Without a Parable

Matthew 13:34-35
David A. Davis
February 26, 2023
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“Without a parable, Jesus told them nothing.” That seems like a stretch. “Without a parable, Jesus told them nothing.” The Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are here in Matthew. Three chapters of Jesus telling them something but not much when it comes to parables. When Jesus sent out the disciples to proclaim the good news, Matthew writes that he sent them out with “the following instructions”. It’s a pretty long list that has no parables.  “Come to me, all you that weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” That doesn’t sound like a parable. “Without a parable, Jesus told them nothing.”

Jesus did tell many, many parables. Just in this 13th chapter, Jesus got into the boat along the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee and sat down. The crowd of listeners stood on the beach. According to Matthew, “Jesus told them many things in parables.” Three times in the same chapter, the reader comes upon this sentence: “He put before them another parable…He put before them another parable… he put before them another parable.” Just before the couplet of verses I offered for your hearing, Jesus told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” That is a whole lot of flour. 144 cups of flour one baker figures. And that would make about 52 loaves of bread. In the 13th chapter of the Book of Matthew “without a parable Jesus told them nothing.”

Indeed, there are more than enough of parables of Jesus to go around. One perhaps could conclude that in the entire corpus of the teaching of Jesus, on average, the content, style, or genre lean toward parables. Or maybe when it comes to the teaching of Jesus, the gospel reader has to know that you’re never far away from a parable. The gospels themselves have enough parables mixed in that they sort of leaven one’s encounter with Jesus. You cannot hear and experience the teaching of Jesus apart from the parables. Can there be a life of discipleship, a walk of faith, without a parable?

The parables of Jesus defy definition; certainly when it comes to a dictionary definition. Listen to a few. “A simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, as told by Jesus in the Gospels”.  Some of them are not all that simple. “A short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.” They are certainly not all allegories. “A succinct, didactic story, in prose or verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles” That just makes parables sound boring. The dictionary of the bible sitting on my shelf begins with “very short stories with a double meaning.” Most parables seem to have a whole lot more meanings than just two. The definition of a parable isn’t very helpful. Because like the grace and love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ, it isn’t always something you understand. It is more often something far beyond words that you experience, you let wash over you. Parables are the same way. You don’t figure them out, crack the code, understand them, as much you experience them, you sit with them, you feel them, even the ones that gnaw at you and never get any “easier”. You allow them to do to you what they must have done to those standing there on the beach who heard them from the lips of Jesus.

To ponder the phrase “without a parable he told them nothing” may be an opportunity to ponder this audacious thought. When it comes to Jesus, his life, his teaching, his death and resurrection, maybe it is all a parable. The entire gospel as parable-like, parabolic. God’s invitation for us to sit with, experience, feel, and yes, maybe once in a while understand the steadfast love of God and God’s bottomless well of grace. It may not be popular to say in a university town with a vast theological library down the street that parables remind us that the life of faith is not always and should not always be about the life of the mind. And neither is an encounter with Jesus the Christ, the Savior of the world, the Son of God. It is the arrogance of human belief to think you can or even have to understand it all. “Without a parable he told them nothing” According to Matthew, Jesus paraphrases the psalmist, “I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” Jesus the Christ, proclaiming in word, in action, in life, and in death God’s plan of salvation and promise of the kingdom of heaven come on earth.

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion the Reformer John Calvin writes about an aspect of his experience and practice of the gospel of Christ that remains a mystery to him. To be specific, Calvin was deep into a theology of the sacraments and the experience of the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper. Of course, he was taking on Roman Catholic understandings of the sacraments and eucharistic theology. After pages and pages and pages and pages writing about the promised and real presence of Christ in communion, Calvin offers a humble deference to the mystery of God. “Now if anyone should ask how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret to lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And, to speak more plainly, I rather experience than understand it. Therefore, I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which a may safely rest. (IV.xvii.32).” I rather experience than understand it and safely rest in the truth of God. John Calvin on the parabolic nature of the presence of Christ. The parable of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus the Christ, proclaiming in word, in action, in life, and in death God’s plan of salvation and promise of the kingdom of heaven come on earth.

I learned a new word sometime in the last three years. The word is “proof”. It is a bit ironic in a sermon on the mystery of the parables that I would share that I have learned a new meaning when it comes to “proof”. I figure it is never a bad thing any at age to be learning new words or new meaning.  This one, “proof”, came to me in the early days of being home during pandemic when my wife Cathy started baking bread; lots and lots of bread. At the time we were also watching every baking and cooking show known to humankind. Turns out Paul Hollywood talks a lot about “proofing the dough, allowing the dough time to proof”.  Maybe I am the only one this morning who never heard that expression until I was nigh on to 60 years. Proofing is all about the yeast doing what is supposed to do to allow the dough to rise, to blossom as some say. Final proofing happens when the dough is allowed to rest, to sit, to be still for a while. I wonder how long it took to allow three measures of flour to proof.

What if Jesus telling “the crowds all these things in parables” was Jesus offering a way for the gift of faith and the call to discipleship to “proof” in the life of his followers. Giving the listeners something they would have to sit with for a while. Providing a means for faith to rest deep within the soul because there is no quick way to experience a parable, no fast answer, no quick takeaway. Parables need time. Jesus and his parables, leavening the life of discipleship in ways our minds don’t always comprehend and our words don’t always declare. Doing unto the least of these. Caring and loving and acting like the one who is a neighbor. Welcoming the stranger with bold hospitality like an embrace of lost child come home. Finding the treasure of God’s forgiveness and going in joy to tell the world. Finding the courage to pray constantly and with persistence. Coming to terms with the reality that you can’t worship God and mammon. Discovering that it is better to give someone else the seat of honor. Finding that the gift of the Holy Spirit and God’s own light can inspire you and empower you to keep your own lamp burning when the world’s darkness can be so crushing. Parables doing what they are supposed to do. Allowing the parables to do what Jesus intends them to do that our faith, in word and in deed, may blossom in our lives and our witness to him.

“Without a parable, Jesus told them nothing”

Jesus also told them “take, eat, this is my body….Drink from it all of you, this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”.

Come to the table this morning and sit with it all for a while. The promised, the presence, the call of Jesus Christ upon your life. Come, taste and see. Come, that your faith may rest a while.