Modern Parables

Jesus was famous for telling “parables” – earthly stories with heavenly meanings. The lessons were drawn from everyday life: the parables of the soils, lamps, wheat fields, pearls, and many more familiar objects.

Here is an excellent exercise in learning to learn from the world around us. Randomly select an everyday object and then think of a way the item illustrates a biblical truth. For example, you might notice a pair of scissors. What can this simple, ordinary thing teach us about the Christian life?

  • You never hear about a single “siz.” They come in pairs.
  • To work, both halves must work together.
  • No matter how sharp they are, they can’t work by themselves. Someone must pick them up and power them through the project.
  • And many more.

The Nature of Parables

A parable simply represents a method illustration, “The kingdom of heaven is illustrated by the following situation.” Marcus Dodds defines a parable:

“At its simplest [a parable] is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to rouse it into active thought.”

That brings us to the question, “Why did Jesus tell parables?” Parables are a way of teaching the responsive disciple (Luke 8:8) because they arouse immediate interest and may cause the disciple to ponder and work out the answer. But parables are also a way of hiding the truth from the unresponsive. Remember, some people were seeking to find fault with Jesus. They also serve to harden the heart of the rebellious. Finally, parables are an excellent method of having a person judge themselves. Do you remember the story of King David and the prophet Nathan? (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

Alright! Get busy. What do these paper towels teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven? I’d love to hear from you!

WWJD?

“I decide what is right and what is wrong!” he said. “But what if you’re wrong?” I answered. Individualism is the new standard in our world. “What’s true for you may not be true for me,” he continued. Black and white is descending into shades of grey. What once was a perversion is now merely a preference. Conscience has been replaced by convenience. However, it’s not a modern problem. Consider these Scriptures:

  • “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 12:8 – 9).
  • In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6)
  • The book of Judges concludes: In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes “(Judges 21:25).
  • “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).
  • “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5:21)

But isn’t that painful? Yes, it can be, but it is time for us to “Do the right thing.” Abraham Lincoln once pointed out, “When forced to choose between two evils – choose neither!” There is always a choice.

“Aren’t there circumstances when doing the right thing comes into conflict with another right thing?” Yes, for example, suppose the Nazis come to the door and ask if you are hiding any Jews in the attic. What would you do? If you tell the truth (and that’s the right thing to do), the Jews will die (and murder is a bad thing).

Fortunately, most of us will never have to make such a terrible choice, but how would you make such a decision? You could play Abe Lincoln and refuse to answer. Do nothing. Some people believe there is only one truly good thing. (Most often, they teach, “Do the loving thing.”) Still, others wear wristbands with the initials “WWJD?” (“What Would Jesus Do?”) I think that is the right direction, but I wonder if I am qualified to make that decision. Do I know Jesus well enough to answer, “What would Jesus do?” Do you remember this story?

At that time, Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? (Matthew 12:1 – 4)

Most teachers would excuse the disciples with some reference to the Jewish interpretations of the Law. They say Jesus was teaching the Pharisees a lesson, which may be true, but how do we know?

Some Christian ethicists point out, it’s a fallen world, and everything is hopelessly complicated. It’s impossible to keep the Law. After all, they conclude, “We are saved by grace.”  Just do the best you can.

However, I believe we can do better! We need to recognize sin is sin. It not only alienates us from God; it is harmful to us and those around us. The Apostle John wrote: “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1b) – Praise God! – but don’t forget the first half of 1 John 2:1, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”

Belief That Matters

On December 8, 2020, Nepal and China’s governments jointly declared the official height of Mount Everest is 29, 032 feet above sea level. The Indian survey of 1955 had concluded Everest was 29,029 feet, but in 2005, the Chinese believed Everest was 29,015 feet. However, following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2015, scientists felt the height might have changed. I won’t detail how the two governments discovered their most current information, but I believe two mountains are higher than Mount Everest.

Everest is measured “above sea level” but Mauna Kea in Hawaii measures 30,610 feet from its base (on the ocean floor) to the summit, and Chimborazo in Ecuador (20,549 feet) is taller still if you measure from the center of the earth to the summit since it is on the equatorial bulge.

After you’ve thought about this for a moment, I would encourage you to forget this factoid. You see, some of the things that we believe – have faith in – make absolutely no difference in our lives whatsoever, and that’s an important lesson. How many things do we worry about that don’t matter? Sometimes the past can be a noose around our necks. God has forgiven us, but we can’t seem to forgive ourselves. Likewise, we may worry about the future. The “What-ifs” and the “If-onlys” are deadly.

The Apostle Paul told his beloved Philippians: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13 – 14).

