Reference: John 8 1-11, Hebrews 13:5, The book of Job.
Painting: The woman caught in adultery by John Martin Borg 2002
Let’s do a little Bible trivia. I write a love poem from the Scriptures and you tell me what book it is from. Ready?
I will sing for the one I Love a song about His vineyard
You got your answer? Most of you will pick Song of Songs, a book filled with erotic poetry throughout, but you would be wrong.
This is from Isaiah son of Amoz a prophet for the kings of Judah starting with the reign of Uzziah. Like many other prophets before him, Isaiah was a master at using metaphors and poetic language to speak to dignitaries. Little known fact amongst church attendees is that Isaiah’s contemporary was no other than Homer the great Greek poet.
Here is the full word given to the leaders of Judah:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
In today’s’ world, poetry has been reduced to the sidelines of official communication. Yet, poetry was once the artful form of delivering powerful messages to people in positions of authority. Poetry is a way to say something harsh and controversial packaged in a melodious form. This is exactly what Isaiah was a master of.
Using imagery such as vineyard and fruits, the poet draws his audience to self-examine their own ways. Vineyards, fruits, shepherds, fields, husband are motifs throughout the Scriptures used to identify characters in the story pointing to the Hebrews, their lives, the Lord himself, etc…
The love poem I mentioned earlier was actually a severe rebuke to Judah for the way they had forgotten their original calling and purpose as a monarchy. Instead of justice, they gave bloodshed, and instead of righteousness, cries of distress were heard. The concept of Justice and Righteousness is a very important one for the Lord. It sets up a way of living that is fair, equitable and based on the fact that every human being is made in the image of God. No one is superior or inferior. The calling to be God’s image bearer is to be a light for the rest of the world, an example of love and kindness, hospitality to immigrants and strangers, right treatments of each other and fair economics between individuals and nations and so on.
From the beginning, God conferred on Adam and Eve the privilege to bear good fruits and be like God for the human race. They didn’t do so well and turned their attention inward. After the fall, Abraham and Sarah shared the same privilege, and through them, all the families of the earth would be blessed. One thing led to another and we find the people chosen by God in slavery. A leader is called to liberate them and once again set them on a path to be a light to the world through one nation. Unfortunately, the people began to rebel, jockeyed for power and ultimately civil war ensued. What was supposed to be good fruits turned into bitter grapes!
The leaders of Judah were more in love with their own interests at the expense of others than they were about the nation’s calling to bear good fruits for the rest of the World. Instead of bearing succulent grapes in God’s vineyard, they yielded rotten, bitter ones. This prophecy is not unlike something another prophet shared some 700 years later using the same poetic language, except this time the story takes another turn.
Matthew 21 and 22 tells the story of Jesus making his return to Jerusalem, the capital of what would have been Israel had it not been under the subjugation of Rome. As you can expect from the king of kings, He didn’t make His entrance discreet, especially when he cleansed the temple of a hodgepodge of merchants trying to make a buck or two on the backs of honest people trying to obey the Mosaic law and offer sacrifices for the Passover feast. Now, if you know anything about the temple, you know it was the sacred place where heaven met earth. A place so holy that only a select few would be permitted to enter the inner chamber. And for the religious leaders of His time, the temple was the seat of power.
For a rabbi to come and flip tables and drive out the animals meant only one thing: arrest. The Temple was the house of God, and Jesus came to clean up the mess religion had made. But as you can imagine, these leaders were very furious and demanded that Jesus shared by what authority he was disrupting the established status quo of religious living. Jesus could have simply explained in plain language what He was doing and what was the origin of His authority, but that would have been boring. Jesus, like many of His predecessors who wanted their messages to stick, used three parables to answer their question. The first one is about two sons asked to go work in their father’s vineyard. The second one tells the story of some wicked employees of a vineyard, and the last story of a wedding feast. We are talking about fruits here, so let’s go to the second of these poems of sorts.
“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Matt 22:33
Did you see it? Yes, did you see how Jesus pulls from Isaiah’s poem to drive His point home? These religious leaders had learned the prophecies; they knew the Hebrew Scriptures like the back of their hands, or like your grandma’s secret recipe for those famous brownies you like so much. By recalling Isaiah, Jesus is subtly taking His audience on a self-introspection journey with one difference. Though the owner is still looking for good fruit, the pivotal point of Jesus’ parable is the wicked tenants instead of the bad fruit. They thought that by killing, stoning, and beating up the messengers then finally the owner’s son, the inheritance would be given to them. It’s somewhat logical: no heir means no claim to the land they tended.
In 1980, King Hussein of Jordan was made aware of an attempted coup against his monarchy. Some seventy high ranking military officials were meeting in a barrack to discuss the details of their endeavor. When King Hussein heard about it, his counselors advised him to quench the rebellion with a show of force. Killing every single one of those rebels was the only appropriate response to such blatant foolishness. Instead of violence and deaths, King Hussein met the angry military leaders who wanted to take the power away from him and offered himself up. What transpired was a plea for mercy on behalf of soldiers and families, as well as innocents who would likely suffer when the country would be thrown into a civil war. King Hussein offered himself as a willing sacrifice for the sake of the whole country. “If it is me you want, just take my life and take the kingdom peacefully”. As he knelt in front of these power-hungry men, waiting for the fatal blow, something extraordinary happened. One by one these men began to reconsider their position and finally gave up their ideal and embraced the King.
This is somewhat what the owner of the field in the parable was hoping. By presenting his own son, the tenants would surely reconsider their violent ways and come to their senses. We all know that this parable is also a foretelling of the ways the Father Himself would send His Son to appeal to the leaders of Israel to reconsider their ways, but we also know that Jesus encountered the same fate as the owner’s son.
The religious and political leaders of Israel wanted to regain the glory of the old days, the days when the nation was a monarchy. They thought that by imposing some stringent religious laws, they would force people to clean up their act and turn to God. Unfortunately, in doing so they began rejecting the broken, the widows, the poor, the strangers in the land, the fatherless, and the least among them. They imposed on the population, heavy religious burdens in order to be part of the new Israel they so desperately wanted. They set themselves as superior, and inevitably the outcasts suffered further humiliation. You can imagine how challenging it would have been for them to see this new Rabbi serving the poor, feeding the hungry, loving on the broken and releasing the Kingdom of God to them first. They had made Israel their own, forgetting that they were to be a light to the world, a city on a hill for people to see. By killing Jesus, they expected to receive the inheritance for themselves. What a foolish idea.
Just like Isaiah, Jesus asked his audience how he should proceed with these wicked vinedressers. And of course, our predisposition to act violently is on display by their response. Destroy them and give the field to someone else. And once again what you expect God to do is not at all what He does.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit
Have you not read your Bible? Jesus isn’t being sarcastic, He simply is amazed at their lack of understanding. But what does a rejected stone have to do with the story of a murdered son? Architects of old were known to walk the quarry with the builders to select the most perfect stones to be placed in the most important part of their edifice. The stone would become the showcase piece of their marvelous creation. Everyone would see the cornerstone. We tend to notice these more than the stone stuck in the middle of the wall amongst other lookalikes. Builders knew that, so they took special attention in selecting the best stone for the corner. The cracked ones, the jagged ones, the less than perfect ones, the discolored ones, would be rejected for the honored position. Yet, the Psalmist writes about a time when even the rejected, imperfect stones would be chosen to be the cornerstone to this new Kingdom God was ushering. Here is the genius of the Scriptures: The word SON in Hebrew is… you guessed it, BEN. The word for STONE is == EBEN. Just like poetry, Jesus is telling the religious leaders that the BEN they were rejecting and will be killed in a few days is the EBEN the Father would use to build His new edifice where His presence would be dwelling forever. This is also pointing to all the people those religious leaders had rejected in the past. All the poor, broken, sick, invalid, impure, rejected of society, the scum, the prostitutes, the less than desirable, the criminal, these would become the cornerstone of this new Kingdom at hand.
