“Out of Time’
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
September 20, 2015
“They are the most offensive words in the New Testament.” “Repellent…intolerable …incomprehensible.” Biblical scholars, theologians, and just us regular people of faith have struggled mightily with these words from Jesus: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables so that “they may indeed look but not perceive, and may indeed listen but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” The notion that Jesus would intentionally keep his good news from people, would intentionally puzzle them with his parables, leaving them out is incomprehensible. It seems these are some pretty offensive words, perhaps Jesus’ most offensive.
John Calvin got much of his doctrine of double predestination from this scripture. Double predestination was his idea that God not only predestines some folks before they are ever born for faith and salvation, but that God also “double” predestines other folks, before they are ever born, for disbelief and damnation. Calvin got his idea from this statement from Jesus. While his thinking was very common for hundreds of years, we have all but buried the idea of double predestination because it is so repellent, intolerable, and incomprehensible when read alongside Jesus’ other teachings.
But what if Jesus is not being prescriptive here but descriptive? What if Jesus is not really prescribing what has to be, what has been set by God’s mighty plan, and, instead, is describing what happens when people meet him, when they hear his parables? Our passages make clear that Jesus continues to teach not only outsiders but insiders with parables. These parables are his primary teaching tool throughout the synoptic gospels. You remember, of course, that parables are a genre of storytelling where you compare something ordinary to something extraordinary with the express purpose of offering multiple interpretations and layers of meaning. This means, in Jesus’ parables, even the best of us “look but not perceive, listen but not understand”. So, perhaps Jesus is just being honest about what his parables do: that they confuse us.
If that is a goal for Jesus: to tell parables that will offer us so many layers of meaning and so many interpretations over time. If that is the way he teaches, then maybe we are looking at this all wrong: perhaps his parables are not a barrier to faith; perhaps it is his parables that help save us.
Let me explain. If we did not have Jesus’ parables, we might think we’ve got this whole gospel/kingdom of God thing all figured out. Any 10 year old who has attended a fair amount of Sunday School can tell you the basic stories. If it weren’t for the parables, we could start to think we’d “grown out” of the Bible, that maybe it didn’t have a new word to offer us anymore. Of course Scripture itself surprises us all the time with its new word, but nothing quite knocks us out of our socks like a parable we have known forever that, all of a sudden, has a whole new meaning we’d never considered before.
It reminds me of the story the great preacher Fred Craddock once told. He was a young pastor and had been asked to come preach at a revival meeting. He asked them what they wanted him to preach on. They said, “Preach about the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” He said, “How many nights is the revival?” They answered, “As many nights as you have something to say about the parable, that’s how many nights the revival is.” Well, he surprised them all and preached 27 nights in a row. The parables can never be outgrown. They are a testimony to all we still have to learn in our faith and in the Word of God.
They save us from getting too big and too old and too wise for the Christian story. But, even more than that, it may be the parables that save us from ourselves. Phil and I were at a retreat center this past week with other pastors and, as you can imagine, lots of church work horror stories were shared. One man shared an incident that happened between the former pastor of his congregation and their staff. The pastor had gathered the staff together for a meeting and he said, “We are going to go around the room and each share who Christ is for us.” When he got to the office manager, she shared what Christ meant to her… and then he yelled at her. He shouted, “That’s not good enough! You don’t know anything!” She left in tears and, very soon after, he was asked to leave the congregation.
We face two problems in this horrible incident: one person who feels he has everything about faith figured out and who is pretty arrogant about it; and another person who feels she doesn’t have everything about faith figured out and who is pretty ashamed about it. Whether we struggle more mightily with arrogance or shame, Jesus parables can save us from ourselves.
They save us from conceit because even Jesus does not tell us the most important things in a straightforward manner but he tells them in mystery and parable. Whatever truth we have gleaned is a gift from him, not something to be lorded over others. Because of the parables we are constantly reminded that we now know only in part and graciousness, not arrogance, is the most faithful response we can offer. The parables save us from shame as well. If we find much of our faith confusing, we take heart because Jesus gives this gift to both enlighten AND confuse, in the sure belief that the confusion will lead us deeper, not leave us behind. Confusion i s not the enemy. It can lead us deeper.
Because it turns out there are more offensive words than the ones we find in Mark 4; more offensive than Jesus offering parables to confuse and dismay. It is more offensive to Jesus that we say we have everything figured out and we are the only ones who do. It is more offensive to say we are worthless because so much of faith confuses us. It is more offensive to say that we have outgrown the Christian faith. And Jesus gives us parables to steer us away from these offenses, to give us humility.
With humility intact, what do we have? If parables are going to befuddle us always, what can we hold on to? Christ himself. We hold on to him. When he says, “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God”, he is talking about himself. Jesus is the secret to the kingdom of God. He is giving himself to us and HE is who we hold on to. When faith is confusing, hold on to him. When you do not know the answer or even the next step, look through the lens of his life for guidance. When you start to feel arrogant and prideful, compare your knowledge to his and humility will return. What we have is Jesus. No matter what else we do not perceive or understand, we look to Jesus and we know we will be led deeper in faith not left behind in confusion. For Jesus is the most important parable of them all: a seemingly ordinary teacher who opens our eyes to the most extraordinary thing there is: the very heart of God. Amen.