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What is body theology? another definition

This week we’re exploring the various definitions of body theology out there.  Read HBTB’s definition of body theology. Read James B. Nelson’s definition from Monday.

Now let’s consider an excerpt from Introducing Body Theology by Lisa Isherwood and Elizabeth Stuart. Take some time to read and reflect on the passages below.

[B]ody theology…creates theology through the body and not about the body.  Working through the body is a way of ensuring that theories do not get written on the bodies of “others” who then become marginalized and objects of control. It is also a way of deconstructing the concept of truth that Christianity used to hold so many falsehoods in place.  Once one moves from the notion that there is absolute truth into which the bodies of people have to fit, the way is open to begin questioning and we soon realize that truth is not the issue in relation to prescriptions about the body, but power.  Christian history shows us the extent to which power has been exerted over bodies in the name of divine truth and the crippling results.  If the body is given the space and power to speak what will be the consequences for both the body and theology?

… Body politics have exposed the underlying power games at work in sexuality and society and by so doing have become a source of inspiration and liberation for many.  Christianity is an incarnational religion that claims to set captives free, it tells us it is a religion of liberation.  Yet it underpins many of the restrictive practices that body politics expose.  In some cases Christianity has been the instigator of these practices because of its dualistic vision of the world.

The questions being posed in our time are to do with the body, that of the world as well as the individual.  Can body politics ever become body theology in a truly radical and transforming way?  This might mean for example, that the Christian religion…risk taking the bodies of women seriously as sites of revelation in the creation of theology….That it develop a sexual ethic that takes seriously the desire of all and integrates it into a mutual and freeing celebration of embodiment.

…The Christian faith tells us that redemption is brought through the incarnation of God. A redemption that could not be wished or just thought, even by God herself, she had to be enfleshed.  Therefore, it can be argued that until the body is liberated from the patriarchal ties that bind it, many of which have been set in place by Christianity, creation will never understand the truly liberating power of incarnation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!  React to and engage with the quotation above in the comment box below.

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10 Concepts of Compassion

If you missed our series on Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, you can find quick links to the posts below, or scroll down for a brief recap in 10 Concepts.

The Compassionate God
The Voice of Love
The Compassionate Life (Part 1)
The Compassionate Life (Part 2)
The Compassionate Way (Part 1)
Compassion in Everyday Life
The Compassionate Way (Part 2)
 

10 Concepts of Compassion

1. To be compassionate means to be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition.

2. We learn compassion by the example of God, who showed us compassion by sending the incarnate Christ to become obedient to the cross on our behalf.

3. We experience God’s compassion through listening to the loving voice of God in our lives.

4. When we listen to the loving voice of God, we discover our unique calling to voluntary displacement.

5. Voluntary displacement — and thus compassionate living — can only happen within the community of God.

6. Voluntary displacement is first an inward shift before it can ever be an authentic shift outwardly.  It is not primarily something to accomplish but something to recognize.

7. We must be disciplined and patient in order to hear the loving voice of God.

8. The first action of compassion is the discipline of patient prayer.

9. The second action of compassion is the participation in the Lord’s Supper.

10. The third action of compassion is the voice of confrontation — both self-confrontation and confrontation of injustice in the world — spoken humbly and gratefully.

The Compassionate God

 

This week, we are reading through Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison.

Introduction & Part One: The Compassionate God

To be compassionate then means to be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition. (6)

But being compassionate toward others, especially the poor and marginalized to whom competition does the most harm, does not come naturally. We do not like to be around others’ pain and suffering, and we certainly do not like to give up anything we consider ours for the benefit of someone else — even in the name of fairness and justice, much less forgiveness and compassion.

Fortunately, we are not governed by our own desires and fears but by the movement of God in our lives:

God’s own compassion constitutes the basis and source of our compassion….[I]t is only in discipleship that we can begin to understand the call to be compassionate as our loving God is compassionate….[I]t is through these disciplines [of prayer and action], which guide our relationships with God and our fellow human beings, that God’s compassion can manifest itself. (8)

Their central argument is that Christians — as human beings who are by our very nature threatened by the idea of showing compassion to others (and thereby losing competition and identity) — are enabled to share in God’s compassion through the new identity we have been given as a result of our experience of the compassion of God in our lives through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This means the compassion that moves us to “be kind and gentle to those who get hurt by competition” does not come from our own nature; it comes from God.

