Did you know that in Matthew and Luke – the two robust, narrative gospels about Jesus’ life – nearly half of all the things Jesus says are in the form of parables? Matthew clocks in at 43% and Luke ratchets that up to 52%. John doesn’t do parables at all and Mark, hellbent on getting from the stable to the tomb in 60 seconds or less, only includes 6. But Matthew and Luke – who expand on Mark’s skeleton frame to give us bigger, richer, juicier accounts of who Jesus is and why he matters – spend most of their dialogue time repeating Jesus’ weird little stories that we call parables.
My tiny congregation spent time this fall studying Jesus’ parables together. We had a New Testament expert join us to kick it off, and then we blazed our own trail through scripture, with the help of Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine. I’d read her book before, and spent time studying and preaching every one of the parables that we studied, but I was still blown away alongside my people as we worked to understand Jesus’ enigmatic teachings in new ways.
It turns out that Jesus had a repertoire of around 40 stories that he probably told over and over as he traveled across the Galilee, and none of these stories were dry legal lectures on scriptural interpretation or treatises on the sinfulness of the people who showed up in hordes to listen to him. Jesus would probably be appalled at most of the preaching we do and tolerate in churches today (but then, I’m pretty sure Jesus would be appalled at lots of things we do and tolerate in church today). Jesus told stories, and they were stories about the stuff of every day life. God does not show up in the parables as a named character at all. Well, there’s one disputed possible God-character in a parable set in the afterlife, but for all intents and purposes Jesus was not telling stories about gods and their expectations.
Instead, Jesus told stories set in kitchens and gardens and family homes, stories filled with sibling rivalries and labor disputes, courtroom dramas and kids who got lost. Dr. Richard Lischer, who wrote the Interpretation Commentary on the Parables (a big deal if you’re a preacher) and joined us for the first session of our study, told us that Jesus’ parables act as a bridge between secular and religious communities. But that does not mean that Jesus lured people in with a good story and then pulled a bait & switch to evangelize them or trick them into following him, joining his congregation or professing allegiance to any particular belief system: Jesus told the stories and then just…let them lie. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine says that he would tell a story and then expect his hearers to go and work it out on their own – maybe the best form of teaching.
I am fed up, burnt out and tired of most of what passes for church these days, but Jesus never bores me. I am never disappointed when I spend time seeking to understand who he was and what he taught. The parables – stories of tiny things with huge impact, hidden things holding great meaning, stories of what mercy and justice look like in PRACTICE instead of in memes – reminded me why I’m still devoted to this way of life.
I love teaching. I got to create my own curriculum for this study, custom-built for my beloved congregation, which is one of those tiny, mighty things with huge impact, a place where we try, together to practice mercy and justice in material ways. Our congregation, like most congregations, has gotten even tinier over the last year, and studying Jesus’ teachings about the power of small things to surprise and delight has been hopeful. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to things like mustard seeds and yeast, turns our attention away from kings and politicians and power brokers to laborers, outsiders, widows and enemies. I suspect that we would all do well to shift our attention in this way, right here and right now – fewer fear mongering notifications on our cell phones and more time spent chatting with our neighbors, less time wallowing in the headlines and more time noticing what’s going on down the street, down the stairs, in our kitchens, in our gardens.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The kingdom of God is like yeast. The kingdom of God is like someone who leaves all they have to find the one lost thing, their one lost kid, and throws a party when she’s found. The kingdom of God is like your sworn enemy saving your life. The kingdom of God is like Universal Basic Income. The kingdom of God is like…this: