Fear not, little flock.
Christ gives us a gift which will never wear out, or fade, or fail, or be taken away.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
Several weeks ago, my friend (and editor) Todd Brewer penned a stellar article over on Mockingbird, entitled, “The Tales the Carpenter Told” — the central premise of which centers on the question, “Why did Jesus refrain from using illustrations from the family business in his parables?” I find this to be a remarkably inquisitive query, one which I cannot seem to get out of my head, of late. After all, Jesus’s earthly father was a carpenter, and it is often deducted that his brothers were, too. By every indication, they were skilled at what they did. When Jesus’s ministerial tour takes him to his hometown of Nazareth, the crowds vehemently malign his teachings, raising the point of contention, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (Matt. 13:55). They could scarcely imagine Jesus doing anything but carpentry, let alone imparting wisdom in the ways of Judaism. Perhaps this is pure conjecture on my part, but I am prone to believing that Joseph & Sons Carpentry Co. was a business of proficient craftsmen.
All of this makes it doubly odd, then, that Jesus never once uses any imagery or illustrations from the world of woodworking in any of his parables or sermons. He tells tales of farmers and fishermen, bakers and businessmen, merchants and shepherds. But never carpenters. Scour the Gospels all you want, but you will never find a chapter-and-verse where Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a hammer and nail. Instead, the kingdom of heaven is intimately connected to seeds and sowers and sprouting plant life. All of which begs the question, why? Why did Jesus the carpenter never utilize carpentry to clarify his claims?
I believe the answer to that question is found in chapter 12 of St. Luke’s Gospel — which, to be sure, is a chapter that is comprised of a number of very familiar truths, even if we are more apt to reference them in other places. For example, the bulk of Luke 12:22–31 is more often cited from its Matthew 6 parallel. Not being anxious, laying up your treasure in heaven, and seeking first the kingdom are all things with which we are familiar — they are “part-and-parcel” with our faith in Jesus, you might say. Luke, however, offers a slightly different rendering of Jesus’s well-known words, including a phrase which is unique to his Gospel. Notice:
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32)
That phrase — “fear not, little flock” — is a phrase which is uniquely Lukan, and, furthermore, is decidedly crucial to our perception and understanding of the Christian faith. The Lord’s words are infinitely precious, replete with the full force of heavenly love behind them. The incarnate God endearingly calls his followers his “little flock,” denoting his intimate care and affection for them, and how cherished they are in his eyes. Jesus is sure to include the equally affecting assurance that his little sheep need not be afraid. Such has been his point throughout this back-and-forth with the disciples and the crowds. But to truly understand the weight of these words, we ought to familiarize ourselves with their immediate context.
In Luke 12:13–15, Jesus is approached by anonymous bystander who, as we quickly learn, is very concerned with the fact that his brother had not yet divided family inheritance. “Someone in the crowd,” Luke records, “said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me’” (Luke 12:13). The common assumption is that this is the younger brother voicing his frustration with his sluggish older brother. Days, weeks, months even, have transpired, and still his late-father’s estate has yet to be duly apportioned among the siblings. “That really none of my business,” Jesus essentially says (Luke 12:14). This was, perhaps, not at all the sort of wisdom that the younger brother had expected to hear.
As he slinks back into the mass of people, Jesus turns and addresses the rest of the crowd with an admonition regarding earthly possessions. “Take care,” the Savior says, “and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Life, according to Jesus, is not in the slightest defined by what you can accumulate or acquire. Those things are here one day and gone the next. And by way of explanation, he relays the following parable:
And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16–21)
In this brief tale, Jesus demonstrates the utter folly and sheer madness of finding eternal security in earthly assets. To stick with the imagery the Lord employs, what good does a silo filled to the brim really do for you in light of eternity? What can a barn that is busting at the seams with crops do for your soul? Jesus’s point is not to assert that such possessions are entirely valueless. Rather, he aims to reveal just how foolish it is to assume that the likes of you and I can stockpile enough resources to settle our souls. And this goes both ways. The Lord’s warning to “be on guard against all covetousness” is not just a word for the wealthy who miserly burn for more, it is, likewise, a reminder to those who are not as well-off that it is pure foolishness to presume that such possessions can serve as that true and ultimate hope.
The Lord’s words, we might say, serve as a crystalizing caution for both the prince and the pauper. To the prince who thinks that his abundance gives him safety and security, Jesus says, “Life is more than food and clothing.” To the pauper who think that obtaining such abundance will give him safety and security he so desperately longs for, Jesus says, “Life is more than food and clothing.” Both the rich man and the beggar are susceptible to become overtaken by an all-consuming worry over what they possess (or do not possess). “Anxious care and satisfied possession are at bottom the very same things,” comments Rev. Alexander Maclaren. “The root of both the rest of the one and the anxiety of the other is the over-estimate of outward good” (9:1.353–54).
