Proximity: The real “First” & “Last”

Like most of my posts in this blog,  I challenge the status quo. I question existing paradigms. I evaluate present definitions. I don’t do this out of rebellion. I do it because I’m hungry and I am always tenaciously seeking to get at the thing behind the thing behind the thing.

When it comes to religion, church politics, and biblical teaching I feel this is more necessary than ever before. Too much of our modern world is soaked in ideas and beliefs that don’t seem to fit within a good biblical reading of the texts.  I feel so much more can be said and all too often its not.

My case in point:  The parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew 20.

Too often this is tweaked as a story depicting how people can get into heaven in the 9th inning of their life, and that their salvation is as valid as those who fought the faith all during their life. This may be true, but is this the essence of the passage?

The parable actually begins in the last verse of ch. 19 where Jesus uses bookends of 19:30 and 20:16 “The last will be first and the first last.”

The story depicts a master who is hiring servants to work in his vineyard. Each hour he goes out and hires more until the last hour of the day. When time for payment comes, he starts with those who were hired last. He gives them a full days wage. Those who started early were expecting then much much more than that payment, and to their surprise they also got the full days wage. Needless to say, they were ticked.

Jesus doesn’t say much other than to review the terms of their employment and tell them to take their check and go cash it. He tells them that they are not to begrudge him of his generosity.

But how much more is there in this story? A lot.

Remember this is a parable about the Kingdom or a world under new management. This is a tool to teach us about how things are different in a world where Godly people are running things because of the influence of Christ.  This is story about how people are to recognize the New World.

I believe Jesus is explaining a very important aspect of the Kingdom. He is showing that the Kingdom is presently at hand, and yet still coming into completion. It is a city that is being built you could say.  The point that this parable exposes so beautifully is our relationship to its PROXIMITY.

You see, those that are farthest away in proximity to the Kingdoms full revelation are those that have the highest expectations and consequently the greatest disappointment over how it works.  Those that are closest in proximity to its full revelation are most delighted because it is most like their present understanding of things. There is less of a change to accept.

Now applying this to modern life, we can see that the more traditional a person is, those who are most stuck in the old paradigms of relating to God, are those who will have the greatest difficulty with the influence of the new Kingdom and its presence in the world.  These are the sincere fundamentalist who simply cannot accept an inclusive kingdom that is actually here on earth. For them, they are expecting to be jettisoned out of this world into the next one. They hold to more mystical ideas, and traditional ideals. Therefore, the arrival of the kingdom of Heaven here on earth seems somehow wrong or flawed.

Modern people who grasp nuances of the Kingdom and who have not abandoned the ideas of the past but have understood them in fresh ways, are more capable of seeing the Kingdom of God aligning quite nicely with aspects of the world today. Yes they can see there is yet much work to do, but they are excited about the inclusive nature and welcoming invitation that it offers to all the “last hour” people.

Just like in the parable, the first hour workers resent the last hour workers. The new ideas are not welcomed by the traditionalist because they simply don’t meet with expectations. Whereas the old ideas of the first hour workers are incorporated into those of the last hour workers without all the expectations.

In the end, God brings all workers into the kingdom. He is generous enough to bring the traditionalist as well as the modern person. There is certainly a lot we can glean from this passage.

I hope with this perspective, you can now take your understanding and widen it a bit more. Our world needs it because far too many traditional beliefs are veiling the exposure of the beautiful promised kingdom.

The “Hell” of fire?

In the book of Matthew 17:9, Jesus is giving an interesting talk about how people need to go to extremes when it comes to dealing with their sinful behavior. He says to his audience that they are better off gouging out their eyes or cutting off their hands if that is what is necessary, because it’s better to be blind or lame than to be thrown into the “Hell of fire.” Gehenna is the name for hell in this passage, and nearly all scholars understand that this was the area dump heap. This is where people burned trash and waste outside of town.

It is my personal mission in life to help people “repot” their old paradigms in favor of “new wine” or new paradigms. This means that I challenge their ideas and move them into a wider understanding of things. When it comes to a person’s beliefs about God and how they relate to him, then I can quickly become the “heretic” or the enemy if what I offer doesn’t line up with their traditional understanding. In this case, I think it is clear that Jesus is not warning people about an eternal condemnation for doing bad deeds as many traditional people believe. If people live forever, then the trajectory of someone whose hand causes them to sin is such that they will not only make a dump or a waste of their life in this world, but utter destruction may in fact be the best description of where that ultimately leads.  Literal hell aside, the message of taking our shadow life seriously and turning it around is a great message.

