Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Old Pope, New Pope

From the January-February 2013 issue of Forerunner.

When Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation from the papacy, very few had seen it coming. The Bavarian pope cited his declining health as the main reason for leaving his office, stating, "I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry." Many knew that the 85-year-old pontiff's health had deteriorated of late, but no Vatican observer ever thought that he would step down—especially because no pope had resigned from office since 1415, when Gregory XII ended his nine-year papacy. Benedict XVI's voluntary resignation is only the third such resignation in the nearly 2,000 years since Roman bishops have ruled the Catholic Church. 

Despite few anticipating such a move, The Economist reports in a February 16, 2013, article, "The Pope's Resignation: See You Later":
Benedict had been toying with resignation for almost four years. Visiting the earthquake-stricken Italian city of L'Aquila in 2009, he left his pallium, the woollen band that is a symbol of the papal office, at the tomb of Celestine V, a reluctant pope who resigned [in 1294] to pray. In 2010 he said that a pope who became unable to do his job properly "has the right, and in some circumstances even the duty, to resign."
And so he did, retiring initially to the Papal Palace in Castel Gandolfo, and later, once its renovations are completed, to the newly refurbished Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican.

Considered by many in the media as far too conservative and boring, Benedict's papacy has been reported as having been a failure. The truth is that, overall, his pontificate was quite successful. He steadfastly defended Catholic doctrine, as would be expected from the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (known historically as the Inquisition), the Church's doctrinal enforcement agency. He preserved his office and Church against the relativistic and progressive attitudes and ideas that so dominate today's world. Though the Vatican suffered a handful of scandals during his administration, Benedict did not allow them to soften his beliefs or approach. His holding the line against such staunch opposition obviously took its toll on his health and strength.

He has been succeeded by 76-year-old Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the son of Italian immigrants. The new pope, the first Jesuit to wear the papal mitre, chose the name "Francis" in honor of Francis of Assisi because, he said, he is especially concerned for the welfare of the poor. Of Francis of Assisi, Bergoglio once expressed, "He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history." His admiration for the founder of the Franciscan Order may portend how he will frame his papacy.

By all accounts, Pope Francis is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man of the people who is known for his sense of humor. He has "a well-earned reputation for holiness and humility," as one writer for Maclean's put it. In the dozen years that he was head of the Catholic Church in Argentina, he never lived in the ecclesiastical mansion but shared an apartment in downtown Buenos Aires with an elderly priest, heating the place with a small stove. He took public transportation and cooked his own meals. He regularly visited the city's slums and washed the feet of the poor, the sick, the elderly, or the imprisoned every Maundy Thursday. In 2011, he did this for newborns and pregnant women.

As his papacy begins, he has not changed his habits in this regard. He has a "no frills" style that endears him to the public yet exasperates his Vatican handlers. Just after being elected, he chose to take the bus with his fellow cardinals back to his hotel rather than the papal car, and the next day, he picked up his own luggage and paid the bill himself. He has refused to take up residence in the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace, preferring to live in the Vatican guest house, though he has conceded to an "upgrade," a suite of rooms where he can conduct meetings and receive visitors. On his first Maundy Thursday as pope, he continued his practice of footwashing, washing and kissing the feet of twelve juvenile offenders in Rome.

His easy, gentle manner could make some underestimate him. Underneath his plain white cassock and iron cross is a forceful personality that brooks no argument on the tenets of his heartfelt positions. He is solidly in the conservative wing of Roman Catholic theologians, as a disciple of John Paul II and fellow of Benedict XVI. Though holding traditional views on most doctrines, he cannot be said to be a hardliner in the sense that his predecessor was thought to be. His sermons and writings often contain language that makes fine distinctions between theological dogma and measured, merciful responses in light of living in a sinful world.

One of his heartfelt positions—one that could bring him into conflict with certain parts of the Western world—is his left-leaning criticism of global capitalism, calling it a "tyranny" that values human beings solely by the goods they consume and a "cult of money" that makes people miserable. Believing that unbridled capitalism has exacerbated poverty and led to the disregard of ethics, he advocates more stringent controls over financial markets. 

