Category Archives: Parables

The Shallow Pond Dilemma

It seems appropriate in this time of gluttony and the consumer frenzy of consumerism known as Black Friday, to talk about the ethical dilemmas of the financial choices we make.

A long time ago, I listened to Episode #100 of the Diet Soap podcast and it sparked a lot of thoughts and conversations, mostly with myself, about the nature of charity and justice and how to get from one to the other. More recently at Hope Fellowship we’ve been reaffirming our membership and commitment to the values of our little ekklesia . The last couple weeks has been teaching and discussing the value of tithing and sharing. While we can always do better, I really appreciate that we attempt to tackle one of the most touchy subjects with a little more depth, transparency and thought…how we deal with our finances. So, I thought I’d tackle some thoughts from the podcast and current conversation on the difference between charity and justice and why we should all be Mother Theresa.

The Shallow Pond Gets Deeper
In the podcast the host, Doug Lain, shares an analogy from the ethicist Peter Singer. He imagines that you are standing at a shallow pond where you see a child that has fallen in and is going to drown. The pond is shallow. So, you have no risk of injury yourself, but you have on an expensive pair of fancy shoes that you don’t want to get all muddy. In this situation it seems ridiculous to choose to preserve the muddy pair of shoes instead of the child’s life. But Singer argues that this is what we do all the time through the consumer choices we make. So, his conclusion goes something like, “You should give the money you would spend on fancy shoes to Oxfam or Unicef to take care of a starving child.”

So, Singer has highlighted the ethical dilemma involved in how we deal with our finances in light of inequality in the world. However, there are some problems with Singer’s analogy. The limit of what Singer can imagine people doing is giving lots of money to charity. Charity is the ultimate act of an utilitarian ethic. So, within the confines of an unjust social structure the best we can do is charity. Justice requires something more radical. The guest, Ben Burgis, argues that Singer’s own analogy undermines his ethic of charity,

If you go with Singer’s argument then and embrace his conclusion, then, not only should we give to charity, but even living a comfortable First World lifestyle is morally unacceptable.

Singer’s analogy presents an individual ethical dilemma where you are face to face with a choice, but when you are shopping you’re part of a mass. We don’t really make consumer choices on a purely individual basis. Within our capitalist framework we insist on the individual ethic, but there are spaces where we don’t act as individual agents, but as a collective. The forces of the economy and consumerism that create and reinforce injustice and inequality are not face to face with us when we make purchases in the supermarket or a store. As Doug Lain points out,

If you want to have a more ethical system you can’t stay within the context of that system…To ask people to invest in Oxfam instead is to ask them to do something counter to the ethics of the culture they’re in.

The Counter-Cultural Ethics of God’s Economy
This is partially the purpose of how the church is supposed to function. It intends to be an alternative to the way the world organizes itself. The hope and purpose is to embody the ethic of the reign of God that we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. One of the ways is by committing to share our resources with this particular community. This takes different forms. One is the tithe, where ten percent of goes to the common treasury of the church. Far from absolving us, this practice is meant to invite us further in to how this is used in the life of the church and its mission in the world. But in many ways the tithe is really the lowest common denominator form of economic participation in the life of the people of God.

In a section of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus challenges us to engage systems of domination with creative nonviolence, he offers this final, perhaps most radical, word, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you” (Mt 5:42). This verse challenges our most precious possession, control. When faced with how to best use our resources, this verse challenges our addiction to those resources and the power and privilege of deciding how they are used. Elsewhere, Jesus tells the rich young man that following him requires divesting himself of all his possessions and give to the poor, enacting Jubilee in his own life (Mt 19:16-22; Lk 18:18-30). There is a radical principle here summed up in the Psalms and the Jubilee in Leviticus 25 that God is the only absolute owner. Followers of Jesus are called to hold their possessions loosely as things to be used for God’s purposes and not their own accumulation or comfort.

The next post will attempt to think about ways that we can live out these ideas in our daily lives.

