Then the disciples came and asked (Jesus), “Why do you speak in parables?”
Jesus answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 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. 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.’
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. 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.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 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.”Matthew 13:10-17
Someone once wrote a letter to Louis Brandeis, a justice of the US Supreme Court for many years back in the 1940’s, who also happened to be Jewish, why it was that it seemed that Jews so often answered a question with another question. Brandeis, always circumspect and analytical, replied, “Why not?”
To be perfectly clear, in this passage of scripture, Jesus did not answer these questions from his disciples with a question. He was more straightforward in this answer than he often was; but in telling them that some would understand him more clearly than others, and that some would never understand at all, doesn’t really seem to be all that helpful. That it would be true, though, seems undeniable.
Jesus lived in volatile times…and his messages were sometimes more ‘coded’ than at other times, veiled references intended for varied audiences and purposes. His ministry wasn’t just filled with long lakeshore walks, or retreats into the desert for ‘re-centering’.
He lived as a part of a well-regulated population carefully managed by Roman occupiers, with Temple taxes and tributes regularly sent back to Caesar. The Temple leadership in Jerusalem had been co-opted by those politically & religiously compromised, with loyalties divided between Caesar and the Lord God.
So today we are invited to take a new look at Jesus and his teachings, after he’d been with the disciples for some time, 40 days, post-resurrection and pre-ascension. You remember how it was that Jesus gave a ‘primer’ to Cleopas & his friend on the road to Emmaus and later to the other disciples by the sea of Galilee, after breakfast. Jesus recounted the words of the prophets about his own identity and purpose; his redemptive death and the new hope he embodied. His conversations with them confirmed for the disciples who Jesus was and what he taught. As the scholars put it, Jesus’ life, words and work were ‘vindicated’ by his resurrection, but the disciples needed a thorough reminding. And after this reminding, then, we have the gospels… So we go back to the basic reasons that the gospels were written…they are three, and it took some twenty years between Jesus’ ascension and the first ‘publications’ of the Gospels as we know them now.
First, the anticipated “end” had not yet come… Jesus’ Second Coming had not taken place, and the disciples decided it would be good to record in print (on vellum), what he said for others, and not to just share verbally, as had been the custom.
Second, the first generation of believers were now dying off (so it was important to get the story straight, and not to embellish or elaborate.)
And third, other versions were already being written, ‘apocryphal gospels’ that is, ‘unauthorized and fictitious’ that exist to this day (with some very different tales & views of Jesus.)
So it is that we will spend our Sizzlin’ Summer Sermon Series in this 2020 this season, focusing on Jesus’ words; his Ipsissima verba, (the very words he spoke) specifically in the parables.
Now, remember that Jesus wasn’t a Rabbi in the sense that we think of now…he served no specific congregation, and he wasn’t a priest or a prophet, either, in the ways we think of them. In the ancient Near East there was another recognized spiritual occupation, rare and unofficial, yet very influential, a moshel moshelim, or teacher of wisdom, one who taught from scripture and tradition of the reconciliation of life with our Creator and neighbor alike. (See the work, particularly, of Cynthia Bourgeault; https://cynthiabourgeault.org )
These teachers, among whom were the authors of Hebrew wisdom literature like Ecclesiastes, Job, and Proverbs— were the early forerunners to the rabbis who interpreted the law and lore of Judaism (often creating their own innovations of each).
The hallmark of these wisdom teachers was their use of pithy sayings, puzzles, and parables rather than prophetic pronouncements or divine decree. They spoke to people in the language that people spoke, through stories rather than 3 point sermons or long diatribes.
Jesus asked timeless and deeply personal questions: What does it mean to die to life before you are dead? How do you go about losing your life to save it? Is it possible to live on this earth with generosity, abundance, fearlessness, and beauty that mirrors God’s goodness? Big questions, paradigm shifting questions, indeed.
