It is nearly an inevitable moment that a biological parent will experience, and it is both exhilarating and frightening. The moment your child starts doing things that either remind you of yourself, or acting in identical ways to you when you were a child is a surreal moment. Expressions, attitudes, little unconscious things like sticking out their tongue when they are concentrating on a game or a puzzle…these are cute until you realize that it is not just an independent expression, but a DNA level connection that they have with you, their parent.
Much has been said about Jesus’ use of parables and agricultural illustrations during His teaching campaigns in the 1st Century. These memorable, and frequently profound stories are called examples of contextualization (knowing your audience and speaking to them in ways they can understand). They can certainly be understood in that way. Perhaps Jesus chose to use illustrations He knew they could grasp, or, more likely, He spoke in terms of the things He knew, the cultural context that He’d grown up in. Jesus’ divine nature did give Him access to infinite levels of general knowledge about the world, but His distinct humanness meant that He was also deeply rooted, in both experience and concern, in the smaller world that He’d spent His life walking around in. And without suggesting that this explanation for Jesus’ use of parables is wrong or misguided, there is another, subtly different way to understand them.
Jürgen Moltmann, in his book Jesus Christ for Today’s World, makes a passing statement that might help us understand not just what the parables mean, but why Jesus would choose to utilize these stories. Part of our difficulty with the parables, it should be mentioned, is that they are simultaneously plain and confusing. Often in the Gospels, Jesus tells a story that seems to be fully understood by everyone in earshot, but when He finishes no one really understands why He told that particular story. Moltmann, writing in a broader context, says this:
The special thing about Jesus is that he talks about the kingdom of God in comparisons, or parables, which he takes from the world of nature and the world of human beings. These bring the kingdom of God close to us in a way no definition could do. We enter into Jesus’ healings because these miracles are miracles of God’s kingdom. We look at Jesus’ shared meals with marginalized men and women – ‘tax collectors and sinners’ – because they mean eating and drinking in God’s kingdom.
What Motlmann seems to be subtly suggesting is remarkable and powerful. What if Jesus didn’t just use parables to describe the kingdom of God because the people could relate to them in their own context, but what if Jesus told stories using familiar, everyday things because the kingdom of God is really that close?
We, for whatever reason, seem convinced that God is far away. We talk a great deal about how things will be once He finally returns and makes things right. And this is not necessarily wrong. The Bible does speak about a coming day when all thi
ngs, everything, every corner, nook and cranny will experience the fullness of God’s restoration. BUT, this does not mean that God is far away right now. In fact, according to Jesus, the goodness, mercy, love, redemption, restoration, forgiveness and beauty of the Creator Father is so close to us RIGHT NOW that we are breathing it, touching it, sitting with it on our lunch breaks, embracing it and sending it off to school in the mornings, talking to it near the coffee machine at work, worshipping beside it on Sundays, and on and on.
At the beginning of this post I mentioned the way that children do things like their parents, without trying…it’s an expression of who they are at the level of IDENTITY; not out of effort but out of mere existence. Jesus’ parables work similarly. As He taught, and as His words in the Scriptures continue to teach, He wasn’t looking at the sky, searching for a nebulous example of what God’s kingdom looks like. He didn’t have to. He continually drove home the point that we are not nearly as far away from the incredible reality of God’s truth and power as we might think. The world, the earth and humanity, cannot help but do things that express the kingdom of God BECAUSE WE ARE THE VERY CREATION, THE OFFSPRING, OF
THE CREATOR HIMSELF. Just like my son does things as a five-year-old that remind me of how I used to be, things that he’s never seen me do, so the world cannot help but show us the glory and grace of the Father of us all.
Parables are teaching us lessons about life, certainly that is true. But, perhaps more importantly, parables are first teaching us that God is so close to us that we can miss Him if we don’t stop and breath, stop and ponder, stop and gaze, stop and let inside all of the millions of little bits of information that our senses are taking in every moment.
Moltmann led into that statement about the parables saying this of the kingdom of God:
It is one thing to define the proper concepts about life, and quite another to live rightly. It is one thing to learn a concept of happiness, and another to be happy. And so it is one thing to reduce the kingdom of God to a definition, and another to experience it, to feel it, to see it and to taste it.
Don’t miss what is happening around you.
Don’t overlook the little gestures the world is making.
What we might be missing are the very stories of God and His kingdom as they are birthed by every tick of the clock, by every moment that slips from present to past.