by Daniel Harrell
We’re back to the red-letters of Jesus tonight, the words of Christ spoken in Mark’s gospel. I’ve been working through these words since last May, spurred on by a book entitled Red-Letter Christians by sociologist Tony Campolo. He asserts that Jesus’ words carry political implications, significant as our country barrels toward election day divided as ever over which presidential candidate has the goods to deliver us out of the dual disasters of war and financial collapse: Barack Obama or Sarah Plain—I mean, John McCain? The lines over who would be savior were as starkly drawn in Jesus’ day. Oppressed by Roman military and economic power, first century Jews eagerly awaited a coming king in the ilk of the renown King David—slayer of giants and builder of nations. Facing that prospect is an unknown, untried carpenter from Nazareth, a wonder worker with a few tricks up his sleeve to be sure, yet who has undermined any credibility by audaciously asserting that he forgives sins like God. And on the Sabbath no less. He claims that deliverance has already come and that he’s the one bringing it, as absurd as politicians claiming they are bringers of real change to politics as usual, even as they practice politics as usual.
Who wouldn’t be skeptical? Even Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. They showed up in chapter 3 and tried to take custody of him—out of concern and probably embarrassment too. “He’s lost his mind,” they said. Others likely agreed once they heard Jesus respond to being informed his mother and brothers were waiting for him outside. He acted as if he didn’t even know who they were. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. “Dude, you don’t even know your own mother” And then sounding even more bizarre, Jesus turned to the ones seated around him: poor fishermen and prostitutes, despised tax-collectors and outcast sinners, people who had left their own families to follow him. Jesus points to them and says “Behold my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God, that’s my brother and sister and mother.”
What is the will of God? Well, first and foremost it’s the willingness to forgive those who hurt you by calling you crazy or anything else. Jesus does that, providing for his mother even as he hangs on the cross to die —an outrageous move of extreme grace that paid dividends in Mary’s case. By the time we get to the first chapter of Acts she’s numbered among the believers. As for the chief priest and Pharisees, chiefly responsible for Jesus’ death, he forgives them too—implying that to follow Christ is to forgive your enemies even if they never accept your overtures or ever apologize for their offenses. A number of you approached me after preaching this last time, wondering if such forgiveness had a shelf life. You may remember the apostle Peter asking the same question. Jesus responded with “seventy times seven” which is just another way of saying you always have to forgive (seven being the number of fullness and completion). Besides, if God forgives you every time you screw up, how could you ever withhold forgiveness from those who hurt you over and over again?
But what if God doesn’t forgive every time? Wait a minute, that doesn’t sound right. God has to forgive, doesn’t he? In Hosea, God says, “My people are determined to desert me. They call me the Most High, but they don’t truly honor me. But how can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like an enemy? How can I treat you like my foe? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” And then in Jeremiah, “I will forgive your wickedness and remember your sins no more.” “If anybody confesses their sins,” the apostle John writes, “God is faithful and just to forgive and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.” So the trick, it seems, at least as far as God’s grace goes, would be to keep your enemies from confessing their sins. Make them oblivious to grace and then they’ll never ask for it. How? Do what Jesus does. Start talking in riddles. Stop shooting straight. That way, verse 12, “they’ll see but never perceive, they’ll hear but never understand; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven.” Wow. Hard to imagine Jesus saying that.
But he does. He says it right here in the context of one of his most familiar riddles. The Parable of the Sower. Some of us have heard this parable so many times, that it’s hard to hear it anymore. You’re automatically programmed to ask yourself, “OK, what kind of dirt am I? Birdy, rocky, thorny or good?” Jesus starts by emphatically insisting everyone “listen!” but then he goes on to tell a rather pedestrian agricultural tale. A farmer scatters seed and it goes everywhere. On the road, on rocks, in briar patches, and your first thought is: “What a doofus. He can’t even throw straight!” Of course if you lived in first century Palestine, you’d remember that sowing comes before plowing; farmers scatter seed indiscriminately knowing that they’d till it into the ground later. That birds or rocks or thorns would get to some of the seed wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was Jesus saying that seeds that fell on good soil produced a yield of thirty, sixty and a hundred times what was sown. In a day when a sevenfold yield would have been bumper, a hundredfold meant you had some seriously engineered seeds—in a day when there was no such thing as genetically engineered seeds. Was this some kind of joke?
Presumably some people laughed off the joke. Seeds don’t multiply that much. Others, since it was Jesus saying it, may have tried to do the math. But most people at least got that Jesus was not talking about literal seeds. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear,” Jesus said, which was just another way of asking, “Do you get it?” Jesus’ disciples, who were supposed to get it, didn’t, which is why, when they got Jesus alone, they asked if he wouldn’t mind clearing things up. Instead, Jesus only confused things more by telling them that, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.” Secret? What secret? “But to those on the outside everything is said in riddles.” The outside? Outside of what? Riddles? Why riddles? And then he quotes the prophet Isaiah: “May they be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” So what you’re saying is keep the secret confusing for outsiders so that they’ll never know to ask God to forgive their sins? That way you don’t have to forgive them? Obfuscate. Complicate. Equivocate. So that when your enemies burn in hell for refusing to repent, they can’t say you didn’t tell them? Wow. Is this some kind of joke?
