September 13, 2017 / HOOKED: PARABLES / Sara Wolbrecht / Matthew 13:1-3, 10-17 (The Message)
You should have received a little something when you came in today. Please hold on to it, fidget with it, as we go though this time.
This summer we have heard a few of Jesus’ parables. Parables are stories. Jesus used them a lot. I wonder, what you think: when you consider the things Jesus said, how much of it would you guess was in parables? (Multiple choice) How much of what Jesus said was parables? 1/10, 1/8, ¼, 1/3, ½? Almost one third of Jesus’ teaching is in parables. That’s a lot. What types of things does Jesus talk about in parables? Seeds. Weeds. Father and son. Workers in a field. Pearls and treasure. Sheep. Feasts and parties.
I wonder if you, like me, have ever asked the question – why? Why does Jesus use parables? Our summer journey through Love Story, naming the importance of story has definitely unpacked some of that, the impact story has. That parables have. And we’re used to Jesus’ parables now to a certain degree – so it just seems normal, and of course that’s what Jesus does.
As we finish our summer series today on Love Story, on loving story, we’ll finish with a bit for us to grab hold of, to know and live with in why Jesus used parables, how he used them, and why it all matters for us today. And this will set us up to launch our next series for the fall, next week. Excited?
Thankfully, Jesus’ disciples asked him this very question – why parables? – and so we’ll go right to that place and see what Jesus has to say about it. Ok?
Here’s the scene: Jesus is on the Sea of Galilee. On the beach. Such a large crowd gathers that he goes out on a boat and addresses the large crowd that has gathered on the shore of a small inlet. That place in our modern day is known as “The Cove of the Sower” (pic) for here is where Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower (yes, lots of seeds). You can kind of tell from the photo, that it is a natural amphitheater. From a boat, even today, if someone were to speak the sound carries so easily that you can hear them hundreds of yards away, up the embankment. A study of the acoustics of that inlet was done in 1976, and it indicated that the Cove of the Sower would allow between 5000 and 7000 people to hear. I think Jesus knew what he was doing when he positioned himself to speak to the crowds that day. We’ll read the parable of the sower now – enjoy it, but don’t let it distract you – what we’re really looking at today is what comes before and after the parable itself. Lots of verses for us to hear, hang on for the ride, dial in, visualize, listen and notice what jumps out at you…
Matthew 13:1-17 The Message
1-3 At about that same time Jesus left the house and sat on the beach. In no time at all a crowd gathered along the shoreline, forcing him to get into a boat. Using the boat as a pulpit, he addressed his congregation, telling stories.
3-8 “What do you make of this? A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn’t put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.
9 “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”
10 The disciples came up and asked, “Why do you tell stories?”
11-15 He replied, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:
Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.
16-17 “But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear! A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but never had the chance.
If we have had any experience with Jesus’ parables, we often have been taught to boil them down to simple, moralistic ideals. And we miss that there are always mind-blowing awesome things going on in them, making connections back to the promises and prophecies of the Old Testament, and jumping forward, connecting to our lives today, also layers of metaphor and winking and nudging and making inside jokes – all happening within the text. Which is not what you might think of when it comes to Jesus’ teachings – but he actually has a great sense of humor, and there’sa lot going on.
What we’re going to do is zoom out to 30,000 feet, to see a few of the layers going on around and underneath what Jesus says here. So I want to invite you to engage your brain, limber up, and to intentionally focus in for the next 10 minutes to really digest this (I hope you are sufficiently caffeinated). Stretch out and hold on to your horses, as we ask God to speak to us and lead as we reflect on this together…
Let’s begin by letting the disciples’ question here become our question again that be began with. Jesus,… Why do you tell stories? They ask. Why did Jesus choose to speak to the crowds in parables? This is a great question to ask. The disciples know – and we may not know this – that parables are tricky. They are stories, explanatory stories that lay one thing next to another in order to explain. They appear to be simple and simplistic. Yet after hearing them, people were left wondering. People were made to think it over, figure it out, let it percolate; parables are not straight-forward and clear stories. (Even though we often think they are – and traditional Christian teaching often capture them that way). But the parable re actually tricky. The disciples ask this question because they are wondering: why do you make it so tricky? (so are we!) Why, why would Jesus use a complicated method, and not just tell it straight to the thousands of people gathered on the shore? A few bullet points would be nice, yes? Captive audience! Let it rip!
Here’s part of why and how Jesus used the parables. Jesus used parables BECAUSE they were tricky. Not because he wanted to trick people, but because, in their complexity, they allow for nuance and Jesus could say a LOT through very little. Why? For nuance, to say a lot through very a little. That’s WHY.
And then the question of HOW Jesus used these tricky stories? (Add to screen) How? Jesus used the parables like a hook, a story thrown out to see if someone will take a bite. Which is a beautiful thing to recognize, because we see the grace in the way Jesus came at people – there was invitation, and yet always the listener could decide if and how they would respond.
