A man had two sons. A sower went out to sow. A man was preparing a banquet.
Someone had the nerve to ask Jesus a question and now everyone is subjected to this mystical, middle-eastern Rabbi ramble on about wheat and weeds. We call these tales parables, meaning a short story that draws from local customs to say something about who we are, what’s really important, and how we might make sense of the world. The Greek word here is paraballein, which means to throw alongside. In other words, Jesus meets his listeners contextually by throwing down wisdom about God and God’s kingdom alongside dining tables and banquets. Turns out that the kingdom of heaven can be found in the most ordinary, mundane tasks of life if we only develop eyes to see.
We should pay attention to the way that Jesus teaches because it’s intentional. Pharisees, lawyers, tax collectors—whoever—come to Jesus and ask a concrete question like, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” These absconders from the truth are looking for justification regarding what they already know and the ways they imagine the world. Jesus doesn’t tell them to memorize five propositions in the Torah and read over a catechism of the faith. He says instead, let me tell you a story.
Socrates believed that the teacher is like a midwife who helps the student give birth to the truth that resides within. Jesus, on the other hand, tells a story and confronts his disciples with something that they could never discover for themselves. He tears down their world and then constructs a new one by talking about leaven or mustard seeds or a journey from Jerusalem to Jericho. Barbara Brown Taylor says that a parable functions ‘more like a dream or a poem,’ changing the will instead of the mind. Too often, his listeners walk away confused, angry, and short-changed. They came seeking truth, but instead the truth confronted them.
There is, after all, a difference between possessing the truth and encountering it. Most of us prefer the former, discovering only the truth that fits into our comfortable constructs and world views. Facebook, for instance, knows this and they have an algorithm that gives us only what we want. Whether a statement is true or not doesn’t seem to matter as long as it insulates preconceived ideas or subdues another into our imagination of the world. It's the weaponization of 'facts.'
Though seeing, we do not see; though hearing, we do not hear or understand.
I had a professor who had been formed by Jesus’ teaching style—the kind that reminds you that what you know doesn’t really matter. This was prophetic in a place like Duke University where bullies wear tweed jackets and it's a badge of honor to name drop the most obscure theologian. He was teaching us the Gospel of Luke, but the problem was that he refused to answer our questions about this second century Messiah who was making unrealistic demands on our lives. A student asked something like whether Jesus really meant it when he said we should sell our stuff and give the money to the poor—surely, this was hyperbolic like when he told us to ‘turn the other cheek.’ This professor shrugged his shoulders, or like a gadfly, asked a more difficult question--maybe, he told a story. What if Jesus really meant what he said? It wasn’t much longer until I started taking medication for stress induced heartburn.
It took a full semester for me to realize I hadn’t wasted a few thousand dollars. Theology and God-talk isn’t only about the acquisition of the material, though it can be important; the formation of a Christian disciple is more crucial. If you’re striving to become the master of the narrative, then you’ve got it all backward. The narrative exists to point to the God who wants to shape you. The question that really mattered at the end of the semester was this: were we looking at the world through Luke’s eyes? If we were, then we had encountered Jesus and our professor had done his job.
Maybe this is why Jesus told parables, at a least a third of the time. It pulled his listeners from the ivory towers of the mind with the smell of freshly baked bread into what Karl Barth names, “the strange new world of the Bible.”
Here’s what we can learn from Jesus about teaching: it’s wholistic—less about the information and more about the formation of a person. Jesus pushes against the logic of domination that insists we can master God and God’s word by squeezing it into our pre-formed mental or philosophical or political constructs. If one can intellectually master God, then you can hold all of life at a distance instead of inviting the mystery and difficulty—the defining commitment to God and others into your life. Instead, it’s Jesus, who through life and parable, disrupts and upends all of our narcissistic ways of being in the world. We’d do well to remember that the drive to know in order to control is written down as the first sin.
When we engage the text as a mirror instead of a handbook, we are invited into a narrative that conjures up confusion, self-examination, greater self-awareness, and perhaps existential grappling. These stories give us the eyes to see ourselves, our world, more clearly—warts, scars, and all. It hurts, but it’s the pain that wakes us up from of a fixed world where God's kingdom is too commonsensical.
I’m struck by the amount of preaching today seeks to explain God away—how hard we work to defend people from questions and mystery or the foolishness of Christ crucified. A sermon easily slips into a thirty minute lecture about why God is rational and palatable in a pluralistic and post-modern world. There’s even an accompanying bulletin insert with three easy, fill-in the blank take-aways. It’s easy to swallow and a shield against the piercing blade of the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. We should wrestle with hard questions and give our best answers, but if we leave the sanctuary feeling really confident with this God thing, then we’ve just traded places with God.
The problem is that we can know the information, but still not change the ways we’re living. I’ve yet to change my life because I could describe the hypostatic union in Christ or perichoresis, though it might make me feel like I have a better hold on God. So how do we come to know the transcendent God who is beyond our words and intellect? Sometimes we tell a story. A story helps us release God out of our brains, if only for a minute, and let the Spirit seep into our hearts and through our bones. Parables won’t necessarily make you smarter, a great theologian, or the best at ‘sword drills.’ But they might make you a follower of Christ.
Take this question for example: how should one describe a God who is profligate in grace and extravagant in pursuit of us? Here's a story:
“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
And this is as beautiful, or mysterious and challenging, as anything else Jesus has ever said.
He who has ears, let him hear.
So how do we as preachers pull people into a different reality? What would happen if folks show up for worship not with pens and notebooks prepped for a lecture, but also with the fear that they might see and be seen?