October 02, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
That’s probably not a word (or a sound effect) you associate with the parables of Jesus. But it’s more apt than you might think.
Eugene Peterson famously said that parables are narrative time bombs. These are stealthy stories that steal into people’s hearts, confusing them initially, throwing them off balance for a while. After all, at first these seemed like cozy, tame little stories about farmers and seeds, women and bread baking, fathers and sons. People let the stories steal into their hearts and imaginations. They had no defenses up to keep them out. Why would they? These are such nice stories, interesting, vivid, well-told.
But at some later point the “Ah-ha!” moment may arrive as the real meaning of the story suddenly explodes in people’s minds like a time-bomb. The parables were meant to blast people into new awareness, new understandings, new ideas. “Oh my!” people would exclaim, “We thought he was talking about farmers and crops but he was really talking about us and God!!! And we maybe don’t come off looking all that great, either!!”
But if all of the parables were like narrative time-bombs, then I think it’s fair to say the Parable of the Tenants was like a proximity-fuse grenade! In this case, it did not take very long at all before this parable blew up in the faces of those listening to Jesus. In the end, we are told that the Pharisees and other religious leaders in Jerusalem that day knew at once that “Jesus was speaking against them.” It made them furious and they were ready, right then and there, to arrest him and be done with this Jesus once and for all.
Telling parables can get you killed!
This parable is one of only three that appears in all of the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Curiously, some of Jesus’ best-known parables (like the Good Samaritan) occur in one gospel alone but nowhere else. Only the parables of The Sower, The Mustard Seed, and The Tenants get repeated in triplicate in the New Testament. It seems that the synoptic evangelists each concluded that no gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry could be complete without these particular parables being in there somewhere. You could pick and choose among the others but not with these three.
In one sense that is rather surprising, especially considering that these days The Parable of the Tenants is not as familiar or beloved as any number of other parables that did not get repeated. Yet there is something within this story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all perceived was central to the gospel. Perhaps that is because contained within the imagery of this parable is material that points to a key pivot point in salvation history. If we look closely, we will see that Jesus is shifting the focus from Israel alone to the entire world.
The first hint of this comes in the first verse. Verse 33 is pretty detailed when it comes to describing the vineyard. Jesus could have said simply no more than, “Once upon a time a certain man owned a vineyard,” and then gone from there. But in this case Jesus is downright elaborate in mentioning the planting of the vineyard, the wall, the winepress, the watchtower. What’s up with all this detail? That’s not typical of other parables. In Matthew 21, however, vintner-related details fairly pile up. But there is a reason for this: it is an overt allusion to Isaiah 5.
Isaiah 5 contains its own kind of parable in which Israel is compared to a vineyard. In that story a vintner who clearly stood for Yahweh invested lavish amounts of labor and money into his vineyard, anticipating that the end-result of all his fine and hard work would be a rich harvest of lusciously sweet grapes. But when the harvest came, the farmer found that every single vine contained sour grapes, bitter and vile and inedible! So in a fury he plowed the whole thing under.
Isaiah 5 was a prophetic parable pointing forward to the time when God’s vineyard of Israel would be “plowed under” by the Babylonians on account of Israel’s repeated bitter failings to produce the kind of spiritual fruit God was looking for in his chosen people. In other words, the image of Israel as vineyard was used in Isaiah 5 to point forward to a key turning point in God’s dealings with this world. Now in Matthew 21, by so deliberately invoking this same image, Jesus likewise is as much as saying that in the grand scheme of things, a new and significant turning-point would soon be reached.
The vintner-farmer is God. The vineyard is the people of God, the Jews, in Jesus’ day. The tenants who eventually turn on the vineyard’s owner were clearly the religious leaders of the day, and the moment you make that connection, it’s not difficult to see why in the end these folks were so huffy over what Jesus had said! Jesus was clearly saying that the vineyard tenants were on the wrong side of history—of salvation history in this case.