It also comes from the example of a God who would make himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likenessBecause of the humble incarnation of Christ, the example of Jesus’ life, the choice to be obedient to death, and the miracle of the resurrection, we are able to experience the compassion of God for ourselves:

Jesus who is divine lives our broken humanity not as a curse…, but as a blessing. His divine compassion makes it possible for us to face our sinful selves, because it transforms our broken human condition from a cause of despair into a source of hope. (15)

The mystery of God’s love is not that our pain is taken away, but that God first wants to share that pain with us. (16)

Once we have experienced God’s compassion in our own lives, we are transformed by this new-found grace and freedom to live into the new identity we are given as children of God. Then we are able to follow the example of Jesus. Indeed, we are called to do so:

[O]nce we see that Jesus reveals to us, in his radically downward pull, the compassionate nature of God, we begin to understand that to follow Jesus is to participate in the ongoing self-revelation of God. (27)

Personally, this is where I get stuck.  I can agree all day that Jesus taught us to be servants and showed us by example how to live radically counter-cultural lives that defy competition in favor of compassion and justice for the poor and marginalized.

But what does that look like in my life?  Am I missing out on the will of God by not living in Calcutta or joining Shane Claiborne’s intentional community? What does it mean to be radically counter-cultural?

Radical servanthood is not an enterprise in which we try to surround ourselves with as much misery as possible, but a joyful way of life in which our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose to be revealed in servanthood….[S]ervice is an expression of the search for God. (29)

That’s a beautiful line: a joyful way of life in which our eyes are opened to the vision of the true God who chose to be revealed in servanthood.

It’s not about finding the most misery.  We don’t all have to be Mother Theresa to be doing God’s compassionate work in the world.  It’s about a radical paradigm shift.  It’s about seeing with new eyes, eyes opened to who God is through service.

So how do we know what we are called to do in the world?  How do we know if we are Mother Theresas or mothers of three? Our wise authors remind us that it’s much simpler than we imagine:

The obedience of Jesus is hearing God’s loving word and responding to it. (34)

We are poor listeners because we are afraid that there is something other than love in God….[Jesus] came to include us in his divine obedience. He wanted to lead us to God so that we could enjoy the same intimacy he did. (38)

God is all about relationship.  God is all about intimacy.  When we relate to God intimately, we cannot help but see the world with new eyes.  We cannot help but be moved by compassion.  We cannot help but pray and act — those disciplines that guide our relationships with God and others.

On Wednesday, we’ll look at Part Two: The Compassionate Life.

 

Trust and Body Theology: what my husband taught me about God

I saw this tweet last week on Anne Lamott’s feed, and I got to thinking.

In grad school, I took a class called Marriage and Interpersonal Relationships in which the professor talked about how people at bottom have either struggles with shame or trust issues.  Everyone has a little of both, but either shame or trust is the key component in why we think the way we think, why we act the way we act, and why we end up in the conflict cycles in relationships that we end up in.

After a lot of soul-searching (and a paper we had to write), I finally came to the conclusion that I am a trust-issue person.  Somehow, being a shame-issue person seemed better or easier to admit, but when I finally realized the truth about my own woundedness, I began to take steps toward my healing.

I did a lot of work on myself after that, which took years.  I remember something a close friend once said about the healing she experienced in her life (as a shame-issue person).  She said that the final healing came from her husband.

That’s what I thought of when I read that tweet the other day. I thought about all the work I did to undo the learning I had learned growing up that no one was trustworthy and that I had to take care of everything myself.  I thought about all the work I did to learn to do more than say the words with my mouth that God is trustworthy; I also had to believe it in my heart.

But at the end of the day, the final healing came from my relationship with my husband.

When I read that tweet, I thought about how I trust my husband implicitly and completely without the slightest twinge of doubt, suspicion, or jealousy.  If he says he’s working late, I know that means he is.  If he chats on Facebook with an old girlfriend, I know they really are just friends. I know because every single day since the day we met he has proven with his behavior that I can trust him. I know because even when some embarrassingly irrational fear emerged while we were dating, and I acted out, he said the words I needed him to say and behaved the way I needed him to behave to prove to me again that I can trust him. I know because if he could see the irrational, embarrassing side of me with all the woundedness still left unhealed and still want to date me and marry me and love me forever, he was worthy of my trust.