I’ll Fly Away: Heaven Help Us

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Photo of earthrise from nasa.gov

What is this realm referred to as “heaven”, “kingdom of heaven”, or “kingdom of God” in the Bible? Although these terms are not used in the Hebrew Bible, there is certainly the expectation of a Messianic Age in which God will “put things to rights,” as N.T. Wright loves to say. I would also like to point out at the outset that although these terms are not necessarily used interchangeably in Scripture, I will use them variously to refer to the coming future perfection in which God reigns completely. There are aspects of this idea such as judgment, justice and salvation that I will not address, but are certainly connected to the discussion about the relationship between heaven and earth.

The first thing I think we should admit is that our knowledge of what we call heaven or the kingdom of God is limited. The descriptions throughout the Bible often feel contradictory and difficult to grasp. Jesus says to the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21). In Mark Jesus says that the kingdom is at hand or near (1:15). Then you have the many parables that purport to “explain” the kingdom, but often seem to obscure it or make it more difficult to understand (Mt 13:24-52; 20:1-16; 22:1-14; 25:1-30 just to name those in Matthew). These are only the ways that Jesus described the kingdom, not including the Torah, Prophets, Psalms, Paul or Revelation. While it is necessary to try and make statements about what this realm of heaven, we should continually approach our attempts to understand it with humility and acknowledgment of our limitations.

For our purposes we are interested in the way that the Bible describes heaven or the kingdom in relationship to the earth. Does it describe it in contrast to earth, in the same terms or some combination of the two?

Heaven is certainly described in contrast to the current state of affairs, but the terms used to describe it are decidedly earthy. If some of the New Testament description of heaven could lead us to think that it is an other-worldly, spiritual realm, the Hebrew Testament depiction is distinctly grounded in the reality of this world. Isaiah’s vision of the “new heaven and new earth” uses language intimately connected to life here and now on earth.

They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat… They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune… the wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isaiah 65:21-23,25)

The Hebrew Bible’s vision of the Messianic Age was grounded in the reality of the Israelite’s experience of exile in Babylon. The vision is of the restoration of Jerusalem. While it is concerned with judgment against the nations that oppressed Israel (Samaria, Assyria, Babylon, etc.), it is also concerned with the oppression practiced within its own borders (e.g. Amos 2:6-8). In terms of salvation it is concerned, not only with Israel’s future, but portrays an age in which all nations will come together under the banner of Yahweh (Micah 4:1-4; cf. Isaiah 2:1-4). This vision of the future Messianic Age is not one that is discontinuous with this world. In fact it is quite the opposite. The future perfection only makes sense in light of our present experience of imperfection, injustice and suffering.

I think it would be good exegesis, biblical interpretation and hermeneutical practice to read the New Testament’s words about heaven and the kingdom in light of what has just been said about the Hebrew Bible’s vision of the coming Messianic Age. Even the New Testament language about heaven is much more earthy than we typically believe. I would like to consider just one passage often used in this context, Revelation 21. Almost quoting (certainly paraphrasing) Isaiah the author writes,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev 21:1-4)

The first thing I notice is that the new heaven and new earth are contrasted with the old heaven and the old earth. It is not a contrast between heaven and earth. As previously discussed our identities and the earth’s have continuity through redemption and ultimately the final transformation described here. Nothing here suggests that the planet which we currently inhabit will simply be disposed of like so much garbage and tossed into God’s landfill while God opens the brand new, shrink wrapped earth for us to live on for all eternity. If that were the case, then this passage suggests that there is also a place in that landfill for the old heaven. What could that possibly mean? We are dealing here with apocalyptic language and should read and interpret it as such. However, even a literal interpretation would deny the idea that heaven and earth are disconnected.

It is also interesting that the metaphor used her is that of a city, a most earthly concept. This is not just any city either, but Jerusalem. That vision from the Hebrew Bible of God’s people being restored and the world set right is alive and well in the book of Revelation. Indeed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel are inscribed on the gates of the city (Rev 21:12). This chapter goes on at great length about the layout of the city and the materials used to construct it. Chapter 22 goes on to describe a river flowing through it and trees that bear fruit every month. This is not a vision of heaven far away from earth in the clouds or even some dimension of being. Rather it is rooted (quite literally since there are trees) on the earth. The text clearly states twice (21:2, 10) that the city came down out of heaven. If it came down out of heaven, then where was it headed?

