Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner? Two Parables, Same Jesus, Same God

Jesus and the crowdsIf you’ve been reading this blog for more than a short amount of time you’ll know one of my consistent themes is the importance of a multi-layered, non-reductionistic view of the God of Israel. Indeed, I just wrote about that yesterday. The Scriptures don’t present a flat portrait of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so neither should we.

One of the most popular ways of flattening and distorting our picture of God is through the violent/peaceful, or loving/wrathful dichotomy. While in the past this was done in a more straight Old Testament v. New Testament split, contemporary proponents focus more on what Andrew Wilson has called the Jesus Tea Strainer hermeneutic. In a nutshell, you take the person of Jesus, or the peaceful teachings of Jesus as you understand them, and then propose to strain out whatever bits of the OT, or even the NT, contradict the loving portrait of God that Jesus reveals to us. Jesus’ picture of a Fatherly, non-violent, ‘Abba’-God who loves his enemies to the death ought to be normative, relativizing all other portrayals (even those in Scripture) in light of its purity and ultimacy.

Let me be clear here: I’m all for Jesus being the ultimate revelation of God. I’m also all for reading the OT and the NT through the person and work of Christ. But we must pay attention to all of Jesus’ teachings, because more often than not they cut across our too-simple dichotomies and boxes. Take for instance his presentation of God in the parables.

Prodigal Father or Avenging Vineyard Owner?

Most of us are familiar with his teaching on the parable of the prodigal son, or rather, the two lost sons (Luke 15:11-32). Jesus here teaches us about the astounding, category-shattering grace of the Father for his lost sons. Both prodigals and Pharisaic humbuggers are invited to experience the humbling, forgiving, and astonishing love of God.

God truly is an ‘Abba’, a Father we can run to despite our worst sins, fears, failures, and shames, who take us up and embrace, covering us in the finest robes of his righteousness and restoring us to full rights as sons and daughters. God here holds no grudges, suffers shame in our place, and reveals his welcoming and inclusive heart. We need this parable. need this parable. It’s one that I cling to and teach joyfully to my students on a regular basis.

Now, if we’re going to understand the God of Jesus Christ through the parables he told, I think it’s worth examining another from the same Gospel, which doesn’t get quite the same airplay.

I’ll quote it in full here:

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said,

“What then is this that is written:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces,
and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
(Luke 20:9-18)

Here Jesus tells a parable against the religious leaders of his day and in this too he speaks of God the Father. He teaches first of mercy and grace of God in the person of the vineyard owner who continually sent messenger after messenger, prophet after prophet, to warn wayward Israel and especially the tenants who were supposed to be keeping watch over, but instead wickedly spurn his cautions and entreaties. Finally, as a great act of mercy and peacemaking, he sends his own Son, the heir to all that he has to plead with them and turn from their ways. But what do they do? They kill him in hopes of holding on to power.

What then does Jesus say the vineyard owner will do in response?

“He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

God the great Vineyard Owner is also He whom Jesus came to reveal. God is merciful, long-suffering even to the point of self-sacrifice for the sake of his enemies. And yet, he will not suffer them forever. If they will not repent, or seek the pardon made available in the Son, he will put a just end to their violence and injustice.

This is Regular Thing

What’s more, this angle on God isn’t a bizarre aberration in his teaching in the parables. Unlike the parable of the Prodigal sons, that of the Wicked Tenants is recounted in both Matthew (21:33-46) and Mark (12:1-12). We find Jesus’ parable of the Great Wedding Feast where those who don’t come, or come without the proper dress, are cast out into the darkness (Matthew 22:1-14). Or again, the parable where the King ends up throwing the unmerciful servant in jail to be tormented for his lack of mercy; Jesus ends that one saying, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:21-35). Or the parable of the faithless servant who abuses the other servants in his master’s absence. This one is actually pretty extreme, with Jesus declaring that upon his return, “The master will cut him in pieces and make him share the fate of the disobedient” (Luke 12:46).

I remember being shocked the summer I taught through them with my students as story after story he gives us both the grace, mercy, and a significant dose of the judgment of God. I guess I shouldn’t have, since that sounds just like the God of the Old Testament and the rest of the New.

Returning again to the parable of the Wicked Tenants, in itself it forms an argument against narrowly restricting our Jesus hermeneutic solely to the time of his first coming. There’s Dominical warrant for the idea that we must read his peaceful first coming alongside his more forceful Second Coming where he will, as the creed puts it, ‘judge the quick and the dead.’

