Thought for the week - 16 July
Over the next few weeks we will hear some of the parables of Jesus. They’re lively, punchy stories and they stick in your mind, and that’s the point really. They are simple, short snippets about real life and it’s hard, once remembered, not to be nourished and guided by them – partly because they are what Jesus said, therefore worth remembering, they are not possible to change nor indeed to infer too many meanings to, making them impervious to the kind of Biblical contortion so popular in the Russian Church and the American right wine evangelical sects.
One of the joys of them is that they call us to imitate them, those of us who have to preach – and that means everyone, all of us. Preaching is neither the preserve of the clergy to give nor the conduit of personal thoughts, but an eloquent explanation of how we live. We all have times when we should say something helpful, based in scripture, to someone in need. It happens more often than we realise. We should imagine doing it, practice doing it, and do it, in church and all our life. Preaching is done by our actions more than our lips – and that’s maybe another reason that the parables are so eloquent because they show us people doing things and by the things they do, we find faith.
Parables and the teachings of Christ help us to understand ourselves by shaping our lives into some manageable form, but the parables and teaching of Christ are designed to make us understand that unless we see ourselves as inside the stories, we will not understand them, in the same way that if we do not live our faith, then preaching and talking about it are hopeless, just an academic exploration of ideas and personally I would find better things to do on a Sunday morning. This is why some churches die – because, to put it bluntly, they don’t practice what they preach. And the parables help us to overcome that tendency and to come to an understanding of who we are and our relationship with God and each other.
The good wheat, the good seed (which, may I suggest, is scattered willy nilly) the good fish which are worth catching, the man who sells everything he has for the treasure he has found, the woman who puts yeast into the bread, so that good bread may grow, these are all the people who understand the parables. If we don’t see that we are in these parables and not merely reading them, we will not understand them and we will not understand God.
There is a story in the histories of Herodotus showing us the value of parables. The ruler of Corinth, Periander sends a messenger to the ruler of Milesus, requesting his opinion on a matter of governance. The messenger returns flustered and uncertain of the message he carries- even if he carries one at all. The ruler of Milesus seemed to ignore completely the message that he messenger bore and immediately walked out of the city walls with the messenger and begun to hack away at the tallest corn in the field and then he goes back into his palace and dismisses the messenger who returns to Corinth and recounts, in fear, what has happened. Periander understands immediately.
The ruler is telling him he must cut down the most powerful members of society in Corinth in order to survive. So why did he give this message in a parable? Simply because only someone who is attuned to the ways of these rulers would understand, the messenger, being but a messenger, does not understand at all. Herodotus however makes it clear in his commentary that this brutality would not last and was ultimately self-destructive, which is another thing about parables - they can have different meanings for people who choose to deliberately misread them, because they are not an order, but an example of how to conform our life to that of Christ.
So even the way Christ explains his parables to the disciples and to us is not sufficient. The disciples and us must learn more for themselves, by the lives they and we lead. These parables are about growth because understanding changes over time. So does misunderstanding. We pray every day, examine our conscience, try to take on more responsibilities for the good of our neighbour, and yet all the time, there are other things growing within us. We distort the message, the seed does not grow, and it fails to achieve any growth.
It is fear more than anything else which is the reason for the bad soil. We are afraid of persecution, which in these times, means we have an urge to conform. We worry about things which are out of our control, we seek riches because we think that money will protect us. The remedy for fear is hope. These parables, if we allow ourselves to live in them, as well as by them, will teach us what it means to live a hopeful life and a life more closely grafted to the vine of our salvation than we could ever manage alone. But they are to be lived, and we are to live in love and hope.