“What do you suppose the owner will do with these tenants?” Jesus asks in the end. Literally the crowd replies, “He will annihilate those evil-evils.” The Greek word for “evil” is piled up twice, as though to say they were the worst of the worse, the doubly evil villains, evil-squared.
It is at this point that you expect Jesus to say something like, “Yes indeed, the owner will come and wipe them out.” But he doesn’t say that. Well, not exactly anyway. Instead he quotes a rather odd verse from Psalm 118 about the stone rejected by the builders becoming the cornerstone after all. You suspect that no one in the crowd that day saw this one coming. What happened to the tenants, the vineyard, the story itself, for goodness sake!? What does a stone have to do with what Jesus had just been talking about?
In terms of imagery, this may be a difficult transition to make. But in terms of the larger theological symbolism contained in the vineyard story, we can see how this cornerstone image fits in perfectly. This entire parable is about rejection. First the tenants reject the owner by rejecting the entire sharecropping arrangement. Then the tenants reject the owner’s emissaries and servants. Finally, they reject even the heir, the owner’s only son. But true to form, God is about to do a double-reversal: the son who got rejected will emerge as a highly powerful figure who will, in turn, reject the rejecters!
But it takes faith to accept that. The problem with the tenants of Israel in Jesus’ day is that they had long since given up on true faith. Practically speaking, and for all intents and purposes, they had decided they could run God’s kingdom without God. So when in history God had tried to redirect them through the prophets, they ignored, battered, and sometimes just killed those prophets. Their insularity was so complete they had concluded that unless someone said things that affirmed what they were already doing and believing, then that person could not represent God. They were so cock-sure they had God cased that they found it easy to reject anyone who did not sing the party line.
And whenever we religious types reach that point vis-à-vis our God, that is a bad, fatal moment indeed.
The gospel writers seemed to savor the delicious irony of salvation emerging from the least likely location. They enjoyed this irony so much, in fact, that the once-obscure text of Psalm 118:22 went on to become the single most-quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. Out of all the thousands of verses in the Old Testament, this little nugget about the rejected stone becoming the head of the corner wins the prize for most frequent New Testament citation. In a quirky way, the verse itself does the very thing it is talking about: the little verse that seemed least among many other verses in the Hebrew Bible emerges on top in the gospels and epistles! You would have expected a different verse to get this kind of attention–perhaps something from the covenant with Abraham, a snippet of a sermon from Moses, one of those soaring prophetic passages from Isaiah, or even Psalm 23.
But no, Psalm 118:22 manages best to convey the gospel’s great reversal of expectations. From lowly and humble beginnings, Jesus would end up being the rejected one whom God would raise up to be the most impressive of all biblical figures. The carpenter’s son from the backwaters of the Roman Empire would turn out to be the cosmic King.
It is a grim fact that the last group admitted to the Country Club typically becomes the loudest voice in making the case to keep out the next group seeking admission. After all, once you make it to the inside of a Members Only club, you want to savor your new status, see it as a key achievement, a notch in your belt, a feather in your cap, a sign that you are now really Somebody. But if you start to let in just anyone—and particularly such-and-such a group—then suddenly your special status starts to feel diminished, watered down, less of a distinction than it had been. The very purpose of having a club is to have a door to shut behind you, to have barriers and walls around you to keep out . . . riff-raff and other undesirables. If you don’t have standards to bar certain people from admission, then what’s the sense of having a club to begin with?
This is human nature, I’m afraid. And it’s also the reason that when a religion starts to see itself as a club, it’s pretty much game over in terms of reflecting and incarnating the loving heart of God.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
When preaching on Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments, there are multiple directions to go in a sermon. It’s a bit challenging to preach on all of the commandments at once, though a way can be found to do that, of course. But for this sermon starter, I have chosen to ponder these famous verses and this well-known story through the lens of—and under the overall heading of—having proper reverence for God, which in many ways is a theme that permeates this part of Exodus.
