Powerless

One day earlier this month a powerful thunderstorm swept through the neighborhood. I knew it was coming, having checked the weather online. It was late in the afternoon, and I had a casserole prepared to go into the oven. The winds ahead of the storm were just beginning to blow when I sat down at the computer and opened a program. Just as it opened, the computer and lights flickered and went out. I was left in the dark.

Rain started falling a few minutes later. The clouds were so thick that I needed to light a candle to be able to read a book. I thought of the repair team that was probably out in the wind and the rain, clearing a tree from the road and stringing a new power line. My cat was unsettled and wanted extra attention. The rain continued to fall.

After a while the downpour eased to a steady rain, and I decided to drive to the mall. One of my daughters works in the kitchen of a restaurant in the food court. She is currently without a car, so she generally calls home when her work is done to ask for a ride. With the power out, the phone would not work. Besides, I would rather eat a hot sandwich at the mall than dig into a cold tuna casserole in the dark at home.

The dropping air temperature and rain had cooled my car, and water had condensed on all of the windows. It required several minutes to clear the windows, using the defroster on the back window, blowing air on the windshield, and toweling the side windows. Then I was able to drive safely. A mile from home I came to an intersection with a traffic light. The power was out there too, but a police officer was directing the traffic. The other traffic lights beyond that intersection were working, so I felt confident that the mall would also have power.

I arrived, went inside, and ordered my meal. My daughter was surprised to see me, since she was not done with her work and had not called for a ride. I told her the power was out at home, and joked with her and the other employees about hanging out at the mall for the air conditioning and the lights. They gave me my meal, and I sat down to eat.

About five minutes later, the lights went out in the mall. Oddly, only half the mall was darkened; the other half still had power. The restaurant was in the dark. The workers were surprised when power did not return quickly; they had experienced power interruptions before, but usually power was restored in less than a minute. My daughter and I remembered the post I wrote for April Fools’ Day. We were happy to see that no one was stranded on the escalators. Some customers came into the restaurant hoping to buy food, but the evening manager told them they could not sell any food while the power was out. The manager did not want to close for the night, but food was cooling as the blackout continued. The manager eventually had the employees take the meat back into the kitchen to try to keep it warm.

My daughter finished her work in the kitchen and I drove her home. The power was still out at home. When I left for the mall, I had left a flashlight by the door. I guided my daughter to her room, then found the thermostat and switched off the air conditioning. Then I went around opening windows. For a while I read by candlelight.

Power was restored about 7 p.m. I blew out the candle, reset the bedroom clock and the alarm, then returned to my reading. It occurred to me that evening that it would been ironic (and sad) if the storm had damaged the new shed being built behind the house. The workmen had finished the main body of the shed; it was still waiting for shingles, siding, and electrical work. I would not have wanted to contact the insurance company and the general contractor to report a tree lying on the shed, but that did not happen. J.

A lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”

Luke 15 consists of a set of three parables, describing a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Together, they describe the process of redemption according to the secrets of the kingdom. The first parable is told by Jesus in a different context in Matthew 18:10-14; it can also be related to Jesus’ words supporting his declaration, “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10.

This set of three parables features some important similarities among the stories, as well as significant differences. Each story describes something that was lost but is recovered. Each story tells of a celebration over the recovery, which is humorously excessive in the case of a lost sheep or a lost coin but more appropriate in the case of a recovered son.

Each mentions others that were not lost, but the numbers change. One sheep is lost, but ninety-nine sheep are safe. One coin is lost, but nine coins remain where they belong. One son is lost, but one son stays home. These changing numbers are moving in a direction that should be obvious—we have all sinned, we all like sheep have gone astray, and not one of us has been faithful to God—not one other than his only-begotten Son. Consider the occasion for these parables. Jesus was being criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled about this practice. Jesus makes two points relative to the secrets of the kingdom: each sinner is valuable to God and worth saving from God’s point of view; and we all are sinners, whether or not we are willing to confess our sins.

A shepherd goes into the wilderness to look for a lost sheep. The sheep will never find its way home without the shepherd’s help. It is vulnerable to predators and many other dangers. Because he cares about his sheep, the shepherd is willing to explore the wilderness and to do anything necessary to find his sheep and bring it home. In the same way Jesus, the Son of God, enters this world—this wilderness darkened by sin and evil—and seeks sinners so he can return them to the kingdom of God.

