Last Sunday before worship, a group of us were continuing our study of the book of Matthew. And I have to admit, I can’t believe how long it is taking us to get through this one book of the bible. I think we started just after the first of the year—in 2018!—and we have been taking it at our own pace, getting as far as we do each week, having conversations about how the different stories and passages are relevant to our lives and our world. You’ve heard me say before that we’re having some really wonderful conversations. And we’re approaching scripture in the way I’ve always wanted to approach it. We read the stories, and we discuss what we’re curious about, what we’d still like to know. We ask questions about the characters and consider the time in which they were living. We grapple with the deeper meanings and look for places where those truths show up—or don’t show up, where we wish they would show up—in the world around us.
And there’s always a connection. The stories we’re reading in Matthew are directly relevant to the lives we’re living in 2019. It is something in plain sight. This amazing relevancy comes from the fact that the holy spirit—the light of Christ—is with us as we are reading and discussing the scripture stories. The light shines into our hearts and minds as we study, making passages come alive, helping us see how what was written so long ago can stir our souls and connect so directly to our lives today.
So we were discussing the story of the rich young man who came to see Jesus and we came across the verse where Jesus says that those who leave houses and family and more for his sake will inherit eternal life. Marilynn told us about her sister, who went to be a missionary in Africa and left home not expecting to see her parents again. I shared a story about going as a volunteer in missions in the late 90s to serve at a place for troubled teens in Kodiak, Alaska. The whole experience was a God-led adventure for me, but I admitted to the group that I never did have any kind of big “Aha!” moment that said, “This is why I came!” I just went, did what I could, and came home. But on Sunday, Tom asked me a fascinating question. “So through the years,” he said, “has that experience been a parable to you?”
What a great question. One I’d never considered before.
A parable, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a short story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” A deeper look tells us that the word parable is Greek in origin, taken from parabola, and it means a side by side comparison, in our case, comparing what’s right with what isn’t. Parables use simple, everyday language and objects—and this was especially true of parables the way Jesus told them—to illustrate some kind of bigger truth. Typically a parable mentions the setting of the story, talks about an action that was taken, and then shows the result so we can come to the conclusions ourselves.
Characters in parables often face some kind of moral dilemma and they risk making a bad decision and coming out with consequences they didn’t want. Even though parables seem simple and straightforward on the surface, underneath there is a subtext that points to a deeper meaning, which is the moral of the story.
We heard lots of comparison in our New Testament reading today. A sower sowed his seed and some fell on the path and was eaten by birds, some fell on the rock and withered in the sun. Some fell among thorns, which choked out the young sprouts. And some fell on good soil, and that seed grew and blossomed. Each of the different environments, we understand, brings about a different result. The seed itself seems good enough. Maybe the sower’s aim could have been better. But the message is clear—where the seed lands has a lot to do with what will come of it.
I remember a time in my 30s when I felt frustrated by the parables in Jesus’ teachings. I didn’t understand why he left so much up to us—why didn’t he just come out and say what he wanted to say? In the passage we heard, Jesus points us toward an answer to that question. He begins by telling the disciples they are lucky because the secrets of the kingdom of God are being opened to them. And then he adds, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’ Jesus was quoting a verse from Isaiah there.
But it seems like an odd thing to say, doesn’t it? Why would Jesus, who has prepared his whole life for this ministry and spent years traveling from town to town so he could teach and heal and demonstrate God’s light, not want to be understood? You would think he would want those listening to grasp what he was saying and take it in, so their lives might be changed and their relationship with God repaired.
Jesus begins to explain the meaning of the parable and as he does that, he also says more about why he teaches the way he does. It has to do with the heart, Jesus says. He tells them that the seed is the word of God. (And remember, Jesus himself is called the word of God in the book of John—and in fact, I just read a quote from Meister Eckhert this morning that said, “Every creature is a word of God.”) The seed that falls on the path is too shallow—the word gets stolen from their hearts. The seed that falls on the rock are like those people who heard the word and feel happy about it at first, but the seed can’t take root and they lose their joy as soon as they get tested. The seed that falls in with the thorns represents those who are caught up in life, busy seeking pleasure and avoiding pain—they don’t have the inner space to let it in. The seed that falls in good soil, though, are the ones who—in Jesus’ words, “hear the word, holding it fast in an honest and good heart.” That seed will flourish and bear fruit, enough to share with others.
