Note: I am posting a more manuscript version of my sermon because of technical issues with the podcast this week. This was delivered this past Sunday morning during our 11am gathering. Enjoy!
“The Reasons for Parables”
Text: Matthew 13:10-17
On a Sunday similar to this one, in the early fall of 1946, the English novelist George Orwell stood at the front of a church, honoring the enduring legacy of one of the leaders in the Church of England who had recently passed away. Many don’t know this, but Orwell (his real name being Eric Blair) was a very committed Anglican, his faith influencing his writing.
Before he came into the church, he noticed a large tree out front; one that had just started to show its maturity. Some children were climbing in the branches and playing under the shade.
It caused him to share these words:
“A thing which I regret, and which I will try to remedy some time, is that I have never in my life planted a walnut. Nobody does plant them nowadays—when you see a walnut tree it is almost invariably an old tree. If you plant a walnut you are planting it for your grandchildren, and who cares a damn for his grandchildren?”
Setting aside Orwell’s loose lips and candor during a memorial service, the truth is a powerful one. We do not think to plant seeds for a future we will not get to experience. We are doing work, planting things which we will not see grow or mature.
I first shared this quote almost two years ago in this very room as we jointly celebrated the 100-year anniversary of Patterson Park Baptist Church (and their final Sunday as a church) and the first official Sunday morning of Gallery Church Patterson Park. It was a beautiful time and we gave everyone a walnut seed as a way to remember that we are both beneficiaries and builders of the kingdom; a kingdom that did not begin and will not end with us.
The disciples in the first century find themselves in a very similar place. The idea of the “kingdom of God” is not new to them. It has been in the collective conscious of the Jewish people for centuries. It is reawakened every generation with people who attempt to bring in the kingdom politically or militarily by force. It is anticipated as religious leaders come to gain power and influence with the occupying government, in hopes that they will one day plan a sort of coup to overthrow their oppressors. Yet, success would always evade them, and the consequences were not just loss, but death and often a tightening of the shackles on the people: more taxes, more oppression, more laws, more military.
The prophetic words of Isaiah have become painfully true for the people of Israel. Isaiah’s call was to go to speak to a people. We love to read Isaiah 6 up until verse 9, because it paints a picture of the greatness of God and the incredible response of Isaiah to God’s call. “Here am I, send me!”. We love to use this to talk about missions and obedience. But you know what comes after Isa 6:8? Isaiah 6:9!
The LORD tells Isaiah that he will be going to a people who would not understand or repent. As a result, they would experience the judgment of God.
(Read Isa. 6:9-12)
Verse 13: “And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
Judgment and destruction for a people who would not turn to the God that loved them. But also hope…
So, not only had Isaiah’s words come true (in a not so good way), they were also coming true (in a beautiful way!) in the person and work of Jesus. And the disciples are seeing this, but they want to understand why Jesus is speaking in this very strange way to others.
So their question is this: Why did Jesus speak in parables?
For us to seek to answer that question, we will talk about what parables are and what they do.
Parables are an exposition.
Jesus is telling the parable about the sower, seed, and soil in order to communicate something that is happening in the kingdom right now. Again, we will deal with this more fully next week as to what this parable reveals, but Jesus says that these parables have to do with the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.
Parables are not simply just nice, cute stories that use something concrete to explain an abstract reality. On the surface they do that, but Jesus is not simply teaching to convey information. He tells parables to do something: to reveal the kingdom and who is in on it.
As we will come to see more next week as we talk about the meaning of this particular parable, Jesus is describing something that is happening right now.
So, I know some of you have struggled a bit this week with the questions I asked last Sunday, because I didn’t answer them for you. Someone asked me, “Are you going to answer all of those questions this week?” I’ll tell you what I told them: not yet, and I doubt I can answer all of the questions for you. Remember, we need to sit with our questions! We need to engage with Jesus teachings and allow them to do their work, not simply be problems for us to figure out!
But our main question is this: what does the parable expose or reveal about life and God and me? If we seek to answer that, we are working within the given framework that Jesus has given us. But parables don’t just expose reality, they also reveal something else.
Parables are a revelation.
I mean this more than just that they reveal something about God and his kingdom (that is covered in the exposition). They reveal something about the hearer (or better yet, they reveal who is a hearer).
Jesus says that this way of teaching helps to fulfill the prophecy (and in some ways, the ministry) of Isaiah. Jesus chooses to teach this way in order to reveal who is really paying attention and who isn’t.
The hidden aspect of the parables’ message is thus both a cause of and a response to people’s unwillingness to follow Jesus.
Simply put, not everyone who hears the words of Jesus will understand them, abide by them, or follow them. And, of course, the disciples have a great advantage, having had the Sermon on the Mount given to them specifically.
But parables in some ways are a very practical tool that allows Jesus to see who is really desiring this kingdom. Those who show interest, who understand the parables are showing that they are a part of this movement. But those who do not, reveal that they are not followers of Jesus or his kingdom.
Parables are an invitation.
This, for me, comes back to the walnut seed. Jesus is exposing the place of privilege and responsibility that the disciples have in being able to see and hear and understand what Jesus is doing.
To me, it is amazing that most commentators focus on this parable and ask questions about the previous verses in relation to the age-old questions of predestination and human responsibility or free will. I will not wade into those waters this morning for a variety of reasons, except to say this. Divine providence/election and human responsibility are both held in tension in the Scriptures. And, at the risk of over-simplifying things, when it comes to divine providence and human responsibility, by definition we are responsible for only one of those things! What I want us to see is that the idea of election: being chosen for a specific task by a specific person (in this case Jesus and his disciples) does not signify simply a privileged status. It is a “blessed status”, meaning, there is a great responsibility place upon you now, because of what you see and hear.
What is most incredible to me about this passage is that Jesus looks at this rag-tag group of followers and says: “You need to understand: your spiritual heroes would have given anything to be able to be in your sandals right now! Isaiah wrote about this ‘shoot of Jesse’ which would spring up out of the burned out stump of a tree of this nation, and you are looking at him, in the flesh!”
Implicit in that statement is a “so what are you going to do about it” sort of question. Will you jump into the story that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Elijah, Isaiah, and David is fulfilling now? Will you find yourself in this story and be changed by it? Will you be a part of this kingdom? Will you listen to me so I can tell you what it means?
This invitation is ours today as well. We are inheritors of a legacy not our own; a kingdom we did not build, but we can join in and belong. This is historically significant! Jesus is looking to us and saying, so many people would have loved to be where you are now, but it wasn’t time. But now it is time.
This is how Jesus began his ministry, calling people to him because the Kingdom of God is breaking into the world. That is happening right now, through the work of the Spirit in the church that Jesus started.
So, do we hear this? Do we hear what Jesus is up to in the world? Are we seeking to listen to him? We will be moving from hearing to understanding next week as we (finally) talk about what this parable means.
But let’s just take time to listen to the Spirit of God, right now in this moment.
What is he exposing to you right now about himself and the Kingdom?
What is he revealing about you?
How is he inviting you into his work in the world this week?
May we have ears to hear and eyes to see all that God is accomplishing around us in his kingdom. May we respond to his invitation to join him in his work, and may we realize that we are the inheritors of a past not our own, and co-stewards of a future that God is pulling most wonderfully into the present. May his kingdom come and his will be done, in Baltimore as it is in heaven.
Grace and Peace be with you.