Canonicity of Self

What is true… real… reliable? Each of us have our own criteria.

The most universal criteria is “It feels correct.” This is not in itself wrong. We were designed (by God) to evaluate affectively and unconsciously, every bit as much or more than cognitively and consciously. Captain Kirk is better at making decisions than Mr. Spock… or HAL. However, for our feelings to work well, they do need to be well-trained. Healthy beliefs guide our “personal culture” that interprets experience and guides behavior. As these beliefs become internalized, they become part of our values— our affective part of our thought patterns.

Image result for ad hominem

But, regardless, our feelings do fail us at times… so we need some good humility and feedback loops to challenge our decisions.

Probably the second most universal criteria is “ad hominem.” That term relates to an argument or reaction “directed against a person rather than the position they are maintaining.” But one can broaden the concept more to say:

  • I accept some things to be true because a person I respect espouses it.
  • I accect some things as false because a person I do not respect espouses it.
  • I agree with a person because they repeat what I already believe to be true.
  • I disagree with a person because they challenge what I already believe to be true.
  • I trust a person because I assume their motives are in line with my own.
  • I distrust a person because I assume their motives are dissonant with my own.

Both of these are understandable and very human. But they both essentially come down to a “Canonicity of Self.”

My children are into anime’ and computer games and such. They often talk about canonicity in story lines— what stories or games are considered to be canon to the created world they exist in, and what are not. What games involving Mario and Luigi (of all things) are part of an official story line, and what things were created with no formal connection to the rest. Once a canon is determined, one can analyze characters, causalities, relationships, and timelines. Without a canon that is external to the individual, there is just a pooling of opinions.

The role of Canon in one’s faith life and lived life is huge in my opinion. Reformed theologians classically embrace “Soli Scriptorum” (Scripture only… or at least Primacy of Scripture). I can see value in that. One starts from an accepted cononical scripture, and deduces theological principles.

But the other direction is at least as important. That is that Scripture, as canon, provides the criteria to test against.

Properly speaking Canonicity needs to push in both directions. Beliefs should be drawn from the whole of Scripture, and then the veracity of other truth claims.

I find it interesting that many Christians complain about post-modern thought— subjectivity (or at least inter-subjectivity) over objectivity. Yet many of these same Christians commonly utilize themselves as the standard for truth. Then they find Biblical passages to support their own opinions. That process is backwards.

To Tell the Truth in Context

When I was young, a TV show I liked to watch was called “To Tell the Truth.” One person with an interesting job or story would be joined with others to talk to a board of celebrity panelists. The goal of the panelists iwas to determine who is telling the truth and who is lying. The goal of the contestants is to all talk as if, and answer questions as if, they they are the person being presented. Fooling the panelists would put money in the pockets of the contestants. My understanding is that they have revived this show in the US, but I haven’t seen it since I am now in Asia. Image result for to tell the truth show

The goal in the show, really, is not to lie but to deceive. Fooling the panelists is the aim, regardless of whether one uses lies or truth or half-truths or deceptive language.

Lies are a rather complicated thing. When young we are told that lying is telling something that isn’t true. But most jokes, parables, hypothetical problems, and such are, strictly speaking, not true (not based on reality or fact). We then learn that lying has as much to do with motive as fact. That’s why the key concept is “bearing false witness”— speaking falsehood to circumvent justice or promote corruption.

Then we start learning more subtleties such as saying things that are actually true, but are designed to misinform or deceive. I recall reading a fun article on writing references for former employees— using language that sounds rather positive, but is actually quite negative. For a former employee who would steal office supplies, “With Howard leaving, I definitely feel a great loss in our office.”

LIes and deception get more confusing when filtered through culture. When I was in the Navy, we had a huge amount of evaluation inflation. So if I wrote about one of my men in the division, “He is a very hard worker and deserves a promotion”— that was actually a slam. I wanted him out of my division. If he really WAS a very good worker I would say something like, “This many is top-notch, the best in my division and certainly one of the best in his rate anywhere in the Navy. He should be immediately promoted.” Something like that (I am out of practice). In the first sentence above where I described the person above as a hard worker, I was not lying. That is because meaning is always filtered through culture. BUPERS was able to clearly interpret what I was writing without confusion.  I was using truthful language withing the culture of Naval evaluation language.  I recall getting a bad evaluation in the Navy. It said I was smart, capable, hard-charging officer, and certain in the top 15% of other officers of my rank in the Navy. That was a very negative evaluation— and I knew it because I was very familiar with the language of evaluations. But because the words actually sound nice, it makes the negative message feel better. The evaluation could have said, “Bob is a dirtbag and should be dumped out of the Navy at the first opportunity, ” that the wording in the eval sounds much nicer. Cultures often provide a more pleasant way to say unpleasant things.