Reverence is something we see very little of these days. Increasingly so is basic respect. Ours is a society that will lampoon, satirize, and poke fun of just about anyone and anything. In fact, the higher up a person goes politically, the more likely it is that he or she will become the target of the irreverent humor that has become the staple of late-night comedians. Often these days you may hear someone ask, “Is nothing sacred anymore?” and the answer is clearly “No.”
As Roger Shattuck notes in his book Forbidden Knowledge, it seems that nothing is any longer considered taboo. In older societies the things that were deemed taboo usually were places where holiness and pollution were not yet differentiated. That is to say, you could better avoid something altogether rather than run the risk of, even accidentally, mixing up the sacred with the profane. Because confusion (and probably lots of social and personal harm) could result if people were not careful. But even a quick glance at television reveals that there are no taboos in American society. In the name of free speech we allow anyone to say anything he or she likes. There is no subject, act, or person we dare not approach. Once you lose your sense for the sacred, you also lose your fear that you might, even accidentally, pollute that holy thing to the harm of many.
And so reverence withers, too. A sense for majesty and the mystery of the divine fades. We can scarcely imagine encountering something so grand that it would either stun us into respectful silence or cause us to cover our eyes because we deem ourselves to be unworthy of seeing something that is too beautiful for us.
All of this is prelude to our look at a key part of Exodus 20. A good bit of this chapter and the preceding one gets consumed with God’s very careful regulations of the whys and wherefores of keeping the people off the holy mountain. Dire warnings are given as to what would happen to the man, woman, child, or goat that touched the mountain. Detailed instructions are given as to how to fence the mountain so that no one would get too close even by accident. Ironically, however, it turns out that there is no chance whatsoever that anyone would get too close! For in the end Moses and Aaron do not need to beat the people back but rather they need to encourage the people not to stay too far away! If anything, the people were too terrified to come anywhere near God.
Perhaps this can provide us with a reminder of something we tend to forget these days. Of course, as Christians we don’t want to scare people away from God. As Christians our idea of reverence for God means something other than the kind of terror that led the Israelites to keep their distance from Sinai. But that is why Exodus 20:20 is so intriguing.
Because there Moses says something that at first blush looks contradictory. Moses himself had strung up the ancient equivalent of that bright yellow “Do Not Cross” tape that police use to cordon off a crime scene. The people needed to stay behind the tape. Again, however, once God’s presence descended on Sinai, keeping the people behind the tape was not a problem. So in verse 20, after the people beg Moses to meet God so they won’t have to, Moses says, “Do not be afraid because God has come here like this so that your fear of God will keep you from sin.”
Don’t be afraid.
But then again, be afraid.
Moses says both.
But perhaps this was a way to say that although the people needed to have a healthy level of fear where God is concerned, they did not need to fear God too much. I suspect reverence lies somewhere near the midpoint between complete terror and chummy over-familiarity. Reverence exists at the intersection of love and respect, of grace and awe. God does not want to terrify us to the point of stupor yet he does want to impress us enough that we will know that this God is not someone to be trifled or toyed with in some casual manner. At least part of our motivation to serve this God is exactly because we take him so seriously.
But if that is so, then generating reverence requires at least an inkling of the very terror that, left unchecked, would make you run for your life. God’s grandeur gets your reverential attention, God’s love keeps your fear in bounds. God’s holiness means you need a fence in front so that you do not presume too much in approaching God. But God’s grace builds a fence behind you, too, so that you won’t run away.
Moses tried to allay the terrifying side of fear so as to make room for a nuanced and respectful fear. But as verse 21 tells us, the people nevertheless remained “at a distance.” But things could not remain that way forever. Because a proper piety is one that helps us to remain reverently humble before God’s power and yet it keeps us close enough to this same God so that he can embrace us in his everlasting arms.
