Facing the questions that will shape the church in the 21st century
Community, Part D
How can the church be a community instead of a religious institution?
The Kingdom Way -- Parables and Insights
Continuing now in the book of Luke, we find ourselves in chapter 12 where Jesus is teaching the disciples more in-depth insights using illustrations and parables. Bible scholars usually point out that many of Jesus’ parables are simple stories with a twist. They establish a normal context, situation or character that can be easily understood, and then they have a plot twist, an unexpected turn, that is intended to teach something in a memorable way. Also keep in mind that Jesus taught by speaking rather than writing -- for his followers to remember his teachings he had to use speaking styles that would facilitate easy memorization, such as stories and parallel construction (like in the Beatitudes). Sometimes Jesus explained the parable. Sometimes he left it as an unexplained metaphor for us to ponder on our own. As I read the teachings of Jesus in the second half of Luke, I find more guidance about the kingdom.
Selfish Way vs. Kingdom Way
In Luke 12:13-21, Jesus tells a parable of a rich man, a farm owner, that was doing well with his crops. When his crops filled up his barn, he had to decide what to do with the surplus. What were his options?
One option -- he could sell a few of the crops to get enough money to build a bigger barn to hold all of his grain for longer-term storage. This way he could feed himself and his family for the long run. This is the option Jesus says he takes. In fact Jesus offers us the man’s decision logic, saying that the man sees the benefit of keeping the food as being able to say to himself: “Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself!”.
Other options would be to sell all the crops and perhaps invest the money in something else, or to share the crops freely with others -- options where the man would not take it easy, but keep working with what he is given in the foreseeable future instead of being lazy.
Jesus keeps it simple in this parable -- he simply poses the question, when you have plenty or even surplus, as sometimes happens, what do you do with it? What do we naturally do as humans? And his answer is equally simple -- we hoard. If you give a person an easy way forward for themselves, where they have to do less work and can just take it easy, there’s a good chance the person will take it. It’s human nature! Jesus is describing our human nature to take the past of least resistance and to naturally protect ourselves and our own interests.
As the “twist”, Jesus includes God in this story. After this happens, God enters the story and says to the man:
“‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’,” from Luke 12:20, CEB.
And Jesus follows up:
21 This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.” [Luke 12, CEB].
Jesus is talking about one thing -- our selfish human nature is not thinking about what God wants. We are given free will, so we are able to make selfish choices. We are able to focus on ourselves. But when we do, who but ourselves will benefit? When we view wealth as being simply more for us, more stuff, more money in the bank, larger assets, newer furnishings, better technology, more enjoyment -- the list goes on and on if we think about our consumeristic and materialistic tendencies -- we miss out on true riches. Jesus is talking about an inward, selfish focus that ignores God. If the rich farmer had paused when he asked the question, “What will I do?”, and instead asked God “Wait a minute. God, what should I do?”, the answer would have been different. He could have answered the question out of a different place in his heart, one that was more humble and open to God, and not from the place of self preservation and laziness. If the man would have asked God this question, no doubt God would have blessed the man in some way -- making his life even richer, and giving him true bounty in his heart and spirit, leading to more action, rather than less. What would God suggest in this situation? Jesus doesn’t tell us, but we know that God would transform the man’s heart, changing greed to compassion, and changing lazy selfishness to action. Jesus states this point at the beginning of the story:
15 Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy.” [Luke 12, CEB]
Jesus teaches that the selfish way and the kingdom way are diametrically opposed:
Greed, Self-preservation, Laziness, Path of Least Resistance, Pride in our Possessions, Thinking only of Ourselves
Generosity, Consideration for Others, Action, Willingness to Sacrifice, Spiritual Riches, Thinking of Others
God is calling us to participate in the kingdom, and it will require that we let go of selfishness and all the things it can accomplish for us. We need to open our eyes to the bigger picture of what God wants to achieve. We need to let him into the story.
As a church, we need to re-assess our wealth and all we’ve been given. Are we simply hoarding it, preserving it for a later day? Or are we doing something positive and active with it? Are we taking the path of least resistance, or are we willing to take action, even sacrificially? Are we proud of what we’ve accumulated or are our riches stored away as spiritual gain? When we think of others more than ourselves, the whole picture starts to fall into place. What if the rich man in this parable is the church? Then what is Jesus saying to us? We need to ask God what to do with our wealth.