It becomes more challenging when people are from different cultures. Living in Asia, many Americans get angry because “Asians lie.” They say one thing, but mean another. However, that is often not true. Often they will say “Yes” when they really mean “No.” However, their tone of voice, and body language, make it very clear that they are really saying “No.” Many times, I have asked something from a friend or co-worker of mine, and they say “Yes,” they can do what I ask. But I can hear and see that the word is not in line with what they mean. So I respond with something like… “Well, maybe some other time, but thanks.” Then I see the tension leave them and they smile as if to say, “I am so glad you understood what I was trying to say.” If they meant “No” why would they say “Yes” but then mix it with verbal and physical cues to point to the opposite? There can be multiple reasons… but mostly it is related to the relationship game. Saying “Yes” to a request for a favor that the person cannot or doesn’t want to grant is like saying, “Your relationship with me is important. Therefore, I will say ‘Yes’ but I hope you understand that I am really saying ‘Yes’ to the relationship, not to the request.”

These subtleties are often lost on Westerners… but, truthfully, everyone does it.

In Osoba O. Otaigbe’s book “Building Cultural Intelligence in Church and Ministry” there is an interesting help that was given to immigrants or foreign workers who were living in England. The guide was meant to help the people understand what the British mean when they say some things. Here are some of the helps.

When British people say:  “I hear what you say.”

They mean:  “I disagree and do not wish to discuss it any further.”

When British people say:  “With the greatest respect…”

They mean:  “I think you are a fool.”

    <By the way, despite what one sees on some military TV shows, such as NCIS, military personnel do not say things like “With all due respect…” or “Request permission to speak freely.” At least they didn’t when I was in the Navy. That was because bot statements were universally understood to mean, “Captain, you are full of %$@&!”>

When British people say:  “Not bad.”

They mean:  “Good or very good.”

When British people say:  “Quite good.”

They mean:  “A bit disappointing.”

When British people say:  “Oh, by the way, …”

They mean:  “This is the primary purpose of the discussion.”

When British people say:  “That is an original point of view.”

They mean:  “You must be crazy.”

When British people say:  “I am sure it is my fault.”

They mean:  “It is your fault.”

This is not strictly a British thing.

When my dad would say, “Oh… can’t complain.”

He meant:  “I am have most excellent time, thank you.”

When an American says, “What’s up?” or “How ya doin’?”

They mean:  Very little beyond “I acknowledge your passing near me.”

When Christans respond to a request with “I will pray about it.”

They mean:  “I don’t plan to be of much help, but I hope things turn out okay.”

When Americans say, “Let’s do lunch sometime.”

They mean:  “I think you are okay of a person, but not okay enough to spend time with.”

When Americans say, “I’m kind of busy.”

They mean, “I don’t plan to reprioritize may schedule to accommodate you.”

It is pretty clear that language is filtered through culture and context. As such, where meaning is accurately transmitted from one person to another in one setting, may very much deceive in another.

In missions, meaning matters. Meaning is found in sentences not words, and in context, not in a “vaccuum.” This is one of the many reasons that effective communication is so difficult on the field.  Unlike the show “To Tell the Truth,”  our goal is not to deceive but to inform and enlighten. But it is easy in the mission field to confuse and deceive by telling the truth while not understanding the context.

Christians and 21st Century Tribalism

“Tribalism” is a great word that has become bandied about in recent days. There are different definitions:

a very strong feeling of loyalty to a political or social group, so that you support them whatever they do      (Cambridge Dictionary)

loyalties that people feel towards particular social groups and to the way these loyalties affect their behaviour and their attitudes towards others.  (Collins Dictionary)

loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group  (Merriam-Webster website)

Drawing these things together one may say that:

Tribalism involves loyalty to one group that demonstrates itself in strongly positive feelings for that group, negative feelings or animosity for groups seen to be in competition, and behavior that serves as an outlet for those feelings.