Since the first parable describes the work of Jesus, the Son of God, and the third parable describes a loving Father, some Bible interpreters have seen the coin-collecting woman as a picture of the Holy Spirit. Jesus does the work of redemption through his sinless life, his sacrifice, and his triumphant resurrection. The Holy Spirit, though, grants faith in Jesus and moves sinners back into the kingdom of God. A lost coin is even more vulnerable than a lost sheep. It has no hope of randomly wandering onto the path that will lead it home. It cannot even call for help. It can only wait in a dark and dusty corner until the searcher finds it and restores it to its place. We were “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1)—like a lost coin, we could not bring ourselves home. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Since “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:3), we see the secrets of the kingdom of heaven in this woman. She sweeps until she finds the coin, she picks it up, and she returns it to its place. This is what God the Holy Spirit does for us by speaking the promises of God to us through his Word and by giving us faith in those promises.

The runaway son could not have come to his senses and resolved to return to his father in repentance had not the Shepherd gone into the wilderness to search for him. The runaway son could not have traveled home without the work of the Collector to move him. When people read the parable of the lost son outside of its context, they easily overlook the secrets of the kingdom. On its own, this parable appears to say that we can bring ourselves to God and find our way home again. In its context, we see how God the Father welcomes us home after God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have done their parts in the work of our redemption.

The father throws a party to celebrate the return of his son. This party pictures heaven itself—an eternal celebration of the victory of Christ and the renewal of all creation. The father’s older son refuses to attend the party. He envies the restoration of his brother and resents his father’s forgiveness. This older son is often understood to picture those Pharisees and scribes who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners. But the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have a further surprise hidden in this parable.

The Pharisees and scribes no doubt believed that they had pleased God by their good lives, but we know that to enter the kingdom of heaven one’s righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 5:20). The words the father speaks to his older son may be words that the Pharisees and scribes expected to hear from God. They are not words that God the Father will ever say to those who expect to enter heaven by their own righteousness. Only one person in all history could truthfully say what the older son says: “these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.” Only one person in all history could hear what the father says: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Jesus is the one pure and sinless person who deserves to be in the party instead of locked outside of the party. He has paid with his life to open the doors of the party to the many who do not deserve to be there. Unlike the son in the parable, Jesus is not angry to see undeserving people at the party. He rejoices to restore sinners to the Father’s home in the kingdom.

But was Jesus ever outside of the party? For part of one day, he was indeed outside the party. Rejected and abused by sinners, he took on the burden of sin, and even his Father abandoned him. Jesus spent hours in the darkness of judgment and condemnation to spare those of us who deserve judgment and condemnation. While hanging on the cross, he was outside the party.

Yet because he is God, he will not miss the party. Dying on the cross, he has prepared a place for us. Now he is prepared to welcome us alongside his Father. His resurrection guarantees our resurrection. It also promises that with our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—we will live in the kingdom forever in joyful celebration of love, life, and victory. The Shepherd has found us. The Collector has moved us. The Father now welcomes us home, for we were dead and are alive; we were lost and are found.

 

The Good Samaritan

‘And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”’ (Luke 10:25-37)

If any of the parables of Jesus sound like exhortations to good works, surely that applies to the account of the Good Samaritan. The bulk of the story describes the things done by the Samaritan. The contrast between the Samaritan and the two men who should have helped is unmistakable. The concluding words, “You, go and do likewise,” appear at first to be the point of the parable. Commentators generally are content to explain the roles of the priest and the Levite in Israel and explain the bigotry Jews and Samaritans felt toward each other.

After all, Christians are commanded to do good works. We are to love our neighbors and to help them in their times of need. Walking past a person who is hurting, failing to stop and give assistance, is sinful behavior. How could the parable of the Good Samaritan be anything other than insistence by Jesus that we should help anyone who needs our help?

The answer to that question lies in the secrets to the kingdom of heaven. Christians must continually remember that our good deeds do not earn God’s love and forgiveness. Even though we were created to do good things, we are not redeemed by doing good things. The very fact that the man questioning Jesus asked what he must do to inherit eternal life gives away the entire message. An inheritance comes from the goodness of the giver. An inheritance is not earned. (There are cases of a benefactor using inheritances to bribe their heirs or threatening to remove the heirs from his or her will if they did not act a certain way. Those rare cases underline the point that an inheritance generally means a gift and not something earned.) Jesus died so we can inherit eternal life. He left to us the rewards he earned by his perfect obedience to his Father’s will. We have eternal life because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus could have said as much to his questioner, but he knew the man’s heart. Therefore, Jesus first drew the man’s attention to the Law. The man showed that he knew the greatest commandments of God’s Law. “Do this, and you will live,” Jesus promises. But the man was honest enough in his heart to know that he had not kept those commandments perfectly. Searching for a loophole, he asks Jesus who his neighbor is. Notice that, in concluding the parable, Jesus did not say, “Who was the Samaritan’s neighbor?” Instead, he asks who “proved to be a neighbor.” That change in wording is significant.

