Presented by Ron Lancaster on 25 May 2015 as an Adult Formation forum
There is a lot we don’t know about the life of Jesus. We have stories, some clearly made up to conform to various circulating myths at the time and some more in line with a true being of extraordinary wisdom that no one could fabricate. Jesus was an original. His actual teachings as repeated in the Synoptic Gospels were of a different character than any before or since.
The depth and originality of the doctrine of Jesus is a special and unmatchable gift to humanity. He seems to exist as an idea between Man and God, representing both to the other. He was a Being from a higher dimension no doubt, a Divine intervention in human affairs, come to save us from ourselves.
I say the Gospels, especially the Parables, are for the mature mind. Our culture does not permit many such to exist, regardless of education, titles, or lofty position. We live amid a world of childish minds that continually churn up the dust of trouble because we know no other way.
We are born with a well-organized body, an animal as near to perfection as can be designed, but our psychology, made of emotions and thoughts, comes uneducated and disorganized. Then it becomes skewed toward hard beliefs, opinions, and attitudes that shut out any judicious perspective. The big babies of the world — the warlords, the politicians, the moguls, and other emotional dwarves who use people as playthings — are not suited to learn from such adult stuff as found in the Parables.
Life as we know it is insecure, tumultuous, filled with unprincipled characters, selfish leaders, and complainers without end. Christ breathed purpose and beauty into these grubby lives of ours by offering the Parables as refuge and haven from our immature world full of fame- and money-centered dreams.
Over the thousands of years there have been many scholarly debates over the various details of the Parables, when they were written, where, and why. It has been and remains one of the most fascinating literary and religious topics in history. In the U of A Library there are 740 books devoted to the Parables, and almost a million-and-a-half Internet sites. Those interested in Christian theology study and wrangle about all the facets of Christ’s ministry, and it appears to have no end.
The study of the historical Jesus has a high entertainment value and plenty of busywork and bustle for some academics, but for me it seems to lack the richness of meaning about Christ’s aims. We have Jesus now, not then. He is speaking now, not then. The Gospels are finished now. We need only to put ourselves into them, look around, and be amazed at what we can become. These stories are coded instructions, not for the mob, but for single individuals. I treat Jesus as ever living. To try to explain him and his teachings in an age thousands of years ago is to lock him in a time capsule, a prison of amber.
If, when reading these stories, a person can come to the realization that they themselves are more than a product for death’s mill, then the Parables are good news. A Divine destiny is possible. Once this is understood, we must never go back to toys. We are adults in an adult pursuit, the spiritual conquest of our inner world.
There are many more questions to Christ’s life and teaching than answers. But what we know with absolute certainty is that what we do have, no matter the gyrations of interpretation and early Church politics it went through, is a record of someone rare and grand that visited the earth 20 centuries ago and left us in a position to derive great benefit and hope now. Christ is ever peeping into the Present with us.
Jesus was on a special mission. His aim was to inform those of us who have ears to hear that the pursuit of what he called the Kingdom of God was serious business and he was the world’s expert. There is no indication that he was what you might call “a nice guy” or possessed a sense of humor or fun. Christ’s words were warnings of impending doom and instructions on how to avoid it.
Jesus was a revolutionary, but not, as some have suggested, against the Romans or any outward Jewish faction. His commission was to change our prevailing inner, or spiritual, attitudes. Since the dawn of recorded history, mankind has been in the throes of a continual crime spree with its attendant allies corruption, violence, spite, jealousy, meanness, and so on. We have never been free from our own mischief. Our pugnacious nature has produced doleful groans, whines, and whimpering in a never-ending stream.
That we have been designed that way cannot be in doubt. Jesus came to inform us on how to re-design ourselves to a better fate, a higher dimension, called The Blessed. Be merciful, do not judge, turn the other check, forgive your enemies are only a few of the methods that he offers to those who have ears to hear the siren and eyes to see the exit sign from our spiritual dungeon.
But it is not easy. The gate is narrow and few there are who can pass out of that dark place of entrapment, a state of misunderstanding, full of distrust and confusion. In a way, we can create our own God by our actions on earth. A forgiving person begets a forgiving God. A mean, spiteful person creates for himself a God of the same nature. What we are is our god. To have a better God we must be better.
Christ’s most ingenious method of depicting what he wanted us to learn was by way of the Parables. A Parable is not religion. It is High Art. Each one is a work of psychological art aimed at the soul and, like a Rembrandt painting or a Michelangelo sculpture, it can illuminate the dark. Seeing the Pieta in person can transform one in a way that knowing its history can never do. Understood correctly and deeply, every one of the Parables has the power to raise us above the common stock that run our planet.