Reverence is a balancing act. In Exodus 20 the people fall short of reverence because they are scared to death of the sheer might of God’s presence. And so they stay “at a distance.” But there is one other famous portion of the Bible where people are said to stay “at a distance” and it comes near the end of the gospel when the Son of God is lifted up on a cross. Mark in particular makes clear that when Jesus was lifted up to die, all those who had once been close to him remained afar off, “at a distance” as Mark puts it.
So there you have it from the Old and New Testaments: there are two things that could frighten us into keeping our distance: one is the presence of God in all its splendor and terror and the other is the complete absence of God in the dereliction of the One who cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?” Both the fullness of God’s presence and the Godforsaken sense of his absence can be too much for us.
When the Lord God Yahweh descended on Sinai, there was smoke on the mountain, and it got the people’s attention. In these latter days our God has come to us through Jesus who ended up dead on a cross. Yet all the splendor, glory, might, and fierceness of God is within also Jesus.
As the disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration, as the apostle John saw in his apocalyptic visions in the Book of Revelation, Jesus contains the effulgence of glory. When he opens his mouth, it is the sound of rushing waters that is heard. When he pulls back his cloak, it is the light brighter than a thousand suns that blazes forth. Yet when he looks you straight in the eyes with his piercing gaze, what you see is not just fierce intelligence but also the font of all love, mercy, grace, and compassion. His divine smile draws you in as you reverently worship him and fellowship with him in the splendor of holiness and in the delicious knowledge that this majestic God is also your dearest Friend.
There is mystery enough in all that to keep us humbly reverent forever.
Some years back the American Film Institute conducted a big survey to determine the top 100 heroes in cinematic history. Happily (and somewhat surprisingly) the number one movie hero was not some gun-toting, violent figure but instead the character of Atticus Finch from the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck played the role of Finch and he did so with a kind of noble simplicity that managed to convey a tremendous amount of moral heft, gravity, and power. In the story Atticus Finch is an attorney who defends a black man against a false rape charge made by a white woman. Although he ultimately loses the case, Finch throws himself into that trial with such ardor, compassion, and conviction that he wins the reverential respect of the entire black community.
The one scene in that movie that always makes tears leap to my eyes comes after the unjust guilty verdict is handed down by the all-white jury. The trial is over and so the main floor of the courtroom has emptied out. But the balcony, where the black people of the segregated community had to sit, is still packed and with every single person up there standing silently and as if standing at attention. The only white person up there—and the only one still sitting—is Atticus’ daughter, Scout. While Atticus silently packs up his briefcase at the defense table, one black man nudges Scout and says, “Stand up, Miss Scout, stand up!” The child asks, “How come?” And the answer comes back, “Your father’s passing by.” And as Atticus Finch exits the courtroom, every black person in the balcony stands reverently before this white man whom they have come to respect and adore.
Author: Stan Mast
One scholar of the Psalter calls Psalm 19 “the problem child Psalm.” He calls it that because it doesn’t fit any of the established genres of the Psalter. Only Psalms 1 and 119 are like Psalm 19. Further, some scholars are pretty sure that Psalm 19 was originally two Psalms, a nature hymn (verses 1-6) and a Torah poem (verses 7-10), now cobbled together. The concluding verses (11-14) also seem like a totally new poem, an obviously tacked on prayer that attempts to make Psalm 19 a unified whole, an offering of praise to the God named Yahweh. According to some experts Psalm 19 is not really a unified composition.
But Rolf Jacobsen finds a unifying theme in the concept of “word” or “speech.” Thus, verses 1-6 tell us about the inaudible words of the cosmos that praise God day and night. Verses 7-10 focus on the tangible words of Torah that promise great blessings to those who live by those words. And verses 11-14 are the Psalmist’s faithful words of prayer. Psalm 19, then, is a poem of praise focused on the Word of God in both nature and Scripture. The Psalmist offers it to God, knowing full well that he is a mere mortal and, even more, a sinner who needs grace from the God glorified in the Psalm.
