. . . but for those outside everything is in parables.
These are Yeshua’s words in Mark 4:11. But most of us do not believe him. We see all around us religious empires built on the simplistic understanding of “those outside.” I will attempt in this article to prove my words. I will argue that Yeshua’s methods do certainly live on, but they are not commonly employed. I will argue that, thankfully, by the Spirit and the scriptures there is some clear-headed thinking out there. But even good religious leaders are confused by the groundswell of “crowd” thinking.
What is the nature of the crowds of thousands on the hills of Galilee? What do the religious crowds of today have in common with the ones then? And how does the nature of the outer circle confuse even the faithful in this age of too-little-thinking about what Yeshua actually did with disciples?
People often fall into a sort of group-think and leave their brains behind. It happens to all of us. Our brains turn to mush when we face the overwhelming power of a crowd united on a purpose. It is a human failing we would do well to remember.
I’m not arguing for individualism. I’m not praising the independent thinker who remains aloof from others. I believe in community and that humans are essentially relational beings. We exist for the other.
But I am arguing that it is not in the great crowds that we find community. The great crowds are the outer circle to whom everything is in parables. We need community with the inner circle surrounding Yeshua. I hope and pray all who read this know where an inner circle is and that you are part of one. It is likely a sub-group in your congregation. I’m not talking about perfection, but the kind of people who are devoted first and foremost to Yeshua.
What do we give our allegiance to? The outer circle in Yeshua’s time gave their allegiance to certain ideas of revolution and renewal that were human-initiated. Although no one dared start anything, the crowds gave allegiance to the notion, “Somebody ought to do something to fix all this that is wrong.”
And any old demagogue with the chutzpah to risk execution could step up and lead such a crowd. But Yeshua refused to be that demagogue. See my “Messianic Secret” chapter in Yeshua in Context for more about that.
What are the sort of thoughtless, not-really-about-Yeshua, populist ideas that stir up a religious crowd in our time?
(1) Don’t be a “liberal” in reading the Bible. Just say that there are no problems and that scripture is simple, requires no education to understand, and speaks with one voice on all matters. (I put liberal in quotes because it is a useless adjective used only to denounce people when we don’t have anything substantive to say instead.)
(2) Be against things in the social sphere that are easy to denounce but which we would rather not get our hands dirty doing anything about (“no gay marriage,” “no unfair and illegal immigration,” etc.).
(3) We need to get more people into heaven and have Big Box places of worship with cool music.
(4) Jesus is a democrat.
(5) Jesus is a republican.
(6) Jesus would come to Tea Party rallies.
The Outer Circle in Galilee
What sorts of things did the outer circle hear in parables and what are likely associations they had? What was Yeshua criticizing in his generation specifically?
A sower went out to sow . . . seed. At last! Somebody is going to do something. The seed of Isaiah 6:13 is about to take root and Israel will come out of exile and be renewed. Let’s sharpen our swords.
the sun rose and it was scorched . . . other seed fell among the thorns. Cowards. They should be more committed than that to getting those chief priests out of the Temple and putting Rome back in its place.
some fell on the good soil and it produced fruit. Numbers. Power. Viva la revolution.
Mustard seed. Small. Greatest shrub. Numbers. Power. Woohoo!
I hope I’m not being too subtle. If you aren’t getting what I’m saying, my chapter on “Seeds and Fruit” in Yeshua in Context might help.
This post isn’t really about the stuff Yeshua said to the inner circle, but I want to at least say enough to make sure you see clearly the dichotomy in understanding. To the inner circle Yeshua clarifies: don’t be like the gentiles, don’t worry about money and clothes, don’t lord it over one another, be the servant of all, move mountains with faith and patience and prayer, and my power is perfected in weakness.
Reading the Bible with Yeshua
Those who came into the inner circle are described simply in Mark 4: those who were about him with the Twelve asked him concerning the parables….
The difference between the inner circle around Yeshua and the outer circle is that the inner circle drew close, asked questions, and dug deeper.
The definition of being insider with Yeshua is not trumpeting empty expressions of allegiance to popular ideas and taking comfort in powers and the numbers of the masses who follow mindlessly and without an ounce of selfless service.
It is to draw near. To read the holy scriptures. To seek the heart of God in the words of prophets and apostles.
It has nothing to do with ignorance or ignoring. Show me in the Bible a place where God counsels people to ignore difficulties or affirm a problem-free faith. Read Psalms. Read Yeshua’s words. Do we see an ignore-the-problems kind of faith?