Jesus follows up this thought in 12:22-34, by reiterating to the disciples more about the “kingdom way” vs. the “selfish way”. I suggest you read the passage yourself, and then refer to the following table for a summary:
Worry about life, health, food, clothing
Trusting God with what we need
Chasing after what we need, like all the kingdoms of the world do
Desire God’s kingdom and these things will be given to you as well
Be afraid that we won’t get what we need
Be confident, because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom
Keep your possessions, preserve them for the future
Sell your possessions and give to those in need
Store your wealth on Earth through physical things
Store your wealth in spiritual things: “a treasure in heaven that never runs out. No thief comes near there, and no moth destroys.”
Unselfish heart: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be too.”
If Jesus is talking to the disciples as the future church, what is he instructing us to do 2000 years later? He says to let go of what we have, and transfer our wealth into spiritual things. Give up our manmade accomplishments, our institutions and establishments, our hard-earned success. Be willing to put it all on the line to follow God in the kingdom. Seek first what God wants in the kingdom, and we will find true wealth.
Like Jesus, we in the kingdom are the incarnation -- the presence of God on Earth in human form. After being transformed by repentance, this is our true nature and role. The way of the kingdom that Jesus is describing is how we will be transformed, and how we will continue to represent God on Earth. We should do what Jesus did and what he taught.
In Luke 12:35-48, and again in 12: 54-59, Jesus emphasises the sense of urgency about the kingdom. If you are lazy, you might miss it! If you are going to act, you need to do it now! Opportunities don’t come around many times. If we are unselfish and ready for action, we can participate in the kingdom. If we are lazy and self-absorbed, we will miss it! The opportunity will come knocking and we will be asleep! It will go elsewhere. In other words, inaction can be a form of selfish preservation. Unselfishness requires action. Can we see the times and properly interpret them? Do we see the opportunity in front of us, or are we ignoring it?
In Luke 13:1-9, Jesus again takes up the concept of changing our hearts and lives, in the face of uncertainty. We have no idea what calamity will come our way, but if we change our hearts and lives, we are ready for it. If we die tomorrow, we took advantage of every opportunity instead of waiting for it to come someday. If we always “wait to next year” we are fooling ourselves, taking the path of least resistance today and saving action for another day. Skipping ahead to the parable of the fig tree in Luke 21:29-36, and lesson to of being prepared Luke 22:35-38, Jesus reiterates this sense of urgency. The book of Luke certainly calls out how significant this topic was to Jesus as he taught his disciples how to combat selfishness and the path of least resistance in order to join the work of the kingdom. Jesus knew the urgency of the present times and what was soon to come for his disciples. They could not afford the time to relax in comfort, but needed to remain alert and ready for action. This table summarizes these teachings:
Ready for action
Not paying attention
Not seeing the signs
Observant of the world around us
Missing out on the kingdom
Participating in God’s kingdom
Take action “next year”
Take action today
In Luke 13:18,19, Jesus gives us the beautiful illustration of the kingdom of God as a giant tree enjoyed by all, that springs up from a tiny seed:
18 Jesus asked, “What is God’s kingdom like? To what can I compare it?19 It’s like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a garden. It grew and developed into a tree and the birds in the sky nested in its branches.” [Luke 13, CEB]
He also uses an illustration of how yeast can be the truth of God’s word and spread through the whole loaf. This is in contrast to the yeast of the elitism mentioned in 12:1.
20 Again he said, “To what can I compare God’s kingdom? 21 It’s like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through the whole.” [Luke 13, CEB]
Jesus gives us the idea that the kingdom, even though built fundamentally on humility, will be a dominant force, growing until the whole world is made into a better place. The word of God does not go out in vain, but does it’s work and brings transformation. From humble beginnings a great and powerful kingdom will grow. From the revolution of heart and mind, Jesus will bring about the very kingdom of God on Earth.
