THE BAKER OF
a new novel,
plays out in the time of Jesus. How does the baker
of the village perceive the young rabbi?
New studies are put on
top. Scroll down for previous ones.
Characters Jesus created
3. Triumphant Underdogs
Jesus caught his audiencesí
attention with sharp contrasts: casting pearls before swine; having a
splinter or plank in the eye; and asking for egg but receiving a scorpion
instead. In most of his people-parables, he lined up extreme opposites.
His story about a helpless
widow taking on a mighty judge illustrated the power of persevering prayer.
Like an agile mongoose, dancing around a deadly cobra, gradually wearing it
down Ė so this widow kept coming to the judge, pleading for justice. To get
rid of this nuisance, the judge eventually complied. The weak prevailed. As
God is not an unjust judge, he will soon respond favourably to our
When a sanctimonious Pharisee
and a guilty tax-collector enter the temple to pray, everyone would think
that the prayer of the law-abiding Pharisee would definitely have better
results. His words are well-chosen, his good works are highlighted, and his
attitude is full of self-confidence. He did not ask anything from God; he
only recited his wonderful record. He did not pray.
The tax-collector had few
words but the right attitude: have mercy on me, a sinner! Once again, the
weak, the despised, the underdog walks away with the trophy. Jesus made his
point quite clear: true prayer is defined by attitude, not words; by genuine
repentance, not a haughty pose.
Reality is not always what it
seems to be: the rich living lavishly in opulent houses, while the poor
suffer hunger and disease not far away. Why would it be different in the
after-life? Life is like that Ė unfair.
Jesus lifts the curtain,
painting the reversed roles of the rich man and the beggar after they had
died. Lazarus enjoys the company of Abraham and believers in Paradise while
the rich man suffers in the flames of Hades. He has not yet accepted his
diminished status, trying to give orders from hell: hey, you, beggar, bring
me some water! Father Abraham, send the beggar to warn my brothers! He is
helped out of his illusion: one cannot give orders from hell, nor can one be
a soul-winner from hell. Timeís up.
Again, the weak wins in the
end. It happened in Jesusí life too, especially during his arrest and
crucifixion. Members of the dignified Sanhedrin slapped him in the face and
spat on him. The governor had him flogged. The soldiers mocked him. The mob
at Calvary scoffed him while he hang on the cross. A few of his followers
watched helplessly. Joseph and Nicodemus buried him hastily just before
Then came the surprises of
Easter morning. Friend and foe were stunned, running around in confusion.
The weak has conquered once more, opening salvation for other underdogs.
2. About employers and employees
The characters Jesus depicted
in a work situation are real life people, and yet they display peculiar and
surprising behaviour. Jesus gave catching twists to his stories: they donít
develop as most would have expected.
The twin parables about minas
and talents (Luke 19, Matt. 25), told only a few days apart, are similar yet
slightly different, giving them unique applications.
In the mina story, the
employer is a nobleman who leaves his estate to acquire kingship. He is
stern yet generous: he entrusts one mina to each of 10 servants and expects
them to multiply it. He rewards the successful ones, and punishes the lazy
one, as well as those who opposed his kingship. Likewise, Jesus would go to
heaven to receive his kingship, and return, holding his workers accountable.
The talent parable paints a
man who is ready to travel to a far country. He gives 5 talents of gold to
one servant, 2 to another, and 1 to the third, telling them to trade with it
till he returns. Here, Jesus clearly says that each one received according
to his ability, while in the mina story each received the same amount. We
all receive one life but different gifts. The figurative meaning of ďtalentĒ
became so well known that we donít use it anymore to indicate weight; we use
talent to indicate a special gift or ability.
Those who received one life
impacted 10, 5, or zero other lives. Those who received different talents
either developed their talents (natural gifts) or failed to do so because of
fear Ė fear of failure. Regarding talents, the saying is true: you either
use it or lose it. God wants us to use our one life and several talents to
the benefit of him, others and ourselves. Doing nothing is a bad choice.