My intention is not to completely describe what the Bible has to say about heaven or the kingdom, but instead to shed light on the way that our dualistic thinking is not based on the biblical text. Heaven is intimately connected with this world. Certainly there is an element of the biblical description that is simply beyond us, but nothing necessitates the idea that the new creation will be discontinuous with the old.

Next… It’s the End of the World As We Know It


To Own or Not to Own

I’ve been emailing back and forth with a good friend of mine, Justin Tapp, who studied economics at Baylor about this article from Jesus Radicals. He finally wrote a post summarizing his thoughts on our conversation about private property and the Bible. I’m not an economist and he’s no biblical scholar, but I think the exchange of perspectives is healthy.

The article uses Augustine as a lens to talk about how the Christian tradition (Augustine in particular) views economics in general and the notion of private property specifically. My friend is somewhat skeptical of this approach, preferring to stick to sola scriptura. Unfortunately, I think this remnant of Reformation theology is not so helpful, because it has never existed. We all come from a tradition. No one reads the Bible alone.

With that said here’s where we’ve found some common ground:

  • God’s intention in creation was not for private property. The original intention was a creation in which the idea of private property is not necessary, because there is not scarcity.
  • “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1) According to Scripture, God is ultimately the Creator of all things and holds ultimate claim to all of creation, including material goods. Our view of possessions should keep this in mind.
  • Christians should hold possessions loosely. There are many cautions against the dangers of materialism in Scripture and our calling is to serve others with what we have been given.

First I’d like to say that I agree with the main point that Scripture does not advocate one person (or many people) taking property, because they believe it is being used unjustly. The application of that idea sounds like a nightmare. However, I think this one point causes Tapp to miss the forest for the funny-looking knot hole on that one tree.

I would like to respond to a few points that Justin makes in this post. Mostly places I think he misuses and misinterprets Scripture (probably mostly minor and obscure problems because I’m a theogeek). Then in the next post I’d like to make a case for another way of understanding the roots of property rights in the Bible.

Tapp uses Exodus 20:15,17 to talk about property rights. Among the things listed that belong to your neighbor in this passage are his wife, manservant and maidservant. In the world that this text was written in, the idea that women and slaves were property that could be stolen or coveted were assumed. Based on Scripture (Gen 1:27), we have decided that possessing human beings is not just and it is not a right. The BIble clearly justifies it based on the passage Justin mentioned (and others), but we have collectively decided as a church over time that the idea that all human beings are created in the image of God trumps the idea that women and slaves should be considered property. This verse certainly cautions against stealing and acknowledges that people “own” things in some sense, but the idea that this is the same as our modern concept of “absolute ownership” is another leap.

The author of the article at Jesus Radicals makes a distinction between “Augustine’s philosophy of property centered on justice” and “the legal conception of absolute ownership which is regarded in our time as an immutable institution.” The author does not really do a good job of clearly describing this distinction and then uses it later to claim “Private property in the Roman (and American) sense of absolute ownership seeks a fraudulent autonomy from the rest of creation.” I hope to spend some time unpacking this distinction in another post. It should not be assumed that our modern conception of property rights is exactly what we find in Scripture. That would be reading into and imposing on the text our own beliefs, eisegesis, which is a big no-no in biblical interpretation (but, I confess, sometimes difficult to catch, especially in myself).

Tapp mentions Leviticus 25, the Jubilee, as one possible place where Scripture outlines how we are to use poperty and possibly redistribute them. Tapp states,

“However nowhere does it state how big a person’s property can be or how many possessions she can have, etc. God isn’t a central planner that decides who gets what, he affirms His people’s ability to trade and make those choices.”

