Parables

Week 1

Unpacking the Parables
Mark 4:10-12, 33-34

Depending on who is doing the counting Jesus delivered between 35 and 46 parables as recorded in the gospels. Many of these appear in more that one gospel, but not necessarily in the same order and there may be some differences in the way they were recounted. The Old Testament too contains many parables to illustrate messages that are delivered through the prophets and others. But what is a parable? Basically it is a story drawn from ordinary life which is used to make or illustrate a point or moral issue. For example Jesus drew examples from fishing, farming and family relationships, all things that would be understood by those who heard him.

Besides parables Jesus used similes’, metaphors and allegories and literature also contains other devices like fables and allegories all of which are intended to explain what might be complex ideas. In this series we will focus on parables and how they apply to our lives today. Sometimes the social and historical context will obscure the meaning rather than make it clear, for example Jesus comments that a wise man would not build his house on sand, while in our country nearly everybody does! In another place he speaks about putting wine in a container made of a skin, while we use bottles. At other times we feel the need to make every point or part of the parable have meaning beyond what is obvious, there is usually only one point to be made and we can over complicate things. In fact the disciples didn’t always get it, in Matthew 15 we read, ‘But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding”’. Jesus, it appears, sometimes used parables to provoke questions and further discussion, so he deliberately made them unclear.

Jesus was a master communicator, he told stories and engaged in conversations, most of which contained ‘teaching moments’. He spoke the language of the people and followed the principle of keeping it simple, he didn’t try to impress with complex and technical words and always made sure those who needed to understand did. He drew from everyday life, but also on the culture and history of his hearers, he could speak with men and women, with lawyers and scholars and the same time communicate to uneducated farmers, fishermen and servants. Matthew only records five major sermons preached by Jesus and if you read them out aloud it would not take long! The most well known is the Sermon on the Mount which occupies chapters 5-7 of Matthews gospel. In his messages he provoked, challenged, taught and encouraged his hearers, he spoke on hillsides, from the back of a boat, among grave stones and in Synagogues and always he was attentive to the needs of his hearers.

In fact Jesus’ approach to communicating the good news of the kingdom is almost in every way different to how we experience it today. He communicated out of two dimensions, the vertical in which he heard from his father in heaven and cultivated his relationship with him; and the horizontal, the relationship between him and his hearers. He knew them, understood them and lived among them. He walked where they walked, ate where they ate, and experienced the same joys and trials they did. Jesus had something to say because he had a relationship with his father, and he had an audience to speak to because he had a relationship with them. It is only as we cultivate both of those relationships that we too are able to make the good news clear to those who will hear.

  1. What are ways you are most likely to hear the truth of the Bible?
  2. How important are stories in the way you learn?
  3. Jesus rarely stood up to preach, why do you think that was?

 

  1. Stay salty
    Matthew 5:13In today’s language to say someone is salty would mean that they are upset, angry, or bitter as result of being made fun of or embarrassed. It is also a characteristic of a person who feels out of place or is feeling attacked (from the Urban Dictionary). Of course this is not what Jesus had in mind when he described his hearers as being the salt of the earth who needed to retain their saltiness.The statement occurs during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, though he expresses the same idea in both of Mark’s and Luke’s gospels later in his ministry. He starts with a metaphor, that is he says something about his hearers that isn’t literally true, but is or should be characteristic of them. In this case he says “you are the salt of the earth”, not that they should be or could be, but that they are. As Jewish hearers they were part of nation that was supposed to be an influence on all the other nations around them, just as salt was an a influence on things that it was applied to.
    The properties of salt were well understood by Jesus’ hearers. It had been used for flavoring and for preserving food for a very long time.  It was also used in tanning, dyeing and bleaching, and in producing pottery, and soap. In the Bible salt is mentioned 40 times, it is used in connection with making covenants, establishing friendships, adding flavour, as a preservative and as a means of exchange. It was also to be added to sacrifices, to purify and indicate a new beginning or fresh start. The main and most familiar use was to preserve and prevent decay. So Jesus was using something from every day life to make his point.Then Jesus makes a more specific application, he speaks of one aspect of the use of salt – to add flavour. Of all its uses this is the one we are probably most familiar with. We know (perhaps) that it is a preservative and can also be used to keep swimming pools clean, but mostly we put it in or one food to Improve the taste. But if salt has lost its taste, then what good is it? It’s not really salt anymore is it, just a collection of usually white crystals of no use to anyone. In places where temperatures get to freezing salt is often added to the ice on pathways to speed up the melting process, this is probably not what Jesus meant when he said that the only thing do with unsalty salt was to throw it out and trample on it.

    The absence of salt from  food makes it bland or tasteless, in the same way our presence in  a community should bring life and vitality. It should make a difference and this is the point Jesus is making. The people of Israel should make a positive difference to the community they were in. They used salt as a preservative, when applied to meat it kept corruption away, but if it had lost its effectiveness the meat would become rotten and if not thrown out would cause disease. They also used it to improve the flavour of the food they ate, and their presence in the wider community should improve it’s  ‘taste’ and quality. But what if they were not doing theses things, what if corruption continued to increase, where nobody would notice if they weren’t there? Then they may as well be tossed aside and trampled on.

