Matthew 13.31–33, 44–52
… a close examination of Jesus’ parables may well be the best way we have of ensuring that we will be listening to what he himself has to say, instead of what we are prepared to hear — provided, that is, we are willing to take note of the almost perverse way in which he used parables. — Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus
Many years ago now, I was told that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. I suppose that’s true, but it really leaves too much out. It’s only true-ish. Maybe it’s one-third true.
There’s another definition: a parable is a nice story with a sting in the tale. That’s better, it’s about half true. The parables certainly have a sting in the tail, but they’re not all nice stories.
This is what Robert Farrar Capon says about the parables of Jesus:
Jesus spoke in strange, bizarre, disturbing ways. He baulked at almost no comparison, however irreverent or unrefined. Apparently, he found nothing odd about holding up, as a mirror to God’s ways, a mixed bag of questionable characters: an unjust judge, a savage king, a tipsy slave owner, an unfair employer, and even a man who gives help only to bona-fide pests.
The parables of Jesus stop us in our tracks, frisk us, turn us upside down and shake us up till our pockets are emptied and then leave us dazed, dizzy, disorientated — but, maybe, more ready to find the right track. Maybe.
Shall we look at a few? Let’s look at four very short parables, not longer stories like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan. They are the Parables of the Mustard Seed, the Bakerwoman, the Buried Treasure, and the Pearl of Great Price.
They are all ‘parables of the kingdom’. They point us to the kingdom of God in our midst.
Firstly, The Parable of the Mustard Seed:
I like mustard, do you?
If you do, you may think a story about a little mustard seed growing into a bushy kind of tree perhaps three or four metres high is a nice story, eh? Something wonderful emerges from a tiny seed, ‘From little things, big things grow’, right? (Apologies, Archie Roach!)
Well, that’s part of the story, but only part. There’s much more to it.
This mustard plant was a pest to farmers, a weed. Planting mustard would be like a planting lantana or prickly pear. Farmers just didn’t do it. You didn’t see nice rows of mustard all planted out, like apple in an orchard.
So either the farmer was a bit of a dill, or he didn’t sow mustard on purpose. How could he do it by accident? Remember, the mustard seed is small, so it could have been sown by mistake as the sower scattered his seed by hand. Maybe some tiny mustard seeds were hidden unseen amongst the other seeds?
Or maybe some of these small seeds were blown in by the wind. Recall what Jesus says elsewhere:
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3.8)
Maybe the undesirable mustard seeds were blown in by the Spirit-wind.
And in the end, when the mustard bush is grown, it attracts birds. They nest in its branches. What farmer wants to attract birds? They are pests!
This parable shows that the kingdom of God grows in a hidden way, open only to the eyes of faith, and to ears that can hear. It’s not something we design; it grows in its own way. We can’t control the consequences; when all the birds of the air may nest there, the noisy ones as well as the pretty ones, the neighbourhood changes. Where all are welcome, church changes too.
The mustard bush kingdom grows through the work of the Spirit. Too much planning gets in the Spirit’s way. Not that we shouldn’t dream, and imagine, and look for what the Spirit is doing; we just don’t shoehorn the Spirit into our neat little boxes.
The Parable of the Bakerwoman:
A woman bakes bread. So what?
There are three shocking things about this story for the contemporaries of Jesus.
Shocking thing #1: The woman uses yeast. That’s what makes bread rise. But yeast — aka leaven — is often a symbol of sin in the Scriptures.
The Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It took too long to bake ordinary bread, so the slaves escaping from Egypt ate flatbread. Leaven, yeast became a sign of sin.
Once Jesus said to the disciples,
Watch out, and beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (Matthew 16.6)
The ‘yeast’ they were to avoid was the false teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
So Jesus was using yeast, a negative symbol, to illustrate the kingdom of God. Shocking. Like using drugs or alcohol to illustrate God’s ways.
Shocking thing #2: The woman cooks three measures of flour.
That’s a lot of flour.
It’s enough flour to feed a village, enough flour for a wedding feast that lasts for several days, enough flour to keep us in Communion bread for a year.
This woman wants to feed the world! That’s what the kingdom is like. It gives us a desire to be part of the solution!
Shocking fact #3: The woman is a woman. And in this parable, she symbolises God. That still has the capacity to shock some people today. Believe it or not.
This is another parable of the hidden rise of God’s kingdom. It happens in ways that can shock some people. Let it shock.
The Parable of the Buried Treasure:
This parable may be about a fossicker. He’s looking around for something, anything, of value.
He’s digging around in a field and finds something. A treasure. Looks like it’s been there a long time. The owner must have forgotten about it.
What to do?
Report it? Hand it in?
Not on your life!
The fossicker wants it for himself.
So he goes, and buys the field. Without telling anyone about the treasure. And now it’s his.
This kingdom is so wonderful that you’d do anything to get it.
Could we even defraud someone? Well, no.
Don’t forget, it’s a story, designed to shock. Jesus isn’t advocating that we steal and defraud to get close to God. He’s trying to shake us up, to to rearrange our thinking, so we may see how vitally important this whole thing really is.
Lastly: The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price:
A merchant conducts a business transaction, and buys a pearl. Well yes, that’s what a merchant does.
Well, back then merchants didn’t have a great reputation. They were like used-car salesmen, you know? At best you had to keep your wits about you while dealing with them; at worst merchants were grifters and wide boys.
And this merchant has just made a terrible business decision. He has found a wonderful pearl, a very costly pearl, a pearl worth everything he has. So he sells everything up for it. Gets rid of the lot. Loses his business.
And he is happy.
Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? (Matthew 16.24–26)
The merchant — a man of ill repute — loses everything, and in doing so he gains his life. Other smarter operators stayed in business and well, lost what is of greatest importance. Their souls.
The parables shock us into belief. If we are shockable.
In the past, a lot of Christian teaching was done by means of a catechism, a question and answer structure. We sometimes hear voices raised today to bring back the Catechism.
Learning by facts and propositions isn’t the only way to grow in faith, and it may not even be the best way. It’s not the way Jesus taught or learned faith. Parables get us to look at what God is doing, now, in hidden ways. They may bring us to choose whether or not to follow the way of Jesus.
The parables aren’t nice stories. People like us are sometimes the villain of a parable. Perhaps we could even say that if a parable hasn’t shocked you, you haven’t got it yet.
So: let parables of Jesus stop you in your tracks, frisk you, turn you upside down and shake you up till your pockets are emptied and you’re left dazed, dizzy, disorientated — but, maybe, just maybe, more likely to find the right track.
West End Uniting Church 26 July 2020