Thursday, April 16
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “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.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘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.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
We began moving through this strange and uncertain time by exploring Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. As I mentioned, I think that rather than one sermon, this was a compilation of all of Jesus’ sermon themes, each one a possible sermon in and of itself. To get a real flavor of Jesus’ preaching and teaching, I propose that we continue by listening to the parables. These literary treasures are replete with Jesus’ brilliance as an orator – nuanced in wording, employing metaphor and double entendre, turning a phrase, inviting people in with a familiarity and inclusion that create a spiritual hospitality unmatched in homiletical literature. Because his parables illumine the Sermon on the Mount, I thought that they might serve as insightful guides to help us with our journey through this dark time we’re currently sharing. I am eager to travel with you.
Fred Craddock, the homiletical genius, wrote an amazing book about inductive preaching, challenging preachers to invite listeners into the texts to experience grace in a first-hand way. The book, Overhearing the Gospel, was the product of Craddock’s Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale, and his primary point was that preaching should focus not on preacher, text, or sermon, but on the listener, and the listener’s hearing the gospel in a culture that thought it already knew its meaning. Dr. Craddock begins the book with a quote by Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard, “There is no lack of information in a Christian Land; something else is lacking, and this is a something which the one cannot directly communicate to the other.”
When I studied at Oxford, one professor, Dr. John Marsh, modeled out this method in his course on Christology. Dr. Marsh was a small, wiry man with a shock of white hair and intense blue eyes, and each day he would mesmerize us with a story from Jesus’ life or teaching, telling it in such a way that we could almost imagine being in Jesus’ presence. I asked him about his method one day, and he said, “I try to be true to the biblical text, but when I begin my study, I close my eyes and try to see the scene in which the text takes place, imagine the people, listen for the sounds, even sniff for the smells.” It is a powerful technique and I think one that Jesus uses brilliantly. We are invited into the Kingdom of Heaven through story. The decision to accept the invitation rests in our willingness to hear.
One of the problems in studying the parables can be understood by taking Craddock’s insightful verb in the book title, “overhearing,” and adding a dash between over and hearing, giving the verb a different meaning altogether. When we over-hear a parable, our familiarity with the basic story line leads us to feel that we already know what it means.
Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon says, “Most people, on reading the Gospels’ assertion that ‘Jesus spoke in parables,’ assume they know exactly what is meant. ‘Oh, yes,’ they say, ‘and a wonderful teaching device it was, too. All those unforgettable stories we’re so fond of, like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.’ Yet their enthusiasm is narrowly based. Jesus’ use of the parabolic method can hardly be limited to the mere handful of instances they remember as entertaining, agreeable, simple and clear. Some of his parables are not stories; many are not agreeable; most are complex; and a good percentage of them produce more confusion than understanding.”
This smugness in thinking that the parables are easily heard and understood is certainly true in our day and time. After 2,000 years we have come to believe that we know everything about every parable. I think that flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus defended his teaching in parabolic fashion by saying to his disciples: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables . . .” However, it seems that even the direct approach didn’t work with his disciples, because on at least three different occasions he spoke of his impending death and resurrection, and still they were surprised when Easter took place.
The gift of a parable is that it keeps on giving. As we grow and mature, a beloved story of childhood hopefully becomes deeper in meaning. For instance, the parable we call “The Prodigal Son” shifts in focus from a rebellious child to a loving father. The prism-like quality of a parable emits different colors in different times and contexts.
That was certainly the case for C.S. Lewis. One night, as he was strolling the picturesque Addison’s Walk in Oxford with his friends, J.R.R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, the conversation turned to myth and metaphor and how those two literary devices related to Christianity. At the time Lewis was an agnostic of sorts, and the pivotal moment came when Lewis declared that myths were lies, albeit “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien responded, “No, they are not,” and then he pressed Lewis on how Lewis could accept other myths as vehicles of truth but couldn’t accept the greatest myth, the resurrection, which is actually true. Lewis describes what happened in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves: “Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself… I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’ Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore, it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of what God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.” Lewis didn’t fall to his knees and confess Christ that evening, but two weeks later, Lewis told a friend he had once again become a Christian and that “my long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a good deal to do with it.”
Jesus told stories in hopes that people could get into the story themselves, and thus into the kingdom itself. It could be said, I think, that Jesus spoke in parables because he was a parable himself, a living metaphor of grace. With that noted, I invite you to join me as we try to get into the ultimate Parable . . .
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- What are your favorite stories? Why do they appeal to you? What are they saying to you? Thank God for their authors and their meanings.
- These days of self-imposed isolation are grand opportunities to consider the stories of God that have been shared with us. What are your favorite “God-stories”? How do they compare or contrast with what you might describe as secular stories?
- How would you describe your own story? How might it be seen in relationship to God?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Excerpts from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”
To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’.
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
At bidding of a Will, to which we bend
(and must), but only dimly apprehend,
great processes march on, as Time unrolls