    What Jesus said of the Jewish hearers is true of the church today. We are salt, but have we lost our saltiness? If corruption is advancing in our society is it because the salt has lost its flavour? Is the church in danger of being tossed aside and trampled on because it no longer improves its surrounding environment and cannot stop the spread of corruption?

  1. In what ways can the church be salt in your community?
  2. How can you be salty?
  3. Is the church in danger of completely losing its saltiness – what can be done to stop the decay?

 

  1. Keep Shining
    Matthew 5:14-16As Jesus continues his sermon he changes his metaphor, now he tells his audience that they are the light of the world. Once again he is speaking of the place Israel should occupy among the nations. Israel was to be a light that would attract those who were in darkness, and it should also illuminate the road so that people could see where they were going.Many years ago the City of Perth earned the nickname the City of light; in 1962 American astronaut John Glenn orbited the Earth in the Friendship 7 spacecraft. As he flew over Perth the residents turned on their lights and pointed torches to the sky to welcome him. Glenn remarked that the city was clearly visible from space and Perth became known worldwide as the ‘City of Light’. No amount of darkness could extinguish that light, even from space the city was visible. After a long journey at night the lights of a city are a welcoming sight and encourage weary travellers as they know that they have nearly reached the end of their journey. People are drawn towards light, Isaiah wrote about the future birth of the Messiah, that those who lived in darkness would see a great light, the gloom would disappear and hope would come (Isaiah 9). Jesus’ hearers were aware of Isaiah’s words and they understood that Israel as God’s chosen people were to be that light, to shine in the darkness and bring hope to the nations.Jesus then expands his metaphor to include a lamp that is used to bring light to a house. In those days oil lamps were used and they needed a good supply of oil, and to have a wick, or piece of cloth that was dipped in the oil at one end and lit at the other. The oil would be drawn up the wick and be kept alight until the oil ran out. But no matter how good the lamp was it would be no use if it was put under a pot or a bucket. If you wanted to get the best value from your lamp, it would be placed as high as you could get it, and then it could shed its light over a much greater area. Jesus is not suggesting that we or his hearers at the time should be physically higher than those around us, but that we should be conspicuous.

    As with the example of salt, Jesus does not say his hearers, or us, should be or could be the light, but they are the light. In Ephesians 5:8 Paul writes ‘at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light’ and in Philippians 2:15, ‘that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world’. Israel as a nation was not giving light to the world, it was not dispelling the darkness or providing hope to the nations and Jesus is reminding them that they have a  responsibility. In their case they were to do good works and then those that witnessed them would give glory to God, the Father.

    God calls us to do likewise, to do good works, serve the community,  to be compassionate and gracious, and do acts of charity and mercy. But more than that we need to be very careful how we walk. Our lives should be examples , without blemish and blameless! Of course none of us can be entirely without blemish, but it should be our ambition. As Paul points out, we live in the midst of a crooked, perverse and corrupt generation and we are to shine out in the midst of it, to offer hope and draw people to his light. As the nation of Israel was to be like a city on a hill, so too should the church. A city of light that offers hope to the lost and confused, and rest to weary.

  1. Do you think that you stand out as light in the community of which you are a part?
  2. Does the church offer hope and rest in a way that attracts people?
  3. Can your community see your church because of the light that it shines around it?

 

  1. How are your foundations?
    Matthew 7:24-27As Jesus concluded his Sermon on the Mount he gave a final illustration. He begins by speaking about two builders, but his story was really about the foundations they used for the houses they built. One of the builders made sure of his foundation, while the other cut corners and took risks.Both of the builders used an equal amount of effort, and there is no suggestion that one was more skilled than the other, or used better materials. However, one of the houses stood the test when the storms came while the other collapsed and got lost in the flood. In Jesus’ parable he makes the distinction between having a foundation that is built on rock, while the other is constructed on sand. In Western Australia most houses are built on the coastal plain or on the Darling Scarp to the east. In the case of the coastal plain, there is little rock and what there is limestone which is not ideal for foundations. In the early days of house building houses would be built on timber stumps dug into the ground, but now they are usually built on sand pads that are compacted to produce a firm foundation. A wise person builds on sand! It is too difficult and expensive to build on rock.So what did Jesus’ parable mean that applies to us? In the region around where Jesus was speaking the areas that were composed of sand were subject to flooding, usually dry river beds or wadis. In the summer they looked hard and made a good solid base for building, but when the rain came down from the hills it would flood these areas and wash away the sand and anything that stood on it. Luke when recording the same parable in Luke 6:47-49, points out that the wise man digs down in the sand until he finds bedrock and it is on this that he builds. Jesus is pointing out that no matter how much effort we put into living a good life, or even following religious practices, if we don’t have the right foundation, we will not be able to stand against the storms that inevitably come.

    The right foundation is not just hearing (or reading) God’s word, all of the builders did that. It was responding to them or doing as he said. There are many people who know what the bible says, but feel that they are able to choose which parts to accept and which to ignore. From the outside, on a good day both of the houses in Jesus parable may have looked the same, it is even possible that the one built on sand looked better. Money saved on the foundation could have been used to make the building more attractive, even add a room or two. They could have stood side by side with one drawing more attention than the other, but when the storms and wind came so did the test. Which one would withstand the onslaught? In 1996 eight climbers died on Mount Everest during the climb they encountered a raging blizzard; commenting on this tragedy Todd Burgess, a journalist wrote: “If not for the storm, the climbers may have gotten away with taking so many risks. But the storm exposed their weaknesses.”