It’s the quality of the heart—not the mind—that gives the hearer insight into the deeper meaning of the parable, and that’s an important distinction. Our minds analyze and interpret and flip things every which way, but our hearts, if they are listening, pick up on the subtext of the story, which is pointing to a hidden, spiritual truth. We are supposed to participate in the parable but we need our hearts in order to do that—those who are caught up in the drama of life will miss the deeper meanings life offers until they slow down, get quiet, and invite God in.
Back when my kids were little, they were fans of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. The idea was a unique one—each book was a kind of game that involved the reader in the story. As the reader, you might be a doctor, a private eye, a mountain climber, or something else. As the story unfolds, you make choices at key points, and those choices lead you on to new settings and challenges and more choices and finally to one of many endings. The series allowed for all kinds of outcomes—good and bad endings, forward and backward direction—and everything was unpredictable and uncertain. As the series continued, the authors added in more and more challenges, with story loops and trick endings. One book, The Race Forever, is said to have a potentially endless storyline. The idea was not only to tell a good story but to engage the reader in a way that inspires their imagination and invites them to make the story their own.
Tom’s question to me last Sunday made me think about the everyday experiences that are part of the Create Your Own Adventure story that is my own life. How might God be using our little personal happenings each day to bring more insight and understanding into our lives? I was thinking about this last Thursday, when I was driving west on Kessler Boulevard and I noticed in the road a bird that had been hit by a car, flapping one wing and trying to get up. I swerved around it and kept looking back in my rearview mirror, praying no one would hit it. Then I realized I just couldn’t leave it there, so I turned my car around and drove back. I stopped, opened the door, and scooped up the bird before another car appeared. Then I pulled into the driveway of the nearest house, turned off the car, and got out, holding the frantic little bird in my hands.
He was badly hurt, unable to stand, continuing to flap that one wing. I talked quietly to him, trying to soothe him, and held him gently but securely in my hands. I tried putting him on the ground to see if he could balance, but he couldn’t. I gently picked him up again. “God, please bless this little creature,” I prayed. I didn’t know what I was going to do…take him to the wild animal rescue maybe? But then bird’s breathing began to slow. His eyes dulled. A little shiver ran through him and he died in my hands. I placed him at the foot of a big, beautiful tree. Then I got back into my car and drove off. The whole event had taken less than five minutes.
What an odd thing to happen. Sad, short, and in the end, I hadn’t been able to save the bird. But it was a parable in my life. Remember the characteristics of a parable—there is a setting, some kind of moral dilemma, an action, and a result. In my parable of the hurt little bird, I was driving on beautiful road, saw the hurt bird and had to choose whether—or how—to respond. The moral dilemma, to me, was a question I heard in my heart: “Do I care about this little life, or don’t I?” The answer was that I did. The action I took involved turning the car around and getting the bird out of the flow of traffic. The result was that he died anyway, so it may seem it had all been for naught. But maybe the little bird had a small sense of safety and peace there at the last. Maybe he felt another of God’s creatures caring for him, even as he slipped away. And I was given the gift of facing a dilemma, hearing my heart speak clearly, and acting as I felt so led. Whatever the outcome, I felt I’d done what Love had asked of me. Come to think of it, that’s the same way I felt after serving as a volunteer in missions all those years ago.
So it’s an interesting thing to consider for yourself: What experiences in your own life could be parables, created just for you out of your very own circumstances? What might God be showing you through your experiences today? The Psalmist tells us about this God who is continually reaching out to us in love, helping us navigate and choose what’s good. The words are simple. The living out takes a lifetime.
“Our steps are made firm by the Lord, when he delights in our way; though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong, for the Lord holds us by the hand. I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread….Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever. For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones.”
- OT Psalm 37: 23-28a
- NT Luke 8: 4-15
- Choose Your Own Adventure series: https://www.cyoa.com/