I just posted an article imagining a modern parable: The Kingdom of God Is Like an Autostereogram. Today, I am going to write about actual parables that Jesus told. Matthew 13 contains a bunch of them, and they individually and collectively tell a story about the kingdom of God.
Interestingly, Jesus ties the teaching of the law into becoming a disciple of the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 13:52) We don’t normally associate the precision of a code of laws with the imprecision of parables. It’s almost like a left brain/right brain kind of association.
We tend to categorize and distill things down into neat packages, like a code of laws, but parables don’t seem to fit into our neat packages. Laws and parables seem, at first blush, to be polar opposites, but they aren’t. In fact, the Mosaic Law, which informs the Judeo-Christian tradition, isn’t (perhaps) what we think it is.
We think of the Law of Moses as a code of laws, a list of prescriptions, of do’s and don’ts that must be followed precisely. The Pharisees in Jesus’s day also viewed the Law that way, but Jesus took them to task for it:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You tithe mint and dill and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done without leaving the others undone (Matt. 23:23)
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. (Luke 11:42)
The Mosaic Law wasn’t (isn’t) simply about following a prescription or recipe to achieve eternal life. The Law was meant to point to something, to point beyond it to God and His purposes.
Jesus said the Law (and the Prophets) “testify” about him! (John 5:39) On the road to Emmaus after he rose from dead, Jesus explained to some of his followers how Moses (the Law) and Prophets were written about him. (Luke 24:27) (Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on that wall?!)
Wait a minute! Does that mean we don’t need to follow the Law? What about the Ten Commandments? Why did God get so angry at the Israelites for not following the Law?
Jesus told the Pharisees they should do both: follow the Law and not neglect the “weightier matters” of the Law (justice and mercy and the love of God). What does that even mean? Why would he say that?
I will give you “my” answer – the way I understand it – informed by the totality of Scripture. In the process, we will see that the Law and the parables Jesus used are really more similar than dissimilar.
If Jesus was walking the earth today, as he did in the 1st Century, he might have said, “the kingdom of God is like an autostereogram.” Or maybe not. Who knows what an autostereogram is? He probably would have used more common words and, perhaps, pointed to an image demonstrating what he was saying.
The image above is an autostereogram. It appears like a repeating pattern of two-dimensional, abstract, interconnected design, but it “hides” a three-dimensional image. It isn’t really hidden, but we must “look beyond” the two dimensional image to see it. Can you see the three-dimensional image? (Look to the end for a clue.)
Our eyes don’t naturally pick up on the three-dimensional object “hidden” (in plain sight) in the abstract image. We have to “strain” to see it. In truth, I wouldn’t say that strain is the right word; it’s rather like we need to relax to see it.
I usually have to stare and stare at an autostereogram to see the three-dimensional object, and sometimes I give up impatiently. When I finally do se it, the image emerges, or even pops, out at me. Some people who have certain eye conditions can’t see the three-dimensional images because of a lack of eye function.
Concentrate at a point in the middle of the 2D picture. Try not to get distracted by looking around the picture.
Let your eyes relax and look through the picture rather than at it. You want to look at a point behind the picture. You will notice that the picture will go slightly out of focus. This is normal, and in fact, this is what you want to happen. For beginners, a useful way to start would be to look at pictures that have been framed. You can then learn to look beyond the picture by using your reflection as a guide.
Once you notice the 3D image, it gets easier. Try to resist the temptation to refocus onto the 2D picture– you will lose the 3D picture if you do so.
People who have never been able to perceive 3D shapes hidden within an autostereogram find it hard to understand remarks such as, “the 3D image will just pop out of the background, after you stare at the picture long enough”, or “the 3D objects will just emerge from the background”. Unless or until you see it, you can’t imagine what it is like.
A skeptic who can’t see the 3D image might be tempted to write it off as an illusion or an active imagination. The reality of autostereograms with 3D images designed into a flat, two-dimensional image, however, is fact. You can even generate your own autostereograms on the Internet.