Of the four people in the story, all of us would like to claim that we are most like the Samaritan. We fear and we confess that, at times, we are more like the priest and the Levite. We can identify times that we did not do the loving thing for our neighbors. We have neglected them at times; we have not always been of help to our neighbors. When we look at the parable this way, though, we miss seeing that we are most like the victim rather than the Samaritan or the priest or Levite.

We are victims. The devil and the sinful world have combined to lure us into sin, and they stand ready to accuse us of our sins. Our sins themselves, have beaten and robbed us and left us for dead. All the times that we broke God’s commandments have robbed us of any wealth in the kingdom of heaven. Our sins deny us the right to eternal life. Once we have sinned, we are helpless to save ourselves. We cannot redeem ourselves. We lie, bruised and broken, facing death, waiting for someone to help us.

At this time, God’s Law cannot help us. It describes the good things we should do and identifies the sins we have committed, but that information does not take away our sins or the punishment we deserve. Priests and Levites were expected to be good men. The commands of God are also good. His commands tell us why we were made, and they guide us as we strive to imitate Jesus. But, like the priest and the Levite of the parable, even God’s greatest commandments cannot help us once we have fallen into sin. They walk past us. The best they can do is to describe our condition; they cannot change our condition.

Jesus pictures himself as a Samaritan. He takes on the label of a group rejected by the Jews, but he also portrays himself as an outsider. Jesus is above the Law, since he is the source of the Law. He does not have to give us what we deserve. He can be merciful to us, forgive us, and provide for our healing. Like the Samaritan of the parable, Jesus does what is needed to rescue us. The Samaritan cleaned the victim’s wounds with oil and wine—first aid for the first century, before the discovery of modern medicines. Then he put the victim on his donkey, took him to an inn, paid extravagantly for the victim’s care, and promised to do even more if more was necessary to help the victim.

Jesus goes beyond the goodness of the Samaritan. He lives a sinless life, then he bestows upon us the rewards he earned. Even more, he sacrifices his life on a Roman cross to pay our debts in full. He takes the punishment we deserve upon himself in place of the rewards he has given to us. If any more needed to be done to complete our rescue, our redemption, and our healing, Jesus is willing to do that too. His love and his mercy know no limits.

The Samaritan took the victim to an inn. Jesus brings us into the Christian Church. In the Church we continue to receive the care we need to further our healing. The work of the Church is empowered by Jesus. His life and death and resurrection are the coins that pay for our healing within the Church. Yet once we are part of the Church, we are also innkeepers, welcoming others into our midst for their healing.

The man who questioned Jesus asked about what he should do. The parable Jesus spoke depicted each of us as helpless, needing the work of Jesus to rescue us since we cannot rescue ourselves. Why then did Jesus close with the words, “You, go and do likewise”? First, he directs us to strive to obey his commands so we realize that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Then we repent, knowing that we need a Savior. Second, now that we have been saved, we strive to imitate Jesus. The same commands that reveal our imperfections also tell us how to be more Christlike in our daily lives.

Indeed, we should go and do likewise. We should rescue victims of violence. We should feed the hungry and provide shelter for the homeless. We should help the poor and the oppressed. We were created to do good works like these. Along with that, we should recognize the victims of sin and evil around us. We cannot redeem them, but we can share the good news of Christ’s forgiveness and of his victory over all evil. We can share God’s forgiveness, beginning with those who have sinned against us.

As we do these things, though, we are not earning our place in the kingdom of heaven. That gift is an inheritance given to us by Jesus. He is the Samaritan who has saved our lives and who is still providing for our healing. The secrets of the kingdom of heaven help us to see Jesus as the Samaritan in his parable.

Buried treasure and a precious pearl

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44-46).

At first glance, these two brief parables appear to reinforce the first commandment—“You shall have no other gods before me” (Deuteronomy 5:7)—and the greatest commandment—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). After all, these commandments are first and greatest because they are important. God created the universe. He made each of us. He has the right to tell us how to live. He deserves to be our highest priority. Our lives are best when we put God first and put everything else under him. If we could love God perfectly and unceasingly, we would never break any of his other commandments.

Over the centuries, Christians have made many sacrifices for God. Some have abandoned homes and families and jobs to live in voluntary poverty, dedicating their lives to prayer and to the service of God. Others have turned aside from opportunities for wealth and fame to lead careers in church work, receiving only a fraction of what the world would have paid them. Many have gone out on missionary journeys, spending long years far away from everything that is familiar and comfortable for them.