Thus, tribalism is based on emotions and these emotions trigger behavior that may not make sense except in terms of such emotions. Consider the following situation. Suppose John is a member of the “Blue Team.” And as such sees himself as opposed to the “Green Team” and all members of that group.  (If you know your Byzantine history, you may recognize these groups.) Consider the following situations and the tribalistic responses.

  • Blues have power and good things happen?  John credits the Blues.
  • Blues have power and bad things happen?  John excuses Blues (bad things happen despite their best efforts) and/or blames the Greens for undermining the work of the Blues.
  • Greens have power and good things happen? John credits Blues in their minority role, and/or disconnects the good from the activities of the Greens.
  • Greens have power and bad things happen? John blames the Greens.
  • Blues do things that are good? John sees the actions as evidence of Blues’ inherent virtue.
  • Blues do things that are bad? John sees them as “necessary,” to overcome the evils of the Greens.
  • Greens do things that are good? John recognizes that they were done of evil or self-serving motives by the Greens.
  • Greens do bad things? John sees that as evidence of the Greens’ inherent lack of virtue.

This sort of behavior has been around, perhaps, back to Babel. It is human nature. I would like to think that people find this sort of behavior to be a bit humorous. I would like to think that people who see others showing such knee-jerk responses on FB or other forms of social and public media to be rather… “funny.” But I am not so sure. Some seem to take this stuff seriously. Many of my friends seem to not see the inconsistencies — “not get the joke.”

Frankly, I don’t care all that much whether people take it seriously or not. Fanatical tribalism has been with us for a long, long time. There will always be some people who will react like John described above, because their focus is on power. They fear what it would be like not to have power… or to remain without power.

But what about us as Christians. Is that how we are supposed to act?

Well, in the Bible, there seems to be a general rejection of this form of tribalism. In the Hebrew Bible, this may not be as evident. The prophets could be quite brutal in their castigation of the surrounding nations. However, the prophets of Israel were at least as hard on their own people. Arguably they were more harsh with their words for their own people. They would complain about the immorality, corruption, idolatry of the “chosen people.” Why not focus more consistently on how much worse were the surrounding peoples? I believe itImage result for us versus them was because their focus was not on “tribalism,” promoting the IMAGE that Israel is better than everyone else. Rather, they were seeking to encourage Israel to be better, more holy, in FACT.

In the New Testament, this form of encouragement is far more clear. Very little time is spent in the New Testament to talk about how bad the Greeks and the Romans were. Yet if the NT writers were so inclined it would pretty easy to point out the many many moral flaws. of the peoples that Christians interacted with. And this would be even easier since Christians were a persecuted bunch— a people without power. Rather the writers appear to spend much more time attempting to follow the guidance of Jesus.

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged.  For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye? Hypocrite! First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.    (Matthew 7:1-5.  HCSB)

There is a whole industry of Bible scholars and ethicists who argue as to how to apply this passage. But, it seems to reject the foundational principles of toxic tribalism at least on an individual level. It seems, additionally, that the Apostles took the principles of Christ to a level of community as well. They focused on the call to righteous behavior of the body of Christ, rather than try to lift up the community by emphasizing the flaws of outsiders.

There does seem to be one exception. Jesus really went after the Scribes and Pharisees. The Gospel writers recorded so many strong words against the Pharisees that in the church, the term became a byword. There were occasional examples of Jesus having a more positive relationship with this group (such as Nicodemus), but the general tone was adversarial. In recent decades study of the writings of the rabbinical community of the 1st century has created considerable controversy. It was found that the Pharisees often were quite in agreement with Jesus on many issues. This has led some to believe that the Gospel writers were disconnected from the events of the life of Christ. After all, if they were eyewitnesses or had direct access to such witnesses, surely they would have seen the Pharisees in a much more positive light. Others also have questioned regarding Paul. His writings seem to provide an image that is harsher than reality. Perhaps Paul was never actually a Pharisee.

To me, the above issues are resolved if one rejects tribalism as a presumptive behavior. If one rejects it, then the Pharisees were seen more as partners. They share a common devotion to God and to His revelation. So Jesus was quite strong in His words of challenge to them. He was much less harsh with the Sadducees, with whom He had less in common, and even less harsh with other groups with whom He had less commonality.

Of course, in church history, things began to change. The change started with the Apologists in the 2nd century.  Aristides, for example, compared Christians to other groups such as Greeks, Pagans, and Jews. He showed Christians in a very positive light to the other groups. However, the purpose was neither primarily to “feel good about ourselves,” nor to tear down other groups. Rather, it was to show that Christians are good citizens of the Roman Empire and do not need to be persecuted. However, over the centuries, power politics began to dominate, and has continued to today.

