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Let Me Tell You A Story About God
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Reading for this week: Mark 4-9:13
And Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (Mark 4:9)
Let Me Tell You A Story About God: Jesus’ Parables and the Kingdom of God
Jesus was a master storyteller. In our readings from the Gospel of Mark this week, Jesus launches his teaching ministry by beginning to tell the stories he is so well known for, stories that we call parables.
Just what are these parables? Jesus did not himself invent the genre of parables, but inherited the tradition of telling such stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, and from the rabbis, the great teachers of Judaism. Like all great stories, parables act by getting past our everyday distractions and natural defenses, and draw us into the drama of the story and the truths that the story carries within itself. When the prophet Nathan must confront King David about his sin of taking another man’s wife and then having that man killed in battle, the prophet does so by telling a parable. (II Samuel 12:1-13) David listens to the story, not realizing it is about him, and is so taken by the story that he ends up condemning himself from his own mouth, so that his hearing of the story becomes the first step in his repentance for his sin.
Just what is a parable, and how does Jesus use them? A parable is a metaphorical story, in which one thing (“the Kingdom of God”) is compared to another. Sometimes the story/metaphor is short and to the point. Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32) Sometimes a parable is a story that is based in quite an extended metaphor, as in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) or the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
How do these stories work? The word parable itself tells us something of how the stories work. The word comes from the Greek word parabolé, which literally means “throw together.” It is the same word from which we draw the mathematical word parabola. Parables “throw together” two ideas or images: the kingdom of God and whatever image, or idea, or dramatic story is being used to “illustrate” the kingdom.
In order to understand a parable, therefore, we need first to have as clear a sense as possible of what the term “kingdom of God” may have meant to Jesus, and what it did not mean. Let me be very clear. I do not believe that the parables Jesus tells are meant primarily to teach us about what it is like in heaven. The kingdom of God is not a place called heaven. The kingdom of God is wherever God’s way is prevailing. When we hear the word kingdom we may first think of a place, a realm. But the New Testament Greek word for “kingdom” is basilea, which means not so much a place as an action: the reigning of God.
When I hear Jesus say “the kingdom of God is like _____” in a parable, I like to translate it in my own mind as: “When God’s way prevails, it will be like this.” When God’s way prevails, it will be like what happens in the story of the Prodigal Son. When God’s way prevails, it will be like happens in the story of the Good Samaritan.
The parables are always good news. Good news about God, and how God is acting in the world. And the good news in them is often a bit tricky to tease out. In that sense, parables are somewhat like Zen koans: stories that are not logical, and are not immediately easy to understand. Like koans, parables are meant to break open our usual mindset, to propel us into a different way of thinking, into a different way of understanding God, of what God is like and how God’s actions can be discerned in our daily lives. Parables always have a surprise in them, something that calls us up short, that can leave us a bit breathless. I often think that Jesus hoped we’d react to his stories in something like this way: “I had no idea that God is like this or that this is the way God works. But I sure am glad to find it out! This is so totally different! So much better than what I had imagined.”
The parables, then, are not moral tales like Aesop’s fables. They are not primarily about us and what we are supposed to be or do, but are first and foremost about God: what God is like and how God acts in the world. Secondarily, of course, I think that Jesus must have hoped that we would find our lives turned a bit upside down by hearing these stories, and inspired by them to reassess who we are and how we act, day in and day out. I imagine Jesus hoping we would say to ourselves something like this: “Wow! Life would be so much better if the world were like this. I’d like to do what I can to change my life, to align myself with this God and that kind of action, so that my life and the world could be like this.” I don’t imagine Jesus would have wanted us to spend much of our energy feeling guilty about how we are presently acting, but to feel surprise and hope about how we might act, and what our lives, and the life of the world might be like, if we aligned ourselves with the God who works this way.
If we apply this way of approach to parables, I wonder how might we understand and respond to the first great parable that Jesus tells in Mark’s Gospel: the Parable of the Sower. (Mark 4:1-9)
The parable centers on a sower who broadcasts seed on every imaginable type of soil: along the path where it gets eaten up and never takes root; thin soil where it springs up for a while but quickly gets scorched; among thorns which choke the growing plant; and on good soil where almost unimaginable bounty results with growth of thirty-, sixty- or a hundred-fold.
