Sunday, September 1, 2013
Philip Yancey, journalist and author of many popular Christian books, visited China in 2004. He was there to speak at a seminar held by an international church. The travel, the air in China, and speaking 6 times in a weekend left him with an extremely sore throat and extremely tired. However, his host managed to arrange a series of interviews with church leaders from across the nation.
These were not internationals, but Chinese, leaders in the unregistered, underground church. Each has experienced tangible persecution for their faith. Because they followed Jesus, they had endured job loss, imprisonment, and beatings.
The last to come in was Pastor Yuan.[i] Yancey describes him. “A slender, sprightly senior citizen barely five feet tall [came in] the [room]. ‘I am ninety years old and I’ve spent 22 years in prison – what are they going to do to me!’ he said with a grin in perfect mission-school English” (p.49). Pastor Yuan spent many, many months in a windowless cell, solitary confinement. For over 10 years of his imprisonment, he was not allowed a single letter from his family. No contact.
He did hard labor in freezing conditions along the Mongolian border and never got sick or injured. Many around him were run over by trains or suffered from the conditions, but he was fine. He counts it a miracle, and who would disagree with Pastor Yuan? He had no Bible, just passages he memorized. Also, a missionary, long ago, before missionaries were expelled from China, taught him “The Old Rugged Cross.” In the paralyzing stillness of solitary confinement, he called on Jesus, singing that song.
And he survived the imprisonment, going on to lead a church exploding with growth. When Billy Graham went to China in 1994, he visited Pastor Yuan. After that, his story became known, and the foreign reporters flocked to him. He used the exposure to practice his Christianity openly, baptizing hundreds and daring the government to interfere.
This is what pastor Yuan told Philip Yancey. “Think of it: we in China may soon have the largest Christian community in the world and in an atheistic state that tried to stamp us out” (p.51)!
I recognize that here in Chapel Hill, many who worship in our family of believers will never travel to China, never face imprisonment for our Christianity, never be persecuted in the manner described by Pastor Yuan. His story is powerful, but can feel distant. It matter to us for its inspirational value, but also because it is the scripture coming to life before our eyes.
[The master of the vineyard] sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. 12 And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out (Luke 20:11-12).
Pastor Yuan is the slave sent to work in God’s vineyard, China. When Jesus originally told this parable, he had a specific context in mind. The calendar is based around Jesus’ life. When he was 30, it was 30 AD. He told the parable of the wicked tenants who abused the master’s workers in Israel when Israel, including God’s city, Jerusalem, was occupied by invading forces, the mighty Romans. N.T. Wright believes that many Israelites still considered themselves exiles. Yes, they lived in the land God had given to their ancestors. They were not enslaved in far off Egypt or far off Assyria or far off Babylon. But still, they were enslaved.
In previous times of exile, God’s prophets, specifically Jeremiah and Ezekiel, had experience persecution when they announced that the evil of exile were actually from God. Yes, it was Assyria and Babylon subjugating the Jews, but the prophets said it only happened because God allowed. More than that, God brought it on as a punishment against the people for turning against God. The people responded to this sharp prophecy by imposing harm. Jeremiah was thrown in a pit and left to die before he was raised out and joined in the exile.
Jesus had these prophets who suffered for the truth in mind when he told about the slaves of the master being beaten and killed by the wicked tenants who occupied the master’s land. Israel – China – Chapel Hill – all the earth belongs to God. We exist at God’s pleasure.
We are creations. There was a time when we were not, we did not exist at all. We were not free-floating souls that took on bodies at birth. Each and every one of us was created by God. God knows everything minute detail there is to know about you and about me. The shoes on my feet belong to God. The car you road in is His. The beds where we sleep are God’s beds.
When Jesus damned the wicked landholders who occupied the master’s land, he directly condemned the religious leaders in Israel in his own day. They knew he meant them and this was not the first time he announced the end of their corruption of worship and religious practice. Luke 19:47 – “Everyday [Jesus] was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, scribes, and leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him.” They had two obstacles. One – they needed Rome to sanction an execution and Jesus had not yet done anything they could stick to him. Two – his popularity was so great that if they went about it the wrong way, the people would openly revolt against them – the temple leaders – instead of against Rome.
After he completes the parable of the wicked landholders, the scribes and chief priests knew they stood condemned. Verse 19 says they wanted to lay hands on him right then and there. Just a few days later, political winds would change directions and the savvy high priest achieved his murderous goal when Jesus was crucified. Just as they clenched their angry teeth knowing he was condemning them, Jesus knew they would get him.
I think this is a secondary application of the parable, secondary, but extremely important. In the parable, the master landowner is God. The tenants renting the land are those in Israel in Jesus’ day who used religion to exalt themselves. They claimed to praise God but in fact manipulated prayer and public worship for their own benefit. Not all priests did this. The father of John the Baptist was a priest – a humble Godly man. Many Pharisees and clergymen of the day had a deep desire to serve the Lord. But, the holders of power (or the appearance of power) liked the power.