In my Dutch Reformed tradition, nature is called “the second Book” of divine revelation, Scripture being the first Book. Here’s how the Belgic Confession puts in Article 2: “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God: his eternal power and his divinity…. Second, [God] makes himself known to us more openly by his holy and divine Word….” Psalm 19 could have been written by the man who composed that 16th Century confession, but the superscription attributes this Psalm to David, who spent his early years out under the stars and his later years obeying God’s law (with some notable exceptions). In this Psalm David praises the God whose glory is proclaimed by nature and whose law shows the way a believer ought to live.
John Calvin called the universe “the theater of God’s glory,” and he probably got that idea from Scripture passages like this Psalm. Verse 1 gives us the theme of the first 6 verses: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hand.” Note the profuse language used to describe what theologians call “general revelation.” The revelation of God in nature is not a single word, or a small paragraph, or a sermonette. Nature “declares, proclaims, pours forth, displays.” A person would have to be deaf and blind to miss the revelation of God in the cosmos. Indeed, a thousand years later, Paul would say that such general revelation is so clear and overwhelming that all human beings are without excuse when they choose to worship and serve other gods that the God of Scripture (Romans 1:21).
The problem with general revelation is that it is wordless. At least that’s how older versions of Psalm 19 translated verse 3. “They have no speech, there are no words, no sound is heard from them.” God’s revelation in nature is inaudible. The NIV translates verse 3 in another way, emphasizing not the inaudibility of general revelation, but the universality of it. “There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the earth.” Thus, everyone on earth knows about God from his revelation in nature, but that revelation is without specific verbal content.
As a result, the most anyone can learn from this general revelation is that there is a God who is eternal and powerful. Note that Psalm 19 does not use the personal name for God in this first section. God is simply God, a generic God, not a personal God to whom humans can relate properly. In the next section, God is called Yahweh, that personal covenantal name for the God whose glory is proclaimed by the universe. Studying only nature, humans will not be able to arrive at a personal relationship with God, because, as one scholar says, “What we learn from nature is mysterious, elusive, oblique.” Thus, human beings are inveterately religious because of the universality of general revelation. But without special revelation they will be inaccurately, idolatrously religious (again see Romans 1:18-25). We can know God’s glory from nature, but not God’s grace.
So, we should praise and thank God for giving us that special revelation, which the Old Testament called Torah. As magnificent as the sun, moon, and stars may be, that general revelation is now flawed by sin. Thus, the whole creation groans under the curse of sin (Romans 8). There is now decay, and suffering, and death. Because nature is “red in tooth and claw,” it isn’t a perfect revelation of God for us sinful humans. That’s why the Psalmist continues on in the paean of praise. “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”
This next section on the perfection of God’s written revelation is an important corrective for our nature loving culture. “I can worship God better on a mountain than I can in church.” “I feel closer to God when I walk through woods than when I’m studying the Bible.” “Who needs the Bible when we have the Grand Canyon?” Not true, says David. Nature can fill you with a general feeling of awe and wonder, a sense of the numinous. But it can’t tell you what God is like in his person; it can’t lead you to a personal relationship with God; it can’t show you how to live; and, most of all, it can’t save you. For such blessings we need the written Word.
Even as the sun is life giving in a physical way, the Scripture is life giving in various spiritual ways. In some of the most magnificent poetry ever written, the Psalmist praises the Law with a careful schema: a synonym for the law (Torah, statutes, precepts, commands, ordinances), an adjective or quality describing the law (perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, sure), and an action that the law performs (reviving the soul, making wise the simple, giving joy to the heart, giving light to the eyes). Scripture can bless us in ways Nature never can. Indeed, the Psalmist trumpets the superiority of God’s written words by naming two of the most delightful elements in nature, namely, gold and honey. God’s words in Scripture are “more precious than gold… [and] sweeter than honey….”