Before we just chalk this story pointing the fingers at some religious nuts too concerned about their self-righteous attitude, we need to take stock about our own lives. If these poems and parables are in the Scriptures, it is to teach us something. The vineyard is a cautionary tale about our own fruits.
Here’s the thing, we have been invited to participate in the field and like Adam, we are called to produce good fruits for the sake of the whole world to taste and see how much goodness is in God. The problem is when we begin to use the field of God or in other words the kingdom of God for our own benefit, we turn into the wicked tenants, taking what is God and making it our own through violence. Ohh, but you say we are non-violent? Think again! Every time we use people to promote ourselves. Every time we use the church to get a leg up, every time we are more concerned about our personal calling and purpose at the expense of others, every time we are using ministry to self-promote, we are acting like the wicked tenants. We are using the kingdom for our personal benefit. That is in the eyes of the Owner as if we were doing violence to his servants and son. When we want prophetic words that wow the audience. When we want to be called apostles, prophets, or any other ministry. When everything we want to hear is only feeding our egotistical self. When the world revolves around us, we are acting like the wicked tenants.
Fruits seem to be what God is looking for. In both the prophetic word of Isaiah and the parable of Jesus, the owner is looking for good fruits. Paul, in his letters to the believers in Galatia, takes on the same motif and goes on to tell us what kind of fruit we are to bear.
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (Gal 5:22-23)
This is the life we should have, the kind of fruit the Lord is looking for. But honestly, if a vine, an apple tree, a blueberry bush produces fruits, it is not for its own benefit. Fruits are always to be given away to others, otherwise, it is self-centeredness. A fruit tree is created for the feeding of others, not as a measure of greatness, or maturity. Remember the story of a certain fig tree unable to give fruits when Jesus was hungry?
Even though Jesus was talking to religious leaders who had made their ideal of the kingdom so contrary to the reality Jesus wanted to bring, this parable should not be dismissed. It is a reminder that we are always so close to becoming like terrible tenants while being entrusted with the beauty of the extravagant Kingdom of God. We are invited to look into our own lives and see if we are tracking with the original plan of God for the planet earth and all its inhabitants. Like Abraham, are we becoming a blessing to all the family of the earth or only the ones in our bubble? Are we acting as royal priesthood for our own sake or are we laying down our lives, like our High Priest Jesus, for the sake of our friends and enemies alike? I like how Eugene Peterson translated Galatians 5:22-24. Let us always remember that after everything is said and done, the life we now live is not our own.
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.
To hear more about what Justice and Righteousness are all about in God’s kingdom, you can check out The Bible Project and their study of these concepts.
How about King Hussein of Jordan?
The double portion? We all have asked for it at some point or another, thinking that the display of power was God’s approval on our ministerial endeavor. The Charismatic movement convinced us that more power and more signs would be what turn a person, a village, a nation back to God. We have embraced every kind of school of thoughts and ministry model to harness power and anointing. More prayer, more worship, more crusades, would certainly bolster a return to God; wouldn’t you think? Just remember all the schools of ministry teaching the art of healing, or school of powers training people to raise the dead and perform miracles. We even look for Scriptures and examples to confirm our thinking that more power equals more kingdom. Yet, in all of our search for more power, for double portions, or whatnot, we have neglected the basic foundation of what the Kingdom of God is truly about: FAMILY!
But where does this idea of a double portion come from? There was a prophet of old called Elijah. A wild man without much of a past who acted like Gandalf for Israel in a period of turmoil for the kingdom. His notoriety went before him. He was a larger than life character, up to the point of being taken away in a display of fiery flying chariots and whirlwinds—the stuff of legend! Like all good prophets, Elijah had an apprentice, a young man by the name of Elisha. Before the fateful glorious departure, Elijah granted his young disciple with: “Ask me anything”! “I Want the double Portion”, retorted the young fellow.
So what do think Elisha wanted? Double miracles, double fame, double trouble, double followers. If Elisha truly got the double, then we should be able to compare these two figures in Israel’s history and measure out Elisha’s success, being that he would have double everything. Unfortunately, this understanding of what Elisha was asking is something that has attracted my generation with an undue pressure to get ready for the final great revival. I remember attending conferences as a young adult where speakers would call out either the Joshuas, or those who wanted a double portion of anointing to come forward for prayer. How many times have I made my way to the altar, expecting some miraculous touch from God only to come back disappointed by the lack of demonstration of God? Personally, in an attempt to carry the seal of approval on my life, I went as far as praying to be granted the joy of having twins. Surely God would make known to the world that I had been given the double portion. (My wife made me repent of that prayer but God had another idea).
What we failed to recognize in the question of the double portion is what comes before it. Each narrative story in the Bible holds much more information than we think. It is the genius of the writers. Any good storyteller would weave within the story the main plotline leading to the pinnacle of Elijah and Elisha’s separation. The authors of the book of Kings were brilliant in telling the story of these giants in the faith. And like every good mystery book or movie, the clue is in the beginning and the answer is at the end. So what is the narrative driving the whole story?
Let’s begin at the beginning found in 1 Kings 19:19-21
19 So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yokes of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. 20 He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah[a] said to him, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” 21 He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant.
There, do you see it? Elisha isn’t just a farmer plowing a field in the vacuum of relationship. He is a son; a devoted son of his own father and mother. He works his father’s fields, and like any good Israelite before him, he is being groomed to take over the family business after his father retires. Just like the groove in the field left by his plow, his whole life is on a track, heading straight to becoming the father’s rightful heir to the family business.
It is there that his life’s journey is interrupted by a wild prophet. Of all the kids in the land of Israel, Elisha is suddenly the chosen apprentice to a man known to be the voice behind the king’s office. But the cost was great for Elisha. It meant leaving behind his identity, his family business, and most likely cause stress on his father and mother for leaving them without help. For Elisha, the glamour of ministry is weighted against giving up the familial comfort and devotion to his community. For a moment Elisha would become an orphan away from his father while following a man he barely knew.
Their long journey together brought them closer. First, strangers with one another, Elijah was now more comfortable with the prophet. Elijah had become his only community, his sole connection to a father figure. That is exactly what you can see transpire in the fateful moment of Elijah’s departure.
On their way to what would become their last moment together, both men visited few places. These were schools of prophets that Elijah had most likely started. It was more of a farewell trip to say goodbye to all these would-be-prophets. But each time they visited a place, these prophets-in-training reminded Elisha of the inevitable separation coming. He would quench their curiosity about his well-being: “Shush, be quiet”. How would you interact with people who keep pointing out the fact that once again, you will be left without a community, a father figure? However we look at it, I am pretty sure Elisha’s emotions were riled with grief and dereliction. Which brings us to the moment about the double portion. Elijah is now done, his journey is coming to an end, but for one more time, Elijah offers his apprentice one last wish. Here we are, at the famous double portion passage:
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”
So, what was the double portion? Was it more spirit? More anointing? Was it more revelation of God, or greater ability to perform miracles? Was it more encounters with God? What was Elisha really asking? The answer is quite different than the focus on ministry we have so many times imposed on the text. It is found in the cultural context of a middle eastern family. What would a man in the time period of Elisha have heard when the term “double portion” was uttered? Would they have automatically assumed it had to do with the ability to do ministry? Where have they heard that term before?