As Jesus warns in the passages of Luke 13 -- will we be a part of this kingdom or are we going to miss it? Jesus talks of both aspects of the kingdom in 13:22-30, that it will be expansive, and that many people will miss out:
Expansive: People will come from east and west, north and south, and sit down to eat in God’s kingdom. Look! Those who are last will be first and those who are first will be last. [13:29,30 CEB]
But people will miss out: There will be weeping and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in God’s kingdom, but you yourselves will be thrown out. [13:28, CEB]
Which people will we be, the ones who miss out or the ones that would go to great lengths to join the kingdom? In Luke 13:31-35, Jesus laments those that will reject him and the kingdom. Those of his own people, his own country, who he most wants to reach, will be the ones to miss out. Even worse, they are the ones who will most oppose the kingdom, trying to bring it crashing down by killing its king, like they did to the prophets of previous times. Jesus so longs to gather those people to himself -- he loves them dearly -- but instead his heart is broken by their rejection of him. Jesus is not vindictive when we miss out on the kingdom. He wants nothing more than for us to see the truth and to change our hearts. Giving us free will, we must accept or reject. When we accept, we can go to any lengths, and give up anything, to join the kingdom. Jesus will gather us together like a hen gathers her chicks But when we reject him, Jesus allows us to oppose the kingdom, knowing that by remaining humble and peaceful, the kingdom will flourish -- those of us that oppose it will simply miss out on what God is doing! We lose, but God still wins.
Moving on to Luke 14, Jesus just continues to re-iterate how the kingdom of God will grow through humility and kindness. In 14:7-21, Jesus takes advantage of a situation he is observing where people are coming to a dinner, and as they enter they selfishly seek the best seats for themselves, close to the front to be near their host and near the action. You can imagine the “bad” seats being in the back of the room, behind a pole or a curtain, where the guests can barely hear the toasts and speeches happening up front. Jesus illustrates that human nature normally operates like this, seeking the good seats, but the kingdom is a new way of thinking, a revolution that comes from humility.
In contrast to the normal human behavior in such a dinner, those in the kingdom would do things differently:
- Guests would take the inferior seats, out of humble acknowledgment that they are not the most important people there
- Hosts will honor the more humble guests, offering them better positions
- Hosts will invite the people that are closest to them, but will also gather more and more guests from the surrounding community. The more that those close to us reject us, the more we reach out to the community around us, using evil for good, and leveraging rejection as an opportunity.
Finally, in Luke 13:25-34, Jesus urges us to count the cost of living unselfishly. Are we truly willing to follow Jesus on this revolutionary path? It may mean giving up everything of our own in order to truly see what God is doing. As a church are willing to do that? Can we leave it all behind, if we need to, in order to see what new thing will happen? If we count the cost as being too high, and hold on to what we have, we will be left with our own kingdom. Kings in our own castles. The rich farmer alone with his new barns. But the kingdom of God will have moved on to greater possibilities. We should carefully count the cost, both of participating, and of not participating. We have free will and can choose how we use our time on this Earth. Which kingdom will we build?
Similar to “loving your enemies”, placing ourselves in a position of humility allows those that oppose us to jump ahead and take the better spot. We deliberately allow them to win, due to our lack of resistance. But doing so does something amazing in the kingdom. It allows God to win. It allows God to work and bring the greater victory, which is in part our own heart transformation, but which is also the joy he gets to have by elevating us to a better position. God brings the good things, every perfect gift, so that’s why we can afford to love our enemies, give away our coat to the thief, or take the inferior seats at the banquet. This way we earn nothing by seeking our own selfish gain, and God wins everything by being the source of all good gifts.
The Finder of the Lost Things
In Luke 15, the kingdom is described as 3 stories of an important lost thing or person being found, in an image of people changing their hearts and lives, which is the very heart of the kingdom message. This happens after Jesus is accused of associating with sinners. Jesus uses this word to illustrate the kingdom: is not his goal for these sinners to find transformation in the kingdom? Each story has elements of:
- selfishness (walking my own way),
- a state of being lost
- a point of crisis of needing to be found
- one who seeks and finds, searching for that which is lost
- repentance (the change of heart and mind)
- the rejoicing when the finder succeeds and the sinner repents
- the joy is not only in the one that finds, but also in the one that is found and in the angels in heaven. This joy of angels is interesting in that indicates that the kingdom on Earth where lost things are found, is the objective of God in heaven.
