Sermons

The Power of the Parables (a.k.a. The Enigmatic Stories of Jesus)

Painting by Melanie Ukosakul

Painting by Melanie Ukosakul

Last week I had the chance to preach at the Cascadia Worship & Arts Conference, presented by the Fuller Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture. You can listen to the longer version of the sermon by clicking the link below. I used different images, music, and it had an interactive component. If you prefer to read it, scroll down and check out my basic manuscript.

Here is the key idea:

Art, music, and story move us. They get us out of our heads and into our hearts. That is why the church has historically used images and symbols, song and rituals, different liturgies to connect us to the heart of God.

Parables add color, mystery, and space for the complexity of what Jesus is trying to convey. Rather than give simple answers, they expose the massiveness of the question: “What is the kingdom of God like?” (Luke 13:18) 


 

The Power of the Parables (Mark 4:30-34)

Do you ever get so caught up in a story that you lose your sense of time? Before you know it, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and you’re still reading? I was on a plane a few months ago and watched a movie about jazz music, a young drummer, and a controversial instructor. The story was so good and something about it connected with me so much that I watched it a second time—on the same flight.

Have you ever heard a kid say, “Please mom, come curl up next to me and tell me a bunch of facts! Come read to me a list of bullet points!” No way! They say, “come, tell me a story.” And when we finish, they often say, “tell it again!”

Stories not only engage us, they have the power to change us and change the world.

Before Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, Christmas was a minor holiday, a passing fad. But people got caught up in the spirit of Christmas, the charity and good cheer told by Dickens. And because Scrooge bought the Cratchits a turkey for Christmas dinner, we’ve been eating them during the holidays ever since.

During the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” – the book was Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

And today, Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me is reshaping the conversation about and our understanding of race. It is very worth reading.

Stories sweep us up into a plot and take us on a journey. After firsthand experience — they are the quickest way for us to learn.

They offer us an alternative vision of reality; they open us up to new possibilities for ourselves and for the world. As they draw us in, they surprise us with how they move us, challenge us, and shape us.

I looked at several lists of stories that changed the world — and all of them included the Bible. Regardless of religious belief, people cannot deny the influence of God’s Story in the world.

The Gospel writers say that Jesus, “spoke to [the crowds] only in parables” (4:34). They make up more than a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. Depending on who’s counting, there are somewhere between 37-65 parables in the Bible.

Parables are hard to count because they hard to define and categorize.

The most common word I found in commentaries describing these stories is *enigmatic* — a great word — meaning: difficult to interpret or understand; mysterious.

Enigma would make a great band name…

Jesus uses these enigmatic stories that are perplexing, elusive, challenging, and unsettling.

Often they lead to more questions than they do answers.

Their reach is so broad — there is something in them for everyone. Jesus speaks parables to disciples and skeptics alike. He tells these stories to crowds that include religious zealots and pagans; lawyers and blue-collar workers; educated and uneducated; men and women; young and old.

The Gospels tell us in multiple places that Jesus’ enigmatic stories were for anyone who has ears to listen. Their essence is that something hidden is being revealed in their telling—so we should pay attention.

And like any good story, Jesus told them more than once. They were repeated by his followers. Today across many cultures, all you need to do is say “Good Samaritan” or “Prodigal Son” and people instantly recognize the story — whether they are Christian or not.

The reactions to the parables vary as well. Scan through the Gospels and note what surrounds each one: Some people are repulsed by them. Some keep their distance. Some get confrontational and angry. Others have no response and are left speechless. Some answer back with a religious platitude so Jesus tells them another parable to challenge them, as if rolling his eyes at their shallowness. And often even Jesus’ core disciples are simply confused by them.

Parables are meant to provoke and inspire. They are works of art and weapons of war in Jesus hand — they both delight and offend. They have subtext that both challenges the system and reveals God’s kingdom.

To what then shall we liken the parables?

Consider:

A few weeks ago I was preparing to help lead worship for a conference event. I was practicing the chord progressions for a song that has a lot of jazz, gospel, and funk influence. At one point in the song it does this vamping that includes diminished chords.

Here’s the thing with diminished chords. A diminished chord sounds like this [play dim chord]. When you hear it all by itself, you wonder what is going on. You question if the musician knows what they are playing or if their fingers are hitting the wrong notes. [play dim chord] Without context, diminished chords are puzzling and startling. This is why the sound of a train whistle is a diminished chord. You hear it and hope that thing is going somewhere fast. [play dim chord]

Before the 1900s, the diminished chord was considered so unstable and dissonant, it came to be known as “The Devil’s Interval”. People didn’t like that it made them feel uncomfortable. Hearing a perfect 5th [play chord] feels better than the unsettling feeling we get when we hear this [play diminished chord].