It was customary for cultures in the Ancient Near East to be ruled by established beliefs concerning hierarchy in a family. Deuteronomy 2 addresses the right of a firstborn.
15 If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, 16 then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. 17 He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his.
For Elisha, having more power would never replace the lack of community and the lack belonging to a family. He isn’t asking for anointing as much as he is asking to become a son! He wants the adoption, not the anointing to be a prophet. If we could hear the cry of his heart it would be something like this: “Elijah, I have followed and served you faithfully, what I truly want is to become your son. I left my natural family to come after you, but the desire of my heart is I want a father, not a mentor. I want to be part of your family, your inheritance, your struggle and your success. I want to be your son”
Do you think I am making this up? Look again at the response of Elisha when the chariots take away the man he has followed for some many years. 2 Kings 2:
11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
Father! This is the cry of Elisha, not some kind of egocentric desire to do more for God. That is it, just to be loved and raised as a son. He left a family back at the farm and was looking for belonging, or to use New Testament language, he was looking for adoption!
Here is where we have missed it, by removing the very narrative throughout the storyline between Elijah and Elisha, we have created a doctrine based on production and power rather than community and the need to belong. We have created in people such a desire to be accepted and acknowledged that we set them up for falling into works mentality to get more noticed and invariably causing people to be sorely disappointed and disenchanted with the whole system. In our need for power, we have made people orphans at the altar of recognition, power, and anointing.
The wrong understanding of the double portion has caused people to be the victim of an ego-based identity, which in turn creates a void, and will ultimately demand recognition and acceptance. Unfortunately, ministry will never ever fill that void. The Father’s love can only be filled with the love of a father, not a mentor. We have promised a whole generation that if they would spend more time with the Lord and listen to more worship, fast, pray, and pay their tithes, the anointing would magically fall on them and give them the power to do the things Jesus did, and more. There are two problems with our approach. Number one, we have set up younger people for failure as we have equated the power with an endorsement. Secondly, we have sold them a dream that keeps pushing them into more works and less community.
So what is the solution to our need to train the next generation? After being in the camp of the generation begging God for the double portion I have come to learn some valuable lessons. God is more interested in family than I realized. Through schools of ministry, mission’s trips, and workshops on how to heal the sick and how to prophesy, I have noticed a need we all have. We want to belong! Impartation is more a concept of exuding the fruits of a family tree than a concept of transference devoid of relationship. Can we impart wisdom to the younger generation? Absolutely yes, but without the relational aspect, we are simply giving them up to the snare of ministry. We want to do more than that I am sure, but how?
Jesus becomes the perfect example. In contrast to all other rabbis of His time, Jesus was breaking the mold of what the relationship of master-apprentice was. Jesus selected 12 men of different background and beliefs. He called them like all the other rabbis would have done, but there is a major difference. He wanted to impart His heart to them more than techniques and knowledge about the Biblical text. His relationship with his disciples was organic, it was close, it was messy, and most importantly it was happening at the table.
The table is where we open our hearts and begin discussions. It is where all of us connect. It is at the table that laughter and heart to heart dialogues often happen. Jesus ate with His disciples and did not hide His true self. This, of course, offended the religious leaders because at the table Jesus demonstrated inclusion not based on performance but based on openness. It was at the table that Jesus revealed His heart for the family. It was at the table that Jesus restored Peter. It was at the table that covenant of friendship was made. It was the center of His ministry, removing the pressure of the temple and reducing it to a meal shared with his friends. His apprentices became His friends at the table.
I propose that in order to truly train the next generation we first need to remove the sense of urgency about an impending end of the world. To hurry is to miss the point of sonship. God is much more interested in finding the lost sons than respecting an elusive world clock. Let’s open our homes and family lives to those we are raising in ministry. Let them see how we do life even if we are still struggling to keep our own family afloat. Let the next generation participate in the menial tasks of ministry that we don’t usually see in ministry schools and workshop. Let them see our emotional struggle of not measuring up and feeling like failures at times. Let them become sons and daughters with an emphasis on acceptance no matter what. Our values and our hearts will ultimately be transferred to them just like our children end up displaying our own belief system and sense of value when we aren’t watching. Let them understand and experience the fact that they aren’t accepted based on the amount of anointing or spiritual gifts but on the fact that they are loved for who they are. Let us respond to their heart cry to belong by offering them the double portion of sonship!
If you know me, music isn’t my thing. I’m more likely to get an emotional response from stimulating lectures or books than songs or music. So what I am about to share with you was significant enough to break the barriers of my own soul. It reached deep inside my heart with a resounding sound that shook me to the core. And to be quite honest it came from a place I would have never considered before; that is from a choir! For me, a choir is associated with churchy stuff more than deep revelations of God, or at least that is what I thought until I saw this:
This is renowned composer Eric Whitacre. This project started with a fun little experiment. What would happen if he wrote a song, posted the sheet of music online, and invited people around the world to sing different harmonies? What if he joined them all together in a master track as if one was conducting a large choir, but instead of being all in the same room they are connected via internet? What you just heard is the result of such experiment! Whitacre’s first virtual choir featured just under 200 people from 12 countries. The astonishing final product garnered so much attention that on his fourth project more than 5900 people from over 100 countries participated.
So what is the big deal about this? This choir was the picture of perfection of what I have envisioned the church as a whole to be like. It is made of individuals of different backgrounds, different social statuses, different cultures, with different educations, and especially different struggles, challenges, and success and failures, all coming together for one selfless act. Suddenly their dissonant noises becoming a mystical harmony. My friend Brandan explained it to me this way: “A choir is one of the most symbolically rich form of music. The voice is the most personal instrument, totally unique, and each one has a different timbre (whereas in orchestras, all the instruments have a much more similar timbre). The many voices coming together into one new sound. It really is a beautiful experience of our oneness.”
Think about it: people separated by thousands of miles, yet beautifully connected as a community, for a project greater than themselves. These people had no pretentious attitude, and quite honestly looked awkward when taken separately from everyone else. If you look closely at each person, you would never give them any attention.
One of the participants wrote: “Aside from the beautiful music, it’s great just to know I’m part of a worldwide community of people I never met before but who are connected anyway”
This sound is what undid me, the sound of common union. The sheer beauty of such a choir coming together should bring anyone to tears considering that we are driven to be ego-centrists in our culture, and our needs to be seen oftentimes go against the nature of God’s kingdom. Despite the “Me” syndrome, all of us crave connection, as Whitacre says: “Human beings will go to any length necessary to find and connect with each other”. There is a mystical sense of connection we all so desire that transcends our own hurts, fear, and rejection.
Our world is so conditioned to have one man, one woman, one entity on a pedestal to to lead the rest of us that we miss the obvious message Jesus continually spoke of in the Gospels, The kingdom of God is not comparable with the ways of the world. It is different, other-like. It doesn’t function under the same values found in empires with individuals at the helm. The kingdom of God starts with the weak joining strength for the sake of a greater purpose.
What this virtual choir director shows is what happens when one is connecting people with a piece of music so compelling that each person is willing to forego their reputation to be part of something greater than them.
Let me finish by asking this: what would happen if a community of believers was more focused on changing society with selfless acts of love rather than being self focused? That would be the kingdom of God!
Who would qualify to be used by God? In our preconceived ideas of God, the vessel He uses has to at least be holy or “christian”. After all, if God is holy, His vessels ought to be also. Yet Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned about our expectation and our own qualifications. A woman with a string of broken relationships is a perfect mouthpiece for His kingdom. This is a momentous shift from our preconceived idea that God would use the well to do, the people who have their lives all together, the preachers in suits, to carry His salvation message to the world. Our idea of a liberator is oftentimes steeped in the heroism of old, the exploits of brave conquerors, or the wit of political leaders.
