James’s Blog: (Mis)Understanding Parables.

James’s Blog:  (Mis)Understanding Parables.

I don’t normally divulge the meaning behind the stories that I’ve written, partly because I don’t want to prejudice the reader and partly because I’m a contrary so-and-so, but let’s talk about the story ‘Border Control’. This one appears in The Second Listening Book and, as usual, I had something deliberate in mind when I wrote it. I believe that the Gospel changes our fundamental character – not tidies it up, or papers over it, but actually transforms it. We were sinners, we are now children of God. However, some Christian leaders undermine God’s grace by teaching that we should continue to define ourselves by our old nature – as though the Gospel is some kind of illusory magic trick that makes us look good to God but offers no real change. I tried to express my frustration with this bad theology through ‘Border Control’, a story set at an immigration station, where the guards funnel new arrivals into a holding camp and leave them thinking that being trapped behind barbed wire is the same as being a free citizen of their new country.

I wrote it before Brexit and President Trump made immigration into an even more divisive topic, but the story has only been available since those events. One reviewer took the parable at face value, assumed it was liberal political commentary on immigration and took me to task on my naivety. Now, I am naïve, but only because I’m consistently surprised when people don’t get what I’m really trying to say. You’d think I’d have learned by now.

Someone else once commented that they didn’t get one of my parables, and that this made it a bad parable, because the meaning of parables are supposed to be clear. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.  The disciples, who knew Jesus best, floundered repeatedly on this issue, scratching their heads and saying, “Tell us what this parable means…” once the crowds had dispersed. When they summoned up the courage to ask Jesus why he used parables in the first place, Jesus responds by quoting Isaiah: “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”

I don’t mind people not understanding my stories and I don’t mind them getting something other than what I originally intended – that’s actually quite exciting. What I do mind though is people thinking that I’m a one-dimensional writer. It’s OK for me to get my ego bruised once in a while, but it’s also OK to come away from a parable confused, or encouraged, or feeling like you’ve been kicked in the gut.

Thanks to two thousand years of Sunday School, we think we ‘get’ parables, but let’s be honest. Had we been there when Jesus first spoke, we likely would have missed the point too. If Jesus turned up today in Hyde Park and told the Parable of the Prodigal Son for the first time I’m sure that there would be some Evangelicals lining up to lambaste him for being soft on sin. If he’d told the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard I’m sure that sections of the American Religious Right would have denounced him as a ‘dangerous socialist’.  It’s almost like Jesus was looking for trouble, using stories that arouse confusion and anger in equal measure.

Everyone these days knows that Samaritans are Good, but when Jesus first told that parable, Samaritans were anything but. ‘Samaritan’ was a crude swearword that a good Jew, a Jew like the one who asked Jesus the original question in Luke 10, couldn’t even bring himself to say. There are plenty of despised people groups at the moment. Think of the one group that makes you the most suspicious, the ones that you find it the easiest to hate and the hardest to love. Would you have followed Jesus if he’d recast one of them as the Samaritan in his parable?

The thing is, it was people like us – people with opinions – who wanted Jesus dead.

James’s Blog: The Parable of the Talents – Two

James’s Blog:  The Parable of the Talents – Two

My family and I were part of Cornerstone Community for about eight years. For those of you who don’t know, Cornerstone is an Australian mission and discipling movement, and it’s been going for about as long as I’ve been alive. It’s far from perfect, but it must have been doing something right. There are countless well-meaning Christian communities that have imploded within their first five years. Why has God kept Cornerstone around? What is the magic ingredient?

I wonder if one of the things that God enjoys about Cornerstone is that, fundamentally, it’s a risk-taking venture. I’m sure those who are responsible for the organisation’s accounts will agree with me, but others might not be so sure. Well, trust me. I’ve been involved in local church leadership and been a member of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, so I know what I’m talking about. There are churches that consider themselves ‘edgy’ because they’ve recently changed the time of their evening service. There has always been a touch of the Mad Scientist about Cornerstone – “Well, if Jesus really said that, what happens if we try this..?” I think God likes it. I’m not sure there’s  a risk-free way to build bridges to heaven.