Teach Us to Pray

Is the Bible too familiar? I was practically born in the church. From the time I was a small boy, 

I have always wanted to be a preacher. I loved Sunday school, and sitting through worship was never a chore. Strange, eh? My biggest challenge in Bible study is familiarity. My eyes skip over passages, and I often miss things. That led me to study Greek and Hebrew. The words are foreign and require me to stop and think about each one.

Recently, I was translating Luke 11:1 – 4, “The Lord’s Prayer.” It’s familiar to all of us, but did you notice the context? Jesus was praying, and then the disciples asked him to “teach us to pray.” Doesn’t that seem strange? These 12 disciples were good Jews and had prayed their entire lives. The prayers of Jesus were different from anything they had ever heard. It could be the prayers of Jesus were conversational. After all, Jesus taught us to address God as “Our Father.” Even today, the Jewish people have many, many formal prayers to be said at set times during the day. (Just look up “Jewish Prayers and Blessings” on Wikipedia.) It appears the followers of John the Baptist learned specific set prayers as well: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (verse 1).

In general, American Christians pray extemporaneously. Some churches repeat the Lord’s Prayer, but most of us are uncomfortable with that kind of ritualism.

We believe since Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father,” our prayers should be conversational rather than liturgical. Even as a child, I was uncomfortable praying the Lord’s Prayer in school along with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, but have you thought about the value of everyone repeating the same prayer at the same time? It is a show of unity. We aren’t just praying to our Father; we are praying with our family. It’s the same as saying grace together with our brothers and sisters before a meal.

On the other hand, Jesus warned against meaningless repetition. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). Prayers are not magical incantations that force the Lord to comply!

I recently heard a well-known preacher defending his belief the early Christians continued to pray the set Jewish prayers. His text came from Acts 2:42. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” “The prayers,” he contended, were the set Jewish prayers. I’m not so sure. That interpretation is possible, but not probable. After all, they had been with Jesus, who taught them to pray. The examples of prayers that we read about in Acts and the Epistles were not the traditional Jewish prayers.

The disciples didn’t ask, “Lord teach us what to pray.” They asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus didn’t give his disciples the exact words to use in prayer. He gave them the heart to pray. There is nothing wrong with praying the Lord’s Prayer; just remember to pray with your heart!

Pelicans and Christians

Pelicans are funny looking birds. They have long, thick bills with a pouch for catching fish beneath. As they dive for fish, they thrust their heads into the water at the last minute to catch their prey before their whole body follows it with an awkward crash into the sea. On the other hand, nothing is more magnificent than a flight of pelicans skimming together in close-packed formation inches above the waves with their fantastic wings barely moving. They are a familiar bird to Southern Californians, but did you know they were also an early symbol of Christianity?

Most people know the cross is a Christian symbol. Some know the same is true of the simple fish, but starting in the second century, the pelican also became a Christian symbol. They are common in stained glass windows and carved into massive cathedral doors. There is a line in the 12th-century hymn “Humbly we adore Thee” that describes Christ as the “loving pelican divine.” Queen Elizabeth of England chose the pelican as her symbol, and at the top of the title page of the very first King James Bible (1611), there is an etching of a pelican feeding her young.

We can understand the symbol of the cross — that’s where Jesus died. We understand the symbol of the lamb since the gentle, sacrificial lamb often represents Christ in the Bible. What about the fish? The letters from the Greek word for fish (ichthus) represent the first letters of the Greek phrase for “Jesus Christ God’s Son and Savior,” but how did the pelican come to symbolize Christianity?

For the answer to that question, we need to visit Alexandria, Egypt, in the Second Century. A Christian author penned a book of morals for children. In it, he described various animals, birds, plants, and even stones. He would describe one of these and then its special attributes and encourage children to imitate them. The book is called Physiology. It’s still available. (Although initially written in Greek, it’s been translated into Latin, Syriac, English, and a host of other languages. See Amazon.com.) It’s richly decorated and was very, very popular.

So how does this relate to the pelican becoming a symbol of Christianity? Have you ever watched a pelican at rest? Her beak often lays on her breast, and they characteristically rub it up and down. The Mediterranean pelican’s pouch is blood red during mating season. Thus, the legend was born that a mother pelican will pierce her breast and heroically feed her children on her blood in times of famine. As a result, the pelican came to symbolize the sacrifice of Jesus, who gave his blood that we might live.

Taking Christ Out of Christmas

It’s hard to imagine the protestant culture in the southern United States from the 1950s today, but my grandparents were very anti-Catholic. When John F. Kennedy (a Catholic) was running for president, he had to make a special speech to Southern Baptist clergy in Houston to dispel rumors he would have a pipeline to the Pope.