But this encounter between the Lord and this Samaritan will stir freedom from the unlikeliest of places in the form of a downcast, emotionally weak and socially rejected woman. Her encounter with Jesus, like many before her and many after her inspired so much courage that she rushed back to her village to become their voice of freedom. Just like the disciples leaving their nets and their boats when Jesus calls them, this Samaritan leaves behind her bucket to tell the whole village about this strange man sitting alone at the well. It would have been one thing for a man to return home and announced he had met the Messiah, but it is completely another for a woman to do so.
Back in the Second Temple period, the testimony of women was not admissible in court. Some would say this disdain for women originated in the Garden when the woman was deceived and as such no one would trust what she had to say. This Samaritan couldn’t care less about what people would think. What she had just experienced was valid enough to share with her own people, and as a result engender the salvation of them all. Isn’t it fascinating that the carriers of the most important revelations in the Gospel about Jesus is oftentimes through women? Here, His identity is revealed to a woman who goes out to preach it, and later in a garden when He appeared to Mary Magdalene on His first day of resurrection, telling her to go back and tell the disciples that He was in fact alive again. I suspect Jesus orchestrated that to restore women back to their proper respectful places in society, and to undo centuries of rejection. It would have made more sense for Jesus to really remove any doubt about who He was to use a more reputable source since the unbelief was so rampant. Yet here, Jesus isn’t concerned about the vessel carrying His message of hope as He is concerned about the restoration of all things.
So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” They went out of the city, and were coming to Him. John 4:28-30
From that city many of the Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified, “He told me all the things that I have done.” John 4:39
Consider for a moment that the Samaritan turned a whole village upside down while the disciples had mixed results on their missionary journeys. We don’t hear of cities being turned upside down through the disciples until the day of Pentecost. The contrast is baffling. The disciples had powerful encounters, they healed the sick, they performed miracles and their success was mitigated.
This woman on the other end is nothing like the disciples. She has no training, she hasn’t been taught much, she is of questionable character and her message – to be quite honest – isn’t earth-shattering. All she said was “come see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” That is it, nothing less and nothing more. Yet this seemingly insignificant revelation is every bit as powerful as any miracle anyone could perform. The frailty of her newfound faith becomes evident when she even questioned His identity: “could this be the Messiah?” One has to ask the question; what was so radical about her encounter? She had just met a man and instead of being judged and rejected like she was accustomed, He completely and utterly accepted her without judgment or condemnation. She was for the first vulnerable and fully emotionally exposed and yet what she felt from Jesus was unconditional Love. She was fully known and yet fully loved. This alone was transformative enough to get her out of her isolated life away from the judging eyes who knew her, and straight into the village unashamed and totally loved right in the midst of the same people who looked on amazed at her boldness.
This story defies all current western logic of evangelism. Unlike power we perceived to be the seal of approval of God, this woman is everything but well grounded in her faith and complete in her doctrinal understanding. We tend to reduce the power of the Gospel with the need to have healing and miracles flowing out of our hands to hope that our message will be heard and have an impact of whomever to talk to. Her faith is tentative at best, and yet this is exactly the kind of faith that is enough to turn cities upside down. There is nothing supernaturally extravagant about it. There is nothing pompous and extroverted. There is nothing doctrinally deep and complex. It isn’t the rumbling mountains, the power or physical miracles, and the supernatural glory that will convinced unbelievers to come meet this man called Jesus. It is the simple yet profound truth that Jesus fully knows us, fully accepts us and fully loves us just the way we are.
Love is everything in the kingdom of God, as Paul would later highlight in his letter to the church in Corinth in Corinthians chapter 13. There is something undeniably powerful we someone tells their story about how they brushed up against Jesus. There is something powerful happening for those who hear it and for those who tell about it. The transformative power can be seen in this Samaritan woman when she believed that this man knew everything about her whole life and He was completely in love with her no matter her past.
Our story with Jesus is the most life altering power we can share with people however insignificant we think it is. It doesn’t have to be pretty or exceptional to convince our friends and neighbors of God’s love and goodness it just needs to be fresh and honest, raw and unrefined, simple and beautiful. This is not to undermine what Jesus continually does in terms of powerful encounters when he heals the sick, raised the dead, or feed the multitude with the smallest amount of bread. Of course Jesus is powerful and a miracle worker feeding multitudes and restoring vision to the blinds. Of course His mission was also to destroy the workings of the enemy and to show how big our God is. But apart from all that, what this story is telling us is what people really hunger for isn’t a deity who can fix everything for them or perform miracles. What is going to transform lives is knowing that this powerful God is more interested to restore the broken, the misfits, the outcasts and the least amongst us then to be demonstrative is power to cause people to bow in fear. The world is desperate for your authentic story.
For this woman, she doesn’t need to hide who she is any longer, as we often do with people around us for fear of rejection. She has met Jesus and through her encounter, and she felt fully exposed and vulnerable and yet fully covered in His love and acceptance. Whatever caused her to live a secluded life far from those who had hurt her in the past is now a beautiful scar inviting people to meet Jesus. She is completely loved and completely accepted. We hide our true self is because we think if people knew what we have been through or what we think or what we have done, it would somehow make them love us less. There is a longing inside of us to be truly seen and truly known and yet fully loved and accepted. Jesus is offering us this kind of relationship, will we accept His invitation?
Painting by Emmanuel Nsama
cccccTo experience this kind of love requires that we respond to the invitation. It’s one thing to know that Jesus loves us, it is entirely another to fully experience it. It demands that we face whatever substitute we have had, whatever mechanism we have used to look for love in all the wrong places, whatever relationship we have had to mask the pain of our loneliness. This is exactly what Jesus is doing by asking her to bring her husband.
‘Go, call your husband, and come back.’ The woman answered him, ‘I have no husband.’ Jesus said to her, ‘You are right in saying, “I have no husband”; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!’ verse16-18
cccccFor this woman, getting her husband would be quite complicated. She had had five, and the one she was currently living with wasn’t yet officially her husband. From our western perspective this doesn’t seem to be a big deal, but for the Jews she wasn’t considered marriage material. Nowadays, women can divorce whomever they want for whatever reason they want. One can think of Liz Taylor as an example. If you don’t remember, she had eight different husbands. But this wasn’t in 2017 America, it was Palestine in the early 30’s BCE.
cccccWhat we know about this period is that women were not permitted to divorce; only men had that right. This raises a number of possibilities about her situation. She could have been widowed 5 times. Or she could have been rejected by her husbands five different times. It could also be a combination of both. Additionally, it was pretty common for a woman to be passed down to her husband’s younger brother in case of his death. What we can be sure is this woman isn’t the picture of promiscuity or immorality as we have so often been told from our pulpits. Had this been the case, the law of the land would have required her to be stoned to death. The overwhelming evidence is that she is the epitome of rejection and brokenness. She is the poster child of what it means to be unloved and cast away. This woman is-painful relationship- personified. What she longed for in her many failed relationships was never truly experienced.
cccccOne may wonder what Jesus was doing reminding this woman about her own story of brokenness. I don’t believe He was trying to impress her with His omniscience. What would be gained by doing this? Consider this, up until her encounter with Jesus, she had been hiding most of her life with the burden of shame and dejection around her neck like the anchor of a ship holding it down. Her pain had been stored away in the confines of her mind not to be coming out again. Avoiding the crowds was a coping mechanism to indelible pain. Not only was she a woman from Samaria rejected by the Jews, but within her own ethnic group she was low on the totem pole because of her many failed marriage.
ccccc These places of pain and emotional suffering have a way to keep us in bondage. What Jesus so clearly expressed with His all-knowing gift is that He is more interested in freedom than simply demonstrating his power. He wasn’t even interested to know how she got to this place in her life. He simply wanted to let her know that despite being an outcast, she was fully known by Him and fully understood. That’s all! There is nothing implicit or explicit that Jesus had any judgment on her story either. The whole point for Jesus was for this woman to be seen and to be known. That is the crux of the story. No matter how despised this woman may have been from the Jews and from the Samaritans, she is still known and loved by Him. This unconditional love is what brought this woman from the brink of total rejection to a place of complete openness.
cccccThe Samaritan is now encountering the prophet as she calls Him. And in typical fashion, when one encounters a prophet, one will take this opportunity to ask questions that demand answers. She wants to know where the proper place to worship is. “Is it your place or my place?” she asked.
