Evangelism at the End of the World: A Conversation with John Dominic Crossan's In Parables
Ever since the world ended, I don't go out as much
People that I once befriended, Just don't bother to stay in touch.
Things that used to seem so splendid , don't really matter today.
It's just as well the world ended-- It wasn't working anyway.
Ever since the world ended, There's no more black or white. Ever since we all got blended,
there's no more reason to fuss and fight.
Dogmas that we once defended no longer seem worthwhile.
Ever since the world ended, I face the future--
With a smile. (Mose Allison, Ever Since the World Ended)
I blame it on my first fifteen years as a Christian among the Pentecostals. My concern for evangelism that is. There was the steady stream of exhortation to our personal responsibility to tell others about Jesus. Indeed, in my real imitation of the long-hair hippie Jesus radical days, we would “go witnessing” which meant hanging out on street corners, passing out “tracts” and hopefully engaging in discussion. The hoped for outcome rarely came, finding a poor soul who is starving to hear a message of salvation and leading them through the “prayer for sinners.”
I was always uncomfortable with such bold-faced and obtrusive action. It has never been easy for me, however, to wholesale dismiss this sense of responsibility to both Jesus and my world in large part because I was one of those “poor souls” who had absolutely no contact or exposure to “church,” happened to have found a discarded “tract” (of a hippie-looking, sandaled Jesus happily speaking of God’s kingdom), was mesmerized by that image, invited to a “meet’n” at a small obscure little church and out of the clear blue was confronted with the crisis of choice concerning Jesus. I came home that night wondering what the hell just happened, but immediately dumped my “stash” in the trash.
I’ve come to realize that this experience is rare for many Christians. Most never have such a sense of a dramatic turn-around, but my own experience nags any complacency I might have in this regard.
Problems with Evangelism
It has been more than thirty years since my inauspicious entry into the Christian experience. I’ve been through countless discussions, programs, and attempts at “getting the word out,” and there are several things that are problematic.
For one, a good lot of the focus readily turns more toward discussion of church growth which inevitably leads to discussions of marketing strategies based on business or sociological models.
Along with this and often times more insidious are attempts to simply get people to join our club instead of somebody else’s. It tends to find a prospect among some disgruntled member. It comes down to a kind of “we’ve got what they lack.” A good deal of effort goes toward simply getting people to change memberships, like switching from Sam’s Club to Costco.
Inevitably, there is some methodological discovery that jettisons such efforts. One such model that is still mutating today has been variously called discipleship or shepherding. The math seems impeccable. If everyone generated two or three disciples who did likewise, the whole world would be Christian lickity-split. It was Jesus’ preferred method or so a popular book of the 70s and 80s called the Master Plan of Evangelism proposed.
There is a fundamental flaw in this method. More often than not, the enlightened advocates at the top end up having more of a theoretical rather than a practical understanding of the method. They become like business “consultants” who can tell everyone else what they themselves don’t do.
Methodologies have always had their day and should not be dismissed outright as Wesley and the Methodists can vouch for as well as countless others. I guess what bothers me about much of this is when I read the Gospels, I have a nagging sense that something much more was at stake with Jesus than simply “getting the word out.”
In my most recent study of the Gospels, I’ve been confronted on a deeper lever with two core proclamations of Jesus that we Christians do more to domesticate, obfuscate, and spiritualize away than to make serious efforts to live into. Even more so, these proclamations are far from popular sentiment.
First, in every way and deliberately, Jesus proclaimed himself as a king. He claimed a prerogative over Israel’s temple and Torah and over Rome. It is as John Dominic Crossan said in an interview: “Everything Jesus did was dangerous.”1 Apparently, both Roman and Jewish leaders did not bother to ask Jesus if he was only talking about a spiritual kingdom in the afterlife. Had they, I’m sure they would have sponsored his little contemplative retreat center by the lake side of Galilee. If we were to suspend the theological understanding of Jesus’ death but for a moment, it is much more apparent that Jesus died because of his challenge to both the
Jewish nation and to Rome. His death was not of a common criminal, but of a political criminal. Rival kingdoms, spiritual or not, were not tolerated.
The message that Jesus was a king claiming prerogative over humans should be highly disconcerting to Americans. After all, we take great pride on being the first in bucking off monarchies. Talk of kings in this post-modern, post-colonial world is generally viewed as repulsive. Recently, I taught a Bible class for undergraduate students, and most of them, especially the less believing types, found the image of God as a king offensive. At least they made the connection.
The second core proclamation of Jesus is directly related to his proclamation as king, but it is nearly smothered among many Christian communities. It is the main focus of John Dominic Crossan’s book In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus and on the discussion below. Jesus proclaimed an end of the world.