Moreover, Christians have been persecuted. They have been abandoned by family and friends because of their relationship with Jesus Christ. They have been driven out of their homes and their communities. Some have been fired from their jobs because of their faith. Some have been imprisoned. Some have been beaten. Some have been killed. They lost everything they had for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

But what of the rest of us? Are we unsaved because we have not given up everything for the kingdom of heaven? If we have not lost money or fame or popularity for the sake of the gospel, does that mean we are not truly Christians? Because we have not been rejected, fired, imprisoned, jailed, and killed, are we barred from the kingdom of heaven?

One of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven is that we cannot earn God’s love and mercy and grace. We cannot earn our salvation. Those who try to earn salvation are locked out of the kingdom. Those who plan to stand before the throne of judgment and demand that God give them what they deserve will be denied a place in God’s kingdom, because every one of us has sinned and has fallen short of the kingdom of God.

What, then, did Jesus mean when he told these parables? He did not mean to identify himself as a treasure or a precious pearl. Instead, he calls each of us buried treasure and a precious pearl. Rather than being a treasure purchased by others, Jesus is the man who gives everything he has to claim us for himself.

As treasure, each of us is hidden. We are buried under our own sins and under the world’s evil. With regret we recall the times when we did things God told us not to do. With sorrow we remember the times that we failed to do what God commanded us to do. With repentance we realize that we have not always given God first place in our lives. Other things have been more important to us than God is. We have not loved him wholeheartedly, because we have reserved parts of our hearts for other loves.

Seeing our sin, Jesus decided to rescue us. At the command of his Father, he willingly left his throne at the Father’s side and entered creation. He was born to a young Jewish girl, wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. The God who knows everything learned how to walk and how to talk and how to read and write. The God who is perfect and almighty grew up to be a man. Even as an adult, he remained in poverty—“Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Of course the distance between the Son of God and the richest person on earth is far greater than the distance between the richest person and the poorest person on earth. Jesus humbled himself to be one of us, to be tempted as we are, to face the dangers we face, and to have the same needs we have.

Then, when he had lived a pure and sinless life for more than thirty years, Jesus even surrendered what little he had in this world. When trouble threatened, his friends abandoned him and denied knowing him. Brought into courtrooms, he was denied justice. Beaten, slapped, and flogged, he lost his health. What little he owned—the clothing he was wearing—was taken from him. Finally, after hours of suffering, he sacrificed even his life on the cross.

Jesus gave everything he had to claim his treasure. We were buried in sin, but Jesus paid all that he had to make us his people. Without Jesus we were no treasure, but now with Jesus we are treasure. To him each of us is like the finest pearl, for which he willingly sacrificed all, even life itself. Having paid that price, he says that now we belong to him.

Of course we should make God our first priority. We should love nothing more than him. When we fail to meet this standard, though, we have not lost our place in the kingdom of heaven, because Jesus is not a treasure that we have to find and purchase. The secret of the kingdom of heaven is that Jesus has found us and has purchased us. We belong to the kingdom of heaven, not because of any price we have paid, but because of the price Jesus paid to redeem us.

Introduction to “The Secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven,” a study of the parables of Jesus

Jesus liked to teach with parables. Whether it was a brief statement about a camel going through the eye of a needle or a complex narrative about a crime victim ignored by a priest and a Levite but helped by a Samaritan, Jesus spoke in parables to all those who came to listen to him.

What is a parable? A parable is more than a story. Preachers sometimes are told, “You ought to tell more stories when you preach—that’s the way Jesus taught.” Jesus did not use parables to entertain the crowds or to keep their attention. He had something far more important in mind.

Children are taught that a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus used as pictures those things that were familiar to his listeners. He spoke about sheep and a shepherd. He spoke about planting seeds. He spoke about investing money. All these ideas were familiar to the people of his time and place. Yet Jesus was not really teaching about sheep or seeds or investments. His parables described the kingdom of heaven.

Strange as it may seem, though, Jesus did not use parables to help everyone understand him better. In fact, he said just the opposite. When his disciples asked Jesus why he spoke in parables, he replied, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:11-17).

In other words, Jesus was speaking in a code. Only people who knew the key to his code could understand his teachings. The parables were ways Jesus could hide the truth in plain sight, knowing that people without the code would not be able to learn or understand the truth.

His disciples had been given the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. What are these secrets? They involve something that prophets and righteous people of the Old Testament longed to see and did not see. They mark the difference between those who are right with God and those who will be condemned by God. They draw the line between those who belong to the kingdom of heaven and those who are outside God’s kingdom.

The key to the code—the secrets to the kingdom of heaven—are the identity of Jesus and the mission of Jesus. Peter and the others knew the identity of Jesus—“the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus clearly described his mission to them—“he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). Anyone who recognizes that Jesus is truly God and also truly human knows one of the secrets. Anyone who knows that the suffering and death and resurrection of Jesus provide forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and victory over all evil to those who believe in Jesus knows one of the secrets. Those two secrets are the code, the knowledge that allows Christians to unpack the parables of Jesus and discover the true meaning of his parables.