So as Christians today, what should we do… when it comes to our relationships in the arenas of government and religion.

If our call is to behave in line with power politics, than tribalistic behavior is appropriate. We whitewash our own failures, and the failures of those we judge to be friends, and attack consistently the failures of others, and question their motives. This is the behavior of many cults— and many Christians as well.

If our call is to follow Christ, we focus on righteousness and on our own failures. We spend less focus on specks in the eyes of others. In fact, we may even applaud the virtues of others. This is a tougher path since we are not focusing on power in a human sense, but on being conformed to Christ. It means not putting our understanding of what is right through the filter of “are they for us or against us.”



Theological Education Overseas

I recently wrote a short article for The Fellowship of Baptist Educators. The article is located Here.

This particular organization supports American seminary professors giving of their time to teach at Bible Schools and Seminaries overseas.

Missions that focuses on theological education is a bit controversial.

  • For some, it is a poor use of resources. A few years ago, a major mission agency that I had some tangential involvement in, began to decimate, and then destroy its program for seminary training overseas. The argument was that focus should be on placing resources into work with Unreached People Groups. The lack of logic here seems stunning to me. If one is seeking to reach unreached Asian groups, the best use of resources seems to me to be training Asians to reach them. Perhaps the underlying logic is that they could get more giving from supporters if they got some quick numbers (and training pays off in the long-term more than short-term). Or perhaps there was the underlying belief that Jesus is “returning any day now.” But if Jesus is returning very soon, our role is to serve faithfully and with excellence, rather than focus on short-term projects. And if Jesus is not returning soon, then education makes even more sense.
  • Others, however, can be concerned about theological imperialism. This appears to me to  be a more valid concern. Often theologians go overseas and do more in terms of indoctrination than education. Here in the Philippines we find people arguing about KJV versus NIV, or whether Halloween is a good or bad holiday— things that really should have ZERO relevance here. Others seem more interested in promoting their own denomination or their own theological spin (Whether it be some form of Pentecostalism, Reformed Theology, Complementarianism, Nuothetic Counseling, and so on) rather than empowering locals to have their own contextualization of the Christian faith.

While this second point has some strength, I still feel that theological educators are a good thing.

  1. If we accept that the church has a spiritual unity, then we benefit from communication, in instruction from each other. We grow through each other. This occurs, however, if their is humility from all parties, and mutuality (all sides learning from all sides).
  2. Theological imperialism occurs with or without instructors. Horrible theology flows from 1st world countries to majority world countries continuously via TV preachers, radio preachers, books, brochures, podcasts, and websites. So often friends of mine here quote some TV preacher and talk about how wonderful they are. Even when the person is not so bad, it becomes clear quite fast that their trust in this talking head has short-circuited their own Biblical and Theological process. I end up giving some vague response that I hope will cover up my real feelings about the preacher and his/her beliefs without actually lying. A good theological instructor can help a student develop tools to analyze and develop their own theological perspectives. Sadly, in this globalized setting, localized theology will not develop by removing instructors. Someone will fill the void… often someone who should be critiqued and found wanting.


A Short Visit Home After a Long Time

In my newsletter to supporters I noted my visit to the USA after an absence of many years and some of my thoughts of the changes I have seen. Some liked this, so I am sharing it here, with some additional stuff that did not go into the newsletter for the sake of length.

Being the first time to visit the US in 6 years (not counting a 5-day quick-trip in 2013), one gets a chance to see how things have changed in the US. It seems like changes in the US are less extreme than in the Philippines. Still, some things are noticeable. Some of them are positive or neutral:

