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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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