Once again, we must come to grips with a rather unappealing aspect of our faith. In a very real sense, we should modify that bumper-sticker campaign of the 70s to God loves you and has a wonderful plan to end your life. The message of the kingdom in Jesus’ parables, Crossan insists, is that God is overturning all the tables. In the coming of Jesus, the king, God is tearing down our tight little castles that we build for ourselves. Of course, no one wants to hear such a message except for those whose castle has already come tumbling down, for those whose “world as they knew it” has ended or is in the process. But for those whose world appears to be in full swing, this message is folly to be ignored or a danger to be countered.
In my many discussions of evangelism, we usually talk of the appeal of the Christian faith, but this may in fact lead us straight away from the Gospel. At the core of our faith are some very unappealing and downright disturbing images. It is here where I found something refreshing in Crossan’s presentation. If there was any “master plan of evangelism,” it was this: Jesus spoke in parables. This is not Jesus’ methodology, but a counter attack on methodology. “The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. “But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs.”2
There is nothing new about parables. Every culture has cute and wise stories meant to lead, teach, and guide, but Jesus, in ironic fashion, overturns parables themselves, using quaint little stories to jolt his audience into a confrontation with God’s kingdom. God comes to us as “world
shatterer” in the parables.(3) They become “apocalyptic bombshells” says Crossan,(4) blowing our counterfeit worlds apart.
Like David’s stealth attack on Jerusalem’s impregnable fortress, so the parable assaults our worlds. And when one does that, things can get ugly. “Jesus was not crucified for parables,” Crossan reminds, “but for ways of acting which resulted from the experience of God presented in the parables.”(5)
I find Crossan’s presentation to be intriguing, and it has caused me to wonder if a critical aspect of presenting Jesus to the world needs to be unearthed again. One thing is for certain, even though one can find a readily available stream of Christian communications in this media saturated world, one would strain hard to find the kind of authentic encounter with the kingdom of God in Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. What would happen if somehow, the “unaffiliated” were presented with and allowed to interact with the world inside the parables of the kingdom? What would happen to our little world if we did that?
This is a scary thought for us religious folk. For inside that world there is no church, no dogmas, no ministers or priests, no tradition, nor the Bible. There is really no Jesus even. What is most present in the parables is a powerful reality thrusting its way into ours.
The Kingdom in Parables
Admittedly, I find some of Crossan’s methodology and conclusions objectionable. Even so, Crossan has stirred in me a perhaps nostalgic reminiscence of my formative early years as a Christian because Crossan insists that the “real” or “historical” Jesus radically and dangerously engaged the world of first century Palestine. In a similar vein to Soren Kierkegaard, he insists that we can miss Jesus completely if we overly domesticate him. In fact, our image of Jesus can become its opposite. There is a tendency to turn Jesus into a policing regulator and official sponsor of our social structures or a Jesus meek and mild who leaves politics to the professionals.
The parables are the critical medium for communicating the kingdom of God. It is how Jesus helps us picture the potential of God’s way among humans. The parables do more to expose us God’s world rather than tell us what to do.
But the problem for Jesus’ audience, his disciples and for us today is that we already have our preconceived notions of what a God-ruled world would look like. What we are really waiting for is a powerful figure to simply implement our preconceived notion of God’s kingdom. This,
Crossan challenges, is a cleverly disguised idolatry, and is aggressively addressed in Jesus’ parables. Jesus targets our “worlds” to tumble down in the parables.(6)
The parables for Crossan are assaults on all kingdom visions and expectations that shut down or exclude God’s prerogative to act freely, openly, and in harmony with His nature and in turn restrict our capacity to vigilantly remain open and responsive to God. We tend to turn the prayer “Thy kingdom come” into “let me help you with your kingdom come.” Or bottom line, it seductively becomes “my kingdom come.”
Crossan believes Jesus’ parables forcibly separate good end-thinking (eschatology) from bad.
For one, Jesus’ kingdom world inside the parables is talking about end of world, not end of time. This Crossan insists is a big part of the problem. Any view of God working on some kind of timeline is bad end-thinking because it means that God is bound to something outside Himself. It restricts God’s freedom to act, but perhaps even more critical, it restricts our openness to response. Time, Crossan reminds, is a gift, not an assembly line.(7)
The parables’ provocations get muted precisely because we are confused about how our world ends so God’s world can thrive. Christians tend to gravitate toward two views, both of which Jesus terrorizes in the parables. One view, especially prevalent among the disenfranchised is to give up on “this world” as wholesale corrupt and hell bent on its own destruction. It is apocalyptic. It desires to see this evil, corrupt and violent world come to end. It also dearly wants to see the evil, corrupt, and violent people annihilated, of which, of course, I myself am not a party to. It cleverly cloaks idolatry. It inevitably entices people to separate themselves from God’s world and project their own desire for vengeance on the God of love.
