I must tell you how much I have been getting out of our Bible study group on Thursday nights. I’m not sure I realized just how helpful the group, and the book we are looking at, have been until I re-encountered today’s gospel passage.
The book we’re reading – a book that leaves most of us in the group feeling surprisingly unsettled – is Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, and while I’m prepared to touch upon some of the uneasiness we’re encountering, to get a deeper sense of the revelation that comes if uneasiness, you might try attending these sessions. Our time together is very engaging and very open – not only in terms of attendance, but also content – we generally focus on one parable each time.
At any rate, Levine is a Jewish New Testament scholar, and her book begins by affirming, of course, that “…parables are often seen as the hallmark of Jesus’ teaching”, and that, while the disciples may have been privy to private explanations, the other listeners to Jesus’ short stories were not, and neither are we – so we’re in a large group of folks who are left to find our own understanding.
Levine suggests that each individual encountering a parable may find that the same parable offers specific messages that may change depending upon any number of circumstances. Ultimately, a parable may leave multiple impressions over time. Why? Perhaps because Jesus is asking his hearers not only to listen, but to think as well. And that’s a combination that is not only a challenge, it’s an art – some would say a lost art. Lost because it involves too much effort. We’ve become a world that seeks comforting explanations. We crave recipes – instructions – guidelines for rapid installation of our electronics and software. We’re most at ease with clear and specific items of information that reduce or eliminate anything like the process of reaching for understanding.
But the parables resist the application of comforting explanations. They push back. They are multi-valent – of layered value – and reducing them to a single meaning destroys their potential both aesthetically and ethically.
But Amy-Jill Levine pokes at the history of Christian scholarship and its tendency toward narrow interpretation of the parables. She is filled with energy about what she refers to as a surplus of meaning in the parables – how they are so much like storytelling and poetry which, while rich and textured, often involve that process of reaching for meaning.
All to the good. But it doesn’t make the parables easier to engage.
How does the multi-valence of the parables – this openness of interpretation – speak to our understanding of the kingdom of God? So many of the parables begin that way – “the kingdom of God can be compared with…”
Can it be that deeper knowledge of the kingdom of God is meant to have many meanings and to require continual reaching? That doesn’t seem fair. It seems, at first, like trickery. And in our humanness and our desire to get a user’s manual out of the glove box, we may become frustrated enough to turn away from being open to how our surprising God may be moving. We may find it easier to resume being immersed in the world – in our distractions – in the surface layers of our desires.
So, since we’re her together for a few minutes, let’s try to use the parables to meet this God who, in the words of the prophet Samuel, does “not see as mortals see”.
We’ve already given ourselves permission to know that there is a broad range of interpretations woven within and throughout the parables. We may do well, then, to move just a little forward by also acknowledging we’re better off thinking less about what they mean, and more about what they can do. These stories can remind us, provoke us, confront, disturb – refine our perceptions. They’re not meant to soothe. If we really take them to heart they can even break us open and leave us feeling a little ungrounded. And that kind of uneasiness may, actually, be the first real step toward “knowing” God’s reign. The kingdom of God can be compared to something that is not meant to soothe.
When we stop seeking “pat” interpretations – and Levine is correct in that a startling amount of Christian commentary seems to have, historically, been seeking correctness in interpretation. But we’re not trapped there. And when we can reign in that tendency to look for universal morals – or comforting explanations – from a genre that is designed to surprise, challenge and shake us up – when we can do that, we come closer to liberating – or, better yet, redeeming the parables – and ourselves as well.
You see, the kingdom of God will stimulate different parts of different people. For some, it is imagined to be a time when all pain ceases – when Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes. For others it’s pearly gates and golden slippers.
What is God’s reign to me? I wonder, along with Amy-Jill Levine if when I pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, am I really interested in a change in the status quo, or am I pretty satisfied with the kingdom as it works in the here and now?. I work pretty hard at what I do. But like a lot of folks, I suppose I can quickly find myself drawn into the insidiously seductive and egocentric belief that the effort I am expending should receive primacy of place. The success of my efforts should somehow be allowed to eclipse “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”. And this may be the quintessential human quandary in the face of relationship with God.
