The Stories of Jesus (January 26, 2020)
Mark 4: 1-20 [21-34]
The Stories of Jesus
This spring we’re going to be looking at the story of the New Testament, what is actually happening from the moment of Jesus’s birth all the way through until the last few things that happen in the New Testament. And if we’re going to look at that, one big part of what happens with Jesus is that Jesus teaches. And in particular, he begins to teach in parables. So we’ll need to look at what we do with parables, what they are, and how we might approach them as we consider the story of Jesus’s ministry and life.
First off, what is a parable? Webster’s gives us a definition of a parable as “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” It’s just a story; a story to try to teach us a point. And Jesus is not the only one to use parables. Throughout history there have been many who have used stories to teach us a point; usually a moral. But certainly I think Jesus is the most famous. And the parables that he used have been used throughout the centuries to make points by other people, usually are people who are preaching.
And stories have always been used to teach; that idea predates even Jesus’ stories. And stories are always the things that we keep around. The oldest writing, the oldest recorded history that we have, at least in writing, is The Epic of Gilgamesh; a story. The stuff that is written on the walls of prehistoric times are stories of heroes and hunters taking down the food that they eat. These are the things we keep: our stories. And they make a point; sometimes a moral one. Often times stories can make a point stronger and more memorable than just saying it directly can. And that is counterintuitive, I think. We are a culture, and we’ve always been a species that likes having things said directly. “Get to the point already!” But often times we just don’t remember those things. And stories make us wrestle with it, make us figure things out, and always help us remember more than just saying it directly.
And Jesus may have understood that. We do know that the disciples didn’t understand it, because in our reading here in the Gospel of Mark we begin with Jesus telling us a parable, telling us a story of a farmer who goes out to sow seed. He’s throwing the seed around. And some of it lands on rock, and some of it lands on bad soil, and some of it lands in thorns, and some of it lands in good soil. And Jesus talks about the results of that: that the bad soil quickly sprouts, but withers. The seeds in the thorns get choked out and can’t grow. Those on the path have the birds come and take the seed away. But that good soil grows, and it grows so much that it produces a harvest of 30 or 60 or 100 fold worth of seed compared to what it started with. And that quarter of the seed that grows on the good soil is able to produce enough seed to continue to spread the next batch of seeds. And then they go inside and the disciples come up Jesus and ask Jesus what he meant by that.
Have you ever had a moment where you just get frustrated with someone who is just not getting it? Maybe someone you expected to get it and they’re just not getting it? Have you ever identified with Jesus in this moment? I imagine he looked at the disciples and said “you didn’t get that? You don’t understand? You were supposed to understand!” He ends the parable before by saying “Let those who have ears hear.” And his disciples were supposed to be the one to have ears! And yet they don’t understand. And they basically asked Jesus “why don’t you just tell us what you mean? Don’t give these parables; what did you mean?” Until Jesus answers the question not only with what he meant by that parable (which was what we often focus on when we look at this passage), but he also answers the question of why he teaches in parables in the first place.
And the answer that Jesus gives is troubling to me; it’s troubling to most everyone who’s looked at this story. Jesus answers that he teaches in parables “in order that they may indeed look, but not to perceive, and may indeed listen but not understand, so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” What? The Jesus I know wants to save everyone! I’m not sure I really like the Gospel of Mark, Pastor. I mean last week we got this stuff about Jesus telling someone not to go and spread the good news of what’s happened to them, and now you’re telling me the Jesus is hoping that some people who are hearing him don’t turn and are not forgiven? What is going on here? Where is the Jesus I know? When does that Jesus show up in the Gospel of Mark, pastor?
Well certainly within the Methodist Church, we definitely believe that yes Jesus wants to save everyone, that Jesus offers saving Grace to every single person before you were even born or even have a clue what Jesus and Grace. Before you even know what food is, Jesus is offering you the bread of life. Yes, absolutely, we believe that. But one thing we recognize is that when you share your faith, when you share the Scriptures, when you even share what you did on vacation, some people don’t get it. Some people don’t understand even if you say it directly. In fact, I expect that many of the experiences you might’ve been thinking about when I asked if you could identify with Jesus getting frustrated at someone who you thought was going to understand it just not getting it were not done when you were telling a story but rather when you were very direct. It doesn’t really matter if Jesus was going to talk directly or indirectly, directly or through story; people were not going to get it. In fact, that’s the point that he described about the parable of the sower that Jesus was talking about right before this. Jesus ultimately explains in his answer to the disciples’ question that he’s going to spread seed. And 75% of it is not going to work, it’s gonna be snatched away, or grow and whither, or be choked out by the worlds desires. But that 25% will grow and bear enough fruit to override the other 75 and keep the church going for another generation.