The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem. John 4:19-20
cccccJesus once again wants to reconnect what has been divided for so long. Samaritans did not believe that true worship was to be done in Jerusalem. They had their own special place called Mount Gerizim. For the Jews it was all about Jerusalem. This was one of the many differences between the two ethnic groups and for the past 400 years their division grew bigger and wider.
Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. John 4:21-24
cccccGod is looking to settle the issue about the ‘right place’ once and for all. But this doctrinal division is just that; a dividing mindset keeping people away from being connected to one another. As it has become quite obvious in Jesus’ ministry, He isn’t giving a straight answer to settle the debate He changes the question altogether. Jesus isn’t correcting her theology about where to worship, but how to worship. The great unifier isn’t a location, it is a heart. The day was coming where neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, brothers or sisters would be divided. True Worship will transcend all boundaries!
cccccWith each passing moments spends with Jesus, this Samaritan began to feel more comfortable as she engages with Him on spiritual matter. Worship was the key factor to usher a new kingdom, but this kind of worship was something they have not heard before. It was filled with the power to restore all things and make room for the King to reign. ”I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” she said. For the past four centuries, Israel was nothing more than a land occupied by oppressors beginning with the Babylonians all the way to the current Roman Empire. They all hoped for a mighty King to come and kick some Romans out of their land, and restore all things. Jesus acquiesced that indeed this Messiah was coming. But Jesus went further than she expected. His longing to be known suddenly ripped the veil of His true identity. ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you. (John 4:26).
cccccHere, right in front of her was the promised savior who would restore all things. Without any hesitation, Jesus removes any possible doubt about Himself. This simple confirmation “I AM” is earth shattering to say the least. The first time God introduces Himself to a man is at the burning bush. Moses, the patriarch, the great leader who would lead the captives free is facing the irreducible magnificence of the presence of God. Through the never consuming fire came a voice; I AM. This Old Testament leader had met God and through his own encounter became the biggest figure of Jewish history. What a contrast! Back in the days God reveals Himself to a giant of history, a powerful figure of Jewish antiquity, but here – sitting at a well in a rejected land – Jesus makes Himself known to the least of these in the form of a Samaritan.
cccccDon’t you think it would have made more sense for Jesus to present Himself as the “I AM” to the disciples and the chosen people first? Yet Jesus isn’t your typical well-behaved religious leader, and as an act of reunification makes this woman the recipient of the greatest unveiling in the Gospel way before the disciples heard Jesus Himself revealing His identity in Caesarea of Philippi. This revelation would forever change the city of Sychar. Just like Moses liberated a whole people out of their bondage two thousand years earlier, this woman would set a village of misfits and outcasts free to meet Jesus.
Then the woman left her water-jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ They left the city and were on their way to him. John 4:28-30
Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done. So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world. John 4:39-42
This is the revelation for us, He is our messiah, our deliverer. Not just for the religious elites but for all the outcast, misfits, rejected and downtrodden.
Connection with others; we all long for it like magnetic poles looking for its opposite. From the moment we are born, we are driven to find who we belong to. This primordial need will be a relentless pursuit to search for connection. Children look for safety in their parents’ love. Wives need to feel connected to their husbands’s heart. Players on a sport’s team crave for unison with their teammates to be successful. This longing to connect is everywhere we look—at the parties we attend, the trains we take, the planes we ride on with strangers; we are all looking for connectedness. This comes at a heavy cost in our quest to be accepted by strangers. Instead of letting people see who we truly are, we hide behind an ideal image that people might be more comfortable having a connection with. We only let people see what we want them to see about ourselves.
The fear is that if they knew the life we have inside, the struggle, the pain we hide, our ugly past, our shame and guilt and the thoughts we battle with, we most certainly think we would not be accepted. The thought of being rejected drives us to a game of pretension. We have become experts at it.
We first size up the people we want to connect with with a quick scan to assess what we think people would like about us and what we absolutely need to hide. Unfortunately in hiding our true self, we never allow people to fully see who we are when no one is watching. We stay on our best self until we go home and stare down our own demons hiding so well inside of our minds. In other words, nobody truly knows us for who we are. They don’t know our pain, our tragedy, our struggle. But is there a way to be truly known and truly loved at the same time?
Through this series, I want to answer this question with a conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman found in John 4. Incidentally, this is the longest recorded conversation between Jesus and anybody else in the Gospels. But first let us set the stage within the context of Jews living in occupied Judea during the first century.
He left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.(John 4:3-6)
In a hot middle eastern day, one will invariably become thirsty. Jesus was no exception to this. After having spent some time in Judea debating some Pharisees, He purposed in His heart to go to Galilee. The road one would take to go to Galilee was around a dreaded plot of land called Samaria.
Jews and Samaritans had a profound disdain for each other because of their differing views regarding worship and all things related to the Law. The Jews thought of the Samaritans as the vilest ethnic group within their land. Talking or walking through Samaria would be a gross defilement that Jews were not ready to deal with. Consequently, Samaritans had become the outcast and the misfits of the region; the ultimate rejects. If a Jew had to travel from Judea to Galilee, he would purposefully go around Samaria. The risk of having an encounter with these disgusting people was enough to justify a two hour detour instead of the most direct route.
But Jesus isn’t your typical Jew. He doesn’t abide by the prejudice of His people, nor does He care. He is the Messiah of all not just some, and restoring the people of Samaria was very much part of His agenda. Jesus purposefully breaks away from the cultural norm, and to make matters worse, sits on a well all by Himself in the middle of the day. This is where the story gets really interesting.
A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink’. (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) John 4:7-9
Coming from the village of Sychar, a woman was making her way to the well all by herself in the mid summer day. This is an unusual sight since women would go in groups early in the morning or at dusk to draw water. There is safety in numbers. It was also while going together that their social life would develop. It was there and then that interactions would lead to connectedness. However, this Samaritan woman isn’t part of the group for reasons we will identify later. Being by herself, she apprehensively gets to the well where this man – a – Jew is sitting down waiting. It was quite a scene for anyone looking from afar and looked more like an ambush than a casual encounter. As the woman was about to draw water, the atmosphere filled with awkwardness until Jesus opened His mouth. “Give me a drink” He said. This seems like an anodyne request for us but this isn’t the western world of today. It is Samaria around 30BCE. What Jesus does is a scandalous faux pas by asking a woman for water. No man, especially no renowned rabbi, would be seen in public talking to a woman. To give some context, a Jewish rabbi would even refuse to talk to his own wife in public. It would be a sign of disgrace for him.
