Monday, March 08, 2010

Parables and the teachings of Rabbi Jesus....

Last Wednesday's class was one of blessings in the witness the participants gave of how the parables of Jesus have touched, supported and have continued to form their lives as they have grown as Christians in faith and practice. Each had a favorite, and when asked, was willing to tender their particular preference. That did two things for us: 1) it opened us up to the diversity of experience and faith stories arrayed around the table; and 2) we had a chance to build a structure for our talk that took us through a VERY rich field of texts that can both terrify and teach.

So, without placing any particular order on them, here is a rough breakdown of what we covered and what I hope will be good fodder for your own exploration of Luke, chapters ~8-18.

The Parable of the Sower (Luke 8: 4-15)
Jesus' teaching on the parable of the sower is a perplexing one. The essence of parabolic teaching is that the lesson itself has a double meaning. (from the Harper's Bible Dictionary) It has both a literal meaning and a metaphorical one. To say a parable is like a riddle is to deny its power to provoke deep reactions in the hearer that go beyond just trying to solve a puzzle and get "the right answer." The parable of the sower is a wonderful example. On the face value, we see a simple and logical story. A sower goes out to do "his" proverbial scatter seed in a field so that there will be growth, plenty and harvest. A good sower is able to boradcast their seed with both skill and efficiency, and yet this sower seems to offer an indiscriminate and slightly laconic effort. Some see falls on a path, some on rocky ground, some fell among thorns and some on good soil. Jesus' audience would know this image. It was a part of their daily existence. A simple, logical set of consequences...and yet there is deeper meaning. Jesus, in an aside with his disciples, tells them that the seed is like the word of God. It is cast out by the proclaimer. Some finds purchase and yields its fruit. Some is choked by cares (thorns) and withers. Some is parched by lack of a strong root and fades. Some is lost to the devil who comes and snatches it away. As a witness to later experiences, Jesus is tendering to the disciples and to us that there is more to proclaiming the kingdom than going from strength to strength, from success to success. He is telling us truth, and is letting us know that there will be moments of victory and failure as we work our furrows in the garden of faith. The deep meaning will continue to unfold, because it is also for us to recognize ourselves as the seed, as well as the sower....and finally, if we are honest, as the agents that influence the growth of the newly sprouted word of God. We are the hard ground, we snatch away the seed before it roots, we choke off the good word, and sometimes, we are the good soil and the Word takes root. This is not a moment's teaching. It is a life lesson that we need to, and get to, learn over and over again as the years pass and seasons come and go.

The healing of the Gerasene Demoniac (Luke 8:26-39)
Jesus is not so much teaching in parables as acting one out in this case. Just after quieting the storm around the disciples. He turns on the shore to a man who has the storm raging within him. A man is plagued, possessed. He is beyond reason and lives beyond human contact, in the tombs, with the dead. That is all that he can manage, and all that the people in his community can in dealing with him, as well. It only takes a word from Jesus and the demons (Legion) inside him flee, enter a herd of swine-that then cast themselves into the sea, and with a welcome twist have the people of the man's community rush to see the sight, only to find the former demoniac clean, dressed and in his right mind. Jesus quiets the storms around us, and inside. Real healing isn't so hard to experience, really; but too often it is hard for us to accept-particularly in other people. From that point he journeys on to raise a girl from the dead and to accept the affront of being touched by a woman who was bleeding for years without respite. This teacher not only talks about embracing the cast-off and unclean...his very being responds and models a response that will eventually be required of all of us.

The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)
This one smacks us right between the eyes. On the surface, we identify chiefly with the Samaritan who stops to render aid, and to the man who is beaten and left for dead in the ditch. It is easy to dismiss the others who pass by, the Levite and the priest. But, remember (you might) that both the Levite and the priest have made a "right" choice under the law of Moses. To touch blood, or a dea body, was to become polluted yourself. It was "preferable" for them to pass by rather than to stop...though we rebel against that ethical stance (as most did in Jesus' day). Still, it is time to acknowledge that we are all of the characters in this tale. How many times have you not stopped to render aid to someone on the side of the road with a flat tire? Stepped past someone who has dropped their groceries because you are running late? "Tsk-ed" at a young parent with an unruly child in a restaurant? We can't all manage mercy all the time. Not even the saints in their generation were able to keep their "mercy radar" going at such a clip. Still, the story provokes us. It is an opportunity to embrace what Jesus is offering to the obstreperous lawyer when he is forced to admit that the loathed Samaritan is the person of virture in the story-the one who is a good neighbor...."Go and do likewise...."

Jesus does not wash his hands (Luke 11:37-54)
It isn't a story, but sometimes a simple (and scandalous) gesture can say more than a masterful tale turned and bent back on the listener. Jesus is at table at the home of a Pharisee. He takes his place at table and amazes those present in that he chooses not to wash his hands before dining. This was not just hygiene. It was also a ritual observance of submission to the Law. Jesus takes the challenge and offers up that it is one thing to "keep" the law, but the adherence is perverted when the exterior is washed but the interior is left untouched and corrupt. What good are clean hands when there are hungry people in the world, when there is injustice left unchallenged?

The rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31)
When reading a parable, be ready and open. Be open to structure, to open to the way the story makes you feel. Be honest with yourself and your reactions. Notice the little things and then let the whole great mess of it wash over you. This parable of the nameless rich man and the poor man, Lazarus, who has a name is one of those stories that continues to open its meaning to us, every time we take it up. On the surface, this parable reads like a cautionary tale of moral imperative. The rich man is bad because he chooses to feast in cloistered opulence while a poor man starves on his doorstep. They both die and get their just reward in the life to come. Simple enough. We even have Abraham as a character, who consoles Lazarus and join the poor man in lamenting over the fate of the rich man who in death finds himself in torment. But, take a close look. Reflect. Why would a poor man have a name? When that homeless man came up to you in the subway or on the street the other day and you (mercifully) dug into your pocket for some spare change, did you look him in the eye and ask him his name? Did you think he had one to offer? Of course he did, but so many times we just see the condition of a person and not the reality of their identity as a redeemed son or daughter of the living God-and by that see them as our brother or sister. That gulf fixed between the two agents in our story is one made concrete that was already between them in the life they shared in the mortal coil. All it takes is a gate, a door, an attitude of superiority and the "other" is less then we are. Thing is, we are that rich man. We are Lazarus. We are even father Abraham himself, lamenting that two of his sons have grown so far apart as to be unable to reconcile in the life after mortality has ended the earthly strife of their individual pilgrimages in the flesh.

So there you have them...a couple of brief meditations on some of the parables and teachings of Jesus. Of course, these are just a smattering list of the great teachings Luke sets before us in the body of the Gospel. Take up and read...I am sure you have insight to offer!

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