    You can be a keen reader of the Bible, attend church regularly and pray, but unless your foundation is made from both hearing and obeying the things you read, it will let you down. Don’t cut corners, or take risks with God’s word, do what the architect says, establish a strong foundation so when the storm comes and beats against your house, you will not be shaken.

  1. How strong is your foundation?
  2. Before you keep God’s commands you need to know them, how well do you know his word?
  3. How do you decide which parts of God’s words you can ignore?

 

  1. Worn out clothes and old bottles
    Matthew 9:16-17; Luke 5:36–39As Jesus went on his way teaching and healing he met Matthew, a tax collector and he called him to become one of his followers. He stopped at Matthew’s house and had a meal with him and a number of his colleagues. Matthew was in a position that offended the Jews, as a tax collector he served the Roman government and many in his industry were corrupt, taking more taking more than they should, the idea that Jesus would enjoy the company of these men was difficult to accept. Whether this led to the question they then asked or whether they were challenging his credibility in another way is not certain, but Jesus was asked why it was that he and his disciples were eating and drinking, generally having a good time while John the Baptist and his followers insisted that they should fast.Jesus responded briefly by stating that it would be reasonable to fast in anticipation of the bridegroom arriving at the wedding, but when he turned up it was time to celebrate. By saying this he was claiming to be the bridegroom for whom they had been waiting. He then immediately told a parable with two separate subjects, In the first place he spoke about worn clothing. This may have been a reference to poor wedding guests needing to repair clothes for the celebration. Then he speaks about wine skins, again referring to the good new wine that would need to be prepared for the wedding feast.

    In both subjects, the clothing and the wine, there was an issue to be resolved. The clothing was torn and needed a patch, but the problem was that if a new piece of unshrunken cloth was fixed to the old garment it would shrink when it was washed. The new piece of material would pull away from the old and both the patch and the garment would be ruined. When new wine was produced a portion of it would be put in a container made of goat skin. The new wine had not finished fermenting and that would happen while it was in the goatskin. The problem was that the wine would expand, and the skin would expand to accommodate it. If an old skin was used it was not flexible and could not expand, instead the skin would burst and the wine would be lost.

    Jesus is describing what would happen if the new wine of the kingdom he was announcing was poured into old rigid containers. They would burst. Similarly the new kingdom was not a patch to be added to the old system and way of doing things, new material was needed to make a garment fit for the celebration. Over recent years many books have been written about the need for new wineskins to be made available for the new wine of the Holy Spirit. The argument is that the old structures are not flexible, they have become rigid and instead of adjusting to meet the needs of something that is new and fresh, they will break and become useless. There is no doubt sense in this suggestion, in the same way that trying to patch up something that is old and worn out is unsatisfactory.

    What is true for structures and organisations can also be true for us as individual believers. Hoping to make changes that are needed by simply putting a patch here or there will not work. Paul tells us that we are new creatures in Christ, the old has died and all things are new (2 Corinthians 5:17). God isn’t in the renovation business, he gives you a new life, not a fixed up old one. Life in the Kingdom of God demands a new set of values, beliefs and convictions, we don’t try to make the old better, we – or in fact Holy Spirit – replaces it. God will not fill the old wineskin of your life with the new wine of the Holy Spirit – he needs and provides something completely new.

  1. In what was is it possible for the church to try to put new wine into old wineskins?
  2. What does it mean to be a ‘new creature’ in Christ?
  3. Galatians 2:20; Galatians 5:24; Galatians 6:14 all speak about being crucified with Christ, what does that mean, and how does it happen?

 

  1. Responding to forgiveness
    Luke 7:35-50Jesus liked to share meals with people, he didn’t seem to mind who they were or how important they thought they might be, or even what others thought of them. On one occasion he was invited to the home of a Pharisee named Simon. Pharisees were a group within the Jewish community who were known for strictly observing the law, Mark writes in his gospel: ‘For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.’ (Mark 7:3-4). These Pharisees had been challenging Jesus and criticizing his words and his actions.

    As the guests sat down ready to eat a woman approached Jesus. We are not told who this woman is only that she had a reputation as a sinner and was not well thought of by Simon and probably the others gathered around the table. In those days meals were often held in an ‘open house’ and visitors would come and go, but it would be unusual for a woman like this to turn up knowing how she would be received. The custom in the Jewish home were people to lie down, or recline with their feet behind them while they leant on the table in front , so the woman stood behind Jesus, but at his feet. She immediately began to pour ointment on his feet and then wipe them with her tears and her hair. Simon was disgusted at this, not the behaviour of the woman but that Jesus would allow her to touch him. It surely put doubt over his claim to be a prophet.

    As Simon mumbled to himself, Jesus heard what he was saying and knew the intent of his heart and spoke to him in a parable. He painted the picture of two men who owed a debt to a money lender. One owed about twenty months’ worth of wages, while the other a much smaller amount, only two months’ worth. When neither of the men could repay the loan, the lender let them both off and cancelled their debt. Jesus then asked which of the two men would love the man more. Simon said that man with the bigger debt would probably love him more. Jesus told him that he had given the right answer and then went on to say that the customs of the time and law provided that he, Simon as a host should have welcomed Jesus into his home with respect by washing his feet, anointing his head with oil and offering a greeting. He had done none of these things. On the other hand the woman had done all of them and more. She had, at her own expense poured oil on his feet, a woman’s hair was very important to her and was seldom let loose and yet she used it to wipe Jesus dirty, smelly feet and she was close enough to him for tears to fall on those same feet.

