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The Journey with Jesus:
Notes to Myself

Reflections By Dan Clendenin

In June 2003, The Journey with Jesus essay series entered a temporary hiatus while Dan began a search for new ministry opportunities. The result was the founding of The Journey with Jesus Foundation in June 2004, a non-profit corporation devoted to scholarship, consulting, and philanthropy for the global church. In this connection, Dan has resumed writing his weekly essay, and the new ones may be found at the website www.journeywithjesus.net. However, the pre-2004, two-year's-plus worth of of essays that Dan wrote while he was with us remain available on this site for the foreseeable future. Thank you.—Ray Cowan, Stanford faculty fellowship webmaster.

Dan's last three essays written while at Stanford are on this page; these and earlier ones may be found in the Comprehensive Index of Essays. Please send comments to dbclendenin@hotmail.com

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The Presence of the Future

For the Week of June 23, 2003

Very 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. It’s 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. God’s 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? He’s 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 Jesus’s 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 didn’t 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? It’s 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 God’s 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, 34).

Matthew uses deliberate exaggeration when he says that Jesus never taught without using parables, but in a sense that is not far from the truth. Depending on what you think passes for a parable, scholars agree that there are at least forty to fifty parables in the three synoptic Gospels, and maybe as many as seventy. The attached chart lists forty-eight parables. There are no parables at all in the Gospel of John, and although rabbinic parables are common, outside of the Gospels the Greek word “parable” only occurs two times in the New Testament (Hebrews 9:9; 11:19).1

In the Gospels the notion of a parable clearly encompasses a wide range of uses—an enigmatic saying, a metaphor or a figurative saying, an expanded story, an allegory, a moral story meant to provoke us to decision, and even a parabolic action such as when Jesus cleansed the temple. Jesus used these simple, down to earth stories to make his message of the kingdom accessible to the ordinary Galilean peasant of his day. They illustrate and expound the nature of the kingdom of God. Very often they demand a decision from us. Although they might be simple, we should be careful not to miss the inherent shock value of so many of them. The worker who worked one hour is paid as much as the worker who labored all day?! Jesus praises an unrighteous steward?! A father throws a party for a vagrant son?! So, although the parables might be simple, at their best they should hit us like a sledge hammer and demand a kingdom decision. They are not, as the Sunday school definition would have it, merely earthly stories with a heavenly message.

Parables have one other function that is disturbing, even scary. After telling the parable of the sower and the soils, the disciples asked Jesus what it meant. In response, Jesus makes a clear distinction between the “insiders” like the disciples, and people whom he describes as “those on the outside.” Jesus then quotes Isaiah 6:9–10 to the effect that for those on the outside, parables are given to conceal or hide the truth, to prevent the listener from grasping his message (Mark 4:10–12; Matthew 13:11–17; Luke 8:10). What in the world can this possibly mean?

We know that even the disciples were sometimes puzzled by the parables, and had to ask Jesus to explain them. Further, we also know that for practical reasons Jesus sometimes had to hide or obscure his message from the hostile religious and political establishment. To talk about mustard seed, salt and fish nets was, in theory, hardly as subversive as talk about a kingdom more important than Caesar. The parables, then, would have made it at least a little more difficult to charge Jesus with sedition. Third, there is the so-called “secrecy motif” regarding the nature of Jesus’s mission. At least eight times Jesus gives instructions to remain silent and not to tell who he is or what he is up to (Mark 1:34, 44; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30; and 9:9).

Still, it seems like Jesus’s quotation of Isaiah 6:9–10 says more than that he was biding his time or being careful with the authorities. Jesus says that he uses parables deliberately to prevent people from understanding his message, and even to prevent them from being forgiven (Mark 4:12)! Parables clearly have an educational function, but perhaps for the careless they also have a judgmental function. The Greek prepositions hint that at the level of human decision cause and effect are intertwined. The parallel texts in Mark 4:12 and Luke 8:10 use the word “in order that.” Jesus used parables to cause confusion. But the parallel text in Matthew 13:13 uses the word “because,” indicating Jesus used parables as a consequence of people’s hardness. With the parables, there is clearly enough light for those who desire to see and follow Jesus, but enough obscurity to befuddle those who are only playing games with the kingdom message.

