It is a warm November day in Palestine, sometime around 28 AD. The field on the upper hillside has been plowed, and a man with a basket is scattering seed. As he flings handfuls of grain across the field, some of the seeds bounce and come to rest around the margins of the field. This has been happening the same way in the same location for more than a thousand years.
On the lower hillside, stretching down toward the sea, a crowd has gathered. Many of them have come from a village around the next headland. A short way away from the shore, a small boat rocks in the water, and a man is standing in it. The crowd is watching him, and even the farmer on the hill above glances down occasionally.
The man says, “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. . .”
The Bible is for all people in all times, but we should never underestimate the extent to which its language is bound up in a particular time. For us, the language of the parables is almost a kind of sacred code. When we talk about “sowing seed,” we are certainly not talking about planting a field by hand, which few (if any) of us have ever done. We’re talking about telling others about Jesus.
2000 years ago, though, this language wasn’t rich with symbolic significance. It was flatly descriptive of everyday life in Galilee. Indeed, my suspicion is that in many of the parables, Jesus isn’t merely describing a scene with which all of His audience is familiar. He is describing something that is happening right in front of them. The lilies of the field and the ravens aren’t hypothetical constructs. They are the weeds blooming at Jesus’ feet and the birds flying over His head, right as He is talking. The parables show that long before the invention of PowerPoint, Jesus was in the speech-with-visual-aid business.
This is important for us to recognize for two reasons. First, it shows us how difficult to follow Jesus’ teaching sometimes would have been. In our church-building auditoriums 2000 years later, it’s obvious that Jesus isn’t talking about a real farmer or real seed. 2000 years ago, when Jesus may well have been literally pointing to a real farmer with real seed, it would not have been at all obvious that He was doing anything more than offering an agriculture report. We often criticize the disciples for not understanding His teaching fully, but we ought to give them credit for recognizing when there was something more to understand.
Second, making the effort to visualize Jesus’ teaching in its original location can help us to understand why it got the reaction that it did. This is perhaps most important with the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12:1-12. We know from Mark 11:27 that Jesus is teaching on the grounds of the temple. As a result, we ought to read the parable in this way: “A man planted a vineyard [Jesus gestures to the temple precincts] and put a fence around it [Jesus gestures to the temple walls] and dug a pit for the winepress [Jesus gestures to the stairways down] and built a tower [Jesus gestures to the temple itself].”
There’s a reason why the chief priests, scribes, and elders had no trouble perceiving that Jesus had told the parable against them. The setting made it obvious. Jesus’ prediction that the temple elite would be destroyed was a threat too dangerous to ignore. The parable made it clear to them that He had to go.
The gospels are not a collection of myths. They are history, and history has a setting. The more we work at incorporating the setting, the better we will understand the message.
A few days ago, I got an email from a friend of mine who recently started preaching. He had been thinking about the Botham Shem Jean shooting and wondered if it should affect his message. Is it the place of a gospel preacher to condemn social injustice and cry out for change? He felt uncomfortable with the idea but wondered if his discomfort was due to his insulated status as a white man. Here’s what I told him:
Interesting question, brother! I brought Shawn in, we talked about it, and our conclusion is that your instincts are correct. Taking a side on the political controversies of the day is dangerous for a preacher and weakens his message.
Shawn and I see several main problems with taking a stand on some politically charged current event. First, the facts are generally unclear or even disputed. It's certainly tragic that an innocent black brother in Christ was shot in his own apartment, but it's not clear to me that he was shot because he was black. Similarly, I don't think any of us will ever know what really happened in the Trayvon Martin case. If you're taking a position on any events like this, you're taking a stand on uncertain ground.
Second, preaching on such events is likely to polarize the congregation. Because they are politically charged, members are likely to have strong pre-existing opinions about them, and if you express an opposite opinion, you're likely to alienate those members. I know that there are members at many congregations who would really struggle to wrap their heads around the notion that kneeling for the national anthem is an acceptable form of protest. Similarly, there are members at many congregations who think it's a valid way to call attention to racial injustice and would have trouble seeing the other position. No matter which side you pick, you're going to lose.
