Scripture Matthew 13:47-50; Luke 12:13-21
by Rev. Laurie Williams
Last week, I preached about knowing the stories of our Bible so as to enable us to tell them to others, if the context is right for a particular teaching. For example, you are in a coffee shop that has a donations box on the counter for a charity you care about, so you put in $10. The person behind you says, “Why would you waste good money on that? It could buy you almost 2 more lattes!” You say, “As a Christian, Jesus taught that we are to help others.” At that point you could summarize the Parable of the Good Samaritan or tell about the poor widow who gave her last 2 pennies to God’s ministry on earth. Or, you could paraphrase that parable and that story into something understandable for today. You cannot tell the Parable of the Good Samaritan or about the poor widow or even paraphrase one or both of those, if you don’t know and study those stories so as to understand how to best utilize them. The person behind you may well say, “I’m sorry I asked!” still, maybe a seed has been planted!
Of course, another point of knowing our faith story is that it increases our faith especially as you are able to apply it to your own life. That comes about through interpretation in worship and through preaching, through personal study and prayer, and, importantly, through group study exploring meanings and challenges of the faith story for our lives today. Jesus was a great storyteller. I would say, the best storyteller. He taught in various ways including a lecture- or classroom-style teaching such as in the Sermon on the Mount using such common images as salt and light in order to teach people how God wants them to live.
The teaching style Jesus’ employs the most is the genre of parables. According to Amy-Jill Levine who wrote Jesus, the consummate storyteller, explains: The New Testament is replete with genres: healing narratives, genealogies, nativity stories, letters, (and) apocalyptic (or end times) literature. Parables are one of those genres.” She explains, “Our problem today is we’re less familiar with the genre, and it’s hard to fully appreciate them. We’re not going to understand how a parable was originally heard; (we have to interpret it for today)”. You heard two of such parables read in the second and third scripture lessons this morning and likely, you would have several questions to help in your understanding of them. I will explain those two parables later.
The style of the parable makes Jesus somewhat unique. Although, there are a few parables in the Old Testament such as the parables of the Two Eagles or the Dry Bones in Ezekiel, telling how the Lord will make the land and people of God fertile in the place where the Jewish exiles were taken by their conquerors. The Pharisees used parables too but mostly to instruct in the Jewish Law and Prophets teachings. The life and vitality of Jesus’ stories, the vivid imagery he engages or the ordinary life he draws upon, tend to be absent from their many of their parables.
Jesus, the great, insightful, storyteller, who often captured the imaginations of his audience, makes use of parables to generate a major point for the life of the listener or, as is the case on down to us since his death, the reader. He often employs the use of contrasts such as light and dark, rich and poor, the righteous and the cast out. By using open-ended parables, Jesus challenged his listeners to think and engage in the story. The allegories he uses, draw upon their real-life situations and strongly invites reflection for one’s own life. His parables often contain some element that is strange or unusual making them memorable and, frequently, would push the boundaries of excepted social or religious convention as would be the case, even, today. Many of his parables highlight the mercy of God toward sinners, all people, for “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” the apostle Paul explains.
At times, the parables seem exaggerated to us such as the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, known by some today as The Generous Owner, wherein the owner pays the same amount of money to those who started working late in the afternoon as he gives to those who started early in the morning. While that may seem exaggerated and not something we could or even should follow today, Jesus would challenge us to think about the generosity of the owner and what that teaches us today. How may we go against societal norms and be way more generous than one would expect?
The Gospels, meaning good stories, of Matthew, Mark and Luke tell most of the parables. John more often uses other genres that show Jesus’ great storytelling abilities. Each Gospel has parables unique to their book. Mark features the least parables at 6 and only 1 is unique to his book. Matthew presents 10 parables that are solely his and Luke tells 16 distinctive parables. Matthew is a little more black and white in his telling of the parables while Luke tends to add a little more color and sparkle to the telling of Jesus’ parables. For example, in the telling of the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Luke tells the conclusion of the story as the ecstatic shepherd finding the struggling lost sheep then, running to tell others, friends, family and neighbors: “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep”. Matthew merely says that the shepherd was happy. He gets the point across but it may be less engaging and enlightening. As you likly know, the shepherd is Jesus and the sheep are people who are often lost to God’s will and ways, believer or non-believe alike. Jesus rejoices when he finds the wayward, lost or wandering soul and brings that person back or into the fold of faith in him, while then living as he teaches.
