Is the Last First?

I wonder if my siblings think the arrangement is fair? I’m the youngest of four in my family, and we’re spread out over 20 years. That means that my sister has invested 20 more years of life with our parents than I have. She had 20 more years with our father when he died and she’ll have 20 more with our mother at the end of her run. My brothers, then, have 15 and 10 years additional.

Despite this, our mother’s will stipulates that everything be split four ways. Does that seem fair? Shouldn’t I get less, having fewer years of service to claim? Maybe that’s why, when it came time to choose an executor for that will, both of my brothers pointed at me.

This question draws me to another of Jesus’ kingdom parables, this one in Matthew 20:1-16. Here, he tells the story of a vineyard owner (God) hiring people (believers) to work in his vineyard. He promises the early-morning hires a denarius. Then he keeps hiring more people throughout the day, adding some just before quitting time. In the end, he pays all of them a denarius, regardless of how long they worked. The all-day workers are incensed, complaining of the unfair treatment. The vineyard owner’s response fills the last few verses of the passage:

“He replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I’m doing you no wrong. Didn’t you agree with me on a denarius? Take what’s yours and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? Are you jealous because I’m generous?’

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like this story of the vineyard. If that’s the case, then what do we learn about the kingdom from this account? Does it indicate that absolutely everybody who enters into the kingdom will receive the same reward?

If that’s what Jesus is saying then it seems to run counter to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Although the metaphor is different there–building instead of vineyard-tending–the ideas coexist. The all-day vineyard workers (or quality builders) can look at the work they have done as well as at the pay in their hands as a reward.

So what are our takeaways from this parable?

  • The kingdom involves labor in this life and then payment at the end of the “day.”
  • The kingdom rewards all of its subjects equally, regardless of their term of service.
  • The kingdom, therefore, excludes the pride of being the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable.
  • The kingdom’s work, intuited from 1 Corinthians 3, can be its own reward for the most dedicated workers.

I’d write more, but in a few minutes I have to go to my mother’s house and drive her to her hair appointment. Most likely I’ll need to fix something she’s done to her computer. Tonight, after the rain, I’ll think about her leaky basement. Maybe I am earning that full share among my siblings after all.

 

 

Welcome the Royal Baby

The Royal Baby now has a name: Archie. Rumor has it that if Archie has a little brother, they’re going to name it Jughead, but that might just be a rumor.

Why do Americans, who are almost biologically against monarchy, take so much interest in the doings of the British royal family? I don’t understand it, yet I did watch both seasons of The Crown and then a couple of documentaries about the Windsors of the early 20th century. It’s like watching Honey Booboo with a lot nicer clothes. But I digress.

I’ve spent considerable time recently considering the seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13. Those parables shed some light on precisely what the kingdom of God constitutes, but they’re not the whole story. In fact, if we read Matthew as a chronological account, then we might find the encounter between Jesus and his naysayers in Matthew 12 as the impetus for those parables.

When the Pharisees couldn’t deny the miracles that Jesus was performing, specifically casting out demons, they assumed that He did this work by Satanic power. Jesus didn’t even wait for them to speak:

Knowing their thoughts, he told them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons drive them out? For this reason they will be your judges. If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.–Matthew 12:25-28

I want to draw attention to the end of that passage. In the first part, Jesus argues that it makes no sense for Satan to power an anti-demon action. Having established that, He seeks to make a more significant point. “If I [Jesus] drive out demons by the Spirit of God” (which He apparently had), “then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

There’s that kingdom of God again. What had changed to lead to this conclusion? There were demon-possessed people before Jesus. There were Pharisees before Jesus. In fact, pretty much everything was the same as it had been except that Jesus was there and demonstrating the power that attended Him.

You can’t have a kingdom without a king, and by demonstrating His power, Jesus was demonstrating that He is the king of the kingdom of God. Many people incorrectly say that Jesus never claimed to be God, but here’s another case where He, if not making that claim, comes pretty close.

Ultimately, whatever else we know about the kingdom pales next to the fact that the kingdom revolves around and gains its power from Jesus, the king. When He came into the world, the kingdom of God came into the world in a manner it had never done before.

Little Prince Archie might fascinate the world, but the truly important royal baby was born in Bethlehem, 2,000 years ago. I’d proclaim, “Long live the King,” but I don’t really need to.

Estate Sale

Don’t tell my mother, but our plan, when we clean out her house in the not-to-distant future will involve a dumpster. There’s a good bit of material in her house that just needs to go. Yes, she will say “Somebody might need that!” but nobody is going to need the broken charger to lost batteries for a thirty-year-old nose-hair clipper. Nobody.