If we take this parable as an extended metaphor about the way it is when God is at work, then we could conclude several things: (1) God is as profligate a sower as the one in the parable, not being overly picky about what sort of soil the seed lands on. That’s good news, for none of us is always receptive and fruitful soil. (2) If God sows the seeds of God’s ways in the world that broadly, then all of us have seed sown upon/in us. (3) If God is not picky about what sort of soil the seed lands on, we shouldn’t worry overly much about what sort of soil the seed is landing on in us. Some days – and in some moments – seed will bounce off us, and land on the path where it never takes root. Some days it will land on a thin place in us, where it will grow for a while, but then peter out. Sometimes it will land in a place where it could have grown, but the other seeds in our life – family, friends, work, worries, etc. – may be so “prosperous” in their growth that their success may choke out the growth of what God is up to.
But the good news is that, sometimes God seed will land in parts of our life where it will take root so deeply and so fruitfully that it will produce unimaginably good and bountiful results. Thirty and sixty and a hundred times more than what got sown. If that is the case, then pay attention to where the good soil is, and where the good growth of God’s ways is happening, and put your time and energy there. For the other three sorts of soil don’t really matter comparatively. By the way, in either spiritual or socio-economic terms, if any small patch of your life yields thirty or sixty or a hundredfold, you can stop worrying about the unproductive or thin or thorny places. Through this bountiful growth, you will be freed from anxiety and oppression in ways you can’t imagine, and you will be rich beyond all you had ever hoped for. In fact, not only will there be enough to free you, but there’ll be plenty to share and free others.
One last word. I believe that Jesus told these surprising and thought-and-feeling provoking parables about God and God’s ways (“the Kingdom”) to free our minds and hearts from thinking that we already know all about who God is, and how God works. I think he hoped we would absorb these stories in ways that break open our minds, and hearts, and hands. But I also believe that Jesus wanted us to become parable-telling people ourselves. Yes, of course, to spread the Good News by telling the parables he told. But I also believe that he wanted us to become spinners of our own God stories, parables that express where and how we have seen God at work in the world. And to tell those stories to others. To spread the Good News that we have seen, and heard, and experienced. Our stories, too, could help free them from their tiny and trapped ways of thinking of God and God’s ways. So that they might experience God’s Good News. And be freed. And saved.
Instead of a question for reflection this week, I am suggesting an exercise: to write your own parable. Don’t panic – it isn’t as hard as you might think.
Think about a piece of good news about God that you have experienced in your life.
Was there some surprise in what happened to you?
Write a story that captures what happened to you as you experienced God and good news at that time. Don’t forget to include the surprising part.
You don’t need to make it overtly pious. Notice that Jesus’ parables often do not mention God directly, but still express some experience of good news.
Keep it simple. Don’t overthink it.
Share the story with someone – in your household, at work, a friend, someone at church. You can share it verbally, or by email, or on Facebook. Share it in whatever way seems right to you.
A hymn text by Dr, Theodore Parker Ferris, Rector of Trinity Church in the City of Boston (1942-1972) based on Jesus’ parable of the sower.
Behold a Sower! from afar
He goeth forth with might; The rolling years His furrows are,
His seed, the growing light;
For all the just His Word is sown,
It springeth up alway;
The tender blade is hope’s young dawn,
The harvest, love’s new day.
O Lord of life, to Thee we lift
Our hearts in praise for those,
Thy prophets, who have shown Thy gift
Of grace that ever grows,
Of truth that spreads from shore to shore,
Of wisdom’s widening ray,
Of light that shineth more and more
Unto Thy perfect day.
Shine forth, O Light, that we may see,
With hearts all unafraid,
The meaning and the mystery
Of things that Thou hast made;
Shine forth, and let the darkling past
Beneath Thy beam grow bright;
Shine forth, and touch the future vast
With Thine untroubled light.
Light up Thy Word; the fettered page
From killing bondage free;
Light up our way; lead forth this age
In love’s large liberty.
O Light of light! within us dwell,
Through us Thy radiance pour,
That word and life Thy truths may tell,
And praise Thee evermore.
Benjamin Britten wrote three church parables. Two are Biblical (The Prodigal Son and The Burning Fiery Furnace), but Curlew River is not. I have chosen to include it this week as an illustration of what I believe one of the impact of Jesus’ parables can be: namely, that as part of our response to Jesus’ parables, we begin to spin our own creative stories to illustrate what we have glimpsed of God and God’s ways in the world. These become our own personal parables to show forth what we think “the kingdom of God” would look like in our world, and to express our experience of good news.
The Sower, by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) - See Above
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