And it made me think about God, too, and how hard it is for me to trust God.  It’s easy to love God, serve God, praise God.  But trust?  For some people, believing that God loves them, that they are love-able, is the hardest thing.  For me, believing God is trustworthy (especially believing that I don’t have to earn it) is the hardest thing.  I’ve been slowly healing from this great lie I believed for years, but the final healing came from my husband.

My aunt once said, famously, that sometimes we just want someone with skin on.  Sometimes, no matter how many Bible verses we memorize or how much theology we learn about who God is and who we are, we just can’t accept the truth until we receive it from someone with skin on.

That is the beauty of the incarnation.  God poured all of that majesty and might and holiness and completeness and divinity into one small, simple, ordinary human being.  After everything we had learned, after all our God-encounters throughout history, we just couldn’t get it until we actually saw, felt, heard, and sat at the feet of someone with skin on.

That’s how we’re made.

If my husband — a fallible human being just like I am — can be this honest, this dependable, this trustworthy, then SURELY how much more so is the God we love and serve and praise?

I’m no fool. I don’t expect my husband to be perfect. I know he is not God. I know he will let me down, hurt me, disappoint me, and maybe even betray my trust in him one day. But through his physical presence in my life, I have been able to experience the truth about who God is.  All the Bible verses in the world couldn’t do that.

That is body theology.

Forward Friday: What’s Yours?

This week I reflected on four aspects of body theology that are important to me: gender, sexuality, community, and body image.

This weekend, try reflecting on one aspect of body theology that is important to you.  Choose from the list below or make up your own.  Share what you reflected on in the comment box below.

  • identity
  • image of God
  • incarnation of Christ
  • physicality
  • sexuality
  • body image
  • media literacy
  • cultural discernment
  • community
  • body of Christ
  • equality
  • service
  • social justice
  • creation care
  • spirituality

We’re Throwing a Healing Party–and You’re Invited!

It is impossible to separate the way we feel about ourselves from the way we feel about one another. – Wuellner

We’ve been touring Flora Slosson Wuellner’s Prayer and Our Bodies last week and this week, looking for insights to encourage our pursuit of holistic body theology.  Just as body theology is about not only our own bodies but also what we do with them in the world, so Wuellner’s book encourages prayer not only with our own bodies but also with our community body. She writes, “The nurture, inclusiveness, and sensitivity which we try to bring to our own bodies is precisely the same nurture, inclusiveness, and sensitivity we are asked to bring to our community body.”

Chapter 8: The Healing and Renewal of Our Community Body

Being in community with others is hard work.  As we learned through our discussion of Bonhoeffer’s ideas about community, prayer with and for one another is one of the best ways to come to love and respect each other.  As Wuellner puts it, “The health of a community body depends so utterly on its tenderness and its honor toward all its members.”

A spiritual life, and a body theology, experienced entirely as an individual is deficient.  We are not living out our participation in the incarnation of Christ if we are not participating in community:

It is in community that our true faith is revealed and tested. Just as our spirituality must be experienced in our personal bodies, so must it also be experienced in our community bodies.  If our spirituality has become merely an individualistic exercise–if our whole self (body, emotions, spirit) is not part of our community context–we have missed the meaning of the incarnational life.

Wuellner acknowledges that it’s easy to overlook the difficult members of our community–the homeless, the disabled, the emotionally dependent: “How often is our politeness merely a way of distancing ourselves from honest encounter? If we learn honesty within our own bodies and hearts, can we at last begin to learn it with one another?”

She describes healthy community as having “not only nurture for its members but also openness towards new members, new ideas, new ways of living.  A healthy family is not a closed circle; it reaches beyond itself in interest and concern or its spirit will die.” We cannot be exclusive and be a truly healthy community where “all are equally heard, valued, and nurtured.”

How often are we divided over issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation? How often do we hold grudges against past offenders, despise those who have wounded us (either individually or communally), and refused to be reconciled? Is this what it means to be the body of Christ?