    Jesus made clear the point he was making, though there is little doubt that Simon had already got the message. The one who knew what she had been forgiven, and it was a great deal, responded with gratitude and love, the other who didn’t think there was much that he had done wrong and probably didn’t need to be forgiven any way gave nothing in return. Jesus told the woman that her faith had saved her and that her sins had been forgiven, while he said nothing more to Simon.

    Both the woman and Simon stood in equal need before Jesus and yet they responded very differently. Simon was self righteous and looked with contempt on the woman expecting Jesus to push her away. While she had no thought for anyone else, she just wanted to express her gratitude to Jesus who didn’t judge her for what she had done but accepted her through mercy and love.

  1. Do you think that people who have committed ‘serious’ sins and been forgiven, love God more than those who have lived a good life?
  2. Are you aware of what Jesus has forgiven you for, and do you extend that same forgiveness to others?
  3. Do you welcome the broken and the sinful in the same way Jesus did?

 

  1. Who is my neighbour?
    Luke 10:25-37

    This Parable is probably one of the best known of all the stories Jesus told and it draws heavily on characters that are not usually found in our communities. Rather than try to explain the significance of each of the people in the story we will present it using individuals who may have similar characteristics today. It is impossible to find exactly corresponding figures but the parable will still make sense!

    Jesus gave this parable in response to a question from one of the teachers of the law who was trying to catch him out. He first asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life and when Jesus asked in return what was written in the law that he was an expert in. His answer was: ‘’ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus told him that he was correct, so all he needed to do was keep those two commandments. The lawyer was still looking for an argument so he asked, ‘well who is my neighbour?’ The Jews accepted they should love fellow Jews but wanted to be excused from loving other classes of people, while still doing enough to have eternal life. So Jesus told him a parable.

    A man was travelling down the road on the outskirts of town, it was a fairly rough neighbourhood with a history of crime and violence, so he hurried along. However he got ambushed by a group of thugs who beat him up and took the expensive shoes he was wearing as well as his coat and valuables including his wallet and all of his money, card and identification. They left him bleeding on the side of the road. A little while later a pastor was driving down the same road and he saw something on the road, so he slowed down to see what it was. He saw the man covered in blood, but he was running late for church, and it was a tough and dangerous place to stop. “I will call in somewhere safer” he thought “and call the police”. Just then the local youth pastor came past on his motor bike, saw the man and thought, “probably had too  much to drink, he’ll be Ok when he is sober and it’s not my responsibility really. You can’t solve everybody’s problems” and he hurried on.

    As the man lay there in pain, suffering with the cold and his injuries he heard the rumble of another motor bike and into view came a bike rider, but this time the rider was dressed in black with his face obscured and wearing all the patches of an outlaw bikie group. The bike and its rider passed him but slowed down and turned around pulling to a stop next to the injured man. The rider got off his bike and approached the injured man and in colourful language asked what he was doing lying on the pavement. Now not only hurting but scared the victim tried to mumble about what had happened but was clearly struggling,  The rider knelt down beside him and gently raised him up, he took off his own scarf and wrapped it around the man’s wounds, gave him his leather jacket and gave him some of the drink he had stowed on his bike – it was alcohol but it was for medicinal purposes! As the man’s strength started to return the bikie assisted him over to his bike and helped him on the back, with his arms rapped around the rider they headed off down the road. At the first motel he saw he stopped and booked a room with his own credit card, he stayed with the man for the day arranging for food to be sent and the bills to be paid on his credit card. Then he rang the police and explained what had happened and what he had done and went on his way, not waiting for thanks.

    Jesus asked, which of these passers’ by showed by their actions that they were a neighbour? The lawyer answered, ‘’The one who showed mercy” and Jesus replied, “Then you go and do the same thing”.

  1. In what ways are we able to prove that we are a good neighbour?
  2. How often do we let our own prejudices stand in the way of showing mercy?
  3. Do we often get so busy doing good things that we don’t see the suffering around us?

 

 