What his papacy accomplishes only time will tell. Despite rumors of its decline, the Catholic Church, 1.2 billion strong, is still a force to be reckoned with, especially in Europe, Africa, and particularly in Latin America, where more than two-fifths of its adherents live. There are already a few signs that this new pope may flex the Vatican's political muscles more than the old pope did—if only in his insistence that Catholics need to live out their faith in the world—and that could make for some interesting times ahead.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Like a Growing Seed (Part Two)

Part One introduced and explained the Parable of the Growing Seed found in Mark 4:26-29:
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.
The parable is clearly about the process of growth, comparing the development of a plant from sowing to harvest to the spiritual maturation of a citizen of the Kingdom of God, a Christian. What sets this parable apart from other similar parables is that its emphasis is on the invisible and miraculous nature of growth. The sower may put the seed in the ground and do some cultivating, but "he himself does not know how" real development happens. God is behind the scenes, bringing His children to spiritual maturity in preparation for their harvest to eternal life.

Like its physical counterpart, spiritual growth happens slowly and incrementally. We should not expect a newly baptized Christian to be able to produce self-control as easily and to the same degree as one who has been in the church of God for several decades. In the parable, Jesus compares the Christian to a growing seed, and no one expects a sprout to produce ripe fruit immediately. This process takes time and steady progress through a series of stages of learning and experience.

This should be comforting, especially to those who are new in the faith. It should also set a goal or series of goals for each of us to strive toward. We do not want to remain a spiritual sprout like the wicked servant with one talent in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:24-30). Fearful and lazy, he squandered all of his opportunities for growth by burying his talent while making excuses and blaming his master for his own shortcomings. Instead, we should desire to fulfill by the end of our spiritual lives the awesome goal Christ Himself gave us, to "be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

As we continue to develop under Christ, we must accept that we may not see a great deal of improvement at any given time. It is not as some Christian pollsters try to tell us, that spiritual growth is easily quantifiable, whether we read so many chapters of the Bible or pray for x hours each day. Because it is of a spiritual nature—by definition, something that is beyond our physical senses—Christian growth can be difficult to determine, discernible only when a person's godly speech and actions reveal a marked improvement. We may be able to see growth somewhat crudely in certain stages, but most of it will occur unnoticed and unheralded.

The actual mechanics of spiritual growth are beyond understanding, like trying to fathom the infinite depths of the mind of God. As hymnist William Cowper wrote, "God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform." We might as well ask how a kernel of grain becomes a fruitful stalk of wheat. All we really know is that God is faithful, continuing to work in His people to bring His crop of firstfruits to harvest (I Corinthians 1:4-9). He will make sure that every plant that He has chosen for His field has what it needs to grow, produce pleasing fruit, and enter into the fullness of His Kingdom.

The apostle Paul may have drawn upon this Parable of the Growing Seed in his analogy recorded for our edification in I Corinthians 3:6-9:
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one [united in their work], and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, you are God's building.
He changes the metaphor at the end of the passage to God's building because he is progressing toward describing His people as the Temple of God (verses 16-17). However, the idea in his analogy is the same as in the parable, that God is the One who gives the increase to the crop in His field. He has provided the ministry to help things along (see Ephesians 4:11-16). He will give His sons and daughters whatever is needed to bring them to maturity—the best resources and experiences to cause real growth.

As he continues the building analogy, Paul cautions in I Corinthians 3:10, "But let each one take heed how he builds on it." He is speaking specifically to the ministry here, but this care also applies to the individual. In other words, returning to the growing-seed metaphor, the plant has some work to do too; it does not just stand in the soil and do nothing. Even though God provides the bulk of the resources for growth—water, nutrients, sunlight, etc.—the plant has to absorb them and use them to maintain itself and to grow.

In the illustration, the seed, activated by water, puts out roots and a shoot. Continued use of those resources causes it to put on height, develop a head, display flowers, and eventually produce fruit. God could spend eternity supplying sun and water to the earth, but if the seeds never responded to His blessings, not one sprout would ever break the soil's surface.

In the same way, God provides the knowledge, environment, energy, gifts, and whatever else is needed for a Christian to grow and produce spiritual fruit, but the Christian must consistently respond to God's providence to make them happen. Paul goes a step further and cautions us that, not only must each Christian respond, but he must be careful how he responds.