What would it look like if we threw a healing party?  Everyone in our community could come with their individual gifts and strengths, and we could celebrate being the body of Christ together.  Then, before we leave the “party,” we could pray together for our community to be healed and become whole.  Is there any better party favor than healthy community?

We can achieve healthy community, Wuellner suggests, through communal prayer:

Let us in our churches, prayer groups, and personal prayers begin with boldness to explore in depth these new frontiers of prayer for the radical healing of our family bodies, our church bodies, our racial, national, professional bodies.

If you and your community are ready to experience healing and wholeness as the body of Christ, I encourage you to throw a healing party.  Begin to pray–individually and communally–for God’s healing to come. Wuellner offers this guidance as we enter into communal prayer:

  1. God is the healer. We are to be the transmitters, not the generators, of the healing light and energy.
  2. Face our true feelings about the person or the group or the situation.  The feeling itself will never be a block to God’s work of healing if it is faced. We admit what we feel to God and let God do the loving.
  3. Our prayer is not meant to be either diagnostic or prescriptive.  There will be changes, but they are not always what we expected, and they do not always come at the time we expect.

Sex is Good, Even When You’re Not Having Any

Our bodies are often the first to signal the rising of our newly released inner energies and gifts. — Wuellner

Last week, we made our way through the first five chapters of Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book Prayer and Our Bodies.  This week, we’ll finish our little tour by reflecting on what she has to say about how our bodies relate to sexuality, disability and illness, community and creation.

Chapter 6: Healed Empowerment and Our Bodies

In this chapter, Wuellner has some interesting things to say about sexuality as one expression of the “transformation of the Holy Spirit” that draws out our natural “poise, balance, justice and charity between passions and energies.”  Along with laughter and tears, just anger and compassion, Wuellner suggests that the unity and marriage we talked about last Thursday between the body and spiritual experience results in “a new restlessness, poignancy, vigor felt in the body that often involves a heightened sexual awareness….”

Many think that sexuality will go away or at least become quiescent as we grow spiritually.  On the contrary! As we abide more closely to the God who is the source of all creative energy, the God of the Incarnation, we begin to experience sexual energy in a new way, as a holy, inalienable, generative force.

In other words, “[s]exual energy is energy from the source of creative life itself.” Our sexuality comes from God.  Whether we are sexually active or not, our sexual energy is a good and powerful expression of who we are as creative individuals participating in the Incarnation of Christ.  In fact, Wuellner reminds us that “we are all sexual beings, including those who are celibate or abstinent, for our creative polarized response to life within and around us is manifested in many ways through our body’s vitality.”

Expressing our sexuality through sexual interaction with another person is one way to expend this sexual energy, and such activity–when undertaken within healthy and appropriate boundaries–is both sanctioned and blessed by God.  As Wuellner writes, “None of our bodily energies are low or unworthy.”

However, not everyone is in a position to express their sexuality this way.  Having spent most of my life thus far as a single woman (married less than a year), I’m intimately familiar with the frustration of discussions about how blessed, natural and good our sexual energy is while being unable to express it fully.

I remember sitting in church one day listening to a sermon on the value of exercise.  At one point in the sermon, the pastor said, “Now, all you single people, put your fingers in your ears.” It was clear what he wanted to say next was directed toward only the married members of the congregation.  Then he said, “Exercise also raises your libido!” As the congregation laughed and clapped at his admission that exercise can give us more sexual energy, my single friend and I exchanged a glance that said, Oh great, so then what are WE supposed to do about all that extra sexual energy?

Wuellner suggests that “none of our powers and feelings need be wasted.  When direct sexual activity is inappropriate, we can still accept the empowered gift in ways that bless us.”

Here are some of her suggestions, which she stresses are neither more holy nor more spiritual than direct sexual activity:

  • speak inwardly to your sexual emotion and say “I choose not to give you direct expression; rather I ask you to send your powerful vitality to my whole self so that I can do my work with empowered love.”
  • locate the area where the sexual energy seems to be centered and visualize the energy flowing “with radiant power like a river of light” to the rest of your body.

You can also follow my friend Stacey’s journey through 50 days of experiencing her sexuality as a single person.

In these ways, we can still acknowledge, express, and enjoy our sexuality without necessarily expressing it directly.  Rather than feeling frustrated, repressed, or perhaps even plagued by emotions and desires with no appropriate avenue for direct expression, we can experience our sexuality in a healthy, appropriate, and indirect way through these and similar suggestions.