The parable about workers
hired at different times of the day (Matt. 20) carries another message. Out
of need and generosity, a farmer hired workers to work in his vineyard,
starting at different hours of the day. He agreed to pay each worker one
denarius. One gets the impression that he had pity on those workers who
waited in vain for someone to hire them. At the end of the day, he
generously pays each worker one denarius. Those who worked the whole day
moaned about the injustice Ė after all, they did more work. The owner
reminded them of their contract. They should be glad they did not stand idle
on the market place with anxiety in their hearts, wondering how they would
feed their families that evening.
Jesusí character portrayal of
employers and employees illuminates the finer nuances of work-place
attitudes and conduct, even today.
1. Selfish sons and a serving volunteer
Jesus never lied, but he did
make up stories to convey truth to his audience. He created vivid fictional
characters that we speak of as if they really lived. Think of the Prodigal
Son and the Good Samaritan Ė they have lived in the minds of Christians for
20 centuries. Jesusí stories are so realistic that we may assume they might
In the story of the Prodigal,
there are 3 main characters (the father and 2 sons), and several background
figures (the friends and hog-farmer in the far-off country, as well as the
servants on the family farm).
The 3 main characters could
not be more different from one another. Some think the father is the main
figure, because he plays the role of God. However, he can hardly be the
protagonist, because he only reacts to the other characters rather than
planning actively to reach a goal. In this story, Jesus made the sinner the
main character, because saving sinners was the main purpose of his
incarnation. The hero turns out to be an anti-hero. His pitiful downward
slide, appalling rock-bottom, tough decision, and joyful reunion with his
father depict the profile of every sinner.
His first adversaries were the
fair-weather friends who helped him to spend his inheritance pretty fast.
The hog-farmer actually helped him to come to his senses by giving him a
dirty job. When he returned home, he was welcomed by his father and the
servants. Then his main foe stepped onto the stage: his embittered older
brother, who depicted the Pharisees who did not like Jesusí outreach to
sinners. Although the older brother did not leave the farm, his attitude
showed that he and his father had also drifted far apart. The father was
patient with both sons and wanted them to come back home wholeheartedly. The
fatherís love, not the efforts of the sons, offers the solution to the
problems in the story.
The story of the Good
Samaritan contains several characters. The robbers believed: what is yours
is mine; I take it. The victim experienced: what is mine, is yours; I lose
it. The priest and Levite, on their way to the temple, did not want to
defile themselves with a corpse, so they opted for: what is mine stays mine;
I keep it. The Samaritan had compassion on the wounded man, nursed his
wounds, and took him to an inn. His philosophy was: what is mine is yours; I
donate it. The inn-keeper accepted the patient and looked after him, thus
stating: what is mine is at your disposal; we share it.
These 6 characters displayed
different approaches to life, to the needy, and to the opportunity to serve
3. The Church is a family
The Bible compares Christ and
the church to husband and wife (Eph. 5). Their mutual love and respect
sustain a long-lasting, fulfilling relationship. The book of Revelation
looks forward to the wedding feast of Christ and his bride (Rev. 19). It is
fitting that Jesus started his public ministry with a wedding, and that he
told several parables about weddings.
One of the purposes of
marriage is to have children. Peter says we have to desire like new-born
babies the pure milk of Godís word so that we may grow (1 Pet 2:2). Paul
urges us to proceed from milk to solid food in our spiritual lives (1 Cor.
3:2). If we read only the beautiful promises of God in his word, we feed on
milk only. We have to struggle with the tough parts of the Bible as well to
absorb solid food.
Jesus emphasized the
importance of children, saying, ďLet the little children come to me, and do
not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as theseĒ (Luke
18:16). On another occasion he said that those who make children stumble,
should be thrown into the sea with a heavy millstone tied to their necks
Jesus healed two
demon-possessed children and the son of a nobleman. He raised the daughter
of Jairus and the son of a widow from the dead. He used the loaves and fish
of a boy to feed 5000.
