Posts Tagged ‘Parables’

I preached a couple of weeks ago (again!) and I decided to use Matthew 13 as my text. I had been doing some light research on the chapter and taught a little of it in my Sunday school class so I took the next logical step and went ahead with a full blown manuscript. It preached fairly well although I would agree with anyone who said it's a bit long. It preached long too. Anyhow, here's the text of the sermon. Enjoy.

The Kingdom of God

Sermon Text: Matthew 13

One of the things we understand from Jesus, that is, things explicitly taught by Him, to us–about how to do something–is how to pray.

So, when Jesus, for example, said “I will make you fishers of men,” it’s not like he explicitly told you and me–and I assume the majority of us are not fishermen in the sense that Jesus’ first disciples were–how it is that we are to go about doing such a thing. For that matter, what does it mean to be a ‘fisher of men’?

But some will argue that he did in fact teach us how to make disciples at the end of Matthew 28 and thus we do, in actuality, have our blueprints for how to be fishers of men.

We might also take the idea of worshiping in Spirit and truth. We do not really gather from his conversation in John 4 what that means or exactly how such worship might look–and I assume it would look profoundly different in our culture than it would in Samaria in the first century, or in Africa in the 21st century.

But whatever else we may decide about such things as these, and they may be radically different from person to person while remaining profoundly orthodox, is that at the end of the day, Jesus did teach us how to pray. We know the sort of things he taught us to pray–things that are typically quite different from the things we pray for, safe travel, sunshine and safe travel–not that there’s anything wrong with these things but that they are different from what he specifically said to pray for.

And, to put a fine point on this, Jesus told us specifically to pray, “Your kingdom come.” I have heard a lot of people pray before that the Lord provide us with daily bread, and forgiveness of sins, and that his will be done. But I have heard few, very few, people–elders, deacons, preachers, prophets, or little old faithful ladies–pray that God’s kingdom come.

And why? What is it about this kingdom that prevents us from praying ‘your kingdom come’?

It seems that even in this context of Matthew 6, it’s not as odd as it might seem to find Jesus talking to his disciples about the Kingdom. Matthew has had the kingdom in mind from the beginning of his Gospel when he started with a genealogy of ‘Jesus Messiah, the son of King David, the son of Abraham.’ When you start a book by talking about kings, the reign of kings, and the sons of kings well, then I suppose we ought to assume that perhaps the idea is going to be featured in the rest of the book.

And so it is and so it goes. Over and over again in Matthew we see a clash of kingdoms: Jesus collides with Herod near his birth, he collides with the satan after his baptism and many other times too, at times he collides with his own disciples, and other times with the leadership of Israel. Finally, he collides with the kings of Rome.

Matthew’s Gospel is one telling you and me not so much about how to be saved–in some strange sense of going to heaven when we die–but about how God was once again becoming the King of this earth and thus bringing about to fulfillment his plan which he announced in creation–if He created this heavens and the earth, then the heavens and the earth and everything in them are his and he will rule them–and specified in the person of Abraham in Genesis 12–that is, his plan to bless all nations through Abraham and the promised Seed who would crush this earth’s kingdoms which are so masterfully under the control and direction of the serpent.

And in some way we see God becoming King in Jesus and we see Jesus reclaiming the heavens and the earth for God through his death and his resurrection: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me, he said, now you go and tell this story and make disciples.

Scott McKnight writes, “I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense of Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we need to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told. To us common idiom, If Jesus was the answer, what was the question?’ Or, better, ‘If Jesus was the answer, and the answer was that Jesus was the Messiah/King, what was the question?’ (22) McKnight goes on to state, quite bluntly: “What is the kingdom story of the Bible? Until we can articulate the Bible’s kingdom story, we can’t do kingdom mission.’ (23)

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“I suspect that Jesus spoke many of his parables as a kind of sad and holy joke and that that may be part of why he seemed reluctant to explain them because if you have to explain a joke, you might as well save your breath.”

–Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 63*

*This is a book you really should acquire and read. Buechner is simply brilliant when it comes to helping us understand the role of preacher.

This installment of the De-Sanitizing the Parables series will explore the Parable of the Soil found in Matthew 13. However, before I explore the parable itself, I’d like to give some background on the nature of the parables found in Scripture. To do this, we will listen to two different scholars who give us some crucial background on the nature and use of parables in the New Testament, and a pastor who will help us better understand Jesus’ use of them as story. As such, I have decided to break down my post into two parts. First, an introduction to the nature of parables and second and exploration of the parable of the soils.

Craig Keener has written several books but in this particular case I will depend upon his massive Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Keener notes a couple of important aspects of the parables in the New Testament. First, he writes: “Rabbis commonly taught in parables, sermon illustrations, to communicate their main point or points. This Palestinian Jewish teaching form appears in the New Testament only in the teaching of Jesus, and thus cannot be attributed to composition by the later church outside Jewish Palestine.” (81-82)

This speaks to the authenticity of parables and their direct link to the mouth of Jesus. Especially helpful here is the idea that these are not mere distortions of Jesus’ ‘true’ teachings by later preachers. As we will see too the parables are directly linked to the Old Testament prophets and are seen, to a large extent, as fulfillment of the prophets’ words. There are parables in the Old Testament as well. Nathan told David a parable when he confronted David (2 Samuel 12), for example, and Isaiah used a parable in Isaiah 5 to talk about God’s relationship to Israel.

Second, Keener notes the general character of the population of Jesus’ day, that is, his audience: “Most of the Roman Empire’s inhabitants were rural peasant farmers or herders. The literate elite often ignored this large population, but Jesus’ illustrations show that he ministered frequently among this class. Although Galilee was heavily populated with villages and boasted two major cities (Sepphoris and Tiberias), most of its inhabitants were rural, agrarian peasants.”

So you might say that, in a sense, we have to transport ourselves into their mode of thinking of the world; put ourselves in their shoes; listen to Jesus as if we were farmers, prodigal sons, poor widows, or terminated business managers. Jesus spoke to their point of view and used illustrations that they could understand and relate to and listen to in context. What would make better sense to farmers than an illustration from the farm or to a poor widow than the constant threat of losing a coin or to a shepherd than losing a sheep? If you are a shepherd and understand not just losing a sheep but the effort involved in searching for the lost sheep then perhaps you can understand, more deeply, the rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents. (See Luke 15)

Jesus spoke to people in language they could understand. He didn’t, as some assume, speak down to them; he spoke in their language. If anything, Jesus, in using their words, their experiences, their context, elevated their words, experiences, and contexts. Parables keep our feet grounded by requiring us to think outside of our comfort zones about God, kingdom, Son of Man, and our everydayness. Part of the problem with interpreting parables is discussed by our next scholar, Robert Farrar Capon. In his book The Parables of the Kingdom, Capon notes that people can easily and often misunderstand the parables by too quickly assuming that they already know what the parables mean:

“Most people, on reading the Gospels’ assertion that ‘Jesus spoke in parables,’ assume they know exactly what he meant. ‘Oh, yes,’ they say, ‘and a wonderful teaching device it was too. All those unforgettable stories we’re so fond of, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.’ Yet their enthusiasm is narrowly based. Jesus’ use of the parabolic method can hardly be limited to the mere handful of instances they remember as entertaining, agreeable, simple, and clear. Some of his parables are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.” (1)

This immediately puts the reader on the defensive: It is not likely we will understand the parables and we need to listen to them anew, listen to them afresh, and work our way through them again and again. After all, these stories were preserved for us, the Church. Yet, they were spoken to people who were not yet the church in any completely modern sense. Only too often do we allow what we ‘already know’ to get in the way of what is really there. We must admit that it is always difficult to avoid the biases that we carry to the text. Capon illustrates his point by directing our attention to the rejection of Jesus by his contemporaries:

