by Daniel Harrell
Having spent all fall in Matthew 13 with Jesus’ kingdom parables—seeds, weeds, dirt, yeast, pearls and fishnets—I would be remiss to skip this last part in chapter 13, even though it officially starts a new section in Matthew’s gospel. Then again, we are in Advent, the start of a new church year, and these concluding verses of Matthew 13 have Christmas written all over them. Christmas is a season of wonder and amazement; but it raises a lot of questions too: Why does “God with us” happen by way of a baby born in feed trough? To an unwed teenage mother on the run? To be threatened by a maniacal monarch on a power-hungry rampage? Raised in an obscure working class existence, God makes his adult debut as a random rabbi walking the streets. Baptized and tempted, he tells people to repent and get ready, God is not coming to the rescue, he’s already here. A small seed sown in the dirt. A little yeast kneaded into dough. A tiny pearl you should sell all you have to obtain. A buried treasure right under your toes.
“Wait, isn’t he that carpenter’s son? Mary’s boy? We know this guy.” Israel’s hope—if not humanity’s hope—had been set on a Savior more heroic, one who would mightily restore a glorious and nostalgic past, bring back a lost time still remembered as righteous and good, when the world made sense.
As a a little baby born in a manger, surrounded by light and by love, serenaded by angels, full of possibility and potential, there was hope to be had. But then eight days in, at the happy occasion of Jesus’ circumcision, as old Simeon the rabbi rejoiced at God’s finally showing himself in this crying baby boy under his knife, disturbing prophecy soured the ceremony. Simeon predicted to the proud parents how their boy would be cause for trouble, “destined for the falling and rising of many, a sign to be rejected, exposing the innermost thoughts of human hearts.” And then to his mother, Mary, “a sword will pierce your heart too.” So much for hope.
Fast forward so many years. A grown Jesus comes home for the holidays to preach to the congregation where he grew up. I thought back to my own homecoming to preach just after graduating from seminary. Everybody showed up to hear my very first sermon—aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins, the Sunday School teachers and youth workers and other mentors who’d had a hand in my spiritual nurture—all of them about ready to bust with pride at my being a preacher. They sweetly poured on praise with sugar and said my sermon was just fine, bless his heart. One old gentleman went so far as to glad-fist a hundred dollar bill into my hand at the back of the church on his way out. I reread my first sermon last week, and it truly was terrible. The old gentleman gave me that hundred out of necessity. He knew there was no way I would make it as a minister.
On the other hand, Jesus arrived home as something of a rock star reverend—his reputation for astounding sermons with clever parables, accompanied by a dazzling array of miracles and deeds of power preceded him. The hometown crowd was astounded, we read. But not in a good way it seems. They suspiciously whispered to each other, “Where did this man get such wisdom and these deeds of power? Isn’t he that carpenter’s son? Mary’s boy? We know his brothers and sisters.” Implied is pretentiousness on Jesus’ part, received is an insult: “Who does he think he is?” And then Matthew reports, “they took offense at him.”
What did Jesus say? Matthew doesn’t report that. If we revisit chapter 13, maybe it was one of his parables that upset them so. The kingdom is like a sower sowing seeds in every kind of soil. God loves everybody the same, even the good soil is only good as dirt. Devilish weeds do sprout and grow alongside the good seed, but just leave them be, Satan gets to do his dirty work for a while. We’ll sort it out at harvest time. The kingdom of God is like a net, hauling the whole of creation to heaven’s shore. Angels, and not you, will decide what’s righteous and what’s evil—like fishermen sorting their daily catch. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast kneaded into bread, deceptively small and unseen. It’s like a man who sells everything to buy a pearl he’s looked for his whole life, but also like a man trips over treasure buried in the ground. Don’t understand? You’re not supposed to, Jesus said. “The reason I speak in parables is because people look but do not really see, they hear but don’t really listen or understand. Your hearts have grown dull, and your ears can’t hear, you’ve shut their eyes so you can’t see and listen and understand with your heart and repent and be healed.”
Anybody got a hundred bucks to give this guy?
Turns out that preaching to his home congregation was like trying light a fire with a pile of wet wood. Jesus flamed out. Matthew writes, “he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.” Whether with sadness or snark, Jesus assessed the situation and concluded: “A prophet is honored everywhere except in his own hometown and among his own family.” It’s like the parent who rides his kids over and over about something they need to learn, only to have some stranger say the same thing one time and your kid’s like, “I told you so, Dad.” Or like the politician who devotes her whole life to public service, only to have some outsider, totally inexperienced—some say unfit and unhinged—roll in and roll over everything to win. Or like the preacher who pounds home a point Sunday after Sunday, only to have some guest speaker show up and make the same point, and everybody wonders why you can’t preach like that guy. Not that this has ever happened to me.