On the other hand, she has a good bit of material around that house that is going to find its way into various family members’ homes. I have my eye on her vast collection of Hummel figurines. You just can’t have too many of those.

This idea pops into my mind as I read the last of the seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13.

“Therefore,” he said to them, “every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom treasures new and old.”–Matthew 13:52

It doesn’t take much effort to see that this parable is different from the other six. While it does tell us some things about the kingdom that Matthew 6:33 has us seeking, it also takes a step back from the kingdom to talk about what happens when a “teacher of the law” becomes a disciple.

Much of the accumulation of 90-plus years in my mother’s house is junk, but there’s also a lot that might seem worthless to my grandkids but will actually thrill other people. I’m sure that we’ll one day have an estate sale that witnesses various people finding treasures that we might have discarded. Some of the items in that house mean something to me because of my history with them.

I think that gets at the point Jesus was making in this parable. The “teacher of the law” or “scribe,” grammateus in the Greek, was someone learned in understanding and teaching the law. These people, in Jesus’ time, absolutely knew their Bibles, even though their Bibles were only our Old Testament. So what would happen when these people followed the kingdom? They would be able to bring their prior knowledge and expertise and, in the light of the kingdom, turn it into “treasures old and new.”

An old treasure might be seeing a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice in the story of Abraham and Isaac. A new treasure would be an understanding of Jesus’ teachings deepened by past learning.

So what does this parable add to our understanding of the kingdom of God?

  • The kingdom is not only valuable in its own right; it makes other things more valuable.
  • The kingdom’s value can be made more apparent by knowledgeable students and teachers of the Word.

Like my mother’s house, mine holds a certain number of treasures, but, at the end of the day, I hope that the most glittering things at my estate sale reflect my fidelity to the kingdom.

The Worst Day Fishing . . .

The only fish I ever caught during my brief foray into fly fishing was a tiny sucker. When I say “sucker,” I’m not using slang. The fish was a white sucker (Catostomus commersonii), one of three varieties of suckers that swim in Missouri streams. The fish was so tiny that I didn’t realize I had it on the hook for a good thirty seconds. My line moved around some, but I couldn’t tell if it was a fish or just the action of the current.

My companions and I had a good laugh when this lunker finally emerged from the water. I worked the hook out of its lip and tossed it back into the stream. Clearly this wasn’t a “keeper.”

For any fish that gets tossed back into the water after being caught, that fate is a positive one, but in today’s parable of the kingdom, you don’t want to be thrown out. Let’s take a look at the verses:

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a large net thrown into the sea. It collected every kind of fish, and when it was full, they dragged it ashore, sat down, and gathered the good fish into containers, but threw out the worthless ones. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will go out, separate the evil people from the righteous, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.–Matthew 13:47-50

My first response is an old Yogi Berra line: “It’s like deja vu all over again.” Like the treasure and pearl parables, this one seems to cover most of the same ground as the wheat and tares story. But then, like that previous pairing, this one is structured differently. Here, rather than the actor (farmer/fisherman) being the kingdom, it is the tool, the net.

What’s strange about this tale to me is that the fate of both good and bad fish seems negative. The good fish are put into containers, presumably to be sold and eaten. The bad fish are thrown away. Am I over-interpreting things again?

It seems clear here that the important fact is that both good and bad “fish” can be caught in the net but that the bad will be pulled out down the road. If, like the farmer in the wheat and tares parable, the net here represents Jesus or “the Son of Man” (Matthew 13:37), then we see that the kingdom will touch or even catch up many people who are not keepers.

Can we draw new conclusions from this parable?

  • The kingdom exists to serve its own (or God’s) ends, not ours. No one fishes for the benefit of the fish.
  • The kingdom is somewhat indiscriminate in whom it nets. Just because someone has wound up in the net does not mean that they will spend eternity with God. That explains why some people in every age appear to be “caught up” in Christ but wind up not knowing Him.
  • The kingdom is an inexorable force. Fish do not choose to be caught and, when a net is involved, have very little option to avoid being caught. Similarly, we don’t choose Christ; He chose us. (John 15:16)

These last two conclusions are a bit difficult to reconcile with the verse that led us here, Matthew 6:33. That study will have to wait for another day, however.

 

The Six-String Kingdom

A 1957 Fender Stratocaster will set you back somewhere between $10,000 and $25,000. Just to be clear, I don’t own one. I knew a guy, though, who owned some fantastic vintage guitars–although nothing quite that extraordinary. The weird thing is that Dale wasn’t that great a guitar player, and he was chronically broke. In fact, at one point he found himself on the cusp of bankruptcy and set about hiding his guitars so that they wouldn’t get sold to help discharge a portion of his debts.