There’s a lot of theology you can be wrong about, and still be a Christian. Predestination, women in leadership, the Rapture, what worship really is, the role of Israel in God’s plans, what the point of the Sabbath is, whether or not Donald Trump is the Antichrist etc.  I used to think that my position on some of those things was really important. Now I’m not so sure. However, I do know that there are plenty of churches where the stuff about Jesus being God and dying for our sins and all that is just a given, and that the real meat and drink is in the kind of stuff that I’ve just listed – and you’d better make sure that you believe the right things. I know of at least one church where ministers are selected based on their response to a grilling from the congregation about these kind of issues (maybe not the Donald Trump one).

The thing is, what happens if you subconsciously create a church environment where it’s a terrible crime to believe the wrong thing about these topics? What if everyone has to be on the same page about everything, or they’re persona non grata? What if what you’ve communicated over the years is not actually the gospel, but rather the message that the worst sin in the world is to get it wrong? What happens to a church like that? It won’t be a risk-taking church, because the problem with risks is that sometimes you can get it very wrong.

I remember taking a very specific risk once, and it going wrong. I crashed and burned in a humiliating way. The scars from that failure are still with me – all these years later and I still haven’t totally recovered. But I don’t regret it for a second, because I know that if God ever brings it up in conversation I can say, “Sure God, it didn’t work out brilliantly, but at least I tried.” I’m sure that God’s response will be to smile, because He is a risk-taking God and has a soft spot for risk-taking children. I remember hearing a story once about a woman who criticised D.L. Moody for the way that he evangelised. His response: “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it”. I think that God agrees.

When I read ‘The Parable of the Talents’ another thought that I can’t get out of my head is that there are no rewards, no prizes in heaven for caution. Quite the opposite, in fact. Sometimes, as I read it, I wonder what the master’s response would have been if the servant with five talents had lost them all in his investment scheme. I like to think that he would still had more time for that servant than for the one who sat on his hands. I don’t know for sure, and such speculation doesn’t really have a place in the interpretation of parables anyway. Jesus told it to make a specific point, and a different point would have required a different parable altogether. Maybe if he’d been surrounded by reckless, careless disciples he would have told a parable about a man who suffered because of a foolish risk, but as it is he told a parable about a man who was rejected by his master because he was too cautious and not risk-taking enough. I wonder why he felt the need to tell us that one?

James’s Blog: The Parable of the Talents – One.

James’s Blog:  The Parable of the Talents – One.

Ah, Matthew 25:14-30. ‘The Parable of the Talents’ practically writes its own sermon. “So, in conclusion, God wants us to use our gifts for Him. Coincidentally, we need people to help lead the Sunday School. There’s a sign-up sheet at the back.” I did mention that I’m cynical, right?

I remember sitting in a classroom, waiting for the lecturer to arrive. He came in and, out of the blue, went off on a rant that had nothing to do with the session that was scheduled. “Some of you,” he said, “are frustrating God because you’re not using your gifts”. Having delivered this message, he calmed down and got on with the lecture that we were supposed to have. I suspect that, years later, he wouldn’t even remember that he’d done this and I’m certain that he has no idea that he was talking to me. Make no mistake, he was talking to me.  That random little outburst changed my life. There would be no The Listening Book if he hadn’t been obedient enough to vent on the Holy Spirit’s behalf.

If Jesus had wanted the message of this parable to be ‘God wants you to use your gifts’ then he probably would have finished at verse 25, but he didn’t. Verses 26 to 30 bring the story to its chilling conclusion. The servant who buried the money loses the little that he was entrusted with and is thrown into the sinister ‘Outer Darkness’. No wonder we don’t dwell on that bit. After all, you can understand why the servant did what he did, right? Would a little empathy have killed the master? And before you check, Luke’s version isn’t much better.

These days, when I read this parable I think about the times that I diligently prepared sermons, carefully making the message of Jesus a little more palatable for my congregation. Perhaps it was because I’m a sensitive, pastoral soul, or maybe it was because I was labouring under the mistaken belief that you can make a rose more beautiful by removing its thorns. These days I am even more committed to taking responsibility for how  I am communicating, but I am equally aware that I am not doing God some great favour by coming up with eloquent and clever ways to de-fang the Gospel.

What if Jesus’s message here isn’t ‘God wants you to use your gifts’, but rather that ‘Waste makes God angry’?

If that’s true, what do you make of that?

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