Psalm 68 praises God as the
Father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, and the One who sets the
lonely in a family. Psalm 103 affirms: As a father has compassion on his
children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. Jesus taught us
to pray to our Father who is in heaven. ďOurĒ points to a family, not only
Jesus sent the demoniac Legion
back to his family to tell them about the great things God had done for him.
Paul led the jailor of Philippi, including his family, to Christ.
In the first century,
Christians met in homes and became one family. They were brothers and
sisters, participating in love-meals, showing unity by eating together.
Families as well as single
people are welcome in the church family. By song, prayer, word, sacrament
and fellowship they are bound together with each other and with God. As one
bread is made of many grains of wheat, and one drink is made of many
clusters of grapes, so many believers are united in the community of faith,
bound together by their love for one Saviour. By sharing their good and bad
times with church friends, they double their joy and diminish their pain.
2. Changing family patterns
In family life, one learns to
interact with other people. Parents provide love, care, and encouragement to
promote good behaviour, and they supply guidance, warning and discipline to
curb bad behaviour. Children learn that choices have consequences. By their
authority, parents help children to relate to the authority figures of
society. Parents also influence the growth of self-esteem and gender-roles
in their children.
Interaction with siblings
gives children the opportunity to test their ideas, practice their values
and roles, handle hierarchy, and participate in the give-and-receive
There are no perfect
families, but they donít have to be dysfunctional. Differences of opinion
help the family to solve disputes in a way that benefits both parties,
instead of keep fighting for dominance. Even animals know when to quit, and
so prevent injuries.
What children see in their
parents, they will most likely repeat in their own lives, such as the way
sex and anger are handled. King David committed adultery, and his son Amnon
followed his example of loose sex by raping his half-sister Tamar. David
planned Uriahís death, and his son Absalom followed in his footsteps by
murdering his half-brother Amnon. Absalomís unbridled anger and rebellion
made him end up an exiled murderer and an executed rebel.
However, children can decide
to stop the cycle of immorality and violence that jumps from one generation
to the next. King Hezekiah did not follow the wicked ways of his father Ahaz,
but instead became one of the best kings of Judah. He initiated social and
religious reforms that stopped Judahís slide to self-destruction for 29
For centuries, painters and
sculptors have portrayed the Holy Family as happy, serene and unified. Jesus
was without sin, but the rest of the family was ordinary human beings. Jesus
developed physically, but he was indwelled by the second and third Persons
of the Trinity. He knew who he was and would become. At age 12 he said to
his parents, ďDid you not know that I have to be in the house of my Father?Ē
This remarkable child had to
endure the usual sibling rivalry and parental discipline one finds in every
household. As the eldest, he would have helped the others to solve their
differences, stay in line, and do their chores. Naturally, the younger ones
would have questioned his wisdom. When Jesus later attracted great crowds,
his mother and brothers tried to talk some sense into his head (Mark 3:21,
31, John 7:3-5). After his resurrection their eyes were opened about his
true nature (Acts 1:14). His brother James became a leader in the first
church, and his mother has been revered by Christians for 20 centuries as
the most blessed of women.
1. Family problems can be solved
A family that plays together
stays together. Summer is a good time to have family fun. Of course,
family-life is not about play only; it includes raising the next generation
and preparing them for life.
Mammalian mothers care for
their young by providing milk and protection, but in most cases the fathers
are not involved in baby-care. Birds exhibit better cooperation: males and
females both care for their young. As soon as the young birds can fly they
Human parenting is influenced
by culture, but in general, fathers lead their sons, and mothers their
daughters, to acquire skills needed for adulthood. Schooling is an extension
of family education, providing knowledge about specific fields.
The Bible shows that God is
the author of family life. In the beginning, God said, ďLet us make man in
our imageÖ male and female he created themĒ (Gen. 1:26-27). When a child is
born to parents, the human three-in-one is completed.
