Political Parables – Can Systems Change?

In this mini-series, I am not going to look at all of the parables that Herzog covers in his aforementioned book “Parables as Subversive Speech” – it is a meaty and in depth study and is packed full of punches. Rather, I will focus on the ones which impacted me the most, which caused me to sit up and take notice and forced me to re-examine how I had read it up to this point. I love it when an author/teacher does that – forces you to see something you have never seen before….it’s so good! I hope that whatever your faith background there is some stuff to really engage with here……

As a backdrop, it is important to make three brief statements:

Firstly, Herzog does an incredible job in the early part of his book in peeling back the layers to reveal what was the sociological context of the parables. If we do not understand the nature of the oppressive systems both of the temple and of Rome, then we will miss what Jesus is addressing. Herzog calls this ‘codifying’, a term also credited to Freire in his work with the ‘peasant’ classes in Brasil. These are not twee stories to make us think about cute scenarios. These are hard hitting metaphors which strike at the heart of society and call it to account. Jesus wasn’t crucified because he simply decided to hand himself in, as if all along this was his plan. He was crucified because he challenged the powers head on and there was nowhere else for them to go but to kill him (more on this another time).

Secondly, Herzog asks us to really get to the issue that Jesus was speaking to, not how we choose to clumsily interpret it today nor even how Matthew or Luke emphasised a parable one way or another. He asks us to be faithful to the text by being faithful to the speaker…..

Thirdly, any interpretation of scripture, from my point of view, must begin with Jesus, it is what is called a Jesus hermeneutic. If one starts anywhere else, it is possible to end up with a very different version of God than the One Jesus reveals the Trinity to be. Therefore, when characters are given the role of ‘God’ in these stories, we must ask ourselves if this really represents a true understanding of what Jesus is telling us that God is like i.e. exactly like him.

So, here is the parable of the Unmerciful Servant:

Matthew 18:21-35English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.[a]

23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[b] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[c] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[d] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[e] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[f]until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Footnotes:

  1. Matthew 18:22 Or seventy-seven times
  2. Matthew 18:23 Greek bondservants; also verses 2831
  3. Matthew 18:24 talent was a monetary unit worth about twenty years’ wages for a labourer
  4. Matthew 18:26 Greek bondservant; also verses 2728293233
  5. Matthew 18:28 denarius was a day’s wage for a labourer
  6. Matthew 18:34 Greek torturers
English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.

For a far better and in depth study and exegesis, you really are going to have to read the book! But here is my clumsy attempt to pull out some of the key challenges as I see them.

If it is true (and I believe it is) that Jesus is constantly speaking ‘good news for the poor’, causing people to see things they had not seen before and setting people free in the process, then we must ask what he is hitting on here.

The suggestion is this. The ‘ruler/king’ is not initially to be understood as God, but as representing the royal court of the day, which was hugely harsh on its ‘lords/managers’ and expected them to do exactly as ordered in dealing with the peasant classes so as to maintain the status quo. The first servant, who represents a manager type role has somehow got himself into a bit of a pickle and is unable to pay his debts. Jesus then invites the listeners to imagine the unimaginable. Imagine that instead of the usual, same old story of dismissing this servant, the ruler chooses to be unbelievably kind, cancel the servant’s debts and forgive him! WHAT? Totally unthinkable. That would NEVER happen in a Royal Court. There are so many others vying for the position of that manager. He would be out on his ear and the position filled by someone else who would be a more efficient bully (I wonder how many instances we find, of this latter more likely situation, in the NHS/education/MOD/businesses of various sorts….?).

Then, this same manager who receives a ‘get out of jail free’ card, goes out and finds someone who owes him a whole bunch less of a debt than he has just been forgiven. And instead of passing on the same grace and enacting a new way of being, he goes back to the same old bullying culture he has always known and been schooled in and kicks the guy whilst he is down to ensure he doesn’t lose face and his department can keep running smoothly.

The thing is, the manager is only acting in the way that he has always been taught. Top down, top dog-style leadership, running a tight ship, not taking any nonsense etc etc.

Jesus is hitting two things very hard. The first is a reality check. He is saying that it would be entirely possible for the Messiah/God himself to come and enact a whole new way of being, a modus operandi of forgiveness and mercy and for nothing to change, because we have grown so comfortable with the ways that things are that we don’t really want to change or know how to. 