Nobody likes being told what to do from somebody you know and who knows you too well. That truth is too strong and too hot to dampen. You can’t deflect it or rationalize it away. Jesus knows you better than you know yourself. He’s got us all figured out. No wonder so few of us listen and do what he says. Instead we keep him wrapped up tightly in swaddling clothes and quiet. Kept away except for at Christmas, seen but not heard, well-behaved and never crying, full of possibility and potential, a blank canvas we can paint for ourselves. We paint and repaint portraits of Jesus to fit categories we’re already comfortable with so as not to offend us, so we won’t have to change: Liberals paint him as a progressive, conservatives paint a traditionalist. We paint a CEO for business types, an academic for the intellectuals, a wise guru for the enlightened, a regular joe for the working class, a life coach for the well-off. Asked to describe Jesus in your own words and he’ll likely sound a lot like yourself—with your same priorities and values, your same friends and same enemies, your own political affiliations and tastes.
Disputes over Jesus’ identity has been going on since the beginning of Christianity. Christians and Jews divided over crucifixion and resurrection. Christians and pagans fought over his divinity. Christians and modernists fought over his humanity. Christians dispute with Christians over what Jesus really meant about this or that, who’s in and who’s out, and what a Savior really looks like. The result is Lutherans breaking from Catholics, Presbyterians from Baptists, Pentecostals from Methodists and Episcopalians, and one kind Congregationalist from another, all in the name of Jesus. Christians and secularists divide over his very existence. Our pastor, Marie Wonders, told me about her daughter Rhoda’s third grade teacher instructing her public school class about Jesus as an important person of historical record. Rhoda came home delighted that the stories she hears her mom tell week after week in church weren’t made up tales but true accounts of a real flesh and blood man. Rhoda’s dad, Paul, went to thank Rhoda’s teacher for teaching about Jesus in class. The teacher went ashen and promised it would never happen again. Jesus is big enough to bother everybody.
Conversely, the apostle Paul worried he wasn’t doing his job preaching Jesus if people weren’t offended. Seriously, God born in a barn? Baptized in a river as if he needed saving? Only demons, derelicts, tax collectors and sinners recognized his true identity. His own disciples got offended once he started talking about crosses. They denied knowing him and dumped him as soon as they saw he was dead serious.
Paul called it “the scandal of the cross” and Christians have constantly been scandalized by it. Understand the cross as a sacrifice for your sins and you’re offended because how can you be so bad as that? Understand the cross as a display of God’s affection and you’re offended because who kills their only son to show love? Understand the cross as God’s victory over evil and death and you’re offended because evil and death still happen. The church is a tough audience for Jesus. “A prophet is honored everywhere except among his own people.”
There are a lot of prophets in the Christmas story. We’re told that Zechariah’s a prophet, Danielle preached about him last Sunday. He keeps silence for months until the spirit allows him to speak the truth of God’s surprising work. His old wife Elizabeth somehow got pregnant, and she prophesies too, her son John the Baptist jumping for joy inside her womb over Jesus. Mary’s a prophet, she praises God and declares victory before Jesus is even born. There’s Anna the prophet, another old lady who waited a long time for God to show up. One look at baby Jesus and she knew her prayers had been answered. I’ve already mentioned Simeon, also a prophet, who announced he could now die in peace because his eyes had seen God’s salvation, a baby who would cause trouble and pierce hearts, “a sign to be rejected.”
Note that none of these people try to understand what God is doing. It’s enough that God is the one doing it. As theologian Jürgen Moltmann reminds, our role as Christians when it comes to knowing Jesus is not to judge, but only to bear witness to the scandal. We bear witness to a scandal that upsets everything for the sake of salvation: a scandal that makes sacrifice for sin, thereby rendering everything forgiven and forgivable. A scandal that makes a display of inexplicable love, thereby leaving nobody outside God’s enormous embrace. We bear witness to a scandal that makes hay of evil and death, exposing their persistence as but the last gasp of a vanquished enemy; every evil is redeemable, every death overwhelmed by resurrection. We are witnesses to a scandal that makes the outrage of crucifixion into the outrageous joy of new creation, the pure praise of new birth, full of every possibility and potential, a sure hope and a sure thing, already ours in Christ Jesus our Lord, the one who came, who comes and is ever coming. “We do preach Christ crucified,” the apostle Paul declared, “and it is scandalous and ridiculous. But to to those who believe, Christ is the power and wisdom of God.”
“Where did this man get such wisdom and these deeds of power?” “Isn’t he that carpenter’s son?” “Mary’s boy?” “Who does he think he is?” Offense is the first step to faith. If you’re looking to find the real Christ in this Christmas, look for the one who disturbs you most. Maybe it’s the Jesus who exposes you as sinful enough to die for. Or maybe it’s the Jesus whose love presses you uncomfortably toward reconciliation with those who await your forgiveness. Maybe its the Jesus who disrupts your status quo, denounces your priorities, demands your obedience, insists you endure humiliation and hardship, even evil and unto death, so to finally and fully experience God’s power. Our Lord comes to us scandalously wrapped up as a baby born into embarrassment, a humble man who grows into grievance, an alleged criminal who dies in disgrace, a risen Lord who by resurrection reaches low as low so to redeem everything. His unspeakable grace silences our every resistance—his broken body and shed blood becomes for us the very bread and wine of heaven.