The one thing the Law cannot do is save us from our sins. The law can warn us about sin and its consequences (“by them your servant is warned”). And it can make life much better than it would be without the law (“in keeping them is great reward”). If we read and heed the Word of God in Scripture, life will be rich and full. The problem is that we don’t read enough or heed always.
Thus, the Psalmist ends his poem about God’s dual revelations with a direct plea for grace. Even with God’s Word in our possession, we are still sinners. Often, we don’t know our own sin. Thus, the Psalmist prays, “Who can discern his error? Forgive my hidden faults.” And he acknowledges that even the most holy person might fall into “willful sin,” deliberate, high handed sin. Such sin is highly dangerous; it can cut us off from the assembly of God’s people (Numbers 15:30-31). Only God can keep us from committing such sin. Our best effort is not enough. Only the grace of God can break the power of sin, so that sin does not “rule over me.” Only the grace of God can transform the filthy rags (Isaiah 64:4) of our best efforts (like this lovely poem) into something that is “pleasing in [Yahweh’s] sight.”
The Psalm ends with a prayer for grace. And it confesses the awesome truth that the magnificent God who reveals himself in nature and the merciful God who reveals himself in Scripture is “my Rock and my Redeemer.” That last word is pregnant with meaning. It is the Hebrew goel, meaning kinsman redeemer. A goel was someone to whom a helpless person was related and who had the wherewithal to rescue that needy person. Think of Boaz rescuing Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi in the book of Ruth. Because of God’s revelation in Scripture, we know that our God is not merely a generic Deity, a Force that is with us, an Idea to be contemplated, a Being to fear. God is a goel named Yahweh who has saved his people by his gracious actions in history, the most glorious of which were the Incarnation of Yahweh’s Son and the Atonement won by that Son’s death and resurrection.
Psalm 19 sings the praises of this revealing and redeeming God. In the process, this Psalm addresses two of the great heresies in history. The first has to do with wrong ideas about the God who reveals himself in nature. In the ancient Near East, everyone worshipped the gods of nature, the chief of which was the Sun. But Psalm 19 points out that these nature gods are not gods at all, but are simply the creations of the One True God. Even the mighty Sun lives in a tent pitched by the Creator God. In the modern West, the study of nature has led to a de-sacralization of nature. When we study the heavens with our advanced tools, we conclude that those heavenly bodies aren’t gods. In fact, many conclude that there is no God at all. Psalm 19 puts ancient and modern pagans in their place. Nature points to the One and Only Creator of all that is.
But we can’t truly know the Creator without his Torah, God’s revelation of his way and his person. Just be careful how you treat that revelation. I am alluding here to the second heresy that Psalm 19 corrects. Throughout the history of God’s people, there have been legalists who think the Law of God can save them. No, says Psalm 19. However valuable and life affirming Torah is, it cannot save us, because our sin makes us unable to keep it perfectly. We can only be saved by the grace of God embodied in Jesus Christ. As Rolf Jacobsen put it: “the law is God’s good gift, but it is not designed as a means to salvation; rather it is designed as a guide for the earthly pilgrimage.”
As such, the Law of God is necessary, contrary to the argument of the antinomians. That heresy is the opposite of legalism. Rather than treating the law as a way of salvation, the antinomians think it is utterly unnecessary. But Psalm 19 tells us in glorious language all the wonderful things the law can do for us, if we are saved and empowered by the grace of God in Christ. The same Paul who said, “no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law,” also said, “the law is holy,” and “the commandment is holy, righteous and good.” (Romans 3:19 and 7:12) And he concluded that God sent his Son to condemn sin, “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature by according to the Spirit.” (Romans 8:3 and 4)
Keep those two recurring heresies in mind, and you can preach this “problem child Psalm” with great relevance and gospel fervor.