A few definitions might help. First off, secret is not what we tend to think of it as; that is, something that is immanently unknowable. In Biblical parlance, secret or mystery is something hidden and yet to be revealed by God. In regard to the kingdom of God, the secret revealed is that God’s Old Testament promises of victory and justice are fulfilled through defeat and injustice; specifically through the defeat and unjust death of Jesus. As for outsiders, the first three chapters of Mark have drawn strict boundary lines. There are those who believe in Jesus as Kingdom bringer (insiders) and those who don’t, can’t or won’t (outsiders). Mark says Jesus’ family was waiting for him outside. To them, Jesus speaks riddles—not because his parables in and of themselves are incomprehensible, but because if you refuse to believe in Jesus as the Kingdom-bringer, you’ll never understand what the parables mean.
Which brings us to the quote from Isaiah chapter 6. If you’ve ever been to a Missions Conference, you know Isaiah 6 as that chapter where God seeks someone to send to speak in His name. Isaiah famously responds, “Here I am Lord, send me!” We usually stop reading there and jump right to our calling as Christians to spread the word everywhere like the farmer spreads his seed. But if you read on in Isaiah, to the next verse, you come to the verse Jesus cites. In the Hebrew, the Lord says to Isaiah, “Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be forgiven.” So much for the great commission. But then you remember that Isaiah’s audience is not an unreached world, but unfaithful Israel. Having lavished them with grace, God’s people inexplicably spurn it by chasing idols and mistreating others, like the unmerciful servant who refuses to forgive his debtor even though his master has forgiven his debts. Just like that master who throws his ungrateful servant in jail, God deports his people to Babylon until they can come to their senses. They don’t, of course, which is why they end up in Roman captivity. So God decides to come down and talk some sense into them himself. The only problem is how he does it. How could they believe that this scraggly-looking, poor, unemployed carpenter was God in the flesh? It’s ridiculous.
There’s a new movie out this week that combines the word ridiculous with the word religion. It’s called Religulous, and it stars satirist Bill Maher. I’ve only seen clips shown during an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. One has Maher preaching in a London park, going on about how “space aliens brought people here 75 million years ago, stacked us up in volcanoes and blew us up with H-Bombs and how we have to rid ourselves of the implants from the extra-terrestrial dictators.” The camera zooms to his listeners obviously thinking he’d lost his mind. What was he talking about? That human beings are actually immortal spirits called thetans now trapped on earth in “meat bodies.” This is a basic tenet of Scientology. This is what Tom Cruise believes.
Weird, you think. But Maher quickly adds that it’s not so different from Christianity. It’s just that we’re used to Christianity. Imagine you’ve never heard the story before. Someone comes up to you and says “God had a son, he’s a single parent, and he said to his son, “Jesus, I’m going to send you to earth on a suicide mission, but don’t worry, they can’t kill you because you’re really me! But it is going to hurt for a hot minute, I’m not going to lie about that. You’re going to hate me but it’s the best thing for you son, I mean the best thing for me, because I’m you, you’re me. Here’s the plan, I’ll go down to earth and see if I can find a Palestinian woman to impregnate so she can give birth to you, I mean me…” “It’s just the silliest thing you’ve ever heard,” Maher concludes, “And this is a monotheistic religion!” OK, I laughed a little. I mean, when you put it that way, Christianity does sound ridiculous. But that’s not how the gospel goes. However it is clearly how Bill Maher hears it. It’s how the Pharisees heard it too. Even though they witnessed Jesus firsthand.
“Ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” You can imagine Jesus shaking his head as he says it. Isaiah was right. Some people just can’t get it.
But then sometimes even people who do get it still don’t understand it. Like the disciples, even after we’ve heard it over and over again, we’re like, “So, what kind of dirt am I?” forgetting that Jesus’ parables are rarely as much about us as they are about him. “The seed is the word,” Jesus says. The word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Christ is the Word, the bringer of the Kingdom, God’s promised salvation and justice. God sows his seed in his people. His people are dirt. The birds are the devil. Rocks are fear. Thorns are worry and greed. When it comes to believing the word; the devil, fear, worry and greed can all impede. But these are amazing seeds.
A few observations. First, the sower sows indiscriminately. The word gets spread even to those sure to reject it. This was clearly the case in Isaiah’s time, the same in our own. “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good,” Jesus said, “he sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike.” Secondly, Jesus chooses farming as the metaphor for the coming kingdom, upending every militaristic, nationalistic or political expectation people may have had about God’s justice. Just when you’re hoping God will get even with evil by blowing it away, Jesus says “a farmer went out to sow his seed.” Thirdly, seeds are seemingly insignificant little things. And yet they grow into magnificent things, and these seeds into miraculous things. But only after they are buried in the ground. Jesus gives a hint of his death and miraculous resurrection. Fourth, the word does the work. Even the seeds that fall on the path do their job. It’s just that other stuff gets in the way. We may wonder “how is that possible? How can evil or worry or greed ever succeed over grace?” But then we remember, “oh yeah, that happens all the time.”
But again, you also have to remember, and this is crucial: The supreme act by which God demonstrates his power is not an act of power but an act of powerlessness. Jesus defeats death by dying. He takes away sin by taking it on himself. He annihilates evil by exploiting evil, by using it to do God’s thing just when it thought it was doing its own thing. Ironically, this may help explain why God still allows evil to exist. Jesus equates the devil with birds, which need not be completely insulting. After all, the demons knew who Jesus was even when people didn’t. Likewise, birds recognize good seed for what it is even when the pavement doesn’t. The devil might try to ingest the word and turn it to crap, but as any horticulturist will tell you, bird crap is one of the most effective means of spreading seeds. The idea of evil typically obstructs faith, but get a dose of real evil and even skeptics start believing in God in a hurry. Though at times sowing seems fruitless, in God’s ecology, the harvest is always abundant.