As the young family was leaving church, the daughter was telling her parents about her Sunday school class: “Today in Sunday school we learned how Jesus loved to teach about a couple of cows.” The mother smiled and said, “I think you mean ‘parables,’ sweetie.”
Because I like “word play” humor, one of my favorite cartoon strips—Funky Winkerbean, had a strip in which the class was being given a vocabulary test in which they had to define certain words. In the strip there is a student who happens to be a “jock” and he is pondering over a word . . . “parable.” In the next frame of the strip we see him writing furiously his definition of the word. In the last frame we are given the opportunity to see his answer . . . “A pair of bulls.”
Get it? A pair of bulls . . . a couple of cows!
Personally, I think that it is funny in its cleverness . . . but, when it comes right down to it, describing parables and what they mean is not easy. In fact, it can be downright difficult and frustrating. Our reading this morning tells us: “With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable.” Which, we are led to believe by the writer of Mark’s gospel, that they had a hard time understanding. The writer goes on to state: “But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.” Apparently, parables are not as easy to understand as they sound when shared.
Yet, Jesus uses them all the time.
In our reading this morning, he shares what biblical scholars call “Kingdom parables”—parables about what the Kingdom of God is like. He tells the parables of The Growing Seed and The Mustard Seed. The first is about how a sower scatters seeds and nothing else, and all by itself the grain grows until it is big enough to harvest. In the second, he tells how the mustard seed—the tiniest of all seeds—grows into the largest of all garden plants—big enough for birds to perch in its shade. These describe for the listener what the Kingdom of God is like.
Sounds simple enough. We all get it, right? We understand the parables meaning, right? It is as clear as mud . . . who are we to admit that we don’t quite understand . . . that we don’t quite understand how either of these parables relate to God and God’s kingdom. That’s a part of human nature. We would rather wink and shake our heads as if we understand, rather than admit that we have no clue what Jesus is talking about. It is not “black and white” in its explanation . . . it is not concrete and literal.
Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, states that parables are not simple linear interpretive exercises in reasoning . . . like one plus one equals two. Parables are not designed that way. She states that in its root meaning para means alongside, and bole comes from the root ballein which means to throw or cast. Thus, a parable is something that is thrown alongside something else—they run alongside of each other like two parallel lines that will never meet. To understand one must use a back and forth dialogue between the two—the interpretation lies in a mutual, reciprocal, even circular motion. It is not a simple one plus one equals two is the end result . . . no, the understanding comes as they run side by side. (Dear Working Preacher blog, June 7, 2018)
In these two examples Jesus provides specific parables to which the listeners are to imagine the nature of and truth about the kingdom of God. He is suggesting that by speaking in parables is a means by which to make sense of things, as being a way to be in the world, and to operate in the world. Through parables the listener is offered a lens through which certain concepts of faith or a means of glimpsing God’s activity in the world. They point to a reality of life . . . that there are often aspects about our lives, God included, that only make sense in parable, states Lewis. In a way, then, we might even say that parables are necessary for making sense of life. (Dear Working Preacher, June 7, 2018)
And, guess what . . . since we all go through and experience life differently, the odds are pretty good that none of us is going to see parables exactly alike. We are going to interpret them differently as our lives are different and we experience life differently. Plus, what we think they mean today probably is not what we are going to think that they mean tomorrow. We are constantly growing and changing as we journey through life, and our experience of God changes as we change and grow in our faith. Thus, we do not always agree. Because of this, parables are tough to explain.
Parables are simple word stories that help us make sense of ourselves, our world, God, and God’s presence in the world. Parables help us to understand. Everyone loves a good story. Since the beginning of time the human race has used stories to help us understand . . . that is how we explain things . . . make sense of things.
Which does not always happen.
Jesus did not tell parables for explanation but for exploration. Jesus was not looking for answers. No, what Jesus was looking for was engaging the imagination . . . engaging the heart. Jesus was not looking for certainties of faith, but instead he was looking for discoveries about how faith works. And, through his example, he asks his followers to talk in parables . . . to tell stories to engage the imagination . . . the heart; to open up discoveries not about faith, but how faith works. Jesus invites his followers to become storytellers.
As I said earlier, everyone loves a good story. We all have stories to tell . . . about life, about God, about life with God. When asked about our faith we may not be able to put it in precise theological words, but we can tell a story that conveys its meaning. We begin by saying, “God is like . . .” From there we open the imagination of others, touch their hearts, and share the Good News of Jesus in such a way that it allows others to experience God in their own lives. They get glimpses of the Holy . . . glimpses of the Kingdom of God . . .
I am not sure that any of us can really explain why it would happen. It is kind of like that seed that is thrown by the man . . . it just happens . . . it grows. No one knows why it grow, but it grows. It grows beyond what anyone could ever imagine . . . like a tiny mustard seed, it grows to be the largest of all the garden plants. We can’t explain it, but it is amazing how the words of a simple parable . . . a simple story . . . can change not only our lives, but the lives of others.
Jesus asks us to be storytellers . . . asks us to share parables. Jesus asks us to do this because something happens in the telling of parables and stories . . . for us and those who are listening. So, go forth and teach about a couple of cows . . . get yourself a pair of bulls. Be a storyteller. Amen.