  • People are more focused on health and exercise than they were before. Fitness centers appear to be quite crowded a lot of the time, and less people heavier than me I see walking around. (6 years ago I felt quite small with so many BIG people walking around… much less on this trip.)
  • More food choices are available for those with food allergies. So many types of nut milks are available in the stores now, as well as gluten-free products. We were shocked to have great gluten-free pretzels on the plane ride over to the US, and even more shocked to taste a wonderful gluten-free chocolate cake at Wiltsie Community Church. Who knew? I visited Yoder’s Market in Madison, Virginia. What was once a small little store has now become like a Mennonite “Whole Foods” with all sorts of healthy foods and products (with just enough unhealthy foods to make it interesting to me).
  • In some level of conflict with the health food thing, we were thrilled to discover that Mallo Cups are back in production at Boyer’s Candies in Altoona, PA, and we had the wonderful treat called “Sponge Candy,” a Western New York specialty for the first time at Peterson’s Candies in Busti, NY.
  • Lots of help-wanted signs all over the place, even though mostly for entry-level jobs. Even places that are very economically depressed (like where I was raised) had lots of entry-level jobs available. My friends there told me it was because “no one wants to work.” I am not sure if that is reality or not. My son, who decided to live in the United States for awhile, quickly found a job as a server in a Filipino restaurant in Virginia Beach, earning low wages, I suppose, by US standards, but would be a dream come true for many from the Philippines. Of course the cost of living in the States is HUGE compared to the Philippines… but still Joel should be able to save money if he sets his mind to it.
  • Much greater use of credit cards and debit cards in transactions. Some people appear almost surprised when one pays with cash. This was the first time I had ever used a credit card utilizing chip-technology. I had to admit to a couple of store clerks lacking a skill that every American over the age of 8 or 9 knew— but soon I figured things out. I also had to websearch how to use a car with keyless ignition that I rented. I did not want to tell the clerk that I did not know how to start a car.
  • Most people I met were quite friendly. Even the lady who took care of me at the DMV when I renewed my driver’s license was nice. I told my son Joel to expect less friendliness in the US than what he was used to in the Philippines. Friendliness is a cultural characteristic in the PI. But Joel and I were surprised at the general friendliness. It seems like a bit of a different form of friendliness than we find in the Philippines, but haven’t quite figured out to identify the difference. It is much like the issue of families. The Philippines is known for a strong family-orientation in contrast to the US. And this is quite true. However, Philippine families will often do horrible things to their own members that would be shocking, and sometimes criminal, in the US. And this behavior is considered rather normative. I haven’t quite figured out how to resolve this seeming contradiction.

There were some more negative things I saw as well.

  • The biggest thing I saw was a much greater level of FEAR wherever I looked. Sometimes that Fear was shown with the more obvious symptoms. At other times, it was seen disguised as Anger or stylized Patriotism. There was a clear fear of losing (individual or group) power. I am hoping that by the next time I visit, more people understand that power is something to be eschewed, not hoarded.
  • News coverage in the US is abysmal. People I talk to in the US fully agree that news coverage there is bad, but then add that their own favorite source of news coverage is good. But they are wrong. They are all bad. The “badness” is not just due to spin or perspective, but lack of coverage. I live overseas so I wanted to listen to international news. There is no international news on TV in the States. On TV they have two types of news– American news that occurs in the States and American news that occurs outside of the States. News that is not directly related to American political or military interests is simply not shared. While I was home, the only news on TV that I saw that was International and not directly related to American interests was the volcanic eruption in Guatemala. The only major exception to this was on radio where NPR (national public radio) did actually have International news. Some of my friends would probably disapprove of NPR because of its “political slant.” But if providing a political slant is problematic, it is much less problematic than not reporting news at all. I struggle to reconcile this with news in the Philippines where its International news coverage is often quite excellent, and often far better than its home coverage. (Of course being a local journalist in the Philippines can be a dangerous thing.)
  • It seems as if Memorial Day (a celebration much like Undas in the Philippines where one honors friends and relatives who have passed on before) has now become another Veteran’s Day. I am a veteran of the US Navy so perhaps I should feel good about that… but there already is a Veteran’s Day. I cannot see why we need two. I juggled my schedule to make sure that I was not preaching on Memorial Day, and I attended a Filipino church in Virginia Beach (ICCVA) that did not confuse faith and patriotism. That was nice.

Regardless, it was a joyful trip, meeting a lot of old friends, and even a few new ones. It also had its bittersweet moments— cleaning the stone monuments of relatives at the cemetery, being unable to visit people who have died over the previous 6 years, being struck by changes in places that make them feel less like home. A couple of churches I visited appeared to be struggling not to die having lost much of the younger generation. I also visited some churches that are full of vigor and growing. The stories of the death of the church in America is clearly exaggerated, but I suspect that Christians may have to learn to adapt to trends where the church will lack the honor it has had in the past (much like in many other parts of the world). I think this is part of the fear of many I met during my visit… but the church has commonly been stronger when operating in an atmosphere of dishonor.

