The Purpose of the ParablesMatthew 13:10-17 (NRSV)
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
Stories and sacraments are two ways that we share our faith tradition. Now, Jesus was an amazing storyteller. He told parables–or stories–that were filled with images, to help people better understand what the kingdom of heaven was like. Perhaps, you remember hearing that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like leaven in bread, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a great pearl, or like a net thrown in the ocean.
Jesus made stories interesting. But even more importantly, he tailored them to meet people where they were. To farmers, he told stories of sowing seeds and great harvests. To fishermen, he told stories of casting nets and fishing for people. To shepherds, he told stories of being a gate and searching for lost sheep. To the sick, he spoke of allowing their faith to make them well. And to the outcast, he assured them of God’s unconditional love for them. Jesus had a heart of compassion and always thought of the other person. He was never rude or self-serving but humbly reached out to others in love.
Jesus knew that not everyone understood what he was talking about. The parables that he told contained layers of information that could only be understood by those who were ready to receive them. And he taught not only through sermons and stories but through his everyday actions. Basically, Jesus practiced what he preached: welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, eating with sinners and tax collectors, encouraging the lost, handling difficult situations wisely and prayerfully, taking time for Sabbath, and loving without discrimination. For Jesus, it wasn’t simply about saying the right things; it was about being honest, trustworthy, and true and encouraging others to do the same.
Okay, so Jesus told stories. He cared about people, and he taught by his own example. But now, thousands of years later, he also helps us to become part of the sacred story. Now, depending on what Christian tradition you come from, you might understand the sacraments a little differently. In the Protestant Church, we observe two sacraments: baptism and communion. In the Roman Catholic Church, there are seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage, and holy orders. Whether you celebrate two sacraments or seven, the sacraments are ways of experiencing the sacred and receiving unconditional gifts of grace.
In the Protestant Church, we celebrate two sacraments because both baptism and communion are sacred events that Jesus taught us and encouraged us to carry out. When we baptize with water or break bread at the table, we are entering into the
story and becoming a part of it. What an amazing gift!
This past week, I officiated a wedding, and as I always do, I reminded the couple that communication is key to a healthy marriage. But to be honest, communication is the key to any relationship: between friends, in business dealings, among family, and especially in the church. The truth is, sometimes communication takes extra time and effort, and sometimes it seems easier to just “take care of things on our own,” but we don’t build a healthy church that way. It takes teamwork, and healthy, open conversations to build a strong community.
We usually like talking to one another about happy things, like vacations, birthdays, new babies, and the blessings of baptism! But sometimes, we need to have difficult conversations as well, being honest about hurt feelings or holding people to task. Now, none of us like conflict, and we don’t enjoy having difficult conversations. But sometimes in order to keep ourselves and our communities healthy and strong, that is just what we need to do. Can you imagine if Jesus had not had the difficult conversations in the upper room with the disciples? What if he hadn’t confronted Judas about the betrayal? Or let the disciples know that he would not be with them much longer and that they should remember him in the breaking of the bread?
If Jesus had swept those conversations under the rug and decided that he wanted to spend his last night with the disciples talking about happy things, then we would have never been taught the sacred gift or sacrament of communion. Generations later, the bread and the cup would mean nothing to us, and we would have no way to stay connected and to remember the story.
Folks, I hope that you all have favorite Bible stories that inspire you. And I pray that moments spent celebrating the sacraments open your hearts to experience the divine. But I also hope that the stories and sacraments of our faith encourage you to have open, honest, and healthy conversations in the church and in your personal lives.
Friends, please be compassionate and merciful with the words that you chose. In your conversations, be sure to meet other people where they are. And be honest and true in your sharing, but also remember that sometimes it is the difficult conversations, the ones that we often like to sweep under the rug, that make the most difference and truly work to build up the body now and for years to come.
So, friends, I encourage you to celebrate the stories and the sacraments of your faith and let them guide you to have healthy conversations with your family, your friends, your church, and your community as you allow those stories and sacraments to help you to build a stronger and more loving world!