We’ve been living in a “parable universe” this Lenten season, to borrow a term from Anna Carter Florence, preaching professor at Columbia Theological Seminary. Her idea of “a parable universe” – a play on “parallel universe” - intrigued me, and I wondered if it might be an interesting way for us to spend the season of Lent this year. What if we read some gospel parables each Sunday, focusing on stories Jesus told, and then – equipped with those reminders – headed back out these doors looking for additional parables wherever our week happens to take us? How might it transform the way we see the world, to use a bit of holy imagination, and play a glorified game of “I Spy” together as a church family?
I’m pleased to report that a number of you have already shared parable sightings with me, so we’ll take some time next Sunday to give you an opportunity to share those insights with one another. We’ll do a kind of hybrid sermon time – a bit from me, and a bit from you all – to celebrate this experimental way we’ve been traveling through Lent, before we move into Holy Week and Easter.
Meanwhile, I wanted to circle back to something I mentioned only in passing that first Sunday of Lent. While it can be great fun to spot parables from God everywhere we go, it’s important to remember that we are best equipped to notice them, and best primed to understand them correctly, when we have spent a good deal of time with the stories Jesus himself told. Without closely basing our search on what we’ve been taught in Scripture, it is possible to get it wrong, and to misunderstand what the kingdom of God is about.
For instance, Adolf Hitler taught that the kingdom of God is an Aryan, white-skinned nation, with himself wielding absolute power at its head. A far cry from the biblical teaching we heard last Sunday about people of God coming from every tribe, every language, every ethnic group. A far cry from servant leadership, and “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and a far cry from gospel teachings about compassion and mercy. In fact, one of the statements of faith in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions comes from brave church leaders, Dietrich Bonhoeffer among them, who stood up in opposition to the Nazi government, some of them at the cost of their own lives. While most of our statements of faith are phrased in the positive – “I believe …” or “We believe…” - Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church in Germany felt it necessary to craft a creed with the refrain “We reject the false doctrine …,” enumerating a number of ways Hitler was preaching falsehoods about the Christian faith and telling lies about the kingdom of God.
I think, too, about preachers who speak about a gospel of success, where it seems that bigger is better, and the first shall be first and the last shall be last, and somehow God’s blessings are all about money. Again, this is about as opposite from Jesus’ teaching as you can get. As Christians we need to reject that false doctrine, too. So yes, it’s possible to get it wrong.
But fear not, because it’s not actually that hard to get it right. The more time we spend in the gospels, learning from Jesus himself, the more time we spend in worship, and talking with other disciples about what it really means to follow Christ, the more we’ll recognize a true kingdom of God parable when we see it.
I selected Matthew 13 for our Scripture reading this morning mostly because it heaps up so many of Jesus’ parables at once. In fact, we’ve read aloud just three of the seven parables included in this single chapter, and one of them back at the beginning of the chapter– the parable of the sower – is quite an extended story, with several different metaphors included within it. So Matthew 13 shows us Jesus the rabbi in action, finding teachable moments wherever he went. A number of his word pictures use agricultural imagery – the sower and the seed, the weeds among the wheat, the sprawling mustard bush that grows from a tiny seed. One of them finds its setting on the home front, with a woman baking bread – “the kingdom of God is like yeast…” And then in the three we’ve just heard the kingdom of God is compared to a treasure hidden in a field, a merchant in search of a precious pearl, and a net that is thrown into the sea, catching fish of every kind. It would take vastly more time than we have this morning to go into each one in detail. Today is really more about the range and the variety of Jesus’ parables.
I also have a confession to make. It was tempting when I decided which verses to read aloud this morning to stop at verse 48, with the relatively tame imagery of sorting out the good and bad fish from the nets, rather than following that particular parable to its conclusion. Jesus’ teaching stories are not all sweetness and light, and we might have preferred to skip the weeping and gnashing of teeth. Thanks a lot, Matthew. Thanks a lot, Jesus. But much as we might wish to resist certain biblical images, there they are. One of the lessons that keeps hitting home as I read the Bible is simply that God is God and I am not, and there are things I’m not ever going to understand fully. But I’m also humbled to realize about myself – in connection with divine judgment texts like this - that when I’m horrified by stories of abuse or torture in the news, appalled by some of the awful things human beings do to one another, punishment for evil doesn’t always sound all that bad to me. Sometimes it sounds like justice.
