Martin is the editor of Candour and a minister in the team at The Village Church, Christchurch.
A few weeks in Wellington I photographed Finn, my seven-month old grandson, revelling in the wonder of a Wellington gale. I was about to head to the airport to fly home. I was dreading the flight because of the intensity of the gale, and I was eventually held up on the tarmac for almost two hours because of that wind! But there was Finn, throwing his head back in laughter as he delighted in the wonder of wind!
His reaction has been a reminder (especially to older over-familiar-with-many-things me!) that the little ones among us can be our teachers. I have no memory of my early engagement with the elemental things of life. Finn is my teacher. He is almost completely attuned to wonder as part of daily living. I’m sure that an attitude of openness to the wonder of things will keep me young, save me from apathy, and keep me attuned to the way God refreshes and restores my life every day. I think that was what was behind Jesus’ pulling the children close and informing the adults around him that whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it. [Luke 18: 16-17] It’s as if to say that if you don’t live with your eyes wide open in the way that children do you’re likely to miss much of what God is doing.
It has got me thinking about when I first heard some of the stories that Jesus told, and how I might have received them. Three of Jesus’ parables have been significant teachers in my life as well as long-lasting friends and I can identify when they first took root in my life – I was a child of 6 or 7 years old.
The first was the lost sheep – the idea of the shepherd God risking everything to look out for little old lost me. I counted. It didn’t matter whether I felt left out, or out of sorts, or misunderstood in my day to day, Jesus loved me and would risk everything to come and find me and carry me home. This shepherd was my teacher. The shepherd in this case was Jesus himself – the Scandinavian Jesus of the hand-wound illustrative film strip shown at Sunday School!
The second parable that probably made the greatest impact on me (and continues to do so!) was a close cousin of the lost sheep – the story of the lost son. It was framed for me as ‘the parable of the prodigal son’. I didn’t know what ‘prodigal’ actually meant, it was a word only ever used in that context, but it was made clear that the focus was on just how bad that boy was, and (quite wrongly!) how he finally came to his senses in the pig sty, and made his way home to repent of his waywardness.
Despite the emphasis being on the moral behaviour of the boy, I remember from the earliest of days the look on the father’s face as he pulled the emaciated prodigal into an embrace. I loved that father. Even as a youngster, hearing the story in a traditional Baptist church with an emphasis on sin, punishment, and (in reality) God’s conditional love and forgiveness, I found that image of the loving Father utterly compelling. I had a sense that this was what God was like even if I was a bad boy. The father was my teacher. I am sure this saved me.
The third big impact parable in my childhood was that of the Good Samaritan. All through the years people have tried to find a way to justify the behaviour of the priest and the Levite, but I knew as a child, as we all know, that the only hero in the story was the Samaritan. The Samaritan was often talked about as a fine moral example – the man who did right, the man held up by Jesus as doing the right thing – and, so the teaching went, if we do good things for people then Jesus will also smile on us. Back when I was little the other side of the moral teaching was also made clear, if we don’t do good things we are going to hell! I am pleased to be able to say that I never cared for that side of the tale. It was never in the parable anyway. I liked the Samaritan, the outsider, acting out God’s compassion.
Lately, the idea of the Samaritan as the teacher has got me thinking a bit more. I know more about the Samaritan now. He wasn’t the enemy of the religious system of Jesus’ day because of some philosophical differences, or his ethnicity, or even his politics. He was a theological enemy of God. Yet, Jesus holds him up as the true teacher of the Law of Moses!
I’m thinking about the church and how we often position ourselves as the holders of all truth and righteousness – and how we sometimes behave in the public square, especially when we are speaking out on matters of morality. Who might God be sending to teach us when we assume the kinds of airs and postures of the first two characters in the Samaritan parable? Jesus casually and provocatively plucks out the most hated person in the religious psyche of the day, and plonks him into the story as the teacher of God’s way.
I’m thinking about the wind in the face of a seven-month old and the shepherd’s love for seven-year-old me (and all the lambs – younger and older!). I’m thinking about a father abandoning all dignity and decorum as he runs down the hill and brushes the prodigal’s carefully rehearsed excuses aside. I’m thinking about the Samaritans we create because of our stubborn adherence to the idea of a rule-bound angry God who has enemies. And I’m thinking that it is time to step back a bit and take another look at what Jesus offered to the religious powers of his day, as we work out how to do and be church in this most interesting of seasons.