This “over-estimate of outward good” is what Jesus has in mind not only in the parable, but also in the teaching that follows (Luke 12:22–31). Throughout this section, Christ mentions themes of anxiety, fear, or worry five times, intimating that an undue preoccupation about one’s life stems from an overvaluing of earthly possessions (Luke 12:23). No amount of earthly investments can give us the assurance for the future that we are so desperate to possess. Jesus expounds upon this point by having his followers consider the ravens and the lilies. “Consider the ravens,” he says, which, on its own, is a startling invitation (Luke 12:24). Ravens, of course, are scavenger birds. Then and now they are regarded as detestable fowl, whose meals consist of carcasses and roadkill. And yet, they can teach us something divine. As Jesus asserts, even they are in the care of the Heavenly Father. “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than they!”
Additionally, the Lord encourages his disciples to “consider the lilies,” which is an equally as surprising suggestion, especially in light of the fact that Jesus compares their beauty to the Camelot-like glory of King Solomon’s Israel. The opulence and splendor and majesty of the realm under Solomon has no other historical rival. Everything he did was imbued with grandeur. Indeed, reading the Old Testament accounts of Solomon’s kingdom makes me recall the fable of King Midas, whose touch turned everything to pure gold. And yet, as Jesus says, even all the unnoticed lilies in unvisited meadows are decked with the glory of God. “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27).
The crux of all these teachings comes to the fore in verses 28–31, wherein Jesus maintains that a life of faith in the God of heaven is the opposite of a life of suspense and unchecked worry. In particular, it is a life rooted in the certainty that the God of heaven sees and knows and attends to every need of every one of his children. “If God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!” Jesus declares. “Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried” (Luke 12:28–29). Moreover, this certainty frees us to “seek his kingdom,” knowing that even the kingdom and all its accompanying blessings is a gift of pure grace (Luke 12:30–32).
One of the primary reasons we do not have to fear the future is because the future is certain in Christ. He un-worries us with the assurance that even the kingdom is not something we have to worry about. The establishment of God’s heavenly domain on earth is not something over which we must lose sleep. Rather, God’s kingdom is something that God himself delights in bringing about in his way. “Fear not, little flock,” says the Son, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” All of which brings us back to our original inquiry: Why did Jesus never talk about carpentry in any of his sermons? Because, as Todd Brewer concludes, the kingdom of God is not built, it is planted.
Like a seed which falls to the ground and is buried underneath the soil where it dies prior to any harvest being reaped, so, too, is death the consummate precursor to the kingdom of God (John 12:24; 1 Cor. 15:36). The hope of the gospel is found in the news that the Seed of Promise dies, and out of his death and resurrection springs an abundant harvest. Out of the soil of the Son’s death shoots up the plentiful crop of Christ’s church. Its growth and expansion is almost imperceptible, at times; but, to be sure, it is always growing. Its tendrils are forever reaching up to its Maker. As Jesus himself says in another parable, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:26–29).
You might hear, now and then, much conversation revolving around “building the kingdom of God,” with the inference being that you and I had better be “doing our part” to “bring in God’s kingdom,” or else. This rhetoric, however, misses the mark of the gospel of God, the pith of which is that for all our well-meaning virtues and endeavors and efforts, we cannot do anything to speed up or slow down the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. We worry ourselves about a great many things in this life, but the establishment of God’s kingdom need not be one of those things. We need not be anxious about that part of our faith because it is God’s delight “to give you the kingdom,” which is precisely what he does when he gives you himself.
“The kingdom,” says Robert Capon, “is already an accomplished fact in Jesus himself. We are invited not to make it happen but to believe that it is and to let it come” (46). The certain fact of the kingdom of God frees us to rightly regard that with which we have been blessed. We no longer need to run ourselves ragged protecting the things which we have been duped into believing are concomitant with ushering in the kingdom of heaven. We need not white-knuckle our possession because all that we possess here on this earth is nothing compared to the “treasure of heaven.” “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy,” Jesus announces. “Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33–34).
In Christ, we are given that which will never wear out, or fade, or fail, or be taken away. “Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” we inherit the kingdom, which is an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Pet. 1:3–4). Ours is a faith which is as sure as Christ is. It is as real as the blood of the Lamb which fell to the ground and mixed with Jewish dirt on a hill called Golgotha. Fear not, little flock, the kingdom is yours already.
Robert Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).
Beautiful reflection of faith and encouragement. Thank you!