Walter Brueggemann highlights something similar in his comparison of Moses and Solomon. Moses hits at and critiques the entire world system of the Pharaoh, challenging head on the numbing effects of Empire. But by the time we reach Solomon in Jerusalem, Pharaoh is back on the throne in a different guise. Solomon has become the antithesis of all that Moses was about. And so, when Jesus comes to challenge the perceived ‘wisdom of empire’ by revealing an entirely different kind of king and kingdom, the previous system is so well rehearsed and imbibed hook, line and sinker that it is highly possible nothing will change……..unless…….

Secondly, I believe Jesus is revealing the very reason why he didn’t come as the ‘Emperor of Rome’ or a ‘King of Judea’. Perhaps it is nigh on impossible to undo a system from the top down……unless…….

The Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be both utterly painful and gutsy but carries with the opportunity to be completely freeing. I see so many patients with complex problems, which present to me as a physical or psychological pain. After I have listened intently to their story and the subtle things they reveal or omit, we explore together the possible reasons for their condition.

Once we have excluded any obvious causes through history, examination and tests (where required), we meet again and probe a bit deeper. Time and again I have found in such situations where there is no obvious medical cause, that that there was some kind of hurt caused to them, which they have never been able to forgive. Many times they don’t want to forgive and sometimes they don’t know how to.

Choosing not to forgive someone always has its benefit to us, in some way, otherwise we simply would not hold on to grudges. It can be that which let’s us feel superior or something which justifies our own feelings or patterns of behaviour. But the cost of unforgiveness can be absolutely crippling, leaving a root of bitterness in our lives which can manifest itself in physical, psychological, relational and emotional pain.

I never put this idea onto someone, but have been amazed as I ask an open question to a  person about what they think the root of their problem might be, how often this issue of (un)forgiveness rears its head. They have become stuck in a moment and they can’t get out of it. (U2)!

Over the past few years I have been astounded to watch people make the brave decision to revisit past hurts and memories. Some of the memories have been so traumatic and horrific that being with them in the process has been both heart-wrenching and humbling.

But the change I have seen in people’s lives as they have chosen to forgive, to be forgiven, to restore and to be restored has been extraordinary. There are so many things that the science of medicine cannot explain. We are so uniquely knit together – mind, body and spirit and the complex intertwining relationship of these is not to be underestimated. I have seen major changes in the symptoms of MS, Chronic Fatigue, Back Pain, Unexplained Numbness, Depression, Anxiety, Addiction and Abdominal Pain (to name just a few) as people have forgiven the “unforgivable” behaviour of others or even of themselves.

James Thwaites defines health as being in right and true relationship with others, with the creation and with God, rather than necessarily the absence or presence of disease or infirmity. If he is right, and I certainly tend to agree with him on this, then the forgiveness of ourselves and others has the ability to heal us of deep pain and shame and helps us to find a beautiful healing, wellbeing and wholeness.

 

Burdened and Burnt Out?

Recently, I very nearly burnt out. Some of this was my own doing, taking on too much all at once. Along side work I was writing a dissertation and a chapter for a book and trying to be a good husband and dad and various other bits and pieces. I was feeling pretty stressed, not sleeping well, having palpitations at times (something I’ve never experienced before) and feeling close to tears. Work is full on at times and can be emotionally exhausting, dealing with and loving people in the midst of the grit and difficulties of their lives.  I got out of a good rhythm of work and rest and reached the end of myself!

A fellow health professional came to see me feeling much the same way. He said, “Andy, where do we take all this stuff? Where do we take the pain that we carry for other people, the burdens we pick up, the mistakes we make, the emotional baggage that gets placed on us?”

Is it that we become less caring? Do we need to separate ourselves out from the pain of other peoples journeys? Well, maybe sometimes….sometimes we need to have good boundaries in place and make sure we take time to rest and be restored, so we can carry on loving and giving of ourselves. But sometimes, we do need to suck it up, bear with other people in love and suffer with those who suffer. Waking up in the night thinking about the teenager you’ve seen who’s not sure they want to carry on living and spending some time thinking about their family and praying for hope and peace is part of what it means to be human, even when it doesn’t feel great to be bearing that burden with them. Jesus said that the “human one” must suffer much. Suffering because of love. To enter fully into what it means to be human, we cannot avoid the pain of others or separate ourselves out from it. To love is to embrace the ‘other’ to allow ourselves to be moved by them and to see things differently. But if we carry it all in ourselves, we can be destroyed in the process and then we are not much use to anyone.

Where do we take this pain? Where do we lay these burdens? How do we forgive the systems which cause so much anxiety and dysfunction? What do we do with the abuse we suffer? Some people use alcohol or other substances to numb the pain. Some throw themselves into activities as a distraction. Some people disengage with it altogether. Some people talk it through and lay their burdens onto others.