God gave fauna and flora the
ability to procreate. Apart from a few exceptions, fish do not look after
their offspring, but birds and mammals do. The first human being was
unfulfilled until he got a female partner. Sadly, because of sin, the first
family became dysfunctional, producing the first murderer. Noah and his
family survived the flood, but soon abuse set in. Abraham and Sarah tried to
overcome their childlessness by using Hagar as a surrogate mother. It caused
disharmony in the family, leading to a rift between the descendants of Isaac
and Ishmael for the past 4000 years.
Isaac and Rebekah had two
sons, Esau and Jacob, who were totally different in personality. Moreover,
Esau was his fatherís favourite, and Jacob his motherís. Esau traded his
birth-right for a good meal, and Jacob stole his fatherís blessing with the
help of his mother. Jacob fled from his brotherís fury, and married two of
his cousins. With them and their servants he had twelve sons, who became the
patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. Despite manís failures, God
proceeded with his plan.
King David progressed well
until he committed adultery. It brought discord in his family, including
rape, murder and rebellion. Absalom organized a revolt against his father
David, who fled from Jerusalem and found refuge east of the River Jordan.
When Absalomís army faced off with Davidís, Absalom was killed, pushing
David into mourning.
unfaithfulness and the many dysfunctional families, Godís plan of salvation
went ahead. The Christ was born from the lineage of David and in the city of
David. For more than 2000 years, the church has been celebrating this joyous
event. The Saviour came to restore what was broken by sin, including family
3. Sticking to God's plan despite obstacles
As God has used people to our
benefit, he wants us to become a blessing to others. I can see Godís hand in
the way my wife and I met, becoming a blessing to one another and to others.
During my first 3 years at
university, I did not find the right girl among thousands. Then I went on a
daytrip to the mountains, and saw her for the first time. The next day I
joined a group of Sunday-school teachers, and there she was again! A week
later, I saw her in church and at the coffee social. We were introduced,
chatted, and started dating. The chances for a theological and medical
student to meet and fall in love is small indeed. We stuck to Godís plan for
our lives and trusted him to work it out.
After deceiving his father,
Jacob fled from his brotherís wrath, landing with his uncle Laban far away.
Jacob soon fell in love with his cousin Rachel. However, he had nothing to
offer his uncle except his hard work. He made an agreement with the greedy
Laban to serve him 7 years for Rachel Ė and it was in his eyes like a few
days because he loved her (Gen. 29:20). I know that feeling: my wife and I
had long studies to complete; we had to wait 4 years and 51 days before we
Jacob deceived his father
once, but Laban deceived him many times. When he completed his 7 years for
Rachel, he learned he had to marry the eldest daughter first, and work
another 7 years for the one he loved. Laban changed Jacobís wages
repeatedly. Jacobís sons sold Joseph as slave to Egypt, deceiving Jacob for
23 years about the truth. Jacob learned the hard way about cheating.
Many Bible characters, like
David and Solomon, started well but messed up later in their lives. Jacob
started on the wrong foot but improved in his later life. Spurred by his
mother, he deceived his father. For many, this episode labelled Jacob
forever as a cheat. Yet, God changed his name to Israel, and his descendants
have proudly identified themselves by this name for 37 centuries. God said:
ďJacob I have loved; but Esau I have hatedĒ (Mal. 1:2-3).
appeared to Jacob at Bethel when he fled for Esau, repeating the promise
made to Abraham and Isaac. Jacob later returned to Bethel to renew his vows.
God appeared to him again and affirmed the promise he had made before. God
led Jacob step by step from a self-willed second son, to a devoted heir of
the messianic line. Likewise, God wants to prune us to become fruitful
2. Accepting God's plan for your life
God has a plan for our lives.
When I look back, I can see how his plan for me unfolded. Without my help,
he brought into my life people, who influenced my development and direction.