In antiquity women aren’t on the same parity on in the social ladder as men. They are simply not seen, not known and often times overlooked. This Samaritan has been accustomed to this most of her life. She is after all getting water by herself. Yet she is suddenly accosted by a man from Judea. She is being noticed instead of the customary rejection she should have encountered. Once again, this is something very unorthodox for the time. It not only appears that Jesus is talking to a woman on equal footing, but this conversion is happening at well of all places.
For the Jews, wells carry a signifiant symbolism. Within the Biblical narrative, especially in the Old Testament wells are synonymous with romance. Many of the patriarchs’ love stories have this in common. They started at a well. It was at a well that Isaac found his wife Rebecca. It was also at a well that Jacob met Rachel, and Moses met Zipporah. It would be shocking to talk to any woman as a rabbi but to do it at a place known for love is utterly scandalous on so many levels. To put it into context, imagine your favorite single preacher being seen at a well-known romantic spot on the 14th of February with a woman. It doesn’t get more suspicious than that. What I want you to see is that romance was happening between Jesus and the Samaritan, but it wasn’t the kind that we think. Got has always loved the Samaritans, the outcasts, and outsiders. They haven’t always known it but Jesus was making it a point for them to rediscover it once again. This is a love affair between God and people who have been disconnected, rejected and overlooked.
The scandal isn’t lost on her: “how is it that you a jew ask me for a drink”? It is not so much that she is offended, but she knows that culturally Jews aren’t supposed to talk with women and to make matter worse a Samaritan. For Him to drink from her bucket would be the ultimate betrayal of His Jewishness. Jesus answered her:
‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’ Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.’ The woman said to him, ‘Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.’ John 4:10-15
There is a motif in the Sacred Texts that we tend to overlook when we read it. It isn’t just that wells that are symbolic of romance, but water speaks of overflowing love. It is used in Proverbs 5:15 to describe the passion husbands and wives will share with each other in the throes of passion. The same figure is used in Song of Solomon, where a wife is compared to “a fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.” But in a twist Jesus presents Himself as the source of living water, directly borrowing from Jeremiah 2:13 where God compares Himself to a “fountain of living waters”. The perfect Love story can only be perfect when the source of this love is overflowing and without end. It is then that life is given. Jesus intentionally speaks to her about what it means to be loved by God. Jesus, the perfect lover offering unconditional love as a gift for anyone who longs for real love.
To experience this kind of love requires that we respond to the invitation. It’s one thing to know that Jesus loves us, it is entirely another to fully experience it. It demands that we face whatever substitute we have had, whatever mechanism we have used to look for love in all the wrong places, whatever relationship we have had to mask the pain of our loneliness. This is exactly what Jesus is doing by asking her to bring her husband.
Wisdom of a Shepherd Part 5
Stories told around the dinner table reveal more about the host, than just a nice conversation piece.
“Love is not selective, just as the light of the sun is not selective. It does not make one person special. It is not exclusive. Exclusivity is not the love of God, but the love of ego.”— Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now
This is something the guests at the Lord’s table discovered when a group of religious scholars called Him out on the fact that He was eating with people of-not-so uplifting reputations. Among His guests of honor were prostitutes, tax collectors, sinners and mainly all the people that religion deemed lost and unworthy of their attention. Religious scholars would in no way dare to touch a sinner. For them, they saw this as being defiled and ultimately becoming displeasing to the God they served. For them, religion had created a god so austere and indifferent to the plight of humanity that nothing would ever satisfy his Holy self but total undivided service of worship. Only then God would pour out some of His blessings on them as a token of his pleasure, like a treat one gives to a pet for performing a trick . This separation between the profane and the holy was the reason Jesus began to share the parable of the lost sheep.
…….A shepherd on a quest to find a sheep isn’t an anodyne story. It is loaded with symbolisms that did not escape the minds of scholars hearing it. For those who knew the Scriptures by heart, it was a direct quote from a prophetic text written by Ezekiel some six centuries before Jesus. Foreseeing the ineluctable separation that religion ultimately produced, he began writing about wandering sheep gone astray, and shepherds only caring for themselves. Ezekiel brought a scathing rebuke to the leaders of Israel, and the religious elites who should have taken care of the broken people but instead were more concerned about keeping themselves from getting too involved with what they considered problematic sheep. In verse 3 and 4 of chapter 34 we read:
You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are silly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. (Ex 34:2-4)
…….Jesus is quite intentional in sharing a parable about a lost sheep. For Him, the disenfranchised sitting at His table were the sickly, the broken, the scattered. They were the ones neglected by the shepherd of Israel that Ezekiel wrote about. As usual, Jesus found a way to pierce the heart of religious leaders. He brought into focus how they had singled out those of questionable reputations, and at the same time He revealed the heart of the true shepherd. One who is concerned for every single one of them to the point of risking his own life to find them. Jesus reminded them that these sheep had been abandoned by the very ones who were called to care for them. If we close our eyes we would almost hear Him say: “Look guys, you dropped the ball on these people and now you are acting all self-righteous by rebuking me for eating with them? Don’t you remember what the Scriptures say about the Good Shepherd? Yes, that’s right, He will go after the lost and the wanderers. So to make it clear, I am the shepherd who goes after the one sheep you deemed worthless.”
Ezekiel puts it this way:
“Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. “As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when his is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered”. And: “I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God. “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick.”Ez. 34:12, 15,16 (NASB)”
…….Do you realize what Jesus did with this parable? He didn’t pull any punches. He completely embarrassed the religious leaders by identifying them as bad shepherds and most importantly, He identified Himself as the good shepherd of Ezekiel 34.
…….The God they worshiped was never to mingle with sinners but rather was to be found only in the presence of righteous, pious people. Without perfect behavior, God would not dare come down. It was scandalous to have one who proclaimed to be the son of God sit down with these miscreants. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned. As a matter of fact, He came to unveil centuries of false ideas about Abba. Opinions on how God is to act are but fictions of men’s mind based on disappointment and preconceived ideas based on how we would act if we were gods. Jesus, in his mercy, wants to go to the root of their theology. He wants to break down the walls of religion and let God shine through. The same God they put in a box was now busting their own confined mind and they didn’t like it. There was God eating with sinners and He liked it! This was the first seismic shock to their theology.
…….What Israel’s past history had done to the image of God was detrimental to the revelation of His heart. All the years in exile had branded their understanding of Him as being a disinterested, distant deity only responsive when people obey every little part of the law. To be fair, our actions have consequences. But to impede our consequences on Him as if God was the one enforcing them would be the equivalent of blaming the ground for breaking your ribs when you tried to impress your wife and decided to jump off a cliff. God is not interested in micromanaging our everyday life and dispensing blessings when we do well and terrible catastrophe when we act silly. He does not withhold His love and affection based on our merit and performance. Even earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, how much more is our Heavenly Father who is so madly in love willing to jump off His high places to join us in our mud puddle?
…….The image of a distant God uninterested with the broken is incongruent with the heart of the Father. The reason Pharisees and the likes kept away from sinners was because they believed sin would corrupt their holiness, and somehow in return God would separate Himself from them. They thought God required perfect obedience and moral rectitude in order to be pleased. And if they separated themselves from the ungodly, it certainly meant that God would do the same. But God was not like them. This is what religion does from the beginning of time, it creates an image of God based on our own image. Have we forgotten that It is not God who is created in our image, but the opposite?
