Parables are amazing. They can be as short as a sentence, or as long as a short story. The ones we have from the gospels are hundreds of years old, and yet they still fascinate us and frustrate us in equal measure.
Jesus’s parables are a tantalizing mix of familiar and strange, “old and new,” as he reminds us at the end of today’s gospel. Parables paradoxically are meant to help us understand by first puzzling the heck out of us. As a former middle and high school teacher, I admire the boldness of Jesus’s teaching style, and I also sympathize when his students complain that they don’t understand, as we heard in last week’s gospel. He even includes what we in the teaching profession call a “comprehension check” there at the end: “Have you understood all this?” Jesus asks. When they lie and say yes, he rewards them by ending with yet ANOTHER paradoxical statement for his disciples to wrestle with.
One of the biggest issues we face with hearing these parables now is that we live in a different context than that inhabited by Jesus and his disciples. Gardening is now an avocation, a hobby for most, rather than a necessity. The same holds true for baking or fishing. That’s why it’s important to remember that every act of reading, every act of learning, is an act of interpretation. Jesus’s use of parables reminds us that scripture cannot be studied in a literal manner, because the parables themselves are not meant to be taken literally but instead to open us up by shaking our preconceived notions up and turning them upside down.
One of my favorite Anglican theologians is Sallie McFague. She begins her book on parables with this statement: “The purpose of theology is to make it possible for the gospel to be heard in our time.”
Is to make it possible
For the gospel
To be heard
In OUR time.
And she says this as the first sentence of a book on parables. Thank God.
I think that is about as perfect a sentence as I have ever seen from a theologian, especially since theologians as a profession are often not inclined to try to make anything they say easy to hear or understand. Remember, the Apostle Paul was a theologian, as well as being a missionary and apostle, and his sentences aren’t exactly what I’d call “light reading.” So here we have another interesting juxtaposition: parables SEEM simple, but aren’t, and theology often LOOKS difficult, but it shouldn’t be. God is complex enough, without making explaining God impossibly dense. And here’s the rub—as Christians, we are all called to be theologians, to study and interpret God for the life of the world. Sorry, but that’s the truth. Our faith only has meaning if we turn it outward, for the good of others.
In the end, these parables and theology share the same purpose: to help us understand more about God. Elsewhere in her book, Sallie McFague points out that, as God Incarnate, Jesus is God’s own parable. Jesus seems to be a simple carpenter living in the middle of nowhere, and yet as our risen savior, he is alive with us today, and means far more than we can understand in our own lifetimes.
Jesus’s meaning is as infinite
and at the same time as intimate
as God’s love for us,
because Jesus IS God.
It’s a lot to take in, I know. It’s similar to how you feel when you see some amazing natural wonder or work of art: there is too much to take in all at once—it’s impossible. So either your eye darts here and there, or you focus on one tiny rectangle of the panorama to the exclusion of everything else. The enormity of the grace and mercy of God is similarly vast. It’s probably wise to try to break that huge truth down into little snapshots, or we’d get overwhelmed.
We get six little snapshots to puzzle over in this week’s gospel alone, and that’s after the Parable of the Sower two weeks ago, and the Parable of the Weeds in the Field last week. So what can we say about what these parables today have in common?
Well, if I was going to give these a common title, it might be this: “Little Things Mean a Lot.” We see tiny seeds become big plants, and little birds being given a home in that plant. We see little grains of yeast making a feast’s worth of bread. We see a tiny pearl being something valued far beyond its size. We see a small net thrown into the vast sea and delivering a bounty, both good and bad. Over and over, we are told, “The kingdom of heaven is like” one of these things. I’m going to concentrate on just one of these, the mustard seed, so we won’t be here all day.
So what is the kingdom of heaven, a phrase used particularly by the author of Matthew? The kingdom of heaven has to do with the reign of God, and in particular, with the transformation that we set out to work toward when we declare ourselves as members of what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls “the Jesus Movement.” Specifically, Jesus is talking about the response of the world to his teachings in these parables. The kingdom of heaven grows when the Word of God is welcomed, received, nurtured in the hearts of people just like you and me who do the incredible thing of committing to make way for God to rule our lives. Talk about counter-cultural, especially in this day and age of self-help, even sometimes self-worship.