It wasn’t just the ancient Near East that believed in the divinity of the heavenly bodies and their power over our lives. While not exactly naming the Sun, Moon and Stars as gods, folks who believe in horoscopes look to the positioning and alignment of those heavenly bodies for life advice. And mega-events like the recent total solar eclipse arouse great enthusiasm about the possibility of life change. One person interviewed in national TV before the eclipse opined that the event might bring a whole new day to America, causing a renewal of hope and goodness in our broken and desperate country.
On the other hand, who can ever forget the scornful words of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. As he orbited the earth very early in the race to space, he said, “Well, here I am in the heavens and I see no signs of God.” Both the superstitious and the skeptical need to hear the message of Psalm 19. The heavens are not God, but they do proclaim his God’s glory.
Author: Scott Hoezee
What happens to your life after you encounter something so shocking, it both retrospectively and prospectively changes everything you ever knew or thought you knew? In some ways, Paul’s words in Philippians 3 are an extended answer to such a question.
As Paul begins this third chapter, it quickly becomes apparent that like so many of the congregations in the early church, so also the congregation in Philippi had come into contact with a group of Jewish teachers who were proclaiming that salvation would come only to those who followed certain strict rules, the chief one of which was that all males had to be circumcised.
Since the Philippian church was made up primarily of Gentiles, it is likely that very few of the Christians there had ever been circumcised. And yet Paul says in verse 3 (just prior to the start of this Lectionary text) that the Philippians have already been circumcised. What these other teachers were offering, therefore, was not salvation but mutilation–a mutilation not just of their bodies but even worse of their faith. “These other teachers want to carve up not just your body but your faith. They want to make you believe that what they can do to your bodies with their scalpels is better than what God can do to your hearts with his Son.”
These are strong words. After all, for at least two millennia circumcision had been a sacred, biblically mandated sacrament for God’s people. All his life Paul had also been raised to see this as a sign of God’s covenant–a sign that began already with Abraham. And yet now Paul calls it “mutilation!” Why does Paul say something so extreme? Because he knows that in the light of Jesus, circumcision had become a way to displace grace. And in order to make this point as powerfully as possible, Paul makes clear that he is speaking from experience.
Starting in verse 4 Paul says, “I know how futile it is to pin your salvation on outward ceremonies and laws because I spent most of my life doing this: I kept all the rules, I had an excellent religious pedigree, I was so convinced that keeping the law was the only way to heaven that I persecuted the Christians who thought otherwise. But then I met Jesus and I knew in an instant that all my shining religious accomplishments were no more than a pile of manure!”
The word translated as “rubbish” in verse 8 is a very strong word. This is the only place in the entire Bible where it occurs, and small wonder: most commentators say that it is a raw, gross, barnyard-type word that refers to excrement. The revelation that God’s own Son had to die in order to secure salvation turned Paul’s world upside-down. “And to think,” Paul writes, “that at one time I thought handing God this pile of manure was going to be my entrance ticket to the kingdom!”
Paul then goes on to say that now the only thing he wants to do is to know more about Jesus. “What’s important is not that God knows what you’ve done but that you know what God has done!!” For most of his life Paul had been saying to God, “Look at me! Look at me! See what I’ve done.” But now all Paul can say is “Look at Jesus! Look at Jesus! See what he’s done!”
Paul knew for sure that salvation is by grace alone. Because at one time Paul had actually beaten up, arrested, belittled and even killed Jesus’ followers. If Paul were to meet those folks now, he’d hug and kiss them as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. But Paul could never forget that once in his life, he kicked those brothers in the ribs and dragged those sisters to jail by their hair. What horrible memories! So if Paul seems a bit vehement in proclaiming grace, it’s only because he knows from his own sordid experience how destructive it is to believe that you can pay your own way to heaven. He wanted nothing more to do with talk about what we must do in order to make God love us.
