Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

The Parable of Parables

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The parable of the sower and the seed: We read it today from Luke’s version (Luke 8:4-15).  This is the parable of parables. It is the parable that provides the key to all Jesus parables! Because we hear from his mouth what is the purpose of parables and what is the pedagogy that Jesus employs.

A parable is a simple story from nature or from human society that is nevertheless meant to be more than a simple story. It is meant to be more than a lesson in being nice. Jesus was not interested in teaching people to be nice! The parable is meant to teach the mysteries of the kingdom – the secrets of the kingdom (τα μυστήρια της βασιλείας του θεού).

Luke places this parable differently than Matthew and Mark. Matthew 13 is a chapter of parables of the kingdom: the kingdom as seed, the kingdom is like good seed growing with weeds, the kingdom like mustard seed, the kingdom like yeast, the kingdom is like buried treasure, the kingdom like pearl of great price, the kingdom is like a net cast into the lake. Mostly images from the life of the people who heard Jesus: seed, farming, baking bread, catching fish – pearls and buried treasure, perhaps not so everyday, but things that people often dream of finding, much like people today might dream of winning a big lottery.

Images from life – but why hard to understand? Jesus uses words and images to describe how the Word of God works. They remain as words and images to casual listeners. But don’t just listen to the words! “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words,” Eliza Doolittle cried out.

“Words, words, words,” Hamlet mutters in Act 2 of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

Words can be tiresome, words can be slanderous and deceitful. Jesus used words and images – on the surface obvious, but hiding deep truths which are revealed only to those who have more than ears and eyes; to those whose hearts are eager.

While Matthew used this parable as the opener for a whole series of shorter parables, Luke followed this parable not with other parables, but with some miracles that showed the message of the parable in action.

But first Jesus had to deal with his mother and brothers (8:19-21), who came to see him, perhaps to take him away before he got into trouble. Once a Jewish mother always a Jewish mother. Jesus dismisses them in rather harsh manner: My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it. See? That’s the parable right there – it’s not just about hearing.

Jesus calms the storm (8:22-25).

The demoniac “Legion” (8:26-39).

Jesus heals the woman who was bleeding for 12 years and raises to life a dead girl (8:40-56).

Do you know what I see in these miracles? The real answer to the parable. It’s not as hopeless as it might often appear.

The seed that falls on the path? Like the woman with the hemorrhage, ignored, set aside by society?

The seed that falls on rocks? Like the demoniac perhaps?

The seed that falls among the thorns? Perhaps like the disciples in the storm-tossed boat or the parents of the dead girl, choked by the circumstances?

But do you see the hopeful answers that all these miracles offer to the parable? Can anything be more hopeless than a man possessed by a whole army of demons? Can any heart be more barren and rocky than the heart of that poor soul? No matter how hard, how arid and dry, how full of thorns our life is, the seed can still produce fruit. I had never realized this before, but here it is: The real answer to the parable is not in the allegorical interpretation that the Gospel writers put in the mouth of Jesus. The real answer to the parable is in the miracles that Luke recounts after the parable!

Isaiah 55 is God’s own answer to the question of the efficacy of God’s word (seed):

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

I love this little prayer:

God our Father, your word is accomplished in the coming of your Son. Today it is offered to us in this eucharist. Send us into the world as bearers of the Good News that sets human beings free from this moment forward, forever. Amen.

NOTE TO MY READERS: I have not done much writing lately, and I had no sermon last Sunday (Oct. 4th) because that was the Sunday of our Bishop’s visit and he gave the sermon. I hope that in the weeks to come I’ll be able to post some Bible studies in addition to Sunday sermons. Some physical problems are also playing havoc with my computer time.

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