Week 2

  1. A Great return
    Mark 4:1-12The parable of the Sower is well known to many of us and we can find meaning for a lot of the elements of the story. There is the sower, the seed he carries, the soil, the rocks, thorns even the birds. But the main subject of the story is the ground and the harvest it produces.The seed in the parable stands for the word of God, and the sower is Jesus or could be anyone who spreads the word. The seed that falls on the side of the road refers to those who hear the word and do not understand or accept it while the seed that falls on the rocks are those who do understand it and accept it joyfully, but when life gets hard, they fall away. Seed that falls among thorns refers to those who hear and understand the word but the temptations and interests of their old life choke it out, and while they hang on to their new found beliefs they don’t mature. The seed that falls on good soil are those who receive the word and understand it and grow to maturity, bearing a lot of fruit.Any farmer wants his or her seed to bear fruit or provide a harvest, a lot of effort and cost is involved in sowing this seed, and the farmer would want a return on her investment We can apply this parable to how we use the resources God gives to us, making sure that we use them wisely and not wastefully, but this parable is speaking specifically to those who hear the word of God and act upon it, growing to maturity and producing fruit.Everything the sower did was measured by whether there was a harvest, did it justify the time and effort he had put in? He could reasonably expect that good seed sowed in receptive soil would produce fruit. If it didn’t and everything else, such as the provision of rain was supplied then he could conclude that the soil was no good and he had to sow the seed in better soil. He may be initially encouraged by shoots sprouting and maybe even a few struggling to hold on to life and because of that he might increase his efforts, add fertilizer and more water, but they don’t survive and he is left with no return on his investment.The farmer had to decide when it was time to move to a different paddock, to cut her losses and move to more fertile land. This can be an illustration of the way we commit to activities and programs that simply have not produced a result. We keep on doing the same thing, trying harder, spending more money but with the same result. The message of the parable includes the message that we should make sure we plant our seed in good soil if we want to have a harvest. Of course there is another part to the story, if we want to grow in our relationship with God and so bear fruit ourselves, then we must prepare the soil of our heart.Before a crop is planted the soil must be prepared. The rocks and rubble must be removed, the soil must have the right nutrients and then sufficient water to encourage growth. When the shoots appear, the weeds must be kept away so they don’t choke out the tender new growth and compete for the goodness in the soil. The rocks of false beliefs and expectations need to be removed from your heart, the boulders and rubble of unforgiveness, bitterness and bad habits must be ruthlessly removed. Your heart must be fed by the Holy Spirit, through his word and worship and then they will receive the early and the latter rain of his grace. Fellowship with godly people will help keep the weeds out and provide the right growing environment so that you can expect to see a harvest and bear much fruit!
  1. Do you see hardness, rocks or weeds in the soil of your heart?
  2. What does a hundredfold increase look like to you?
  3. Are there any projects you keep pouring time and effort into that never produce much fruit?

 

  1. A Late night visitor
    Luke 11:5-13If you have had a long day and have finally managed to get the family settled, the house in order and everything prepared for the next day it is time to drop into bed and get some well earned sleep. The last thing you want is to be woken by someone banging on your door asking for some food. Yet this is the illustration Jesus chose to teach his disciples about prayer!The unwelcome visitor was a friend of the man inside and he was prepared to test this friendship by waking him from his sleep. A friend of the visitor had just turned up from a long journey and he had nothing to give him to eat. The Jewish Virtual Library states regarding hospitality that: ‘When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation.’ This man was not a stranger, but a friend and he probably felt he was under an even stronger obligation. The previously sleeping man however was not and he told him to go away and leave him alone.The man persisted however and eventually his friend got up and gave him what he wanted. This is a parable about prayer and some see in it a suggestion that God is unwilling to give the requests of those who ask of him but will eventually do so if they pester him enough. This is not what the story is saying. The word translated ‘persistence’ in some versions of the bible is also translated as ‘boldness’ or ‘without shame’. The idea is that the man making the request was less concerned about what his friend thought of him than he was in having his request met. He wasn’t too embarrassed to break social conventions or be accused of being inconsiderate in order to get bread for his guest; he would even risk alienating his friend. The type of prayer that moves the heart of God is that which is motivated to meet the needs of others even at the possible cost of the one doing the praying.This man had confidence to go and ask for bread because he had a relationship with the other person, he was his friend. Because of his friendship he asked for three loaves, but because of his boldness he was granted much more –as much as he needed. The prayer was offered with humility, and depended on the favour of his friend and because he was prepared to persist even when it might seem he was being unreasonable, the friend answered his need. Jesus adds that everyone who asks receives; if you seek you will find and if you knock then the door will be opened to you. It is not just the friend who has the guarantee of a request being granted, but everyone who asks receives. There is no sense that the prayer that is answered is asked half heartedly, the one who asks, knocks and seeks persistently will be answered.We ask with the humility of a beggar, knowing that it is only God that can grant our request, there is nowhere else we can got to have our needs met. But we seek with the respectfulness of a servant. This is not something we casually turn to at the end of the day, but the careful diligent seeking after what we seek. Just as the widow diligently sought the lost coin, sweeping the floor, moving the furniture, lifting the mat, so too must we diligently seek after the things we ask of God. We knock with the confidence of a person who knocks at the door of a friend’s house, even if it is at midnight and who keeps on knocking until he gets an answer!
  1. Do you hesitate in asking something from God because you believe he might think you are being presumptuous?
  2. How hard do you seek an answer to your prayers?
  3. Are you prepared to let your reputation suffer so that you can help someone in need?

