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Sermon | Speaking in parables | Joel Miller
Text: Matthew 13:10-17
My memories of what happened in the college classroom are fuzzy at best, but here’s something I haven’t forgotten.
During my first year at Hesston College – that’s a little Mennonite liberal arts college in Kansas - During my first year, I was in a New Testament class with some second career folks who were training to be pastors. One of their assignments was to write their own parable, and then share it with the class. And, after all these years, I still remember one of them.
Here it is, more or less:
Some city dwellers wanted to know what it was like to be a farmer, so they decided to visit three different farmers to see what they could learn. “What’s the secret to good farming?” they asked. The first farmer took them out to the fields where people were picking. “The secret to farming,” said farmer #1, “is good old fashioned hard work.” The second farmer took them into her office where there were stacks of paper and multiple computer screens. “This is the secret to farming,” said farmer #2. “Keeping good records, communications, and management.”
The third farmer led them out behind the barns by the manure pit. They stood there a while seeing and smelling the manure. Then the farmer said, “The secret to farming is knowing what to do with all the crap. If you know what to do with this, you’ll know what to do with everything else.”
I’m not sure why I still remember that. It could be because I was fresh off the farm myself, intrigued with these familiar images that evoked my world in distant Ohio. It could be that it’s just a really good parable, complete with the set up and the climax that leaves you with a different, and perhaps better question than the one you thought you were asking. Or maybe there’s just something about parables - these brief fictional stories that want to be remembered, want to land in the fertile soil of one’s imagination, put down roots, and grow.
So far today we’ve heard two parables. This one, and Dan’s original parable of the frustrated and blessed gardener. We didn’t communicate on these before we finished them, so it’s interesting they both have a compost theme.
Take that for whatever it’s worth.
This week is the first of seven when we’ll be focusing on the Parables of Jesus from Matthew. We won’t cover them all, but it’s a long enough period to keep us in parable mode for most of the remainder of the summer. Today’s passage doesn’t have a parable but contains Jesus’ own thoughts about the pedagogy of parable. The gospels give many examples of Jesus teaching by way of parable, but why did he do it? Why choose this teaching method?
What did he think was going on when he spun yet another of these truthful fictions?
Before we get into today’s scripture, let’s do a bit more of an overview. Our word “parable” comes from Greek, the language of the New Testament. The prefix para, in this case means alongside. Ballo is to throw. Para-ballo. So one literal translation of parable is “to throw alongside.” Like there’s this thing you think you understand, and I’m going to throw this other thing alongside it that will cause you to understand in a different way. A parable. A comparison with a twist.
Parables aren’t unique to Jesus, or the Bible, but Jesus did seem to have a special affinity for them. Matthew and Luke tell the most parables, with Mark a distant third, and John, as usual, in a category all his own. Not really having any parables. Or maybe his whole gospel is nothing but parables. The parable of water into wine? The parable of the woman at the well? Two of the most beloved and well-known parables – The Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, appear only in one gospel, Luke. Others, like the Parable of the Sower, show up in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the Gospel of Thomas, which didn’t make the final cut of the New Testament but makes for a fascinating study.
This Parable of the Sower and the different soils on which the seeds fell is the parable Jesus has just told before today’s passage begins. He had told it to a crowd so big he needed to get a little social distance between himself and them by going out in the boat and speaking back to the crowd standing on the beach. Jesus ends the parable by saying, “Let anyone with ears, listen.”
But now, supposedly after the crowds disperse, it’s that inner circle of disciples who come to Jesus with a question. “Why do you speak to them, the crowds, in parables?”
Jesus answers, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” Jesus goes on to liken his ministry to that of the prophet Isaiah who was commanded to preach to the people not because they were going to be a receptive audience, but because they had given up on listening, or at least gotten really bad at it.
Jesus also makes a statement that sounds to our ears like capitalism run amok. After assuring the disciples that they are already tuned in to the mysteries of the kingdom of God, Jesus says, “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken from them.” What’s Jesus trying to say here? Is this redistribution of wisdom something parables cause? Like some kind of parable trickle up economics? More to those who already have it, a negative effect to those who don’t?
Or perhaps Jesus’ parables are intended to break through this cycle, stop the non-listeners in their tracks, and help them realize the poverty of their own perspective. Or, to make it personal, of our own perspective. Like the first item on the job description of a parable isn’t to help people understand, but to help them understand that they don’t understand. To compel the hearer past simply hearing, into the more difficult and sustained work of listening.
Jesus knows that just because God gave us ears doesn’t mean we listen.
One of the places I like, or liked, to go and write is Global Gallery, right across from the church. The coffee shop is an old filling station and still has the old garage doors, so it’s poorly insulated. In the winter the sound of the overhead heater can be a little overbearing. But if you’re in there long enough, you kind of stop hearing it. But then when it shuts off – I’m guessing some of you have had this experience in other settings – when that loud noise shuts off, I can feel my whole body relax. I realize I had stopped consciously listening to the heater, and, without it on, I can all of a sudden hear the more subtle sounds of conversation and the tapping of laptops around me.
Apparently I’m a sucker for writing under duress.
I wonder if this is how parables work. There is a buzz around us. And not only have we stopped hearing the buzz, but we’ve stopped realizing that the buzz is keeping us from hearing other things. A good parable interrupts the buzz, flips the switch. Invites us to relax into the subtle possibilities of hearing new sounds, thinking new thoughts. Doing new deeds.
Parables are a gift to those of us with listening problems. Let those with ears realize they have a listening problem.
As we get into parables this summer, I invite you to open your ears in new ways. And here’s a warning: Beware of the names of parables. How you name a parable effects how you perceive it. Should we call the Hesston student’s parable The Parable of the Three Farmers, or is it The Parable of the City Dwellers Discovering Rural Wisdom – a little more clunky but also more descriptive and perhaps intriguing in our context where there is supposedly a strong urban/rural divide. The Parable of the Good Samaritan also has three people – the priest, the Levite, the Samaritan - each responding differently to the injured person on the side of the road. But the final response becomes so central that we just name the parable after that one, The Parable of the Good Samaritan. Maybe the last bit of the Hesston parable is so central that we name it The Parable of the Manure Pit?
Parables are about perception. But the way others have perceived the parable, the way others have named the parable, can sometimes limit our own perception. Limit the fertile soil of one’s imagination.
My hope is that we can not only hear and listen anew to these parables, but that our ears and eyes might be open to parables all around us. That we might see that we live in a parable-rich world, and that the Spirit of Jesus is still speaking to us in parables.
Like the parable of the white knee on the black neck. Shall we name it Parable 8:46 for the time George Floyd was pinned to the ground? Or shall we name it Parable 400, for the number of years people of African descent have experienced injustice on this continent.
Parables invite us to listen. Or, do those already listening get more of what they need? and those who refuse to listen find themselves with even less - even the wisdom they thought they had now gone with the wind? How does wisdom get redistributed through these parables all around us?
Parables throw us alongside another story that flips the switch, relaxes or startles us. Parables throw us beside the manure pile. Beside, not in. If you know what to do with this, you’ll know what to do with everything else. Amidst the stink and the rot, amidst the loud buzz, can you perceive new possibilities? Do you see only death, or do you see a future harvest blooming from the compost of the old world?
Parables threaten to wake us up. But the choice of whether to listen is always up to the listener.