On good friday, I am reminded that there is a remarkable place to lay all my burdens, pain, failings, stress and anxious thoughts: at the feet of Jesus. When I look at Jesus, laying down his life, having confronted the powers that disempower and abuse the multitude, I do not see him appeasing an angry God, rather I see God Himself; suffering in the most appalling way, utterly embracing our humanity and carrying away the pain of our mess with his arms stretched wide in love. I hear his cry of forgiveness for my ego-centric failings, find his grace for the shadow and unhealed parts of my life, see in his eyes a love that knows no bounds and discover a hope that this way of life laid down love brings peace for all humanity.

I love this passage from Matthew 11, found in The Message version:

Jesus says, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burnt out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

I love that Jesus is with me in my work, doing it with me and he knows what it is to suffer. I choose again to receive his yoke, not those that others or the system try and place on me and in that, I find an incredible freedom.

A few years ago I wrote this song. Maybe you’ll find it helpful, maybe it won’t resonate with you at all. All I know is that as I engage with the pain of others, I am so glad to have found the One who can really carry my burdens and help me walk in freedom and love.

 

Revolution and Spiritual Transformation

Yesterday we were at the house of some of our best friends and I picked up their copy of the New Statesman. Given my last blog, you would think I had already seen it!  So I was excited to read from a selection of contributors what “revolution” means to them. Noam Chomsky starts by quoting Rosa Luxemburg’s ‘eloquent critique’ of Leninist doctrine: “a true social revolution requires a spiritual transformation of the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois class rule”. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick give a powerful rebuttal of those like Stalin and Mao who stole the concept of revolution in the pursuit of power and control. They are equally scathing of trivialising the very idea of revolution in the west by a pathetic misapplication of the word to things which matter very little. But they show that these things have not discredited the true idea of revolution, just as 2000 years of Crusades, child abuse, warfare and oppression perpetrated in the name of Christianity have not discredited the social revolution of Jesus Christ.

To my mind there has never been and will never be a more revolutionary person than Jesus. And if it is true that revolution requires a spiritual transformation of the masses, in my view, it is to him that we should look. Jesus had no qualms about deliberately setting a political course which utterly undermined the bourgeois class of his day. When he declared himself to be the son of God, he was directly challenging and undermining both the religious and political authorities. He came to declare that God can not be put away in a temple or related to by only a few special people, but is here to be known by everyone, whoever they are and wherever they live. He came to demonstrate that God has nothing to do with empire in any of its forms and is in fact the antithesis of it. He came to reveal the priorities of God lie not with the rich and powerful, but with the poor, the broken, the marginalised, the sick, the refugees and asylum seekers, the oppressed – in particular women and children and those in prison. His life was one of extreme love and his leadership was that of servanthood, quite different to the image of God many of us conjure up in our minds when we think of the divine….

His death was not caused by an angry God needing retribution for all the ways we have offended him. His death was the result of a life laid down, loving other people, which so challenged the status quo that they wanted rid of him. And in the moment of his death, instead of calling for retribution on his oppressors, he makes a public demonstration of how appalling human behaviour and the powers can be at times, calling us instead to the way of forgiveness. In his death we find the forgiveness for all our fallen humanity, all that seeks to control, abuse, and destroy ourselves, our communities and the earth we live in. But in his resurrection, we find hope that love is in fact stronger than death. So, when we set our lives in the way of this revolution of overcoming love, even if we lose our lives in the process, they are not lost. The ‘ruling powers’ have already been defeated by this way and one day all things will be made right, every tear will be wiped away and there will be no more war. And the fruit of our toil, no matter in what arena of life we work will be seen in those days. Jesus never came to found a religion. Nor did he come to make himself emperor. Slowly, after centuries of believing some contrary things about him, we are coming full circle to understand just how utterly radical he is.

His invitation is still there for us to stop living for ourselves, change the way we think and to follow him.  To make his priorities our priorities and in so doing to transform the world we live in. And better still, he doesn’t leave us alone, but has given us the same spirit that is within him, to be in us, so we can also recover what it means to be fully and truly human. We can be healers, reconcilers, forgivers, servants and revolutionaries just like him. As I have followed Jesus, I have found my life has been utterly transformed and I am finding the grace and power to live in this radical way. By no means am I perfect and by no means have I made it, but in him I find the hope for transformation. You can believe whatever you want to and go wherever you want to go, but if we want to see a real revolution that changes the world for good and forever, I commend Jesus as a really good place to start.