As is happening at the beginning of this Luke 15 when Jesus is accused - The kingdom is opposed by the religious elite, here modeled as the “good” son who doesn’t understand the grace he’s been enjoying all this time. It leaves the question in the mind of the listener - maybe the “good” son is also lost, but isn’t willing to have the same change of heart.
You can also view these stories with the “sinner” not being an individual
- What if the people of God are lost, following selfish ways, lured by comfort and short-sighted thinking like the prodigal son? The seeker of lost things is searching for them, to gather them into the true kingdom of transformation, into true community not only with each other (the other coins, the other sheep, the other son) but also with God (the Father, the finder). The angels are cheering in the background as the people of God change their hearts and minds.
In another role change in this story, what if we are the seekers of the lost things?
- Jesus transfers this role of seeker to us, and we are the fishers in search of the catch. The light shining in the world. We expand the kingdom through our message and mission. The angels cheer when our message is heard and brings transformation.
We find other parables and stories in Luke 16-21 with a very similar theme regarding riches and generosity..
- In Luke 16 we find the parable of the shrewd manager. What lesson does Jesus say it teaches? Be faithful with what you have been given, every opportunity. Use it all for God. The twist here is a significant irony, in that Jesus says what the shrewd/dishonest man did gives us insight in how to react to wealth, money and our own resources. He turns society expectations on its head, similar to love your enemies, and giving your coat to the robber. The Pharisees obviously understood that this parable was directed at them. They knew that Jesus was criticizing their love for money. Jesus then tells them the story of a poor beggar named Lazarus and a certain rich man. The wealth of the rich man did him no good in death, but Lazarus found his wealth in heaven.
- In Luke 18, Jesus meets a rich man and tells him to go and sell everything (Luke 18:18-29).
- In Luke 19, Jesus meets Zaccheus, a very rich tax collector who had a change of heart about how he had mistreated people (Luke 19:1-10).
- In Luke 19:11-28, the parable of the rich ruler who entrusted his servants with money. Jesus taught about how we should invest our time and resources, not knowing the time when the master will appear,
- Jesus notices a poor widow in Luke 21:1-4. She gives everything she has, demonstrating true generosity compared to the rich people throwing in their offerings.
These passages are summarized in the following table:
Wealth on Earth
Riches in heaven
Use our resources responsibly and sacrificially for spiritual gain
Ignore pain of others
Compassion for the needy
No gain in the kingdom
Earning true wealth in the kingdom
Impossible to see God when seeing only Earthly wealth
God makes the impossible possible - God can bring faith and good works in any situation, so never give up hope even though it is very difficult for people to see God when they have no humility. Maybe they will be humbled!
Exploit others for personal gain
Repay everyone we have wronged, many times over. View wealth from a spiritual perspective.
No investment in the future - path of least resistance - fear of loss.
Invest our resources for the greatest possible return
Response to the shortness of time is to do nothing
Response to the shortness of time is to do everything possible with what we’ve been given
No participation in the kingdom
Helps to advance the kingdom
Give offerings that are of little consequence
Like the widow, we give it all!
In Luke 17:1-10, Jesus continues describing how the kingdom way differs from the kingdom way:
Lead others to follow you in sin and selfishness
Prevent others from sin, warn them, forgive them
Allow others to go on their way
Change people’s hearts and lives
Require special praise for our actions
Face our responsibility with humility
No gratitude for God’s grace
Gratitude -- count the gifts!
God’s gifts are ignored, don’t lead to life change
God’s gifts are appreciated - leading to faith and life change
Next, in Luke 18:9-17, Jesus tells a beautiful story about how a proud religious man thought he was pleasing God by looking down on a humble man. But God hates arrogance and values the humility that the tax collector was showing. This story encapsulates how we must approach God in the kingdom. We cannot see God while seeing others as lower than us. Skipping to Luke 20:45-47, Jesus condemns the legal experts overtly for acting exactly like this. And in Luke 22:24-30, Jesus faces the temptation in his disciples to seek their own greatness.
See God when we look down on others, because we misunderstand that God is impressed by our righteousness.
See God when we humble ourselves
Our only reward is in our own heads. We view ourselves as beautiful, but God sees only our ugly attitude.