Wuellner ends her discussion of sexuality (along with anger, food, play, dance and exercise) with four main reasons we experience such “gifted empowerment that rises and manifests in our bodies….”

  1. that we may more thoroughly enter into the joy of God and may more fully taste the gifts of God
  2. that we may more fully encounter, accept, and embrace our unique identity
  3. that we may with passion and compassion bear one another’s burdens and “wash one another’s feet”
  4. that we may be eager channels of the healing transformation that God longs to bring to the agony of the world.

Before the beginning of Lent on Wednesday, take some time to sit quietly with your body, recognizing its power and vitality and allowing them to fill your whole self–body, mind, spirit and will.  Acknowledge and thank your body for its participation in your whole life experience.

Give Your Body a Valentine

Believe it or not, your body is aware of who you are, what you care about, and how you are doing emotionally and spiritually.  Our bodies are part of who we are, and they know us better than we think they do.  (If you missed it yesterday, you can read about my experience learning to listen to my body here.)

This week we’re learning together about the connection between our physical and spiritual selves through Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book Prayer and Our Bodies.  These posts are not meant to be a book review but a sharing of and engaging with some of her insights as an ordained minister, adjunct professor, and trained spiritual director.

Wuellner’s Introduction

Here is some of what Wuellner has to say about the body throughout her introduction:

Our understanding and awareness of our bodily selves unfold slowly as we grow, learn, and mature within God’s embrace.

This is why the development of a holistic body theology begins with and is constantly being informed by our identity in Christ. This is also why becoming more media literate and culturally discerning is important so we can sift through the messages we receive in search of God’s truth about who we are.

When the body is mentioned in the New Testament, it is often referred to by the Greek word soma, which usually implies the whole human self: body, emotion, intelligence, will.

Because our faith is rooted in the incarnation of Jesus, any form of spirituality we claim must also be incarnational, which by definition includes the wholeness of the person.  This will profoundly influence our relationship to our communities and our world.

This is why I have added the word “holistic” to my discussions of body theology and have expanded the definition to include not only our physical selves (body image, sexuality) but also how we interact within the community of God (the body of Christ, community) and within our larger local and global context (the body of Christ, service).

…[A]s we grow into a new, transforming relationship with our bodily selves, we will begin spontaneously and naturally to make informed decisions about our habits, lifestyles, and relationships.

I don’t think I could write a better description of the purpose of holistic body theology.  We are created to engage with ourselves, with God, and with others through our bodies, not in spite of them.

Chapter 2: Reconciling and Celebrating Our Bodies

In this chapter, Wuellner gently approaches the topic of body image and the need for inner healing.  She asks, “What have our bodies done to us that we ignore, dislike, and punish them so?” and suggests that “much unhealed anger, fear, and hurt underlies our dislike and suspicion of our bodily selves.  These unresolved, underlying issues affect our engagement in culture (e.g. what and how much we eat and drink, how we identify and treat illness) as well as how we relate to ourselves, one another, and God.

Our bodies were created in unity with our emotions, intelligence and will, Wuellner describes, and being out of touch with our emotions and bodies results in “fragmentation.”  Wuellner encourages her readers to “pray for awareness that our disliked bodily parts are part of us and have served us faithfully.  We can stop blaming our bodies for our own decisions…. Celebration of even one small part is deeply healing to the whole.”

She suggests that engaging with our bodies in prayer can provide space for us to “learn to listen to the signals of our bodies, honoring them as one of the main ways God speaks to us and by which we can learn much unencountered truth about ourselves and our communities.”

Guided Meditation with the Body

She goes on to offer a guided meditation exercise in which she encourages her readers to

1) think of a part of the body they dislike or are ashamed of and picture it being “touched lovingly” or “gently washed” by Jesus,

2) touch that part of their bodies themselves, “thank it for being a faithful friend in spite of your dislike,” and ask God for healing of the dislike or shame associated with that body part,

3) remember a time their bodies were insulted or criticized by someone else and see themselves as they were at that time (e.g. child, teenager, adult) being comforted by God, and

4) thank their bodies as they are now “for taking the special tasks and challenges of this phase of your life” and allow their bodies to be held by God “as one who is precious to God and valued by God.”

