“You’ve been given the gift of knowing the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus replied, “but they haven’t been given it. Anyone who already has something will be given more, and they will have plenty. But anyone who has nothing- even what they have will be taken away! That’s why I speak to them in parables, so that they may look but not see, and hear but not understand or take it in.” -Matthew 13:12 (Translation by N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)
So we’re back to our “weird sayings of Jesus” series, and this one may top the list for me. Maybe you can identify: the claim that those who have something will be given more, and those who have little will lose even that, inflames my innate sense of justice. If you’re a parent then you know what I mean. Try putting five M&M’s in front of your two-year-old and one M&M in front of your five-year-old- and then take the one M&M away from your five-year-old and give it to your two-year-old. The ensuing protest will make you wish you had never tried the sick experiment, as will the call from Defax citing emotional abuse.
So there is something downright weird if not deeply insulting and disturbing about Jesus’ claim here- maybe precisely because it overturns our human understandings of fairness. The question is, what can Jesus possibly mean when he says this? What is he getting at?
And here again context becomes important. Just one verse later Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah, who was speaking to a people who had plugged their ears to God’s voice. Isaiah’s message, like that of all the prophets, brought the life-giving promise of redemption and restoration, but in this case, judgment was to come first. The great tree that was God’s people would have to be cut down- quite literally “stumped”- before it could grow strong, flowering branches. New life could only arise after Israel had been humbled by her waywardness and misdeeds (Isaiah 6:9-13). Budding, prosperous growth? This would have to come from the stump.
Jesus’ words here contain a warning then about the parabolic nature not only of his stories but of his life itself. If you want to know me, you have to listen carefully, Jesus seems to be saying; and if my words and actions are falling on deaf ears then chances are you have not been listening at all; chances are you have resigned yourself to be one of the sick trees in need of a good, painful trim.
Atlanta is known for its big, leafy trees. We have a couple in our backyard. This summer one of them began to lean a bit too closely over our next-door neighbor’s roof, in addition to showing signs that it was rotting from the inside-out. We knew that it was time for a painful pruning- an experience that would be as painful for the tree as it would be for our bank account.
I researched a number of local tree cutting businesses, including one that called itself “The Tree Cowboy.” After watching a bit of the ensuing operation, I could appreciate the name’s significance: you have to lasso the tree and then one of the braver “cowboys” has to climb up into the branches with a large trimmer and saw away, all the while perilously perched some fifty feet above the ground. (I was glad we were paying somebody else to do this.)
But that dear old tree with the long, overhanging, leafy branches in no time became a stump: a thorough cutting was the tree’s judgment for forsaking good neighborliness by selfishly crowding out the next-door neighbors’ sky and threatening to one day topple over onto their house. And we were assured that in the end, our tree, despite its humbler, less regal appearance, was now actually healthier- that its rotted stump might now have a chance to live again when it otherwise would have been condemned to die.
This is Jesus’ message, too. When we forget to love God and our neighbors as our selves, we may grow proud and strong for a time, but judgment awaits us. We will be cut down to real size. The very little we have will be taken away.
The good news is that God’s judgment never comes without restoration. We know this from Isaiah and the prophets. If we fast-forward just a bit to Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can see this same pattern in the life of One who chose to be cut down for us. In our place. So that we would not have to bear the full brunt of the tree-cutting operation. Jesus, you might say, became the stump so that we would not have to.
He also, in rising from the dead, became the life-giving tree, or “vine” (John 15:5). And when we dwell in Jesus, and abide in His life-giving presence by the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to experience the “more” that awaits us. More strength. More life-giving goodness. More freedom to be who we were made to be.
This is the great mystery of the Gospel- that in dying we live- and the older I get, the more I suspect this same cruciform pattern shapes the reality of all of life, including the universe itself. It is what great poets, theologians and scientists alike have marveled at. Take these lines from the nineteenth century German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his “The Holy Longing,” for example:
Tell a wise person, or else keeps silent,
Because the massman will mock it right away.
I praise what is truly alive,
what longs to be burned to death.
In the calm water of the love-nights,
where you were begotten, where you have begotten,
a strange feeling comes over you
when you see the silent candle burning.
Now you are no longer caught
in the obsession with darkness,
and a desire for higher love-making
sweeps you upward.
Distance does not make you falter,
now, arriving in magic, flying,
and finally, insane for the light,
you are the butterfly and you are gone.
And so long as you haven’t experienced
this: to die and so to grow,
you are only a troubled guest
on the dark earth.
I suspect that everything in life is somewhere in this process of dying and being reborn- as are we. Our only choice is to resist or surrender to this all-encompassing reality. When we resist, the very little we have to begin with burns up with the rest of the timber. We see ourselves in the face of “only a troubled guest on the dark earth.” But when we surrender, we join ourselves to that great, cosmic work of redemption- much like the “higher love-making” to which Goethe refers- that begins and ends in Jesus Christ. And this is the “more” that Jesus promises, which is really more of life itself. In the spirit of T.S. Eliot, who said “to make an end is to make a beginning,” may this New Year be one of living into the more that God holds for us.
Read more of Beliefnet’s New Year’s quotes here: http://www.beliefnet.com/Love-Family/Holidays/New-Year/New-Year-Quotes.aspx?p=4#ixzz1iUb02bcB