…….Invariably we think God is so turned off by our misconduct that He removes Himself from us. We even go at length to show how much disdain God has for sinners by telling the story of the Garden of Eden when the original couple failed to heed to His voice. We are quick to point out that God kicked them out, but forget that God didn’t stand back in the beauty of Holiness and sterile environment of the Garden. Quite the contrary, He left everything behind and began a long journey of restoration that would climax on a piece of wood millenniums later. If we remove our preconceived ideas of God, and begin to read the narrative with an open heart, The “God too holy” to be in relationship with creation isn’t real. If God was too holy to be close to sin, then the first killing in history at the hands of Cain would be the ultimate repellent to a God who cannot tolerate sin. Yet, He reached out to Cain to converse with him. The reality is that His love for humanity was fully manifested when He came to embrace creation at the cross, His arms stretched opened on the rugged wood to receive all humanity.
Nutella and the Cross
…….To better drive this important distinction home, let me share a personal story. White shirts and Nutella do not go well together. This is the discovery I made one morning as I was getting ready to leave for our Sunday service. Feeling fashionable, I decided to wear a nice white button down shirt. As is a custom in our household, my children want a kiss from daddy before stepping out of the door. Sitting at the breakfast table was my twins girls, eating their bagels covered by a generous layer of Nutella. Even though I am a fan of the hazelnut chocolate paste, that particular morning it wasn’t on my list of likes. After all, have you ever tried to remove chocolate stains from a white shirt? Mia couldn’t contain her love for me, and got down from her chair to chase after me for a big ole hug and kiss. The problem was her hands and lips were smeared with chocolate. This was a beautiful sight, I mean a child running for a kiss breaks down every rejection issue any man would ever have.
…….But this particular morning was a little different, I had a white shirt. What was I suppose to do to preserve the pristine whiteness? You guessed it, I pulled away from my incoming chocolate lover, no matter how cute she was. My shirt suddenly became more important than the affection my child asked for, and should have received. After all, I was going to speak about God that morning and I couldn’t possibly allow stains on a white shirt to distract my audience. This is without a doubt what religion has done to the image of the Father. He is so white, so holy that any kind of potential stain would mar His perfect image. We come to believe God is so clean that a little dirt, a little chocolate, a little humanity would have a negative effect on His glory. We think God cannot tolerate stains on His pristine presence. Unlike me and my attempts to protect my white shirt, the Father opened up His arms, lowered Himself down and picked us up while we were still sinners (covered with Nutella) Romans 5:8. The God who keeps His distance from humanity is only real for the religious demands. He is only real for the ones who think they don’t need Him because they washed their hands before approaching Him, but Nutella has never scared God away!
What does it mean for us?
So, returning to our story of the lost sheep, what becomes quite evident is that sheep wandered because bad leaders focused their attention on the ones worthy of their attention. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the disenfranchised, the sickly, the broken, the scattered, and the lost.
When people worship rules, they are kept in a state of fear, which keeps people in bondage with thoughts like “If you sin, God will cut you off”. But, if we dare sit at the table with Jesus, what we will encounter is a love that says “even if your life seems worthless and covered in sin, I will never cut you off”. The power that changes us is not the weak restraints of rules, but the overwhelming, disarming power of His love.
this parable isn’t just for the leaders of Israel some two thousand years ago, it is pertinent to us every day. In our quest to be more like Jesus, let us be mindful of who we exclude based on different set of beliefs or behavior, and learn to love outrageously to the point of being excluded for the love we show.
Next we will look at what it means to go after the lost sheep.
Wisdom of a shepherd part 4
By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story. “Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!’ Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.-Luke 15:1-7 (MSG)
The last place on earth you would want to be by yourself is in the wilderness. Aron Ralston knows this all too well. If you remember, he became famous in the movie 127 Hours, retelling his survival story as an outdoor enthusiast on a day’s adventure through the canyon of Utah. While negotiating the precarious precipices he slipped and fell into an opening, dislodging a large boulder, trapping his arm beneath it. Realizing no one could hear him calling for help, Aron used a pocket knife to try and chip away at the boulder, and as time passed it dawned on him he might not make it out alive. Without giving too much away his freedom would come at a huge price.
…….Because of the scarcity of food, very few wandering preys survived the attack of predators lurking in the shadows. To make matters worse, one will experience near freezing temperatures at night and sweltering temperatures in the high noon day. Needless-to-say, surviving in the throngs of such a perilous environment is not as easy as it sounds. This became a reality for one sheep who, after wandering off a distance from the safety of its flock found itself in this dreaded and dangerous place.
…….The barren land was not simply devoid of growing possibilities, it carried some ominous connotation. The Jews believed the devil made his residence in the desert. It was there that venomous snakes were sent after the disobedience of the children of God (Numbers 21:6). Many rabbinic writings point to the scapegoat, the second goat in the ceremony of the Atonement in Leviticus 16:6-8, as the personification of all wickedness called Azazel. Interestingly enough, this character made his home address in the wilderness
8 and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. 9 Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
…….If one got lost in the wilderness it was said that he or she deserved it as a form of divine judgment. Whether this is theologically correct or simply a myth steeped in paganism is neither here nor there. Suffice it to say that for the Jews the wilderness was more than just a fruitless plot of land, it was the place where sins, demons, and wickedness go to live. It should not surprise us that it is in the desert that Jesus encountered the devil for an epic mano a mano (Luke 4).
…….Jesus intentionally chose the wilderness as the central location for his parable of the lost sheep. As we have seen in our previous post, the religious leaders became enraged when this righteous rabbi had people of questionable lifestyles eat with him at his table. What we tend to overlook in our modern reading of Scriptures is the very meaning of sharing a meal. Within the Judaeo culture, to share a meal meant a whole lot more than satiating one’s hunger with somebody. For them, reclining at tables with guests meant to enter into a covenant of friendship. From the very moment you dipped your bread in the plate with someone, you became bound to them and them to you in solidarity. This covenant partnership meant that when you are shamed, they are now standing in unity sharing in your shame. When you are successful, they are sharing in your success. When you are hurting, ridiculed, and rejected, they are experiencing the same things alongside you.
…….Because of the significance of meal sharing, and the implication of covenant, one chose his table guests carefully by vetting their social and religious life to make sure none were considered sinners. Pharisees considered tax collectors and prostitutes and all the disenfranchised to be essentially rejected from the covenant with God. They honestly thought that their lack of religious uprightness and their poor moral choices would be enough for God to cast them into some form of torment and ultimately away from the blessings of being part of Abraham’s covenant. Eating with them would mean that their moral rectitude would be flushed down the toilet as they would now be forever associated with depravity. Is it not funny how a lack of righteous living has the power to defile our fragile religious rectitude?
…….For the religious experts, God cannot look upon sin, which meant He had turned His back on them. It was therefore their objective to eradicate evil from the camp so that the glory of God could once again return to their homeland. Anyone who acted outside of their religious demands was systematically ostracized from the flock of Israel. In this segregated group, one would find sinners, gentiles, pagan worshipers and people so broken that they didn’t fit anywhere. To stay within our theme of sheep and shepherd, these were the “black sheep” believed to carry diseases that could infect the whole herd. That sheep needed to be excluded for the sake of the flock.
…….Religious systems separate based on merits and performances. Those in position of power become the judge and jury and ultimately decide who is included and who is excluded. Nevertheless, what religion had excluded, Jesus came to include.
By eating with the disenfranchised, Jesus shared in their plight, He became one with them. He reversed what religion has so successfully done in excluding people.
True religion is caring for the broken by covenanting with them rather than waiting outside the house with a club until they cleanse themselves and become whole. It is therefore not surprising that in order to right what they had done wrong, Jesus used the lost sheep as a metaphor to pierce their hearts and reveal His own compassion for the disenfranchised, the broken, the prostitutes and sinners, the tax collectors and the gentiles, and all who had been excluded.