On his hook, Jesus used a kind of bait that we might not recognize. And the bait, the juicy, delicious piece de resistance, that Jesus embedded into the layers of the parables is all about the Kingdom of God. Jesus hints, using the parables that he is the guy, the one ushering in the arrival of God’s Kingdom coming here on earth. Stay with me now.
Now if you’re a Jew standing on the shore that day, to hear that message (that through the layers of this story you’re picking up some nuance that this guy be a big deal). That is a hook, that if you heard it, you would want to grab hold of it. Why is that?
Big picture: Israel, God’s people, including the folks in the crowds who gathered, had longed for the day when their God, YHWH, would reign and bring his saving rule to bear on the whole world. We read it in prophecies throughout Scripture. They spoke of the restoration of all things, the healing and forgiveness of all the world. The reinstatement of the good, perfect world that God had originally created, but had been lost. And this was a practical, urgent reality for Israel, who had been dominated by the successive rule of oppressive powers for centuries. Most recently occupied by the Romans. They knew when God finally became king in the way he intended this would involve rescuing Israel from its enemies. They longed for and awaited that day: the kingdom of God.
The “Kingdom of God” we also call “heaven”, “Kingdom of heaven”, the Kingdom = all the same. We’ve talked about this before at Salt House, how heaven is not just the place far away that we evacuate to after we die. That heaven is one realm, and earth is another. The Christian story has been representing this for hundreds of years. Incorrectly. Instead, Israel knew that God reigned in heaven now, in his realm, while God’s people are here on earth, in this realm. Yet those realms were not separate, heaven and earth are interconnected. And they hoped for the day when heaven and earth would become one place, when God’s kingdom would come here on earth. On earth as in heaven. A familiar phrase, right? This is what we pray to happen when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. (And I know for some of us this is a different picture than what Christianity often paints, but it is actually what is in the Bible).
So Jesus used the parables as a particular way to teach about the kingdom of God. Describing God’s dream for the world. Describing the way it will be one day. We read the parables and often miss that the central message is about God’s kingdom.
This moment, then in the Cove of the Sower, the crowd gathered that day on the shore, as crowds always gathered wherever Jesus went, because they suspected that Jesus might be the one sent to bring God’s kingdom and the rescue they longed for. They had already heard (true) rumors of how he healed everybody he laid hands on, he forgave sins and cast out demons – could he be the one? Is this it?
So why doesn’t Jesus go – ta da! I’m the guy! This is it! Jesus knew that on that shore, even though they were a people who longed for rescue, there were all kinds of people, whose faith and readiness to receive what he said were all over the map. Like any crowd – great diversity. To this crowd, Jesus throws out a hook, a parable that speaks of God’s kingdom. It wasn’t a new thing, parables and stories and visions had been used for centuries as tools for teaching. But there was something new in what he said and how he said it. In that parable, and in all of Jesus’ kingdom parables, there is something unexpected. Jesus was trying to get through to them that indeed what they have longed for was happening at last, but the surprise is that it doesn’t look anything like they thought it would.
Because it wasn’t a rescue like they thought. If we had to guess what it would look like for God to show up on earth – Explosions, fireworks, lightning bolts. The kingdom of God!! Similarly, Israel thought God’s kingdom coming would mean a battle fought, an actual war, and Israel would win. That God’s kingdom would come in one swoop, all at once.
But Jesus does not call them to battle. He says in the parables – it’s different than what you expected. The Kingdom God is like a farmer throwing seeds, a greta banquet, a huge party where everyone is invited, like a Father who says to his son when his other son returns from squandering his money: you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It’s not what they thought – that’s why Jesus used parables – their complexity, the trickiness, it allowed for Jesus to deliver the message in a way that left it up to the hearer to respond. Will they take the hook? Would they wonder about it and think it through? Would they actually stick around long enough to go to Jesus and hear his explanation? Jesus used parables knowing there would be folks who would not be able or ready to swallow his message. Folks in the crowd that would not recognize this as God’s kingdom. They would not yet grab hold of the hook, they’d hear what Jesus said, and walk away. Back to life as usual.
Ironically, the disciples ask, “why do you tell stories?” when he has just told a story that on one level describes this – that not all soil is ready right now to receive a seed, the hook. That’s why stories work. Isn’t that funny?
Jesus captures that dynamic of diversity in our text. Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah here, naming how he uses stories, because it gives people a chance to take the hook if they want, but if they’re not ready, that’s ok.
Other versions of this text use the words “Hard-hearted” and “calloused.” Jesus is describing how when a callous builds up you lose sensitivity to feel and notice things. Jesus is describing that there are people who have lost the sensitivity to recognize what God is doing now. Many seeds will fall on the path, on rocky ground, and among thorns. And this text sounds so harsh at first, but it’s important to remember that for Jesus, everyone is always invited, that no one is too far gone – we see that throughout his radically inclusive ministry, yes? So it’s not a judgmental, final word about certain folks, but a sensitivity to what we know to be true: some folks aren’t in the space to tune into God, to grab hold of that hook – for now.