Yet many Christians, even teachers of their fellow Christians, fail to understand the parables of Jesus as Jesus intended. They confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, but they do not use this knowledge to understand the parables. Instead, when they study the parables, they look for commandments and rules and directions about how to live. They use the parables of Jesus to reinforce the message of the life God’s people should be living. Yet they forget that Christian obedience does not get Christians into heaven. Only the grace of God and the redemption paid by Jesus gets Christians into heaven. No one can do anything to earn salvation or to contribute to salvation—not before being saved, or while being saved, or after being saved. Heaven is a gift from God, an inheritance passed on to us because of the death of Jesus.

This secret is the code needed to understand the parables Jesus told. In each parable, the student of the Bible must find Jesus. Jesus is recognized by his identity—the one God to whom the earth and everything in it belongs, but also the God made flesh to live among his people as one of them. Jesus is recognized by his mission—to seek and to save those who are lost in sin and evil and death. Redemption lies at the heart of every parable Jesus told. Grace and love and forgiveness are expressed in all the teachings of Jesus.

Some parables are lengthy stories; others are brief sayings. All of them are told within the context of larger messages or conversations. Some of the parables are labeled as such by Matthew, Mark, and Luke; others are recognized by their similarity to those that have been labeled. In the case of sayings, not every list of parables is identical. Which sayings are parables and which are not is difficult to determine. In general, when its message is about the kingdom of heaven, and when it can be used to illustrate the identity and the mission of Jesus, a saying can be considered a parable.

Tomorrow: buried treasure and a precious pearl. J.

Those secret groups that run the world

Imagine what could be done if someone could gather together the most influential people in the world—leaders of industry, finance, academia, government and politics, perhaps even entertainers and members of the media. Imagine what would happen if all these people would speak to one another and—more important—listen to one another. Imagine each of these important people gathering insight into other points of view, other approaches to leadership, and other goals for business and government.

You do not have to imagine. Meetings like this actually happen. In fact, there are three regular gatherings that meet this description. The oldest, founded in 1921, is called the Council on Foreign Affairs. It consists of American leaders, and it clearly was begun in an attempt to ward off the isolationism that was dominating American thought after the Great War was over. The next, founded in 1954, is called Bilderberg. It includes Americans and Europeans, and it dates to the aftermath of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War. Along with them is the Trilateral Commission, founded in 1973, and including Japan as well as North America and Europe. Recently other east Asian countries have been included in the Trilateral Commission along with Japan.

The three groups have common interests and goals. They share one other trait: all three are accused of being secret organizations plotting to control world events. Conspiracy theorists regularly invoke one or more of these groups when they try to explain how a hidden elite force is running the world, causing everything from terrorist attacks to the fluoridation of water.

Some years ago, the governor of a certain state was invited to join one of these three groups. After he accepted, he received dozens of letters from alarmed citizens—some from his state, and some from other states. They warned him that he was being sucked into an evil cabal, one bent upon one-world government and other nefarious plots. He was cautioned that known Communists had addressed meetings of this group. (This was while the Cold War was still happening.) The governor’s staff mailed a reply to these letters with his signature. The reply emphasized that the group existed only to listen to different points of view so people would understand one another. The group had no agenda apart from speaking and listening. In many cases, that reply induced a second letter scolding the governor for naivety and recommending a book to the governor, a recently-published book which claimed to reveal all the dark secrets of this particular group.

Conspiracy theorists focus upon these groups because they seem elitist and powerful. Accusing other people of conspiring to run the world reduces one’s own personal responsibility to the world. A person who believes that a secret elite controls the world and that the rest of us are helpless is a person who feels free to ignore the problems of others. Feed the hungry and shelter the homeless? Cut back on littering and on wasting fuel? Be kind to a stranger? Why bother? THEY are in control, and these small gestures cannot change anything. Moreover, doing any of these things might just be playing into THEIR hands.

The Rockefellers and the Rothschilds are wealthy families. They are regarded with suspicion by many conspiracy theorists. But the Rothschild fortune and the Rockefeller fortune were acquired in the same fashion that Bill Gates and Sam Walton became wealthy more recently. Such wealth begins with an idea—a thought about how to give other people what they want and get paid for doing it. Having that idea, the entrepreneur advertises the product or the service. As profits build, they are reinvested in the company. Further investigation of what people want and how to provide it, and continued advertising, bring about a growing business that eventually produces a family fortune. This procedure requires effort, determination, and a little bit of luck. Competition and economic downturns might stifle the company for a while. In the end, the Rockefellers and the Waltons are wealthy today because of a predecessor in the family who worked very hard over a period of time to succeed.

