Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Difficult things

Have you ever come across one of those passages that makes you think 'what does that mean?'. I had one of those moments recently when I was looking at Luke 12vv35-48, and in particular vv41-48:

41Peter said, "Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?" 42And the Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? 43Blessed is that servant[i] whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 44Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 45But if that servant says to himself, 'My master is delayed in coming,' and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. 47And that servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. 48But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

Peter's asked his question in v41 about who the parable is for, and seemingly from the rest of the verse the parable is for servants of the master; for the disciples, for Christian people. And it's great to know that when Jesus comes again, those who are found ready, found properly looking after the other servants will be blessed. But what about those who are doing wrong? Jesus has some tough things to say to three different types of people who would call themselves Christians.

Firstly, those who delude themselves that the master isn't coming back and exploit the servants under them will be cut to pieces and put out with the unfaithful. Now I can kind of see that. People who take advantage of Christians and exploit them for their own ends won't get away with it. They will be shown at the end for what they are.

It's the next two I struggle with though. There will be some who deliberately did what Jesus didn't want and will receive a hefty beating. And there will be some who didn't know and will receive a light beating. Now I can't away from the fact that these people are servants of the master, who are being punished, so what do I do with it?

And I think it begs a bigger question. If I'm speaking on this in church, what do I do with it. I guess when I was thinking some of this through with others, it just made me realise the difference between teaching the bible and teaching the bible to people.

You see, teaching the bible to people isn't just a theoretical exercise. It's something that can and does profoundly affect people's lives for better or worse. It really makes a difference, and therefore I need to teach it rightly. God works by his Spirit, and I'm sure He helps people remeber the bits they need to hear, and forget bits that aren't right, but if I stood in front of people and told them they were in line for a beating from Jesus when they weren't it would affect people. And it could really damage some people's faith.

So then, what do you do when you just don't know and getting it wrong is a big deal? Well, I'd love to know what you'd do. I guess for me, rightly or wrongly, I'd admit to people that I didn't know and dind't want to teach them wrongly. And then I'd trust in God's grace.

6 comments:

  1. Hi, don't think u know me, although Mr Bish does, so I hope you don't mind me crashing the discussion : )

    Trainspotter, you raise some very important qs. I can think think of three things off the top of my head regarding what you wrote;

    a. humility (as you've already suggested yourself) - to admit to the congregation when u don't know for sure - to trust God's grace

    b. more hard work to understand the passage; think especially - am I asking questions the text isn't answering? -is my systematic theology correct on the issues touched by this passage or is it becoming an unhelpful veil? All the while remembering that Jesus spoke (and Luke, by the Holy Spirit, wrote) intending to be understood

    c. believe that the difficult passages of scripture are there for the benefit of God's people as well as the more obvious ones, even the passages that cause the bile to gather in the back of our throats.

    More generally, the reformers had a wonderful principle of letting the bible interpret the bible whereby they let the clearer passages set the agenda for the more difficult ones, which may help too.

    More specifically, I think the passage you refer to clearly teaches the necessity of obedience (which is different from salvation by works but is related to the bible principle that saving faith will be evidenced by works) and the reality of punishment for disobedience - a punishment that is based on knowledge and responsibility (hence the greater beating and hence the greater warning to the disciples who know more perhaps?). It perhaps also helps to remember that the 'us' of vs. 41 includes Judas who would turn out to be no disciple at all - therefore no wonder the 'servants' of the parable are likewise a mixture of real believers and those who merely profess. So too today, in the church we have real believers and pretenders and ultimately only the final judgment will once-and-for-all distinguish the two. This does not negate the possibility of being sure of my salvation but it does mean assurance isn't a glib matter (Piper talks about this very clearly in an excellent talk on 'the perseverence of the saints' in his series of TULIP sermons available from monergism.com).

    Hope that perhaps helps.