A few friends and I tried this mediation exercise in our sexuality group two or three years ago. Even though it was an uncomfortable approach for some of us at the time, I remember how the night was filled with healing, freedom, and peace as we each acknowledged some shame or emotional hurt related to our bodies and were able to deal with it individually with God in a shared, safe space.

Give Your Body a Valentine

Today, try setting aside a little time to celebrate Valentine’s Day with yourself by going through this exercise (or whatever portion or version feels safe and available to you).

Show some love for your body as it is now, fearfully and wonderfully made by a powerful, creative God who knows you, loves you, and could not possibly imagine this life without you in it!

Lessons Learned in Prison — Part 3

This week, we’ve been honoring Bonhoeffer‘s birthday by taking a tour of some of his writings to discover what he teaches about community.  In addition to Jesus as mediator and discipleship, let’s look at the third requirement for community.

3) Responsibility and deputyship (participation in the incarnation)

Bonhoeffer says that we as Christians should be in community because Christ exemplified it for us every day he walked on earth, especially in the way he interacted with his disciples: “In bearing with men God maintained fellowship with them.”  We are God’s deputies here on earth, participating in the incarnation of Christ.  If Christ is our example of community life, how much more are sacrifice and service to be the themes of our interaction with community members on a daily basis?  “If you reject God’s commanding word,” Bonhoeffer warns, “you will not receive God’s gracious word.  How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point?”

Repeatedly, Bonhoeffer stresses the fact that community is about dying to self.  In agreeing to participate in the incarnation by becoming a disciple and taking on the responsibility of entering into the lives of others, we are freed to suffer—“The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life.  Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ.  Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death”—and freed to forgive—“Jesus’ call to bear the cross places all who follow him in the community of forgiveness of sins.  Forgiving sins is the Christ-suffering required of his disciples…of all Christians.”

When we give up the claim to our own rights, we are freed to turn our attention and concern to the rights of others.  This freedom is the deputyship Bonhoeffer charges to each Christian; it is an ethic of relationship and community, the requirement of incarnational service for others.  In one of his prison letters, Bonhoeffer writes, “It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves.” 

Our human nature has been designed for community life.  It is a sacrifice to be in a position to love others rightly, but it is a sacrifice only because of our sinful nature, not because of our true natural inclination.  Dying to the self makes us able to live the life we have been designed for, which is why Bonhoeffer can create an ethic that requires our participation in the lives of those around us.

Regardless of the environment in which we live, community living is still a responsibility and expectation of every disciple. Bonhoeffer asserts, “This principle [of deputyship] is not affected by the extent of the responsibility assumed, whether it be for a single human being, for a community or for whole groups of communities….[E]ven the solitary lives as a deputy, and indeed quite especially so, for his life is lived in deputyship for man as man, for mankind as a whole.”

Whether we’re in a position to live intentionally among other Christians, or whether we find ourselves in a position of being a solitary light to the world, we are all called to participate in the incarnation of Jesus as the body of Christ in the world.

Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the challenges and benefits of being in community and what it means to be the body of Christ.

Why Jesus Taught In Parables

Yesterday we looked at how story can be used to share truth in a way that can be more easily received or just more beautifully and creatively shared.  Today, let’s look at the example Jesus gave us for sharing truth through story: parables.

There are a lot of scholarly arguments out there for why Jesus spoke in parables, and I encourage you to study up if you’re interested in further analysis.  For my purposes regarding holistic body theology and what we do with our bodies in the world, I have four reasons to share with you today.

Jesus spoke in parables…

1) so that only those whose hearts were ready would understand.  Part of Jesus’ reason for sharing truth in parables was to fulfill the Isaiah’s prophecy that some would hear and not understand (Is 6:9-10; Mt 13:13-15).  In fact, Jesus even used a parable to explain why he spoke in parables in Luke 8:4-15.  As he later explained to his disciples, the hearts that were ready to hear God’s truth would understand, and the seed of truth would take root in their hearts and grow (vs. 15).