The, often, open-ended parables leave room for our interpretation. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as it is best known, or the Parable of the Forgiving Father spoken of more these days, we know that the youngest son demanded his inheritance right then and there. That would have been highly unusual. He takes the money and goes far away and spends it on the high and, we may say, immoral life until he ends up feeding pigs, a very lowly job, in a pig pen. He has a eureka(!) moment when he decides to go back to his father and humbly ask for forgiveness and even to be his servant. When he gets close to home, his father sees him, he was unannounced so obviously his parent was looking for him day in and day out, who then picks up his robes, exposing his legs, a definite ‘no, no!’ with a great deal of a lack of dignity, and runs to him, embracing the ‘lost’ younger son before the son can get a word out. The father throws him a welcome home party instead of treating him like the terrible sinner he had become. The oldest son is totally disgruntled and angry about this and leaves the house. The father notices and goes after him explaining why he is doing this for his youngest son was lost and now is found. The older son is still none too happy about this and won’t even call the younger son his brother.
Now,/// we simply don’t know if he goes back into the house accepting his father’s forgiveness for his younger brother or not. Jesus’ profound parable is open-ended for the listener or reader to interpret further for their own life.
While Jesus interprets, to his disciples, a couple or so of his parables, he interprets very few. In this parable, we know that the youngest son is the lost people of God’s creation, the oldest son is righteous (not to be confused with self-righteous even though the oldest son is acting that way), the loving, forgiving parent is God, mercifully and with boundless love, offering forgiveness and greatly rejoicing that the lost has been found and brought back into the faith family.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan nurtures the gravely injured Jewish man back to health while religious authorities have walked by him. This story has most often been interpreted to mean that those who are discriminated against, marginalized or seen as ‘enemy’, are to be viewed, in most cases, as good people too. That is more of a platitude than a parable, however. There is much more meaning in this parable when one looks deeper and reflects on it. A vital, often untold meaning is that the Samaritan was considered an enemy of the Jew (and visa versa), yet it is the enemy who helps his enemy. Jesus conveys this story to explain who our neighbor is, a question that was asked of him. An imperative point is that our enemies are also our neighbors, according to scripture, including this story, and should be treated with the love of Jesus Christ. We may not like them, want to be with them or believe in what they do, they may have harmed or belittle us however, we are to love and pray for them.
The two parables read to you this morning are the Parable of the Rich Fool and the Parable of the Fish of Every Kind. The key to the first, the Rich Fool, is summarized in verse 15 as Jesus proclaims: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” This parable is told in the context of a man, presumably a younger son, asking Jesus to arbitrate between him and his older brother whereupon Jesus tells him to “Take care!” He then goes into his story of the Rich Fool who kept building on his wealth and storing more and more by building bigger and bigger barns for himself. But, soon he dies and can’t enjoy his pointless riches. Someone else who didn’t work for that money, those possessions, will get them. Jesus warns against serving money and God for, more often than we’d like to think, the greed for money wins out like it did for the rich fool.
There are two main points here and your reflection on the parable can enable you to take it into a deeper meaning for your life. The first point is that we are not to spend our lives insatiably accumulating wealth. That ought not be our main focus. The second point is that we are not blessed by God to hoard our money for ourselves. We are to help the poor, the outcast, the neighbor in need and the hungry you may never meet. What support do we get and why do we do this, you may ask? In 2nd Corinthians, Paul states: God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that having all contentment in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” We are to trust in God’s goodness and blessings and then, share them with others.
The parable I read about the fish of many kinds tells the story of people fishing for their livelihood as they drag a weighted down net, or dragnet, across the ocean floor and come up with an enormous net full of all kinds of fish. They take them to the shore and start pulling out the ‘good’ fish from the ‘bad’ fish which they throw away. During the end times, and we know not when that is according to Jesus, God’s messengers or angels, will come with God’s judgement upon the people of the earth taking into heaven with them those who have led a good, righteous life in God’s eyes. The remaining people will be cast from God’s sight forevermore. Jesus is saying that there are long-term consequences to our actions. We will be judged according to how we have lived into Christ’s image within us. We surely don’t want to be cast out of God’s sight, eternally, so what do we need to do to ensure that we are with God eternally? As Jesus says, other places, we don’t earn that salvation but we do live into it, act upon and respond to it. What does it mean for you to live into the image of Christ within? What list would you come up with for what you are to do and how you are to behave, differently from what you do now? There is a challenge for you!
Jesus, the great and awesome storyteller wants us to reflect on and be thoughtful about his stories so they will make us better, more righteous and holy, believers. We are to engage with his stories and search out their meaning for our lives instead of passively listening to or reading them. May we all be grateful for Jesus’ teachings and parables for our lives.