Hearing the brief parable of the mustard seed, Jesus’s listeners had to be confused. A couple of mustard seeds could take over your garden. It grew like a weed, and if you’ve been listening for the last two weeks, weeds are not considered to be good things, whether in the time Jesus was teaching or now. A mustard seed is so small, a gardener could probably completely forget where she planted it (this happens to me all the time with bulbs, especially)—until the shrub begins to appear weeks later.
(Teaching is often like that, too. The lessons we present are not always the lessons received, and sometimes that plant won’t flourish until after the student has left the school altogether. Patience is required—and often, getting out of the way to give the plant room to grow in the student’s understanding.) But later, this seed produces enough to provide a home for dozens of birds. In addition, mustard was used as medicine from ancient times—it was believed to help with digestion and in fighting the common cold, among other things. Thus mustard plants, while perhaps not the prettiest thing to look at, nonetheless furnish good things in abundance.
The mustard seed also reminds us about grace. The birds find their refuge in the branches of this new tree, sprung up through God’s goodness, just as we find our refuge within the kingdom of heaven ourselves, as theologian Amy-Jill Levine reminds us in her book about the parables of Jesus. We do nothing to earn this—God’s love and care is there for us through no merit of our own, but simply as a result of God’s abundant grace and mercy. This free gift of grace and mercy, borne out of God’s love for us, is important to think about in a world in which we too often try to reduce everything to that which can be bought or sold.
God offers us refuge and a home because of love—nothing more, and nothing less. And so we are called do for others. God offers that refuge and home not for our sake, but for us to be strengthened to minister and witness to God’s love in the world. Abundantly.
Against every impulse of the world we live in, where we are taught to be afraid, to fear scarcity, to feel small, insignificant, and overwhelmed, until the doubt beats like the tattoo of our hearts racing through fear, or resentment, or pain. Actually, put that way, those are the same fears that confronted Jesus’s listeners.
In the face of those fears,
God calls them AND us
to come to be fully ourselves,
to fulfill the dream God has for us
to be fully alive,
through being conduits or channels
for God’s abundant love, grace, and comfort.
As Christians, we are called to have faith in little things, because from little things, great blessings grow.
So it has been with the gospel throughout time. How do we return to Sallie McFague’s challenge, to make it possible for the world to hear anew the gospel in light of the challenges of our own time? In Jesus’s lifetime, only a few dozen people, perhaps less, took in his message and stuck with it all the way through the crucifixion and beyond to the resurrection. Yet here we are. Called together as Christ’s body, the Church to translate and proclaim and embody God’s love for everyone.
The “church” as we know it did not exist in Jesus’s lifetime—not even close. The church as we knew it in our lifetime, won’t continue the same as it has been in our memory. That’s why the metaphor of the mustard pant is also enlightening to us. Living plants grow, and subside, season to season, year to year. With patience and care, they grow again, becoming something new.
The growth of plants --or the church-- can’t be rushed. This small bit of seed—Jesus’s radical, transforming message on how to live fully into our God-given humanity as children of God, was mostly ignored if not scorned when he was teaching it—and yet becomes a plant thousands of times its original size.
The Church—and that means US, not buildings or hierarchies, but you and me together as Christ’s very body in the world—at its best and by its true purpose--offers a home to the weary, the oppressed, the hurting, the seeking, as well as to the comfortable who search for meaning. It offers its branches to the world so that all may be strengthened and transformed through the hope that is Christ Jesus.
Just like the mustard plant, we are at our glory when we are a blessing for others, by our very nature as the Church, no matter what that looks like. Jesus teaches us how to grow and flourish just like that mustard plant—and if we are the good soil, we learn how to really live, and really love and be loved so that Christ’s gospel spreads its branches wide like a net. And by that love we are healed, individually, and as a community.
Preached July 29 at the 5:05 at St. Martin's-Ellisville, MO and July 30 at Grace- Louisiana, MO.