Here’s an example of a person who spent a great deal of money on something that made absolutely no sense for him to buy. Instead of taking care of his finances, he just couldn’t stop buying guitars and other music gear.

To the outside world, that’s what it must look like when a Christian takes the kingdom of God seriously. Jesus told us, in Matthew 6:33, to seek first the kingdom. Then he used a thick flurry of parables to help us understand precisely what it was we were to seek.

Immediately after the “buried treasure” parable, we find the parable of the pearl or the “pearl of great price.”

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one priceless pearl, he went and sold everything he had and bought it.–Matthew 13:45-46

On first blush, this parable looks like an exact parallel of the buried treasure one. Somebody found something that was incredibly valuable and then sacrificed everything to ensure that they possessed that something. But that’s on first blush.

There are some major differences between these two parables. First of all, in the first, the kingdom is the valuable thing. In the second, the kingdom is the person who finds it. So which is it? Can Jesus not keep his stories straight? It would have been simple for Him to simply say that the kingdom is the pearl, but He didn’t. I think this is because it is not as simple as saying that the kingdom is the valuable thing or the person who finds it. It’s a combination of them.

The other big difference is that the merchant seems to be making a bad financial choice. If you find a hidden treasure and buy it, you can then sell the treasure and make a big profit. If you buy the priceless pearl at a market price you can’t really hope to sell it at a profit anytime soon. Having sold everything he had, what’s the merchant going to do?

We learn a couple of new things about the kingdom from this parable.

  • The kingdom, while incredibly valuable, probably will not look good to an accountant. It’s not reducible to dollars and cents.
  • The kingdom is a relational thing. Its value comes when God and human come together in it.

What makes a guitar valuable? A serious player could tell the difference between the 1957 Stratocaster and today’s model in a moment. But could they explain that difference? Probably not. It’s a guitar thing. You wouldn’t understand.

A Trustworthy Treasure

Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly–I used to be really involved in the Scouting movement, at the same time I was involved in a religious denomination that wasn’t excessively Christian.

In about 1997, when I realized that this church’s direction did not match my beliefs, I headed for the door. A few months earlier, sitting on a denominational advisory committee for Scouting, I was nominated as the group’s chaplain at the upcoming Boy Scout National Jamboree. What could be cooler than going to a National Jamboree on the staff in a flexible and wide-ranging role?

Oddly, I didn’t hear anything from the Jamboree people through the fall of 1996 and into the first months of 1997. When they called me in the spring of 1997, I vaguely noted that my situation had changed, and I couldn’t fill this role.

As I got off the phone that day, I smiled. I hadn’t hesitated a moment in passing up an assignment that I had previously coveted. Yes, I had to abandon an intriguing opportunity for that summer, but it didn’t make me pause for a moment.

In the next of Jesus’ Matthew 13 parables of the kingdom, we discover a parallel to my experience:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure, buried in a field, that a man found and reburied. Then in his joy he goes and sells everything he has and buys that field.–Matthew 13:44

I had the treasure. As much as I still enjoyed Scouting, it didn’t bother me a bit to give up that opportunity in order to embrace that treasure. Twenty-two years later, I have never regretted my decision. I gain a couple of conclusions from this verse.

  • The kingdom of God is incredibly valuable. It is not one among many things of value in our lives. It is valuable beyond compare.
  • The kingdom of God is not something we buy or work for. This guy found the treasure, but he did not work for it. Even if he was plowing when he found it, he didn’t plow for it.
  • The kingdom of God is worth every sacrifice that we make to secure it. The important fact in this parable is not that the man bought a field. It is that he obtained the treasure with the field as a necessary afterthought.
  • The kingdom of God is something that, when found, should bring us joy. This man did not hesitate or do a cost-benefit analysis. Instead, he jumped joyfully into action.

But here’s the question that I’m left with as I read this verse. Is the kingdom still something that I would sacrifice the near and dear to enjoy or maintain? Do I feel the joy of my salvation like I did when I first received it. What about you? If not, maybe we need to refresh ourselves on Matthew 6:33 and the kingdom of God we’re seeking.

The Sourdough Whisperer

My wonderful wife has become an expert with sourdough. She keeps sourdough starter sitting on our kitchen cabinets, “feeding” it every day. Sometimes she gets overzealous and the quart jar of starter slowly bursts out the top. Most of the time, though, she just makes sourdough bread and sourdough biscuits and sourdough waffles and, once, sourdough bagels.