 

  1. Snakes and Scorpions
    Luke 11:11-13As Jesus expands his parable he adds something which is almost an allegory, or a comparison between two similar things to help illustrate a point, but while there is a point of similarity there is also significant difference. He is continuing his teaching on prayer but now moves from what has motivated the one praying to the reason why the prayer will be answered. Have you wondered why God would answer your prayers, or whether the answer he gives might be undesirable? It seems that this may have been a concern for the disciples and may have discouraged them from praying.Jesus draws his analogy from our family relationships, he asks that If we can trust our earthly fathers, who are less than perfect, to give us the things we ask for, then how much more can we expect God to give to us the things that will edify and build us up? If we were to ask our father for a fish, which was a common food, would he instead give us something that is equally common, but dangerous? To reinforce the point he adds that if an egg was asked for would a scorpion be given instead? Obviously, there are those circumstances in life when a biological father may behave badly, but it is extremely rare that even a bad father would deliberately endanger the life of his child in this way. Why then would we expect our heavenly father who is perfect and righteous and loves us unconditionally to give us something that is harmful? God can be trusted to respond to our prayers so that we receive what is good and beneficial. Psalm 37:4 says, ‘Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ This is God’s promise to you.God’s desire is not only to meet our needs but to do much more. In fact, Jesus tells us in these verses that if we ask God, then He will give the Holy Spirit in response to our requests, much more than we even ask. We don’t need to nag God, as if we are asking him do something he doesn’t want to, in fact the Holy Spirit is a promised gift to all those who have placed their faith and trust in Jesus. God is just waiting to send him to us – all he needs is an invitation. Pentecost had not yet come for the disciples that were listening to Jesus, the idea of the Holy Spirit living with them and in them every day was not something they had any experience of. The Holy Spirit came and dwelt among the people and from time to time he empowered or enabled individuals to complete certain tasks, but what we call an ‘indwelling presence’ was unknown. Jesus was pointing to the future but also to the reality that God would not withhold the Holy Spirit from the people of Israel if they would only ask. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit was promised to all those who believe, and none of those who come to him with a sincere heart will be turned away, all will receive the promise of the Holy Spirit. If you have asked him to be the Lord of your life, believing that he is the Son of God and risen from the dead, then you have received the promise of the Holy Spirit.God is much more willing to give than we are to receive, and this extends beyond the time that we are adopted into his family. He promises that as he lives within you that he will guide you, comfort you, empower you and cause you to bear the fruits of love, joy, peace, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It is as we daily allow him to fill and control our lives that we experience these things, and so taking the promise of Jesus, if we ask for the Holy Spirit, he doesn’t need to be convinced.
  1. Do you sometimes think that if you ask God for direction in your life that he will ask you to do something that you won’t want to do?
  2. Do you know that the Holy Spirit is God’s promise to you?
  3. Do you think that sometimes you need more of the Holy Spirit, what should you do?

 

  1. It’s a mystery
    Mark 4:26-29This parable is not only brief, it is only found in Mark’s gospel and it is not obvious what Jesus is saying. There are a number of different explanations given for the parable, some attach it to the parable of the sower which is recorded just prior to this in Mark’s gospel, others insist it is not but should be tied to the next one about the mustard seed. As is often the case there are attempts to find a meaning behind every element of the story and identify one of the characters as God. What adds to the confusion is that Jesus says ““This is what the kingdom of God is like.” (NIV) and then seems to say something quite different.At first it appears that the farmer who is sowing the seed could be identified with God, but then Jesus says the farmer doesn’t know how the seed grows and that couldn’t mean God who knows everything. So the farmer may be any person who sows seed, but what is the seed? Jesus uses the illustration of seed often and it is found elsewhere in scripture as well, Psalm 125:5,6 says: ‘Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy,     bringing his sheaves with him.’ It is used for sowing the good news of Jesus into other people’s lives, for planting the word of God in our own minds and for sowing financially and prayerfully into God’s kingdom.In every case seed is sown in expectation of a plant growing and producing fruit and so one of the ways this parable could be understood is that God’s people would sow the seed of God’s kingdom by their words and actions expecting the Kingdom to come quickly. Jesus is pointing out that God’s kingdom will not come in a rush but slowly and progressively. The seed must be sown, but how it grows is a mystery, it will take time and in the meanwhile the person sowing goes about their normal life waiting for growth to occur, he will see the signs but he can’t make it happen or hurry it up.

    Another perspective is the seed of the word of God that we sow into our hearts and minds. We don’t know how but some of it takes root and just seems to sit there, but over time with the influence of the Holy Spirit, prayer, worship and fellowship it starts to grow. We don’t just sit and wait, but we carry on life allowing God to bring to maturity the seed that has been planted. At the right tome it blossoms and begins to bear fruit as our lives show the transformation that is characteristic of the kingdom of God.

    Yet another way of looking at is to think of seed as investment into God’s kingdom. Paul writes: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-8). God expects that his people will give financially to extend the kingdom of God. In the Old Testament there was a system of giving that was required by the law starting with the first ten percent of crops, livestock or income from business. In the New Testament there is no longer a law, but many will see the Old Testament requirement as a good example to follow. Whatever amount is given, God expects it be given as a sacrifice and offering, both as worship and to support those who serve in different ways.

    God’s promise is not that if you give more that you will be blessed more or somehow become prosperous because you give, but that God will nurture the seed you sow, as you go on with life as usual. As he nurtures and blesses the plant it will come to maturity and produce much fruit that will advance the kingdom of God.

  1. What sort of seed are you sowing into your life and community?
  2. How do you sow seed into your own life?
  3. How can you sow seed into the lives of non believers?

