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Why the Parables are Integral to Matthew’s Gospel

Parable of Sower

Hortus Delicaiarum, 1180, Latin for “Garden of Delights” illustrating the Sower and the Seed parable.  In medieval manuscript from Alsace, France–the first encyclopedia written by a woman (for young novices at the convent). Source: Wikipedia Commons, License CC-BY-SA 3.0

The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) share similarities with each other, including their versions of Jesus’ parables. (The Gospel of John doesn’t contain parables.)

When I discovered that Jesus’ parables constitute over one-third of the Master’s teachings in these three books, it was time to treat them as more than loved stories whose characters have seeped into our collective vocabulary (i.e. ‘the good Samaritan’; ‘the prodigal son’, etc.). Someone wrote that ‘familiarity breeds complacency’. How many times have we read or heard, ‘a sower went out to sow’ and partially mused, ‘I already know what that means’? That’s probably a wake-up call, as it was for me this past year, to get serious and dig in more.

Among the many discoveries associated with this new study of the parables, is the conviction—once again—that powerful insights await the student who reads these Gospels continuously, chapter by chapter, in addition to pouring over favorite verses.

For example, Matthew’s parables are clustered primarily in chapter 13. Why? Did Matthew do that intentionally? If so, what point is he trying to help the reader see? What precedes this chapter to lay the groundwork for them? Is there an overall theme Matthew puts forward in which I could better understand the seven parables clustered here? (Asking these kinds of questions is my favorite tool in Bible study.) The answers require a bit of historical background.

Matthew is thought to have written his story of Christ Jesus almost half a century after the Master’s ministry (probably around the mid-80’s CE). By that time, the Antioch, Syria church where Matthew was a key member, was facing the demands of helping pagan Gentiles both convert to, and learn, Jesus’ teachings. They also had to integrate the Jewish members of their congregation, people who had long been awaiting the Messiah and felt Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the one. Matthew’s Gospel was an answer to help both the new converts understand Christ Jesus’ teachings as well as build a church of disparate individuals into the one ‘body of Christ’, as Paul called it (I Cor. 12:27).

Approaching his Gospel logically, Matthew first tells the birth story in light of Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s Messianic prophesies. Then he shares the Messiah’s words (chapters 5 – 7, Sermon on the Mount). Next are the Messiah’s works, Chapters 8 – 9, those healings that demonstrate the earlier words. Next, Matthew reveals the mounting resistance to his words and works (Chapters 10-12).

By the time chapter 13 arrives filled with parables, Matthew is laying out for those early workers and us today, Jesus’ parables– often with surprising twists and turns–as a way to illustrate what followership or discipleship looks like.

For example, what is required to go to ‘the other side’ of the lake (Sea of Galilee) with a few disciples while the crowds watch on the shore (see Matt. 8:18)? Is that merely a verse describing changing geography?   Or is Matthew teeing up what’s coming if you’re ready and willing to make a life-changing commitment to the Master’s teachings? Will you encounter storms, such as those disciples did who got on the boat (see Matt. 8:23-27)? Or will you observe from a safe distance, perhaps on a symbolic shore of non-commitment? You get to decide what Matthew is trying to tell us

I invite you to reread Chapter 13, not just for its rich seven parables, but with these portions of chapter 8 in mind. Please share what you discover on your own journey in discipleship.

(More on the parables in future blogs.)


Jonah: An Ancient Archie Bunker?!

Jonah and the Whale, Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1568-1625

Last week’s blog in this three part series was the world OF the text. Now is part two: the world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals).

One way to initially unpack a Biblical text is to find out when it was written– providing often-significant context for why this story, told at this time.

Jonah is written quite late in Israel’s history, around 400 BCE, over a century after their return from Babylonian captivity. Yet the story centers on a much earlier time when the city of Nineveh needs to be saved. Founded on the east bank of the Tigris River originally by the first Babylonian Empire, the city was rebuilt as the capital of the Assyrian Empire around 705 BCE.

Before Nineveh was destroyed in 612 BCE (by a combined force of Babylonians and Medes), they had a long history of cruelty, especially toward their conquered enemy, Israel. Centuries before, in 922 BCE, Israel’s citizens were defeated and deported, forced into an exile where all they loved was at risk of being lost: their culture, history, language and religion.

The result? Assyria became Israel’s most hated and feared oppressor, known for violence and cruelty in its capital. Israel prayed that God’s wrath would consume its enemies, especially the Ninevites.

Enter Jonah, a dedicated Jew convinced the Ninevites should not only not be saved, but God should punish them for their inflicted misery. After all, wasn’t God supposed to avenge Israel’s enemies, a theological view entertained for centuries?

Yet by 400 BCE, Nineveh’s greatness was long over. So what was the little book’s purpose? To stop the growing nationalistic and racial attitudes developing after the Babylonian Exile, especially since the Jews had just passed a law that they alone could stay in Jerusalem.