It was nice to be home for three weeks. Home, however, is a tricky thing. I recall the gospel song, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through…”. But our home is still here… and in missions I have several homes. Ivory, NY was my first home, then Virginia Beach, VA, then Charlottesville, VA, and finally Baguio City, Philippines became my fourth. Having more than one home can make one feel a bit rootless— always a stranger in a strange land— and yet, it also gives one connections in many places. It is, in some ways, a joy to have several homes.

Inter-religious Dialogue as a Tool

I have recently, finally, started working on my book on Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). I should not have been so slow. I will be teaching the course starting in October (2018). This is the third time I have taught the course, but this will be the first time with my own text. I hope to have at least a rough draft ready by then.

The following is the rough draft of the Introduction.

Imagine that you have a toolbox. Imagine you are a carpenter, and in your toolbox you have only one tool — perhaps a hammer. Can you build a house only with a hammer? Poorly at best. Can you hammer screws? Again poorly. Other tasks are likely even worse — leveling, sawing, drilling, and more. The results would be poor. The carpenter would be exhausted and the constructed house would be a disaster.

A wise carpenter has three things:

  • A toolbox with a variety of tools of the trade

  • Skills in how to use each of the tools effectively

  • Wisdom to know which tool to use for each task

Now imagine that each Christian has a toolbox of skills associated with serving God. Some tools may be spiritual disciplines such as prayer, bible study, witnessing, and mediation. Other tools may be less specifically religious such as teaching, polemics, argument, encouragement, and counseling. Having a wide variety of skills/disciplines is important, but this is not enough.

One must know how to use eachtool well. A carpenter may have a power saw, but still need considerable training to use it well. A minister may “know how to preach,” but still there is a great distance beween this and preaching well or effectively.

Skillful use is not enough. One must have the wisdom to know the right tool to use in each specific circumstance. Some people are very skilled in prayer, but as important as prayer can be, there are times when prayer is the wrong tool… or at least an inadequate tool. A hungry neighbor needs more than prayer. There are times when preaching is needed, and times when it is inappropriate or unhelpful.

This book is about a tool — dialogue. Specifically, it is about the tool of dialogue, and how it can be used effectively as a Christian minister in interacting with people of other faiths.

At a basic level, most everyone knows how to do dialogue. But this does not mean that everyone is equally competent to dialogue well. This also does not mean that everyone knows when to use it and when not.

This book is primarily aimed at missionaries and ministers who work in cross-cultural or religiously pluralistic settings. However, the places on earth that are monocultural and religiously monolithic are decreasing rapidly. Therefore, there are fewer and fewer ministers who can say that they are competent in their ministry without skills in inter-religious dialogue.

Philosophically, this book sees inter-religious dialogue as seeking understanding. This is in contrast to those who see it primarily in terms of relativization of beliefs at one extreme, and apologetics at the other. As such it is consistent with Evangelicals, who take very seriously their own truth convictions regarding religious faith. However, it also challenges the presumption of many Evangelicals that the most effective way to interact with people of other faiths is through preaching or teaching (one-way communication), or through arguing.

Sadly, a book is by its nature a form of one-way communication. Since this book is about dialogue, it is my hope that readers will have an opportunity to go through this book with others — and especially with others of a variety of viewpoints. Dialogue, as a tool, is practiced, not simply read about; and is made sharp through practice with those of diverse opinions.

Sowers and Storytellers

Matthew 13 is an interesting chapter and is a place where the Parable of the Sower is given. However, in the same chapter are two more sowers. They are described in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

Parable of the SowerImage result for parable of wheat and tares

Image result for parable of wheat and tares

Sower One who shares the Word of God

Seed God’s Word

Parable of the Wheat and Tares

Good Sower Son of Man (Christ)

Evil Sower The Evil One (Satan)

Good Seed Wheat

Evil Seed Tares (Darnel Ryegrass

Parable of the Mustard Seed

Sower Not identified… but presumably God/Christ

Seed Kingdom of God

On the other hand, one can reverse it and compare the different roles:

Role of God

Parable of the Sower The One who has the message that brings fruit

Parable of the Wheat and Tares The One (Son of Man) who sows the good seed

Parable of the Mustard Seed The One who initiates the Kingdom of God

Role of Satan

Parable of the Sower The one who snatches the message from people

Parable of the Wheat and Tares The one who plants the bad/evil seed

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not in this parable

Role of the “Righteous”

