Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?
esus was Jewish, of course, so we probably shouldn’t be surprised that he was a great storyteller, but to be honest his short story collection was not an instant bestseller. Perhaps that’ll make you feel a little better if The New Yorker once rejected your article or Random House returned the manuscript you worked on for a decade.
Can you picture it, way back there at the beginning? Word gets out among the ancient Palestinian intellectual elite that there is this hotshot preacher making the Ted Talk circuit, so all these Rabbis from prominent Galilean synagogues and tenured professors from Hebrew University in Jerusalem start following Jesus around on his book tour.
So you can see it, right? The bell rings, so to speak, and a hush falls over the classroom. The teacher situates himself at the head of the class, clears his throat, and says, “The kingdom of God is like…” It’s so quiet you can hear a lizard scurrying across the sandy floor. “The kingdom of God is like…” The Ph.D.’s move to the edge of their chairs. “The kingdom of God is like…a mustard seed.” And they all go, “What?” The kingdom of God is like a sower who went out into a field. The kingdom of God is like a lamp that’s not hid under a bushel. You are the salt of the earth, he says.
Now, academia is full of legendary egos, of course, and no one will admit they don’t get it, so all these erudite rabbis and sophisticated professors just let Jesus go on and on with his silly stories about lost coins and prodigal sons and good Samaritans, as if that weren’t the biggest oxymoron in the history of the Aramaic language.
But Jesus’ disciples are not proud. They’re not Ph.D.’s; they’re fishermen, and they’re not too embarrassed to admit they don’t get it. “Jesus,” they ask, “why are you always telling us these odd little stories? Why don’t you just tell it like it is?”
So one thing we learn from this morning’s scripture lesson is that the initial reaction to Jesus’ teaching was not “Ah!” but “Huh?”
If Jesus had something important to say, why didn’t he just come out and say it, instead of burying his point deep within all these extraneous metaphors, similes, and homey little stories? And Jesus answers their question. He says, “The reason I speak to you in parables is that seeing you do not perceive, and hearing you do not understand.”
In other words, “God has tried getting the point across a thousand times before, but you just didn’t get it. First God tried the straightforward approach with ten rather specific instructions, which you ignored with a vengeance. And then when that didn’t work God tried to convince you with the vivid harangues of the prophets, but that didn’t get your attention either, so God decided to try again, and so here we are: God and I, telling stories.
The Hebrew word for “parable” is mashal, which refers to a whole range of things like allegories, proverbs, metaphors, similes, and poems. The meaning of the word mashal seems to be best summed up by referring to it as “not plain speech.”
For instance, I once had a gentle, harmless, declawed cat, to whom my children gave the unlikely name ‘Spike.’ Spike was black as Mammoth Cave; Spike was black as a Zulu warrior. Spike was blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp. That’s a mashal, a parable.
Here is a very strange sentence: “Hermione is the golden retriever of our work group.” That’s a funny way of making a point. But you know instantly what your friend means: If Hermione is the golden retriever of your work group, it means she is probably a little too friendly, way too over-eager, pathologically jealous of everyone’s approval, emotionally needy, and quick to invade your space. It may be compliment, and it may be something else, but calling someone a golden retriever is crystal clear. It’s a parable, in Hebrew, mashal.
We get our English word “parable,” of course, from the Greek word parabola, which means literally “to throw alongside.” A parabola, of course, is a curve, a bent line you throw alongside statistics to illustrate that Costco stock is going through the roof and Apple stock is crashing through the floor. Stocks that go through the roof and crash to the floor, by the way, are also parables, or mashals.
Jesus chose to get his point across by throwing curves instead of fastballs, by using “not plain speech.” Why?
Well, Emily Dickinson has an idea. Isn’t that a wonderful poem I’ve printed in your bulletins this morning?
Tell all the truth but tell it slant–
Success in circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind.
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or everyone be blind.
Tell all the truth, but tell it slant, she says. Success in circuit lies. Truth’s superb surprise is too bright for our infirm delight, and has to be eased into our consciousness, as a mother might mitigate the child’s fear of lightning by offering a gentle, kind explanation of such a dazzling and frightening phenomenon. Success in circuit lies. Sometimes the truth is more delightful when you come at it from the side. Sometimes it means more when you throw the truth with a curve, in Greek, parabola, in English, ‘parable.’ The truth must dazzle gradually, or everyone would be blind.