I think of Jonah as a kind of Old Testament “Archie Bunker”, a narrow-minded prophet given the opportunity to think differently about a bitter enemy, shedding prejudice and bigotry. But first, he had to respond to God’s call.

Consider the sympathetic portrayal of the sailors and Ninevites, both heathen groups willing to acknowledge God and repent of sins. Didn’t this indicate they weren’t nearly the pagans Jonah (i.e. the Jews) assumed them to be?

The Book of Jonah teaches us through negative example.   Told as the only Old Testament parable, it delivers its point through symbolism.   It becomes the reader’s task to figure out, for example,

  • Does Jonah stand for something larger, such as Jews directed to share God’s word beyond their borders?
  • Is Nineveh a whale that had swallowed Israel?
  • Is King Cyrus of Persia the whale willing to spit you up to live again?

As in any parable, the reader will draw his or her own conclusions. And since parables are timeless, we’ll explore in the third and final column, how to bring Jonah’s oh-so-contemporary lessons forward. Until then, happy pondering!


Jonah’s Enemies: Narrowness & Nationalism

Jonah is one of those Biblical books that can make me squirm.  More than the ‘whale of a tale’ of childhood Bible stories, this parable offers food for thought sometimes tough to digest, not unlike the whale who couldn’t quite swallow this Avoider.

JonahJonah makes us look closer at hints of self-absorption that make me want to run to the Tarshish-equivalent of today,  comfortable homes and lives. That means shutting out the heart-rending news like the hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees run from their once-comfortable homes throughout the Middle East. Does Jonah help me see I have a role in this modern-day forced Exodus? But we get ahead of ourselves.

There are lots of ways to look at a Biblical text, but here are three that BibleRoads will explore this month:

  1. The world OF the text (plots, characters, setting and themes)
  2. The world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals)
  3. The world in FRONT of the text (how you bring it forward to your life today).

So in this first of three blogs on the short Old Testament book of Jonah, we’ll look at the world OF the text.

Plot: Prophet gets God-given directive to go save others, resists, runs, turns, complies and ends in a snit of self-absorption.   Wow! How’s that for a Biblical plot loaded with lessons to teach?

Characters: The prophet, Jonah; the (pagan) sailors; the (pagan) people of Nineveh; a crustacean (with a digestive challenge), and God.

Setting: Israel, somewhere near Joppa, where the prophet lives; Tarshish, farthest western point of then-civilization (in today’s Spain); Nineveh, home to one of Israel’s arch enemies, a major city in northern Mesopotamia and former capital of Assyria until 612 BCE when it was destroyed; an orchard east of Nineveh, containing the Bible’s most famous gourd.

Themes: People can repent and find God, even those who don’t know Him. God cares and loves all people, including animals. God provides and appoints his messengers/prophets to help others but they must be obedient to this call. If we are initially running from God’s call on our lives, we always have another opportunity to turn and be obedient to this call. You can run but not hide from God and your conscience. That despite self-absorption, God provides the opportunity to learn it is never about just the individual, but the individual in relation to community.

If you’ve ever looked at ‘others’ (i.e. those unlike ourselves and our ‘tribe’) with a bit of a downward glance, then you get how much the creep of spiritual insularity must be guarded against. What do you do to stave off the mental isolationism that doesn’t pray for those in the toughest of circumstances?  Learning from Jonah is a good place to start.

We’ll keep exploring Jonah’s teachings in part two: the world BEHIND the text (concerns, circumstances and experiences of individuals) next week. Happy digging!


The Power of Jesus’ Post-Resurrection Appearances

Peter the Apostle Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_St._Peter_in_Prison_(The_Apostle_Peter_Kneeling)_-_Google_Art_Project

St. Peter in Prison, Rembrandt van Rijn

This is the next in a series of April blogs on the resurrection appearances that occurred in an ancient spring some 21 centuries ago, according to the Gospel of Luke.

The second time Jesus comes to view after the resurrection isn’t narrated like the other two–meeting the Emmaus followers, and greeting disciples in the upper room–since it is mentioned in only a single verse, Luke 24:34.

       They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!  

The disciples are sharing this startling yet inspired news with the two returnees from Emmaus who have their own story to share.  And while they’re relaying this fulfillment of prophesy

       …Jesus himself stood among them…(Luke 24:36).

Two post-resurrection appearances to groups (one small, one larger) prompted the question:  why a post-resurrection appearance to Peter exclusively? One answer comes from what might seem a surprising source: the apostle Paul.  His letter to the Corinthians  is the only other mention of this appearing:

       …and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas then to the twelve (I Cor. 15:5).