The inner circle asks about the seed and the sower and the mustard plant.
But, even the inner circle doesn’t get its strength from mere knowledge and study. The inner circle forsakes and flees (Mark 14:50) when the going gets tough. What transforms and empowers the inner circle? It is a combination of deep engagement and something else: the living presence of Yeshua. The inner circle doesn’t get the clue until after the resurrection. Then the time Yeshua spent with them and the teaching and dialogue all begins to pay off.
Nothing Wrong with a Crowd, but Community is Better
So, great crowds gather. The problem is not the crowds. The problem is when people never make it past the level of the being in the crowd.
There is nothing wrong with being in a tiny, medium-sized, large, or gargantuan congregation.
There is something wrong with not seeking a smaller community within and drawing near with the inner circle.
There is something wrong with affirming the populist shallowness and not getting beyond it to where the Psalmists and Yeshua dwell.
The Bible is not, after all, a populist book with easy answers. And life only seems to work according to easy answers when you are on top and secure and virtually trouble-free. Populist faith may sound good, but it won’t help you at all on the day of birth pains of the Messiah.
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I agree with you that small community is better than large crowd. But I’d add that time alone with Yeshua is even better than the small community. That’s where we go to Him who sits on the heavenly mountain to teach all His disciples who come to Him and ask privately, “What did you mean, Rabbi?” More specifically, “How can I obey you in this teaching?” For then we can return to the small community and be fruit to to them (as in a branch that bears fruit for the Vine).
I agree with you that small community is better than large crowd. But I’d add that time alone with Yeshua is even better than the small community.
If you mean that time alone with Yeshua replaces community, I don’t think I can agree with that. While I can agree that time in prayer is enormously valuable, we still need close community to keep our focus as believers and to avoid self-deception. A person who is perpetually alone in their faith, unless they are extremely self-disciplined and focused, will eventually start to “drift” in their perceptions and over time, will start to create an internal “theology” that does not have much resemblance to the larger community of faith and accepted understanding and scholarship.
In our brief exchange there are many issues in play – too many to be sorted out, addressed, and resolved in quick order.
Therefore, let me say that I was not saying that time alone with Yeshua should replace community – except with regard to faith. Time with community is important for as you rightly said, we were created for it. However, faith must be individually cultivated (Rom 14:22-23) else one’s faith becomes the fear of man and not the fear of God (Jer 17:5-8).
Had we more time, I think we’d probably come to agreement on all these things because they are a matter of emphasis – especially as the pendulum swings too far one way or the other.
Thanks for your devotion to the Lord Jesus.
I actually think, based on your comments to a previous post and now to this one, that individualism is one of your blind spots. You resist the notion that humans are relational, not individual. No problem if you disagree with my repeated insistence that individualism is a bankrupt worldview. But if we start looking at this in terms of the theologies of the Bible, I think you will have a hard time arguing your case.
To be clear, I am not denying that there is an individual aspect to our being. But here is how I would say it: we are not made to be individuals but individuals in relationship with people and God. I think a famous monk (known for their solitude, so this should surprise us) said it best when he chose a book title (I think based on a poem by John Donne) called No Man is an Island (Thomas Merton).
As I wrote to James, these are hard things to resolve because they are matters of emphasis. You are not denying that there is an individual aspect to our being, and I am not denying that there is a relational aspect to our being. I quite agree that no man is an island. However, I also believe that when we each stand before the judgment seat of Christ it will be for the individual thoughts, words, and deeds we have had toward those with whom we were in relationship.
Last thing I want is to belabor a point. But even here, I wonder if we have it right. Is judgment so individualistic? Take for example this likelihood: we will be judged for what our spouses, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, and fellow community members said and did as well. We are our brother/sister’s keeper. No person’s standing before God is separate, but all intertwined.
I think we should review the communal nature of judgment. See Daniel 9.
Are you so committed to the idea of communal judgment that you will stand with me in saying that the Bible teaches that everyone is going to heaven?
I’m already in tons of trouble with people who want me to affirm their dogmas, LOL. Now you really want to get me in trouble!
Let’s just say, I really like The Evangelical Universalist by Gregory MacDonald (actually Robin Parry’s pseudonym). I am currently persuaded by his paradigm.
Well then, let us rejoice together in this communal judgment!
If any worship, God to rejoice is good worship.
but if he doesn’t like it/ then that worship is nothing