'Jesus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”'
--Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
You know how fireworks shows build and build until there’s a huge crescendo at the end? Well if you've been following this blog, hearing me preach on Sundays, or keep up with the Revised Common Lectionary, then this is your cresendo! Five parables in one reading!! If you’re keeping score that’s eight in the last five weeks. I don’t know about you, but reading all of these parables back-to-back today felt like the end of a fireworks show. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! And like the end of a fireworks show it’s a bit disorienting. What exactly just happened and where do we go from here?
A fireworks finale, courtesty of YouTube user Stephanie Yeow
What just happened is that Jesus gave us the cu de gras on a series of stories and allegories about the nature of the kingdom of God and the nature of our faith in God. He began weeks ago by comparing people and their faiths to bickering children. He used the story of a sower throwing seeds on different kinds of soil to make us ask the question: “what kind of soil are we and what are we doing to care for it?” Last week he took the tale of some over-zealous servants, eager to weed out their master’s field, and used it to remind us that we are meant not to be so over-zealous ourselves and must not be so quick to judge and “weed out” others.
Today the crescendo: the kingdom of heaven—nay, faith itself—is like: BOOM! a mustard seed, starting small and growing large, BOOM! yeast, which is worked and worked until it is transformed by the leaven, BOOM! a treasure that is worth selling all we have to obtain, BOOM! a pearl, so lovely and perfect that we’ll do anything to possess it, and BOOM! a fishing net, that is so big that it can embrace and hold people of every shape, size, and kind. Now THAT is a finale!
So that just happened. All those parables. And now we're done, at least for a few weeks. The fireworks are done. So what’s next? Maybe what's next is that we look for some other parables, perhaps ones not explicitly given by Jesus. That might seem odd, what with me being a priest and all, and it may come as a shock to some Christians, but Jesus didn’t invent this method. The prophets used parables long before Jesus, not to mention that every known culture has used parables and metaphors to describe how and why the world works as it does—we call these myths, which we have mistakenly associated with fiction. While myths are not concerned with fact or fiction, they speak to deep and meaningful truths by using imagery and language that humans can understand, in the hopes that we’ll learn something about God, or the world, or ourselves. The myths of old and the parables of Jesus help us answer with human language the question that is so hard to grasp with our rational mind: who is God and what does it mean to be human? As long as they’re have been humans we have been using such metaphors to articulate those deeper truths. And we're still doing that. So I wonder: what are the parables in our own time? Which ones have you experienced lately?
This is why I use so many pop culture references in my sermons and blog posts. Our culture is filled with modern-day parables which, like those from Jesus, teach us something about God without ever using words like 'God', 'Jesus', or 'heaven.' Whether the stories are real or not is irrelevant--none of the characters in Jesus’ parables were real, after all--yet they serve the same function as those parables. Whether in film, books, or music, our culture is filled with such modern-day parables!
Clevon Little and Gene Wilder in the modern-day parable Blazing Saddles
One movie I was raised on and believe to be an excellent modern parable is Blazing Saddles, a comedy that makes fun of EVERYONE. It’s hilarious and brilliant, but what makes it so brilliant is is how it illustrates the absurdity of racism, and takes the whole concept and flips it on its head when a podunk town of white folks in 1874 gets a black sheriff (played beautifully by Clevon Little). That story does the same thing as some of Jesus' parables. That's right! Did you know Jesus took absurd concepts and flipped them on their heads, too? He even does so in one of the parables above! In his day great kingdoms and empires, especially Rome, were compared to mighty oak trees. Jesus mocks the very concept of empire by comparing God’s kingdom to a mustard seed that grows into a plant that all the birds nest in. The problem is that the mustard plant is a shrub, a weed; in fact,it doesn’t actually get that big at all. The fact that God's kingdom would be compared to such a shrub and that folks would come and nest in it is hilarious and shows the absurdity of empires, not unlike how Blazing Saddles and other comedies mock the absurdities of some of our own modern institutions like racism, sexism, or homophobia. I bet you won't watch another comedy the same way again, huh?
The Killing Joke, a modern Batman parable
Y’all know that I’m a comic book reader, and one book that I love is Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, a Batman story that leaves the reader guessing whether Batman actually kills the Joker and whether or not that killing is justified. Each time I read it I am reminded of the concept of redemptive violence, something that humanity has struggled with since the beginning. Can violence ever be justified? Scripture tackles this issue, as well. The Hebrew Testament seems to support the notion that violence is sometimes ok, but Jesus rebukes such a notion with sayings like: “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” and by the example of his own death. Stories like The Killing Joke--or Watchmen, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games--are excellent examples of modern-day parables in printed form.
But parables don’t even need to necessarily use spoken or written words. Paul talks about the Spirit interceding with “sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8: 26). That's exactly what music does! And I’m not just talking about so-called sacred music, but ALL music, even “secular” music. For truly, there is no such thing as secular music; it’s all sacred, because all music comes from deep down in the soul. This includes religious songs like the chanting of Hildegard of Bingen or spirituals like Go Down Moses, which can tap into the deepest corners of our souls, but this also includes music that contains no words. (No, I'm not just talking about Bach or Mozart, but modern music too.) Listen to the blues, which James Cone calls the blues secular spirituals. Listen to the sound of Robert Johnson--pay no attention to the words--but hear his cries and wails.
Robert Johnson wails away with his classic Crossroads
Listen to the guitar rifts of Blind Willie McTell, and feel the passion, the sadness, and the holy complexity of emotion that is riled in you without a word ever being uttered.
Blind Willie McTell plays Searching the Desert for the Blues
That’s what music does! It stirs our heart and pounds at our soul and helps us feel God and the human condition in ways that even books and films cannot. Considering it predates any spoken or written word, that might make music the best kind of parable.
Parables are still being written, spoken, and sung. We tend to think that Jesus had a trademark on them, or that lessons about who God is and what it means to be human are only found within the confines of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. Yes, they're there, but they are found in so many other places, as well! We Episcopalians often act as if our Book of Common Prayer and various hymnals are the only places we can find meet and right prayers and music acceptable to God. That simply is not true! The stories and music that teach us about God and our own nature are all around us. What parables have you experienced lately? What movies have you seen? What books have you read? What music have you listened to? (My answer to those three are Wonder Woman, Everything Must Change by Brian McClaren, and a whole bunch of Japanese pop music!) This may seem like small talk, but it's really holy talk. There's wisdom in those things, so don't just keep them to yourself! Parables are meant to be shared and to be discussed, as Jesus shared his, and as his disciples discussed them. If we are open to experiencing God in our regular, "secular" lives, in our movies, books, films, music, and so many other places, then we will find the parables, and like the crowds in Jesus' day we will get a new teaching and find new meaning and understanding about God, the Kingdom, and ourselves.