Or does he? Because Paul no sooner finishes this stellar passage on salvation as only a gift, and he instantly launches into verses 12ff in which he writes about the need to press on, sprinting like a runner for the finish line in order to attain the goal of getting a better grip on Jesus. Suddenly it seems like we’re right back to square one in talking about all the things that we need to do for our salvation. But I thought Paul had just dispensed with that kind of talk by chalking up salvation to the sheer gift of God! How could Paul so quickly pivot from talking about the end of human striving to talking about human striving all over again? How is Paul NOT being inconsistent here?
Because the truth of God that hits home with us through the cross is so evocative, so all-consuming that it inevitably must and will change how we look at everything.
In the Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene gives us a wide-angle look at that enormous military cemetery near Normandy. There in that now-quiet (but once unspeakably bloody) place stand row upon row upon row of white crosses and stars of David.
When you look at all those grave markers, you cannot help but be numbed by how many people had to die to battle the evil of the Nazis. So many crosses mark the sacrifice of those who fought just one particular incarnation of evil. Small wonder that to fight all evil, to wipe out every bad thing that has ever happened or could ever happen, it took a cross on which no less than God himself died. Even to begin grasping what Jesus’ cross means is to go numb.
How could a true appreciation of the cross fail to change us in every way? How could we look on that central symbol of our faith and not want to respond in a way somehow worthy of it? We can’t earn it, but we can try to live in a way that shows how aware we are of what Jesus died to fight.
We Christians have long been a peculiar bunch, celebrating and singing about the death of our leader and God. To take a horrid and bloody instrument of capital punishment and turn it into jewelry and logos for church stationary is profoundly odd. If you saw some teenager walking down the sidewalk dressed in black with a necklace featuring an electric chair and earrings in the shape of a man dangling at the end of a hangman’s noose, you’d cross over the other side of the street! And probably most of us are sickened by the folks who hold parties outside of a prison on the night some well-known criminal is executed.
Yet for centuries we’ve done the same thing, turning the Friday of Jesus’ death into a day we call “good” and making the instrument of his execution a rallying point of joy and celebration. We’ve not lost sight of the bane and sorrow of the cross, but with Paul we now know it’s a precious bane and a liberating sorrow. When you watch a film like Saving Private Ryan, you see so many soldiers chewed up and blown to bits by the evil that grips this world. And you realize that just that has been happening ever since humanity fell into sin–there’s been no end to the decimation, the disintegration, the decay. Somebody had to step in to snap those cycles and rescue us from all that. Somebody did. “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my soul, my all.”
Fred Craddock used to tell the story of a missionary family in China who was forced to leave the country sometime after the communists took over. One day a band of soldiers knocked on the door and told this missionary, his wife, and children that they had two hours to pack up before these troops would escort them to the train station. They would be permitted to take with them only two hundred pounds of stuff. Thus began two hours of family wrangling and bickering–what should they take? What about this vase? It’s a family heirloom, so we’ve got to take the vase. Well, maybe so, but this typewriter is brand new and we’re not about to leave that behind. What about some books? Got to take a few of them along. On and on it went, putting stuff on the bathroom scale and taking it off until finally they had a pile of possessions that totaled two hundred pounds on the dot.
At the appointed hour the soldiers returned. “Are you ready?” they asked. “Yes.” “Did you weigh your stuff?” “Yes, we did.” “Two hundred pounds?” “Yes, two hundred pounds on the dot.” “Did you weigh the kids?” “Um, . . . no.” “Weigh the kids!” And in an instant the vase, the typewriter, and the books all became trash. Trash! None of it meant anything compared to the surpassing value of the children.
Craddock has used this story to illustrate the power of what he calls “the moment of truth.” Sometimes events crash into our lives in so shocking a way that we are instantly forced to view all of life in a new light. Suddenly what had previously been of value to us comes to mean absolutely nothing–we’re only too happy to leave it behind.
That is, in essence, what happened to Paul once he met the real Jesus Christ. His former life and all its glittering accomplishments: Trash!