Third, calling for social change is simply not a part of the gospel. Above all, Christ is concerned with the heart of the individual. He calls the sinner to repentance. You want to preach on racism and the responsibility of the Christian to treat everyone with love, great! You should preach lessons like that. Unity in Christ is one of the great themes of Scripture. In fact, I'm preaching a lesson on the subject on Sunday. My experience is that when I condemn racism from the pulpit, it finds favor with the whole congregation, black and white alike.
However, I question the usefulness of any sermon that is aimed at people who aren't part of the congregation. Do we live in a perfectly just society? Of course not! However, reforming society is not the work of the preacher nor the work of the church. We are supposed to change the world one soul at a time, and if racism is ever going to be defeated in this country, it is going to be defeated in the hearts of individuals. We're already working on that. Why exchange the God-endorsed strategy for one that He hasn't endorsed?
Them's our thoughts, brother! Any questions?
These are the results of the survey we distributed at the 2018 Maury County Fair. You can find the survey questions here.
Here is the survey that we distributed at the 2018 Maury County Fair.
Opinion Survey: KEYS TO A SUCCESSFUL FAMILY
- I think communication is a key to successful families
Not Important 1 2 3 4 5 Highly Important
- I think expressions of love and appreciation are key to successful families
Not Important 1 2 3 4 5 Highly Important
- I think financial compatibility is key to a successful family
Not Important 1 2 3 4 5 Highly Important
- Successful families often attend church together
Strongly Disagree 1 2 3 4 5 Strongly Agree
- The greatest challenge to marriage is: (Circle your top 3)
Communication Spiritual Intimacy
This evaluation form was completed by: Husband Wife Neither
We will send you the results of the survey! Email address or phone number:
In the qualifications of the elder in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul lists 15 (-ish, depending on how one counts) qualities. The similar list in Titus 1:5-9 contains 16 (also -ish). However, brethren commonly take this list and reduce it down to (replace it with?) two questions. Is the man married? Are his children faithful Christians?
In practice, this spiritual shortcut easily can lead to the appointment of men who are unqualified, yet it remains powerfully appealing. Much of the appeal comes from the apparent opportunity it offers to reduce complicated judgment calls to questions that can be quantified. Is the man above reproach? Well, we could debate what that means and whether it applies for days. Does he have children who are Christians in good standing? There they are, sitting on the pews! Count ‘em!
We like simplicity. We like bright-line, black-and-white rules. Sometimes, God gives us what we like. At other times, though, he requires us to use our judgment. He presents us with a question that does not have an obvious, objective answer and asks us to think about it.
Consider, for instance, the subject of worship. I, along with everyone else who was “raised in the church”, was taught that there are five acts of worship: singing, prayer, preaching/teaching, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and giving of our means. In some ways, this list is useful, but it is hardly a comprehensive exploration of the topic. What makes preaching an act of worship and appointing elders, for instance, not an act of worship?
Additionally, it fails to capture the essence of the subject. Worship is not a series of outward behaviors that can be reduced to five items on a checklist. It is entirely possible for somebody to go through the motions, check off the checklist, and never have worshiped once. Instead, worship is an inward prostration of the heart before God. It may express itself in one of those forms or take no outward expression at all (consider, for instance, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1:9-13).
However, though checking off five items on a list is easy, seeking to worship in spirit and truth is difficult. We can’t ever say, “I have arrived as a worshiper!” because true worship isn’t an off/on yes/no thing. Instead, worship (like love, and for much the same reasons as love) is a spiritual discipline in which we grow for as long as we are alive, and growth is always uncomfortable. We also have to ask, “Where do I need to grow as a worshiper?”, and to answer the question, we must rely on our own judgment, which also makes many Christians uncomfortable.
As a result, it’s awfully tempting to retreat to the security of one wife, 2.4 children, five acts of worship, and all the other lists that appear to confirm that we’re doing a good job. However, lists are no substitute for the word of God, nor is checking off check boxes a substitute for discipleship. Instead, we must embrace the whole counsel of God, with its ambiguities, difficulties, and paradoxes, and accept that it is the path we are called to walk. It isn’t easy, nor is it safe, but it is the only path that will lead us to be conformed to the image of Christ.