Yes, I’m a very lucky man.

If you’ve been following along with me in trying to discover what this “kingdom of God” is that Matthew 6:33 tells us that we’re supposed to seek first, you might know that we’ve come to the third of seven kingdom parables in Matthew 13. Today, we’re onto the shortest of the bunch:

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and mixed into fifty pounds of flour until all of it was leavened.”–Matthew 13:33

I have to admit that I get distracted with that one. What is that woman going to make with that flour now that it has yeast in it? And will she share?

So far, the parables have compared the kingdom of God to plants in a field and to a tiny little seed. What sort of choppy focus must Jesus have had to now compare the kingdom to yeast?

I think there’s a good reason why Jesus compares the kingdom to seven exceptionally different things in this chapter and to several others elsewhere in Matthew. You see, the kingdom of God is not really like anything else. It is unique. All similes or other metaphors are imperfect. Despite my mother saying it, most little kids do not literally “grow like a weed.” But the comparisons of earthly and well-known things to the other-worldly and unknown kingdom of God are, by necessity, even more of a stretch. One comparison just won’t get the job done.

What do we learn from this yeasty parable?

  • First, I’d say that the kingdom of God is something where a little goes a long way. In that sense, this parable parallels the mustard seed.
  • Second, the kingdom of God, like the leaven, does its work from within. It is essentially invisible but its outcome is visible to everyone. And once it starts, it is difficult to stop.
  • Finally, somebody has to work the kingdom into the flour. A little bit of yeast will do an amazing job on a pile of dough, but it won’t do it if it remains in the packet.

That leaves me with an unanswered question. In this parable, a woman works the yeast into the flour. Who is the woman? Is the woman God? Is the woman a follower of God? Honestly, I’m not sure that question is even relevant. The important “actor” here is the yeast.

Sourdough starter is amazing stuff. So long as you keep it supplied with food (flour), it will just continue to produce more and more. Perhaps that helps explain why Jesus described Himself as the Bread of Life in John 6.

Now, pass the biscuits!

The Bigfoot-Alien Connection

There are things “they” don’t want you to know. They don’t want you to know that bigfoot is really a scout for the aliens, searching for lost technology in the Pacific Northwest forests. And they don’t want you to know that these are not just any aliens but the friendly aliens, the ones who are attempting to assist us in defending ourselves from the unfriendly aliens. “They” certainly don’t want you to know about them or the year 2032. And all of this explains why “they” deny the obvious conclusion that the earth is flat.

It doesn’t take too long in the back alleys of the web to find stuff that makes the preceding paragraph seem pretty tame. In fact, just to test that claim, I pasted the title of this post into Google to see what I’d find. The very first hit claimed an interdimensional connection between the hairy guy and the space people. (The second one threw in Atlantis.)

People seem to love the idea of hidden knowledge, of mysteries and secrets, conspiracies and riddles. I’ll admit that in a younger season of my life, I’ve been drawn into such materials. Today, I find myself attracted to another mystery, one lying right in front of me my entire life.

This morning, I was thinking about the post that came out yesterday, explaining why Jesus taught in parables. When the disciples asked this question, he told them

the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them.–Mathew 13:11

So here’s the mystery. Are those secrets things that have been plainly given to all who believe in Jesus or even all those who possess the Bible? Or are these secrets that Jesus gave to his inner circle but did not give to us? Let’s keep in mind that when Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 13, He hadn’t bestowed the Holy Spirit on the disciples in the powerful manner that we’d see in John 20 or Acts 2.

The real question I have is whether the kingdom of God (or heaven–the terms are used interchangeably in the gospels) is a mysterious, complicated, secret thing or a simple thing.

Back in Matthew 6:33, Jesus tells the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount to “seek God’s kingdom.” If the kingdom is complicated, then how were they supposed to do that without the secret knowledge? But if it is not complicated or secret, then why, seven chapters later, do we find Jesus veiling the truth in the parables?

Are you ready for my answer? I’m sorry, but I don’t have a definitive answer. The kingdom of God is a mystery, and yet it seems to be an accessible mystery. If it were simple, then Jesus wouldn’t be throwing a flurry of parables into teaching it. If it were complicated, then in Matthew 19:14, He wouldn’t have said that the kingdom belongs to such as children.

Winston Churchill could have been speaking on this subject when he described “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In speaking of world affairs, however, Churchill added “but perhaps there is a key.” We can hope for a key for this subject. And it isn’t Bigfoot.

