Jesus again sought the in-between places near Lake Galilee. I was eager to learn everything I could from this man of God, alongside all the other disciples. It was remarkable to be part of this huge throng of people that followed him. Indeed there were people from every corner of Israel—from Judea and Jerusalem but also Idumea to the east and Tyre and Sidon in the regions of the north. This whole movement of people made me wonder what it must have been like for the entire nation of Israel to gather together in one place, as one people. This had to be like the great assemblies of old in the time of Moses or Joshua or King David.
And yet this was surely different. Jesus was constantly healing bodies, minds and spirits. However, the crowd began to push forward with such desperation to touch Jesus that they were on the verge of becoming out of control. Jesus instructed us to prepare a small boat for him, to give him some breathing room. Evil spirits with words of false humility made a show of falling down before him and declaring “You are the Son of God.” Well, this didn’t sit right with Jesus so he gave each a firm command—“I don’t want to hear that from you—that language belongs on the lips of my faithful ones!”
Then one day Jesus started up a slope and we followed. Before long he turned around and addressed us on the mountainside. I knew it was a significant moment, even then. He chose out of the crowd those he wanted for a sacred task. Soon twelve of us stood before Jesus and the crowd. I must admit I felt a little sheepish. He appointed twelve, a very momentous number for us all, referring directly to the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus was inaugurating something new, beginning with the whole nation of Israel. By his own hand he gave us each the mark of ‘apostle.’ I remember his words as he told us our mandate, “That you might first and most importantly be with me and that I might send you out to speak in my name and to drive out demons with my Spirit’s authority.”
I looked around the twelve he had appointed and wondered how we had qualified instead of any others. To be fair we were a mixed group—hardly a team of spiritual or religious giants. Then again, we were the ones he wanted. This was our number:
Simon, whom Jesus called Peter, a name which stuck,
James the son of Zebedee and his brother John (Jesus nicknamed them ‘Sons of Thunder’),
James son of Alphaeus,
Simon from the Jewish rebels called the Zealots
and Judas Iscariot, who would ultimately betray the master, Jesus.
We stayed at a house along with Jesus, but because of the crowds we had no time to rest and often went without meals. Word got around to the teachers of the rules and they came down from the Holy City of Jerusalem and said outright, “This man is possessed by the devil, the Lord of the Dump Heap Flies!” They appealed to the crowd, telling them that those who knew him most intimately—his brothers and even his own mother—were making the journey to take him home quietly. The whisper behind everyone’s hands in Jerusalem, they said, was that even his own family thought he was out of his mind and probably demon possessed. Worse still, the teachers of the rules accused him of borrowing the power of the devil in order to control the demons, simply to impress the gullible. The underlying message was clear, “Don’t trust this man, his actions or his words, for he doesn’t care about you but only about furthering his own ends. He is a fraud and an impostor and will teach you to obey the devil!”
Jesus acted decisively because the teachers of the rules were saying, “He has an evil spirit.” He spoke to them in parables and proverbs privately in order to get around the barriers of self protection. I could tell that his actions and words showed his deep affection for the people, for us as his newly appointed shepherds, and even these teachers of the rules. His words have remained with me and I ponder them over and over, especially when I encounter similar opposition when proclaiming the message of God.
“If Satan conquers his ally what good is that to his cause?
“If a kingdom is divided into unequal tribes, where has the strength of that kingdom gone? If this were so, the whole nation would be doomed.
“If a family is divided against one another can the whole inheritance remain?
“If Satan opposes himself all he has is a lost cause, a kingdom undermined and a severed inheritance –surely it is the end for him!
“Listen, it is impossible to rob the house of a man of great strength. You would first have to bind up his hands and feet, then you could make off with all you want –even then, would you have all you want?”
Jesus concluded emphatically, “Here’s the truth of it: every common sin and every mockery of God by men and women alike will be forgiven. But, whoever attributes the works of the Holy Spirit to the works of the devil will be judged by his own measure. That soul will find no forgiveness and ultimately believe in their own condemnation.”
Then I received a messenger from Jesus’ mother and brothers. They had arrived and were waiting outside and not unpacking from their journey. They had come for Jesus and weren’t intending to stay. We were sitting in the group gathered with him. We told him together, “Your mother and brothers are outside hoping to see you.”
“My mother and brothers—the very ones who have come for me—do they know who I am and what I’m doing?” he asked.
Then he cast his eye around our circle of followers and said, “I see you are with me, brothers and sisters! From now on you are to welcome anyone who keeps in step with the Spirit as our brother, sister and mother.”
Jesus resumed teaching by the lake. The crowd resumed its pressing nature and was so large that Jesus sat in a boat that we anchored a little way offshore. The people lined the shore to listen to his teaching. He came out with stories containing obvious and hidden wisdom –parables to mould disciples and reveal character. Here’s a parable that got the attention of us all. It was rather like a poem really. “Listen! Listen to me!” he called to the crowd. And when the buzz had quietened down, he began:
“A farmer set off to sow in his field and with joy he scattered his seed, his seed
With joy he scattered his seed!
Some of it fell along the path, and the birds swooped in until it was gone
Though he scattered his seed it was all but gone!
Some of it fell on the rocks and the stone, where shallow the soil and harsh the sun
Shallow the soil and harsh the sun!
Some of it fell in the weeds and the thorns, “Would it grow there?”he wondered aloud
Though he scattered his seed, he wondered aloud!
Some of it fell in the richest of soil and he had a good feeling for the fruit of his toil
He had a good feeling for the fruit of his toil!
In his field he waited and watched and tended and cared
And the day finally came when the young shoots appeared
But what happened to the seed with the rocks and the stone?
