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The Journey with Jesus:
The Presence of the Future
For the Week of June 23, 2003Very early in his ministry Jesus made an announcement that startled his audience. He did this at least three times. In Mark 1:15, the very first words spoken by Jesus proclaim, The time has come. The kingdom of God is near! Similarly, when John the Baptist was in prison, he was troubled by many questions, so he sent a friend to ask Jesus: was he the messiah? Or maybe they should wait for someone else (Matthew 11:2-6 = Luke 7:18-23)? In response Jesus conflated two passages from the Old Testament (Isaiah 35:5-6 and Isaiah 61:1) and told John, Go and tell John about all the healings you see---the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf are all healed. The dead are raised and Good News is preached to the poor. All your hopes and dreams for the promised messianic age are bursting forth, beyond all measure. Its here! Finally, in Luke, the first public act of ministry by Jesus involved a radical declaration. Jesus went to his home town of Nazareth and worshipped at the synagogue. Given the opportunity to speak, he took the scroll and read Isaiah 61:1-2 about preaching to the poor, liberating prisoners, healing the blind and releasing the oppressed. After reading, he sat down and announced: Today, this Scripture is fulfilled.
What was Jesus announcing? In short, he was declaring that in some decisive and definitive way he was inaugurating the messianic Age or the kingdom of God, and he was doing so right now, today, in this life. The waiting was over. The time had come. The revolution was underway. Gods final intervention into human history had begun. Anticipation gave way to shock, for what was thought to be only a future reality had, according to Jesus, invaded the present. Jesus not only announced that this kingdom was near; he also demonstrated it by healing, exorcising demons, teaching, embracing the outcasts, flaunting religious conventions, and, most outrageous of all, by presuming the authority to forgive sins. If I cast out demons, he insisted, then the kingdom of God is upon you (Luke 11:20 = Matthew 12:28).
His listeners were flabbergasted. The evangelists record their astonishment. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, What is this? A new teaching---with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him! (Mark 1:27). Then again, We have never seen anything like this! (Mark 2:12). Others, especially the religious establishment, responded with open hostility. Why does this fellow talk like that? Hes blaspheming! Why does he eat with tax gatherers and sinners? (Mark 2:7, 16). Still others even accused him of being a demon-possessed person (Luke 11:15). His family thought that he had gone crazy and tried to seize him (Mark 3:21). With his announcement and demonstration that the kingdom of God had come in his own person, Jesus tossed a bomb onto the playground of the religious authorities. Whether enthralled or enraged, few if anyone remained neutral.
A cluster of Jesuss parables elucidate this fundamental Gospel theme that the future kingdom of God has invaded the present age. They are simple stories about a wedding, a torn piece of clothing, the power of fermenting wine, and fig trees at harvest time.
One characteristic of Jesus that rankled the Pharisees was his refusal to observe the rituals of fasting. They were particularly unctuous about maintaining ritual purity by outward observances such as fasting and keeping the Sabbath. His detractors even accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard because of his failure to abide by these traditions (Matthew 11:19 = Luke 7:34). Further, if John the Baptist and his followers fasted, why didnt Jesus?
Fasting was entirely inappropriate for the occasion, according to Jesus. Fasting? Are you kidding? Why in the world would anyone fast and put on a long face when the kingdom of God had arrived? No, now is the time for feasting, not fasting. It is the time for joy and celebration, not somber spirituality. Can you imagine the most joyful of all human occasions, a wedding, and people fasting in the presence of the groom? Its ludicrous. No, now is the time for festivity, for joy, and the reason is clear: Jesus Himself is that groom and the wedding is a sign or symbol of the Age to Come that is now here (Matthew 9:14-15 = Mark 2:18-21 = Luke 5:34-35; cf. Rev. 19:7, 22:17).
Or think about it this way, says Jesus. Just as it would be ridiculous to fast at a wedding feast when you should be celebrating, it would be futile to take a new piece of clothe to repair an old, worn out garment. The first time you washed that garment two things would happen---the new cloth would shrink, and when it shrank it would rip and make the tear even worse. Similarly, imagine an old, dried out and brittle wineskin. You would be foolish to put new, fermenting wine in it, for when the wine expanded the inflexible skin would explode. Both of these parables draw a sharp contrast, even an incompatibility, between the old and the new. The old age is gone, it is worn out like an old garment no longer worth repairing, or like a wineskin you should really throw away. Rather, a new day has dawned, full of ferment and power that outstrips and supersedes all the old boundaries. The new reality of the kingdom cannot be contained in the old forms of Judaism (Matthew 9:16-17 = Mark 2:21-22 = Luke 5:36-39).
In the parable of the fig tree Jesus compares the coming kingdom to the arrival of harvest. When a fig tree with barren branches explodes and blossoms with leaves and fruits, then you positively know that the seasons have changed and summer has come. Even so, says Jesus, when you see these things happening, you know that it (or he) is standing right at the door (Mark 13:29). Right at the door indicates urgency or imminence, and it is crystal clear just who is standing at the door---Jesus himself. As sure as the dead of winter gives way to the festivities of harvest time, so too the old age wanes before the joy of the kingdom now at hand. Anticipation is replaced by fulfillment (Matthew 24:32-35 = Mark 13:28-31 = Luke 21:29-33).
What does it mean for the future reality of the kingdom of God to invade the present? In one word, it signals deliverance. When you think of all the word pictures in the Gospels used to describe Jesus, this becomes clear. He is the shepherd who seeks the lost in order to bring them home, the physician who heals the sick, the teacher who instructs his followers about Gods will, the householder who warmly invites people to a feast, an architect who builds the real temple of the new age, and the king who is acclaimed even by rocks and children. Lepers are made clean, the strong man who would harm us has been bound, and forgiveness of sins has been proclaimed. To be sure, the kingdom of God is at hand!1 1 See Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus (New York: Scribners, 1954), pp. 115-124.
Many Things in Parables
For the Week of June 16, 2003
In the Gospel of Matthew we read that one day Jesus left his house and
went to a lake. Perhaps he was seeking some solitude, but as was often
the case large crowds followed him, so much so that he was pressed on
every side. He thus got into a boat, pushed off from shore, and separated
himself from the crowds. Matthew then writes, he told them many
things in parables. A little later he writes that Jesus did
not say anything to them without using a parable (Matthew 13:3,
2 Cf. Stephen Wailes, Medieval Allegories of Jesus Parables (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).
3 Jesus himself used an allegorical method to interpret the parables of the Sower, and the Wheat and the Tares, but these are exceptions.
4 Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables (New York: Scribners, 1966), p. 181.
Help in Our Weakness
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