants knew. He experienced the relief of a problem solved, and the momentary pleasure of excellent wine, but the servants experienced Jesus.
            They never imagined they would participate in a miracle when they followed the order, Do whatever Jesus tells you. (John 2:5) Jesus’ command to fill water jars might have seemed pointless, but they obeyed, hauling over one hundred gallons. And their obedience put them inside the miracle.
            This leaves me wondering what you and I might experience if we do whatever Jesus tells us to do.

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples,
which are not recorded in this book.
But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah,
the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30 – 31, NIV

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Miracle Man

Crash Course 5
            You can’t discuss Jesus and not talk about miracles.
            A few years ago, I found this definition of a miracle, and I’ve taught it to my students ever since:  An unusual event, requiring a supernatural agent, that authenticates the message or the messenger. (I would credit the source, but I don’t remember it.)
            In plain English that means a miraculous event is not an everyday ordinary event. It’s not accomplished by humans alone without God's help. It’s done to reveal the identity of the miracle worker or the truth of his message.
            Of course we toss around the word “miracle” in everyday language. That’s okay so long as we recognize that’s not how it’s being used in the Bible. I’ve heard people gush over the miracle of a new baby. (Um, we know what causes that. And it happens a lot.) Now when Mary conceived Jesus without Joseph’s help, THAT was a miracle.
            Or the miracle of modern medicine. Believe me, I am very thankful for the brilliant, skilled doctor who put two titanium plates and ten screws in my right ankle last November. However, I believe he went to medical school to learn how to do that. Now if the second set of x-rays had revealed no fractures, THAT would have been a miracle.
            If everything is a miracle, then nothing is a miracle.
            One of my favorite miracles happened fairly early in Jesus’ public ministry, before his disciples had quite figured out who he was.
35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
41 They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4, NIV)
            What were his disciples expecting when they wakened Jesus? The squall that quickly hit them was so turbulent that these professional fisherman feared they would drown. What did they want when they asked Jesus, “Don’t you care?” Did they hope he would help row the boat or bail water, or at least commiserate with them?
            I don’t think they were expecting Jesus to address the wind and waves as rowdy children on a Saturday morning. “You guys settle down! I’m trying to get some sleep!” The complete calm following Jesus’ words created terror in the hearts of his disciples. Now they had a bigger issue than a storm to deal with.
            They had to decide, “Who is this?” 

Even the wind and waves obey him, even the stormy sea.
Even the wind and waves obey him--why shouldn't we?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Come see a man

Crash Course 4

            “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.”
             Back up an hour or more. A woman comes to the town’s well in the heat of the day to get the water needed for her cooking and household chores. She comes alone because Sychar’s other women accomplished this task hours earlier in the cool of the new morning.
             Jesus shows up, also alone, having sent his guys to buy food. Jesus and the woman have a lively conversation about customs, history, theology, the messiah, and her personal life.

      He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
      “I have no husband,” she replied.
      Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
        Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. (John 4:16 – 19, NIV)
            Would that be my response to a stranger who knew the personal details of my life? 

            In the movies, hit men are hired to silence those who know too much. In politics, candidates drop out of races when something unsavory is revealed from their past.
            Somehow the woman didn’t feel threatened by Jesus’ knowledge of her. Instead, she wanted her neighbors to also experience the love without condemnation that can only come from God. 

            That’s the love Christ gives us. That’s the love he wants us to offer to others.

“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”
John 4:29