It has always been so. When humans built the tower of Babel, it was for the sake of power. Today, there are pastors who crave power and popularity. And in Jesus’ day it was the temple leadership in Jerusalem. That is who is represented by the tenants in the parable. The slaves in the parable are God’s prophets, and the son is Jesus himself.
I think though, the application expands as the parable takes up life in other contexts. The landowner is always God and the Son is always Jesus. But the wicked tenants appear in other eras of history. They are all those who oppose the way of God. And usually they do so in a position of religious authority. One example would be the Christian pastors who, in Apartheid South Africa, endorsed racism and a system that forced black people to live in wretched conditions as economic serfs with no hope of freedom from poverty. The white rulers of Apartheid all claimed Christianity. They treated their brothers in Christ who were black like rats and yet they themselves claimed to be Jesus’ followers. In the parable, they would have been the wicked landholders.
The servants who went to collect the master’s harvest are those who do God’s work in the world and then suffer for it. Jesus was killed a few days after he told this parable. Those who follow him can expect no less. When we are disciples announcing the end of Satan, the end of sin, and the end of death, Satan, sin, and death will use people to rebel against the message. The announcement of the Kingdom of God brings down the violent hatred on the heads of the messengers. To be a disciple is to be persecuted.
We have spent seven weeks in Luke’s Gospel, thinking about what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ. A disciple lives a God-dependent life. A disciple of Jesus is compassionate, like the Good Samaritan. A disciple of Jesus is present with God and with people, sometimes recognizing that the work Martha does in the kitchen is good, but the Mary’s willingness to sit and be with Jesus is the best. A Jesus-follower prays and also listens; prayer is listening to God as much as it is talking to God and the disciple spends a lifetime developing the ability to do both.
And a disciple lives a life God creates. We start out with our own ambitions. This is what I want for my life – success, money, etc. But then the disciple wakes up one day and realizes life is better when we let go of some personal dreams and begin living the life God makes for us. In that, our values are re-arranged. We start understanding what Jesus meant when he said the first will be last.
In our talks about the disciple life, we have not tried to avoid the hard parts or make it sound easy. It is easy in the sense that Jesus does all the work. He has to die on a cross. All we have to do is receive his Holy Spirit and follow Him. The way we know we are following is we are God-dependent, compassionate, present with him, made by him, and we value what he values. One last indicator of the disciple life is persecution. When we follow him with the devotion of a disciple, eventually, we will be persecuted.
We don’t seek it. We don’t, as a mark of our deep devotion, like masochists seek out pain that we can then brandish as badge of our discipleship. We strive to live faithfully no matter the consequences. Sometimes there are tangible rewards. The church applauds the one who goes on missions and tells others about Christ and in simpler, every day ways lives faithfully. Other times the consequence for following Jesus is pain.
Pastor Yuan in china went through that deep pain. He knew preaching the gospel would get him big trouble. He got the Jesus-treatment: solitary confinement; brutal penal labor; agonizing separation from family. He also got the Jesus-treatment: filling of the Holy Spirit; the ability to sing praise even while being persecuted. He was able to live to 90, to outlive those who tried to break him.
In my first year of seminary, I met Chet, a student about 10 years older than me. I was 23, never married, no kids. I did not have a lot of life experience. Chet had been extremely successful in business. He had a beautiful Christian wife and a baby daughter who was the apple of his eye.
Then God pulled the rug out and told Chet he was being called to be a pastor and he needed to quit his job and go so seminary. Chet’s beautiful wife did not feel so Christian at this point. She liked the 6-figure salary and told Chet he could leave but she wasn’t giving anything up. She divorced him.
When I met him, he was a broken man. He was forced to live with the results of following the call of God, walking the disciple path. He was in Richmond, Virginia, going to seminary classes that he found thoroughly difficult and seemingly meaningless. The wife he loved was done with him and he couldn’t see the daughter he cherished. All because he said, “yes,” to Jesus.
When the hurt comes, and it comes to disciples, always, Jesus gets us through it. He did for all the black Christ-followers who endured apartheid and then forgave their oppressors when it ended; Jesus got Chet through that painful first year of seminary and into a ministry of joy – the joy of announcing the Kingdom of God; Jesus took Pastor Yuan from solitary to baptisms to Billy Graham.
Jesus takes you and me to death and then through to resurrection and newness of life in the eternal Kingdom of Heaven where there are no more tears, no more pain, and nothing separates us from the love God. Jesus, the stone the builders rejected, is the cornerstone. All life depends on him. This is true for every person because the world is His. Disciples understand because we walk the trail he has blazed.
Become his disciple. You’ll get the Jesus treatment and it can feel rough for a while. But you will be drawn into the very heart of God. You will know God. And you will know life as God gives it.