Texts: Mark 4:26-34;
Ez 17:22-24; 2 Cor 5:6-18
PARABLE POWER (1)
Have you ever tried to retell a funny story or joke that previously split your sides — only to see it fall flat as a pancake the second time around? We’ve come up with some standard comebacks to cover ourselves and explain these freakish occurrences:
- “I guess you just had to be there.” or
- “It loses something in translation.” or
- “You just don’t get it.”
But the fact is, storytelling of any sort is an unrepeatable art form. The variety of people listening, the inflections in your voice, the mood of the day, the color of the sky — they all combine to create a one-time-only atmosphere for the words you speak.
This is especially true, I think, when there’s two thousand years between the telling: a distant time, an unfamiliar place, a completely different culture of folks listening. I believe that in this morning’s gospel lesson, for instance, Jesus tells a joke. But two thousand years later, did we laugh? It’s a classic case for those failed-joke-comebacks:
- “I guess you just had to be there.” or
- “It loses something in translation.” or
- “We just don’t get it.”
A joke, you say? How so? Well, the creators of our lectionary at least gave us half a chance by pairing this Parable of the Mustard Seed with the First Lesson from Ezekiel 17. Did you notice how Ezekiel compares the Kingdom of God to the twig of a cedar tree which God plants and it grows up to be a huge tree that all the birds want to come nest in? Well, keep that majestic cedar tree in mind, as many of Jesus’ audience no doubt had it in their minds, as you listen again to the parable: “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all … shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Do you see how Jesus even uses some of the same words as Ezekiel? The birds of the air nesting in its branches? Yet he has changed Ezekiel’s mighty cedar tree to a scruffy little mustard bush. That must be a joke, don’t you think?
And that’s only part of the joke! To get the other part I think you need to be farmers like many of Jesus’ original audience, not farming-impaired city-dwellers like most of us. Would you get the joke if I told it to you this way(?): the kingdom of God is like dandelion seed, which, when sown into your lawn….” Do you get it? Yes, mustard shrubs are weeds! Farmers generally spend a lot of effort trying to keep it off their soil, not sowing it on! Jesus had to have been smiling when he told this parable, don’t you think?
But, if this parable is a joke, then why did Jesus tell it? Was he just trying to lighten things up? Or was this a joke with a point? In general, we’ve noted that parables can be frustrating and confusing. Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus chose to speak in parables, or “riddles,” would be a good translation. We have to wonder: why didn’t Jesus come right out and say what he meant? Why did he leave behind all these cryptic sayings, loaded with innuendo, instead of a crisp code of laws, or a stack of clear essays with titles like “How to Be a Good Disciple,” “A Brief Definition of the Kingdom of God” or “Seven Key Features of the Coming Kingdom and What This Means to You.” But no. Instead we have this cross-eyed, cryptic, incomplete, awkward, and at times seemingly absurd, joking collection of sayings known as Jesus’ parables.
Why indeed? Why not a list of rules or clear essays? Because a list of rules never changes, never adapts. And written essays are like insects encased in amber — beautiful and precisely formed, but no longer vital and alive. It takes the fluid format of a story — a tale that can never quite be told the same way twice — to keep breathing new life into the Good News. If you still think Jesus would have gotten his points across better with hard and fast rules, try remembering the last time you sat down and really enjoyed reading Leviticus or the first few chapters of Numbers. Without the easy ability Jesus’ parables have to engage us and entice us into their world, even God’s Word becomes a hard read.
By preaching to his followers in parables, Jesus let each listener make the Good News become his own story, her own experience. As we are swept up in the story, we ourselves become part of a new parable — the parable of our lives. Taken all together — our individual experiences of the kingdom, our personal stories of God’s work and witness in our lives — end up creating a new gospel.