For the better part of 1500 years the church interpreted the parables as allegories, an interpretation that is universally rejected today. In an allegory, the literal elements of the story stand for something else, something religious, moral or spiritual. That is, there is a “deeper” meaning beyond the simple reading of the text. If nothing else, these allegorizations are incredibly creative. Irenaeus (c. 130–200) interpreted the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16) as follows. Those called to work at the first hour are those called at the beginning of creation, those called at the third hour are those who lived under the Old Covenant, those called at the sixth hour are those present during the ministry of Jesus, those called at the ninth hour he understood as his contemporaries, and those called at the eleventh hour are those present at the end of time. To take one more example, according to Tertullian (c. 160–215), in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the ring that the father gave to the son is baptism, while the banquet is the Lord’s Supper.

There were some objections to such allegorizations of the parables, but for the most part this errant interpretation held sway.2 During the Reformation both Martin Luther and John Calvin objected to allegorization which, as one might easily imagine, lent itself to all sorts of fanciful readings. Both were eager to recapture the simple, literal meaning of the parable in its first century historical and cultural context. But even as late as the influential book Notes on the Parables of Our Lord (1841) by RC Trench, the allegorical method was alive and well. It was left to the German scholar Adolf Julicher and his book The Parables of Jesus (1888) to fully and finally discredit allegorization. A parable, insisted Julicher, has one major point of comparison or one key theme. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, the point is love of neighbor, and whether the Samaritan was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho or from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is incidental. Today, with but a few exceptions, the scholarly consensus follows Julicher.3

The parables are not cute stories or moralistic tales. Jesus used them to help us understand the implications of the reality that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). Thus, as Joachim Jeremias writes, “The strong man is disarmed, the powers of evil have to yield, the physician has come to the sick, the lepers are cleansed, the heavy burden of guilt is removed, the lost sheep is brought home, the door of the Father’s house is opened, the poor and the beggars are summoned to the banquet, a master whose kindness is undeserved pays wages in full, a great joy fills all hearts. God’s acceptable year has come. For there has appeared the one whose veiled majesty shines through every word and every parable—the Saviour.”4

1 On rabbinic parables see Robert Johnston and Harvey McArthur, They Also Taught in Parables (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), which examines 125 rabbinic parables from the first two centuries—a small fraction of the more than 1,000 identified by the authors.
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.

Mother Teresa

Help in Our Weakness
Pentecost 2003

Week of June 9, 2003

Lectionary Readings

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-35
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27
Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (1910–1997)—known to all the world as Mother Teresa—was born in Skopje, the capital city of modern day Macedonia, to Albanian parents who were deeply Catholic. As a little girl she felt a strong call of God upon her life to love Jesus, so it was no surprise when she joined the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto in Dublin, Ireland at the age of eighteen. About a year later, in 1929 Agnes was sent to Darjeeling, India, where she taught young girls. Eager to pursue her teaching career, Agnes, who by that time had completed her vows and taken the name Teresa after Saints Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) and Therese of Lisieux (1873–1897), was sent to Calcutta College for further studies. For the next fifteen years Teresa taught history and geography at Saint Mary’s High School.

In Calcutta Teresa experienced unimaginable poverty, and it was in that context that on September 10, 1946, at the age of thirty six, she took her famous train ride. Traveling from Calcutta to Darjeeling for a retreat, God spoke very directly to her. In her private correspondence Teresa later wrote that this experience was more than a strong sense of call or a burden; rather, Jesus spoke very directly to her in voices and visions: “Would you not help these poorest of the poor?” One year later, in August 1947, Teresa left the convent to live in the slums with the wretched poor and dying. She traded her traditional habit and instead donned the ordinary dress of an Indian woman, her now famous white sari with a blue stripe. She never owned any possessions and never asked for money.

