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17th sunday in ordinary time

July 24, 2011

Avoiding the Heat

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Theological Controversy

With the cold February winds blowing, Pastor Rob Bell of the Mars Hill Bible Church decided to heat up the theological climate by publishing a very controversial book--Love Wins. Bell is the pastor of a 7,000 member church in Grand Rapids, MI. The church sponsored an art exhibit about the search for peace in a world filled with conflict. One of the exhibits had a quote from Mohandas Gandhi. A visitor posted a note, “Reality check: He's in hell.”

The note had an unsettling effect upon Bell. He wondered how the note's anonymous author could be so sure that Ghandi was assigned to a place of eternal suffering and torment. Bell asked himself, how could that person be so certain? Bell wrote his book with these thoughts tumbling in his mind. In the material, Bell suggests that the redemptive work of Jesus may be universal. Simply put this means that every person may have a place in heaven.

Pastors and theologians reacted to the book, Love Wins, very quickly. One popular pastor attempted to evict Bell from the evangelical community by tweetIng, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary warns that Bell's book is “theologically disastrous.” A NC pastor was removed from his pulpit for simply endorsing the book.

I can appreciate the motivation behind Bell's book. In his ministry, Bell has talked to a large number of people who struggle over the traditional doctrine of salvation. He could not reconcile the notion that a loving God would select a few Christians who would spend eternity in a place called heaven and than banish the rest of humanity to torment and punishment in hell without any chance of anything better. Bell believes that this is a misguided and toxic view of God. He argues that it subverts the contagious spread of Jesus' message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy....1

Jesus appears to offer some guidance on the matter in his parable of the net. He concludes this parable with a reference to a fiery furnace that is customarily understood to be the place of eternal torment and punishment. However, before we use this brief reference to paint a detailed landscape of hell, lets review the context of the passage. The parable in Matthew is part of a set of stories that have been carefully organized. He has grouped seven parables together. The parable of the sower, the weeds, the mustard seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure, the pearl of great price, and the net. A parable is designed to teach one basic truth. This would appear to make the parables easy to understand. However, scholars will often disagree over that one basic truth.

Is the parable of the sower about the sower, the seed or the soil? If it is the sower than it is a parable of failure and success. We may fail three out of four times but that one time will bring a huge harvest. But if the parable is about the soil, then it calls us to examine our lives to see how receptive we are to the message of the kingdom.

Is the field in which the weed seed is sown the church or the world? If it is the church than we must be cautious about church discipline. If the field is the world, then that tells us that we must learn to live with evil. The parable implies that we will never effectively legislate morality.

Are the birds that flock to the tree produced by the tiny mustard seed representative of the Gentiles who will receive the message? Or do they represent everyone in the whole world will eventually enjoy the fruit of the tree?

The parable of the yeast appears simple enough, except if you consider the substance of yeast. We assume that it is an inoculation ingredient added to the dough to make it rise but if we recall the ancient story of the exodus it changes the meaning of the story. During the three Jewish festivals that required all the men to appear before the Lord, yeast was not permitted in any of the sacrifices (;).

14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. 15 For seven days you are to eat bread made without yeast. On the first day remove the yeast from your houses, for whoever eats anything with yeast in it from the first day through the seventh must be cut off from Israel

Exod. 12:15–20

Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast.

Exodus 23:18

Do not offer the blood of a sacrifice to me along with anything containing yeast, and do not let any of the sacrifice from the Passover Feast remain until morning.

Exod. 34:25

For the seven days of Passover, all yeast was to be removed from the house: the only bread to be eaten must be unleavened. Against this background it is easy to see why leaven came to symbolize that which was unclean or evil.

9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”

Gal. 5:9;

6 Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? 7 Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. 8 Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.

1 Cor. 5:6–8

If yeast is considered an impurity than the parable implies that God is going to build his kingdom with the impurities of the world. He is going to build his kingdom with reformed tax collectors, harlots, pimps, drug dealers, used car dealers and maybe even with a politician or two. If he can find any that are reformed.

The parables of the hidden treasure, the pearl and the net are linked together to complete the section. The parable the treasure and the pearl are often considered lessons on discipleship. The kingdom is viewed two priceless objects. We are to sell everything we have to purchase them. The kingdom is more valuable than all our worldly possessions.

But what if you and I are the valuable treasure? God sells everything to purchase us? That drastically changes the meaning of the stories. The two then are consistent with the stories of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son in Luke. God is willing to do whatever it takes to restore his relationship with us.