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  2. Trainspotter,
    one of the things it is worth bearing is mind is that, by and large, parables are not allegories. Jesus is not (necessarily) to be be identified with the Master, or Christians (necessarily) with the servants - and so on.

    The point of parables is generally to be pithy and illustrative. What is the Kingdom of God like, well a bit like a unjust judge who only gives justice because a widow keeps pestering him... or a pesky weedy mustard seed that ruins your field... and so on. (Is God an unjust judge, is his reign weedy, or is he a sadist slave-beating Master? Clearly not)

    They are more like incongruous sermon illustrations. They are often ad hoc formulations and are meant to send you home with, 'oh yes, i see' sense, sometimes a chuckle, and sometimes (as in this case) more of a frown.

    For this one, the Christian is meant (as I read it) to go away amd remember to be attentive about their faith *as if* they were good stewards who await their master who might come home at any moment. (In fact there's nothing in this parable about the Bible at all - although that might well for us be a vital part of keeping a vibrant faith: again, that's to slip out of parable into allegory.)

    I think if we go away thinking God will beat us (more or less) or 'cut us in pieces' (a hyperbole that it is difficult to imagine most human masters doing!) then we've made an error both in genre-recognition and about the nature of God.

    After all, speaking not in parables (although still employing metaphor) the writer of the first letter of John reminds us that 'There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.'(1 John 4:18).

    I don't think our motivation as Christians is to act as terrified slaves to a sadist Master. For freedom Christ has set me free... None of this is to be reticent or uncareful about our discipleship of Jesus, but to my mind, that has to be set on the right footing, not the wrong one.

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  3. I agree with what you say on parables. I think the difficutly in this one is it does imply some sense of punishement. THough I don't think that the frist servant will be literally 'cut into pieces' the end result is he is punished and sent away from the kingdom, as there are no 'unbelievers' in the household.
    And thought you're right in not taking parables too literally, I think the metaphor of the master being Jesus is there coming off the back of vv35-40 and in the context of Peter's question.

    Pete, I thikn you're right in the point you make about Judas, and I have no trouble wth Him being in the first group and thrown out with the unbelievers, it's the other two servants which as well seem to present groups within groups.

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  4. I think the point Mark makes about parables is probably true most of the time. However, even if we work from non-parable evidence the bible still clearly teaches that true saving faith will be evidenced by obedience (not perfect obviously), without which we are right to question our assurance.

    For example,

    Jam 1:22-5 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.
    For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.
    For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.
    But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

    And also

    Jam 2:14-19 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
    If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,
    and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled," without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?
    So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
    But someone will say, "You have faith and I have works." Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.
    You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder!

    We must remember that James is writing to those he regards as believers. Similarly John in his first epistle says

    1Jo 2:4-5 Whoever says "I know him" but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him:

    and also

    1Jo 4:16-21 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
    By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.
    There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
    We love because he first loved us.
    If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

    This kind of theology seems to fit perfectly with the parable in Luke 12. Real faith produces obedience (however faltering). Those who claim (and even outwardly appear) to be christians but who carry on in wilful disobedience of the master will face his wrath on the day of judgment (which of course will not be capricious or over the top or sadistic but will still be real wrath and just at that). Therefore we should not be like the servants of Luke 12 and know what the master says but totally ignore it. If we do that we have no right to the sweet assurance offered in 1 John 4:18. The answer if wee think we are in that state is of course to repent and turn to the cross again because if we do sin we have an advocate with the Father as John puts it so well -

    1Jo 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.
    1Jo 2:2 He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

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  5. Thanks both Mark and Pete for taking the time to post those replies. I found them very helpful.

    I agree with both of you about the obedience thing, and I think I'd be able to teach that a lot better now.

    I guess the bit that still sticks in my mind (maybe it shouldn't) is the differentiation between the first servant who is thrown out with the unbelievers and the other two who aren't. I am prepared to be reading too much into the parable here like Mark suggested though.

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  6. Pete & Trainspotter. I believe you are acquainted.

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