Slavery has been a part of world history for as long as we can imagine. It was branded in Martin Luther King Jr.’s heart and it was something shackling the national memory of the Jews in Jesus’ day as well. I wrote briefly about one of the similarities between Dr. King’s story and Jesus’ story in the last post (#20). I wrote about the large crowds surrounding Jesus and how they anticipated Jesus to begin a major development for a coup, a military takeover of Jerusalem, then controlled by Rome. The large crowds came out to hear Jesus speak as a revolutionary, a possible Messiah, a King. We know that Jesus spoke of the concept of being slaves to sin (John 8:24-32) but what may not have entered our minds is the fact that Israel was still enslaved to pagan empires, for as far back as they could remember. It’s important to note that as we read of Jesus speaking to the crowd in parables, we need to understand that Jesus wasn’t cryptically or metaphorically giving a description of how an individual (any Israelite in this context) could be assured of making it safely into the afterlife. Jesus wasn’t talking about “how to get to heaven” or “how to be saved” in the modern sense of those phrases. Jesus was talking cryptically about Israel’s condition as a nation enslaved by others.
Deuteronomy 28:1ff allows us to see God’s desire for Israel, that they should be “set high above the nations of the earth.” Israel’s destiny was to rule all earthly nations. Israel’s vocation was to rule as a nation that reflected the true nature of God (heaven) in order that all other nations might forsake idolatry and turn in faith to the only real Creator. God’s desire for Israel to rule in this way was articulated through the Mosaic Covenant. If Israel (as a nation) kept the commandments of God (obviously, not flawlessly in a mere legal context) they would enjoy the blessings of God in the land they were occupying. The land was a gift. Israel would forget that the land was a gift. They would also forget that cursings would come upon them (Deuteronomy 28-30) if they rebelled and chose to be enslaved by idols. No longer would they be “set high above the pagan nations of the earth” in order to be a well-lit lamp guiding the way in a dark and corrupted world. They would be a lamp snuffed out and trampled, and Israel would find themselves taken captive by the pagan nations. This was the painful penalty of having failed to worship the only true and living God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
When Jesus’ ministry begins we find Jesus beginning to liberate Israelites in many ways. Demons are exorcised, illnesses and diseases are cured. Those blind are able to see. People receive their dead brought back to life. Sins are forgiven, something that only the Temple has the “legal” authority to do. It’s clearly an understatement to say that this was an exciting time, watching a movement develop that began giving many in Israel significant doses of hope. Israel understood that itself as a nation was still in an exilic state. They were still in the shackles of slavery because of their national sin. Many of the questions being asked were in regard to the predictions of Daniel, where Daniel spoke of a time when God would liberate Israel from its captors and allow them to grow into a great mountain which would fill the earth. “Will Jesus of Nazareth be the one to launch God’s movement whereas Israel will be redeemed and saved politically?”
When the masses gathered to support MLK it was clear what their goal was. They wanted genuine equality. They didn’t want to be thought of as slaves, let alone be treated as slaves segregated by the strength of political prowess. MLK was the sharpened tip of the spear penetrating the frightened and disgusted conscience of many in the United States. When the large crowds began gathering and assembling themselves to hear Jesus, especially in Mark 4 it needs to be clear what their goal was. They wanted a revolution. Many wanted to be free, not only from corruption in Israel but free from the tyranny of foreign empires. Many were being treated as slaves by the ultra-rich and powerful, by the Temple elites, by the scribes, and by the legal experts; all of those with the political prowess to oppress. The large crowds were gathering to see how sharp this discipleship group was, led by this, still largely unknown, Jesus of Nazareth. Would this Jesus have the hubris of the one predicted by the ancient Daniel? Would this Jesus be able to provide the momentum necessary to actually spearhead a legitimate takeover of Jerusalem?
We know that MLK wanted lasting change in Washington D.C. We know that he wanted an America transformed by heaven. We know that he wanted a new kind of era. For many, it appears that nothing has changed on the American landscape for racial equality since Dr. King’s assassination. Yet, many of us have seen real change, lasting change. Unfortunately, Jesus’ Parable of the Sower will describe how much of Israel will remain unchanged and go further into slavery and exile. Yet, for those who have gathered and are listening closely a new landscape with a new horizon is on its way. The era that Daniel predicted is dawning but it will also require the death of its leader. The major difference between MLK and Jesus in this context is that there won’t be any autopsy for Jesus. Jesus’ physical heart won’t need to be examined because Jesus’ will be given a transformed physicality, a body, for the future God promises all ethnicities who believe in Jesus’ resurrection. The Parable of the Sower predicts the production of a new nation, not a reformed one. This new nation will absolutely be free, never to be enslaved by anyone. When Jesus died nothing very noticeable happened. Even a generation later the nation of Israel continued to decline and would find itself trampled by the pagan empire it hoped to expel. Yet, many knew what really transpired. Israel hadn’t seen a legitimate king of its own for centuries, but now one sat enthroned, to rule the nations as Daniel predicted.
But how can this be? Many from the large crowd that gathered to listen to Jesus as he stood in the boat on the sea left scratching their heads. Jesus’ parables that day were certainly provocative. Otherwise, no one would have stayed to listen. So, what was it about a sower, a man scattering seed, a lamp, and a mustard seed, that kept everyone’s attention?