The second view gives up on any new act of God. All God’s decisive acts are in the past. Our task is simply to maintain the world we have. It also means that we default to what “works,” which inevitably means the use of power. This view does not give up on a “new world” completely, but rather relegates it to a distant future where God will obviously and dramatically change things and we will then obviously and dramatically fall in line albeit still maintaining the same power structures. Inevitably, this view is also apocalyptic.
Jesus’ telling of the parable blows up apocalyptic end-thinking scenarios. Crossan views the parable of the Hidden Treasure (Mt 13:44) and the Pearl (Mt 13:45-46) as paradigmic parables meant to assault preconceived images of God’s activity as king. Rather than viewing God’s rule in terms of past/present/future, Jesus challenges us to see it as advent/reversal/action.(8)
These key parables clearly show the advent/reversal/action “world” of Jesus. Put succinctly, the kingdom respondent “finds-sells-buys.”9 It is advent in that a man whose normalcy of past- present-future is rudely but happily shattered. His future is annihilated by the advent of the treasure “which opens up a new world and unforeseen possibilities.” The reversal subsequently occurs in light of the advent; he abandons/ reverses his past, selling all that he has. From the advent and reversal he obtains the treasure which now dictates his time and his history. “It gives him a new world of life and action he did not have before and he could not have programmed for himself.”(10)
For Crossan, the parables should be understood as emphasizing one or more aspect of advent, reversal, and action. Some parables are more advent parables, some reversal, and some action. One such parable of advent is the parable of the Muster Seed (Mt 13:31-32). Crossan believes that the parable has been mistakenly identified as a growth parable where the emphasis is on the slow development of God’s kingdom from inauspicious beginnings.11 The parable rather places the emphasis on “surprise and gift” at the advent of a large tree.
The surprise of God’s kingdom comes in Jesus’ choice of a mustard plant. If one wanted to talk of a great kingdom one would normally choose a great tree like the cedar of Lebanon for comparison. A mustard plant was more a nuisance “weed” for a farmer. The choice deliberately and immediately confronts our world conventions: “What do you mean the kingdom of God is like an uncultivated weed in the farmer’s field?”(12)
Jesus’ choice of agricultural images may not have so much to do with a rural setting, but rather the dynamic of natural development and “surprise and gift” that is best suited to biological images.
For instance, we all know the process of birthing a child. It is inevitable from start to finish. Nevertheless, what couple is not overcome by sheer delight, awe, and surprise at the birth. Perhaps what Crossan is getting at with the “idolatry of immortality” or “apocalyptic eschatology” is the loss of expectation that God’s kingdom can, will, must, inevitably come to this earth. Admittedly, several times in my life when I thought my world had ended, my hopes of God’s kingdom went with it. These kinds of advent parables teach us that we can be both expecting the harvest and yet be jolted by surprise with each “advent” of its appearing.
Some parables emphasize the reversal aspect of the kingdom which the awesome advent inevitably requires. The parables of reversal challenge our conventional reading of the parables which tend to look at the parable as an illustration of right moral, or at least kingdom, behavior.
The Good Samaritan, Crossan argues, is not so much about being nice to someone in need. It is more dramatically about crashing two polar opposites, good and Samaritan, together. What is good (the priests and Levites) becomes bad, and what is bad (Samaritan) becomes good.13
If we read this as Crossan believes we should, then this parable is about grasping the total upheaval of God’s kingdom advent. The magnetic forces that keep our worlds going and that appear inextricably fixed are migrating towards its opposite. South becomes north and north goes south. The parables of reversal challenge us to accept the “utter uncertainty” when God enters our worlds. No one, Crossan asserts, can boast in the middle of an earthquake.14 Our compasses may not be so reliable after all.
The parables of reversal are meant to pull us into a reality of God’s way of doing things. They not only teach us, but make us experience a world where God is not bound to play the game by our rules. A major thrust of God’s Kingdom is to insist and insist rather forcibly that whatever we think is so bloody important isn’t. “The Kingdom is not one’s ultimate concern but that which undermines one’s ultimate concern.”(15)
Finally, there are parables of action. Crossan devotes a good deal of methodological wrangling of the many parables that seem to point to some kind of behavior code to be deciphered. Indeed, many from Sunday school on up are heavily preconditioned in this direction. “Jesus, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” The Pharisees already had this approach down pat. Crossan warns that if we first and foremost inquire of the parables some right or moral behavior, we are likely to lose the radical impact they are intended to have.
