Season 8 - Week 1
“Stories to get you killed”
Sunday. Jesus enters Jerusalem and is greeted like a conquering hero. Crowds line the streets, the city is buzzing with expectation. Years of circling the country, building his reputation healing the sick, bringing in those on the margins, and finally, he’s arrived.
Friday. Jesus, stripped of his clothes and his dignity is nailed to a cross and killed, like a common criminal, an enemy of the state. The same crowds who cheered him into the city, demand his execution. His friends and followers, faithful for years, flee, utterly dejected, dismayed - all hope vanquished.
What’s happened in this gap? Over the six days that week, Jesus told some stories. Six stories in six days, to be precise. Stories which upset his friends, his followers and those in power. Stories which got him killed.
When we hear these stories now, we often treat them as quaint parables with a neat message for us today, but when Jesus told these stories they were dripping with context, speaking directly into the lives of his listeners. So when he tells the first parable (Matthew 21:28-32), the story of two sons sent to work in their father’s vineyard, he is calling out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders and it isn’t shrouded and hidden by centuries of interpretation, its application is obvious: what matters isn’t saying the right things, but doing the right things. It wasn’t the first time Jesus called out the those in authority, and it wouldn’t be the last time he did it that week. When we look through the other parables he told, Jesus didn’t pull any punches: the parable of the tenants predicts his death at the hands of workers who have taken over the vineyard; the wedding banquet shows how people have disregarded God's invitation to them; the 10 virgins warns against borrowed faith; the talents castigates people for a lack of creativity; and the sheep and goats warns of a coming judgement.
Here’s the thing: the moment Jesus reached the zenith of his popularity, his teaching got more brutal, and more unpopular. From a PR standpoint, he had an absolute disaster. ‘Play it safe, Jesus,’ the disciples must have been thinking, ‘This is not the time for your edgier material!’ Yet, as ever, Jesus knew that this wasn’t the time to play it safe. Jesus wasn’t interested in his standing in society, but his place in the kingdom.
The Church, and Christians, in this country have less influence than ever, we might think. And yet we’ve still got a lot to lose. We’ve got institutions and reputations to protect. And so we kid ourselves. We tell ourselves that playing it safe, that pulling punches, isn’t because we’re scared what people think, isn’t because we’re invested in what the world thinks of us, but instead that it’s an evangelistic strategy, because if we lose our standing in the world, how will people listen to what we’ve got to say?
The last few days of Jesus’ life, and the stories he told, suggest that Jesus was unconvinced by that argument. These stories show us a disruptive Christ, who put his message above his popularity, and knew that would shine through whatever criticism and persecution came his way. Jesus knew that there was hypocrisy, greed and fear at the heart of society - then, and now. There is injustice built into the system and the ones at the bottom suffer. If our remaining institutional credibility is more important than speaking up to challenge those in power, then we’ve completely misread the way Jesus lived his life.
So that’s why we’re taking this season of Open Me to focus on the way Jesus disrupted life - from the big structures and systems he encountered in the politics, religion and culture of his time, down to the level of individual lives and the choices people make. We’re asking what it means to follow someone with such a disruptive strategy. Will it mean having our own lives disrupted? Most probably. But might it also mean that we’re called to do some holy disrupting of our own?
“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.
Read over the first story Jamie mentioned - the story of the two sons in Matthew 21. Which of the two sons sounds more like you? Are you more likely to commit to more than you follow through on, or are you slow to commit yourself but trustworthy in the end? Think about your family, your church and your community - who gets more respect? Those who can talk the talk or those who get on and do the hard work?
Jamie makes it clear that Jesus chose disruption over popularity at every turn - but never just for its own sake. There was always a worthwhile battle to be fought over something that really mattered. Are you someone who enjoys being challenging (or even difficult!), or someone who would rather remain warm and supportive in any context? How could you challenge yourself this week to stand up for something that really matters to Jesus?