With privilege comes responsibility. Rockefellers and Rothschilds sponsor efforts to improve the world for everyone. They contribute to schools, hospitals, libraries, concert halls, art museums, and other social benefits. They create foundations to continue helping other people. They fund and participate in gatherings (such as the three mentioned above) because they agree that powerful people should speak to one another and listen to one another. Far from conspiring to control the world for their own benefit, they are giving back to a world that made them rich by wanting what their predecessors sold.

Yet these wealthy and powerful people are like everyone else. They are sometimes thoughtful and considerate. They are sometimes petty and self-centered. They can be suspicious of one another. They are neither interested in combining forces to rule the world nor capable of doing so. And, I suspect, they are both puzzled and amused by the countless theories that claim that they are doing such things right now. J.

“Why is populism growing?”

In the fall of 2013 I conducted an unscientific poll in my neighborhood. I asked one question: “If two people were running for Congress, and the only significant difference between them was that one had never been in politics before and the other had been in politics for years, who would get your vote?” The most common answer was, “the one who had never been in politics.” In fact, that position earned some seventy-five to eighty percent of the responses, while the second-most common response was, “I would examine their positions to decide my vote; I wouldn’t pay any attention to whether or not they had been in politics before.”

I was conducting this poll to see whether or not I had a shot at getting elected to Congress. My banker urged me to run; she wanted to vote for me. My barber urged me to run; he wanted to vote for me. The police officer getting his hair cut—a man I had not met until that conversation—wanted to vote for me. One store clerk told me that he would vote for me in the next election, but then he would vote for someone else the next election. “You’ll have been corrupted by then,” he said. Only when I began looking into fundraising did I learn that the wealthy donors in the party had already committed their donations and their votes to “my good friend” (as they described him), a businessman who had been involved in politics for years, although this was the first time his name would appear on a ballot.

Because of this brief experience with populism, I was less surprised than most Americans by Donald Trump’s success in last year’s elections. American voters are increasingly disgusted by the way government goes about its business, and they blame Democrats and Republicans equally for the problems they see. The campaign of Bernie Sanders also drew strength from populism. Both the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Movement were populist expressions of displeasure over the decisions and actions of those in power. For that matter, the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom is equally a populist expression of distrust in government and in those serving in the government. The more recent losses by the Conservative Party are part of the very same package of populism.

Populists distrust the government. They also distrust the news media, although they generally describe their distrust in terms of conservative or liberal biases in various media organizations. Populism is not new—in the twentieth century it led to the direct election of Senators (rather than United States Senators being chosen by state governments) and to laws allowing referenda created by citizens to be placed on the ballot, giving voters power to decide matters usually left to elected officials.

Populism scares the elite. “Why is populism growing?” they ask. The answer is simple: people no longer trust the elite to make decisions for everyone. People increasingly believe that the elite make decisions that serve themselves without regard to whether those decisions help or harm the rest of the people in the country.

Consider this: between the 1952 Presidential election (Eisenhower-Stevenson) and the 2008 election (Obama-McCain), twelve elections were held in which one of the two major candidates was either the incumbent President or the incumbent Vice President. In each case, the opponent was either a Governor, a Senator, or a former Vice President. If that doesn’t sound like government by the elite, I don’t know what does. Campaigners regularly presented themselves as outsiders who were going to fix the government, but somehow the government never seemed to be fixed. Symptoms of populist revolt were felt in the late twentieth century—the campaigns of Ross Perot, for example. Tax protests in the 1980s used the tea party theme well before the official Tea Party movement was organized. Americans have long considered themselves to be populists, even though they generally reelect the same leaders or replace them with extremely similar leaders.

The presidency of Donald Trump has been sponsored by populism. Democrats and members of the media are astonished by the continuing power of populism to support the President. Efforts to maintain a spirit of crisis, efforts to mock and disparage the President, and efforts to show that he is rejected by a majority of Americans all fail to shake his true support. They wanted an outsider in the White House, and they are delighted that President Trump continues to speak and to act as an outsider in Washington.

Talk of impeaching the President is terribly premature. Any attempt to impeach Donald Trump for something less than a blatant and obvious crime will fail, and such an attempt would end the political careers of those who participate in it. Insulting the President’s supporters—calling them racist, out-of-touch, and deplorable—only sharpens the divide between the elite and the populists. As they demonstrated last summer and fall, when challenged and inspired, America’s populists can be a powerful force in politics. J.