A plant that does not respond well to what God supplies withers and dies, and so does the improperly responsive Christian. Jesus addresses this in His Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23), speaking of seed that "fell on stony places" and that "fell among thorns." These fail to grow due to "tribulation or persecution" or "the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches." In effect, they let external troubles and the stresses of living in this world halt the growth process. Such a Christian, Jesus says, "stumbles" or "becomes unfruitful."

Obviously, an analogy can be taken too far, but this one holds up well. God has planted us in His field, and He is looking for spiritual growth so that He can harvest us for His Kingdom. For our parts, we can cling to the promise in Malachi 4:2: "But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; and you shall . . . grow. . . ."

Friday, June 7, 2013

Like a Growing Seed (Part One)

Mark 4 contains a parable that is not often discussed, probably because it does not appear in Matthew 13 or among those well-known parables that Luke alone records, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Parable of the Growing Seed is unique to the book of Mark, the most basic of the gospels, perhaps due to it being so simple and its point so self-evident.
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)
This parable has obvious similarities to the Parable of the Sower, but it teaches a completely different principle. It is like the parables in Matthew 13 only in that it is a Kingdom parable and that it has a similar form. As a Kingdom parable, it is a metaphoric explanation by Christ about how God's Kingdom works. Jesus tells His disciples in a kind of spiritual code how they should expect the Kingdom of God to function.

We must understand that the Kingdom of God that He is speaking about is not what we normally think of as God's Kingdom, that is, the time after Christ returns in great power to the earth to set up His government. A future aspect certainly exists in the Kingdom parables, but in most of them, He specifically refers to the present reality of God's church and its future until the return of Christ. Recall that Paul writes in Colossians 1:13 that we have already been "conveyed into the kingdom of the Son of His love." Spiritually, then, we, as members of His church, are already under the dominion, reign, and rule of God. We have been called out of this world (I Peter 2:9) and given citizenship in God's realm (Philippians 3:20).

Kingdom parables show generally how the true church and true Christianity operate in this world. When He brings the Kingdom in its fullness in the Millennium, Christ will deal with matters much differently. His instructions in these parables, however, are to help us in our current, physical lives, not later, for how helpful would they be if they spoke only of things that will occur after the resurrection? As part of Christ's instruction to His disciples, these parables describe how God's Kingdom—in its present, spiritual manifestation—and its citizens function among men on the earth.

In this parable, therefore, Jesus uses the natural process of plant growth to explain how those whom God calls develop spiritually in this world. The process is quite simple, paralleling the growth of a seed into a full-grown, food-producing plant. Just like the growth of a plant, it happens invisibly and somewhat mysteriously too.

Since the Enlightenment, science has taken much of the mystery out of agriculture. We understand a great deal more about how it works than the people of the first-century church did. They would sow seed in their fields, the rains would come, and they would wait. In a few days, they would see sprouts coming up—a miracle! It was just as miraculous to think that the sprout would develop and not only produce another seed, but many other seeds, a great crop.

Jesus says that one becomes spiritually mature in a similar way; the spiritual process contains many parallels. For instance, He says that the sower sows the seed and goes his way, sleeping and rising, watching how things are going, but he really does not know how these things work. He knows that they happen, and he trusts that they will.

This brings out the fact that the sower in this parable is not Christ but a human. Notice that He does not say, "The Sower goes out to scatter seed," but "A man goes out." In other places, especially Matthew 13, He is specific about who the Sower is, but here it is general, a man. If it were Christ, it could not be said that He does not know how they grow. No, this sower is a man whom God uses to sow the seed. He scatters the seed and then goes about his other tasks.

Soon, the seed sprouts due to the resources that God provides; at a certain time, He supplies the light, warmth, water, and nutrients, and the seed germinates. The sower does little more than cast the seed. All that the sower—a minister—does is to speak a word, write an article, or preach a sermon. The recipient is attracted by it, but it is God who does the bulk of the work.

Ministers are not aware of all the ways that God is working behind the scenes to bring a person to the knowledge of the truth. They understand that He does it but not the mechanics of how He opens an individual's mind, turns him to the truth, and allows him to begin to accept His way of life. Ministers, like the sower, just go to bed at night and get up the next morning to continue to do His work. God does the rest, working behind the scenes. He is the Prime Mover, working invisibly and mysteriously to bring forth a productive "plant."

His work goes far beyond just helping the plant to sprout, for He also wants to see, as Jesus says, ". . . the head, after that the full grain in the head" (Mark 4:28). He is looking forward to the fully developed plant, along with ripened, finished fruit—spiritual maturity.