Some Christians even banned diminished chords from being used in Gospel music because of how “outside-the-box” they are. It’s not surprising because according to music theorists, their very nature is to “challenge the structural supremacy of the tonic-dominant axis.” [play diminished chord]

I really have no idea what that means — but you don’t have to understand music theory to experience the perplexing power of a diminished chord to evoke mystery, stir emotion, or add color and intrigue into a song. Good musicians use them to create connections, tension, and help bring resolution in a song.

There’s a song I recently learned that uses a diminished chord: All Your Works Are Good begins clean – using G D C chords in the verses. But when we get to the chorus, there is the unexpected use of the Bdim as we sing the line “all your works are good”. Listen again to how it sounds:

When I first heard All Your Works Are Good, I couldn’t get the song out of my mind. While the lyrics are based on Psalm 104, the music adds these necessary layers that connect with our experience beyond the words. All God’s works are good, but even in the acknowledgment of that, we sometimes experience dissonance and tension. The diminished chord allows us to feel the mystery, the paradox, the complexity of what we are singing.

The parables are like the diminished chords of Scripture. Jesus playing jazz.

They are hard to explain, but they make for some great and powerful music. They have to be felt and experienced in context in order to be appreciated—and they are worth listening to over and over again.

You can’t deny the power of music to move us. Thursday I’m in a coffee shop and they are blasting Tina Turner. I look around and people are at their computers working, but I see a little shoulder action, people mouthing the words. It was simply the best. Until Saturday, when I went in and they were playing Michael Jackson’s Thriller — spontaneous dance party!

This is what art and music and story do—they move us—they get us out of our heads and into our hearts.

That is why the church has historically used images and symbols, song and rituals, different liturgies to connect us to the heart of God.

Parables add color, mystery, and space for the complexity of what Jesus is trying to convey. Rather than give simple answers, they expose the massiveness of the question: “What is the kingdom of God like?” (Luke 13:18)

Jesus knows that the kingdom of God is much more than words could ever explain. It is beyond simple truths, trite sayings, or a list of maxims. You don’t follow 3 or 7 steps to the kingdom, and life is more complex than solving y=x. Trying to explain the kingdom is like trying to hold onto water or grab hold of air. They are essential elements for life, but their fullness is hard to contain.

Jesus knows that the most effective sermons don’t tell people what to think.

He chooses the paradoxically more effective indirect path rather than direct path in order to reach into the heart.

Jesus reveals who God is by asking questions and telling enigmatic stories. By doing so, he sparks the imagination, piques our curiosity, and makes us the hearer have to work to arrive at the meaning.

Parables awaken us to the mystery of God’s kingdom and allow it’s reality to become more deeply engraved in us.

These stories are so powerful, that many “were enthralled with what they heard.” (Luke 19:48) People leave jobs and family behind to follow Jesus and hear more. Lives are changed and communities are transformed. Souls are stirred and hope is infused into the core of people’s being.

Do you want to experience wonder? Do you desire to be drawn into something way beyond yourself, yet something that will cause you to know the depths of who you are meant to be? Do you long for real, lasting transformation in your life, in the lives of others, and in our world? Are you at all curious what God’s kingdom is really like?

If you have have ears to hear, pay attention! God is speaking—though it may surprise you how.

Jesus says, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider” this…(4:30) Although his style is enigmatic, Jesus uses the ordinary, things true to life, something relatable and he invites us to “imagine a world like this.” He tells a story.

He talks about a mustard seed, a woman making bread, a lamp, salt, farmers, and those who travel. He talks about losing things, and what it’s like to find them.

The stories tend to be pretty short. One parable is not big enough to contain all there is to know about God’s kingdom, so he tells lots of them. Because he uses the everyday stuff of life, they connect people to our common humanity and the mystery that is hidden right in front of us. But his stories are also rooted in 1st century Palestinian culture—so we need to do a little background work to understand their depth.

The parable of the mustard seed is told in three of the Gospels. In Mark 4, Jesus says, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

That’s it. Short and sweet. So what do we do when hear a parable?

Klyne R. Snodgrass, which seems like an appropriate name for a biblical commentator, suggests we should ask this key question: “How did Jesus seek to change attitudes and behaviors with this parable?” (pg. 3) That is, expect that these are not just stories for the sake of entertainment — these are stories with intent. Jesus is seeking to engage you, provoke you, move you, expand your horizons, or compel you into action. These stories are meant to transform us, inspire us, and create something in us.

We pay attention to the few details we have: Mustard seeds, a vegetable plant, branches, birds, and shade.