,,,,,,,In one simple story, The Son of God revealed the nature of a Father who isn’t casting people into torment for failing to uphold every law. And when society casts people in the wilderness amongst danger and loneliness, it is the same Father who leaves the comfort of His own home to join them in their struggle to save and comfort them. He not only went after the excluded, but He lost everything to find them. And when He did, He carry them out on his shoulders, whispering encouraging and strengthening words to nurse them back to life. His heart for the broken cost Him His life, and He was fine with it.
…….It doesn’t matter if we are lost and don’t even remember who we are, or if we think we deserve the torment and pain. We may think that our lack of worthiness made God distance Himself from us, but the undeniable truth of the Gospel is that Jesus will continually pursue us in our worst days to show that the Father is fond of us. He will even offer a place at His table to share in our shame, and search for us in the wilderness, joining us in our struggle until He finds us. For our sake, Jesus the Good shepherd goes into the wilderness to destroy the religious belief that bad things are deservedly brought on by our lack of moral rectitude. He will never forsake us, never abandon us, and never pull away from us when we fail. He will always have a morsel of bread and a cup of wine extended to us for a communion of friendship, even when the religious forces point an accusatory finger at us.
To put it simply, you are invited to eat at his table to share in His reputation. He braved the proverbial wilderness to rescue us from our torment and nursed us back to health. He rejoiced over us.
Wisdom of a Shepherd part 3
“It’s strange how much is revealed when we are lost”
aaaaaLost and found; every store, every public facility, every church, every hotel has one. Often located somewhere behind a counter one can find all kinds of goodies in the lost and found. From umbrellas, travel mugs, Bibles, notebooks, cellphones, to some of the more exotic items too awkward to mention. Some items found their way in the lost and found by people who left them behind. Others stay in there because items aren’t that valuable. On the other hand, one will go through tremendous hurdles to get back billfolds, cellphones, car keys, and wedding bands.
aaaThe feeling rising up from within is so overwhelming that anything around is but a blur. One is on a mission to find whatever one has lost and nothing will do until the elusive item has been found. In many cases, the more important the object, the more intense the search. Finding what has been lost takes precedent over everything else. Now, there is a difference between losing something and being lost. But who are the lost? This is probably what people wondered when Jesus talked about the lost sheep.
aaaaaIt was precisely at a table that Jesus began to tell the story of a shepherd who had one hundred sheep but one got lost. Jesus was quite fond of eating with people from all walks of life. He was especially fond of the disenfranchised, the rejects of society, the sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. The latter group was considered to be a lost cause by Jewish standard. We all know people who keep falling back in the treacherous ways of any form of addiction that they have been considered lost causes by our society. Such was the case of the Tax collectors in Galilee. These guys were not your typical IRS agent knocking at your door to audit you. These Jews had abandoned their faith all together and had defected to the Roman Empire. They left their heritage as sons of Abraham for the lucrative business of excising taxes from their Israelite brothers. Rome was an expensive war machine that could only be sustained by imposing heavy burdens on the conquered countries. To do so, Rome offered large sums of money to anyone willing to turn their back on their countrymen for the purpose of taxation.
aaaaaOnce you became a tax collector, you would be guaranteed a high salary, nice abode, and nice clothes, but with all the benefits of such a high paying job came the disgust from your own. You were a traitor, a vile individual who sold his soul to the tyrannical empire for the sake of riches. Not only were they getting rich by their salary but since Tax collectors were so despised by their own, it was quite natural for them to skim some of the taxes for themselves. Rome knew it and was okay with it since no one wanted to do their job. They were the miscreants of the Jewish culture, the cockroaches in someone’s house. Even the thought of touching one of them would send shivers down anyone’s back. So to sit and eat with them was the ultimate offense. Eating and drinking wasn’t an activity simply meant to satiate natural hunger. To eat and drink with people was the quintessence of covenant friendship, therefore one would choose wisely who was at the table with him. Yet, Jesus must have failed to notice who was sitting with Him, or did He?
aaaaaJesus had an untoward tendency to have the disenfranchised at His table. It was exactly at this table that the pharisees, the self-proclaimed guardians of the law, pointed out to Jesus his disregard for the unspoken societal rule.
“By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends” Luke 15:1-2 MSG.
Had Jesus been sensible enough, or prophetic enough, He would have known not to eat with them. After all, in their minds God didn’t sit down with sinners. But Jesus was not the image of their own god, He was the perfect image and the radiance of the Father (Heb 1:3). Their concept of God separated from humanity was so mingled and grotesque, that Jesus began to tell them a story.
“Suppose one of you had a hundred sheep and lost one. Wouldn’t you leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until you found it? When found, you can be sure you would put it across your shoulders, rejoicing, and when you got home call in your friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Celebrate with me! I’ve found my lost sheep!” Luke 15:4-6 MSG
aaaaaFor society, sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the disenfranchised were not welcomed at the table of the ones who pretentiously believed they were accepted in the Kingdom of God. By the way, this is no different than some streams of Christianity who notoriously castigate people behaving differently or believing different doctrines than theirs. They will reject them because they feel they have betrayed the faith. But Jesus would not be conformed to their rules.
aaaaaFor Him, these broken people were not some lost causes one discards because there is no hope. These were the lost sheep who needed to be found. He did not see them differently than the ones who were following Him, in this case the ninety-nine safely in the sheepfold. Jesus made it clear that these lost sheep were His own.
aaaaaTo lose something means that it first belonged. A shepherd is not hunting for sheep wandering on their own in the wild like a cowboy searching for wild horses. No, sheep don’t live in the wild by themselves. Sheep are utterly helpless, they have no sense at all of directions. Unlike cats and dogs who can find their way back home from hundreds of miles away, sheep are not capable of such a feat. They have no means of defending themselves from predators. Sheep more than anything need a shepherd to thrive. Their environment for existing is solely in the presence of a human leading them and caring for them. Their basic needs are met by their caregiver. No one will find wild sheep like the mustangs of the western plains. There is no feral sheep. To be a sheep means you first belong to a shepherd, and as such, if a sheep gets lost the shepherd who owns it has lost what truly belongs to him.
aaaaaWe all have been lost at some point or another. It is quite nerve-racking when we finally realize we have gone so long on our journey in the wrong direction that every tree, every path, every glimmer of light brings more confusion than comfort. That is true when we are by ourselves. What the story of the lost sheep tells us is that in the worse state of lostness, there is always someone who will come and find us because we belong to Him. He will not stop when it gets too difficult or the search is too perilous. Just when we lose our keys to the house or our smart phones, Jesus will not leave a stone unturned, a path untraveled, a ditch unchecked until He finds what belongs to Him, because we matter to Him.
aaaaaJesus is unequivocal about it, the rejects of society are His and therefore He will go and put His life at risk to find what is lost. Our value is not determined by what we have missed or where we have been or how together we have it. We are not losing value when we forget who we are. Our value comes from the life one is willing to give in order to find us. Jesus does not regard lost causes as projects to fix, He values them because they are His own sheep. Whether we are married or divorced, black or white, confused about our identity or secure in who we are, promiscuous for a fleeting expression of attention or a religious devotee, we all are His! He treasures us enough to come after us when we are so lost that the only possible outcome we see is death. His life for our death. What is revealed when we are lost is the love that the Creator has for us to come into our own darkness, braving the dangers to carry us out on His shoulders. The value of a sheep (i.e. our own life) is completely and undeniably wrapped up in the life of the shepherd and not in its own concept of worth.