Twelve years ago I was living with some friends in rural South Dakota near the town of Hot Springs in the Black Hills. Their home was fairly small, and so I ended up buying a camper trailer that was smaller than my office down the hall here. I parked that small, little camper on their back 40 about a quarter mile from their home up a little ravine, and that’s where I lived for about six months.
I remember one night a thunder storm was coming through, so I was down at my friends’ house talking, hanging out, staying warm and dry. As it was getting late Gilbert, the guy I was staying with, started telling stories about mountain lions – cougars! – about how these animals could leap down out of trees onto their prey or how they could move through the forests making virtually no sound. And I’ll never forget as he finished his discourse on the predatory prowess of mountain lions he opened that morning’s newspaper to an article about the increase in mountain lion sightings in that area of the Black Hills where we lived. Along side that article was a map of the county littered with tiny red dots each representing a reported mountain lion sighting.
Gilbert pointed to one of those tiny red dots and said, “Our neighbor called that one in last night.” And then, I’ll never forget, he stood up and said, “Well, it’s getting late. I’m going to bed. Enjoy the walk back to your camper.”
He was always doing things like that – telling stories or asking questions to make sure we were really paying attention to life and all our surroundings.
Now, I rarely carried a flashlight with me because most nights the stars and the moonlight were enough to light my way. But with a thunderstorm rolling over the mountains there was enough cloud cover so that once I started up that ravine that led to my camper, I was completely in the dark. So there I was walking up this narrow valley with a vague notion of where I was going convinced that on every tree limb there was a cougar waiting to crush me as I crept my way toward my camper. I felt like I was in that scene in the movie the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and the Scarecrow follow the yellow-brick road through the forest chanting, “Lions, and Tigers, and Bears Oh My!”
But as I walked home through that thunderstorm I soon discovered that the way was briefly illuminated by bursts of lightening, and I could see before me not just my destination in the distance but also the puddles and boulders and broken tree branches that lined my path. With each flash of lightening I could alter my course as I inched my way a little closer to home and I could take a quick survey of some part of the landscape around me and determine whether or not there were any predators lurking in the shadows.
Jesus’ parables work in the same way: giving us flashes of light and moments of clarity when we can see the way forward lit up in front of us even if only for a moment. So this month we are going to park ourselves in thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and consider the impact of Jesus’ parables and what they might mean for us, our lives, and our faith journeys.
Chapter 13 is one of the defining moments in Matthew’s gospel story. Up to this point in the narrative we have had the stories about Jesus birth, his baptism, and the start of his public ministry. Jesus has been teaching and healing quite openly, but it has come with a divided response. When we reach chapter 13 we find that Jesus is no longer teaching or healing in the religious centers; rather, Jesus is teaching on the seashore because the powers that be – the status quo, people’s expectations – have squeezed Jesus out. It is there in that tension and hostility that Jesus like a flash of lightening unleashes the full power of the parable.
While I was packing to move here to Oklahoma, I found my first Bible. It’s this little green-covered Gideon’s Bible given to me when I was in grade school. On numerous occasions I would sit down and try to read this Bible. I would always start in Matthew with the idea of working my way straight through to the book of Revelation. My efforts always petered out somewhere around Matthew chapter 13. And I could never understand why Jesus would speak in such a way so that some people could not understand.
Maybe it is this frustration that the disciples are expressing when they come to Jesus and ask him, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” Maybe the disciples want to know why Jesus has turned to a new and sometimes difficult-to-understand style of teaching – a style that at times seemed incapable of reaching people because there are people who just flat did not understand what Jesus was doing much less what he was saying. So why is Jesus speaking in a cryptic language that he seems to know will fail to reach so many people?
As I come back to these verses years later and read them anew, I realize that parables and Jesus’ use of the genera – this style of teaching – reveal to us how God works in the world. Part of the beauty of parables is that they reach people where they were at. Parables take images, and events, and the concrete, tangible stuff of daily life – building a home, or weeding the lawn, planting a garden, losing and then searching for something valuable, making wise investments – and parables say these things can reveal to us how God is at work in the world. God is not limited to the temples or the synagogues or the churches; God’s work intervenes into who we are and how we live. Parables are important because they remind us that God is not far off and distant; rather, God is with us even as we go about the seemingly mundane tasks of daily living.
But Jesus’ parables also come to us like lightening in a thunder storm: they give us glimpses of glory – a glory that is just too big to be grasped all at once. Parables are important because they help see some small portion of a God who is too big to be grasped with one story or a single comparison or one title. Parables remind us that God is always bigger; yet, parables let us know something about God.
Just like walking up a narrow ravine parables may give us just enough light to take the next couple of steps, to avoid splashing into a puddle or getting scraped by a fallen tree limb or tripping over a boulder in our path. But even when our shoes get soaked or broken branches block our way or when we trip and stumble and skin our knees, the Good News is that those glimpses are still there before us burned into our vision like the white hot flashes of lightening bolts.
Jesus’ parables are important because they disrupt our normal ways of seeing. The word parable literally means “to throw along side.” So a parable can transform our ways of seeing and our ways of understandings by bring close together two things that are seemingly distant. And that’s what Jesus parables do Parables come to us like flashes of lightening or like someone taking a flash photo of you at night. Your vision is altered; it may be difficult to see, or you may see in a new way. The whole point of teaching in parables is to instill in our minds a different idea of the Kingdom of God and a new vision of how God works.
Finally, Parables are important because they challenge us to discover the truth for ourselves. The beauty of parables is that they enable us and compel us to discern their meaning; parables ask us for a response. When we hear Jesus’ parables we can’t simply listen if we expect to grasp the glory being revealed within them. Parables require that we engage them, interpret them, that we participate in them. Because when we do that we draw close to the very secret of the Kingdom of Heaven of which Jesus spoke. It can be challenging work – we may find it blinding more often than we find it illuminating; we may get soaked in the storm; we may blink at the wrong time and miss that glimpse of glory before us – but this is the work that God calls us to, and it is also the work for which God has equipped us.