Do I really want the time when Jesus says the first shall be last and the last shall be first? To be judged on the last day not by whether I said “Lord, Lord!” but by how I loved my enemy? Well, that’s the kingdom of God for you, it would seem.
The kingdom of God, it seems is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…
Today’s gospel combines some direct, user-friendly, agrarian images with some rather difficult and unclear elements. It’s classic Jesus – the homey and familiar being used to make you think differently about not only the things you think you know, but how those things do or do not represent something about you and God’s presence.
In the first parable – we’ll leave the mustard seed alone for now – a parable that appears only in Mark’s gospel – some seed is sown but it appears to be unattended. The gardener sleeps and rises, not knowing how a crop is yielded. The imagery of passiveness combined with the miracle of growth, invites us to reflect on the nature of grace – grace as unearned benefit. In the mix of grace and God’s reign we may become aware that:
• Intimacy with Christ grows in us as certainly and effortlessly as seeds grow
• That fussing over the seed – constantly testing, re-potting, fertilizing, pruning, weeding and the like (something like the frenetic busy-ness of works righteousness) might draw us into anxious attachment to specific outcomes – might point our primary focus toward our own efforts, leaving us, again, defending that upon which we have spent our energies
Being busy and doctrinaire makes a lot of sense to us – it fits our normal way of being human – we like things like:
• Well run offices and programs
• Good grades – better schools
• Politicians of our choice
• Svelte figures
• Neatly trimmed lawns
And while these may be useful ways of operating in the here and now, the kingdom of God will not submit to being held to human standards
Jesus uses familiar elements in his call to us. He does this as he calls us to a different way of being – a different way of being with ourselves, with each other and especially with the divine.
At the heart of his call lies something like spiritual growth and intimacy with God arising as naturally as a seed grows. A harvest that will come without our having to work for it – how counter-cultural is that?
God loves us and it is up to us to figure out in new ways all the time what that means – how God’s love provides the power of growth to us and in us:
• It’s that love that somehow transforms the tiniest speck of a seed into an enormous shelter and resting place for the birds of the air whose songs bring us joy.
• It is God’s love that transforms our little tiny awareness of God into a gaping, glowing magnificence in which we and all creation must meet and find shelter and rest.
The challenge is that it’s up to us to engage in the ever-evolving reflections and actions that will bring this about.
This kind of theological reflection reminds me of the phrase “faith seeking understanding”, which is a motto often used to characterize Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas, and to affirm somehow that the kingdom of God is not to be arrived at. Rather it is to be sought, always – even as it is, in fact, always among us.
Likewise, the parables – as heralds of the reign of God – resist resting too comfortably or too long in a given interpretation. The risk is ever-present that we humans will function our way into being satisfied with “pat” interpretations that try to validate our efforts as we so often and so unwittingly try to squeeze God into a Hallmark card box.
Finally, I love how this passage moves from the homey images and elements into a strange reference to “as they were able”
“…with many such parable he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it” – “he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything to them in private”.
This strange reference becomes even more resonant when we hold the parable in tension with the story immediately following today’s passage. It is a moment that helps us resist the temptation to think that the disciples had secret gnostic knowledge that guaranteed them salvation from the pain and confusion of the gospels.
The evangelist goes on to the end of chapter four when, on the same day, Jesus and the disciples are in a boat crossing the lake. A great windstorm arose. The boat was being swamped. Jesus is in the stern asleep on a cushion and, panic-stricken, the disciples wake him. Jesus wonders at their fear – their lack of faith.
Apparently the kingdom of God is also like this. After all, Jesus is in the boat with them – God is within arms’ reach – and the disciples still don’t understand.
The parables speak something of God’s reign. They do so in an unsettling way that bids us recall that God reigns even – or especially – when we are at our most uneasy, frightened or even oblivious. And while they are meant to inspire an entirely new approach to life, they aren’t meant to give a crystal clear set of instructions in the process – even though they may have a history of being interpreted as such. They merely suggest what is possible.