Equipping Christians & churches for whole-life discipleship in the world.

Parables (11): Midnight’s Friend

March 4, 2013
04 Mar 2013

Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread…’
Luke 11:5-8

It’s midnight, and John and Mary are asleep in bed. A sudden knocking wakes them; John staggers over to the window, and sees his friend Joe battering at the door. ‘What do you want?’ he calls grumpily. ‘Have you got any bread?’ calls Joe. ‘It’s Joe’, John tells Mary, ‘asking for bread’. ‘Tell him to get lost’, she says, turning her back but being careful not to lie on the baby. ‘Please’, calls Joe, ‘a friend has arrived out of the blue, and I’ve got no food in the house’. ‘It’s midnight, and we’re all in bed’, John replies. ‘Come back in the morning.’ But Joe won’t take no for an answer: he keeps on pleading until John – persuaded by his persistence – relents.

Luke records this story between two of Jesus’ most famous teachings on prayer: the Lord’s prayer (11:2-4) and ‘Ask… seek… knock’ (11:9-10). It appears to be a parable about the conditions for answered prayer. We might readily think that the friendship between the two men was the reason that the request was granted – nepotism and the ‘old boy network’ come to mind. But Jesus is explicit: it was his friend’s ‘boldness’ that changed John’s mind. This word carries a range of connotations, from boldness or even shamelessness to persistence and perseverance.

This is a parable in which, clearly, the protagonist does not represent God – a reluctant helper, more anxious for his own comfort than for the welfare of his friend. Jesus is, rather, pointing to a contrast. Richard Chenevix Trench, in his 1840 classic, Notes on the Parables of our Lord, wrote that we must not ‘conceive of prayer as an overcoming of God’s reluctance, when it is, in fact, a laying hold of his highest willingness’.

It is worth noting, however, that just as Jesus encourages us to address God as Father, so in this parable the illustration that he uses is of the relationship between friends. Is it not on the strength of Jesus’ calling us ‘not servants but friends’ (John 15:15) that we can come with boldness and confidence, persevering in prayer even when the answer is long in coming?

Helen Parry

Parables (10): Hearing and Doing

January 7, 2013
07 Jan 2013

There was a man who had two sons… He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’ ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went… Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
Matthew 21:28-30

There are certain characters in Jesus’ parables in whom we immediately recognise someone we know – or even ourselves. Most of us, for instance, are likely to be more familiar with self-righteous elder brothers than with prodigals (Luke 15:11-32). In this parable, however, both sons may seem like old friends. Both exhibit what in less polite circles we might describe as bloody-mindedness.

Jesus was confronted by religious leaders questioning his authority. His oblique answer about John the Baptist shows that he was well aware that their motive was to catch him out. One of their strongest objections to his ministry was that he was ‘a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’ (Matthew 11:19). So he told this parable of the two sons.

The first son resented the path of duty and determined to resist being told what to do. But he had a conscience. He had no objection to working in the vineyard, but he was determined to do it of his own free will. The other son paid lip-service to his father’s authority, but had no intention of carrying out his order.

The correspondence is not exact, but Jesus identifies the father’s command in this parable with John the Baptist’s preaching. The tax collectors and prostitutes, although by their lives they had been flouting God’s law, responded to John’s call to repentance, forgiveness and a new way of life. And so, Jesus said, they were ‘entering the kingdom of God’ ahead of those who, while making an external show of obedience, refused the true ‘way of righteousness’ that John had preached.

Those of us who are parents may be uncomfortably familiar with the two sons. But what does this parable have to say to the church and society at large today? There may be more openness to God among those who do not believe than among those who do. The ability to see the good and to acknowledge the need for a new start is the product of common grace. But religious people, who believe that they already ‘have it all’, may be impervious to self-examination and change.

Let us never underestimate the spiritual hunger among our colleagues, friends and relations, nor the power of God (sometimes through us) to speak into their lives. And let us always be open for God to speak into our own.

 

Helen Parry

Parables (9): Contract or Covenant?

December 10, 2012
10 Dec 2012

For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard… The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.
Matthew 20:1-2, 9-11

A landowner hires five sets of workers at different times of the day. Those recruited at dawn are promised a day’s wage, and those hired subsequently are assured they will be paid ‘whatever is right’; but when settlement time arrives, all receive the same. Small wonder that the action of the landowner has often been likened to God’s goodness in welcoming all, regardless of merit, into the kingdom.

Another reading has gained traction in recent years which argues that parables like this one show how oppression serves the interests of a ruling class. In this case, the parable depicts two extremes of agrarian society: a ruthless landowner and desperate peasants who are in no position to bargain. Far from being generous, the owner exploits an unemployed workforce to meet his harvesting needs.

