Thursday, May 11, 2006

Appendix Two: Was Jesus Purposefully Confusing In Order to Lure Others Into Following Him?

Much of McLaren’s “Secret Message” is based upon the idea that Jesus told obscure parables in order to lure people into following Him. From this premise, he goes on to suggest that we ought to do the exact same thing. Meaning, we ought to learn to speak in parable and create intrigue both by our words and in our actions. It sounds like we are to become something like Eastern Guru’s... creating a group of followers who very slowly begin to understand us (and one presumes, Jesus). To illustrate this I offer the following extended quote:

Maybe then, we have some beginning of an answer to the disciples’ question, and ours. Why did Jesus speak in parables? Why was he subtle, indirect, and secretive? Because his message wasn’t merely aimed at conveying information. It sought to precipitate something more important: the spiritual transformation of the hearers. The form of a parable helps to shape a heart that is willing to enter an ongoing, interactive, persistent relationship of trust in the teacher. It beckons the hearer to explore new territory. It helps form a heart that is humble enough to admit it doesn’t already understand and is thirsty enough to ask questions. In other words, a parable renders its hearers not as experts, not as know-it-alls, not as scholars... but as children.

Now do some of the most famous sayings of Jesus begin to make more sense—about the kingdom of God belonging to chil­dren, about needing to become like a little child to enter the kingdom, about needing to be born again? Children are depen­dent, not independent. They can’t learn unless they ask ques­tions of people they trust. Their thirst for knowledge expresses itself in an unquenchable curiosity, a passionate inquisitiveness.

This, by the way, is what the problematic word repentance is all about. The word means to rethink—to reconsider your direc­tion and consider a new one, to admit that you might be wrong, to give your life a second thought, to think about your thinking. It means, just as Jesus said to Nicodemus that night, that you have to begin again, become like a child again, be born again. So if the problem is that too many of us are too independent, too self-centered, too set on stubbornly sticking to our own self-determined path . . . if the problem is that too many of us are arrogant know-it-alls, closed-minded adults, overconfident non-thinkers, and altogether too grown up—then the parable renders us into exactly what we need to be: teachable children. No won­der Jesus decides to make his message a secret! No wonder he hides it in metaphor and story!

But not all of us are willing to be so rendered. Some of us want fast, painless, effortless information and not slow, energetic, engag­ing transformation, thank you very much. What happens then to those who say, “I don’t have time for childish stories about seeds and yeast and sheep. I’m an important person. I have advanced degrees! I’m very knowledgeable!”? Simply put, the parable excludes them. In fact, the parable exposes them. In that sense, while parables bring some to childlike, humble rethinking, they bring out the arrogance, anger, impatience, and ugliness of others.

When I first began to understand that this was part of what was going on in Matthew 13, I felt bad. I didn’t want anyone to be left out. I didn’t want anyone to be exposed. Couldn’t Jesus’ parables be 100 percent effective? Couldn’t there be a happy ending for everybody? Couldn’t they get through to everybody? (More on this in chapter 18.)

In Jesus’ story, the answer was either no or not yet, because many, many people didn’t respond as the disciples did to Jesus’ parables. They didn’t ask questions, they didn’t soften their hearts in a childlike way, and they didn’t seek “the secrets of the kingdom.” Others did get the message, but it didn’t win their hearts1 it made them angry! Once, for example, Jesus told a detailed parable about some people who resorted to horrific vio­lence to maintain control over their little turf. The religious lead­ers who felt their turf being threatened by Jesus got the meaning and hated it because, according to Luke, “they knew he had spo­ken this parable against them” (20: 19). Their response was to become more dedicated to their own hostile schemes.

We might wish Jesus’ parables could have won over even the Pharisees. (A few, by the way, were won over—including Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and later, a Pharisee named Saul, better known to us as Paul, who became a leading apostle in the early Christian movement) But, if it’s the heart that counts, then hearts can’t be coerced; nobody can be forced. They can be invited, attracted, intrigued, enticed, and chal­lenged—but not forced. And that, perhaps, is the greatest genius of a parable: it doesn’t grab you by the lapels and scream in your face, “Repent, you vile sinner! Turn or burn!” Rather, it works gently, subtly, indirectly. It respects your dignity. It doesn’t batter you into submission but leaves you free to discover and choose for yourself.