We notice that there seems to be a comparison of some kind between something that is the smallest and something that is the largest.

There is an element of time that goes by and significant growth / production that occurs.

But then things get tricky. If the comparison is too obvious — it makes us yawn; yet if we get too crazy trying to squeeze out every subtext or possible meaning, we end up manipulating the story to serve our own agendas or preconceived ideas.

The challenge is that Jesus leaves a lot open to interpretation. And many people are quick to offer their opinions.

What kind of mustard seed is this? Where and how does it grow? Why does he say “the smallest of all the seeds” when there are other seeds that are even smaller?

Why does one Gospel say the seed grows into a vegetable, another calls it a shrub, and another a tree?  Mustard seeds do not grow to become trees per se—so is this some kind of miracle transformation? And how do branches fit in? Does a mustard plant really grow large enough to have a bunch of birds hanging out in it’s branches?

Some say it’s all about the mustard – it’s healthy properties and ability to cure certain ailments. Or they talk about the flavor it adds when you heat the oil and throw it in the pan. It actually pops with tastiness.

Some get caught up in Old Testament regulations about planting things. And then there are those verses about birds—do the birds just mean birds or do they also represent the nations? Does the tree represent power and control, and why not talk about the great cedar tree rather than this odd mustard plant?

As with so many parables, we are left with more questions than we have answers.

Jesus enigmatic style leaves him open and vulnerable to a lot of misunderstanding.

Remember, when not heard in context, the parables lose their jazzy, colorful effect and leave us either covering our ears or settling for something less than what can be.

It’s interesting that Jesus could have told people exactly what to think. He could have told them all the answers and outlined a step by step 30 day plan to effectively live the kingdom life. But he didn’t. He chose to leave a lot of room for interpretation and application. He chose to remain allusive, ask more questions, and to make us think for ourselves.

In telling parables, Jesus leaves room for the spaciousness of God’s kingdom. He’s an artist who knows not to limit the expansiveness of who God is and who we are as those created in His image by trying to explain too much.

When we attend to his stories, their meaning grows, and it moves us.

By leaving so much room for interpretation, he makes an open invitation to anyone and everyone to hear and participate in kingdom discovery— if they choose to listen. No one in the crowd needs to be left out. God’s kingdom reaches to all of us.

Scholars tend to agree on a few things about this parable:

God’s kingdom is not necessarily what we would expect.

Like a mustard seed, the kingdom may seem unimpressive and insignificant at first glance. It may even go unnoticed, and is ignored by many. It may seem hidden and imperceptible. But this kingdom is more than meets the eye. Regardless of how we perceive its beginnings, God’s kingdom is here and it is significant.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21) Kingdom seeds have been planted all around you. You who have ears to hear and eyes to see—pay attention!

We can also agree that there is a process, a journey, time between the seed being planted and what is produced. There is a lot that happens outside of our control or our own doing. Yet God’s purposes are accomplished. His kingdom is established. And while we may not be sure what exactly it grows into — we know that it does grow into something significant. God’s kingdom produces safety, security, and shade. It’s creates a landing place of rest.

The parable, while not filling in the details of how long it will take, or what it looks like exactly, seems to imply trust in the process. Trust that God is doing what he said he would do. His kingdom has come, is coming—and will come in it’s fullness. As it does, it is something good and desirable.

I want to end by asking you some questions — I want to invite you to think for yourself.

  • What if you allowed yourself to get caught up in God’s Story and let it to engage you, transform you, and move you into action?
  • How do you cultivate curiosity about what God may want to reveal to you about Himself, about His kingdom, and about who you truly are? How will you make yourself attentive to what God may be saying?
  • Are you willing to open yourself to hear what God might be saying to you through his word, through art, liturgy, and worship?
  • What would happen if you allowed seeds of the kingdom to be sown, take root, and grow in your life? What might that look like for you?
  • What other questions, images, actions have been prompted in you by listening today? What is stirring inside your soul?

So many questions…

I want to offer us a moment of silence, but you may also want to visit the rotunda where the visual arts are and spend time reflecting. We will have these mustard seeds relocated there and I invite you to take some, scatter them in your neighborhood, in the parking lot at work, or in your back yard. Pray for God’s kingdom to spring up and grow in your midst. Do as you feel moved to do. I don’t want to limit your options! Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you.


Recommended Resources:

Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables by Klyne R. Snodgrass

STORIES WITH INTENT

Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine

The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi: Short Stories by Jesus

“Parables As Imagination” by Scot McKnight (a series of posts)

“Purposeful Parables” by Laura C.S. Holmes 

 

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