Why parables? Why everyday images? A sermon for June 17th, St Mary’s Whitkirk
There you are, squeezed onto a hillside with hundreds of other people…clearly not the only one curious to hear this Jesus. You’ve abandoned your crops for the day, to stand here in the beating sun…because people say… “He’s different to the other teachers, it’s as though he knows God personally. You have to hear him.”
And afterwards? What did you make of him? He was charismatic, spellbinding even…but what did he tell you…you a farmer? That if you scatter your seed on the path birds will eat it…that if you plant seed, it grows…that those tiny, troublesome mustard seeds grow into huge bushes…as if you didn’t spend half your life digging them up.
Where was the new language of God? The miracles? Shouldn’t the kingdom of God involve at the very least thunder, lightening, a voice from heaven?
Well I always was the awkward one in the class…the one who had to question…but I reckon there must have been some that day who were shocked, disappointed by the very ordinariness of what Jesus said.
So I’d like to spend a few minutes considering – why did Jesus speak of God in parables? – and why such mundane examples?
Why parables? Maybe because there is no language that will do for God. The kingdom of God is more than we can ever understand. It’s not really something we can explain or have explained…it’s something we need to try to inhabit, something to work towards.
But we’re human – language is how we make sense of things…and parables give us a way in, a starting point. The whole, the Kingdom of God, is beyond our comprehension – but each parable gives us a hint, a flavour of that Kingdom.
Why though, such ordinary, unexceptional images for God’s Kingdom?
Does it perhaps say something radical about God, something we sort of know – but find hard to accept? That this is mostly how God works…not in dramatic interventions…but in the mess and ordinariness of human lives.
Incarnation tells us that God transforms the world by being in the world. Jesus lived an ordinary human life…no doubt he planted seeds and watched them grow…or die. No doubt he lit lamps as night fell. And if he didn’t make bread, he’ll have watched his mother do it.
‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God?’ Jesus asks.
With the crops you grow, with the yeast in the bread you make, with the lamp you light every night…with the things that are all around you.
Of course, for us these are now the stuff of bible stories rather than everyday life. I’ve never seen a mustard tree…Perhaps we should imagine Jesus saying…the kingdom of God is under your noses…stop waiting for a sign from above – look around you.
Because I suspect we’re no different to the people there that day. We know God is transcendent, all-powerful, but we can only imagine our version of that. When we try to imagine God – we think of how we would build a kingdom – and picture God’s kingdom as just a much bigger version of that.
‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God?’ with plants growing quietly whilst we sleep; with tiny seeds developing eventually into huge bushes.
Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that God chooses to transform things from the heart of the everyday human world, not by interventions from above. Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that God chooses to transform things by transforming individual human hearts…often a slow process.
As I’ve been wrestling with this sermon over the last week – I’ve wondered whether Jesus spoke in parables to make us work. These small images surprise us…they force us to think, and rethink our ideas about the Kingdom of God.
We could look in books or online and find lots of different interpretations for these parables. We could spend time wondering who’s right and who’s wrong. But I don’t think that’s the point. Parables don’t answer questions as much as they ask them. A parable plants a picture in our minds. We need to live with it – carry it round with us, see what it has to say in our life.
That surely is another reason for parables instead of statements…not that they can mean anything we want them to…but that their meaning depends partly on the lives they enter. We might hear someone else’s thoughts and think, “That’s it”; or we might disagree…and have to work out why.
And this isn’t something to do once in our lives…parables should mean something slightly different each time we hear them – because we are different people each time we hear them.
So this week, take the service sheet home and reread those two short parables. Carry them around in your head as you go to work; as you care for grandchildren, parents, friends; as you do the housework, the garden. Let them rub up against your life – especially the things particularly on your mind.
What does it mean for your life at the moment that the kingdom of God is like a tiny seed that grows into a huge tree? What does it mean for your life that the Kingdom of God is like seed that grows – even if we don’t know how?
Why did Jesus compare his Kingdom to ordinary, everyday things? Because his Kingdom is not just for Christmas…or Easter…or Sunday…but for the whole of life.
Why parables? Because they are stories not answers. And with stories, it’s not just about what we do with the story, but what the story does with us.
Lord Jesus, we offer you our lives this week…transform them with your stories. Help us to look around and find your Kingdom in our everyday. Amen.