Sometimes we’re not ready to hear a truth from God.  Maybe we’re locked in sinful behavior.  Maybe we’re overcome with guilt and shame.  Maybe we’re already wrestling with different truth from God, and adding one more would be too much all at once.  God knows us intimately, from the hairs on our heads to the deepest secrets we won’t even admit to ourselves.  God knows just when to reveal truth to us, when we’re finally ready to receive it and make use of it in our lives, and that revelation will never come too soon…or too late.

2) so that there would be more room for people to relate to the story in different ways.  Most of the time, when Jesus told a parable, he was speaking to a crowd of people.  These people were made up of both men and women, children and adults, poor and wealthy, religious leaders and laypeople.   Often when Jesus was teaching, he had a different message for each audience, but rather than address each group individually, which would have taken forever, Jesus told one story that would teach each group a different lesson.

Take, for example, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).  Now, Jesus is speaking to the “expert in the law,” so the most obvious meaning of the parable is directed at people who fit in that category.  But not everyone listening to the story was an expert in the law.  Should they have just watched a fly land on some bread or pick blades of grass while Jesus was teaching a lesson that didn’t apply to them?

Consider the characters in this story:
a traveler – the victim of multiple crimes
a group of robbers – the perpetrators, motivated by greed (maybe hatred or anger) but not brave enough to act alone
a priest – the “man of God” who was more concerned about keeping the letter of the law (blood was considered “unclean” and required purification rituals) than showing compassion
a Levite – the member of the “priestly” clan, see above, also a man of importance and influence in the community
a Samaritan – the member of a group hated by Jewish people for their conflicting beliefs on correct worship of God who provided sacrificially to help the traveler despite racisim
an inkeeper – the man who provided the means to help the traveler heal, but only because he was paid

Ask yourself, who would you be in the story?  Be honest. Maybe you take advantage of people when they’re vulnerable.  Maybe you feel working with victims is beneath you or too much trouble.  Maybe you are willing to help, but only if you get something back.

Jesus’ parables are multidimensional, multilayered, and designed with every member of the audience in mind–not just the people present on the hillside that day, but the people who have been reading the parables for centuries after.

3) so that he could get to the deeper truth behind the black-and-white Jewish law  in a short time.  For all his 33 years on earth, Jesus only spent 3 years in ministry.  In only three years, Jesus had to squeeze in all the truth and promise and love available to the community of God in the present time and in all the time to come.  Jesus had only three years to usher in the kingdom of God.  And that was before the Internet and Skype and media and blogs and all the technological advances of our day.  Jesus had only three years to bring the truth to the world, and he had to depend on human minds and hands to remember his teachings and write them down for future generations.

At the time that Jesus was teaching, Jewish law had expanded from the 10 Commandments of Moses’ time to hundreds of detailed, specific laws for every daily action, word, and thought.  If Jewish law were a funnel, the 10 Commandments would be at the broad end at the top, and the law in Jesus’ day would be the little tip at the bottom.  They had a law for everything, an exhaustive list of dos and don’ts that spanned a person’s entire existence from birth to death.  So when Jesus showed up in town and started teaching, the experts wanted to know what laws Jesus was upholding, what laws he was breaking, and why.

But Jesus reminded his listeners in Matthew 5:17 that he had come to fulfill the law, to bring God’s truth for righteous living to its fullest completion, in freedom.  That’s a tall order for only three years of ministry.  Jesus’ parables were a way to reach down into the deeper truth of God, cutting through the black-and-white theology of their day.  By refusing to engage in endless debate, Jesus was able to leave a timeless message of love, grace, and mercy through story.

4) so that human beings with human ears could through a human story relate to the divine truth in the human/divine Jesus. More than anything else, Jesus’ parables are a reflection of God’s choice to relate to us through the Incarnation.  God sent Jesus–the Truth–in human form to walk like us, talk like us, and be like us.  Jesus, the divine/human being, chose to speak to us in story, with human characters and a divine message.  Our Emmanuel, this God-with-us, chose to bridge the gap between divine truth and human understanding with stories that allow us to meditate, ruminate, debate, delve, dwell, and finally discover some kernel of the Truth that God loves us, knows us intimately, and designed us to love and know God and each other in just the same way.  The story of God is more than just written words in the Bible; the Word of God came as living flesh to live out the story of God among us.

If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will.  Tomorrow we’ll take a look at how we can follow Jesus’ example to love and know intimately our brothers and sisters in the community of God, the body of Christ.

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