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`“He began to teach them many things in parables.” The parables of Christ. These are what we are going to be looking at over the coming weeks. Scenes from everyday life which Jesus used to illustrate something else. To place alongside something else, as this is what parable originally meant. Not simply moral tales. Not stories for which we need to figure out the one meaning. Multivalent illustrations that spoke to the people of Jesus’ day. Illustrations that have spoken to followers of Christ in many and diverse ways through the centuries.
Stories that point to something else. Stories that point to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of Heaven as Matthew puts it. Stories that are meant to cut us to the heart. Arrows of God, as one writer puts it. Stories from everyday life. Stories that cause us to see the world in a different way. Stories, the meaning of which is hard to pin down. Stories that are meant to reveal some of what is at heart a mystery. One writer puts it like this – “We need parables because of two equally deep mysteries: the mystery of God and the mystery of human life.” Stories that are meant to fire our imagination. In this way, they’re a lot like poetry. As one writer puts it – “The parables of Jesus are fictional stories. They are what Aristotle would have called ‘poetry,’ for which he claimed a higher seriousness than ‘history,’ since the historic is limited to what has happened, but the poetic is free to explore what might happen…”
Let’s pray to God to speak to us about what might happen as we listen to God’s voice in parables. Let us pray.
Unlike a fable, whose point we can understand without really needing much of a context, Jesus’ parables were spoken in a specific time to a specific people. When we get to the 13th chapter of Matthew, the Gospel writer has described the Sermon on the Mount. We have heard how Jesus had been going around Galilee healing and forgiving, announcing the Kingdom of Heaven in what he’s saying, what he’s doing. We have heard about how many have rejected him.
This is the issue at hand. There is a lot of unresponsiveness going on. Jesus’ followers may have well wondered what kind of Kingdom this was exactly as they looked around. They were a motley crew which included the poor. The dispossessed. The occupied. The labourer. As Paul would put it in his letter to the church in Corinth – “…not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.”
The question was – What kind of Kingdom is this? The question for those who would come after was – What kind of Kingdom is this? The question for us today is – What kind of Kingdom is this?
What is going on here exactly? We’re a few people gathered amongst tens of thousands who are living within a few square kilometres. We live in a culture that is at worst hostile and at best politely indifferent to this Kingdom we’re talking about.
And we like bigness don’t we? It was the same thing in Jesus’ time of course. They liked bigness, they liked spectacle. “Do something big” was what the tempter told Jesus. Then everyone will believe you. We like big crowds. People like to talk about how their crowd was bigger than any other crowd in recorded history. Political candidates pay people to pose as supporters so that it looks like they are a happening thing. We could emulate this model for church growth, couldn’t we? I’ll give you $50 to come and attend a church service. Because we like numbers. We hear about a place that has x amount of people or x amount of people in the youth group and our first reaction is “Something good must be happening there.” Right? Because numbers tell the tale. Because we live in the age that covets growth.
We have a book at the back of the church that we’ve had for years and thank you to the faithful people who fill it out each week with a report on the weather and the number of people who were here. You know what? I look at that book every week to see the number.
It’s good to know the number. We’re not told to seek numbers, however. We’re told to seek something else first.
It can be really hard. It can be hard when there is such a stark dichotomy between what we are promised and what we see. Helmut Thielecke was a German theologian and pastor of the 20th century. His book on parables is called The Waiting Father has informed a lot of my thinking of them. Educated in the best German theological tradition, he writes of his beginnings as a pastor like this – “When I became a pastor and conducted my first Bible-study hour I went into it with the determination to trust in Jesus’ saying: ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.’ I said these words in order to assure myself that even Hitler, who was then in the saddle, and his dreadful power machine were merely puppets hanging by strings in the hands of this mighty Lord. And in this Bible-study hour, I was faced with two very old ladies and a still older organist. He was a very worthy man, but his fingers were palsied and this was embarrassingly apparent in his playing. So this was the extent of the accomplishment of this Lord, to whom all power in heaven and earth had been given, supposedly given. And outside marched the battalions of youth who were subject to altogether different lords.”
What do we do when things are not working out the way we expected? We turn to the promises. We ask the question what exactly is this Kingdom supposed to be like?
And so he put before them another parable. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field. Now Jesus could have used any one of a number of plants here. If we wanted something stately he could have used the cedars of Lebanon – THE tree of the time and place. It would have been something close to saying the kingdom of heaven is like an acorn that grows into a mighty oak.