So it doesn’t matter if Jesus is talking directly or in story. As I said before, stories sometimes give us more memory and are able to teach us more than just the direct lesson. But in fact parables have served another purpose. Whether Jesus intended it or not, the parables have serve the purpose of keeping the story alive for 2000 years. That they are parables allows the lesson to be told again, and again, and again over different centuries, with different people in different situations. We are not in first century Palestine, and yet these lessons of Jesus still make points and have a lesson to be given to us. And often times it is a very different lesson than the one that our parents heard, and certainly a different lesson than the one that the people who are listening directly to Jesus may have heard.
Also, I think sometimes helpful to remember the disciples didn’t understand this stuff either. You’re not a terrible disciple, the apostles couldn’t understand what was being said here! But I think partially why they couldn’t understand it, and why we don’t necessarily understand a parable every time, is it we keep thinking there’s one thing Jesus was trying to say. That the parable is supposed to mean one really important lesson. And often times parables don’t mean just one thing. Parables are open ended enough that the Spirit is able to get inside the story and move our hearts toward hearing a new lesson that is pertinent to our specific situation.
And importantly that lesson you’re learning this time might be a different lesson from the last time you read or heard this very same passage. That’s what it means for Scripture to be speaking to you. That’s why we come to church for more than just three or four years; for more than just one rotation through all the stories. We don’t just hear the sermon on all the stories and have that be enough for the rest of your life. Rather, we come to church every single week for years because we get a different lesson each time we come back and revisit the same passage. And sometimes you even get a different lesson than someone else in the room at the same time, because the Spirit has a way of using my words, or the words of any other pastor, and pointing out a different word to you than from your neighbor. So we wind up thinking about different things when you go home. And you get a completely different sermon from what your neighbor got.
Even the smallest parables have so many different lessons for someone to hear depending on what they take into it, and depending on what they understand about it. For instance, in just a few versus after I got done reading is the parable of the mustard seed. You may remember the parable of the mustard seed. But even as I say that, probably there’s two different things you’re thinking of. There’s the parable of the mustard seed that I’m speaking of, which is where Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. It’s the smallest of seeds, but it grows into the largest of bushes, and is able to provide shelter for even the birds. But of course there’s also the parable where Jesus says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move mountains. Just in saying “the parable of the mustard seed,” the Spirit might be working in multiple ways.
But then the question becomes what is the parable I’m actually discussing means. And what it has usually been said to mean is that it talks about growing. You have something small, but with the kingdom of God it can grow into something large; either the kingdom itself being something now that it’s really small but will grow over the years to become something large that will provide comfort to other people; or just talking about personal faith: if you have faith that small it will grow if you use the Kingdom’s resources.
But you might take a look at what mustard is and recognize that mustard itself, the mustard seed itself being the fruit of the mustard bush, really doesn’t do much. But you have to take the resource that the kingdom is giving you in the midst of this growing bush, and then you have to process it in order to utilize it and do something with it; in order to turn it into mustard, which had healing properties at the time, and it is a fantastic spice (the best of all spices particularly when used on french fries). You take what the kingdom gives you and process that; you utilize your skills and your talent in order to turn that into something that will heal the world.
Or maybe talk about how the kingdom of God can be comforting to us, that as it grows it becomes a place where even the birds can find shelter. And the kingdom of God in our world, if we allow it to grow in the midst of our world, will provide us comfort and shelter.
Or maybe you recognize that no one cultivates mustard, but mustard was considered a weed. When mustard gets in someplace it takes over. The seed is so small that you can’t stop it, so you try and choke it out before it starts if it’s in your field. So to say that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed is to say that the Kingdom of Heaven is going to invade the kingdom of this world and that nothing can stop it. Even if it looks small now.
Or perhaps you recognize that birds are not something you want to have around if you’re growing crops. In the parable of the sower, the birds were the thing that came and took away the seed on the path. Saying that the Kingdom of Heaven provided shelter for even the birds might be a subversive message that it’s going to disrupt the economy that the Romans rely upon in Israel. So many lessons, so many ways you can go depending on what you’re thinking about as you hear Jesus speak about a mustard seed and the Kingdom of Heaven.
I don’t know if Jesus speaks in parables for this reason or not, but it certainly has been a benefit. The parables are able to provide so many different lessons for different people, in different places, in different years. But one thing that I do know is that those with ears still hear. And the Spirit still uses Jesus’s words from 2000 years ago to speak to people today if they’re open to it. And when you do hear, the benefits of listening to the Spirit are still a hundredfold what you brought.
As we look at Jesus’s teaching in general, but definitely as we look at Jesus when he teaches in parables, it’s important to remember that maybe the parable is not so much a call to receive an answer as it is a call to engage in communication; to have a conversation. The parable might be just as much a conversation starter is it is a conversation ender. Maybe Jesus was wanting to know who cares enough in the midst of this audience to come and ask what it means. Because when the disciples ask what it means, he gives them an answer directly. As we hear the stories and as we hear these parables, let us embrace the conversation; both the conversation with each other, as well as conversation with the Spirit. And may the Spirit teach us. Amen.