The war on information

Ray Bradbury wrote a number of science fiction stories in which a totalitarian government attempted to forbid the preservation of literature and history. The government tried to maintain control over the population by restricting information available to that population, often by forbidding and burning books. In one of his stories, though, Bradbury imagined the government controlling citizens by using the opposite extreme. The government flooded the market with information, producing so much material that no one could receive it all and comprehend it all. Important matters were lost in the flood of information, and the citizens were unable to resist control from the government under that condition.

Contemporary society has, perhaps, reached the point that Bradbury envisioned. The ordinary laws of supply and demand—and not a malevolent government—have overwhelmed people of our time with information of every kind. We have at our fingertips news and history, medical information, the results of scientific research, access to all the fine arts, and many more sources of education and of entertainment.

People use this abundance and freedom in strange ways. Instead of viewing the plays of Shakespeare, or listening to the symphonies of Beethoven, or enjoying the artwork of the Italian Renaissance, the largest number of people has turned to scripted shows that are called, ironically, “Reality TV.” News about current events and about historic events is increasingly being presented in entertainment formats rather than researched documentaries. Satirical news has grown in popularity, in part because many people cannot discern the difference between satire and real news.

From the Baroque era into the twentieth century, modern philosophers assumed that information could be received objectively and communicated objectively. Postmodern thinkers assume that all research and all communication is biased. As a result, contemporary people choose among a variety of news media, selecting those that match the biases already formed within their minds. Some trust The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Others prefer the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Breitbart. Each group accuses the others of trusting biased and distorted sources of information while failing to acknowledge that their own sources are also biased.

Some news stories are covered across the spectrum, although they are addressed and described differently in different places. Others are reported only by one side or only by the other. In controversial matters—for example, climate change—contrary studies are presented by different news sources as authoritative. Contrary reports also reveal mistakes or deliberate distortions in some studies, undermining the authority of the other side’s evidence for its position.

In the midst of all this contrary information, a growing segment of the population doubts everything that it hears as news. One day coffee is good for a person and red wine is dangerous; the next day red wine is beneficial but coffee should be avoided. Conspiracy theories prosper precisely because they seem more believable than the news that is being reported.

As to conspiracy theories, they began to flourish in the days of Watergate and because of revelations about conspiracies and crime within the White House and also in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Watergate actually revealed how government conspiracies really work: they are subject to incompetent agents, selfishness of individuals, and a lack of trust within any organization. Human people are fallible; they will not succeed with conspiracies that require large-scale participation, continuing deception, or a possible reward for the first conspirator who tells the truth about what really happened.

The danger in our current condition, this war on information, is that people who believe nothing inevitably begin believing anything. Satirical news frequently is repeated as if it were reliable information. Pity the poor elected leader a few years ago who, on the floor of the state senate, called for regulation to ban or at least limit the use of a certain chemical because it was directly responsible for thousands of deaths each year. (The chemical was water.) Because truth sometimes is stranger than fiction, many strange fictions are accepted as truth.

Doubt any report that relies upon the assumption that all the people of a large group with one common characteristic are working together for a common goal. All politicians, all leaders of big business, all entertainers, all homosexuals, all Christians, all Muslims—none of these groups are united enough to be working together to try to control the world.

Doubt any report that depicts a large number of people keeping grand secrets. Doubt any report that describes some massive hidden technology that is behind some unexplained event. Doubt any report that claims that a hidden group of people (especially one that hides in public with web sites and scheduled meetings) is secretly running the world. Doubt any report that a widely witnessed event never happened but was faked by some group for nefarious purposes.

Fake news existed in ancient times and will continue to exist beyond our lifetimes. What used to be labeled “rumor” is now spread by technology that gives it an added layer of credibility. We can survive the war on information by using a little common sense, checking sources when possible, and remembering to think for ourselves rather than allowing others to do our thinking for us.

 

 

Puerto Rico

This weekend, the residents of Puerto Rico who bothered to vote overwhelmingly endorsed the proposition of statehood for Puerto Rico. Previous elections on the topic have been less decisive, and some opponents of statehood for Puerto Rico boycotted the polls this year. However, only the United States Congress can grant statehood to Puerto Rico. What would happen if Congress responded to this election by making Puerto Rico the 51st state in the Union?

