The John Wesley Fellowship began in 1977, with Steve Harper and yours truly being two of the first John Wesley Fellows chosen. I have told the story of Ed Robb and AFTE this past Fall on the blog so I will not repeat it. Here are some of the senior fellows attending the meeting. […]
Jesus was by no means the first Jew to use wisdom speech to talk to people about God. We could point to Nathan’s parable about ewe lamb told to that old adulterer murderer David. What sets Jesus apart is the sheer volume of parables we have coming from his lips, which is one of the things that makes the Gospel of John so strange— Jesus tells almost no parables in John. The parables are literary fictions of course, but they are only one form of wisdom speech Jesus used which includes— proverbs, aphorisms, riddles, one liners, parables, some more allegorical, some less. All of this sort of speech is wisdom speech and is based on metaphor and analogy— the kingdom is like, God is like. Willimon rightly stresses that Jesus deliberately spoke in this oblique way in public. But why? Why, was he so maddeningly indirect. Was he just trying to tease the audiences’ minds into active thought? That is part of it, but there is another part that Willimon misses. Jesus explains in Mk. 4 that like Isaiah, he has been commissioned to talk in ways Israel does not and will not understand…….unless they repent and learn how to hear and see again. This is judgment speech, speech that let’s God’s people know how far adrift they have gone from the divine shore. It is eschatological speech as well, because Jesus is talking about the divine rule of God breaking into their midst, bringing both Good News and also judgment on sin.
Willimon is right that there is an apocalyptic flavor to Jesus’ teaching. It’s understanding requires a revelation, a gift from God. Bare intelligence can’t penetrate it. He is also right that one of the points of the parables is to make clear that God, and the kingdom, and salvation are complex. These are things that can’t be dumbed down, and the parables are the opposite of simple quaint little stories meant to make things easy. On the contrary they are meant to be disturbing, profoundly disturbing. In what way is God like the unjust judge? In what way is God like a Father who readily accepts back a ne’er do well son, and ignores the outrage of his good son? In what way is God like a Samaritan, who would never have been called good by most early Jews? These parables deliberately raise as many questions as they answer. And they all suggest “Jesus is God with us, not God controlled, explained, and tamed by us. Jesus not only spoke in parables; Jesus is a parable.” (p. 30).
Then there is Jesus the party animal, who eats with tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees, not to mention sinful women. Jesus potential to scandalize the pious was seldom more clear than those he was prepared to have dinner with, because meals were in antiquity a way of reinforcing the patriarchal and socially stratified values of those societies— its pecking orders. And Jesus was a profoundly social person. “His life implies that we are fully human, not in our solitude or loneliness, but only through a web of relationships and connections with others, including God….God in Jesus Christ is encountered not through solitary walks in the woods, or even by reading a book, but rather at a mundane dinner table…sharing food and drink with friends.” (pp. 39-40). And then there is that eschatological banquet Jesus keeps talking about where all sorts of unexpected dinner guests, including the least, the last and the lost will replace some of the first, the most, and the found. To say Jesus was unconventional is to say too little. He came to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. Why did Jesus’ dining habits and his scandalous stories cause the religious authorities to gnash their teeth? And yet this all is called Good News, which as Willimon says is more than good advice or even just a truth (p. 48).
In fact, as Willimon stresses Jesus “loves the truth as much as he loves us, and he tells the truth no matter how bad it strings….With Jesus you can’t take the grace without being willing to subject yourself to his disruptive truth.” (p. 50). Willimon is right that the Bible is mainly about God, and only secondarily about us, and what it tells us about God is that he is always intruding, poking, prodding, exhorting, loving, causing trouble, demanding we change, and then offering an extreme makeover by his grace. When is the last time you saw a preacher nearly get stoned for a sermon preached in his hometown church? Yet this happened to Jesus. No psychobabble crowd pleasing self-actualizing nonsense from him. He was as in your face as Stephen Colbert was with Bart Ehrman. And just when you think you have figured Jesus out— he’s the friend of the down and out and underdogs, then he goes and befriends Zaccheus or Matthew the IRS agent. He did not come to pick sides, he came to break down all the barriers and pecking orders male female, rich poor, young old, Jew Gentile, you name it he befriended them all. Jesus had the words of life, which is why some disciples stuck around with him. He didn’t serve up chicken soup for the soul, or nice platitudes from Barney or Mr. Rogers. He didn’t come to give us warm fuzzies or a lift in our step, or put a a silly smile on our faces. He came to set the world on fire in order to set us all free (p. 53). Jesus’ truth is true for all, and its meant not just to be believed, its meant to be obeyed, embodied and enacted as Willimon says.l