Parable of the Sower Those who hear and understand the message

Parable of the Wheat and Tares Those who were planted by the Good Sower

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not stated. Presumably part of the mustard plant

Role of the “Unrighteous”

Parable of the Sower Those who fail to respond to the message

Parable of the Wheat and Tares Those who were planted by the Evil Sower

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not stated. Presumably not part of the mustard

Some personal reflections on Matthew 13

1. The chapter gives us good reason for caution in “locking in” meanings for symbols. In Matthew 13, seeds have three different meanings depending on the parable. Arguably, there are four meanings, since there are two different seeds in one of the parables. Likewise, there is more than one meaning for sower as well. This is imporant to remember since there is a temptation to find consistent symbolic meanings in the Bible. One only has to look at so-called “Christian Numerology” to find those who think that numbers must have a symbolic meaning and that meaning must be consistent throughout the Bible (and sometimes even beyond). An awful lot of bad theology comes out of this idea.

I recall a preacher noting the uses of symbols in Matthew 13. He suggested that the birds in the Bible are consistently symbols of evil, so in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the “REAL” message is that over time, the Kingdom of God would become more and more evil. However, if one rejects a consistent use of symbols the more obvious understanding is that the Kingdom of God will start small and insignificantly, but will continue to grow and spread and become too big to ignore.

I also recall another (same?) preacher stating that yeast is always a symbol of sin in the Bible. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is really the flour in which sin becomes introduced and then grows/expands. I can see why some commentators might prefer that understanding. Since seeds (wheat berries) were earlier described as being linked to the righteous in the same chapter, then flour could be linked to Christians (or technically speaking, ground up Christians). For some, I suppose, it may also be less troubling to see the woman as being linked with Satan (or a Lilith character) rather than with God. Some get bothered by feminine imagery of God. But, again, if one rejects consistent symbols, the more likely understanding is that the yeast is the kingdom of God, the flour is the world, and the kingdom starts out small and insignificant but interspersed in the world, it begins to grow and transform the world.

2. One must be careful to avoid reading too much into parables. While the “one parable, one message” view may be too restricting, it is often tempting to take the parable off onto tangents that they were never meant to go.

For example, Who can be saved based on the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and Tares? In the latter of these two, it seems as if one is born saved and another is born unsaved. A somewhat hyper-Calvinistic view may be seen as described here. There is no suggestion that tares can become wheat. An obvious problem here, however, is that if one applies this understanding consistently, then mankind is essentially two species (“wheat” or “darnel/tares”) with one being created by God, and the other being created by Satan. It does not seem likely that Jesus is suggesting that Satan is a literal Creator of humans.

In contrast to this extreme, one might address the other extreme in the Two Ways. In it, humans are one “species” with a choice between a narrow and a wide path. One might take this as an extreme Arminian viewpoint. God makes the paths and people decide which path to follow.

But then if one takes those two parables as describing two extremes, a more mediated view might be argued from the Parable of the Sower. The message of God’s Word is given to all. People may be different types of soils with no suggestion of being two unrelated species. There appears to be God’s initating work of salvation, and man’s response. Still there is uncertainty about the details of the process. The Bible seems to generally not give a lot of clear information on the mechanism or process, so this parable appears to me to best reflect a sound, if uncertain, soteriology.

That being said, none of these parables are really about the process of salvation.

3. Parables are both described as making truths clearer, and also disguising truth. Matthew 13 tries to describe some very complicated relationships such as the word of God to mankind, and the Kingdom of God to the world. As such, parables can be quite helpful— connecting the abstract to the concrete. However, there is a temptation to read one’s own theology into the story. Additionally, one needs cues to know how to understand the symbols. Both the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Sowe are interpreted directly by Jesus. In some cases, this does not happen, so it is understandable that so many bizarre interpretations occur. Thus one needs to look at the broader themes within the Gospel text, as well as see what the listed purpose of the story is.

Ultimately, to use parables, one needs to:

  • Apply them to link difficult, abstract ideas to what is more concrete. (Abstract does not inform abstract. Concrete is less valuable to inform concrete.)
  • Provide cues as to the meaning of the symbols (One cannot assume that symbols are obvious or are the same as used elsewhere.)
  • Have a broader context to make clear the purpose of the story. (If the story does not inform a larger message, it doesn’t have much of a purpose.)
  • Have a clear interpretation to prevent misinterpretation. (However, if the story does not “make sense” with the interpretation, the story has no real point for existing.)