A Christian develops spiritually in the same way as we see in this analogy. God will use whatever method He chooses to get a person's attention. It might be something insignificant that we might not think would catch anybody's eye, but in God's hand, it is sufficient to lead the individual to the truth.

That is just the beginning. God continues to work with him in ways that are beyond human discernment. A minister can be highly instrumental in feeding and cultivating the individual, but he cannot see the invisible, spiritual ways that God is developing that person for His Kingdom. He may have a long experience in the churches of God, but it is not necessarily the case that a minister will be able to see someone's spiritual growth in detail.

In the same way as the plant's growth is described in the parable, a minister may be able to see major changes, but they are crude gauges of all the development that is taking place. He cannot discern each individual's efforts to grow. This is what Christ is suggesting: Growth is taking place despite it being unseen.

If a person inspects his plantings each day, he will see almost no growth from the day before, but if one waits a few days or week between inspections, it is amazing how much they have grown! Similarly, each Christian grows in stages and at a slow enough pace that it can seem like no growth at all. But God is working, and He is aware of the growth—and that should be very encouraging.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

RBV: Proverbs 13:6

"Righteousness guards him whose way is blameless,
But wickedness overthrows the sinner."
—Proverbs 13:6

This verse seems like a fairly straightforward statement of a truth repeated in various ways dozens, if not hundreds, of times throughout the book of Proverbs. Those who practice righteousness will ultimately succeed, while the sinfulness of the sinner will be his undoing. The way Solomon composes this proverb, however, brings out a few particular points.

First, the emphasis in the first half of the couplet is not necessarily on the godly man's success but on the fact that his practice of goodness shields him from adversity (compare Proverbs 2:11; 4:613:3). A practitioner of God's way of life is protected by the fact that he does what is right. If a person does good things, avoiding what is evil, he will be drawn into adverse situations far less frequently than those who dance on the edge of the cliff.

For instance, the Christian who lives by the injunction found in the seventh commandment—"You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14)—will not put himself or herself in tempting situations; and on the rare occasion that a temptation of that nature presents itself, he or she will, like Joseph, run in the other direction (Genesis 39:12). Such a person's righteousness—his right doing—guards him from the destruction that sin causes, and "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We could also understand this to suggest that a person who walks uprightly shelters under the protection of God, who is pleased with those who practice righteousness (Colossians 1:10; Hebrews 13:16).

The second half of the verse communicates the exact opposite: He whose conduct is determined by sin is bound to fall into destruction. The sinful way of living offers the sinner no protection at all; the course of sin will run unchecked through his life all the way to death (see James 1:14-15)—provided that God Himself does not arrest it through His calling. This is the course of the world that we see every day on the street (Ephesians 2:1-3).

We can take this principle to the bank. Even though we see in various places in Scripture (for example, in Psalm 10), and even in our own experience, that the wicked seem to prosper, we can be assured that their prosperity is only temporary (Psalm 37). The evil that they do will catch up to them in time and begin to take its toll. The corrupt always pay the piper.

The Hebrew text contains a pair of technical oddities in this verse's second half, making it difficult to translate into English but bringing out a significant point. The oddities are that both nouns, "wickedness" and "sinner," are abstract nouns in the original. The NKJV translators, as in many translations, chose to render only one of them as abstract, "wickedness," and changing the other to a concrete noun, "sinner." Literally, though, this part of the verse should be read as "wickedness overthrows sinfulness."

The point this brings out shows just how pervasive sin is once committed. There is no such thing as a partial sinner; one is either righteous or sinful. In practicing sin, the sinner is perfectly wickedhe is sinfulness, nothing but sin, a mass of evil and corruption. James puts it another way, writing that if we break one commandment, we break them all (James 2:10-11). Jesus, speaking both to His disciples and to His audience of Jews, calls them "evil" (Matthew 7:11; 12:34). Paul writes of all humanity, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). James states the simple truth that we all stumble (James 3:2).

Each time we sin, then, we become evil and require the gracious forgiveness of God through the blood of Jesus Christ to become clean once again. The lesson in this proverb is to make it our practice to do what is right and good in God's eyes, and that will greatly diminish our chances of falling into sin and straining our relationship with God.