Short Stories By Jesus Sermon Series Introduction
September 10, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan
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“Short Stories by Jesus”
Rev. Melanie Homan
September 10, 2017
Scripture – Matthew 13:10-17
10 Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets[b] of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 13 The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. 15 For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
This past summer, I went with the youth on their Appalachian Service Project trip. Eriks Dunens and I led a work team of youth, and we built a back porch, a front porch, and the youth did some roofing. It was a great experience, and I learned some new things. For instance, I learned how to measure the rise and run of stairs in order to make the right cuts for runners. I learned how to build a porch. These were things I didn’t know how to do at first, but learned over the course of the week by reading the ASP construction manual, listening to our homeowner who worked with us, and watching YouTube videos. There is a YouTube video for everything – if you don’t know how to do something, YouTube can show you!
For all of the learning and practical knowledge I came home with, there was one thing that I never quite got the hang of. Our whole work team kept each other entertained throughout the week by telling riddles. Here was one of the riddles that Eriks shared:
Two mothers and two daughters go fishing. Each catches one fish and one fish only. All the fish caught are taken home and, when they arrive, only three fish are present. None were eaten or lost along the way. How is this possible?
My response was always the same…. “I don’t get it.” “It’s not possible. How can there only be three fish. There should be four.” The kids would then try to give me hints because they would figure it out right away, but their clues were as impossible to understand as the original riddles. They were very patient. I was not patient. I would demand, “Tell me the answer!!!”, and they would keep giving me hints. I didn’t want hints. I wanted the answer, because I didn’t understand. They would eventually tell me the answer. Do any of you know the answer?
“It was a grandmother, mother, and daughter.”
I would shake my head and say, “That’s ridiculous!”
It would go on like this ALL DAY LONG.
When is a door not a door?
One by one, in order to not give away the answer, each youth would say, “Oh, I got it! I know it!” I would say, “A door is a door. It’s always a door. I don’t get it.”
One of them would finally say “When it’s ajar. Get it? (A Jar.) Ha ha ha!” It was often at this point I would do what I tell my little kids to do when they are frustrated. I would take a personal time out. I’d go stretch my legs, get a drink of water, and then come back to the group, ready to keep working. But, they’d still be at it.
A person turns a corner and starts heading home. Along the way, he sees a man in a mask in his way. He turns around and runs the other way. What is going on?
I DON’T GET IT. “Come on. This is an easy one. Think about it.” Any ideas? “It’s a baseball player rounding third base for home plate.” I am not a foolish person, but my brain just does not think well in riddles! The youth, on the other hand? Well, not only were they really good at the riddles, they never tired of them. And they even created their own new ones, on the spot.
So, what do riddles have to do with anything??? Well, they have a lot to do with what we’re going to spend the entire fall thinking about. Riddles are a lot like parables! For the rest of the fall, we are going to dive deep into Jesus’ parables or, as Amy-Jill Levine calls them in her book, “Short Stories. (By Jesus)”.
The disciples asked Jesus a lot of questions. They were always asking him questions because they were as confused and clueless about Jesus’ teachings as I am about riddles. One of the questions that they asked Jesus was, “Why do you speak in parables?” WHY?!?!? It’s a good question!
In order to answer the question of “why” Jesus spoke in parables, we first need to understand what a parable is. One way to think of it is as a short story. For Jesus, some of these short stories are REALLY short, as in one sentence. They are tweetable!
The word parable comes from the Greek word “parabole”, which means “set side by side”. When things are set side by side, they are compared. When Jesus told parables about the Kingdom of heaven, he said, “The kingdom of heaven IS LIKE a mustard seed.” Or, “The kingdom of heaven IS LIKE yeast.” Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of heaven to something else, whether it’s a seed, yeast, a lost sheep or a coin. He took ordinary objects or situations that people could relate to, and compared them to things that people had a hard time understanding.
But, in the Interpretation Series on Matthew, behind Matthew’s Greek stand the Hebrew Scriptures, and a similar word for parable in Hebrew is mashal. Mashal are a little more nuanced. Mashal are “statements whose meaning are not immediately apparent.”[i] “In Ezekiel (17:2), the prophet is instructed by God. “Son of Man, propound a riddle, and speak a mashal to the house of Israel.” “A mashal is a riddle, intended to tease the mind into insight rather than communicate a simple idea by means of an illustration.”