We are greatly mistaken if we think our tradition stems from only four canonical gospels. As well as “The Gospel According to Matthew,” “The Gospel According to Mark,” “The Gospel According to Luke” and “The Gospel According to John,” the church has almost 2,000 years’ worth of other gospel books to celebrate. “The Gospel of Augustine,” “The Gospel of Martin Luther,” “The Gospel of Gandhi” and “The Gospel of Martin Luther King, Jr. All these “gospels” have remained vital parts of our tradition because of their eternally rechargeable parable power.
Other gospels may not be quite so well-known, but they work just as persuasively in our lives. How many of you know that the personal parable stories making up “The Gospel According to Grandma,” or “The Gospel According to Aunt Mary,” or “The Gospel According to That Counselor at Camp Whose Name I Can’t Even Remember,” have affected your lives dramatically?
All of us are in the process of writing our own gospels — our own accounts of experiencing the Good News of the coming kingdom in our midst. Writing a gospel through the very act of living is part of being a disciple of Christ. It is why Jesus gave the power of the parable to all those listening to his words. Storytelling is one of the most basic practices common to all human communities. Stories connect us to one another, to our ancestors, to our world and to our God. Jesus knew that only parable power had the ability to make the Good News of the kingdom a potent reality for every listening ear.
What power can the parables awaken in us? As we talked about last week, with the beginning of the parables, it is the power of forgiveness, or as St. Paul calls it in our Second Lesson today, reconciliation. If we would go one more verse, St. Paul talks about a “ministry of reconciliation.” The parables can awaken in us the power to carry out a ministry of reconciliation. And in a world where there is so much conflict, a ministry of reconciliation will seem like weeds. We’ll stick out. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of Jesus’ more recent disciples who came to sow reconciliation in a world of division, and many thought him to be a weed to be stamped out and destroyed. And, of course, that what they tried to do to our Lord, too. The leaders wanted to destroy him by putting him on the cross. So I think that this parable of the Mustard Seed was a lighter, more gracious way to begin to prepare his disciples for what was ahead. In a world of division and conflict, his ministry of reconciliation was perceived as a weed to be stamped out.
But it wasn’t going to be so easy to destroy this weed. God raised this Jesus from the dead, and his ministry of reconciliation continues to spread, and to grow, and to branch out. The power of God’s reconciliation through Jesus Christ is a power that has been growing for many years; it is a power that has been gradually bringing people together and tearing down the boundaries that used to divide us. No more slavery, for example. The barriers of racism and sexism have at least begun to come down. One of the things that we learned about Generation X at our synod assemble a couple weeks ago is that tolerance is a major value for this generation. Tolerance will go a long way in breaking down barriers that divide us.
But there is much work to do yet, as the kingdom keeps growing. Having a ministry of reconciliation goes farther than mere tolerance. Our young people are like the birds of the air who have come to nest in this bush with its tolerance. But to have a ministry of reconciliation is more like the farmer who sows the seed and then cares for the growing bush. It is writing the Good News of Christ’s forgiveness in our own lives. What chapter did you add to your gospel this week? How did the parables acted out in your life witness to the Good News? Do any of these titles remind you of this week’s additions to your work in progress?:
- The Parable of the Crabby Boss and the Christian Coworker.
- The Parable of the Kids Who Won’t Clean Up Their Rooms and the Mother Who Is Threatening to Ground Them for Life.
- The Parable of the School Where Everyone Is Fighting.
Were you like a weed spreading reconciliation amongst the conflict?
Don’t worry if the particular parable stories you experienced this week, didn’t seem to have any grand significance, any definitive “gospel” quality to them, as you lived through them. It is the job of all of us, as Jesus’ disciples, to come together and plug into the parable power running through each other’s lives. We come here again today to hear that Good News of forgiveness, especially through the bread and wine. And because we know the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — the gospels of Augustine, of Luther, of Gandhi and Luther King, Jr. — the gospels of grandpa, our Sunday school teacher, Cousin Hans, and our little sister — we, as a Christbody community of faith, can work together to discern in what new direction each week’s parable power has taken us.
Our final duty, then? Let us return to the world Monday morning and tell it the parables of our lives. In this way we become living gospels of Jesus Christ.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 14-15, 1997