Monday 16 November 2009

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible (33/50) – His Teaching in Parables: Listen! Whoever Has Ears...

‘Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible’, from London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, is a series of fifty emails designed to look at the main milestones of the biblical story, seeking to show how whole-life discipleship is woven through Scripture as a whole, from beginning to end. Here is the thirty-third of the fifty emails, this one written by Margaret Killingray.

Then the disciples came to him and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given… But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.’
Matthew 13:10-11, 16

Jesus taught in parables – longish ones with characters and plot (the prodigal son), ones with detailed, sometimes allegorical, interpretations (the sower), short metaphors (the woman making bread with yeast). Sometimes we know the context. Jesus stood in a boat, Matthew tells us, to tell the story of the sower to a large crowd on the shore. Afterwards the disciples asked him what it meant and he explained. More often there is no explanation. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son and his elder brother, in Luke 15, are told with two groups listening – ‘tax collectors and sinners’ and ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law’.

Over the centuries the parables have presented some knotty problems. Did Jesus just make up stories or was the sower, for example, up on the hill above him doing exactly what Jesus says? Is the story of the man paying the same wages however long the men had worked any guide for employers? Is there just one truth, or should we be teasing out every element of the story? Will we really be able to watch the damned from heaven as in the story of Dives and Lazarus?

Unlike the first three gospels, John never uses the word ‘parable’. But his use of extended metaphors – light and darkness, sheep and shepherds, hunger and the bread of life, thirst and living water – help us to see that Jesus is building on parables and metaphors used by the prophets of the Old Testament.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question in Matthew 13:11 gives us a clue, maybe even the key, to what is involved when he teaches in parables. Inherent in every parable, short or long, is a question – Do you understand? Are your ears and eyes open to the truth? Here is truth – the truth of the Kingdom coming from the King – truth revealed, coming like a bolt of lightning, a life-changing revelation. Jesus is not being abstruse. He is drawing a picture, with which we can immediately engage, but which carries a truth we may miss. A humble, passionate desire to know him and his will for us begins our understanding and appropriation of parable truth. In addition, those whose own eyes have been opened will want to alert others to the presence and power of the kingdom, inviting people to listen and respond when the king calls.

Margaret Killingray

For further reflection and action:

1. Read Ezekiel 34:1-24. Then read Luke 15. Who is listening to Jesus (Luke 15:1)? To whom is Jesus speaking directly? What would you imagine to be the dynamics between Jesus and his listeners as the three stories unfold?

2. Look at the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The legal expert wants to know who qualifies as a neighbour whom he should love. Imagine you are leading a study of the parable, and you ask the group this question before reading it. How do you think they would reply? In the telling of the story, what are the main points that Jesus is making about neighbour love?

3. How far should Jesus’ teaching in parables provide a model for communicating with others today? How often do we use examples from everyday life? How often do we restrict ourselves to one telling point, rather than attempting to touch on everything we think someone should know?

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