We know Paul and Peter had a deep friendship in their mutual missions to spread the Good News to respective audiences of Gentiles and Jews. But the seeds of that friendship began in a quiet two-week  visit to Jerusalem shortly after Paul’s conversion. Returning from the desert near Damascus, Paul must have longed to understand more about Jesus and his mission, so he journeyed to those who knew him best: James, the brother of Jesus who would have grown up with the Master; and Peter, the disciple so close to Jesus during his three year ministry on whom Jesus said he would build his church.

            Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days;   19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:18).

Wouldn’t that have been a conversation to witness!  One can only imagine the new convert sharing his own Damascus road post-resurrection experience with Peter who would have understood like few others.

Why is all this relevant? Because both post-resurrection appearances of Peter and Paul reveal that Christ comes to us individually to correct and heal whatever is not serving God’s purpose.   In both cases, each man had serious issues to work through. Peter denied Jesus and Paul, as a Pharisee, would have been all too glad to see the Romans crucify him—evidenced by Saul’s earlier persecution of Jesus’ followers.

The dark side of human nature had been evidenced in both men, but their commitment was needed for enormous missions going forward.   In a short three day span, Peter had fallen asleep at the needed moment of standing guard in Gethsemane, had angrily taken up a sword to strike the high priest’s soldier, and finally shown a tragic lack of boldness that produced history’s most famous betrayal. Was this really the man capable enough to build Christ’s church?

Whatever the risen Christ said to Peter in that individual appearance, will remain one of the unknowns of history. But we can see the profound affect it had on Peter to go forward as the Master originally declared he would, building a church that stands today. That ought to give the rest of us courage to get on with our own apostolic work as well.


Why The Sower and the Seed Parable Deserves Close Attention

Rembrandt Christ Appearing

Christ Appearing to the Apostles (Rembrandt Etching, 1656, partial view)

As you study Jesus’ parables’, it becomes obvious quickly how important the Sower and the Seed story is, one of the few to appear in all three synoptic Gospels. (John’s Gospel doesn’t contain any parables.)

But even more noticeable is that the Sower and the Seed story leads the rest, in Matthew (Matt. 13:3-17), Mark (Mark 4:1-9) and Luke (Luke 8:4-8) where the majority of them cluster. There should be bells and whistles dinging somewhere for us right now, prompting questions. Why is this parable so significant that it leads the rest?   What are the three Gospel writers trying to tell us by such placement?

First, we know the parable tells of four states of soil, or thought, that have various challenges for the seed to truly take root and grow. Only in the fourth are the conditions of soil and cultivation right for a harvest. Jesus tells the parable to a crowd but then goes through an explanation of what it means or how to interpret it.

By looking at what is before and after the parable, Mark’s text sheds further light. Recall that Mark often likes to bracket his material with relevant teachings both before and after a story. For the Sower and Seed parable, this ‘sandwich’ affect offers new insights.

Mark 3:31-35 sets up the story:

 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your  mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

This seems a bit harsh — Jesus referring to his family as being outside, literally and figuratively. After the parable appears as the middle portion (Mark 4:1-9), there follows a final section of material which returns to the theme of outsiders (Mark 4:10-12):

 11 And he said to them (the disciples), “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.”

First the outsiders are his family and later, the crowds (as distinct from his disciples). Is the placement of the parable, both in this ‘sandwich’ position as well first in the line up of other parables, telling us that spiritual receptivity is the first qualification of those who truly follow Jesus?  And that such receptivity qualifies them to be his true followers, or insiders?  What a blow to all those theories about social hierarchy, positioning, power, etc.!

If we want to be a true follower, an insider (in Mark’s language), then spiritual receptivity is our only measure. The parable explains how all the problems arise when the seed, or Word of God, doesn’t have the proper soil, care and cultivation–when individuals don’t truly follow the Master in word and deed. But when those conditions do exist, the seed is planted, grows and produces a bountiful harvest.

Likewise, those outsiders are similar to the first three of conditions that choke the seed or prevent productivity and high yield, lives rich in giving and receiving blessings. By not yielding to ‘the will of God’–the way Jesus defines his family in the above passage–our ‘soil’ won’t be sufficient to produce a harvest.

Jesus confirms the need for spiritually receptive, hungry hearts when he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10 in the explanation of the parables’ meaning, reminding us that Israel didn’t listen to her prophets:

they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
(Mark 4:12)

Now we see why this parable must be first in the line up, informing us it is how we receive the message of the Kingdom, an idea first introduced in Isa. 6, that counts.   By quoting the Hebrew prophet that preceded him,  is Jesus wondering if events are going to be different 600 years later in his day?

The warning that launches here, of hardness of heart and deafness to the message, is repeated again and again throughout the Gospels. Since their intent is to bring about good discipleship – let us be sure our soil is ready for that incomparable seed!


(For more on the parables, you might enjoy this earlier blog if you missed it.)


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