About a third of the Gospels are composed of parables. Parables are forms of metaphors and similes taken from nature or common human activity that are aids to connect with a higher world, the world of God. Not only were the language and scenarios of the Parables easy to comprehend 2000 years ago, they remain so now. Fools and foils are the banal realities today as well as in yesteryear.
But what is difficult then and now is to grasp the message that Jesus was trying to convey. This requires a whole other set of personal qualities not easily attained. A literal reading of the words or the futile exercise of putting the words in context of the times produces no real understanding. The Gospels are about Jesus. The Parables are about us — in Christ’s own words. Understood deeply and spiritually, the Parables fill in the vacancy between here and heaven.
There is some disagreement over just how many Parables there are in the Gospels. Some have counted up to the high 60s when one-line similes are counted. The number I am most comfortable with is 46: 9 in Mark, 23 in Matthew, and 28 in Luke. There are only 6 that are common in all three. This is because the writers of the Synoptic Gospels were using different banks of memories to draw from, although the story and personality of Jesus was the same. The Gospel of John was describing a wholly different Jesus, less concerned with teaching than establishing himself as the Son of God.
The Parables have a number of different themes that Jesus wished to emphasize, and we learn about the Reign and Rules of our God. The first was to explain and describe the Kingdom of God. This was an entirely new concept for the people of those olden days and a hard one to contemplate even today.
The key to this grouping of Parables, and there are at least nine, is Christ’s words that heaven is within. So, it is not a place, but rather a state, akin to the state of happiness, contentment, or fulfillment, and yet still more profound in depth. Sweet, sweet is its taste. It was so important that Jesus, without prompting, brought the subject up himself. He says, “What is heaven like? To what can I compare it?” His approach is oblique and metaphorical.
In the short story of the Mustard Seed, which is one of the few written up in all the Gospels, a person’s inner being can sprout and grow, like the humble mustard seed, into a state of considerable significance — a nest, a help for many. Notice in Matthew that a man must sow the mustard seed in the ground. It does not happen by accident.
The same idea is put forward in the Parable of the Yeast, which is inserted into some meal. This causes growth from the inside and can feed many.
So, heaven is not a place you can go to, but a state you can be in. It is not far away because it is an attitude and within everyone’s reach. And when touching it I say yea! Then the heavens can open for us and show how thin is the veil that separates us from God. Heaven can be Now, and Now-after.
It is emancipation from our counterfeit cares and the sorceries of life’s enticements, an interior decorating, not a deteriorating at the hands of the carnal gods. The Kingdom of God is the discovery of the pearl of great price, or finding the little lost lamb.
An easily overlooked but persistent aim of Christ’s Parables and general teachings is the idea that the Kingdom of God, or Heaven as he sometimes says, is not an easy state to accomplish. Twice in Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Many are called, but few chosen.” Everyone has a chance, can hear the call with physical ears, but few who have the inner ear to grasp its import. Jesus is speaking to only a few, but those few may be spread out over many centuries.
The Parable of the Sower is thought by some as the story that most encapsulates the Jesus teaching. Strip away all notions of farmers and haphazardly spreading seed, and think about the whole field of our spiritual world receiving the Seed of God, the Father, but because of circumstances or even personal sloth and creeping indifference, most of us cannot grow beyond a certain point, or not at all.
This mirrors the laws of nature. Every plant, every creature, spreads many seeds, but only a few will germinate and sprout into maturity. I read where the Saguaro sends millions of seeds out over its long life and only perhaps one or two reach the stature of its parent.
It does not seem fair that only a small number can share the Paradise, but then again it is right because all have the chance. It would be unjust for those don’t want it being forced to accept it. We have no say in our birth, but we do have sway over our re-birth if by merit it is gained.
In Luke, Chapter 14, Jesus starts a parable with, “A certain man gave a great supper and invited many.” Unfortunately, all of the invitees demurred, citing other business like the tending of oxen and the viewing of a piece of land. These excuses were noted, and the servants were sent to beckon the less physically fortunate, the lame, the blind, and the poor. Eventually, the feast was fully attended by those who were not so occupied by concerns of brute beasts and belongings. Maybe those who were first invited did not think the feast was a big deal anyway, or worse, did not believe it existed.
And so it is with us. The feast is prepared and all are summoned. Have you heard the call and do you take it seriously? You might ask, is there a feast at all, or just the mumblings and hysterics of the uneducated and unsophisticated? It is easily dismissed if there are oxen to tend, property to be seen, or other such allurements.