So as I’ve been thinking about how we understand Jesus’ teachings- writing my sermon at home, gazing at my walls, my eyes came upon what I think might be a pretty good illustration of the paradigm shift Jesus invites us into. (Show “Regina Europa’ slide!)
I bought this print in 1982, while I was visiting the city of Prague, in Czechoslovakia (as it was back then, behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.) Something in it caught my eye then; I think I knew what it was right away, and it has recaptured my imagination over these past few days- staring at it like a puzzle that finally spoke to me in a new language. This map was drawn in the year 1587, by Heinrich Bunting, and it was intended to send a clear message, to portray the supremacy of Spain as the crown of all of Europe, and the city of Prague, in Bohemia, as it’s heart. I’ve done a bit of research about this map, and it wasn’t the only one of its kind in its day. It was a popular way to teach a little geography and a lot of political theory. So if you grew up with this map in your schoolbooks or on your classroom wall, you would grow up learning and believing that Spain was indeed the crown jewel, the brains, the best of Europe. (If you remember, 1587 was the year before the vaunted Spanish Armada was to set sail against England, which ended disastrously for the Spanish, by the way.)
That’s the way it was in 1587. In 1588 things began to change for Spain, and not for the better. The point of this is map is to glorify the kingdom of Spain, to have this image embedded in your consciousness. But what it was that I saw anew in this map this week, and what struck me the very first time I saw the map, was that I was alot happier being in the heart of the continent than part of the crown. Somehow I just felt better in the midst of the ‘beating heart’, the source of the lifeblood and energy of the continent, than as the alleged brains of the operation….. But maybe that’s just me. (How about you?) Somehow, I’ve also remembered one of the best titled books I’ve ever read which did not live up to it’s title. “The Exact Location of the Soul” is a collection of essays by a surgeon and author, Richard Selzer, that is remarkable for skirting the topic of it’s title, but it does have you wonder where that spark of a soul resides in each one of us….in the head, the heart, where, exactly is God in us?
Now Jesus was no physician or cartographer (though, according to John’s gospel, he was known to draw in the sand now & then.) Jesus’ messages came in word pictures, stories that embodied a basic message of love of God, self, and neighbor alike. He didn’t spend time articulating the 613 laws that are recorded in Hebrew scripture, but rather in crafting stories, comparisons, analogies, images that would both capture one’s attention and draw one closer to a deeper self, to others, and God. There are far too many examples to illustrate this point (and that’s what our sermon series is for.) So today I want you to consider one single, overarching example.
Jesus’ life in itself was a living parable. That he embodied consistent, persistent non-violence and gracious generosity, heavenly healing powers and even power over the forces of nature is one thing (and these acts and miracles surely stand on their own), but that he was also subject to all the humanness that you and I endure as well, hunger and loneliness, and especially his horrible and tragic death, makes his words and his way all the more compelling, even though we surely do not understand it all…
It may seem strange that as a teacher Jesus was prepared to be misunderstood but, like every good teacher, he wanted his hearers to do some work themselves. He wants us to receive the word in our hearts, into the core of who we are and for us to make the personal connections that make his messages meaningful. It may take us some time to appreciate the fact that Jesus trusts us to understand his message in our personal and particular way. But that’s how it is, even especially for us now- as dispersed in worship as we are.
So it’s particularly fitting that our first sermon in this parable season leads us into the Lord’s Supper, for it in itself enacts a lived-out parable. The symbolism is ancient and perhaps all too familiar, but the meaning is palpable.
It is Jesus’ life- given for us, God’s life- shared with us; our lives- given for us to share with one another.
As much as we might want to debate the ‘nature’ of this sacrament, what exactly happens when we take this life-giving gift to all of us; this much is sure.
In these moments, God arrives, in our hearts and into our bodies anew, in blessing and hope, with a promise into eternity to be with us as our Lord and our guide.
God joins in us as we join in this event, and we are drawn together in ways we do not yet know to become part of the body of Christ anew… a people who look to Jesus, and pay attention, who listen and seek to learn once more the ways of God with us, that we can live as Christ’s with one another.