God is Like That

The God of Scripture has this wonderful way of showing up just as we thought the story was ending, and by showing up, continuing the story, giving the story a more interesting ending than the drama would have had, had there not been a God who loves to raise the dead. A large degree of optimism is warranted by the biblical evidence.

A farmer needs workers for his vineyard (Matthew 20). So he arises early, goes out and finds some willing workers to harvest his grapes, agreeing with them on the usual daily wage. An invitation has been offered and accepted. End of story.

But as is so often with Jesus, it isn’t the end of the story. Midmorning we are surprised to find the farmer back downtown, hiring more workers for his vineyard, agreeing to pay them “what’s right.” At noon, mid-afternoon, one hour before quitting time, the farmer is out wheeling and dealing, seemingly unable to rest until everyone in town is working in his vineyard. And Jesus says, God’s kingdom is like that.

Peter, the premier disciple, in the Upper Room, at the end, promises, “Though everyone else desert you, I will not desert you!” Jesus predicts that Peter will fall away before morning. The soldiers appear and drag Jesus away for death. Peter, with the others, scurries away. Midnight finds him warming himself by a charcoal fire. There a little serving girl asks him about Jesus and devastates his resolve. Peter denies Jesus not once but thrice and melts into tears at his failure.

Sometime later Peter and the other disciples have returned to fishing. In the morning, as the sun rises, they see a figure on the beach, cooking over a charcoal fire. He graciously invites Peter to breakfast. It is none other than the Lord who presides over this meal. And then the Lord looks into this betrayer’s face and commissions him to “feed my sheep.” The story isn’t over until God says it’s over.

God is like that.

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Once upon a time, there was a rich man (and you know how we despise the rich) who got word that his manager was pilfering from him. So he summoned the little guy for an audit.

“What’s this I hear? Show me the books!”

“Er, Boss, uh, nothin’ would please me more than to show you the books—I need to do a few . . . calculations.”

The little weasel thinks to himself, “I’m too proud to beg and too weak to do any real work. What am I to do? I’ve got it! I’ll call in my master’s debtors and have them write down their debts. They’ll be so grateful that, when my master sacks me, I can go to them for help.”

Thus, the swindle begins. Each of the debtors is called in and asked, “You owe the master $1,000? Let’s mark that down to $250. How you like them numbers?”

Huge sums of money are written off.

Then comes the day of judgment. Now the little wretch will get what his thievery deserves. The dishonest manager presents the cooked books to the master. The master responds with, “You . . . you genius you! Wow! What wonderful initiative. What commercial creativity. What innovative book keeping. I wish all my people were as smart in looking after their future.”

Now, what kind of Savior would have told a story like that to people like us? (Yep, he really did tell this story.)

Did you hear the one about the man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who was mugged, beaten, stripped naked, and left to die like a dog in a ditch?

Now, by chance, down the road comes a priest, a religious official, a man who makes his living off of God—and you know how we all despise clergy. He espies the man bleeding, lying helpless in the ditch, and the priest . . . passes by on the other side.

Then comes down the road a pious but not priggish, religious but not showy, ordinary Methodist person who, catching a whiff of the now putrefying mess in the ditch, and being religious and therefore quite a cautious sort of person . . . passes by on the other side.

Imagine you are the man in the ditch. You’ve lost a lot of blood. Time is running out. With your last ounce of energy you look down that hot, dusty road and see coming toward you—a nice-looking, spiritual but not fanatical, probably Republican, traditional-values person like you? No. You see a despised, good-for-nothing, racially impure, theologically uninformed Samaritan. Your last best hope is a man whom you hate.

And despite your weak protests—“it’s only a flesh wound. I’m OK, I’m OK”—this lousy Samaritan rips up his designer suit, lays your bleeding carcass on the fine leather seats of his Porsche, takes you to the hospital, shells out all of his credit cards, and tells them to spare no expense in your salvation.

“Go and do likewise,” says Jesus.

Is this a joke? Parables, these pithy, strange little stories from everyday life, are the most distinctive—and peculiar—aspect of the teaching of Jesus. Parables are close cousins of another distinctive literary form: the joke. Mark says that Jesus never said anything in public that wasn’t a parable. There are religious teachers who, when asked a theological question, respond with thoughtful, general principles, high-sounding, serious and uplifting. Muhammad and Dr. Phil leap to mind.