The parables of action undermines, indeed subverts, our presupposition that we already presuppose our willingness to obey or respond to the kingdom’s advent. In fact says Crossan, “The righteousness of God does not presuppose our obedience; it creates it.”(16)
The parable of the hidden treasure illustrates the point—the parable stops right when the merchant “discards his entire past” and purchases the field. It doesn’t even say that he dug up the treasure. It does not tell us what he did with the treasure. The moralizing read of the parable would first of all question whether it was wise to sell “all that he had.” Isn’t this irresponsible? A massive gamble? “Jesus’ parables challenge one to life and action within the Kingdom but they leave that life and that action as absolute in its call as it is unspecified in its detail.”(17)
“We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables,” says Crossan, “we want them to tell us exactly what to do and they refuse to answer.”(18) The most crucial moral question for us is whether we are willing to follow the lead of the parables in allowing the logic of our ethics to be “undermined by the mystery of God.”(19)
This is not how the religious game is played, but the parables are consistent with Jesus’ kingdom wisdom sayings like: ““love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” Jesus’ arrival and announcement of God’s kingdom (the incarnation itself is advent and reversal) puts the question to all our tightly packaged conventions of reward and punishment, good and bad. But most importantly, the action parables put a crucial question to us, which honestly most of us avoid all together—are we willing to exchange our world for God’s world? If in any way we have experienced the advent and reversal of God’s activity as king in Jesus, then we are faced with a crisis of choice. There simply can be no armchair kingdom participants. Indeed, several parables speak most harshly about those who refuse to decide. As harsh as it sounds to be handed “over to the torturers,” it drives home Jesus’ disgust over our wavering intentions.
Although there are many aspects of my earlier Pentecostal experience I don’t miss, there is one aspect that used to be a regular feature of worship services that called people to a crisis of choice. To some degree, the “altar call” placed that reckoning between master and servant squarely front and center. In much of our evangelistic and church growth efforts we do the opposite, avoiding and even cloaking the crisis of choice clearly presented by Jesus.(20)
What must I do to be saved?
Crossan advocates that above all, the parables should challenge us to vigilantly keep on imagining into “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and to keep on responding in openness to those images. Will we let Jesus insurrect our walled cities and tear down our fortresses? It is a frightening prospect, and it can only happen in correspondence to our growing images of God’s just and righteous rule. Thus, we must see the advent in order to understand the reversal. Only then, can we be continually open to creative kingdom action.
It is here where the most critical aspect of evangelism comes into play and one which is most often muted. We tend to keep calling the world to something we ourselves rarely experience. We must continually confront the nagging reality that we cannot call others to something that is not a reality to us.
The first step in evangelism must begin when we enter the scary and unpredictable world of “the activity of God as king.”21 It is a world of shocking uncertainty and unnerving reversals. It is a world where we must “risk entrance before we can experience its validity,”(22) where “experience takes primacy before and over information,”(23) “where we stand firm on utter uncertainty,”(24) and where we look at time and history as God’s gift of His presence.(25)
Crossan’s read of the parables is perhaps too radical, for he confronts us with something which may be off the charts. We want a predictable future, and that is precisely what Jesus not only questions, but annihilates. Too often, Crossan advocates, our sculpted visions of the future readily become a “future for which we become non-receptive, irresponsible (not responding) to the “unexpected” and “unforeseen.”26 This desire for predictability, Crossan suggests, is fundamentally an exchange of God’s kingdom for idols.27 If this be so in any sense, it is no wonder why our presentation of God is at best hazy and at worse an outright contradiction.
Crossan’s read of the parables reminds that we shut down the kingdom for ourselves and others when we fail to allow the parable to be an open question to us as to whether we will be receptive to it or not.(28)
Proclaiming the good news of Jesus is founded on allowing ourselves to be perpetually challenged and open to “the activity of God as king.” It requires not only our imagination, but “imagining whole new ways of imagining.”(29)
It seems to me that if we could catch a glimpse of this ourselves, those who are “unaffiliated” with the Jesus enterprise would be free to explore this kingdom as well.
1 From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, documentary, written and produced by Marilyn Mellowes (Frontline WGBH Education Foundation, 1998) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/watch/. Chapter 3.
2 Crossan, John Dominic In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. (New York; Harper & Row Publishers, 1973), 82.
3 Crossan, In Parables, 76
4 From Jesus to Christ, chapter 3
5 Ibid., 33
6 Ibid., 27
7 Ibid., 31
8 Crossan, In Parables, 34
9 Ibid., 34
10 Ibid., 34
11 Ibid., 51
12 From Jesus to Christ, chapter 3
13 Crossan, In Parables, 64
14 Ibid., 55
19 Ibid., 82
20 Ibid., 119
21 Ibid., 23
22 Ibid., 13
23 Ibid., 13
24 Ibid., 55
25 Ibid., 31
26 Ibid., 31
27 Ibid., 27
28 Ibid., 23
29 Ibid., 13
Crossan, John Dominic In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus. New York; Harper & Row Publishers, 1973
From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, documentary, written and produced by Marilyn Mellowes (Frontline WGBH Education Foundation, 1998) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/watch/.
Wool felt painting by Gayla Ruckhaus