Here’s the catch. If I say that I don’t think Jesus is arguing for an eternal hell, many will say I am not believing nor teaching the scripture. I’ll be called too liberal in my theology. I’ll be accused of selecting passages that favor one outcome over another and not taking the literal word of God at face value.  So my question then is, where are all the one eyed, one handed bible believing critics? Could a case be made that if you do believe in a literal hell, and a literal interpretation of the bible, that a person is being selective with their interpretation if they don’t amputate themselves. Wouldn’t a person who did actually gouge out his eye be able to make a claim to someone who didn’t that they didn’t really take the bible seriously?

And that is my point. As well as Jesus’. It’s not so required that you take the scripture seriously, but that you take your personal growth and transformation seriously. No person takes the bible seriously. Even the most devout, ultimately select what they want to believe or at least how they want to believe it, thus making themselves the arbiter of truth. How many use Tilex for mold in their tubs rather than calling a priest? And if a person does focus on transformation and becoming the best, most authentic self possible, then Jesus’ talk later tells a person that when a person engages in this pursuit, that he will go to the greatest lengths to find you and to ensure that no single seeker is ever lost (v 14). Later he demonstrates that the process of doing something here in our life and in this world, is how we end up doing anything in Heaven. Another way of saying this is that the most heavenly minded person is the one who redeems his life and world today (18.)  This means that if we are doing the right thing for the right reasons, we are proving that a form of heaven is here today and that we walk in agreement with the work of God (v20).

Heaven here and now. Jesus walking among us. Focusing on personal transformation. Seems like we need never fear any form of hell or dump heap. Jesus seems to love people so much that he spares them from a life of religious duty (in favor of liberation and authenticity). I think a lot of people could get good with that, if the the message wasn’t obscured by institutional power. So which is the the real Christian message? Be transformed by the love of God, or burn in hell if you don’t change. The former is where heaven and earth collide.

Progress or Transformation?

There has been an evolving understanding called Integral Theory that is being applied to the Christian faith. In short this system provides a framework to understand the countless variations of how people have expressed themselves within their systems of faith. Like an infant moving to a toddler to a child to a teen through adulthood, each stage of ones spiritual progress is marked by some aspect of transformation into the next place. I highly recommend Paul Smith’s book called “Integral Christianity” as he does an excellent job of laying this out.  The stages as he lay’s them out are as follows:

  1. Tribal
  2. Warrior
  3. Traditional
  4. Modern
  5. Post Modern
  6. Integral and Beyond

It is very hard to argue with the fact that each of these stages has vital identifiers and landmarks. It is also quite easy to see how within each stage are people from all walks of life who are thrilled to find entry into the stage along with those who have grown frustrated or tired of their stage and are looking for more.

To grasp all that is being said will require each of us to progress through any residual pieces of our present stage and begin to explore the ideas of the next stage. This is my observation:  Each stage requires not only a new set of “What-to-thinks”, but first must experience a new set of “How-to-thinks.”  The warrior God who fights the battles only for your “kind” of people must (PROGRESS) into a view of a God who works institutionally and who has relegated his revelation to pro’s. Or the modern God where all is scientifically explained must deal with the realities of a fluid, dynamic and even mystical realities that do exist but are not empirically proveable.

My point is that progress is the byproduct of transformation. Until the inner ideas are changed, progress is stalled.

I believe that all transformation is the work of God’s benevolent Spirit within the life of any of his image bearers. The challenge of any stage is to trust the work and movement of this Spirit that is prodding us and pulling us into a new place.  Unfortunately there are two big challenges in the Spirit’s work:

  1. Once a person moves into a new awareness of their place, they look back at earlier stages as if they are “lower” or lesser stages. This gives way to a sense of pride and if not checked, will mean that all so-called progress may end up as a modern form of Gnosticism or a bunch of elitist arrogant people. This will mean that each stage is plagued with fundamentalism.  This is only avoided by maintaining all that is good and valuable from each stage, while embracing new ideas. There must also be plenty of space for people to live, thrive, and move within their own stage if they are not ready to move forward.
  2. Moving into another stage also requires tremendous humility while one learns the nuances and implications of the new ideas. Just as before, when a person learned exactly how to relate to God in a particular stage, so the new stage brings with it new ways of relating.  This means that ideas that are coming from a further stage will always be met first with great skepticism and tremendous fear and doubt. Some stages will do all they can to “protect” their people from ideas from a new phases. It employs regressive “how-to-thinks” so that it’s people only believe the way it used to be and learn how to quickly reject new ideas.

Thus the work of God’s Spirit in this world among very diverse people is a profound one. The one who isn’t threatened by such work, and can humbly appreciate the station and progress of all others must have adopted some aspect of his most furthest reaching ideas for humanity. The ransom of people for God from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9) means that we all will ultimately get there. Even if the transformation is difficult, or a long time in the making.

My best advise is to let this idea become the one that reorders how you think. This small transformation will serve as a catalyst that will usher in the progress that you are seeking.