Let Him Who Has Ears, Hear! Parables that Portray the Drama of Human Choice

092314-pope-2In yesterday’s post, I pondered the great drama of human life as Scripture sets it forth. We are caught up in a great and cosmic battle and must choose sides. There are two armies and no third way given. Sadly, most have lost any sense of the battle and of the drama of life, despite the battle lines being clearer than ever.

As a kind of follow-up to yesterday’s post it is valuable to examine how the drama of human decision is portrayed in an unlikely place: the parables. I say “unlikely” because most casual readers of the Bible tend to see the parables merely as interesting, entertaining stories. They are indeed interesting and entertaining, but they are deadly serious as well and they powerfully portray the drama of human life, the need to decide, and the consequences of our decisions. They carry very weighty messages and substantial warnings. Do not misconstrue their creative, pithy, memorable qualities as signs of superficial teaching.

Some of Jesus’ starkest warnings come in the parables, and in them, the drama of human life in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14) is vividly proclaimed. Indeed, the parables are MOSTLY about the drama and decisions of human life and the stance we take in the cosmic battle that rages around us. Our decisions point to our destiny. Of the 37 parables of Jesus, 20 are parables that remind us of the drama of our lives in the valley of decision and warn us of the consequences of our choices, choices that bring blessing or curse, rise or ruin, salvation or condemnation. Let’s review a quick summary of them in order of increasing intensity:

