As I mentioned last week, I’m wanting to study the kingdom of God. So I’ve been taking a closer look at the parables Jesus tells as reported in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13. In my wrestle to understand meaning in a violent world in which all passes away and my vocation within such a temporary, fragile reality, I’m finding myself looking for what lasts. “Eternity has been set on their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) indeed. The kingdom of heaven/the kingdom of God, it seems, is the only thing that lasts forever so it’s worth trying to understand a little bit more. Although, what was said during the sermon at the church we visited a few weeks ago about the Holy Spirit applies to the kingdom of heaven, too: “we don’t know what we’re saying when we talk about it.”
Perhaps this is why Jesus spoke in parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a seed, the kingdom of heaven is like a person who sews seeds, the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, etc. In fact, Jesus “told the crowd all these things in parables, without a parable, He told them nothing” (Matthew 13:34, emphasis mine). Parables are analogies, short stories to help the listener grasp a deeper meaning than would otherwise be understood. Seems appropriate when discussing the kingdom of God. Earlier in Matthew chapter 13, the disciples themselves question why Jesus speaks in parables; He explains that it fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah about those who listen but never understand, look but never perceive. Basically, according to Jesus, parables parse those who are meant to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven from those who are not (Matthew 13:10-15).
On the surface, this all seems very exclusive: so those who don’t understand are meant to stay out of the kingdom? What we must remember is God’s reason for exclusivity. Of all the peoples on earth, God chose Israel as His own, but it was not for them to keep the abundant and eternal life that is knowing God to themselves. No, God intended to bless the whole world through His people. When they failed to be faithful, God got even more exclusive and sent a single person, Jesus the Christ, through which salvation was made available to the whole world. God’s exclusive choices are always for inclusive reasons. This is good to remember as we delve into the specific parables in the coming weeks. And it’s not as if Jesus is holed up in a dark cave somewhere only telling of the kingdom of heaven to a select few – in fact, such a great crowd gathered that Jesus had to stand in a boat a bit off shore to preach. The chapter of parables Jesus tells from this position is introduced by the parable of the sower. This is not a coincidence. In Matthew 13:1-8, imagine that the seeds being scattered on the various kinds of ground are the parables that follow this story. “Let anyone with ears, listen” (Matthew 13:9).
The power of parables/stories is intuitive, but why are stories so potent? Why does the image of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia stick in our minds? Why does the memory take the form of narratives? I don’t proclaim to have definitive knowledge on this, but I have one theory: according to the creation story that begins Scripture, God spoke everything that is into being. In other words, we live in one spoken sentence. God’s words, God’s story, God’s love became our reality, seen and unseen, through spoken words. When we tell stories, we are taking part in the divine act that brought all we know (and all we don’t yet know) into existence, we are touching the fabric of the heavens and the earth, we are ourselves speaking things into being. And such acts of creating are but one way we bear the image of God.