Just to mention Mother Teresa’s name conjures up images of sainthood at its saintliness. When she died of heart failure on September 5, 1997, the Missionaries of Charity had over 4,500 nuns in more than 100 countries. Her honors the world over are too numerous to mention, and include the Nobel Peace Prize (1979). At her burial on September 10, 1997, fifty one years to the day after that famous train ride, dignitaries from two dozen countries attended, but befitting her love of the poor, half of the seats in Netaji Stadium were reserved for those outcasts whom she served.

So what does this have to do with Pentecost? Everything, as it turns out.

In a fascinating article Carol Zaleski reviews some of the newly published letters that Mother Teresa wrote to her spiritual directors, and what we learn is that this remarkable saint experienced sustained periods of spiritual battle, what Christians across the centuries have described as “the dark night of the soul.” It is true that Jesus spoke in visions and voices to Mother Teresa on that famous train ride, but according to her own letters, soon after she started living and ministering in the slums, these visions ceased, “and she experienced a spiritual darkness that would remain with her until her death” fifty years later.1

Fifty years of spiritual darkness for Mother Teresa?! Yes. Inward suffering, loss of consolation, doubt, loneliness, feelings of abandonment, what she herself described as “just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” The Spirit-filled life this side of Pentecost, if we are to trust the experience of Mother Teresa, is not, it turns out, a continual spiritual high of joy, victory and ecstasy, but instead a struggle to the end.

The lectionary reading this week from Romans 8:22–27 says as much. All creation, writes Paul, labors and toils under the strains of what he calls “sufferings, frustration, and bondage to decay.” In fact, writes Paul, “we ourselves” struggle likewise with inward groanings, pain and weakness. Here Paul sounds more like Mother Teresa than much of what we hear in the church where often we are lead to expect unattainable spiritual highs that soft pedal what Scripture and our greatest saints describe.

Saint John of the Cross (1542–1591), a Spanish monk and mystic, wrote his famous Dark Night of the Soul while in prison because of his attempts to reform the church. In describing the work, Michael Gross suggests that “there has never been a better book for discouraged Christians. When you cannot understand what or why you believe, but find yourself unable to abandon faith, look to Saint John for help.”

Spiritual darkness and desolation, when prayer, Scripture, church and all forms of discipleship seem to count for nothing, were also the experience of Mother Teresa’s namesake, Saint Therese of Lisieux (1873–1897). “Do not believe I am swimming in consolations,” she once wrote; “ oh, no, my consolation is to have none on earth.” Saint Therese died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, and the last eighteen months of her life were a severe trial that she described as being trapped in a dark tunnel. Toward the end of her life she experienced what might only be described as satanic mockery: “You are dreaming about the light, about a fatherland embalmed in the sweetest perfumes; you are dreaming about the eternal possession of the Creator of all these marvels; you believe that one day you will walk out of this fog which surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.”2

Mother Teresa of Calcutta died in the same month of September, 100 years after Therese of Lisieux. Like Saint John of the the Cross, and even Saint Paul in the book of Romans, they all remind us that spiritual darkness, desolation and struggle are by no means uncommon for even the most mature saints. They similarly remind us of faithfulness, fidelity, and perseverance. Thank God for Pentecost and Paul’s text this week, where we are reminded that life in the Spirit accounts for all our trials and struggles. Better yet, we can endure the desolation, no matter how long it lasts, not by stoic resignation but with the confidence that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. [Even though] we do not know how we ought to pray, the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26).

1 Carol Zaleski, “The Dark Night of Mother Teresa,” in First Things (May 2003), pp. 24–27. Mother Teresa’s letters were published by ZENIT News Agency as The Soul of Mother Teresa: Hidden Aspects of Her Interior Life, by Father Brian Kolodiejchuk.
2 Quoted by Zaleski.

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