Autostereograms and the inability to see the image within the image remind me of the teaching of Jesus on the kingdom of God. People who have gone from atheist or agnostic to believer often describe the switch in similar terms. Sy Garte described a similar experience in his book “The work of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith”. He describes the period of time when he had moved from atheism to agnosticism as follows:
I found myself standing on the shores of a sea of mystery, certain that the waters hid treasures of beauty and goodness, but with no way to see them for myself.
(An excerpt from Sy Garte: Why I Believe in the Resurrection, commenting on his book in Peaceful Science, November 19, 2019) He recalled reading the Gospels when he still subscribed to materialism and atheism. He read them, he says,
only as an exercise to reinforce my atheistic scorn at the stupidity of Christianity. Back then I was focused on the magic, the contradictions, the naiveté of the ignorant who believed in scientifically impossible events like the resurrection.
Years later, no longer convinced that all truth was bounded by the parameters established by materialism and atheism, Sy Garte read the Gospels with an open mind. He “relaxed” his view, and this time, he saw the image within the image:
When I read the Gospels the second time, my mind was open, freed of the ideological certainty of atheism. I still saw the apparent contradictions, but now they appeared as evidence for truth, the kind of differences one would expect in true eyewitness accounts [citation omitted]. I still saw what looked like magic, but now it confirmed for me my new-found conviction that science is not the only pathway to truth. And now I saw the figure of Jesus Christ, and reading His words, I realized that God must have seen me standing on the shore, staring helplessly at the waves. Jesus Christ rose from those waters and held out His hand to me.
Sy Garte uses metaphoric language here. He didn’t actually see Jesus emerge or pop out of the pages, like the hidden image in an autostereogram. The metaphor is apt, though. The experience is the same.
At one point in his life, Sy Garte couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to believe in Jesus. Later, when he had relaxed his embrace of atheism and materialism, Jesus virtually leapt off the pages of the Gospels.
Sy Garte’s experience is far from unique. The lightbulb moment, the dramatic paradigm shift, is common to stories of conversion. The description Jesus gave it, being born again, is beautifully descriptive of the experience many people have had who went from no faith to faith, often very quickly, even suddenly.
These experiences are similar to suddenly being able to see the image in the image of an autostereogram, though the experience of “seeing” and understanding God, Jesus and the kingdom of God is much more dramatic, meaningful, and (of course) life changing. The autostereogram metaphor also makes some sense of the way Jesus described the kingdom of God.
“Earlier this summer, before I decided to take the time to read the three books I have covered in this series on critical race theory, I didn’t feel I really knew enough about it to say anything about it. I had heard a few talking heads on cable news decry it as Marxist and racist in and of itself, but didn’t really know much more than that. After a few people wrote to me and asked me what my view of CRT was and if I’d ever write a few posts on it, though, that is when I decided to read up on it and try to distill what I had learned about it in a short blog series.”
My past concerns about the critics of CRT I echo here: our baseline should be the Word of God, not political, ideological and philosophical standards. If we devolve into non-biblical standards, we loose our saltiness. We lose our distinctiveness as children of God, citizens of the kingdom of God and aliens and strangers in the world.
Because of the unique position of believers in relation to the world – in the world but not of the world – Christians have often staked out claims against injustice, including the abolition movement, while other people ignored the plight of the oppressed. I believe this is (partially) what it means to be salt and light.
Setting captives free was an essential component of the work of Jesus in the world, but it was only a component of his work. Preaching good news to the poor (the first of the things Jesus announced he came to do) is part and parcel of his purpose in the world. (Luke 4:17-20)
Neglect or rejection of the Gospel (the good news) is a chief complaint of critics of the proponents of CRT. Captives are not truly set free without it. Yet, those who would preach the good news cannot ignore the setting of the captives free. Jesus focused on both, and so should we. Thus, I agree with this first caveat of Anderson:
“I think it has to be clearly emphasized that criticism of CRT isn’t a denial of racism in America or a refusal to try to address clear problems in America that stem from our racist past.”
