Hear Then the Parable

Delivered April 22, 2001 by Rev. George Antonakos.
as part of a series on the parables.

Theme: God redeems the messes of life. Why this topic?: To communicate hope to our heart when we think we’ve screwed up beyond redemption.

Sermon Text:
Matthew 13:31-34

I’d like to ask you to take a little trip in your imagination with me and if you can do that better with your eyes closed then I invite you to do that. Probably for most of us that would be the way that you could follow in your mind’s eye as I lay out a little guided imagery for you.

Imagine yourself approaching the long wide front steps of a magnificent museum. You come to the large oak entrance doors and enter the foyer. There are directional signs and you follow one to the art gallery. You calmly stroll down the wide hall admiring the paintings. Then you turn the corner and one of the most fascinating paintings that you have ever seen stands before you. You move closer and stand transfixed before it. You cannot take your eyes off of it. It seems to have a special meaning for you, but you don’t quite know why. And then something very strange happens as you stare at the painting. It turns into a window and you see beyond it into a different world, and then you see yourself on the other side of the window. And then another change occurs. The window turns into a mirror and you are confronted by yourself and the you in the mirror asks, “What did you see, what did you hear?” How will you respond? You can open your eyes now if you had them closed. This guided imaginational exercise is a way of introducing you to the central component of Jesus’ teaching and to a brief sermon series I will be doing over the next six weeks, not the next six weeks, but six times over the next two months. We are going to take a look at one of the major ways that Jesus communicated truth. Today we will look at what a “parable” is and why Jesus used them, and then think about a short one He used, that will help us understand our relationship with God. Because one of the ultimate goals of all teaching of scripture is that we respond personally to it. So the first question is–what is a parable? The word parable comes from the Greek word “parabola” and it literally means “to set beside,” or “to throw beside.” And obviously even in the word you hear the “Para,” like a parallelism, and that’s exactly what it is– a story that seeks to bring a similar reality from the known into the unknown. And in Matthew 13:31 Jesus “sets another parable before them, that’s exactly what a parable is. It is something that is set beside something else. And so he sets a parable before the people who are hearing and to teach what the Kingdom of heaven is like; it’s a tool of comparison. I remember in a small group that I was once in, there was this technique where all the group members tried to think of animals that described the personality traits of the people in the group. This is when the group had built up a lot of trust. And a couple of people said, “Ah, George you remind me of a Labrador retriever, you know you’re always needing a pat on the head.” Another person said, “You’re like a barn swallow, sometimes you swoop at me and I don’t know what to expect.” And I’m like–“Whoa”, I just got an earful of learning. The point I am trying to make is that they used images of animals, and we all did, to try to communicate how things were seen and how we saw one another. And a parable is like that. It’s a short fictional narrative that’s a comparison tool to help us learn not only about the kingdom, but also about ourselves, and that’s the sequence that I began with today. We hear the word-picture, we hear the story and we say, “What a nice story, what an interesting story. I wonder what that means.” But then we say, “Wait a minute this is a story intended to get us into the Kingdom of God and learn something about what the reality is in the place where God rules.” And not only that, the picture turns into a mirror and we are looking at it and it’s like the kingdom of God is speaking to us and the Lord is saying, “What does this have to do with you?” Where you are, how will you respond? What did you hear? What will you do? Another commentator has said is entertainment with a divine purpose that Jesus was sharing in the parables. And these parables were not original with Jesus. He took a lot of stories that were already parabolic in their sense and used them in the teaching of truth about the kingdom of God. Matthew 13, Verses 1-3, really gives us a clear understanding of the flow of why Jesus used parables and that he told them many things in parables. In Matthew 13:3, Jesus started to tell them the parable of the sower. In verse 10, his disciples come and ask him, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” And then in verse 11 he says, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you but not to them. Whoever has more will be given and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables. Though seeing, they do not see. Though hearing, they do not hear or understand.” And he goes on to quote Isaiah about people with closed minds and closed hearts. And when we look at that we think to ourselves, “Well, why would Jesus say this, it seems opposite of what he would want, he would want them to truly understand what he was saying. And this almost sounds like he was trying to purposely veil the message. Well that certainly can’t be it.” What needs to be said is this–That parables do not contribute to the dullness of hearing, they substantiate the dullness of hearing. Jesus used parables to try to get people’s attention when they weren’t listening very clearly. And in Mark, Chapter 4 the scripture says, “And he didn’t speak to them without using a parable as much as they could understand, as much as they were able to hear.” So the parables and why Jesus used them were twofold. One, they really were an instrument of grace. Trying to give people more time to hook into the reality of the kingdom of God and to understand. They were also an instrument of judgment that said, “You cannot hear a direct word about Jesus. And so you need to hear it in another form, in hopes that the story would bring you into an understanding of the kingdom and of yourself.” So the parables, in a sense, proved that the hearers were hard-hearted, but hoped that they might eventually get it if they became self-examining enough.