Oh they had no root and were burnt in the sun!
And would the seeds with weeds ever be blessed,
With even one single grain-laden head?
And was this a crop that would ever make bread
To be baked and served to honour a guest?!
But the farmer looked out on the field he had sown
He still had a feeling that something was growing!
Finally the crop grew to fullness and flourished
Just think of the multitudes it would now nourish
So hear of the Sower and of his great store
Times thirty, times sixty and a hundred or more!
Tell me, what is the worth of the crop in good soil?
’Cause I have a good feeling for the fruit of my toil!”
With that Jesus said,
“My friends –
If a word of mine has caught your ear, perhaps there’s something deeper to hear!”
I waited until we were alone with Jesus before questioning him about all the parables we had heard. ‘Why did some words or stories stay with me and not others?’ I wondered to myself. Jesus simply told us, “The whispers of the kingdom of God stick with you because they are God given! But to those reluctant to come close everything is said in story entwined with God-wisdom. This is so that,
“They might be willing to observe, but never quite open to learning something new
And they might be willing to listen, but continually refuse to grow –
Now if they did live openly, they might take up the opportunity, and discover true empowerment, healing and wholeness!”
Then Jesus said to us, “Do these words baffle you? Well, they needn’t! Look, a parable brings understanding to those who desire it in their heart –!just as the farmer sows his seed so the word of God is sown. The wind takes the seed everywhere –to every corner of the land. The path is the hardened hearts of some people. There, stealing these good words is easy pickings for that thief Satan, and so the truth does not have time to germinate. The places along the edge of the field are the stony ground but the seed still finds a place there. These are the people who think of themselves on the edge of God’s love. They hear these good words and affirm them heartily. However, the truth does not have time to take root nor can their tender shoots emerge above the soil. For these people, facing suffering or bullying because of what they might believe is simply not an option –so they will remain on the edge, waiting for the next ‘truth’ to come along. Still others are like the thorny ground where the seed was also sown. They hear these good words and the truth in them is given time to produce a hopeful seedling. However, time and room is also given to the worries of this life, the misplaced trust in material wealth and the competition of all kinds of desires. After a while it’s obvious the plant is overrun – it simply has not found the nourishment it needs. How can these people be learning, growing and fruitful? The seed sown in the rich and cultivated soil however, is like the people who hear these good words and allow them time and room to germinate, take root and flourish. Indeed, these people will be fruitful beyond imagination. A crop of thirty or sixty or one hundred times what could be expected –that’s outrageous!”
There were other parables that stayed with me from around that time. Jesus also said to the crowd, “What good is an oil lamp that is covered or put in the cupboard? Isn’t its purpose to be placed in the centre so that the whole house can see by its light? For whatever is obscured will be unveiled and whatever is kept secret will be revealed. “My friends –if a word of mine has caught your ear, perhaps there’s something deeper to hear!” He continued, “Treat what you hear with great care. When it comes to dealing with others, choose a deep vessel for healthy servings of grace. In the same way, healthy servings of grace will be applied to you –and then some! Indeed, whoever gives a generous portion will find his cup always topped up, but whoever pours out a stingy measure will not find his cup refilled in a hurry!”
He also said at that time, and I have called it to mind in times of impatience, “Think of the kingdom of God like a seed growing in the ground. A man has sown the seed and it dies under the soil. Now the man may sleep or wake or go about his business not knowing the mystery of the seed. Consider the wonder of how it grows and flourishes quite apart from anything the man can do. Through the course of time the man can follow the results –from bare ground, to tender shoot, to grain head, then to fully ripened wheat. Then, just at the right moment, he can work vigorously to bring in the harvest!”
Again, what he said stayed with me, “I wonder how to illuminate the kingdom of God for you? What picture comes to mind? It is like wild thyme on a hill country farm that looks so ordinary at a glance. But in terms of the kingdom do not be fooled. Given time, it will exceed all expectations and grow and grow until a huge forest stands where only knee deep scrub had been before, and birds of all shapes and sizes will find their home in its branches. This is the reality of the kingdom: people are no longer bound by their natural characteristics alone, but are released to grow into new and beautiful possibilities.
Jesus spoke many similar parables with words that were both confronting and life-giving. He graciously spoke to the people as much as their understanding allowed. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t use a parable when speaking to a crowd. However, when he was alone with us, his disciples, he readily explained his teaching.
Then came the moment where my world and my understanding began to tear at the seams. I will always remember it as ‘that day.’ It was just on twilight when Jesus suggested, “Let’s go! See you on the other side of the lake.” So several boats cast off and we left the crowd on the shore. To begin with there was nothing remarkable about this journey and nothing extraordinary about this man, Jesus, who journeyed with us. This was business as usual. Suddenly the clouds opened up, the wind lashed the water and the sea began to pitch and roll wildly. Waves began to break over the boat, threatening to capsize us. It felt like our lives were in the balance, cast between life and a watery death. I found Jesus at the back of the boat asleep and shook him so hard his head slipped off the cushion where he was resting his head. Terrified, I gripped him, shouting over the turmoil, “Teacher, don’t you care?! We’re going to drown!” He got up, steadied himself and spoke over the chaos, “Listen! Be still!” With that rebuke the wind dropped to a hush and the waves receded to a gentle lap against the hull. Jesus turned and looked directly at me as he addressed everyone, “Fear has such a hold on you, doesn’t it? Focus on what you can have some control over—faith—then fear will take its proper place.”
So there we were, soaked to the skin, bewildered and shocked by what we had just witnessed. I turned to those around me and breathed, “Who is he? There’s only One who can command creation!”