Anderson goes on to state:
“Rather, disagreeing with CRT means disagreeing with the claim that the American free market system and constitutional law is inherently racist and that Marxist principles and a Marxist system is what is needed to eradicate racism for good.”
I don’t disagree with him on the point that the American free market system and constitutional law is not inherently racist, or that Marxist principles are a poor substitute for a governmental system that has elevated more people out of poverty and oppression than other system of law in history. At the same time, I am not going to die on that hill. Calvary is where I will take my stand.
The Gospel spreads and the kingdom of God thrives under any system of government, no matter how good or bad, precisely because it is not of this world. The kingdom of God cannot be equated with any system of human government. It transcends them all.
Anderson goes on to criticize CRT, but he comes back to this, which I think we MUST confront, especially in the body of Christ, who came to breach good news and set the oppressed free:
“[T]he reason we even have CRT, and the reason why we have growing calls for Socialism and Marxism, is because, quite frankly, there still is racial healing to be done and there still are issues of racial injustice to be addressed—and too often those instances have been ignored. America has indeed come a long way in healing racial injustices, but America has still nevertheless failed in certain areas—that is undeniable.”
CRT developed as a critique of an American system that has expressly addressed a history of racism with laws that have produced the promised outcomes of equality and fairness and justice for which people have hoped. It developed as a legal tool to address latent racism – racism that lies below the surface and continues on despite laws that prohibit overt racial behavior.
CRT was not proposed as a Marxist ideal designed to achieve Marxist outcomes. It was an attempt to get at pernicious racial disparities that persist despite laws that expressly outlaw it. Thus, I agree with Anderson when he says:
“I believe [CRT proponents] they have a genuine concern for injustice, and they want to address it.”
People are not our enemies. We can’t forget that, even people who advocate systems we don’t believe in. Even if we count them as enemies, Jesus clearly said we should love them. We in the body of Christ need to take that imperative seriously.
We may might fight against principalities and thoughts which hold people captive, but the people who hold them and and who are influenced by them are not (should not be) our enemies. They are the ones for whom Jesus was willing to leave the 99. They are in the field that is ripe unto harvest.
Again, I don’t personally disagree with his assertion:
“The problem is that they honestly think all that is needed is the implementation of a ‘better system’—the Marxist system. But that is simply detached from historical reality. It reflects the naïve wishful thinking of an ideology that has failed miserably, time and time again.”
But these are secondary matters in relation to the kingdom of God, which is not of this world. The Gospel goes forward in communist China and Russia and in theocratic Iran. The Gospel is not deterred by the systems of human government. It thrives despite them. Sometimes it thrives because of them, as people yearn for the eternity that God put in their hearts.
The Kingdom of God is always contrary to the kingdoms of this world, even free market, constitutional, and democratic kingdoms.
I wholeheartedly agree with Anderson when he says:
“CRT certainly highlights the clear racists policies of America’s past, and it sometimes points out clear instances of racial injustice still around today.”
We should not deny these things. Of all people, followers of Jesus, who is the way, the Truth and the life, should not ignore the truth of the injustice that survives in our world. Not that we can eradicate injustice in a fallen world. Injustice in a fallen world is inevitable, but we should not be any part of it.
For this reason, alone, we dare not ignore injustice, even when the majority of the people who seem to be fighting it are advocating systems of government that tend contrary to our political views.
For this reason, therefore, I suggest that we have more in common with fighters of injustice than members of our own political tribe who stand opposed because we serve a God whose throne is built on a foundation of justice and righteousness.
The nuance of that awkward positions may seem difficult to navigate, but we should be accustomed to awkward positions – being in the world, but not of the world. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways ore not our ways. We can trust Him to lead us through it.
