THE PARABLES OF JESUS
Today’s Gospel contains five short parables, so I feel like the Spirit is leading us to talk about parables this morning!
Perhaps our first topic should be “what exactly is a parable?”
Well, the English word comes from Greek [παραβολή], and it means a comparison.
In fact, we have a word, “comparable,” that contains “parable.”
You may also be thinking of mathematics, where a parabola is a curve that comes back to the base line, like the path of a ball thrown into the air.
So a parable compares things, and it brings us back to our base.
The most obvious way to do that is to say that this thing is like that thing.
And the word “like” is key to the most basic form of parable, as we heard this morning.
HOW DOES JESUS USE PARABLES?
The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
The Kingdom of heaven is like yeast.
The Kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a fishing net. [Matthew 13:33-52]*
* All Bible quotations used here are from the New Revised Standard Version; some are paraphrased.
These are simple comparisons, but Jesus also told much longer, more elaborate versions of parables. The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son are much more involved than the short sentences that we heard today.
In all cases, the point of a parable is to teach a specific lesson using a short story that illustrates a universal truth.
A wise-guy lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” So Jesus tells him the story of the Good Samaritan. [Luke 10:25-37]
Some scribes and Pharisees who are dining with Jesus grumble, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus tells them the story of the Prodigal Son [Luke 15:11-32] (which could also be called the story of The Forgiving Father or perhaps even The Jealous Brother).
But back to Matthew’s Gospel for today: Jesus peppers his listeners with five comparisons,
which are separated by some other text about parables.
All of them are meant to teach us something about the Kingdom of Heaven:
The Kingdom may start out as small as a tiny mustard seed,
but it will grow and blossom into the tallest of trees.
The Kingdom may work the way yeast does, making flour rise into delicious bread dough.
It might be a hidden treasure, that when you find it, you will do anything to have it.
It could be a “pearl of great price,” as the King James Version put it – worth giving up everything else.
Or God’s Kingdom could be like a fisherman’s net, cast into the sea, that comes out with all kinds of fish – some of them good and others useless. And just as the fisherman sorts the fish and throws some back,
souls will be sorted – the righteous to great reward, and the evil ones to punishment.
These short, catchy phrases are easy to remember and carry a tiny message that is worth thinking about, and that’s what makes them so useful in teaching about, and living, a Christian life.
APPLYING THE MESSAGE OF THE PARABLES TO OUR LIVES
Parables also set us to thinking about ourselves, our own lives as followers of Jesus:
- What if I’m not a mustard seed, but instead some kind of weed that only grows a few inches tall?
- What if I’m yeast that is too old, so the bread never rises?
- What if I’m a treasure that nobody ever finds?
- What if I’m just an ordinary pearl, not worth much?
- What if I’m one of those fish that gets thrown back?
So, a parable is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it can encourage us to strive and see ourselves as precious and worthy. But on the other hand, a parable might discourage us into thinking that we can never measure up to the high standard set by Jesus.
LIVING INTO THE PARABLES
Saint Paul comes to our rescue in today’s lesson from Romans [8:26-39]
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” [Romans 8:26]
When I think about my own life, my own weaknesses, I can relate to that phrase, “sighs too deep for words,” or “groanings which cannot be uttered,” as the King James Version puts it.
I think all of us can think of a time, or perhaps more than one, when we felt so bad, so low, so hopeless that we couldn’t even put it into words.
“Words fail me,” is a British expression. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, it can be taken two ways:
- “I can’t find the words to say what I need to say,”
- “the words that I say let me down instead of helping.”
And that, according to Paul, is when the Spirit of God steps in—intercedes, which mean “gets in between” us and our weaknesses, our fears, our failings, and connects us to God.
Paul goes on:
“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit.” [Romans 8:27]
So, don’t give up! Don’t feel inadequate, never call yourself a failure (and don’t let anybody else to that, either!) because God always knows what is in our hearts.
And even if we aren’t the priciest pearl, the freshest yeast, the biggest tree, or the best fish in the sea, God knows what is in our hearts, and God responds to the Spirit by seeing us as precious.
“If God is for us, who is against us?” Paul asks. [Romans 8:31b]And he adds,
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.” [Romans 8:28]
And Jesus tells us,
“everybody who is ready for the Kingdom is like someone who has a treasure full of old things and new ones.” [Matthew 13:52]
And did you catch that last one?
Jesus says—using parable words—that we are like people who are part of God’s Kingdom.
We are like Christ, baptized into his life and into his death. [Romans 6:3]
And nothing—not hardship, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or dangers, or even death—
can come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 8:35-39]
Let us pray.
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that the words we have heard this day with our outward ears, may,
through thy grace, be grafted inwardly in our hearts, so that they may bring forth in us the fruit of good living,
to the honour and praise of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.