 

  1. A Rich fool
    Luke 12:13-21While Jesus was teaching the crowds someone called out to him to intervene in an inheritance between him and his brother. Jesus responded by effectively saying ‘why ask me? It’s not my business’. There is good advice here for all of us not to get entangled in things that are not our concern, Jesus was always happy to speak about the kingdom and the word of God, but this was a family matter and not his concern. How often do we feel the need to offer advice or an opinion on things that are better left to others? However Jesus did use the request as an opportunity to say that life is more important than how much you possess; how often are relationships broken or damaged in arguments over family estates and who gets what?Jesus went on to give another parable, one that is quite well known on the subject of money and wealth. He tells the story of a very successful and wealthy farmer. This man had such a bumper crop that all of his storage barns were full and he needed still more space. What would he do for next years harvest, it was probably going to be even bigger. So the man decided to demolish his barns and build bigger ones which he would no doubt fill up. When he had done that he would have enough to stop working, to sit back and eat and drink and live a life of leisure. In our day perhaps he would invest his money to get a good return with the intention of taking early retirement and maybe buy a caravan and travel around the country. There was no thought in this man’s mind of using some of his excess to support those in need, maybe give to a charity of some kind. He just wanted to put his feet up and do nothing.

    The man had everything sorted out, he would keep growing his farm, make more money and live a life of luxury. Why not?  He had had worked hard, he was good at what he did and he made smart decisions, now was the time to reap the benefit. The response given to the farmer by God reveals the problem with his plan. He had spent his life building his fortune and making himself comfortable but had given no consideration to what God expected of him. What the farmer didn’t know was that his life would soon be over and he would not get to enjoy his wealth as he thought he would. Someone else would get the use of all he had and meanwhile he would stand before God empty handed.

    Jesus was not speaking against working hard and enjoying the benefits of success and he was not criticizing the wealthy. He is not condemning efficient the use of labour or good harvests but he is condemning the practice of trusting in wealth and making it the priority issue in life, rather than acknowledging God and extending mercy and justice to the poor and needy. Maybe he had in mind the words of Deuteronomy 8 and particularly verses 18,19: ‘you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the Lord your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.’

    Many times Jesus spoke about the dangers of wealth and the need to seek his kingdom and eternal riches rather than material possessions and status and yet we live in a society where our value is often measured by our bank balance and possessions. Even when we give career advice to our children it is often based on how much they might be able to earn rather than whether it will allow them to serve the need and bring glory to God. What’s your plan for the future?

  1. If you were asked about money, ‘how much is enough?’ how would you answer?
  2. What factors determine the career or vocation you choose for yourself and recommend to your children?
  3. What do you think of Proverb 21:13?

 

  1. Dressed for Action
    Luke 12:35-40Jesus had been talking to his disciples and others who were listening about the kingdom of God. He was encouraging them to get their priorities right and be prepared for when it came. He remarked that they should build up treasure in heaven because where their treasure was, that is where their hearts, their chief desire and interests would also be. It is true that those things we invest significantly in are the ones we value and which occupy our thinking. If something costs us nothing we often have less regard for it. Jesus was saying in effect that if the hearers knew they had great treasure waiting for them in heaven, they would be keen to get there!

    Having focused their attention Jesus now tells his hearers to get ready for action as if something was going to happen soon. Earlier he had said that the kingdom of God would come gradually like a seed taking root and growing, but now he says that it will be sudden and they had better be ready. The illustration he uses is that of the servants of a man attending a wedding, in those days a wedding was a major event, a feast that could take several days and no one really knew when it would be over. The servants needed to be alert because their master could be knocking at the door at any time. The house had better be clean, everything in order and the servants ready to attend to their master’s needs. In other translations the idea of being dressed for action is written as ‘girding their loins’, language that may be unfamiliar today. In Jesus’ day Jews wore a loose robe over their clothing, it was held close to the body by a girdle or belt to stop it flapping about and interfering with their activities. The loins refers to the waist or hips and so the robe was held tightly to leave the wearer free to move about. Peter may have recalled these words of Jesus when he wrote “Therefore, preparing your minds for action, (girding the loins of your mind)  and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:13).

    Paul uses the idea of being dressed ready for action in Ephesians 6 when he speaks about putting on the whole armour of God. He stresses that when properly dressed the believer can stand their ground, once they had done everything and were prepared they could stand (verse 13). Paul speaks of an evil day that is coming, looking forward to a time of persecution that the church would face, in that time they could stand firm. But in the meantime there was a spiritual battle in which every believer would be engaged, it may not show itself in a physical way, but it takes place in the heavenly places. This same armour would protect the believer and enable each one to stand firm, ready to celebrate the victory of the Prince of Peace and King of Kings. As Paul stresses in Romans 8, we do not emerge from this battle as battered and broken victims but as those that are more than conquerors!

    The analogy that Jesus uses of the thief that would break in when the master was away is not suggesting the Jesus is like that thief, hoping to catch the servants unprepared, but his return may catch people unaware and so we like them need to be ready. The master expects to find his servants, dressed and ready for whatever he asks them to do. Everything that should have been done has been done, the house is clean and prepared ready for his return.

  1. If Jesus were to return today, would you be ready and dressed for action?
  2. Are you aware of the articles of clothing that Paul encourages us to put on and are you properly dressed?
  3. Do you sometimes feel like a battered and beaten victim more than a conqueror?

 

  1. Just one more chance
    Luke 13:6-9

    Jesus had been teaching a lot about the need to be prepared for the coming of the kingdom, challenging his hearers to start following God’s commands and acting like the people they were called to be. The Jewish nation was chosen by God to be his people but also to be an example to the other nations of how to live the way God wanted them to. They were to show that they justified God’s choice of them by their behaviour and in so doing would be considered righteous. Throughout the nation’s history they continually disobeyed God, rebelled against him and failed to produce the fruit. Matthew relates that later in his ministry Jesus warned the people: ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.’ (Matthew 21:43). In this next parable Jesus makes clear that bearing fruit was essential to possessing the kingdom of God.

