Speaking in Parables
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Matthew 13: 10-16. Focus on why Jesus spoke in parables and why his first command is to come and follow and not come and understand. Check out Rasaan Bourke & the choir as they sing – Innisfree by Roger Ames.
I’m a pretty direct person. I appreciate nuance and subtlety as much as the next person, but when my wife asks me a question like – “Does this look good?” I’m not going to tell her the pros and cons and add in a few compliments and then vaguely suggest – “I don’t really love it but it’s up to you.”
I’ll just say – “absolutely not” or “that looks great.” To this day I’m still not sure about that question, because it seems to me that there is only one correct answer, which I get right, if I’m luckly, 50% of the time. I appreciate people who say what they mean and mean what they say.
When I was young and I wanted something from my parents I would first try it out on Mom and if it went well there I’d be pretty confident and straight up with my Dad when he got home. But if my Mom’s reaction was less than positive I’d hem and haw when my Dad got home.
My father would say, “Out with it my good man! Out with it. Don’t beat around the bush. Let’s get this idea out in the open so I can say – No! It’s my job to make sure you have no fun in life!”
I think this is an incredibly important and necessary skill. I want my kids to learn to advocate for themselves, to speak clearly about what they want, to communicate honestly and not with some hidden agenda. Nothing would make me happier than if everyone got better at being this direct. It would be the equivalent of utopia for me. But I digress.
So here’s why this is interesting for me if you look to Jesus to be straightforward and direct – he’s not your guy! Jesus was passionate, and emphatic but he was not interested in being obvious, or direct. We are talking about a man who, as the Son of God, laid low for thirty years – doing what? We have no idea. And when he did start talking, he spoke in parables and stories and esoteric phrases that we’re still, 2000 years later, trying to figure out.
And just as the crowd starts getting into it, Jesus darts off to hide in a lonely place. Think about that in modern terms: imagine a politician coming to a town, getting a bunch of people to listen to him in a local restaurant, and then, just as people are reacting for better or worse around his ideas, he exits by way of the kitchen before the press can write up a thing he’s said. Or, consider the miracles when Jesus healed a person and then told them to keep it a secret and tell no one. What kind of PR campaign is that?!
And the disciples – well, you’d think they’d have fared better, being in the inner circle. But no. Jesus leaves them with vague, sweeping follow-up instructions, which, have been causing us confusion ever since. Such that he quotes Isaiah’s famous chapter 6 about stopping up the ears of folks so they won’t be able to hear and turn and be healed. What?
There have been plenty of times in my life when I have found myself wanting Jesus to give us an argument ending list of priorities that we are supposed to follow and have it numerically ordered in order of importance and how we’re supposed to live out of these principles in 2015. What we got instead was a bunch of letters from Paul who didn’t even know Jesus and manuscripts edited and redacted from the disciples that date to a 100 or so years after Jesus’ death. And they don’t agree with each other on a number of issues including divorce to name but one of the many issues that this would apply to.
We have the Ten Commandments, which seem straight forward enough, but then, what did Jesus do? He had to go and say that all of the commandments – not just the 10, but all of them, anywhere, ever- can be boiled down to two vague idealistic statements of action: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
And think on all of those who came to Jesus looking for a straightforward answer and what did Jesus do? He told Nicodemus to be born again. He told the Samaritan woman to drink living water. He asked the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good?”
My point is this: there’s just no way we can look at Jesus’ life and say he was interested in being clearly understood. What he’s interested in is being followed. And there will always, always be something open-ended about that, something that requires us to live by faith and to be willing to change directions and to hear the Spirit anew, again and again and again. It means we have to slow down and listen to Jesus’ response when what we’d rather have is an answer.
I know this is hard. It would be so much easier if we had rules, and a system. It would be great to just know what Jesus thinks we ought to do about something, so that our only issue is doing it, which quite frankly is hard enough. But Jesus does not want to make things easy on us. He wants to make life abundant for us, and that’s an entirely different path. It requires adventurous spirits and willing hearts and unclenched fists. Not lists, but love. Not rules but righteousness. Not knowledge but wisdom. He wants to give us a life not just a living.
It used to bother me that you couldn’t get a straight answer so to speak out of Jesus about something. But now what bothers me is when people try to cram who he is into a set of bullet points. What bothers me is when people shove all that wide-reaching, unfathomable mystery into an agenda that can be summed up in a power point presentation. It bothers me, to no end why anyone would want fundamentalism when we could have Jesus instead?
If Jesus isn’t interested in being obvious then maybe it’s because he wants to be convicting, catalyzing, transforming, and even confusing. Because when we have to hold that space where the answer is above our heads instead of IN our heads, we have to stay close to Jesus. We have to keep awake and wait on the Holy Spirit. We have to keep looking. We have to be involved, and invested.
Jesus is not interested in us understanding him. He is interested in us following him.
And do you know what the real kicker is? When you begin to live into that, those questions finally come into focus, and somehow, from the Spirit welling up within you as you walk with faith, you know what to do. Maybe not forever, but for the moment. Enough to keep you walking forward on the path. You may not have answers, but you find somehow that you have a center, and Jesus is there, and it’s enough.
We’ve been trying to pin Jesus down for two thousand years, and we’ve yet to succeed at it. Friends, if the cross couldn’t nail him down, maybe it’s time we stopped trying. Amen