“This wasn’t a normal campaign stop. Kennedy was Catholic and, at the time, only the second Catholic presidential candidate in U.S. history after Al Smith’s unsuccessful run in 1928. And for a Catholic candidate from New England, a conference of Southern Baptist ministers was considered the ‘lion’s den,’ ground zero for anti-Catholic political rhetoric and even outright bigotry.” (Downloaded from History.com, https://www.history.com/news/jfk-catholic-president, December 15, 2020.)

JFK said, ““[C]ontrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

Still, I can remember my grandfather driving me by the Catholic church to see “the man in a black dress” (the priest) standing outside after Mass. The Anti-Christ had come to Oklahoma City. My grandmother was especially adamant about Christmas. “Christ – Mass, Johnny,” she would explain. “It’s a Catholic holiday!” Mee-maw wasn’t against the holiday, just the religious part of it, so she always signed her holiday cards, “Merry X-mas.”

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not defending the Roman Catholic Church – far from it! I’ll talk about the difference between a cross and a crucifix tomorrow, but Mee-maw didn’t know Greek and didn’t understand one of the very earliest symbols of the faith is the “X,” the Greek letter chi, the first letter in the word “Christ.”

In ancient times, writing materials were very expensive, and so to save space, Christians used many abbreviations, including the letter chi with a line over it for “Christ.” Today, in some high churches, you may see the Chi-Rho used as a decoration, or a priest might be carrying a staff topped with this symbol:

It is called the “Chi Rho” symbol. Those are the first two Greek letters in the word “Christ.” The rho (“r”) is placed over the chi (“X”). It is closely connected with the Roman Emperor Constantine, who had a vision before the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312 A.D.) outside Rome. In his dream, the emperor was told, “by this sign, you will conquer!” He had the sign of Christ put on his soldiers’ shields and later created his “labarum,” a standard incorporating the Chi-Rho.

So, Mee-maw, long before your grandson became a Greek scholar, you were using ancient Greek in your Christmas cards. Merry X-mas, everyone!

Let’s Go Fishing!

Christians have a long history of persecution. They lost their jobs and their homes and were forced to flee. Can you imagine escaping to a new city in a new country and not knowing who to trust? One of the earliest symbols of Christianity was the fish. It was a simple design: two arcs intersecting.

It served as a sign and a countersign. If you encountered a stranger but suspected he might be a Christian, you could take your walking stick and casually scribe an arc in the dust. If the stranger smiled and drew another arc over yours – making the fish – you breathed a sigh of relief and rejoiced to have found the family. The symbol was also put-on buildings that served a secret purpose as a meeting place for Christians and marking Christian graves.

But why a fish? Like doves and lambs, fish have long served as a Christian symbol. Do you remember when Jesus called his disciples to become “fishers of men” (Mark 1:16 – 18)? Likewise, the Lord multiplied loaves and fish to feed the hungry (twice!) He told parables about catching fish (Matthew 13:47 – 50) and performed two miracles of miraculous catches of fish. In Matthew 17, Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish, and the apostle found a coin in its mouth to pay their taxes. 

The best explanation of the symbol is found in the Greek word for fish: ichthus. (ἸΧΘΥϹ See the Third Century Funerary stele below.) Like news (north – east – west – south), radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging), or NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), ichthus is an acrostic (in Greek):

  • Iota (i), Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), “Jesus”
  • Chi (ch), Christos (Χριστός), “anointed”
  • Theta (th), Theou (Θεοῦ), “God’s,” the genitive singular of Θεóς, Theos, “God”
  • Upsilon (y or u), (h)yios[8] (Yἱός), “Son”
  • Sigma (s), sōtēr (Σωτήρ), “Savior”

— Wikipedia

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In the early 1970s, the fish symbol became popular for Christians once more. Sadly, you see it most often on the bumpers of cars blasting by you on the freeway.

The Donkey Man

1 Corinthians 1:18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Boys can be cruel, and such was the case 1,800 years ago on the Palatine Hill in Rome. Alexamenos was a Christian at a school for imperial pages. We don’t know more about his story except some poorly educated bully scratched this crude image into one of the plaster walls: 

It shows Alexamenos blowing a kiss towards a crucified man with a donkey’s head. The words on the drawing read, “Alexamenos worships his god.”[1] The picture was intended to be a cruel taunt in two ways. First, a cross was an instrument of execution. In modern imagery, it would be like picturing someone with a hangman’s noose around his neck. The man must be a common criminal. The second and most challenging image for us to understand is the man with a donkey’s head.

Do you remember, in the Temple in Jerusalem, there was the Holy Place (where the altar of incense, the lampstand, and the Table of Showbread were) and the Holy of Holies. A curtain separated them. Except for the High Priest, no one passed through the curtain into the Holy of Holies (and then only once a year). 

