The Mystery of Jesus’ Parables

Jesus spoke in stories that we often call parables.  In Mathew 13 he begins with a well-known parable, the parable of the sower.  I don’t want to talk about that today.  What I want to focus on, is what happens after.  In verse 10,

10The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
11He replied, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. 13This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand

There’s an interesting thing going on here.   The original question was “Why do you speak in parables?”  But it’s almost as though Jesus knew that wasn’t the real question that they wanted to ask.  Jesus answers the question they ask.  But  Jesus goes on, as he so often does, to answer the real question: What does the parable mean?”

And Jesus goes on to explain what the parable means:

18“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away. 22The one who received the seed that fell among the thorns is the man who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke it, making it unfruitful. 23But the one who received the seed that fell on good soil is the man who hears the word and understands it. He produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

It might be tempting, at this point, to say “This seems to disprove your whole your point.  How is it that Jesus isn’t ‘beating the story with a hose to find out what it means?”  Let’s take a look at verse 24…

24Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, I can distill out some of what I want you to get out of that story.  But there’s some stuff that goes unsaid.  There some wisdom left over.  I know that principles and isolated facts are easy.  I’ll give you a few of those.  But there will be something valuable left behind, if you disregard story.   This idea is reinforced by what comes next.  After the parable of the weeds comes two more parables: the parable the yeast and the parable of the weeds.

After the parable of weeds, we might see that there’s a little progress.  Jesus disciples ask him to explain this parable directly.  Atleast they are asking what they really want to know now.  And then,  It happens again: Jesus begins with an explanation, but then he goes into three more parables to  explain it all.

Follow the pattern:

Jesus explains one parable.  But its as though his explanation requires another three parables to do it.  And then, when he explains one of those parables, he again, takes another three stories to explain that.

One could assume that this pattern continues indefinitely:  to fully explain each one is just going to require two more.  A couple chapters later comes Jesus’ next parable.

13He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14Leave them; they are blind guides.[e] If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”
15Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16“Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’ ”

It’s interesting that Jesus says that, “Are you still so dull?”  I don’t think he’s calling them dull because they didn’t understand that particular parable.  I’d suggest that this is parable is atleast as complicated as the others.  I think it’s not that they want one specific parable explained.  It’s a wider issue than that: it’s that they are still wanting Jesus to chew up his stories and then regurgitate them back like a mama bird with her babies.

In a sick and sad way, I find all this reassuring.  There’s lots of things that we can claim are uniquely modern problems.  But this doesn’t seem to be one of them.  At least as far back as Jesus, people wanted things easy.  They wanted things cut and dried.  They wanted an orthodox understanding of the stories.  Because once you’ve got this list, you’ve got a cheap, easy list of who counted as one of “us” and who counted as one of “them.”

There are dozens of ways that Jesus turns the notion of who is one of “us” and who is one of “them” on it’s ear.   The only way I know of to join Jesus in this is to enter into the mystery of what it was that he was talking about.

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jeffsdeepthoughts

The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

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