Now, I certainly don’t believe God is communist the way that the term “central planner” implies, but in the context of the Jubilee the Israelites were to return “everyone… to his own property” (Lev 21:13). How is this possible if the land is bought and sold for 49 years? How do they know where to return? God divided up the land in Deuteronomy 3:12-17 among the twelve tribes of Israel. So in a very literal and real sense the Jubilee did place a restriction on the amount of land one family or tribe could own within a generation or two. I think the Jubilee both affirms “people’s ability to trade and make choices” while also placing very real limits on the amount of property and possessions (land being the only source of wealth at the time) people could accumulate.

Many scholars believe the Jubilee was likely never practiced by the Israelites. So, why not let it fade away with all the other impractical, idealist notions that have come and gone? Because Leviticus 25 is not an isolated passage. It is part of the Sabbatical Laws (Gen 2 and Deut 15) all of which concern the proper use of land and our relationship to creation and each other. It is picked up by Isaiah 61 to describe the coming perfection of God’s reign and then quoted by Jesus in Luke 4 when he gives his mission statement in Nazareth. This is not some obscure passage that we can simply write off as an anomaly. It is central to the good news proclaimed by Jesus.

Tapp also uses the Parable of the Talents (Mt 25:14-30) to illustrate the way the Bible talks about use of property. No matter what you’re trying to argue, you should always be careful using parables to support your argument. They are notoriously slippery things. Parables are meant to shock us and make us uncomfortable. If we think we know what they mean, we probably are not paying enough attention. Both this parable and the oft quoted following parable are both disturbing and upsetting when read fully. The moral of the parable seems to directly contradict the Great Reversal found through the Gospels and the Hebrew Testament, the last shall be first, the rich sent away empty, the valleys lifted and mountains leveled. So, much more careful exegesis and interpretation should be done before applying it to our conversation about property. It seems to open a can of worms.

Now that I’m done nitpicking… I hope to outline another view of property based on the agrarian worldview of the biblical text.

Cultivating Human Beings (Matthew 13:24-43)

bono coexist.jpg So, why create a sandwich with these three parables together followed by the explanation of the first parable? It seems that these parables build on each other and relate to each other. But how?

All three parables have to do with something small that takes over for good or ill. The seeds sown for the weeds and the mustard tree (toothbrush tree) become prominent features in the landscape. The yeast is worked into all the flour.

The parable of the weeds is a negative example of the kingdom, while the parable of the mustard seed and yeast are positive examples. Perhaps this is why only the first parable needs explanation. The idea that God’s kingdom is small and takes over through small acts is easy to swallow. It might be hard in practice, but it’s easy to hear. The good guys win. The idea that what is sown by evil people should be allowed to continue alongside the works of the righteous is much more difficult to swallow.

When we divide the world into these binary categories of righteous and evil, it is difficult to abide their coexistence. If there is simply an Axis of Evil then the decisions about what to do are simple and obvious. If, instead, as Jesus suggests, we are to allow the righteous and evil to exist alongside each other and leave judgment for the end of the age and harvesting to the angels, then life between now and then just got a lot more complicated.

As I suggested in my post on the parable of the weeds, the idea that we know what’s best in agriculture may be based on some faulty assumptions about good plants and bad plants. We also make the same mistake with insects. Upwards of 95% of all insect species are beneficial. So, what happens when you blanket crops with pesticides that kill off the 95% along with the 5% that do damage? I also believe strongly that the soil is the foundation of good agriculture. If you create an environment in which your plants are healthy and thriving, because they have good soil, you are also controlling for weeds and insects. In other words, the healthiest environment for productive life on the planet is one where we allow the weeds, crops and insects to thrive together in a balance that naturally occurs without our help.

The stability of old growth forests, create an abundance of life and resources, because nature is allowed to live out its balance with “weeds”, insects and edible plants all living together. We tend to err on the side of intervention, always assuming that we know best the answers to natures problems (usually problems we created through our intervention). As with my idea of what missions is, it is less about intervening and more about listening, understanding and allowing the Spirit to lead us in a process of mutual transformation.