Followers of Christ are going to end up as part of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb… and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God….’” (Rev.7:9) Knowing how our journey ends as children of God, how should we live in this world?
Jesus introduced the kingdom of God to the world and invited the world to “enter” it. Just as the first century Jews were only a portion of the world to whom Jesus extended that invitation, we in the West and in the United States of America are only a portion of the global world Jesus invites to enter God’s kingdom.
Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save the entire world full of people. We might as well get used to the diversity now.
I think it’s easy for us in the US to miss the fact that the global church today doesn’t look like us at all. The “average” Christian in the world today is a 22-year old brown female. Only 12% of the Christians in the world live in North America (including Canada). Only 37.5% of the Christians in the world live in the “west”.
It’s a human tendency to separate from and even to demonize things that are foreign to us. It’s also a human tendency to embrace things that are familiar to us, even to our detriment. Jesus calls us to separate from the world, which is familiar to us, and to embrace God’s kingdom, which is foreign to us in our “flesh” (as Paul calls it).
Jesus calls us to reject the sin that is familiar to us in exchange for His righteousness that is foreign to us. Righteousness is not of us or from us; righteousness is of God and from God.
Thus, Christians are uniquely called to be different from the rest of the world that embraces the familiar (both things of the world, generally, and specific aspects of this worldly specifically, such as gender, race, nationality, etc.). We are called to separate from this world that is familiar to us and to embrace a world that is foreign (the spiritual realm into which we must be born again).
This model of Christian living is demonstrated by Paul and the disciples in carrying out the Great Commission. Paul said that he became all things to all people that he might win some.
Paul quoted pagan poets and philosophers in his address on Mars Hill. (Acts 17) That means he read them and understood them. Thus, he was able to quote them appropriately and use those references that people knew to point them to God. This is because Paul embraced the fact that he was in the world, though he was not of the world.
This is what is means to carry out the Great Commission – to “go into all the world” making disciples. In the case of those disciples, God “encouraged” them with local persecution to scatter to Judea and and beyond. (We don’t always embrace what is foreign and unfamiliar to us willingly!)
We have the same command and challenge in our modern world. We don’t do these things easily or willingly. it takes us way beyond our comfort levels that are defined by what we know and what is familiar to us. When we take up our crosses and follow Jesus, he takes us into foreign territory!
One example of foreign territory is the modern worldview informed by Critical Theory. CRT informs the world on issues of racial injustice. As members of a kingdom comprised of every nation, tribe and tongue, we need to be able to speak into issues of racial injustice, and not just stand aloof.
The events that are unfolding in the United States are troubling from many angles. Many Christians pinned their immediate and long term hopes on Donald Trump. With Biden as President, the fight against the killing of the unborn has been dealt a significant blow.
But there are many other problems. The racial divide, polarization, political fringe groups, extreme rhetoric, threats of violence, conspiracy theories, fake news, increasing control of popular speech by private monopolies of information, an abandonment of all semblance of non-bias by media, our ability to choose our own tailored news, hatred for people who don’t think like us, an unwillingness to show respect, listen and engage in real dialogue – these are things that are deeply troubling in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”.
To my brothers and sisters in Christ, Jesus said we would have tribulation in this world. He didn’t tell us to take up arms and fight it. He said we should follow him, spread the Gospel and make disciples.
His kingdom is not of this world. Jesus didn’t come to empower the Zealots, but to turn them into self-sacrificing servants of God and His kingdom – spreading the Gospel and making disciples.
Islam spreads by the sword. The Gospel spreads by people who wash others’ feet, turn the other cheek and love God, neighbors and even enemies. The Christian wields not a political flag, but a cross that he carries on his own back.
If we are going to fight for the mission of Jesus, our fight should be “to proclaim good news to the poor… to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”. (Luke 4:18-19) This was how Jesus described his own purpose on the day when he stood up in the temple and announced his ministry.