SERMON – Matthew 13:24-43 – Confusing, Contradictory Parables – 2/12/23
Grace and Peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen!
Parables… those supposedly “simple stories” that illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. They can also be a proverb or a riddle. In Biblical times, if there had been a Sunday paper, one would have been found in the “puzzle” section each week, with its meaning found upside down in the “answers” section on the bottom of the page. Parables are also found in our childhood fables (like the “boy who cried wolf.”) Parable stories usually have a single main point for the reader to digest. And even though there is a single main point, that point will be colored by the lens of each person’s culture, and their personal beliefs, and/or personal experiences. Thus, parables are nebulous, and they can pertain to the present or the future. Confused enough? You are not the only one. I actually titled this sermon, “Confusing, Contradictory Parables.”
In Matthew 13:10-14, the disciples come and ask Jesus why he was speaking to crowds in parables. (They must have seen that it WAS confusing for many.) Jesus answers: “To YOU it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to THEM it has not been given. 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 away. 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.' ” Wow! It’s like getting a reprimand from your Dad.
I think I would have said, “OK Jesus… but if they can’t hear or see or understand these parables… why not speak in a way they CAN understand?” Before anyone can think to ask, though, Jesus tells them He speaks like this to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes: so that they might NOT look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn - and I would heal them.
This struck me, centuries after Isaiah was written, that we need to reflect on who we are today… a people who just came through a pandemic of sickness and isolation, very tired and stressed, and feeling groundless. I think many of us can relate to what Jesus is saying, and want to understand how to get ourselves back to where we were. The good news is that this can be an opportunity to think of how to “reset.” Not to the past, but to a better present and future. Most parables of Jesus help to explain how we can live a life rich, fulfilled through faith and trust in God. The good news is - we have all of this already in our hearts, and it was put there by God, before we were born. But it can be easily snatched away during our lifetime by personal strife and suffering. Parables in the Bible also point to a Kingdom of God that will be established here on Earth, seeking out all believers, and dealing with all unbelievers.
A question asked of most believers is… if God is so all powerful, why doesn’t he stop all the tragedies, accidents, wars, and all horrible things? That answer is not found in the Gospels or parables, and we know that God’s sovereign rule over the world isn’t as straightforward as we would wish.
There is this comic strip called Agnes by Tony Cochran, about a young girl and her Grandma, whom she lives with. This particular comic strip takes place as Agnes is getting into bed, and she states to her Grandma, “I wish I could be happy every minute of my existence!” Grandma pulls the covers up over Agnes, and answers, “If you were happy all the time, you wouldn’t know it -- because there would be nothing to compare it with. Agnes settles into her bed and thinks a minute and then says. “OK… I’ll wish in one day of unhappiness every month or so… just to keep the comparison alive.” Grandma answers “Then Agnes, the happy days would become predictable and the unhappy day would be dreaded”. Agnes does some more thinking and then replies (pleased with herself), “OK, try this: I wish to sprinkle happiness and unhappiness all over the month in a haphazard puzzle. Her clever Grandma answers, “Your wish is granted! Good night Agnes.” And such is our life.
IF God solved every tragedy on Earth, would we just take God for granted? Would we never work on ourselves or our faith, because there is no reason for us to worry, or to help our neighbor, or to love our enemies? An interesting thought, and one that Agnes and Grandma solved.
Some have said that Jesus knew his time would be short on Earth, and that he was becoming visible to the leaders, both Jewish and Roman, and needed more time with his followers. So he purposely was being indirect or vague to buy some time. He needed his hearers to put more thought and struggle into what he was saying. And for his enemies to remain clueless a little longer. I like to think that God wanted more time for more followers to follow Jesus. And as more heard Jesus speak, more would discuss what they heard together, and perhaps question Jesus in more detail, to gain knowledge. Hearing and understanding can be hard work, but necessary for growth and insight.
Take just the parable of the mustard seed. This is a useful plant, but could also be an invasive threat that could take over a whole garden. So the use of this plant becomes ambiguous. Is Jesus speaking of something good growing… like our faith? Or is he speaking about something bad, like a violent force, or a combative country taking over what is not theirs? Maybe the birds, making a home in the branches of the tree, symbolize God’s restoration of Israel itself? Hmmmmm.
If you are confused, as I am, about which meaning we should believe, know you are not alone. Many scholars still discuss each parable, searching for the exact meaning. And these parables are looked at differently by this modern time than they were looked at during Jesus’ time. Because, of course, we share different references, symbols, histories, and stories than the distant past. But the one central message that has moved through decades and centuries is how to live a Christian life and please God. In this, we are linked with people all over the world and throughout time. And we hope for the Kingdom of God to come amongst us, within our own lifetime.
As we soon enter another season of Lent, where we can exercise our spiritual muscles and bring God closer to our hearts and minds, we also hope for greater understanding of his word. And to be “blessed, to be a blessing to others.” Amen.