From angle after angle, then, these overly-restrictive ‘Jesus’ hermeneutics end up falling against the stone of the Son and dashing themselves to pieces.

Soli Deo Gloria

What Does It Mean to Follow ‘The Way’?

New Testament Biblical TheologyIt’s often noted that before they were called Christians, followers of Jesus in the book of Acts were referred to as ‘The Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14). Many preachers then go on to make the point that before Christianity was a religion, or a system of thought, it was instead known as a distinctive way of life. It’s not so much that Christians are people who believe certain things, but that they are people who live a certain way. While that can be appealing to many, left on its own, it sets up something of a false dichotomy between living and believing that is entirely foreign to the Scriptures. Right belief and right living are a seamless whole in Biblical spirituality.

Others, taking a slightly different (and better) angle, remind us that Jesus called himself  “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Early Christians were called followers of “the Way”, not simply because of the way they lived, but precisely because of who they followed. The Way is not simply a set of behaviors, but a person. It is only by trusting in and following the one who is the Way that we enter into the life that is truly life and come to know the Father.

As promising as that view is, G.K. Beale proposes another, still more promising read and suggests that we pay attention to clues that Luke presents us with in the Gospel of Luke:

The significance of the citation from Isa. 40:3–5 in Luke 3:3–6 appears at the commencement of Jesus’s public ministry:

And [John] came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words
of Isaiah the prophet,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Make ready the way of the Lord,
make His paths straight.
Every ravine will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be brought low;
the crooked will become straight,
and the rough roads smooth;
and all flesh will see the salvation of God.”

David Pao has rightly argued that this quotation provides the key interpretative framework within which the remainder of Luke-Acts is to be understood. The Isaiah quotation is the beginning of an extended section in Isaiah that prophesies the coming of a new exodus whereby Israel will be delivered from bondage in Babylon. The various motifs found in the prologue (Isa. 40:1–11) to Isa. 41–55 are developed extensively throughout the following chapters of Isaiah and in Acts. The best expression of this new-exodus paradigm is the “way” terminology (derived primarily from Isa. 40:3) in Acts as a name for the nascent Christian movement, polemically identifying the church as God’s true people in the midst of his rejection of Israel. Notice the repeated reference to the Christian movement as “the Way” in Acts, which most of the time occurs in contexts of persecution or opposition:

Acts 9:2 “And [Paul] asked for letters from him [the high priest] to the synagogues
at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both
men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

Acts 19:9 “But when some were becoming hardened and disobedient, speaking
evil of the Way before the people, [Paul] withdrew from them and
took away the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus.”

Acts 19:23 “About that time there occurred no small disturbance concerning
the Way.”

Acts 22:4 “I [Paul] persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting
both men and women into prisons.”

Acts 24:14 “But this I [Paul] admit to you, that according to the Way which
they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything
that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets.”

Acts 24:22 “But Felix, having a more exact knowledge about the Way, put
them off, saying, ‘When Lysias the commander comes down, I will decide
your case.’”

This name for the Christian movement, “the Way,” thus designates that the Christians were the true end-time Israel beginning to fulfill the prophecies of Israel’s return from exile. They were on “the Way” out of exile to returning to God. The name “the Way” indicates that one could begin to participate in this restoration journey by believing in Christ and joining others who already believed and were walking on “the Way,” progressing in their new-exodus journey. Consequently, “the Way” described both those first joining it and those who had belonged to it for some time, so that the name included reference to a manner of ongoing Christian living as part of a restoration journey.

–G.K. Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, pp. 856-858

To be a follower of “the Way”, then, meant understanding yourself to be the beneficiary of God’s great new act of redemption through His Anointed One. Just as God had led Israel out of Egypt into freedom God had promised to lead Israel out of Exile, both physical and spiritual. John prepared the way for YHWH’s coming and the Lord Jesus walked it bringing salvation in his wake.

This approach has the benefit of being thickly rooted in a long-range approach to Scripture, makes sense of the exegetical data in Acts, as well as incorporating some of the better insights of the simpler views listed above. We see clearly here that to be a follower of the Way was a matter of both belief and of practice. It was precisely because they believed God was fulfilling his promise of a New Exodus through the person and work of Jesus that they lived this new journey life-style.