The mustard seed of Jesus’ day turned into a shrub. In Mark’s telling of the parable, he leaves it as a shrub. A plant of not much account. It’s the word people used to call George W. Bush by when they wanted to deride him. Shrub. Matthew bigs up the plant somewhat by saying it’s the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree. It’s not much of a tree though. Eight feet or so at its largest. A wild shrub. Not one you would grow in a garden as they were known for taking over.
There’s no talk about taking over here though. There’s an element to this parable, I believe, which speaks to the growth of Christ’s church beyond Judaism, beyond its beginnings. I don’t think there’s a lot of triumphalism here though as in “This thing is going to take over the world like a mighty tree.” It’s an unusual plant for Jesus to choose. It was considered unclean – not kosher – and so this story is taking us beyond the realm of what was thought possible. Who would speak of such a thing, this shrub that grows from a mustard seed? From whom could such growth, such transformation take place?
It can only come from the one who’s telling the parable…
We can lament our lack of sway in the public sphere. The political sphere. We can lament that the days are gone in which going to church on a Sunday was the thing to do (though was that ever really what this was all about – going to church because it was the accepted or done thing?) or the days that the church was the tallest building in town (and again I ask is that what it was really all about?). Change in the kingdom is from God. Salvation happens through the insignificant. Deliverance comes from a carpenter’s son from a village in a Roman Empire backwater. One writer puts it like this – “How are we to understand this deliberate use by Jesus of the unclean and insignificant as images of the kingdom? It suggests that God’s greatest works are not done on a grandiose level. Not in cathedrals, big buildings, or large mausoleums. Cathedrals can become museums rather than sources of inspiration for the Christian community. The kingdom is in everyday life with its ups and downs, and above all, in its insignificance. Such is where most people live their lives.”
Of course, I would change this somewhat, modify it to “seeming insignificance.” Things of the kingdom, no matter where they are found, are surely the most significant things in the world. The next parable tells of a woman baking bread. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast. It changes everything. When it does, people are fed. When the mustard seed comes to maturity as a shrub, the birds of the air find a nesting place in its branches. It’s still “just” a shrub. It was never about having the tallest building in town, though if that happened ok. I should say it was never about seeking to have the tallest building in town, or the most members, or the most programs, or the most…..whatever it is we want the most of because if you have the most you must be best.
It was about seeking the kingdom first. To what result? So that rest might be found in its branches. Psalm 104:12 goes like this “By the streams, the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches.” The kingdom of heaven is this image coming to fruition. Parable and poetry tell us what might be. Parables reveal things in the everyday. At the same time, we see truths in our every day – truths of the kingdom are revealed in our everyday. So that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who sat with a young refugee mother from Syria.
The kingdom of heaven is like a man sitting with a homeless teen in a coffee shop.
The kingdom of heaven is like a woman who stopped on her way to work to mourn with her recently widowed neighbour and cry on the sidewalk with her.
So that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
We’re talking about life. Life that is really life. The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds. It turns into something else. The Kingdom of heaven is something we’re called to stake our whole lives on. This was Jesus’ invitation when he called out “Follow me.” This is our invitation. What does it mean to stake our whole lives on this thing that’s like a seed?
It means at least partly – nurture the seed. It is indeed God that brings growth. It is God who brings change. This change is, to begin with, each and every one of us. As Jesus himself put it, the Kingdom of God is within you. This seed. This yeast. The Kingdom of heaven is like a woman baking bread – finding God in the everyday. The Kingdom of heaven is like leaven which changed the whole loaf.
Let ourselves be changed in other words. Being in conversation with God daily – beginning our days with thanks and praise. Talking to God. Letting God speak to us through his word, because this thing is not just for once a week or once a month or twice a year. Daily. Simply. Letting the seed that is the Kingdom grow in us. Letting our entire lives be leavened by this Kingdom that is founded on self-giving love. Thielecke put it like this – “…this real and simple thing consists in our doing nothing whatsoever except to let the Word of the Lord germinate, grown and flourish within us. Or to put it the other way around, simply that we grow into ever-deeper fellowship with Christ.”
So that people might find rest with us. So that people may be fed. To die to our own desire for spectacle, for bigness. This is the thing about seeds of course. Paul told it to the Corinthians – “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” Jesus’ invitation is to die to ourselves – die to the myth of self-sufficiency, self-autonomy. There is no way to make this message cool or attractional outside of this great truth – that in dying to ourselves we find life.
What comes to life is something new – a shrub. A loaf of bread. The bread of Life.
Because in the end, we must remember who’s telling this parable. The one who would die and return from the dead transformed into something imperishable. Our living Christ. The one whom we follow. The one in whom we have found life. The one who dares us to dream of what might be, and enables these dreams to take root. May these truths become ever more deeply implanted within us.