There is much that could be said in response to this, but I will limit myself to four things.

1. The parables of Jesus cannot all be lumped into one category. Some parables were told to rebuke Pharisees. Some were told to instruct disciples and hide Kingdom truth from unbelievers. Other parables were told to be perfectly clear to their intended audience – hostile or accepting. To suggest otherwise is simply to not read the text.

Most often the reason for the parable is given in the text of the Gospel. For example: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector...” (Luke 18:9-10).

2. In many cases, Jesus told parables to complement the Father’s active work of blinding eyes; that is, of hiding spiritual truth from all but those for whom it was intended. This type of thing happened to more than just non-believers, thus demonstrating God’s absolute sovereignty over all things.

Luke 8:9-10 “And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”’ Much could be written on this, but it is clear that at least in some instances it was the Lord’s purpose to hide Truth (not just make it illusive, like a riddle) from people and thus He spoke in parables.

A similar type of action was taking place with the Disciples: Luke 18:31-34 “And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.”

3. Paul was not saved by hearing the parables of Jesus. He was blinded on a road, heard the voice of Jesus from heaven and was instantly converted. The parables came later when he (we presume) gladly read the Gospels. To intimate, as McLaren does, that Paul was converted through the parabolic ministry of Christ is yet again misleading.

4. Although Jesus spoke in parables, His apostles did not. There are no examples of the 11 or Paul speaking and teaching in this way. McLaren suggests that Paul did not write this way since he was “himself a kind of parable.” This is so stretching that it is pure invention.

The teaching of the followers of Jesus was marked by bold and clear proclamations of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, this preaching is often characterized in the short form as “they preached Jesus.” Consider Paul’s words to King Agrippa as one example: “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:19-23).


AuthenticTruth said...

Good Post. Some time ago, we had a pastor as a guest speaker who was going to be part of an urban church plant in Columbus. He tried to pull that definition of "repent" as well, meaning "think differently". After his "sermon", I walked away very concerned because much of it seemed off base, though he did make some good points. I have been researching this postmodern "emerging" church stuff for quite awhile now, because I have detected some of this philosophy creeping into the church I attend. In fact, I am putting together a rather lengthy letter to send off to my pastor concerning the issue of the emerging church.

Looks like this blog is going to be a good source of information, so I plan on adding you to my blog roll!

Trish said...

Much of what I'm reading of McLaren seems heretical.

Rob said...

Heresy is quite a strong word. Be careful, I think it's a word that's being thrown around way too much.

Brian may not be orthodox (ie. the way you like it), but heretic? Too strong.


Odious Herodias said...

Orthodoxy is not historically defined as "the way you like it". Biblical orthodoxy is just that, Biblical. If my views are not Biblical they are not orthodox, it's got nothing to do with what I like or dislike.

Trish said...

I honestly can't tell if McLaren is heretical because I feel he's either too vague or ambiguous relative to major doctrines, but for me I say it again: what I meant was what I said, "Much of what I'm reading of McLaren seems heretical."

DPT said...

1. Rob's comment could be taken as "orthodox in the way you're used to seeing it expressed." The response by Odious is a knee-jerk reaction and unnecessary.

2. If you carefully re-read the paragraph in question, point 3 could be mistaken in saying McLaren intimates that Paul was converted through parabolic ministry. He says Paul was later converted. He could have made it clearer, but so could you.

3. Point 4 (the apostles didn't speak in parables) is just poor reasoning and analogous to the way some NT church proponents copy every practice verbatim from its first-century description without considering its first-century context and whether some adaptation or modification is in order.

In general, McLaren could compress his arguments significantly and get his points across more successfully. He wanders and meanders. His reasoning can be a little fuzzy. All of these things could also be said of critiques at this blog. There's plenty of room for improvement on both sides.