Ready for Paul?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Looking for stories behind the rest of the parables

The rest of the parables: I don't suppose we'll get through all these in one week at our group, but I'll post them here anyway, just in case.

Getting out of Nazareth--The Sea of Galilee: Joseph was a skilled laborer, and there probably wasn’t much called for skilled labor in Nazareth. He may well have travelled further into Galilee on occasion, and may well have taken Jesus with him.

a.       Fishing in Galilee: Read Matthew 13:47-48

It’s about 40 miles from Nazareth to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, so it’s a good long walk, but Jesus may have done it at some point, perhaps when Joseph was looking for work more fitting to his trade. While there Jesus would have seen fishermen and might have watched them sort through their catch.

Most of us don’t catch fish for a living, but what about when we sort through our “stuff.” How great is the temptation to hoard? What’s the difference between hoarding and preserving? When we read that we’ll be saved, but possibly through fire (1 Corinthians 3:15) what image does that give of how God will save us, and how precious we are to him?

b.      Flowers in Galilee: Read Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 12:22-32

The fields around Galilee are more fertile than the land near Nazareth, so the plethora of flowers and birds may have really impressed Jesus when he first encountered them.

Birds work very hard to find enough to eat, and flowers use lots of energy to grow. But Galilean birds didn’t fly to Nazareth to find out if life was better there. And Galilean flowers didn’t uproot themselves to try out different fields. What does worry make us do or try to do?

c.       Roman officials in Caesarea: Read Luke 19:12-27

Caesarea was on the coast, slightly further from Nazareth than Capernaum. It was a rich cosmopolitan place and Joseph may have taken Jesus there in search of skilled laboring jobs. There would have been many Greeks and Romans there, and Jesus may well have seen someone return from a trip after being given authority over a business enterprise or small town. Obstreperous employees could have been gathered at the dockside complaining that they didn’t want him ruling over them.

Do we want the President ruling over us? Congress? State government? Our church denomination? Church elders? God? What determines how we feel about those in authority over us, and what should determine how we feel?

2.       Jerusalem: We know Jesus travelled with Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. Such trips may well have been a regular occurrence.

a.       The Dangerous Road to Jerusalem: Luke 10:30-37

The shortest route from Nazareth to Jerusalem would take you through Samaria. A longer, safer route involved crossing the Jordan and taking the Roman road through the Decapolis, but if Jesus travelled through Samaria on one of his trips to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, he may well have encountered someone left behind after a bandit attack.

Can you think of situations where we’re tempted to let someone suffer instead of offering relief—and tempted to feel good about not helping?

b.      A fortress on the road to Jerusalem: Luke 14:28-30

As they approached Bethlehem, travelers would see the Herodium fortress standing on its hill. Jesus might have asked about how it was built, and stories of Herod’s grand plans might have helped him think of this parable.

What is your grandest plan, and where does God fit into it?

c.       An army on the road to Jerusalem: Luke 14:30-33

They would probably have seen Roman soldiers marching in formation along the road. Travelers would share stories of how the country fell to Rome.

Do you ever feel like God has pursued you and defeated you? What’s the biggest thing you’ve given up for him? What would you find hardest to give up control of?

d.      Whitewashed Tombs on the road to Jerusalem: Read Matthew 23:27

Jesus would have seen these tombs by the roadside as the family neared Jerusalem.

What aspects of our lives do we try to hide, even from ourselves? How do we balance open honesty with honest privacy? Can you think of any occasions when your words of actions might justify Jesus’ calling you a whitewashed tomb?

e.      Visiting prisoners in Jerusalem: Read Matthew 25:31-46

There must have been a prison in Jerusalem. Jesus may have seen people carrying food to pass through the bars to prisoners.

If someone has done something wrong, would we rather see them suffer or see them well provided for?

f.        The Jerusalem money-lender: Read Luke 7:41-43

We imagine financial business taking place behind closed walls. But it probably didn’t in Jerusalem, and Jesus may well have seen debtors pray for relief from the money-lender.

Famous Christians have commented that the closer they come to God the more aware they become of how far away they really are. See Romans 6:1. Do we “miss out” if we’ve never been great sinners, or can we become more aware of just how sinful we are as we draw closer to Christ?

g.       The shrewd manager: Read Luke 16:1-8

This one’s another story of financial shenanigans, perhaps observed by the young Jesus as he walked around Jerusalem.

I’ve often wondered if the servant was rehired at the end of this story, so the master could gain use of his negotiating skills. Perhaps the lesson is that we should be as wise in dealing with God’s people as this servant was in dealing with people like himself. What sort of skills should be of most value in the context of God’s kingdom on earth?

h.      Servant in debt: Read Matthew 18:23-34

The “unforgiving servant” was forgiven his debt by his master but then refused to forgive his friend, and was thrown into jail. Maybe Jesus saw someone dragged off to jail when he was visiting Jerusalem.

We so often tie forgiving to forgetting, as if we can’t have forgiven someone if we still remember what they did. But this master doesn’t forget; he ends up punishing the servant after all. Do you think we’re supposed to forget people’s past deeds when we forgive them? Would it even be fair, since that might result in our causing them to be tempted and fall again?

i.        Servant in charge: Read Matthew 25:14-30

Large households in towns like Jerusalem didn’t have walls all around them. Instead people could see inside from the street and watch what was going on. When the rich man returned and called his servants to tell what they’d done with his money, Jesus may even have watched a lazy servant dig a bag of gold out of the ground.

Of course, using the word “talents” instead of “gold” conveys a whole different image in modern English. Has God really given us talents that we’re meant to use for him? What’s the difference between a natural talent and a spiritual gift?

j.        The Beggar at the Gate: Read Luke 16:19-31

There were lots of beggars in Jerusalem. This story may have been inspired by Jesus’ seeing dogs licking a beggar’s sores while the rich householder walked past.

God doesn’t tell us never to have doubts, but he does say there’s enough evidence to convince those willing to see him. What evidence do you find most convincing? Where do you turn when doubts creep in?

k.       The Pharisee in the Temple: Read Luke 18:9-14

The temple wasn’t a nice little village church. It had huge courtyards, set up for Gentiles (at the outside) woman and children (next) and men in the most central court. Jesus could have stood there with Joseph and seen people like the Pharisee and tax collector—the Pharisee close to the altar perhaps, where priests could admire him, and the tax collector clinging to the wall as far away as possible.

Do you find it easier to list the good things you do, or to confess your failings? Which one is easier when talking to friends? Which is easier when talking to God?

3.       Bethlehem: Jesus had family in Bethlehem, and would almost certainly have visited them on his trips to Jerusalem.

a.       Lost sheep near Bethlehem: Read Matthew 18:12-13, Luke 15:4-6

Jesus would probably have visited Bethlehem on the way to the Temple at Jerusalem when he was a child. Sheep grazed on the hills and came down to the stables when the weather got too cold. Jesus may even have met the same shepherds who came to his birth-stable on occasion. And he may have met a shepherd who’d just returned from seeking a lost sheep.

If Jesus is comparing us to straying sheep, do we feel insulted or thrilled that he would look for us?

b.      Sorting out the flocks near Bethlehem: Read Matthew 25:31-46

Would Jesus have watched Bethlehem shepherds separating flocks—flocks of sheep belonging to different owners, or flocks of sheep and goats?

This is one of those parables where Jesus makes his meaning abundantly clear. It’s also abundantly scary. My Granddad used to say “There but for the grace of God go I” when he saw someone in trouble, whether by misfortune or by their own fault. We praise God when misfortunes pass us by. Do we also praise him when misfortune falls on us? And who do we praise when we praise when we avoid doing wrong?

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