  • Puerto Rico would be the thirtieth state in population, just ahead of Iowa. It would have four or five Representatives in Congress, as well as two Senators. In presidential elections it would have six or seven electoral votes.
  • Based on past voting records, one may assume that most of those officials would be Democrats rather than Republicans. Given this fact, the likelihood of Puerto Rico being offered statehood by the current session of Congress is small.
  • Citizens of Puerto Rico would be required to pay federal income taxes, but they also would be eligible for additional federal assistance programs.
  • The following fact would be altered: Puerto Rico is currently the only region in the world that is neither an independent country nor a fully functioning member (state, province, etc.) of an independent country having more than one million residents. Most such regions are either very small or are sparsely populated. (However, the relationship of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China is ambiguous.)
  • Someone would have to design an arrangement of stars for the United States flag that contains 51 stars and is visually appealing.
  • The residents of the District of Columbia would probably increase their pursuit of statehood. Again, they would be unlikely to succeed during the current session of Congress, based on past voting records.
  • Consideration might be given to balance the four new Senators (likely Democratic) by creating two new states with Republican majorities. The easiest way to do this would be to divide Texas into three states, something which could not be done without the permission of the state of Texas. I consider this event to be extremely unlikely.

The voters of Puerto Rico have spoken. Whether or not the government of the United States answers them remains to be seen. J.

On tariffs–and a proposal

I wrote yesterday about globalization to provide a context for today’s post about tariffs. A tariff is a tax assessed by a government upon imports. Governments assess taxes to gain money, of course, but the purpose of a tariff is often more than income. Tariffs add to the cost of imported items, making it easier for similar items made in the country to compete for buyers.

In theory, if the United States government wants to help wine makers in the United States, the government can place a tariff on French wine, making French wine more expensive than California wine. Some buyers will still prefer the French wine, even if it costs more than the California wine. Others will switch to California wine to save money.

In theory, if the United States government wants to help car makers in the United States, the government can place a tariff on Japanese cars and German cars, making them more expensive than American cars. Some buyers will still prefer the Japanese cars or the German cars, even if they cost more than the American cars. Others will switch to American cars to save money.

As I indicated yesterday, because of globalization it is difficult to measure how American a car is. Manufacturers have headquarters in several cities around the world, and their major shareholders come from various countries. Factories for parts and factories for assembly are also scattered around the world. Writing a tariff law that helps preserve American jobs in the automotive industry is far more difficult than it sounds.

In addition, when one country starts increasing tariffs, other countries often follow suit. Given the above examples, France and Germany and Japan very likely would place tariffs on American products, which would cancel the benefits the United States hoped to gain by its new tariffs.

Meanwhile, I also made the point that building factories in other countries seems to cost America jobs, but that is not necessarily so. At the same time that the company that built the factory is trying to lower its costs and save its customers money, it is also paying workers in that other country, people who might use some of their income to buy products made in the United States.

Why is it less expensive to pay workers in other countries than in the United States? The United States has stricter laws about minimum wages and benefits than most other countries. The United States has stricter laws about safety in the workplace than most other countries. The United States has stricter laws against pollution than most other countries. We cannot force other countries to adopt laws like ours, and we would not want to lower our standards so far that pollution increases, that workplaces are unsafe, or that workers cannot survive on the wages they are paid. Some compromises undoubtedly can be made in these areas—some regulations probably are excessive. But removing all such regulations would be bad for workers in the United States.

Americans generally want to save money. They are happy with stores that keep their prices low. Yet most Americans do not wish other people to suffer for our prosperity. When we hear of sweatshops where workers are abused, underpaid for their work, and forced to endure unsafe conditions at work, we would prefer not to finance those sweatshops by purchasing their products. Yet how can we know which of the things we buy were assembled by suffering workers? And how can we be sure that our boycott of such products will improve working conditions in these other countries? If the factories close, how will their workers find income to stay alive?

This leads me to a proposal. I suggest that the United States Department of Commerce (DoC) create a team of investigators to inspect factories in other countries, particularly factories owned and operated by corporations based, at least in part, in the United States. These investigators could not force their way into factories; they would need to be invited by the owners of the factories. But those factories that passed inspection would be allowed to carry a seal of approval on their products. The inspection would ensure that workers at the factory receive enough money for the workers to live in their communities (which would probably still be far less than minimum wages in the United States). The inspection would ensure that working conditions at the factory are safe. The inspection would ensure that the factory is not polluting the air, the water, or any other part of their environment—not necessarily according to the measures of American law, but still within the capabilities of the company that owns the factory.

Congress then could place tariffs on products that do not carry that seal of approval from the DoC. The lack of a seal of approval would be the result of failing to pass inspection or the result of failing to permit inspection. Using the seal without having passed inspection would result in higher penalties, whether higher tariffs or higher taxes on the United States property owned by the corporation to blame.

Of course the salaries, the benefits, the office space, and the travel expenses of this new branch of the DoC would need to be added to the national budget. I expect some of those expenses would be offset by the new tariff. At the same time, this tariff would benefit two groups of workers. It would benefit American workers, who would have reduced competition from overseas factories that underpay and mistreat their workers. It would also benefit the workers in other countries because corporations would be more motivated to improve their salary scales and the safety of their factories. My suggestion would be good for America and good for the world. J.