Jesus also makes it clear that there are those who are ready to grab hold of that hook. How does Jesus distinguish them from those who are calloused? Jesus says: v. 11 “…You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them...” Matthew 13: 11
Duh-duh-duh. What does Jesus mean by that? Personally, at first read it makes me bristle a bit because it sounds like some people have been given something awesome, and others have been left out. That’s not the case. What “insight” is Jesus talking about?
Again, this connects with the soil Jesus describes in his parable. Some soil is ready. The knowledge has to do with the openness the disciples have. Jesus is in essence saying to his disciples: You get it. You are open to the unexpected way the kingdom is happening. That’s the knowledge you need. Be surprised. The “insight into God’s kingdom” speaks to how the kingdom is showing up, not in one fell swoop. That’s the secret. That in Jesus, the kingdom has come in part, slowly leaking into our world and it will come fully later. It’s arriving. Knowing that, opens the disciples up to see what God is doing right there in front of them. “Oh, we didn’t think it was going to be like that, but ok!” They are open to look for the unexpected ways in which God is doing stuff in the world, and how Jesus will invite them to participate in it. They have been given the insight they need. So Jesus tells them: you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear!
Are you still with me. Good. Here is why all of this matters. You are holding a hook today – you got it when you walked in. It’s an “S” hook, because I didn’t think you needed to hold an actual fish hook – you’re welcome. Stories continue to come at us, all the time, with hooks. Thrown out to us by the person across the table in the stories we hear over coffee or on a date or here at brunch. Hooks in the stories we experience in the movies we watch and the novels we can’t put down and the return of the show “This is Us” in just 13 more days, and the news stories we read and hear – like the stories of fires and hurricanes. There are hooks for us – and yes, they are there still now in the parables we read from Jesus, even close to 2000 years after they were spoken. Stories surround us, often filled with hooks. They are hooks that God uses as opportunities that if we are open to it, can lead us into the mystery and reality of the Kingdom of God here and now.
Jesus came to teach us to love story – and as we move into the fall, we’re grabbing hold of these hooks, remembering that stories are one of the places and ways in which we grab hold of the holy and mysterious movement of God in us and our world. Beginning next week, we’re pivoting into the fall as a chance to pay attention to other hooks God throws at us. We’ll practice how to recognize those hooks, we’ll practice together how to move toward them once we see them. Do you long to be more open to receive what God is doing in you, around you? Do you hope to have better capacity for hearing God? Me. Too! Jesus asks in this parable we read: are you listening? Really listening? And I want my answer to be YES. But man, that’s hard.
That’s where we’re headed this fall. And we start with these S hooks. They are simply, for now, something for you to take with you. Because you see, the “not seeing” the “not hearing” of the folks Jesus describes, that could be me, depending on the day. Right? It is all of us depending on the particular moment and how open and receptive we are. So these S hooks are simply a small reminder of the invitation. Into openness. To be open. Keep in your pocket, or the beverage holder in your car or that front zipper in your purse where all the things go that you want to keep handy. Or hang it on the lamp by your bed. As a small reminder to listen for hooks, a reminder that God is with you, inviting you to be open about the Kingdom of God, what God is up to now. And the S shape? A nice little reminder that God meets us in ssssstories, yes? S for story.
Let’s close by checking in with ourselves, here and now. I invite you to close your eyes and become aware of your breath. …Imagine that we’re joining that crowd on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that day. It gets crowded, so Jesus gets in a boat. And as we come to that shore, we become aware of how we are like the crowds that gathered to hear Jesus. We come with our own hopes and longings, the things we’re longing to see resolved – resolution in the fires that burn and Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that have wreaked devastation. Resolution for our brothers and sisters who are DACA dreamers. We like that crowd are people who want to see the defeat of our enemies – our enemies like depression, loneliness, addiction, abuse, unemployment, anxiety, broken relationships, grief, lost dreams, cancer. Like the crowd, there are ways in which – when we stop and check in with ourselves – we are weary and we want to see the kingdom of God come in our lives. We let ourselves become aware of all that we carry today – so often we don’t pay attention to it. I know I don’t.
And with gratitude, in this moment, we thank God for the hooks. The stories that meet us and bring insight, encouragement, healing, connection, hope.
And in all of it, we choose, as best we can, by the grace of God and with the mystery and power of God’s Spirit in us, we say yes to opening ourselves up in this moment, to be like that good soil, to let our own callouses become softened, as we open to the sensitivity of what God is doing in our places of pain, and places of joy.
God, may we be people who listen, really listen. And when we don’t, to know that it’s ok. And that the hooks keep coming. As does the grace, the hope, the salt and light we need for today. And for that we say, thank you, thank you, thank you. Amen.