Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Nonsense Parables


Sometimes parables make plain sense, and sometimes parables only make sense because we've spent 2000 years convincing ourselves that we know what we're talking about. On Sunday, Jesus will offer five different images for the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52), and, after he's finished, he will ask, "Have you understood all of this?" And the disciples (or maybe the crowd, it's hard to tell) will reply, "Yes." But I'm not so sure.

When you describe heaven to a five-year-old, how do you describe it? Often, I use paradisiacal images, emphasizing the grandeur, the beauty, the peace, the joy, the perfection, the completeness. It's a banquet where all the good food never runs out. It's an experience in which every minute of every day is spent doing the thing that makes you truly happy. It's a place where everyone loves each other completely. But does that sound anything like Jesus' image?

People who supposedly die and have a vision of heaven never come back and tell us that heaven was like a mustard seed or a measure of yeast. It may be a treasure, but it's not hidden in a field. Surely in heaven all the fish are keepers and nothing needs to be thrown back. Yet that's how Jesus tells us to imagine the kingdom.

We understand that the kingdom starts small and then grows bigger than we could imagine--like a mustard seed or a measure of yeast. But mustard plants weren't really that desirable, and yeast often represents everything God doesn't want to happen. Is Jesus mixing his metaphors here? A treasure gets closer to our expectations, but why is it hidden in a field? Why does someone find it and somewhat surreptitiously sell all of his property in order to buy the field so that he can have the treasure for himself? Or that pearl of great value that causes the merchant, whose job it is to be a dealer of pearls, to give up his trade so that he can hoard his precious possession? Do we like hearing that the kingdom of heaven causes us to give up all that we have--even our identity--so that we might possess it? How is the kingdom like a net full of all kinds of fish--some that can be eaten and some that must be thrown back? Like the parable of the weeds of the field, must we really wait until the end of the age before God sorts everything out?

I love parable season. It's fun to read and study and preach and listen to sermons based on parables. But I don't love them because they're straightforward. I love them because I'm still wrestling with them. When Jesus asks, "Do you understand all of this?" We should say, "Not hardly, but we're working on it." This is the kind of work that takes more than a lifetime.

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