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17th sunday in ordinary time

July 27, 2008

Shock Jock Savior

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Shock Jocks

The term “shock jock” refers to entertainers, usually radio disc jockeys, who make outlandish, even offensive statements. They're on the air behavior and language is considered humorous to some and offensive to others. Shock jocks push the envelope of commonly accepted social decency. They will use unabashed innuendo, toilet humor, descriptive sexual references and the kinky. They thrive on breaking the rules and offending some. Fines, loss of advertisers, social outrage, censorship, and even show cancellations are considered badges of honor.

Don Imus created the most widely known and recent controversy when he made a derogatory remark about the women's basketball team from Rutgers. The disc jockey has a history of offensive. He has made fun of Irish, Jews, Italians, and other ethnicities. Political figures are a favorite of his. After the Whitewater scandal become public, he delivered a speech at the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C., which he would later call "The Speech From Hell". In his opening remarks he made a mocking reference to the then First Lady, Hillary Clinton. He once called a congressman from Texas "a lying fat little skunk from Texas", a "pipsqueak" and a "coward and a crybaby" He has called Rush Limbaugh "a fat, pill-popping loser" and Lesley Stahl a "gutless, lying weasel." After being fired for his description of the Rutger's women, he was hired by ABC Radio. In his inaugural broadcast he said, “"Dick Cheney is still a war criminal, Hillary Clinton is still Satan, and I'm back on the radio"1

Shock jocks such as Don Imus intentionally employ offensive language and hyperbole to jolt the emotions of their listening audience. They do not respect social norms and traditions. Sacred cows are their favorite target. While some find such antics offensive, they do serve a useful purpose. They hold public figures accountable. The mere trace of hypocrisy by a prominent public figure becomes a shock jock's ammunition. The congressman that Imus ridiculed had blocked the passage of a bill to authorize funds for research in autism, a favorite Imus charity.

Shock jocks do not write books on how to win friends and influence people. They disregard social etiquette. They are not invited to delicate political events at which the President is trying to impress the visiting dignitary. They make terrible counselors. They revel in making the embarrassingly private mistakes public. Sock jocks would make terrible teachers. They do not display any patience on the air with slow learners or stubborn pupils. That is why we struggle to believe that in his day, Jesus would have been considered a shock jock.

Jesus was the epitome of anti-establishment. He ridiculed the religious leaders. He transgressed their religious customs and norms. He condemn their standard, well established, and acceptable business practices. Jesus was a thorn in the posterior in everything he did and say. Invite him to dinner and he would find a way to insult you by telling you what you did not do and should have done. Ask him a question and his answer would strip you bare of all your defensives leaving you feeling naked before the crowd. Even his disciples were scared to bring their problems to him. Few people considered Jesus their friend.

The five parables in our Scripture lesson fit that shock jock stereotype. They may not contain offensive language or repulsive images but once the veneer of religious niceties that have traditionally coated their meaning have been stripped off we will see that their meaning would have truly shocked their listeners.

The Mustard Seed

In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus lets loose a salvo of exaggeration. The mustard seed is small but it is not the smallest seed in the garden. Jesus is a prophet not a botanist. Actually, the term had become a common proverb. “It is a way of saying that among all the seeds mustard is a very little seed indeed.”2 However, that is not the shocking part. The shock comes when Jesus says that from this little tiny seed grows a tree large enough for the birds of the air to perch on its branches. Once again Jesus is a prophet not a botanist. Mustard plants are shrubs not trees. They could normally hold one medium size bird. Biblical scholars say that Jesus is mocking the Babylonian Empire that was described in the book of Daniel as a great tree whose branches extended over the whole earth so that the birds of the air are nested in its branches and all living beings were fed. (Daniel 4:10-12)3

The mocking extends beyond the nation of Babylon to all nations, at all times. Great empires are impressive—Babylon, Rome, Spain, Britain, the United States—they are all very impressive. They were built by powerful armies that ruthlessly crush their opponents into submission. They are maintained by massive financial wealth. In contrast the kingdom of heaven grows from a tiny seed not a powerful army. The kingdom of heaven is more like a shrub than a powerful financial holding company. The kingdom of heaven is just not very impressive but somehow it can hold all the birds of the air.

Jesus is mocking their unqualified patriotism; their trust in political treaties and military weapons for national security. The kingdom of heaven looks small and insignificant. It looks powerless. But from the smallest comes the kingdom of heaven and this kingdom is not restricted to just one type of bird but will have representatives from all the nations. There will not be any dividing wall. There will not be any immigration laws. The kingdom of heaven will include people of every color and every race. That message would have shocked and angered any good Jew who was listening. It would have insulted their nationalist pride and offended their ethnic egotism. It would have attacked their racial bigotry.