  1. The rich fool (Luke 12:16–21): This is a parable of a rich man whose land yielded a bountiful harvest and, rather than being generous with his surplus, he hoards it. God called him a fool and claimed his life that night. Jesus warns us therefore of the foolishness of living for passing, worldly things and that total loss is coming for those who are not rich in what matters to God.
  2. The wise and the foolish builders (Matthew 7:24–7; Luke 6:46–49): This is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, wherein the Lord describes the dramatic difference between those who follow His teachings and those who do not. Those who heed His Word are like those who build their houses on solid rock and are able to endure the storms that come. But the foolish, who do not heed His Word, are like those who build their houses on sand. For them, the result is total loss and destruction when the storm of judgment comes.
  3. The parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3–9; Mark 4:3–9; Luke 8:5–8): Though God sows the seed of His Word abundantly. Some of it falls on the path and birds eat it up. Other seed falls among thorns, which choke it off. And still other seed falls on rocky soil and so withers due to the lack of roots. And here is the dramatic warning to those who harden their hearts to God’s Word or who allow the soil of their heart to be thinned or choked off by the world: you will not bear the necessary fruit. Some seed, however, does fall on rich soil and yields an abundant harvest. There is a dramatic difference in the results, and it is rooted in the disposition of our hearts.
  4. The parable of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24–30): God’s field of wheat is oversown by the weeds of Satan. (This is a dramatic description of the two armies on this earth.) Angry field hands propose pulling up the weeds but the owner cautions that the wheat might also be harmed. But though he instructs them to allow the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest, there is a harvest, at which time the wheat will be gathered in but the weeds will be thrown into the fire. So there is a day of judgment, though not yet. The drama must still unfold but the final verdict will ultimately be rendered.
  5. The barren fig tree (Luke 13:6–9): This is another parable of patience, wherein extra time is given to an unfruitful fig tree. But the day of judgment is set, and if fruit is not found the tree will be cut down. And here, too, is the drama of our life: either we manifest the fruit of righteousness or we will be removed from the Lord’s field.
  6. The dragnet (Matthew 13:47 –50): The kingdom of God, the Church, is compared to a dragnet, which captures all sorts of things. The drama unfolds when the net is hauled ashore and there comes the judgment. Only what is good is retained; that which is unclean and worthless is cast aside.
  7. The parable of the counting of the cost (Luke 14:28–33): Jesus warns that discipleship is costly and that some are not able or are unwilling to finish once started. He uses the images of a building begun without resources to finish it, or of a king going to war when he knows he is outnumbered. And thus some will set off to be disciples but later realize that they do not have the resources or willingness to continue. And herein the Lord sets forth that discipleship is costly and the warfare is real. The implication of this is that some are willing to accept the cost while others are not.  The road to salvation is narrow and few find it. The narrow way is the way of the Cross, and many turn back, instead preferring the wide road that leads ultimately to destruction.
  8. The unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35): A man who owes a huge debt has it forgiven, but refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow servant. The king then calls the man back and applies the same unforgiving standard to him that he used on his confrere. And thus the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us. Merciless is the judgment on one who has shown no mercy. And further, if we do not forgive the sins of others, neither will we find forgiveness from the Father. The choice to forgive and show mercy is a dramatic and crucial decision for us, one that will affect our final judgment in a powerful way!
  9. The prodigal son (Luke 15): A sinful son returns and is reconciled to his father. But in a dramatic twist, the other, “obedient” son grows bitter and refuses to enter his father’s house. Even more dramatically, the parable ends without us knowing if the obedient son ever entered or not. This is because you are that son and you must decide if you will enter the Father’s house on His terms or stay outside, brooding that God doesn’t do everything on your terms.
  10. The unjust steward (Lk 16:1-13): An unscrupulous steward has been discovered “cooking the books” and embezzling funds. But in the end, his craftiness is praised by Jesus even though it is wrong. The point being made is that most sinners are far more dedicated to their world than Christians are to the Kingdom. And here is set forth another example showing that too many are simply not willing to fight for and with the Kingdom, and are lost as much through apathy as through wickedness.
  11. The rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31): A rich man is insensitive to the poor and we are taught that such insensitivity and neglect is a damnable sin. The rich man lands in Hell. In the great drama of his life, the rich man preferred to be wealthy in the world rather than to store up treasure for himself in Heaven. So hardened is his heart that even though he is in torment in Hell, he does not ask to come to Heaven, but rather that Lazarus be dispatched to Hell to bring him water. The rich man has not changed. He still looks down on Lazarus and still prefers creature comforts to God and His kingdom. His heart was dramatically hardened, and so can ours be if we let sin, neglect, and insensitivity go unchecked.
  12. The wicked vineyard workers (Mat 21:33-41): The owner of a vineyard sends representatives to collect his share of the produce, but the wicked workers stone some and kill others. Finally, they kill the owner’s son. Next the owner comes and submits them to a bad end. And thus in the drama of this world, there are many who reject God’s call for a share in their hearts and stone or even kill those who prophetically call them to give God glory and to live holy lives. In rejecting His appointed prophets, they also reject Christ and will come to a bad end!
  13. The great banquet (Matt 22:1-14; Lk 14:15-24): A king holds a wedding feast for his son. But the invited guests make excuses and are too involved in worldly affairs to come even to so great an offering. The king grows angry and burns their town. He then goes off to invite others. Finally the banquet is filled, but there is one in attendance who refuses to wear the provided wedding attire. He is thrown into the outer darkness and we are taught that while many are called, few are chosen. And thus our decision to accept God’s invitation is critical. Either we accept the invitation and enter the feast or else a fiery end is in store for us. And even those of us who accept must wear the robe of righteousness that God provides or else risk being cast into the outer darkness. Our decisions are dramatic and they determine our destiny!
  14. The wise and the foolish virgins (Mat 25:1-13): Ten bridesmaids await the groom’s arrival. Five were wise and carried extra oil. Five were foolish and were unprepared when the groom arrived. The wedding went on without the foolish bridesmaids and when they finally returned, the groom said to them, “Depart from me, I know you not.” And here too is depicted the drama of our lives. We must live in readiness; the oil of our holiness must always be replenished and kept ready by prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and fellowship with the Church (Acts 2:42). Judgment day is coming! Keep your lamps trimmed and burning!
  15. The sheep and the goats (Mat 25:31-46): In a scene of the great judgment, the Lord welcomes the righteous sheep on his right to the glory of Heaven, but consigns the wicked goats on his left to the fires of Hell. While the passage emphasizes the corporal works of mercy and indicates that to neglect them is a damnable sin, the passage should not be taken to mean these will be the only matters adjudicated. But again, note how dramatic our decisions in life are, including the care of the poor and needy!

There are a few other parables to add to the list such as the curse of the barren fig tree and the parable of the talents. But allow these to illustrate.

Clearly, the Lord consistently sets before us the great drama of human life and decision. Our choices matter and build to a fundamental destiny. Thoughts beget deeds, deeds beget habits, habits beget character, and character begets destiny. This is the drama and dignity of our life.

And though consistently preached by Jesus in the parables and in countless other texts, the theme is rarely mentioned today in preaching. This must change for us who preach if we are to authentically announce the Gospel. For those who hear and heed, blessings await. For those who stubbornly refuse or sinfully neglect the message, grey doom awaits. This is the drama of a life not far from you.