Two thousand years later that New Exodus is still going–people are being brought out of the Exile of sin and death into the new in covenant with God. We are still on walking the “The Way” with Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria

God Has More Than One Name–And We Need Every One of Them

bavinck sin and salvation imageI’ve said this before, but theology is an issue of finding your balance. This can happen in various ways, but one of the simplest is to pick out one element of biblical truth and elevate it above all others, ignoring, or sidelining important balancing themes. For instance, some have issues with accounts of salvation that emphasize, or indeed, merely teach that God does not accomplish his forgiveness apart from atonement. Is he not a loving Father? Do not fathers forgive all the time without requiring payment or retribution? If even human fathers can do so, how can our heavenly Father be any less merciful or gracious by requiring satisfaction for sins?

Bavinck shows us the problem with that sort of thing:

God is most certainly the Father of humankind, but this name is far from describing the entire relationship in which God stands to his creatures. He is also Creator, Maintainer, Ruler, Sovereign, Lawgiver, Judge, and so on, and it is one-sided and conducive to error if one takes one of these names—disregarding all the others—to be the full revelation of God. Thus, in relation to sin, God is not just a creator or injured party who can cancel the debt and forgive as well as forget the insult but is himself the giver, protector, and avenger of the law, righteousness in person, and as such he cannot forgive sin without atonement (Heb. 9:22). In that capacity he cannot nullify the just demands of the law, for we are not speaking here about personal or private rights, which one can relinquish, but about the righteousness, that is, the perfections and honor of God himself. Against this idea one could appeal to the prerogative of pardon that an earthly government frequently exercises, but this prerogative of pardon is only given to it because it is fallible and in many cases inflicts a penalty that is too severe or even undeserved. In God something like that cannot happen. He is righteousness in person, does not need to restore justice or nullify it by grace, but lets both justice and grace come to expression in the cross of Christ.

-Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, pp. 372-373

Of course, one can tip the balance in the other direction and only fixate on God’s role as judge or king and forget that he is the Father who is passionately concerned to forgive. God is not begrudging in securing atonement, but gloriously willing to save sinners even as they reject him (Romans 5:6-8). Still, whichever way it happens, both make the mistake of flattening God’s relationship with his creatures by failing to account for each part of the crucial biblical imagery by which he reveals himself to us.

In other words, God gave us more than one beautiful name for himself in the Scriptures. We need to make sure we understand and worship him in light of all of them.

Soli Deo Gloria

For more on the way God’s atonement is not a denial of forgiveness, but rather the method of God’s forgiveness, see my article here.

Diognetus on Christ’s Atonement (Or, a Rather Reformed Father)

christ pantokratorThe Epistle to Diognetus is a brief, but powerful theological treasure from the early Christian Fathers. In one brief chapter the anonymous Disciple answers the question, “Why was the Son sent so late?” with a condensed account of Christ’s work of salvation on our behalf. I present it here without much comment except to say, despite the allegedly vast differences between Patristic and Reformation theologies of salvation, if I didn’t know better you could have told me Calvin or Luther wrote this:

As long then as the former time endured, He permitted us to be borne along by unruly impulses, being drawn away by the desire of pleasure and various lusts. This was not that He at all delighted in our sins, but that He simply endured them; nor that He approved the time of working iniquity which then was, but that He sought to form a mind conscious of righteousness, so that being convinced in that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it should now, through the kindness of God, be vouchsafed to us; and having made it manifest that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God, we might through the power of God be made able.

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal.

For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! Having therefore convinced us in the former time that our nature was unable to attain to life, and having now revealed the Saviour who is able to save even those things which it was [formerly] impossible to save, by both these facts He desired to lead us to trust in His kindness, to esteem Him our Nourisher, Father, Teacher, Counsellor, Healer, our Wisdom, Light, Honour, Glory, Power, and Life, so that we should not be anxious concerning clothing and food.

–The Epistle to Diognetes, Chapter IX.—Why the Son was sent so late.

You can read the whole epistle here.

Soli Deo Gloria

Mere Fidelity: What’s Right (and Wrong) with ‘Relatability’

Mere FidelityThis issue we take up the issue of ‘relatability’ in literature taken up by Ira Glass and Rebecca Mead. Do we need literature to be immediately relatable? Do I need a story about a 28-year old college pastor in order to have a story I can connect to? Does the Bible have to give us characters that are immediately within our reach, or is it okay that we have to work to get into the narrative?

As always, feel free to share.