Like, the mustard seed or the yeast, it is hard to see what will come from something so tiny. It is also hard to see what comes from allowing the weeds and wheat to grow together. The transformation begins when we lay down the assumption that we know the answers, solutions and who is righteous and evil. Transformation also begins with the small acts of the kingdom that multiply, grow and permeate the world around us.

“Natural farming is not simply a way of growing crops; it is the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Masanobu Fukuoka (quote and photo via eartheasy.com)

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photo of Bono from u2tourfans.com

Natural Farming and the Parable of the Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30;36-43)

That’s right, the reason you started reading this blog in the first place is back. The last post was April 26 of this year and before that January 10. For a while, I was disciplined in doing it once or twice a week. I’d like to get back to that.

Before diving into today’s passage I want to take a brief moment to point out that this is not an esoteric exercise in obscurity. My purpose in examining Food in the Bible is, like Ellen Davis, because an agrarian reading of the Bible is essential to fully understand the context of the text. In a culture so disconnected from the land and our food, we skim over those antiquated passages that have to do with agriculture. In so doing we have cut ourselves off from some of the most powerful elements of the biblical narrative and consequently some answers to many problems that plague modern civilization, society and globalization.

Matthew 13:24-43 This passage is a sandwich with the parable of the weeds (24-30) and the following explanation (36-43) as the bread and the parable of the mustard seed and yeast (31-35) the meat (or peanut butter for you vegetarians). I’d like to take them separately and then reflect on what it means that they’re sandwiched together here.

3480587807_7b8a4633b1.jpgThe Parable of the Weeds

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’

In terms of agriculture the first thing I notice is that farmers have been dealing with the problem of weeds forever, surely since the dawn of agriculture. It’s important, and relevant to the parable, to remember that a “weed” is simply a plant growing where you don’t want it to grow. People intentionally growing food crops on a plot of land view other plants in that plot as competitors. Plants that are aggressive (like bermuda grass) can outcompete other crops and ultimately kill the food you’re trying to grow.

One of the biggest difficulties with organic and no-till agriculture is how to deal with weeds. Industrial agriculture simply invented Round-up Ready seeds that could be sprayed with a broad spectrum herbicide and not die. So, you kill everything except the plant you want to grow. That method seems to have a number of problems with it (i.e. reliance on chemicals, loss of biodiversity, affect on the environment and concerns about GMO crops).

So, how do you deal with weeds? While it’s tempting to get into tillage practices and weed management, for the purpose of this post the method is usually to get rid of the weeds. However, many weeds are edible and there are other methods for growing food than the industrial monoculture we’ve come to know and love.

Fukuoka-closeup.jpgJesus suggestion to the farmer in the parable sounds a lot like Masanobu Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution. For those not familiar with his agricultural philosophy the two part interview with Larry Korn, a student of Fukuoka, on the Agroinnovations podcast is a great introduction. Fukuoka’s “natural farming” method is very similar and closely related to permaculture. Basically Fukuoma’s method was to observe the way nature worked without intervention. He would scatter seeds randomly in a field and then observe what happened. He would select the seeds of the plants that did well and try to understand why that particular plant did better. Was it something about the soil or topography, etc.? By mimicking and learning from nature Fukuoka was able to eventually get greater yields than his Japanese counterparts with a lot less work. If the workers in the parable let the weeds and their crop grow together their labor is greatly reduced as well.

In verses 36-43 Jesus gives an explanation of his parable in spiritual terms. This is a parable about the judgment at the “end of the age” and why the wicked are allowed to live along with the righteous. The meaning and intention is to use an agricultural metaphor to point to a spiritual reality. Often this is a way of sweeping away the parable itself and only focusing on the spiritual interpretation. Jesus chose parables and parabolic actions with purpose and intent. Why should we think that the spiritual application of the parable is separate from its physical, agricultural counterpart? Isn’t the nature of a parable in some way to join these two things?

Next… The Parable of the Mustard Seed and Yeast

Photo of car overgrown by weeds from Flickr user cavanimages. Photo of Fukuoka from permaculture.com