The same message was delivered in the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew, Chapter 22, only this time, when those invited made light of the call to dine and killed his servants, the king sent out his army to wreak havoc on all they owned and had the murderers killed. Also, to a diner who was not properly dressed, he had him cast into the place of darkness.
I like this version more. There are so many who sneer and flout with acid humor at the idea of the Divine and its promises, that retribution is loaded into this story. He is a God not to be trifled with. Angels, it seems, have talons as well as wings.
In the Gospels the arrow of value and appreciation goes both ways. On numerous occasions Christ uses the magic word “as” in his discourses and Parables. You will be forgiven as you forgive, shown mercy as you show mercy, and so on. A person receives their due portion, not less, not more. A way to look at this is that forgiveness is the only life insurance policy we can collect on after our death.
But Jesus indicates that God has a sense of justice not like that of us mortals. In the long Parable called the Workers in the Vineyard, the owner promised one coin to a worker in the morning to tend his crop. As the day goes forward he keeps hiring new workers promising that same payment. The last one that comes works only one hour, but in the end receives the identical payment — one coin. The first ones complain that it is not fair that they only received one coin and yet worked much longer than the late-comer.
But the owner replied, “Friend I do you no wrong. Did you not agree to work for one coin?” Take what is yours and go your way. Is it not lawful that I am able to do what I wish with my own things?”
I’ve read many complaints about the owner’s actions. But from a practical view, deciding fairness about something is always a dicey business. We want it when it is in our favor and are quick to make negative judgments on situations we don’t know a lot about, as in this case. Justice is not blind, but we are.
In one of Christ’s last parables in Matthew called The Wise and Foolish Virgins, he tells the story of ten young ladies waiting for the bridegroom to come. They had to have their lamps lit when he finally showed up, but five, the foolish virgins, did not bring enough oil. Thus, their lamps were unlit and they were not allowed into the bridegroom’s presence. However, the wise ones, who were prepared for the long haul and kept enough reserves of oil, were invited into the celebration.
When the Foolish ones returned with the needed oil, the bridegroom said to them, “Assuredly, I do not know you. For you do not know the day or when the Son of Man is coming.”
It is easy to see that in this example, the test was to be able to light one’s way to the Kingdom, to be awake. Also, of maximum import was to be ever ready when the call comes. The “call” is our death. We are all on death’s door. We just don’t know when it will open and sweep us in.
In Luke Chapter 12, Jesus emphasizes the need to be all set and ready to go: “Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. I say to you, he … will have them sit down to eat, … and serve them … Therefore, you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” In Mark, Chapter 13, he says the same thing and adds, “lest, coming suddenly, he finds you sleeping.”
What does it mean to be “ready,” to be “watching,” at the time of death? It certainly does not mean simply to be a good Christian in appearance, go to church and put money in the basket. Jesus was teaching his doctrine long before Christianity was even a notion in men’s minds. The Synoptic stories are for the world, not for a special segment of it.
To be ready, to wake up, is to come out of our sleep. To watch is the method and means to be Present in order to become Conscious. This is an idea as old as the hills, predating Christ by many centuries. There is mo more powerful or consequential idea than that mankind has been cast into a hypnotic state of daydreams and fantasy. Most of our lives are lived in imagination. But like the fish in water, we are unable to see out of our trance state, physically functioning but psychologically floating far from reality, now here, now there, castle building or minding everybody else’s business. Paradise is just a wake away.
At the outset of our religion, the groups that sprung up around those closest to Christ were a series of Schools to learn these things that Jesus teaches though the Parables. But with time the need for organization and control led instead to stiff rites and rituals, hard rules and regulations that repressed those early efforts and the many approaches to explain them. Preaching replaced teaching.
For instance, Jesus insists through his stories that there are dire consequences for not producing what we are made for. How often do we hear that now?
In Luke’s Parable of the Fig Tree a man comes seeking the fruit from his tree, but for the third straight year it fails to produce. In the end the owner gives it one more year to produce figs. He says, “If not, you can cut it down.”
Why would Jesus tell such stories if it was not for the purpose of warning. We may not be fig trees, but we certainly best bear the product we were designed to produce.
There are two Parables that have similar plots about using one’s resources to maximum effect. The first is from Matthew’s 25th Chapter and is called the Parable of the Talents. This is the one most quoted in Bible classes and pulpits because it is fairly uncomplicated. It rewards the servants who used the man’s resources to best effect and showed a handsome profit, and for the one who was lethargic and showed no profit took away his coin and gave it to the one who was most productive and then threw the lazy one into the outer darkness.
In Luke’s version, Chapter 19, Jesus adds a storyline of a group who did not accept the nobleman as their King. In addition to stripping the one who did not produce more talents, or minas in this case, the King also had killed in front of him the ones who did not accept his Rule.
