11th Sunday OT B ~ "Sideways" ~ Susan McGurgan

Most of us turn to scripture seeking answers,

looking for inspiration,

longing for insights, encouragement, and truth.


We turn to scripture,

hoping to find some kind of road map,

an itinerary for the journey,

holy footnotes that will clarify

and illuminate the challenging bits of life and faith.


If we are honest,

we just want it to make sense--

to be logical--

to have a clear meaning we can learn and apply.

Stories and parables are supposed to explain things--

not make them harder.


But when we dive into the parables,

more often than not,

we find odd little stories,

cryptic sayings,

unusual characters,

and images that leave us scratching our heads.


We tell ourselves,

“It’s because I am not a farmer,

(or a tax collector

or a prostitute

or a Pharisee

or cave-dwelling demoniac,

or a woman in first century Palestine, collecting water at a well.)


We remind ourselves that time

and distance

and vast cultural gaps

stand between us and the true meaning.

And, if we could just understand the process of sowing seeds,

and know the price of oil and fish,

and calculate the value of a pearl—

if we could study the types of soil in ancient Israel,

learn the nuances of Hebrew and Greek--

if we google the distance between Jericho and Jerusalem

and know what (exactly) is meant by the biblical state of “leprosy”—

which evidently isn’t Hansen’s Disease--

then we would understand.

Completely.


If we just marinate for awhile

in our Almanac of Biblical Knowledge,

and pray really hard,

then all will become clear.


But maybe we’re approaching this from the wrong angle.

Maybe we should come at parables

sideways,

rather than head-on.


It’s safe to say that

the farmers and fisherfolk and tax collectors and women who traded in purple--

all the people who listened to Jesus 2,000 years ago--

were often puzzled, too.


Parables are filled with the sights and sounds and activities

of daily life—

wineskins

oil lamps,

money, treasure, mustard seeds—

dishonest stewards, crafty operators, tardy bridegrooms.

Yet, as ordinary as they seem,

parables almost always have a twist.


The word, “parable”

comes from a compound Greek word

parabola

meaning “to throw alongside.”

In other words,

a parable is a story “thrown alongside”

an idea or concept to illustrate.


Parables are earthy stories illuminating heavenly truths.

They are stories with a double meaning.

There is the literal meaning,

available to everyone with experience in the subject,

and a deeper meaning--

the iceberg-below-the-surface lesson—

the “thrown alongside” lesson

Jesus wants to share about God’s kingdom.


These below-the-surface-icebergs

can take us by surprise

and cause us to run aground.

They can pierce holes in our deepest prejudices;

our most comfortable assumptions.


We can find our attitudes, beliefs, and expectations

challenged

turned inside out,

shaken up,

or even dismantled altogether.


Parables offer remarkable,

even startling comparisons.

They place unexpected thoughts

and incongruous situations

right beside each other.

They marry images that disturb or confuse us—

inviting us sideways into deeper reflection.


Even Jesus said,

not everyone will understand.


Are parables designed to reveal?

Or conceal?

The answer is “Yes!”


Sometimes,

parables offer up-- as normal and true--

situations

our logical minds want to reject.

For example….

What shepherd would leave 99 perfectly good sheep to go after one?

Answer: A shepherd looking to be fired.

What woman would sweep the house all day to find a dime,

then celebrate by throwing a party costing hundreds of dollars?

Answer: No one in my neighborhood.

What landowner would praise his manager for multiple acts of dishonesty?

Answer: One who wants to get cheated.

These “sideways” stories invite us to suspend our pre-conceived ideas

and enter into a new space.


This particular parable begins with the image of a farmer,

scattering seed on the land,

sleeping and rising,

unknowing how the seeds sprout and grow.


Is God the farmer who scatters the seed?

If so, why is the farmer ignorant of the cycle of growth?

Surely the master of the harvest understands

more than simply when and how to wield the sickle!


Are we the farmer?

If so, then why are we the ones harvesting the crop?

Isn’t that God’s work?


And what about the mustard seed?


The mustard plant is a useful herb

used to flavor and preserve food,

but the plant is also a pest,

capable of spreading its seed so quickly and so far,

that it can take over an entire field in a season.

It’s not exactly a plant greeted with open arms

by people who make their living from the soil.

Yet, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed,

growing into a plant.


Mustard plants are hard core survivalists.

They have evolved to cope with arid climates,

poor soil,

lack of water,

extreme heat.

The seed is about one-tenth of an inch,

yet mustard sowed one day

can begin growing the next.


In the parables,

despite all odds, a minute seed

grows rapidly into a large plant.

A tiny speck of leaven

causes a whole loaf of bread to rise.

An invisible treasure

turns out to be the true value of a field.

One small pearl

is worth more than all the possessions of a wealthy merchant.


In the kingdom of God,

things that seem small,

insignificant,

unimportant,

almost invisible,

are mighty in their power.


Jesus knows that some people who hear these parables

will never understand.

It’s not that he wants to hide the meaning,

It’s just that sometimes, our hearts are closed,

and our minds cannot comprehend.


Yet, these parables,

these stories "thrown alongside,"

will reveal something true

to seekers who are humble enough,

open enough,

sideways enough,

to see the world with new eyes.


They remind us that God's perspective is not our perspective.

God's ways are not our ways.

They teach us that God overturns expectations,

flips outcomes,

and invites us to be surprised.

The kingdom of God is like a father who waits for a lost son.

The kingdom of God is like a woman who sweeps the house for a missing coin.

The kingdom of God is like bread rising.

The kingdom of God is like a net heavy with fish.

The kingdom of God is like a shepherd risking everything for a stray sheep.

The kingdom of God is like a farmer, preparing for harvest.

The kingdom of God is like new wine poured out.

The kingdom of God is like a long awaited wedding feast.

The kingdom of God is like a tiny seed, scattered upon the soil.


The kingdom of God is like nothing you expect and everything you need.


The kingdom of God is like you and me.

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