Our reward is true participation in the kingdom, where God forgives and transforms us into something of beauty
Try to impress God with our achievements
Come to God as a child, humble and having no credentials
Show off our religious status, such as by wearing long robes, being honored publicly, taking the places of honor in social functions, and by saying long prayers, all the while cheating widows out of their homes!
Reject religious status, looking any different than anyone else. Blend in publicly, take lower positions socially, do not show off our understanding of God to make ourselves look better or smarter. Show our understanding of God through compassion! Treat others right.
Seek our own greatness in the kingdom
Seek nothing for ourselves. Seek to serve. There is no place for greatness of individuals in the kingdom of God. True reward is waiting in heaven and through spiritual gain - so it’s simply a matter of perspective and patience rather than seeking our own gain
Transforming Human Nature
Clearly there is a lot of teaching and information to unpack in Luke 12 through 18 and the similar passages in Luke 19-22. What amazes me is that Jesus focused so much teaching on these concepts that contrasted selfish human nature with a transformed nature. In the book of Luke, relatively little of his teaching was about anything else! He saw examples around him of selfish and self-righteous people, and he called them out and used them as examples. He told stories about how selfish people would act. He also saw examples of humility and poverty around him. He had so much compassion for those around him which were oppressed and needing hope. His teachings were in response to what he saw around him. He told the selfish and self-righteous to change their hearts and minds, and to join the kingdom way of behaving, as Jesus taught from the beginning of his ministry in the sermon on the mount. In the same way, he was teaching the oppressed, poor and humble people around him that they would inherit the kingdom, in spite of their poverty, through the faith and hope that were growing within them. Jesus taught both theory and practical application, using many examples and illustrations, references to what he saw around him, and clear instructions to his disciples about how to act. It reminds me of how hard we work as parents to teach our children how to act. We use every way possible to make it clear to them, instructing them, using examples that we see, using situations that we go through, and offering them insights about deeper concepts like humility bringing greater gain than pride. Isn’t it hard for our children to learn these concepts that go so much against basic human nature? Jesus taught that a kingdom would arise from such concepts. The world could be transformed by this type of change in basic human nature, away from selfishness and toward compassion.
As Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer:
‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.’ [from Luke 11:2, CEB],
his prayer was that the Father would bring in his kingdom, a place where his will and his way were to be found on Earth. This requires heart transformation to spread like a giant tree from a little seed, from one person to the next in an organic, even contagious spread of kindness to the world.
Do we take this teaching seriously as the church? If so we need to tear down our silos filled with grain and re-invest all of our time, energy and wealth into acts of true heart change -- acts of compassion and unselfishness. Instead of creating a kingdom where we look good and righteousness, we need to create a kingdom where we are humbled, giving away the best seats at the banquet so that God’s ways can prevail over our own ways. Instead of taking the lazy path of least resistance, protecting what is ours, we need to let it go and give it up, using our time and resources as if time is short and the urgency is great! The selfish way leads to inaction with lots of good excuses. The kingdom way is willing to lose and fail, so that God can win, because only by giving up our own selfish motivations can we join God’s greater plan for us and for how we will impact the world around us. When we join this plan, we will be very glad that we did! We will rejoice with the angels that we are seeing God’s hand at work in our time. Don’t we long to see the world change? Don’t we long to end hunger and poverty, to fight injustice in society, to bring water, education and medical care to every corner of the Earth, and to bring hope to the oppressed? This is what the kingdom is all about. Instead of being spectators we can join the revolution to bring good things to the world. Can we tear up our church charters and constitutions and re-write them to take on this mission?
We need to open the church. We need to open our hearts and minds to the greater truth that the kingdom way is not the easy way, not the way of self preservation and isolation. Like the widow, we must give it all. We must open the church, and let all the grain spill out. It is the way of the kingdom, and it is the only way for God to invade the world we live in. This is the way for us to answer the question posed in this chapter -- how can we be a community instead of a religious institution? -- only by humbly letting go of everything that we have been holding back for ourselves, sacrificing it on the cross, and letting God bring new life into it in his own way and his own time. The religious institution is our stored up wealth. The community and kingdom of God is what waits on other side when we can give up that stored wealth and choose a path of kindness, unselfishness, action and compassion. Let’s put into practice the Kingdom Way described in the book of Luke, as a group of Jesus-followers longing to continue the work of God’s kingdom.