This is tough stuff. Reading through the Parables, Jesus emerges as a man who cracks thunder at his Father’s behest. These stories are without parallel, frightening even. They speak the Truth. We are here to find our Way, and that Way is mysterious, and solving that mystery is for us a wormhole to another life. There are some who have found this grand passage, a life within a life. Clues for passing through the eye of the needle are scattered throughout the Gospels, but specific to the Parables.
As we embark on the strange seas of a more real search for a Christianity beyond the candied version we are all too accustomed to, with an unconditional loving and endlessly forgiving God, turn first to the actual meaning of each Parable. The totality of them may shake our sandy foundations.
Jesus says indirectly that few will be willing to do the work, or change their selves, enough to reach the promised state of solemnity. This is only fair because there are few who want it beyond idle wishful thinking. My favorite quotes from Matthew, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all things will be added to you,” and “Seek and ye shall find.” These are strong spurs to action, real action toward the goal.
Then there are the stories about Kings and nobles who offer feasts to many, but not many accepted the invitation, opting to loll about with private cares and lax attitudes. Perhaps they represent the atheists of the day. As you may recall, their fate was not a pleasant one.
God sets the scales of Justice in the Parables. Humans’ scales are skewed because our minds are invested with attitudes, like barriers, keeping us from thinking straight. We are too much of a hodgepodge of shifting moods, unstable in our assessments, and enormously self-involved and complacent with the norms of the day to ever be balanced and fair in our appraisals.
Not so with God, whose insight is absolute. The Almighty does grant clemency and compassion where it is warranted. Kindness, generosity and gentleness will be rewarded in due portion.
In the Parables of Sheep and Goats, the Fishing Net, and the Wheat and Tares, the worthy are separated and harvested. The unworthy are discarded or set afire. In Matthew Chapter 25, the parable ends with the words, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into Eternal Life. This is God’s Cardinal Doctrine of immortality.
The most harrowing of all the Parables is in Luke 16, called the Rich Man and Lazarus. I won’t go into it but the rich man is in hell and is denied even a drop of water for his tongue. Such was his justice for being a mean miser.
I think it is a great Christian myth that Jesus died for our sins and that we are forgiven for our trespasses simply by being labeled Christian. It doesn’t even make sense. We have misunderstood God. Life has been provided as a field to work in. We are all workers in the vineyard.
The Parables promise rough justice. In the story of the “Unmerciful Servant” is a good example. I’ll read it because I think of it as the essence of Christ’s teaching about God’s Law.
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.[a]
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[b] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. “Be patient with me,” he begged, “and I will pay back everything.” 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[c] He grabbed him and began to choke him. “Pay back what you owe me!” he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, “Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.”
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
If you think about it, what a debt to God we each owe. We were given all the attributes of Life—eyesight, ear-sight, marvelous brains, and so on, plus opportunities almost without end. None of this did we earn, but given as an endowment from God not requiring repayment in kind, but by being kind, by waiving, cancelling, and pardoning others for their trespasses.
It is God’s business to wreak havoc on wrongdoers, not ours. In many places in both Testaments it said, “Vengeance is mine, said the Lord.”
I know this is not a natural thing to do. We were created a bellicose people to whom revenge comes easily to mind. We have to tame that part in us, even, and especially in our hearts. Many people seem outwardly passive to slights, but inwardly rage and imagine reprisals and malice of all sorts. The trip to heaven starts here, forgiving in the heart and fostering morality and harmony in our world. God is searching among the riff-raff of the world for the noble of heart.
In summation, the forty-six parables are the way to understand our Master and Lord. I am one of those who believe in heaven and hell, in whatever form they might take. In our modern world this is now a minority view, but to me it is the only way to make sense of the madness of our world. We don’t know what foul deed is just around the next breath for everyone, everywhere. Only those who will build their own sanctuary by using the sage advice of Jesus can be sound and safe.
Organizations are common now in our secular society that trumpet atheist and agnostic sentiments and belittle people of Faith, sometimes quite aggressively. This is not a tactic I would recommend. There is too much risk.
Our real problem with the Parables has never been how to translate them properly from the Greek into the English, but rather our faulty way of translating them from the English to our understanding.
To me, reading other people’s take on the Parables for about five months, none seemed to detect the hard edge to their motif, or else discounted it in favor of a happy face where a stern one was more appropriate. I couldn’t love the Parables more for their frankness and their solid guideposts leading upward. This is the essence of why Jesus was sent from the Celestial World. He was here, and is still here, to help those who would help themselves to a fruitful life Now, and Now-ever. Or else be cut down.