Mark 4:33-34 (NRSV)
The Use of Parables
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
I, like so many of us, wish that God was clearer. Whether it’s about the big stuff or the small stuff in my life, I wish he would drop me a text, pass me a note or drop a stone tablet with instructions from the sky.
Over the past few months, I have been pondering the next stage of my life. Do I continue to write, blog and podcast? Do I return to the comfort and confines of paid ministry? Do I stay in Ireland? Do I move overseas? Do I look for a job in business or sales that would offer financial security and stability?
Living at home and borrowing my dad’s car at 32 isn’t exactly the life I thought I was signing up for when I left school and went to Bible college 14 years ago.
Back then it was simple. Follow God. Do what he has called you to. He will provide.
Back then he seemed to speak clearly (if not frequently).
These days, it’s more of a wrestle. These days, he’s harder to ‘pin down’.
I don’t usually ask God for signs because of my lack of faith in such things (and my lack of faith in my ability to interpret them) but last week was an exception. I had a job interview and wanted guidance about whether or not it was the right thing for me to do next. So I prayed, ‘Father, if you want this option, make it a sunny day and if not, make it rain.'
Sure enough, when I woke up on the day of the interview, the skies were dark and the rain was bucketing out of the heavens like a proper Irish summer.
However, by the time the interview came around, the grey had been replaced with blue, the rain had disappeared and the sun was splitting the stones.
Thanks, Lord. That really clears things up.
This craving for clarity and certainty is not new. It’s in all of us. We all want to make the right choices and we would all love for life to be simple, clear and (preferably) easy. We’d love for God to just tell us what to do so we could get on with doing it.
People approached Jesus the same way. They would come alongside him on a journey or raise their hand after his sermons and ask him questions that could have been answered simply … but Jesus very rarely did. Instead, he would start telling a story.
‘A man went out to his field ...'
And the one who asked the question would think (I assume),
‘Ah crap. I didn’t ask for a story, Jesus. I asked for an answer!'
This is one of my favourite things about Jesus. He doesn’t just avoid giving people answers ... he messes with their questions. I just wish he would stop messing with mine.
But this is the beauty of the parables. Instead of giving us simple instructions to ‘get right with God’, he tells us stories that reveal God to us … and reveal us to ourselves.
Those who placed their trust in Jesus would do what he said, no matter what it was. Those who distrusted Jesus and viewed him with suspicion would continue to do so, no matter what facts he gave or verses he quoted.
When Jesus answered with stories, however, he made his listeners think. Those who are for him are drawn deeper by the challenging truths of the parables and those who are against him can’t argue with the way in which the stories resonate with them.
Parables are transformative because Jesus’ listeners can all find themselves within the story, whether they are friend or foe.
Parables are timeless because no matter what stage of your personal life or part of world history you live in, you can always find yourself in the story.
Two thousand years after Jesus tells the Parable of the Lost Son, I know what it is like to be the elder son, the lost son and even what it would be like to be the father.
I know what it’s like to be a seed that fell on rocky soil, to know quick outward growth without inner depth.
I know what it’s like to be a seed on a path, to be unable to allow the potential of growth to break through the downtrodden callouses of my heart.
I know what it’s like to be a seed among thorns, choked by worry and anxiety.
I know what it’s like to be a seed that fell in good soil, producing far more than what seemed possible.
I know what it’s like to be a Good Samaritan and to be the man he helps. And to be the priest who is so busy trying to please God that he cannot stop to stoop low for the broken.
I know what it’s like to be the man who built his house on sand.
I know what it’s like to be the man who buried his talents and the one who risked everything on the trust that God had placed in him.
Two thousand years later, I still find myself in the characters in the timeless stories of Jesus. Each parable reveals to me beautiful truths about God and brutal truths about myself.
Perhaps this is exactly why he tells stories; why he seems to be deliberately unclear. Because the truth of instruction is temporary but the truth of story is transformative, timeless and transcendent of culture, geography, age and gender.
Because the truth is found in the tension of what the parable reveals in you.
Last week, I asked for clarity and I received it. When I woke up and looked out the window, I was disappointed. It was in that moment that I realised what I wanted, what I was passionate about and feel called to. I have no idea whether or not the weather was a sign from God. For all I know, he might have been answering the prayers of a family hoping to have a picnic or a farmer whose crops were drying out. And I have no idea if I’ll be offered the job. But what I do know is that I know more about my heart and my passions from the tension and the uncertainty of not knowing. And I know that I am grateful to the God who messes with my questions, my answers and my story.