    There was a man who owned a vineyard and within it he had planted a fig tree. It doesn’t seem that this was his main crop but he had decided to put a tree among the vines to give him some figs. He didn’t work in the vineyard himself but employed a worker to look after the vineyard and make sure that it was productive. Each year the owner would visit the vineyard and every time he would go and check out the fig tree to see what fruit it had yielded. For three years he expected a crop and each time he was disappointed. The man had no criticism of his steward or worker but he was extremely unhappy with the tree, ‘Cut it down’ he said, ‘it is just wasting space, your time and my money’. The steward asked the owner for one more year, he would break up the soil to help the water get to the roots, add some manure, probably prune it back a bit and see whether that would make a difference. If it didn’t produce fruit, then he agreed with his master, it should be cut down.

    Jesus’ parable was aimed at the Jewish nation, He had planted them in the midst of other nations and he expected them to produce not just fruit, but good fruit. It is when we see the fruit on a tree that we can be sure what type of tree it is. I have difficulty telling citrus trees apart, they all look the same to me, until they produce fruit. Once the fruit is there, I will know whether it is an orange or a lemon, or something else. Like the tree we are known by the fruit we bear, and the nation of Israel was expected to bear fruit that revealed that they were the people of God. But they did not. God sent to them, leaders and prophets to do what was necessary for them to grow to maturity and be fruitful, but continually they did not respond. Jesus suggests in the parable that they may have one last chance, and if once again they failed, they would be cast aside.

    Like the fig tree and the nation of Israel, God intends that we as individual believers and the church bear fruit. It is by bearing fruit that we demonstrate what we are. A church that does not bear fruit runs the risk of being left aside, Jesus points this out strongly in the letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation. Our suburbs and regions are littered with church buildings that were once thriving communities of faith but now are empty or have been turned into cafes’ or houses. Trees are good to look at and they can provide shade, but God intends that they produce fruit. This is true also of us as believers, Jesus said in John 15:8, ‘By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples’. The evidence of our faith is that we bear fruit. We may live in the orchard, but if we don’t bear fruit we don’t belong there.

  1. What fruit should the church produce?
  2. What can the farmer do to help it bear fruit?
  3. What type of fruit should you be producing, can see your faith by the fruit you bear?

 

 

Week 3

  1. While we were sleeping
    Matthew 13:24-30

    Jesus was fond of parables about farming and sowing seed, not all of them appear in every gospel account, and some writers put them at different times in Jesus’ ministry. John doesn’t include parables at all, and Matthew, Mark and Luke each write from a different perspective so the emphasis may change depending on the writer. The parable of the wheat and the weeds only occurs in the gospel of Matthew.

    The theme of the kingdom and the need to be ready for it when it comes, is a consistent thread in each of the gospels. Keeping alert and bearing fruit have been stressed and so too the need to sow seed in good soil and expect a return to come. In other parables about sowing there has been one person sowing the seed, in this parable there are two. No explanation is given why, but an enemy of the farmer was looking for an opportunity to ruin his harvest. His plan was to sow weeds in the field of wheat, so that it would either be ruined or a lot of time and energy would have to be spent repairing the damage. We are not told what this enemy would hope to gain, or whether he was just being malicious.

    The enemy saw his opportunity when the servants of the farmer were sleeping. Perhaps they should have set a guard or taken turns to watch over the field. Maybe there was no indication that anyone would want to ruin the crop, so they just finished work and went to sleep as usual. Unfortunately for the servants and the farmer his enemy sneaked in and sowed what were probably darnel seeds among the crop of wheat. Darnel was a common weed in Israel, it looked and grew like wheat but did not produce grain. Worse still, because it looked a lot like wheat it was easy to confuse the two crops while they were growing and the roots of the plants would entangle each other below ground. This meant there was danger of pulling the wheat out along with the darnel, so when the servants suggested that they try to do that, the master told them not to because of the risk to the wheat crop. When harvest came the reapers would be able to tell the difference and destroy the weeds.

    The disciples were confused by the parable and asked Jesus to explain it, which he did in verses 36-43. He identifies each of the characters, apart from the servants and explained the parable to the disciples. He is speaking of the nation of Israel as being the wheat field which had been planted by God, but Satan had planted unbelievers and rebels among them, hoping to spoil the harvest. As we apply this to today we can understand the wheat field to be God’s people, the church, that is growing in order to be ready at the time of the harvest, which is the return of Jesus as King. Sadly within the field, or the church as we understand it, there are those who look just like believers, act like them, sing the same songs  and join in all the usual activities, but they are not true believers. The time will come when their true nature will be revealed even though it may have been hidden before, that is the time when Jesus will say: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me.” (Matthew 7:21-23).

    Jesus was warning the disciples that he would separate the true disciples from those who were not, they did not need to concern themselves with pulling out the weeds, he would attend to it.

  1. How can we identify the ‘weeds’ in the people of God?
  2. How should we respond to them?
  3. Jesus is probably not speaking about false teachers here who should be obvious – how do we treat them?