The Leaven

With his audience still reeling from this first message, Jesus sends another salvo at them in the parable of the yeast. Throughout the NT and in Jewish literature, yeast was seen as a contaminate. At Passover the entire house had to be cleaned to ensure that all the leaven, or yeast had been removed. The nation celebrated the feast of the Unleavened Bread. Even Jesus used this imagery when he warned his disciples to guard against the leaven of the Pharisees. Legalism could seep into the community and contaminate the message of grace.

The shock value of this parable is lost when it is taken from the first century to the twenty-first. The parable is designed to challenge the listener's view of the kingdom of heaven. God is about to produce something new and he is going to use something that everyone thought was unclean. The powerful force that will bring in the kingdom of heaven will be a small band of men and women who never would have made the top 100 List of Influential People--fisherman, tax collectors, political radicals, prostitutes and the others. People who many consider contaminated. People who were powerless. This was the leaven that God would use to influence the whole world.

The Hidden Treasure

After explaining the parable of the weeds, Matthew completes his teaching section with three parables. Although these three are quite different from the first two they once again startle the listener when their real message is understood. The first two are very similar and serve as a set

The parable of the hidden treasure and the pearl have many common features. In both an object of great value is discovered and are purchased at great expense. The hidden treasure does not make much sense to us. However, in OT times without banks, or safes, burying your possessions was the safest way to protect them from thieves, marauding armies or greedy in-laws. Sometimes a merchant would bury a valuable, go on a trip and never return. His land would then be sold without the new owner even knowing that the land contained buried treasure. Some have questioned the ethics of the man who does not reveal to the previous owner of the field what he has found. But Jesus is not teaching a course on ethics nor should we impose 21st Century law upon 1st Century society. Such discussions merely distract from the story—both men had to pay everything they had to gain their treasure.

Often this parable is seen as a call to discipleship but my NT professor suggested to us a different interpretation. Dr Ramsey explained that in the two previous parables the kingdom of heaven was the acting agent. It was the growing mustard seed, not the birds that served as the kingdom of heaven. It was the leaven not the bread. He suggested that we should understand this parable the same way. The kingdom of heaven is the man who finds the treasure and the merchant who finds the pearl. God goes out and discovers a great treasure. He sells everything he has to purchase the field so that he can take possession of this treasure. God is the merchant who finds a great pearl and uses his entire fortune to purchase it. Who is the treasure? Who is the pearl? You and I are the treasure and the pearl.

This startling discovery would have shocked his listeners. They never would have thought of themselves as valuable. They would not have considered themselves to be worth a fortune. What about you? How valuable are you?

I believe that a sense of low self worth is one of the greatest problems in our society. At any given time, there can only be a select few Olympic athletes. Not everyone will be a master at picking stock like Warren Buffet. Intellectual brilliance is not found in everyone and only a few are endowed with the Hollywood beauty. Through the media we are constantly reminded of how far short we fall. These negative self images are then compounded when we fall short of our goals and objectives at work; when we are criticized by a family member for something we did or did not do; when we make a mistake about a financial investment. Throughout any one day, there is always a dozen reminders that we just do not measure up.

Jesus tried to shock his audience into believing just how valuable they were in God's eyes. This would have been just as difficult for them as for us. They were a conquered nations, the doormat of the Mediterranean Sea. They were politically oppressed by the Romans and spiritually oppressed by their own religious leaders. Jesus did not care about the externals. He wanted them to know that their real value could be assessed by only one person and he was willing to sell all that he had to purchased them.

I do not think we really believe that message because if we did we would be living with a greater recklessness. People who know that they are loved take risks in relationships. People who know that they are valuable display unrestrained generosity. We are still too shy, too hesitant, too self-conscious.

One of the preaching methods used by highly successful church growth pastors is the how-to sermon. In these sermons the pastor begins by presenting a problem common to a vast majority of his parishioners. He then suggests 3-6 easy steps to follow to overcome the problem. The people leave the church feeling confident that they have the tools to master their lives. The jury is still out as to whether the people really do make significant changes in their lives. I believe the reason is do to a faulty approach to understanding how we change our attitudes and behavior.

Consider how you learn! How many of you learned to ride a bike? How many of you learned to ride a bike by following a list of six steps to riding a bike? We all learned to ride a bike by getting on it and riding. So often the same is true in the spiritual life. We do not learn by following a list of how-to steps but by trial and error, by doing.

We cannot develop a strong personal sense of self worth by following someone else's plan. We can only do it by spending time each day with the one who loves us more than anyone else in the world. Only through our prayers, reading of Scripture and meditating on his word will we gain that sense of just how valuable we are in his eyes. During those quiet moments, the Holy Spirit erases the negative images that plague us. During our reading of Scripture, God whispers his words of love and affirmation.

The apostle Paul reiterated Jesus' teaching about  God's love. Paul said that it is so powerful that nothing can separate us from it. That is shocking. That goes against everything that society unconsciously teaches us. But that one thought will entirely change our lives.

2Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, PNTC, (Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans, 1992), p 353

3William H. Willimon, “Impressive,” Pulpit Resource, Vol 36, No. 3, p 18

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