Mystery House

My house isn’t square–or even rectangular to be more precise. Looking over a survey of the 110-year-old barn, I see that it is three inches longer on its north wall than on the south. You could take my word for it, but you don’t have to. Anyone with the proper tools and training could measure it and reach the same result. Some information is accessible to anybody.

On the other hand, some information is not so free ranging. If I tell you that I dreamed of being a llama last night, you have no way of verifying the truth of that claim. You’d just have to believe or disbelieve. Other things some people know and, barring loose lips, other people don’t know, because sometimes secrets can be kept.

Jesus spent a great deal of time discussing the kingdom of God, before and after telling us in Matthew 6:33 to seek that kingdom, because it is not a topic that is incredibly clear and obvious to everyone. In fact, the first thing we should note about the kingdom of God is that it is not freely accessible, easily verified information. We learn this in Matthew 13:10-13

Then the disciples came up and asked him, “Why are you speaking to them in parables?”
He answered, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. That is why I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.

So we learn from this exchange that the knowledge of the kingdom is something that is given rather than studied and learned. Some people receive this knowledge and some people don’t. That would allow this knowledge to fit the category of a mystery or a secret.

So what does that mean for our understanding of Matthew 6:33? Jesus tells his hearers to “seek first the kingdom,” but then he says later that the kingdom (or at least knowledge of it) is not something you can seek. How do we reconcile this?

As we’re going to see as we look at the other parables that shed light on it, the kingdom is not something that everybody understands. Obviously, if somebody doesn’t comprehend the existence of the kingdom, they’re not going to pursue it. The direction in Matthew 6:33, then, must be aimed at those who do understand, those to whom the secrets have been given. For everyone else, it is nonsense.

But what about those of us who have been granted these secrets. What excuse do we have if we don’t then seek the kingdom?

Anyone can measure my house, but not everyone sees the charm of living in a barn. Having that vision though, what a shame it would be if we didn’t make the most of the place. How much more shame would there be if we did not work with our knowledge of the kingdom?

King of Somewhere

“I’m the king of the world,” Leonardo DiCaprio famously crows from the bow of the Titanic in the movie of that name. The irony of that statement for anyone who can see beyond the incredibly contrived romantic plotline of the movie is profound.

This pops into my head as we continue to explore Matthew 6:33. We’ve already determined that in order to claim the promise of that verse we must seek something ahead of everything else, but what are we to seek?

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

The kingdom of God? That’s slightly more difficult to grasp.

If you had been bopping around England in about 1525 and stopped by Hampton Court, the home of King Henry VIII, he might have offhandedly dropped, as you two were swapping stories around the barbeque grill, that he was the king of England and France. You, as a guest, would politely smile and nod, quickly turning the subject to what sort of grouse he had on the charcoal.

You see, when English kings in the Renaissance era claimed to hold England and France, what they really meant was that they actually held England and wished they held France. The only portion of France that Henry VIII actually controlled was the port and immediate environs of Calais. It would be like setting up control of Corpus Christi and claiming to be the ruler of all Texas.

In human terms, a kingdom, in any meaningful sense, is a place where the king actually exercises some measure of control. Henry the VIII could claim to be the king of France, but if he couldn’t collect taxes, enforce laws, conscript soldiers, or otherwise act kingly, then he wasn’t really the king of France. There’s a guy right now, Louis Alphonse, who is considered the rightful king of France. While he dresses well and plays polo, I don’t see the French Republic asking him to move in to Versailles.

A kingdom, I would argue, is not where somebody, Henry VIII or Louis Alphonse or somebody else, says they’re in charge. It is a place where they actually exercise at least reasonable control.

If we accept that last claim, then the kingdom that Matthew 6:33 calls us to seek is a place where God actually rules. If somebody else rules there–like Francis I, the actual King of France in 1525, when Henry VIII claimed to be the guy–then it really isn’t their kingdom at all.

Does that move us closer to understanding the kingdom of God in Matthew 6:33? Perhaps we get a clue from Revelation 11:15:

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom
of our Lord and of his Christ,
and he will reign forever and ever.

As I read that–and I’d be remiss not to point out that it echoes the Lord’s prayer talking about God’s kingdom coming “on earth as it is in heaven”–it’s almost as if Jesus is admitting that there are two kingdoms, but that the kingdom of God is eventually going to overtake the kingdom of this world, sort of like Henry VIII, in his back porch dreams, probably dreamed of restoring actual control of France.

Does this help? Perhaps a little, but we’ll need to revisit this question.