“So too with Scripture. Often when people try to say what the Bible is about, they let their own mindset ride roughshod over what actually lies on the pages…Jesus, for example, was rejected by his contemporaries not because he claimed to be Messiah but because, in their view, he didn’t make a suitably messianic claim. ‘Too bad for God,’ they seemed to say. ‘He may want a dying Christ, but we happen to know that Christs don’t die.’” (4)

His warning, it seems to me, is not that we should be afraid of parables or interpreting them, but that we should be cautious and listen well. Peterson, whom I reference below, notes that “Inconspicuously, even surreptitiously, a parable involves the hearer…A parable is not ordinarily used to tell us something new but to get us to notice something that we have overlooked although it has been right there before us for years” (Tell It Slant, 19). It does us well to work our way through the parables often, and to be and become those whose eyes and ears are open to the Word of Christ. We need to continually visit them, read them, participate in their action. Capon goes on:

“It should be only after long study and repeated readings that I would dare to conclude what any particular passage meant, let alone what the entire thrust of his writing was. With such a wildly various collection, there would always be a temptation to let my own sense of what he was up to get in the way of what he himself really had in mind” (3).

Capon also draws our attention to the fact that the parables, if they are about God, happen to turn on their heads our popular conceptions of who God is and the way God does things:

“In the Bible, as a matter of fact, God does so many ungodly things—like not remembering our sins, erasing the quite correct handwriting against us, and becoming sin for us—that the only safe course is to come to Scripture with as few stipulations as possible. God used his own style manual, not ours, in the promulgation of his word. Openness, therefore, is the major requirement for approaching the Scriptures. And nowhere in the Bible is an un-made-up mind more called for than when reading the parables of Jesus.” (5)

Indeed. The parables turn our conceptions inside out and outside in as he further observes for us:

“For example, some of the parables are little more than one-liners, brief comparisons stating that the kingdom of God is like things no one ever dreamed of comparing it to: yeast, mustard see, buried treasure secured by craftiness, fabulous jewelry purchased by mortgaging everything…Once again, they set forth comparisons that tend to make mincemeat of people’s religious expectations. Bad people are rewarded (the Publican, the Prodigal, the Unjust Steward); good people are scolded (The Pharisee, the Elder Brother, the Diligent Workers); God’s response to prayer is likened to a man getting rid of a nuisance (the Friend at Midnight); and in general, everybody’s idea of who ought to be first or last is liberally doused with cold water (the Wedding Feast, the Great Judgment, Lazarus and Dives, the Narrow Door).” (10)

Finally, there is a pastor, Eugene Peterson whose book, Tell It Slant, is a masterpiece in Peterson’s ‘conversation in spiritual theology.’ In the book, he takes on a journey with Jesus through Samaritan country as he explores Luke 9:51-19:27 and the parables contained therein. I wish there were space and time enough to note more, but I’d like for the time being to pick up on just a particular aspect of Peterson’s work. He begins by reminding us of the rather mundane, earthy subject matter of the parables:

“The subject matter is usually without apparent religious significance. They are stories about farmers and judges and victims, about coins and sheep and prodigal sons, about wedding banquets, building barns and towers and going to war, a friend who wakes you in the middle of the night to ask for a loaf of bread, the courtesies of hospitality, crooks and beggars, fig trees and manure. The conversations that Jesus had as he walked on the Samaritan roads were with people who had a different idea of God than what Jesus was revealing, or maybe not much of an idea at all. This was either hostile or neutral country. Parables were Jesus’ primary language of choice to converse with these people, stories that didn’t use the name of God, stories that didn’t seem to be ‘religious’” (20-21).

For all the ‘high’ talk we use in churches, talk about sanctification, redemption, propitiation and suchlike (all great and useful words!), talk that make us sound far more knowledgeable than we truly are, we stand in contrast with Jesus who didn’t. Jesus seems to have delighted in ‘low talk.’