Soli Deo Gloria

Deal Gently with Bruised Reeds

bruised reedThinking about Robin Williams’ passing I was reminded of this text in Isaiah, speaking of the ministry of the coming Servant of the Lord:

“a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3)

Calvin commenting on the text says:

“…This is what he means by the metaphor of ‘the bruised reed,’ that he does not wish to break off and altogether crush those who are half-broken, but, on the contrary, to lift up and support them, so as to maintain and strengthen all that is good in them…Isaiah ascribes to Christ that forbearance by which he bears with our weakness, which we find to be actually fulfilled by him; for wherever any spark of piety is seen, he strengthens and kindles it, and if he were to act towards us with the utmost rigor, we should be reduced to nothing. Although men therefore totter and stumble, although they are even shaken or out of joint, yet he does not at once cast them off as utterly useless, but bears long, till he makes them stronger and more steadfast.”

As Christians we are to deal gently with the broken and mournful. It is in this way we follow the Christ we have in the gospel. We follow a Messiah who was a man of sorrows, well acquainted with the painful way of the world we live in. Indeed, it’s precisely to bring comfort and relief to those who mourn that he took up his own cross; he came that he might end their suffering in his own.

If you haven’t already read it, I’d also point you to Alan Noble’s beautiful piece “When Existence Becomes Seemingly Impossible.” He concludes:

What I want to say is that life is harder than most of us will let on, and probably the deepest struggles we’ll face will be silent and petty — things like choosing to get out of bed and get dressed. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof, but so too is Christ’s Grace. So, get up, when you can, and carry on. Rest your burdens on He who loves you, and turn to the pilgrims alongside you. Some days, rising out of bed is a great act of worship. And when you can’t get up, let those around you bear you up as Christ’s body, always remembering that you are loved. And then, carry that mercy and grace to your neighbor, who needs it no less.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Legit Ladies of the Exodus

moses motherI love noticing layers and dimensions to the narratives of Scripture that I haven’t seen before. I was particularly edified the other day when reading an older post by my Mere Fidelity compatriot, Alastair Roberts, on the early chapters of Exodus. Among other things, he takes some time to highlights what a dominant role the godly, courageous women play early on in the story. I thought it was worth quoting at length:

Throughout Exodus 1 we see the fertility and liveliness of the children of Israel and the thwarted efforts of Pharaoh to arrest their growth. First, Pharaoh afflicts the Israelites, setting taskmasters over them, and forcing them to build supply cities. Later on the description of the process of making bricks will recall the building of Babel in Genesis 11. Pharaoh then speaks to the Hebrew midwives, instructing them to kill the sons and spare the daughters. The killing of the sons prevented the children of Israel from defending themselves or challenging the Egyptians, while the daughters would be spared for Egyptian men. Once again we see a threat to the promised seed and to the woman by the serpent/dragon figure. The dragon wants to kill the seed that threatens him and use the woman to produce his own seed.

The Hebrew midwives, like the godly women of Genesis, deceive and lie to the tyrant. The women of the Hebrews are contrasted with the Egyptian women, who lack their vigour. The sense is of a divinely given life that is continually outpacing the death-dealing tyrant that is fruitlessly seeking to overtake and arrest it. Having failed with the midwives, Pharaoh then instructs his people to kill every Hebrew baby boy, while saving the daughters alive. The fact that midwives are mentioned should also alert us to the fact thatIsrael is about to undergo a national birth.

It is important that we recognize that this story, as in the case of other great stories of Exodus, focus at their outset on faithful women (Rachel and Leah, Hannah, Mary and Elizabeth). Exodus 1 and 2 are all about women and especially daughters – the Hebrew midwives, the Hebrew mothers, the daughters of the Israelites, Jochebed, the daughter of Levi (2:1), Miriam, the daughter of Jochebed (v.4), Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidens (v.8), and the seven daughters of Midian (2:16). Our attention is typically on the slain sons and on Moses, and we miss the crucial role that the women play in the story.

It is the women who outwit the serpent, Pharaoh, and mastermind the salvation of the Hebrew boys. It is Jochebed and Miriam who bring about Moses’ salvation and the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues him. The place of women in the narrative will be important as we go along. Having registered the importance of this detail, we will remark upon its presence at various points as we proceed.

The women and the seed are in direct conflict with the tyrant because the story of the Exodus grows out of the enmity established between the woman and her seed and the serpent and his seed in Genesis 3:15. Until Moses grows up, the only man really active within Exodus is the greater serpent, the dragon Pharaoh. Exodus 1:15—2:10 is a story of Eve and the dragon.

Yes, when we think of heroes of the faith, there are a lot of mens’ names on that list. But we shouldn’t for an instant forget the story of the Gospel is one that includes both men and women. We have a great many fathers in the faith, but we also have some really, really legit mothers as well.

Soli Deo Gloria