And if the stark justice meted out in certain parables jars us, in others it can be a merciful twist that strikes us as unfair. The story of the prodigal son we read a couple of weeks ago is a great example. That poor older brother, we might think, doing everything right his whole life, only to have his younger brother get a big party when he finally comes to his senses, after squandering the family fortune on what the text calls “dissolute living.” (Luke 15:13) Or there’s the one about the laborers in the vineyard, where the ones who come late in the day are paid just as much as the ones who have been there hard at work since daybreak.
There’s a whole lot of unfairness in Jesus’ parables, actually. In fact, when I was in seminary a bunch of creative, talented students put on a variety show they called Theologiggle, and one of the best skits was “Parable Court,” based on “The People’s Court,” where different parable characters were allowed to appear before a judge and finally have their say – “Come on, this is totally unfair! Listen for a minute to my side of the story.” They had ample biblical material to draw on.
But again, God’s ways are not our ways. And in stories like these ones, we see that God is far less interested in fairness than in compassion. “Grace ain’t fair,” as the saying goes. And remember, it’s only when we think we’re in the right that this galls us. When we’re offering up prayers of confession, God’s mercy in spite of our undeserving sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) So maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all, when we find God more interested in compassion than in justice?
The good news is the kingdom of God is God’s kingdom, not ours. The testimony of both Testaments, Old and New, is that there is simultaneously more justice and more mercy in it than we could ever design for ourselves. And – thank heaven – we don’t have to understand every facet of it to be told we belong.
But I really do think, if we ground ourselves in Scripture, we start to know it when we see it, this kingdom of God business. We start to get it, even if our modern-day parables only come in little snatches and glimpses. So that when I walked into the YMCA this past week for a workout, and saw on TV a multimillionaire who had the world’s rapt attention, and saw in the rest room a woman scrubbing the toilets, who didn’t particularly have anyone’s attention, I could imagine Jesus turning those sightings into a teachable moment: “As citizens of earth, I know your heads can be turned by money, and celebrity, and power… but in the kingdom of God, all of that is flipped upside down.”
Parables of God’s kingdom are worth seeking. It’s worth keeping our eyes and our hearts open so we’ll notice them when they come our way.
It’s also worth remembering that sometimes they sneak up on us when we least expect them.
Returning to Anna Carter Florence, her insight about living in “a parable universe” actually came at an awful time in her life, when a dear friend was battling brain cancer. She wasn’t doing research for her preaching class. She was just trying, brokenhearted, to help her sick friend, when these particular parables struck her:
"The kingdom of God, [she found,]… is like a group of nurses and orderlies who sing spirituals to the woman who is being transported back to her room in the middle of the night after brain surgery and then who stay by her bed until she falls back to sleep, quietly singing, “I give myself away… I give myself away so you can use me…” The next day, they come back to her room, and they teach her the song so she can sing it too, which she does.
The kingdom of God … is [also, she realized] like meeting a sassy young saleswoman at the wig shop in Toco Hills, who tenderly guides your friend to a private corner, opens up boxes, and helps her pick out her first wig for when her hair begins to fall out from the chemo and radiation – and you can’t believe it, because the wig’s name is ‘Center Stage’ by Raquel Welch – and when you have finished laughing, you see that this young woman has a ministry: to transform that shop into a holy ground of hope.
[And] the kingdom of God… is like a husband who organizes a quiet little ceremony three weeks after the surgery, so they can make a ritual of the moment when he puts the ring back on her finger after it was taken off in the hospital – the only time it has left her finger in 30 years. And so the friends gather, and a passel of clergy stand round, and the couple sits down on the couch and takes hands and looks into one another’s eyes saying, “I take you, yet again, to be my spouse, and I promise to love you and support you no matter what comes to you until death do us part,” and they smile, and the friends cry, and the dog barks, and then they all go to the kitchen for a simple feast of soup and bread and wine, because it is true: the kingdom of God has come near, and people who sat in the darkness of a diagnosis have seen a great light."(Journal for Preacher, Lent 2015, p. 3)
Yes, parable sightings can come to us in life’s worst moments as well as in its best ones. They can be found when we go looking for them, and they can sneak up on us when we’re totally unprepared. But the more we learn about the kingdom of God, the more we too may find ourselves searching it out like a treasure hidden in a field, or like a pearl of great price.
We who have been schooled in Scripture, who have learned from its pages who we are, whose we are, and whose kingdom this world really is… we tend to know them when we see them, these beautiful parables from God.
I look forward to hearing some of yours next week!