So let’s briefly look at this parable that I have read for you today. And remember as we look at it, that we have to listen to it through the mind and the frame of reference of the people of the first century. Jesus was speaking predominately to Jewish audiences, and Matthew’s gospel was written to predominately Jewish audiences, and so we have to listen to it through the filters that they would have heard it through. Jesus told them another parable, Matthew 13:31: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” Hmmm, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. Well, the people in the first century knew that there were three kinds of mustard seeds. There are three different varieties in Palestine, and the most common grew to a height of about four feet. But the mustard seed that they were thinking of germinates very quickly and spreads very rapidly; it’s almost like crown vetch, in the way that it spreads and the way that it entrenches itself. And so if Jesus stopped right there and said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” they would have thought, “Hmmm, I wonder if that means that the kingdom of heaven grows rapidly.” But he doesn’t stop there. And in the second half of Verse 1, he said, “It’s like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field.” Now this word “field” is also translated as “garden” and Luke uses the word garden. So now the first century hearers are thinking, “Wait a minute I don’t think that’s right. There’s a prohibition in the Old Testament that talks about mixing different seeds with other seeds that you grow in your garden.” In fact the seeds that Jesus was talking about in terms of the mustard seed, refer to those plants that were grown only to harvest dry seed and were not to be mixed in with a person’s regular harvest or crop. Such seed must not be sown in the garden. Such an act has risked breaking the law, by mixing what shouldn’t be mixed. Now the hearers are scratching their heads and they are saying, “How could this potentially unclean thing be like the kingdom of God?” In fact, the parable that immediately follows this talks about a woman who puts yeast in dough. And in the Jewish mind yeast doesn’t always emphasize that which is good. Many times it is a metaphor for that which is unclean. And harkening back to the Exodus, all the yeast had to be put aside, gotten rid of, all the leaven, so that they could go rapidly, so yeast and leaven had connotations of uncleanness, just as this comparison of the wrong kind of seed in the garden. How do we decide whether what is going in this garden that Jesus talks about is a good thing or a bad thing, whether it’s a blessing or a curse, clean or unclean?

In verse 32 it says, “Though it is the smallest of all seeds,” a very insignificant thing, “yet when it grows it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and perch in it’s branches.” But mustard seeds don’t grow into trees. The highest one gets to be four feet. But it grows into sort of a tree, big enough that birds can come. What is Jesus teaching? What is he saying? That’s what we’re supposed to be doing right now. What is he saying? What does this story mean? What does it have to do with the Kingdom of God? And by all means, what does it have to do with me?

Could it be that Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God is like a scandalous thing, That the kingdom of God has to do with things that are tainted and unclean. And so we begin to see in the parables this element of uncleanness. In the Good Samaritan, the unclean Samaritan becomes the hero. The yeast and the dough and so forth. Is it that the kingdom of God is associated with uncleanness, just a Jesus associated himself with that which was unclean? How he ate with tax gatherer’s and sinners? How he tried to communicate to those who wanted to be so pure that they forgot what their mission was. That the kingdom of God enters into all of the messes and earthiness of this life and transforms it into something that will bless others? Is that what Jesus is saying? That God’s mighty works start with unclean beginnings, insignificant things. Is God saying to us, we don’t have to hide our problems? I don’t have to be perpetually ashamed of big mistakes? That God might somehow redeem the ugliest of situations for His good. That He might redeem the messes of life, self generated or not. What mustard seeds have been sown in to your personal life garden? What is going on at work or family or church that looks like conflict, uncleanness and adversity? What is God saying to you today? How will you respond?

Some workers in Africa received a box as they often did from the States, only this box of clothing and help, this care package as it were, had a note and many, many strips of cloth. The note said, “We are former members of the Alabama Klu Klux Klan. Recently we have been converted to Jesus Christ and we’ve taken these robes that we used to wear and cut them into strips. We thought you might be able to use them as bandages.” The kingdom of God breaks into that which is unclean and to that which many times we write off as too far-gone, and brings healing where we would never expect it.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, we give You blessing and thanks for Your gospel of grace that You O Lord entered into this world in all of it’s taintedness and all of it’s stain and took on the sins of the whole world. O Lord, I pray that those today who gather among us would realize, that we’d all realize and know, that You have come to our cause, help us Lord not, not to think that anyone is too far beyond your reach. Help us Lord, not to be so concerned with our purity. We forget how You ministered on this earth. Grant us Your grace Lord and healing through Jesus Christ our risen Lord and whose name we pray. Amen.