This brief survey of the six parables of Matthew should leave you with the impression that discovering the one single meaning of a parable is not always easy.

This story of the net brings a change in direction from the previous two. The other two parables are about acquiring one single object. This one is about acquiring a host of things, some good some bad. The single focus is broadened. There is no discrimination. Everything is caught up in the net and hauled onto the beach. Then the fishermen sit down and sort through their catch.

In the story the bad are throw away. In the Greek text it does not use the word for fish, nor does it tells us where or how they are disposed. It simply states that the bad are discarded. Jesus likens this to the end of the world as described in the parable of the weeds. The bad or worthless will be thrown away. Jesus then likens this to the end of the age when the angels will come and separate the good and the bad with the bad being thrown into a fiery furnace.

I believe that there are several lessons that we should learn from this parable. First, we should be careful how we interpret the imagery. Parables are metaphors. They are symbols in story form. They are not literal records of historical events or scientific descriptions of objects. They are not proportional statements of truth. Parables employ images to convey a message. Truth comes from our understanding of the message not the images in the story.

The final parable has many different images. There is the image of a net or to use the English equivalent of the Greek term, a dragnet. Fisherman used these to literally pull in anything and everything, alive or dead. God is not literally going to throw a net over all of us and haul us into heaven. The use of the image conveys the thoroughness, the inclusive work of the kingdom. At the end of time no one will be excluded.

Another image from the story is the fish or at least we suppose the fish. In the Greek text the actual word is never used but rather suggested by the context. The fish represent all of humanity and the lake the world. We are not told what qualifies something as bad. We are not told where the bad fish are thrown. They may or may not have been thrown into a fire that is not the point. The central idea is separation-that which is good is separated from that which is bad or worthless.

Jesus then wraps up the parable with his concluding description of the end times at which the angels will come and separate the good from the bad and throw the bad into the fiery furnace.

Now for those who want to use this parable as proof that hell exists let me ask you a few questions. In this particular story Jesus uses four of five objects—the net, lake, fish, fisherman, baskets—as symbols that collectively convey a truth. As I just said...

God is not going to throw a net over the world at the time of final judgment.

God is concerned about humanity not fish.

God will not throw good people into a basket to bring them into heaven.

If we are willing to understand that these objects have symbolic value why do insist on the existence of a eternal fire? Could this not also be symbolic?

This does not lessen necessarily the suffering of those who are estranged from God. The parable has one very clear message—a judgment is coming. There will be a separation between the good and the bad. This cannot be avoided. It does not resolve Rob Bell's feelings of internal dissonance but it does move the discussion away from the barbaric. We no longer have to defend a God who laughs with glee while most of his creation is char broiled.

The idea of hell in conservative circles has elevated the doctrine to a sadistic level. It has been turned into an instrument of intimidation and moral terrorism. Lately this has had a minimal impact upon modern society. Sermons that seek to frighten people into repentance fall on deaf ears. The subject is reduced to a meaningless abstraction. A respected Dutch theologian, G. C. Berkower, argues that this kind of foreboding threat of pending doom does not characterize the message of Jesus. The gospel is preached to call humanity from darkness into light. It contains a warning but more importantly it always contains a promise. The mention of judgment must always be enveloped with a reminder of mercy, patience and compassion.

This is why I believe that God is the One who finds the hidden treasure and the merchant who discovers the pearl. Those two stories are stories of grace.

I am going to have to read Rob Bell's book and understand his arguments before I can agree or disagree with him. Whereas I do not ever want to pretend to know the mind of God, I wonder how he can completely eliminate the option of judgment. Then again I would never want to offer a detailed description of the nature of that judgment.

One sermon cannot resolve the many complicated questions about afterlife, salvation and judgment. I have only addressed one passage of Scripture. However, I would hope that this sermon has caused you to consider another side of the issue. For those of you who think that the love and goodness of God will somehow bring everyone into heaven, the parable tells us that there will be a judgment. For those of you who insist in an eternal pit of fiery torment, remember you do not know the complete mind of God. Also, remember that when God's judgment does come it will begin with the church first.

For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

1 Peter 4:17 (NIV84)

The Scriptures state that at the end of time many who think that they were friends of Jesus will discover that they are banished from his presence.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 7:21 (NIV84)


1Rob Bell, Love Wins, excerpt http://www.usatoday.com/yourlife/mind-soul/spirituality/2011-03-14-hell14_ST_N.htm

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