Perhaps two final passages from Jesus: one a word of warning, the other a word of blessing:

Jesus said, “Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Watch” (Mk 13:33-37).

Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing (Mat 24:44-47).

Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! A Meditation on the Dramatic Battle in Which We Live

092114A grave deficiency of modern times is the loss of the sense that our lives are caught up in a tremendous, epic battle. And yet here we are living in the midst of a great drama—in the greatest story ever told.

Behind the scenes is a deadly enemy, one of whom many rarely speak: Satan. Yet he is active and involved, manipulating both the world and the flesh (our sinful nature). We are on the front lines of a fierce spiritual war, a war that is to blame for most of the casualties you see around you. Yes, fellow Christians, there is a dragon, the roaring lion—Satan—who seeks to devour our souls.

Ah! But there is also a Son, a Savior, who is born to us and whom we call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (cf Is 9:6). And He shall reign forever. His hand is outstretched, first on the cross, but now outstretched to you to save you and to draw you up out of the raging waters, to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light!

Will you take hold of His hand, or not? This is the decision—your decision—in the great drama of your life and of every life; it is your chapter in the greatest story ever told.

Yes, the battle rages all around us and we are swept up in it! It’s happening in our world, our culture, our families, and in our hearts. The sequence hymn from Easter says dramatically of it,  Mors et vita duello; Conflixere Mirando (death and life at battle in a stupendous conflict)!

The Book of Joel vividly describes the great drama, not merely an eschatological battle, but a battle that is already around us in the decision we must make, in the war we must wage, with God’s grace, against the evil that is in and around us. It is a vivid and dramatic war and we must choose sides. And our decision will one day be revealed in the great judgment that is coming on this world.

Prepare war, stir up the mighty men! Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.” Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down thy warriors, O LORD. Let the nations bestir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.  Multitudes! Multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:9-14).

Text after text in the Bible describes the awesome drama and the great decision we must make, a decision on which hinges our very destiny. Here are just a few:

  1. I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you (Deut 30:19-20).
  2. Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against  (and a sword will pierce through your own heart also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-36).
  3. Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I have told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM” (John 8:23-24).
  4. Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation (Matt 26:41).
  5. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15).
  6. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Eph 6:12-14).
  7. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed! (Gal 1:4)
  8. Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 1:8).
  9. A great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heavens; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne … And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth … Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child … The dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (Rev 12, selected verses).
  10. “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” And they assembled them at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon (Rev 16:15-16).

And so here we are in the Valley of Decision, in Hebrew, the Valley of Armageddon. Here is the drama of our life! Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! All of us have a decision to make, an army to join, a direction to choose! Tertium non datur (No third way is given). There are only two armies on the field of battle; there are no demilitarized zones, no sidelines. Choose an army! What will it be, light or darkness, grace or sin, Jesus or Beelzebub?

Yes, here is the immense drama in the greatest story ever told; it is our drama and our story.

And yet this drama is hardly ever discussed today. In the very times in which the drama and the contrast between the two ways has never been clearer, never been starker, there is near silence. If anything, our times are marked by boredom and a kind of dull lack of awareness of the battle that is raging around us.  We have “spiritual ADHD,” endlessly fidgeting but never focusing on what matters. There is also a kind of “spiritual myopia,” in which the two armies are lost in the blur of perceived (but not real) “pluralism.”

Put plainly, if you don’t think that this drama is real and that the choice of one side or the other is required, if you think that the biblical texts I have cited are histrionic and hysterical, you have been deceived. You have been lulled to sleep by the spirit of this age.  You’ve been deceived by Satan, as was Eve long ago when he said to her, “You surely will not die.”

All of us must wake up to the battle that rages about us, to the great drama in our life, a drama that is unfolding before our very eyes. If you insist on sleeping through the drama or ignoring the summons to wake up, beware! For Scripture says of such dreamers that there will come upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:11-13).

Awaken to the drama! Choose the Lord! Be a soldier in the army of the Lord! Only Jesus can save us from this “present evil age.” His grace and mercy are there for us in abundance, but His respect for our freedom means that our choices matter, they build in one direction or the other. This is the drama of our life and is also our dignity. Scripture pronounces a great blessing on those who choose the Lord:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen  (Gal 1:1-2).

In tomorrow’s blog, I will explore how the themes of the drama and the warning are the basis of MOST of Jesus’ parables. There are sheep and goats, wise virgins and foolish ones, servants who are ready and those who are not, and so forth.