Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Parable about Parables

Well, it’s a good thing I wrote about the wrong gospel lesson on Monday rather than preaching about it on Sunday. Yesterday’s post was linked to next Sunday’s gospel. All day yesterday, I was dreaming about what sermon I might write about the weeds and the wheat growing up together. I had a great image in mind and was half way to a full sermon. Then, this morning, I opened the right Sunday’s lesson and realized I have to start all over. (At least it’s not Friday.)

This Sunday’s actual gospel lesson (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23) is a parable about parables. The passage begins with Jesus setting out a ways from shore in a boat so that he might teach a large crowd. Then, Matthew tells us, “he told them many things in parables.” What follows is one of the most well-known examples—the parable of sower. The sower casts seed on four different landscapes: the path, rocky soil, thorns, and good soil. Each comes with a different result: birds snatch the seed away, plants grow up quickly but wither in the heat, thorns choke out the young plants, and the seeds bear a fruitful harvest.

The lectionary then skips over some important verses, jumping to the explanation of the parable of the sower. The lazy preach might rejoice that Jesus himself has given the explanation we seek: the path represents those who don’t understand the word, and the rocky ground represents those who receive it joyfully but have no root and so fall away, etc.. But the key to the parable isn’t regurgitating the explanation. It’s realizing that there is a purpose to parables and that the parable of the sower AND the accompanying explanation point to a deeper theological purpose: salvation is hidden from many.

Here are the missing verses:

[10] Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” [11] And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. [12] For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. [13] This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. [14] Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
 “‘“You will indeed hear but never understand,
            and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
[15] For this people's heart has grown dull,
            and with their ears they can barely hear,
            and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
            and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
            and turn, and I would heal them.’
 [16] But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. [17] For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Matthew 13:10-17 ESV)
Although I haven’t figured out whether I’ll lengthen the gospel lesson this week and add the intervening eight verses, I know that I’ll preach with them in mind, and I urge others to do the same. These are the tough verses. They are the ones where the hard, illuminating truth is to be found.

I’ve heard lots of people explain parables by saying that they were a teaching device designed to get people to remember the truth they contain. But these verses—Jesus’ own explanation of why he taught in parables—seems to suggest the opposite. Jesus taught in parables so that many would not understand the truth at all. It’s a “theology of obfuscation”—a phrase I like to use to suggest that God is intentionally covering the eyes and stopping the ears of his people. I confess that that itself doesn’t make sense, but it’s not supposed to. Why would God make the truth hard for his people to understand? Why would he hide salvation from us? Because we don’t want to hear the truth, and we aren’t looking for salvation.

Imagine going to a concert expecting to hear James Taylor but discovering that you’re in the second row of a Megadeth show. Imagine buying tickets to hear Sarah Palin speak but discovering that Jesse Jackson has taken her place. Imagine getting on a plane destined for Tahiti but alighting in Yakutsk. That’s what it was like listening to Jesus. That’s what it was like hearing his message about the kingdom.

Most of the world had such a completely different expectation of what God’s kingdom would look like that his teachings needed to be delivered in parables so that only a few would know what he was talking about. If he had spoken plainly, he would have been written off as crazy. Only by disguising his message by confusing his audience could anyone accept that he was sane. The truth was too radical to be delivered without adulteration. It was too strong to be received without dilution.

The parable of the sower is a parable about parables. How will the word be received? Most of it falls where it shouldn’t. Some of it lands where it should. Over the weeks that follow, don’t forget that there’s a reason Jesus speaks in parables. It isn’t because he’s being cute. It’s because he is stretching past the breaking point. Parables are the only thing that makes it possible for us to hear his message without snapping in half.

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