Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them,
as they were able to hear it.” (Mark 4)
On these summer Sundays, we are in the middle of reading week by week from a long string of parables that Jesus used to try to explain the kingdom of God. He compares it to all sorts of things: to a pearl of great price, to a lost coin for which one goes looking, to a treasure buried in a field, or as we heard today, to the scattering of seed on the ground, and to a mustard seed that grows into the greatest of all scrubs. On and on he goes.
What I’ve always wondered about these parables, is whether Jesus used so many of them out of exasperation, or by intention. Did he say, for instance, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” only to decide that such a metaphor it is not at all right (“No, no, no, it’s not like a mustard seed … rather, it’s like this other thing”)? Or, did he say it more like, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed … but it is also like a pearl of great price … and yet, it is also like (dot, dot, dot)”?
In using parables, in other words, was Jesus stumbling around for what to say, or was he waxing eloquent?
I like to think that the multiple metaphors of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom were deliberate, because above all things he didn’t want his hearers to get locked into any fixed understanding of it. The kingdom of God is not any one thing, and so trying to describe it cannot be done by any one analogy. The kingdom is about many things—mercy, and compassion, and judgment, and creativity, and solitude, and community, and … the list goes on. And so do the parables. The kingdom of God is not simple, but complex, and if you’re going to try to understand it, you’re going to have to wrestle with that complexity. In short, the kingdom isn’t reducible to a single slogan or simple formula—however we might wish that it could be.
And I think that Jesus’ point about the density of meaning in the kingdom stretches to other things as well. Wouldn’t it be nice, for instance, if our spouses or partners or children were uncomplicated enough that one day we could just say, “OK. Now I’ve got it. I know fully who he or she is, so now we can just get on with living our lives together.” But it’s not like that, is it?
Those whom we love most intimately are a constant source of amazement to us, because we never really get to the bottom of who they are. Even the human beings we know best, turn out at some level to be enigmas to us—so “getting to know you” (as that old Rodgers and Hammerstein song puts it) turns out to be a lifelong and ultimately inconclusive project.
So too with our histories, both personal and national. Once again, we wish there could be a relatively clear and definable story of who we are, yet if the truth be told, we as individuals and as a nation are a complex amalgam of events and forces. So why is it, do you suppose, that as a nation we are so wedded to the idea that there is a single thread of historical truth that weaves its way along an inexorable path of freedom toward the present day?
The African American poet and social critic James Baldwin, in his 1964 essay “Nothing Personal,” wrote about the American myth that “To be locked in the past means, in effect, that one has no past, since one can never assess it, or use it: and if one cannot use the past, one cannot function in the present, and so one can never be free. I take this to be … the American situation in relief, the root of our unadmitted sorrow, and the very key to our crisis.”
Baldwin would have us to recognize that the past is not an unqualified good, but a complex admixture of heroism, aspiration, violence, and subjugation that leaves us all diminished. Only reckoning with that complexity can free us from its hold. No one myth (or parable, as it were), can fully express what America is, for it is simultaneously many things, both good and bad. Our national life is no different than our personal life, in that regard.
So to circle back to Jesus’ teaching in parables—we might take from their multiplicity a broader insight than just that they were his somewhat quaint and rather charming way of speaking (as we tend to do). The variety of parables points to a larger truth that whatever is of significance in life, is also going to be complicated. We can try to reduce things down to a simple idea (like “love is the way”), but such reductionism ultimately isn’t very effective at making us better persons—after all, I’ve never known any loving relationship that isn’t also complicated. That’s life.
But at the same time, isn’t it wonderful that life is so complicated as to be interesting, and so beyond our grasp as to be full of amazement? Would we really want to live in a world where everything could be understood, where nothing was mysterious, where there was no place for the indefinable and the ineffable? Without complexity, there would be no poetry, no music, no art—and dare I say it, no love?
So I would rather have a hundred parables of the kingdom, than just one. I would rather be aware that there is more to be known, than I know. I would rather take a lifetime to find God, than to experience a solitary conversion. I would rather dwell in uncertainty, than to inhabit a sphere of fixed opinions.
For as Albert Einstein said, who ironically devoted much of his life to searching for a single unified field theory, “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true science, true art, [and true faith].” Amen.