It turned out that our youth, with all of their riddles, were using a form of teaching that Jesus often used. The point of Jesus’ parables was to both conceal and reveal at the same time. The problem is, we’ve heard the parables so often that they no longer come across as confusing riddles. But, they were meant to confuse. They were meant to make us do a double take, to say, “Wait a second, I don’t get it. What are you trying to say?” Jesus wanted us to do more than listen, he wanted us to THINK, as well[ii].
Levine writes, in her introduction on Jesus’ parables, that all too often we teach our kids the “simple lesson” of Jesus’ parables and stop there. We take a parable, like the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son, and come away with the simple instruction that “God loves us.” And, we are to “forgiven” and “be kind”. God DOES love us and we SHOULD be kind and forgiving. But, we are missing out on a lot of what Jesus is teaching us in the parables. “If we stop with the easy lessons, good though they may be, we lose the way Jesus’ first followers would have heard the parables, and we lose the genius of Jesus’ teaching. Those followers, like Jesus himself, were Jews, and Jews knew that parables were more than children’s stories or restatements of common knowledge. They knew that parables and the tellers of parables were there to prompt them to see the world in a different way, to challenge and, at times, to indict.”[iii]
If you hear Jesus’ parables and come away with a simple platitude, then you’ve probably missed part of what he’s trying to say or ignored something that we don’t want to hear. Jesus’ parables are often not agreeable, they’re typically complex, and a good number of them produce more confusion than understanding.[iv]
In Matthew, Mark, AND Luke, there is some version of a scene where the disciples asked Jesus why he taught them in parables. His answer was as confusing as his stories. He referred back to the prophet Isaiah and said, “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive.” Our hearts have grown dull, our ears hard of hearing, and we have shut our eyes, perhaps because we do not want to hear the implications of what Jesus has to say. But, even so, Jesus said “Blessed are those who seek to understand, who long to see and long to hear and long to turn their hearts toward God.”
So, we open ourselves – our eyes, ears, and hearts – to these teachings of Jesus. We dive deeper, to go beyond the easy answers and to seek more understanding.
The English writer and poet, G.K. Chesterton, had this to say about parables. “If you give people an analogy that they claim they do not understand, you should graciously offer them another. If they say they don’t understand that either, you should oblige them with a third. But, from there on, if they still insist they do not understand, the only thing left is to praise them for the one truth they do have a grip on: ‘Yes’, you tell them, ‘that is quite correct. You do not understand.’”[v] As the youth on my ASP team know, sometimes acknowledging that someone doesn’t understand is the most gracious thing that you can do! The disciples didn’t understand, either. Jesus kept telling parables, and the disciples kept asking questions, and there was concealing and revealing happening the whole time.
That’s our starting place with Jesus’ parables…we do not understand. So, if you already have all the answers or believe you have the ONE answer for how each of Jesus’ parables is to be understood, then this sermon series probably isn’t for you. But, if you’ve read some of Jesus’ teachings and ever found yourself saying “I just don’t get it”, then you’re in the right place!
This morning we are kicking off all of our fall programming, and we’re starting up faith formation classes for children and for youth. But, we also have a bunch of classes for adults, because we are all here to ask questions and grow deeper in our faith. We do so, not only because we believe Jesus’ teachings are foundational to our faith, but because we believe they are meant to guide our actions and how we live.
The staff and I – we are really excited! We’ve been planning for this day for weeks, and it’s finally here! We’re ready to get back into the rhythm and routine of seeing you on Sundays and Wednesdays and other days in between. We’re excited to worship with you and learn with you and serve with you. And we hope you’re excited, too. And if you’re new to this community – we are really glad that you’re here. Your presence – your ideas – your questions – they help all of us learn together. Welcome home! Amen.
[i] Interpretation Series, Matthew, page 146.
[ii] Levine, Amy-Jill, Short Stories by Jesus, Harper One, 2014, page 3.
[iii] Levine, page 4.
[iv] Capon, Robert Farrar, The Parables of the Kingdom, Eerdmands Publishing, 1985, page 1.
[v] Capon, page 8.