Why are we so charmed by Jesus’ homey little stories? How do they work? One reason Jesus’ parables work so well is that we live in a story-shaped world, do we not? Jesus knows this, so he gives us the concrete, not the abstract. He gives us the particular, not the universal.
When someone asks Jesus “What is God like?” it would never occur to him in a million years to say, “The essential attributes of divinity are omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, infinity, and aseity.” Instead Jesus says, “A man had two sons.” “A man was walking to Jericho and fell among thieves.” Says Frederick Buechner, “Jesus in the Gospels doesn’t sound like Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin. ‘Once upon a time’ is what he says.”
Did you ever pay any attention to Jesus’ vocabulary? You know, for a pretty bright guy, he spoke a pretty rustic tongue. No Shakespeare he. Virtually his whole vocabulary is monosyllabic. It’s muscular nouns and snappy verbs and a few spare adjectives. He sounds like, well, I guess he sounds like the guy who built and installed your kitchen cabinets, because that’s what he was, a carpenter.
Jesus abhors abstraction and eschews the sesquipedalian, and he would never dream of using snooty words like ‘eschews’ or ‘sesquipedalian.’ Words ending in “-ness” and “-tion” and “-ism” are just not part of his vocabulary. Not “forgiveness” or “stewardship” or “fellowship” or “communism” or “capitalism,” but “king,” “servant,” “father,” “brother,” “neighbor.”
Jesus gives truth a name and a face. He knows that we live in a story-shaped world. Our lives are not essays but stories. Jesus doesn’t say, “God is love.” He says “A man had two sons…” and immediately he’s got us. Two sons. Now what?
Jesus belongs in that pantheon of storytelling wizards like Garrison Keillor and Ernest Hemingway. These are guys that were always chasing down the perfect story. Garrison Keillor says that to capture and retain our attention, a story has to have five elements: Religion, money, family, sex, and mystery. If one of those things is lacking, it’s not a good story. So here is a good short story: Religion, money, family, sex, and mystery: “Oh my God,” said the banker’s daughter, “I’m pregnant and I don’t know who the father is.” Religion, money, family, sex, and mystery.
Ernest Hemingway once used six words to tell a perfect, poignant, finished story. Six words: For sale. Baby shoes. Never used. A whole sad tableau unfolds in our imagination when we hear that short—very short—story.
Have you seen Tim Burton’s eccentric little film from 2003 called Big Fish? Albert Finney, Ewan MacGregor, Jessica Lange. Wonderful film. It too belongs on my list of Underrated Films of Vast but Invisible Cultural Significance. A musical play based on the film tried out in Chicago a couple of years ago and then moved to Broadway, but I don’t think the play did very well.
Anyway the film Big Fish is about traveling salesman Edward Bloom who tells so many outlandish tales his son begins to distrust him. The son grows up to be a journalist—“Just the facts, ma’am”—and is estranged from his gregarious father who just can’t give you a straight story. Everything in his stories is too big. Everything is too loud. Everything is too spectacular. None of it could possibly have happened. The journalist son is just disgusted by all the falsehoods his father piles up during his life.
But the wonderful thing about this eccentric little film is that all these outlandish fictions that never could have happened end up telling the truth more accurately and richly than the plain facts. Sometimes fiction gets us closer to the truth than fact. You know this is true, or you wouldn’t waste your time reading Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings.
So, this summer we’re going to listen to several of Jesus’ rustic little stories, and I hope we’ll notice together how he tells his truth. He won’t lay down the rules; he’ll just spin a yarn. He gives us these harmless little fictions. Did they happen? No. Are they true? Yes. When in history did the prodigal son squander his inheritance on riotous living, and when did the waiting father welcome him home? Never. And always.
As Frederick Buechner puts it, “These stories Jesus tells. Every once in a while it is not just the point that we see, but ourselves that we see, and each other that we see, and God that we see—the whole great landscape of things lit up for a moment as if by lightning on a dark night.”
Jesus doesn’t want you to see the point. It’s yourself he wants you to see, each other, it’s God he wants you to see.
Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown), #1112.