This prompts Peterson to ask, “Why in the world is Jesus telling unpretentious stories about crooks and manure? Why isn’t he preaching the clear word of God, calling the Samaritans to repentance, offering them the gift of salvation in plain language?” (21) Peterson observes that Jesus’ choice of language is increasingly relaxed and conversational as he nears the day (he is speaking of the context of Luke 9:51-19:27). And Jesus doesn’t apologize for doing so.

Why? Well, Peterson believes that this keeps the conversation going by continually involving the listeners. As Jesus neared the crucifixion, knowing he would not see these Samaritan people again, his language became less direct. He told them stories they would remember, chew on, think about and be involved in forever. We are keen to remember a good story, to hear a good story, to tell a good story. Even now, the popular culture is fond of ‘Good Samaritans’ and ‘Prodigals.’ But church folk forget this simple aspect of life and in our attempts and efforts to be important, we fail to capitalize on such an idea. We forget how to be children. I remember when my eldest son, now nearly 16, was but a toddler. He could listen to the the same stories over and over and over; memorized them too. Why do we forget this as adults? This is what stories are for in the first place. Not merely to entertain even if they do entertain. We remember stories. I couldn’t tell you the financial reports of last month’s board meeting. I can tell you stories from every church I have ever had the pleasure or displeasure of knowing.

“It is common among many of us when we become more aware of what is involved in following Jesus and the urgencies that this involves, especially when we find ourselves in Samaritan territory, that we become more intense about our language. Because it is so much more clear and focused we use the language learned from sermons and teachings to tell others what is eternally important. But the very intensity of the language can very well reduce our attentiveness to the people whom we are speaking—he or she is no longer a person, but a cause. Impatient to get our message out, we depersonalize what we have to say into rote phrases or programmatic formula without regard to the person we are meeting. As the urgency to speak God’s word increases, listening relationships diminish. We end up with a bone pile of fleshless words—godtalk” (21).

So, why? I think this has something to do with keeping people involved in the conversation by requiring their participation. “A parable is not an explanation. A parable is not an illustration. We cannot look at a parable as a spectator and expect to get it. A parable does not make a thing easier; it makes it harder by requiring participation, by entering the story…” (59-60).

Parables require effort. Parables require eyes of faith to see and ears of faith to hear. We have to listen and participate.

What I have laid out for you is three important aspects of the parables. First, Keener teaches that parable teaching is a common feature of teachers and rabbis of that day. This is not a later invention of the church. Second, as Capon noted, the parables turn our conceptions of God, Kingdom, Son of Man upside down and undo all our pretension. Third, as Peterson draws our attention to, parables keep us involved in the conversation by bringing us back to earth. “Why do you stand there staring at the sky?” the angel asked the disciples. Indeed, the answers are not found ‘out there’ or ‘up there.’ Jesus said, “Behold! Look around! You will see the Kingdom of God, indeed God himself, at work in places you never would have thought, under the spell of your own knowledge and wisdom, imaginable.”

Jesus told parables. He told stories that had meaning and connection to the everyday lives of the people who heard those stories. We do well, when we interpret the parables, to first listen to the parables. We do well to pay attention to the context of the parables. We do well to hear first the story of earth before we presume to know and attach meaning of heaven to the word of God. These are not earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They are carefully told earthy stories designed to capture our attention, involve us in a conversation with Jesus, and seek him and his kingdom first. In part two of this post, I will explore the parable itself and de-sanitize it.

De-Sanitizing the Parables: The Good Catholic

caponIn the course of some reading this afternoon in preparation for a blog post on Matthew 13, I read the following paragraphs from Capon’s wonderful book The Parables of the Kingdom.

These paragraphs speak to the untidy nature of the parables and strange nature of the God whose Kingdom is spoken of by Jesus. God, as it turns out, turns all of our notions about himself upside down and inside out. We do not get from him what we might expect, and he does not give to us as we might desire. Those who are first are last and those who are last are first.

