do the parables
12th October 2021
...'so many times before'...
Many of us have become rather bad readers of the parables of Jesus.
It's not entirely our fault and it's understandable in a way, but it would be
great if we could do something about it. The trouble is that we have heard
them so many times before that we know what's coming,
so there's no surprise and no twist.
Sometimes, if we're honest, if someone announces the reading and tells
us it's a parable, part of our listening gear switches off since we know
we've heard it before.
This is really sad, because parables, above all kinds of text, ought to get us
thinking and wondering.
They don't, despite what tired listeners might assume, give us their meaning
up front. They actually invite us to consider and to discover something new.
They open doors and invite us to step through into a new world.
They ask us to be active, and not passive readers, and they belong to a
tradition of reading that loves argument and discussion and finding a new way in.
But we so easily turn parables into descriptions of what normally happens,
into ordinary stories. Partly because we've grown up in the western, modern
world we tend to think that stories should have a 'moral';
that they should mean one thing (perhaps what the person who composed it
really meant) and that interpreting a story for others is somehow about
making it 'clear'. But Jesus didn't have our western cultural world-view.
If we want a glimpse of his world we need to go to other cultures and places
and to find those who love to argue about stories and meanings and to those
who believe, as Jewish rabbis would say, that
'there is always another interpretation'.
We might need to abandon our preferences for clarity, for 'morals';
for comforting and definite, conclusions. Then we will enter a world in which
stories are surprising again and in which we are free to wonder,
to read and think for ourselves.
Take the parable of the mustard seed.
How many times have we heard it said that this parable means that
'from little things great things can grow'?
That thought may be true, but I wonder whether reading the parable
of the mustard seed ought to be more like reading the story below.
A church in Northampton was having a mission campaign.
They sent out a prayer card to every house and apartment in the neighbourhood;
and the congregation were busy for weeks attaching a mustard seed to each card.
Just imagine it.
One day, one person, in a far corner of the parish. decided to plant the mustard seed.
And it grew - and it grew - into a tomato plant!
That's what the kingdom of God is like.
If you read the version of this parable that's in Luke's Gospel,
you find that he doesn't use the word small. In his version
it's not a story about a small seed growing into a big bush
(which is what normally happens),
it's a story about a mustard seed growing into a tree
(which is what never happens except in extraordinary stories!).
Do you think the parable is a kind of proverb telling us what
we already know, or, is it a story about a world we've never
yet seen, but which God is bringing in; a world as extraordinary,
odd and miraculous as a mustard seed growing into a tree?
These are very different things. When we share the parable of the mustard seed,
we should see something of the world it is offering, the new world God is bringing in.
I wonder what the first hearers did when Jesus told them about the mustard seed
that became a tree.
Did they understand it and, in that moment say 'You're kidding!
the Kingdom of God is amazing.
We often read the story as though it's what we'd expect to happen.
But actually, this is a story where what we don't expect to happen,
The normal ways of the world are overturned; this is a different kind of story.
These stories of Jesus have more possibilities than even a Gospel writer might
have imagined, and they deserve to be set free among us, so that they can continue
to amaze and surprise us with new meaning.
It may be interesting to watch,
or just listen to a song
"Will You Not Listen."
sung by Michael Card