Likewise, there were no pictures of the Lord. Idolatry was strictly forbidden. This seemed so strange to the pagans. The Jews (and consequently the Christians) must be ashamed of their God, the pagans concluded. So, a rumor circulated that the Jews worshipped a donkey! (There is a word for that: onolatry.) This was so embarrassing; the Jews had to hide His image behind the curtain.

Now let’s return to the page’s school in Rome. That insulting image shows us Alexamenos worshipping a donkey-man – the God-Man! Today, Christians believe Jesus was wholly God and wholly man. So did young Alexamenos in Rome around 200 A.D.!

I can hardly wait to meet this young Christian and learn the rest of his story!

  [1] There are two Greek words we translate “worship” in English: proskuneo (προσκυνέω) and sebo (σέβω). The first means “to kiss towards.” That describes Alexamenos’ gesture in the drawing. The second means “to worship in gestures and rituals.” That is the word used in the graffiti. (Do you see the inscription “CEBETE” in the second line from the bottom? C = S in the ancient script. The ETE ending is 2nd person plural. It should be EIS, 2nd person singular, so either the boy making fun of Alexamenos was a lousy speller, or he included all Christians in his insult.) The original inscription is preserved in the Palatine Museum in Rome.

In the Company of the Committed

In Galilee, they met Jesus on a mountaintop. Perhaps this was the same place where Peter, James, and John had seen Jesus transfigured talking with Moses and Elijah, but now, all eleven surviving apostles were there. For a little over a month, they had wrestled with what they had seen. Jesus had been crucified. He died. They were certain of that, but dead men don’t live again. Here on the mountain, they saw Jesus.

It was awesome. It was overwhelming, and Matthew tells us: “When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted” (28:17). Did you notice that last phrase: “some doubted.” Worship, even for the apostles, wasn’t monolithic. Their faith was at different levels. As we worship today, the same is also true. Some believers will revel in their relationship with God. Others are just beginning to experience God’s love, and most of us will fall somewhere between the two extremes. Today, I would like for us to think about the relationship between fellowship and worship.

Yesterday, I asked us to think about what the Lord has done for us individually. His gifts are two-fold: forgiveness – lifting the burden of guilt – and empowerment – the gifts of growth such as hope and contentment. Today, consider what God has done for us, all of us together.

Fellowship is one of the catalysts of worship. My eyes are opened as I see the Lord from your perspective. “I never thought of it that way!” “How did the Father help you through what I am experiencing?” and, most importantly, “You too?”

All too often, we are told to close our eyes and bow our heads when we should be confessing, praying, laughing, crying, and singing together! When Jesus died, Thomas separated himself from the others and missed seeing the resurrected Lord. He was forced to wait a week. Why didn’t Jesus just make a special appearance to him? Because we see Jesus best, we worship best in the company of the committed!

Fellowship and Social Distancing

This past week, covid-19 has exploded in my little hometown. Overnight we went from 3 cases to 15! That may not seem like many for those of you living in a big city, but in our rural, south-central Kansas community, it’s huge. As a result, we’ve had to close the church building doors (again) and rely on the internet for broadcasting our classes and worship.

While I’m glad we have those technological solutions, it’s just not the same. An “air hug” will never replace the real thing. Zoom will never replace a good old-fashioned potluck. Fellowship is the heart of the Christian community, and we are all suffering.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to different ways we can stay in touch. Of course, there is the phone, but we need to make sure to reach out to everyone in the congregation. That means calling people you might be uncomfortable talking with – or calling people you don’t know very well. Could it be this is an opportunity to make new friends? Don’t be shy; just say, “Hi.” (Hmm, could that be a bumper sticker?)

Recently, my family got together on Zoom. We are scattered from Ireland to Hawaii, but we could laugh and tell stories and see how we’ve changed. Imagine how difficult it would have been to have an in-person family reunion! There was a blessing.

One youth minister I know has started decorating sugar cookies. He and his daughter drive to people’s houses, leave the cookies on the porch and ring the doorbell. (Nothing says “I care” like homemade cookies.)

Many people are visiting folks in the nursing home – from outside the building. They get on their cell phones and talk through the window! One man even used a cherry picker to talk to his mom through a second-story window.

Texting is nice. You’re not interrupting since the recipient can read your message at their leisure, but all of us have some extra time on our hands. Why not write an old-fashioned letter and mail it? My mother-in-law, Dixie, is sending out beautiful homemade cards that people treasure. She was recently blessed when some children sent her a card in return. The cards were covered in crayons and stickers and wrapped in love. How precious!

I’m glad to say; fellowship is alive even when we are apart. Reach out and touch someone today! Well, don’t touch their hands. Touch their hearts!