It is this strange way of grace that keeps us anchored to him. It is his own strangeness that keeps us coming back to his well of grace. We know that even if all else fails, grace will not.

“In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we find him addressing a group of people who are smugly content in their confidence that they are upstanding citizens—and who are convinced that anyone not exactly like themselves has no chance of making it into God’s guest register. So he tells them the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Note not only what an insulting story it is, but also how small the prospects are that his audience will ever be able to get past its details to its point. Far from being an illustrations that shines an understanding they already have on something they haven’t figured out, it is one that is guaranteed to pop every circuit break in their minds.

“God, Jesus informs them, is not the least bit interested in their wonderful lists of moral and religious accomplishments. Imagine the scene for a moment. You can almost hear the reaction forming in their minds: ‘What do you mean, God’s not interested? We have read the Scriptures—with particular attention to the commandments. We happen to know he is absolutely wild about fasting, tithing, and not committing adultery.’ But Jesus ignores them and presses the parable for all it’s worth. Not only is God going to take a dim view of all their high scores in the behaving  competition; he is, in fact, going to bestow the gold medal on an out-and-out crook who just waltzes into the temple, stares at his shoelaces, and does nothing more than admit as much” (7).

So you can be reminded of what Jesus said that day and why Capon’s words are so important:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The trouble with this parable is in the assumption that we know who Jesus is speaking to (‘those who were confident in their own righteousness’) and the assigning of roles. This is exactly what we must not do with this parable. It’s too easy to do so. It’s too easy to know exactly who is the publican and who is the sinner and the minute we start assigning roles we have ceased being a player (either a publican or a tax-collector) and started being the one who justifies one and not the other (i.e., God). It is only God who justifies and therefore only God who can assign roles.

Jesus didn’t tell this parable to us so that we would take it upon ourselves to assign roles. He told it to us so that we would recognize the grace of God. What is amazing is that the grace of God was available to both the publican and the tax-collector, but one understood it and the other did not. That is, the publican thought he deserved it because of all his righteous acts; the tax-collector did not even though he begged for it on the slim chance that there might be some for him.

Those who are warped by the grace of God get this, sort of. These are the ones who come before God singing ‘nothing in my hands I bring simply to the cross I cling.’ They recognize that they are broke, broken, and full of brokenness. They recognize that before God they are empty and need everything. These ones fall on their faces saying, “God what do you have for me?”

Those untouched by grace do not get it. They are the ones who come before God with a laundry list of their accomplishments and gifts and achievements talking out loud to God and saying, “God what can I give to you?” They have to do this because, as people who have everything already, there is nothing left for God to give them. They don’t need his grace because they don’t want it. They don’t want his grace because they don’t need it.

So God turns upside down and inside out notions of who he is and what his kingdom is like. It’s certainly nothing like we might expect. His is a kingdom where it is far better to be broke than it is to be fixed, far better to be empty than filled, far better to be the sinner than the righteous.

With each passing day, grace becomes more and more alive to those who are willing to cast all of their life on Jesus who can and does what we can’t and won’t. Grace. A sweet word. A sweet sound.

Friends, I published the manuscript version of this Skycast earlier and it is also available at box.net. This sermon is based on Luke 15, but I drew heavily upon ideas that were developed in Tim Keller’s wonderful book The Prodigal God. I highly recommend this book. The sermon itself is based on the idea that God’s grace is big enough to save all who will be saved. However, there seems to be an important step: Recognizing sickness. As always, my sermon is formulated around God’s grace. I am also indebted to Jason Goroncy whose sermon The Scandal of Weak Leadership: 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10 is a magnificent picture of God’s grace and which I quoted from near the beginning. I trust I haven’t done Keller or Jason an injustice in my use of their material.  It is from Luke 15 and Jesus’ parables, the ones he spoke to Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Grace and Peace. jerry

The Older Brother, Luke 15

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Soli Deo Gloria!