Why, Jesus? Why do you explain God with unexplained stories, most of which lack neat endings or immediately apparent points? It’s as if Jesus says that God is not met through generalities and abstractions; God is met amid the stuff of daily life, in the tug and pull of the ordinary. Yet God is usually encountered, if the parables have it right, in ways that are rarely self-evident, obvious, or with uncontested meaning. In parables, the joke is on us.

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Scripture delights in a surplus of meaning; it revels in eluding our interpretive grasp. Even after we have applied our very best and most reliable methods of interpretation, there is still more to be said about a given text, still more meaning to be spoken, still something left over to be revealed to us upon later reading, still one more sermon to be preached on “the real meaning of Christmas,” thank God. Thus Scripture engenders interpretive humility, particularly among modern people who enjoy grasping and comprehending everything. Indeed, the very elusiveness of some Scripture is itself an encouragement, a catalyst to human imagination, teasing us toward itself, beckoning us to use our God-given abilities to decipher and to understand. Thus Karl Barth compared the style of Genesis to the vast, too rich, uncontainable novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Scripture requires the activity of the Holy Spirit to speak. Words become the Word by the empowering presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Modernity taught that most rational human beings, regardless of background, training, or character, were perfectly capable of unaided understanding, perfectly able to grasp and comprehend everything in the world simply by the use of reason. Scripture frustrates such limited knowing. Scripture opens itself up to us through the work of the Holy Spirit, whom we cannot rationalize or control, and modernity is high on control and rationalization. Thus, interpretation of Scripture is a communal, pneumatic affair—a work of grace—requiring considerably more than the lone, reasoning reader.

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We would know nothing about the Trinity, redemption in Jesus, or the work of grace through the Holy Spirit if God had not given us Scripture. Christian doctrine is a product of the church’s encounter with a group of ancient writings that were compiled over a four thousand-year period, none of which are younger than nearly two thousand years. The church is sustained, encouraged, and at the same time severely criticized and challenged by the very same Scripture that the church produced. We meet Christ in Scripture in a way that is singular and fecund. In our encounters with Scripture we believe we hear the voice, see the ways, and receive the guidance of the living God.

Scripture was produced by communities of faith who had experienced God’s presence and interaction with them in vivid ways. Something undeniable and real had happened to them, and now they wanted to tell everyone the news. Not that all their testimony was uniform or rendered in the same way. In fact, some of the diversity of the testimony is a sort of proof that the events they were trying to relate were so mind-boggling and boundary-breaking that they were very difficult to put into speech. We are the beneficiaries of their testimony; we are the result of the encounter that their testimony provokes in each succeeding generation:

We declare to you . . . , what we have heard, what we have seen . . . , what we have . . . touched with our hands, concerning the word of life. . . . We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

It is a principle of faithful Christian doctrine that we try hard to make no theological statement that does not arise out of and is in turn answerable to Scripture. In theology, ideas and concepts that can claim no other source than fertile human imagination are otherwise known as heresy— God talk that originates in ourselves rather than in Scripture. That’s one reason why after the Articles of Religion speak of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the very next topic is “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation”, a statement that claims that the Bible “containeth all things necessary to salvation.” Lest you think of theology as a complicated affair, something that you can never hope to figure out, Article 5 reassures you that everything anyone really needs to know in order to be with God is graciously given in the Bible.We need not rummage around elsewhere for revelation. It’s all here, more than we’ll ever be able to process in a lifetime of sermons, all that we need to know of God and more.

Today, when popular novels and movies come forth claiming to have exposed some secret knowledge, a story of some sinister church plot that has now been revealed, it’s good to know that, while such claims sometimes make for a good story, the church loves us enough to reassure us that there are not two classes of Christians—those who have been let in on the secret knowledge and those benighted souls who have yet to find the hidden key. All struggling believers are reassured: God’s revelation is not rare, arcane, and obtuse. What God is doing for us and what God promises us and what God expects of us, all is fully revealed in Scripture.

From The Best of Will Willimon (Abingdon, 2012.  Check out Will’s novel, Incorporation, a wild ride through the contemporary church – satire and slapstick with serious theological intent.  Available from Cascade Press: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Incorporation.

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