God granted me parents who
knew God and his word, practicing what they preached. Poor as they were,
they left me spiritual riches I will not trade for anything. At age 9, when
I was being suffocated by diphtheria, a doctor unexpectedly arrived at the
remote farm, saving my life with a tracheotomy. I decided to study for the
ministry, but could not find the money. Then out of the blue, someone
offered me an interest-free study loan. A professor awakened my interest in
psychology and so directed me to pastoral counselling that Iíve enjoyed for
Mosesí life was also governed
by Godís providence. How else could a baby born to slaves end up as a prince
in the palace of the Pharaoh Ė the one who ordered the killing of all
newborn slave-boys? Mosesí mother put him in a basket, launched him gently
onto the River Nile, and entrusted him to Godís care. Just at the right
moment, when the princess was bathing in the river, the basket turned up,
and she decided to keep the baby.
In the palace, Moses was
educated in the lifestyle and knowledge of royalty (Acts 7:22). Suddenly,
God took him from royal opulence to desert hardship. Accused of murder, he
fled to Sinai, where he married a Bedouin girl, and shepherded her fatherís
flock. He got first-hand knowledge of the wilderness where Israel would
later roam for 40 years. His palace and desert experience prepared Moses for
his future task.
At the right time, Moses met
God personally at the burning bush. When God told him that he would use him
to lead Israel out of slavery, Moses tried to back off from this assignment,
but God made him understand that he would miss the purpose of his life if he
disobeyed. As the years rolled by, Moses gained perspective, realizing God
was unfolding the plan for his life one step at a time.
In Egypt, God performed ten
miracles through Moses, convincing the stubborn king to yield to Godís
command: Let my people go! For good measure, God topped it off with the
parting of the waters, enabling Israelís escape and the demise of the
God miraculously provided
bread, meat and water for the whole nation in the desert. With thundering
voice, God gave them the Ten Commandments while the earth shook and the
mountain smoked under Godís awesome presence. Moses saw abundant proof in
his life of Godís unfolding plan for him.
Discovering God's plan step by step
When Ben and I met as students
at a small station near the Kalahari, I had no idea what significant role he
would play in my life. I later realized that God let us meet on that winter
night. God used him to open doors to accommodation, youth ministry, two
congregations (where we served as co-pastors), and a clinic where I worked
as pastoral counsellor for two decades.
Godís hand was also clearly
visible in my coming to Canada 22 years ago. A friend opened opportunities
several times as my wife and I moved from north to south, settling in
Lethbridge eventually. We did not do much to open doors, but when we
entered, we had a lot of work to do.
The Bible is saturated with
stories about Godís providence. God let Noah build the ark in time for the
great flood. God provided for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in a land where they
only owned a tomb and a well. He took Joseph through 13 years of
tribulations and made him governor of Egypt. God called Moses and David from
shepherding to national leadership. He called four disciples from their
fishing boats to become fishers of men. Through them the foundation of
Christianity was laid, which now includes one third of humanity.
On the second missionary
journey of the apostle Paul, his itinerary was often changed by the Holy
Spirit (Acts 16-18). Paul planned to go east to Asia, but God directed him
west to Europe. He first had to visit a physician, and so he met Luke in
Troas who became the author of the third gospel and the Acts of the
While Paul waited for Godís
guidance, he had a vision of a Macedonian calling: ďCome over and help us!Ē
On arrival, he did not find a synagogue, only a womenís prayer group. When
he drove an evil spirit from a slave girl, he was beaten by a mob and thrown
into jail. Were his high hopes dashed? Not quite. After an earthquake, he
led the jailer to faith in Christ.
Authorities asked him to
leave, and he walked with a bruised body to Thessalonica. Driven from there,
he fled to Berea where he was well received at first. When enemies stirred
up trouble again, he fled to Athens where he addressed a learned audience.
He proceeded to Corinth and stayed there 18 months. He wrote 4 letters (of
which 2 survived) to the Corinthian church while he worked in Ephesus. These
epistles reveal the practical problems the early church faced.
Although Paul had to change
his plans often, he remained receptive to Godís plan, which was best for him
and the church.