For sure, the situation and characters reflect the economic realities of Jesus’ day, realities he was not averse to criticising. Here, though, the introduction suggests the landowner represents something of how God rules. And it’s possible to see him positively, not as ruthless, nor even incompetent in calculating how many workers he’d need to recruit, but in being compassionate to those in need of employment. What’s more, the parable begins and ends with a reference to the last being first and the first being last (19:30; 20:16). Who is ‘last’ and ‘first’ is highlighted with the order in which the workers are employed and then paid, the structure of the parable reinforcing the message of reversal in its frame.

Our response to the parable probably has a lot to do with where we see our place in the line – near the front or at the back. That we instinctively sympathise with the aggrieved workers suggests the difficulty of detaching ourselves from the conviction that rewards should match service rendered. Then as now, the parable challenges our sense of entitlement.

It also spotlights the nature of our relationship to the master. Those hired first are given the wages they have earned; what is given to those hired last is based less on their rights than on the owner’s right to be generous – the difference between a contract and a covenant. The parable helps us examine how far our discipleship is governed by contractual obligations rather than covenantal service. In doing so, it reorientates us towards the gracious presence of the kingdom. This is the way God rules.

 

Antony Billington

Parables (8): Improve Your Talents

December 3, 2012
03 Dec 2012

A man… called his servants and entrusted his property to them… After a long time the master of those servants returned… The man who had received the five talents brought the other five… His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant…’ Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘… I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground…’ His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!’
Matthew 25:14-30

The parable of the talents is one of the most controversial of Jesus’ parables. A rich man rewards the rich, but punishes the poor, and rubs salt into his wounds, saying: ‘For those who have will be given more, and they will have an abundance. As for those who do not have, even what they have will be taken from them’ (Matthew 25:29). Is this literally what the kingdom of heaven will be like?

Clearly not. But what is Jesus saying?

First of all, he was not talking about money, though some have read it that way. The German playwright Bertolt Brecht, for example, used it as the basic motif in his satirical novel, The Threepenny Novel (1934) – a savage attack on capitalist society and its exploitation of the poor and weak. All Jesus’ other teaching about wealth, poverty and justice give the lie to such an interpretation.

What, then, do the talents – particularly the single talent entrusted to the third man – represent? Some commentators have suggested that the original application was to the Pharisees. In the words of Michael Green: ‘They received the Torah and… preserved it unchanged. They buried it… They wanted a religion without change and without risk’ (The Message of Matthew, IVP).

Since the Middle Ages, the talents have generally been interpreted as individuals’ aptitudes or ‘gifts’ (hence our contemporary use of the word). This was clearly in John Milton’s mind when, in his sonnet On his Blindness, he wrote of:

… That one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide.

Michael Green suggests that we should think of the talents primarily as opportunities. People embedded in the old covenant were in danger of missing the liberation offered by the new covenant. And for us? Our individual gifts also create opportunities. As the old hymn says:

Improve your talents with due care,
For the great day yourself prepare.

And Paul too would call us to be ‘making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil’ (Ephesians 5:16). Everywhere and every day.

 

Helen Parry

Parables (7): Not Always Front-Page News

November 26, 2012
26 Nov 2012

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.’ He told them still another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.’
Matthew 13:31-33

Languishing in prison, John the Baptist began to wonder whether Jesus really was ‘the one to come’. Things hadn’t worked out as he’d expected. It was not easy to see how an itinerant preacher from an inconsequential village, with a small band of followers, could be the hopes of Israel.

We too might sometimes puzzle over where and how God is at work in the world today. Or perhaps we don’t feel big enough or strong enough or important enough to make a difference where we are. Or we’re painfully aware that the church doesn’t look too impressive in the grand scheme of things.

And yet, ‘whoever has ears, let them hear…’

Jesus compares God’s reign to a mustard seed, proverbial for its tininess, planted in a field, which becomes a bush big enough to provide shelter for birds. Then Jesus likens the kingdom to yeast mixed into a large lump of dough, working its way through the whole lot, yielding enough bread to feed over a hundred people.

Old Testament passages have suggested to some that the tree refers to God’s sovereignty which provides shelter for the nations, the ‘birds’. Others have not been slow to point out the permeating influence of the yeast. But beyond these finer points of possible significance, what unites both parables is a striking contrast – between a tiny seed and a full-grown plant, between a small amount of yeast and a large lump of dough. The essential element is not the greatness of God’s reign or the transformation it will bring – neither of which would be doubted by Jesus’ hearers – so much as that what it will one day bring will be out of all proportion to its seemingly unimpressive, easily overlooked presence now.

For us, as for the first disciples, it’s an encouragement that God is at work – even if we don’t always see it as clearly as we’d like to. Indeed, something about the images Jesus uses reinforces the apparently ‘ordinary’ mode by which God’s reign is present – not always in an overwhelming display of cosmic strength, but no less significant for that. Jesus anticipates the powerful intervention of God in the fulness of time, but he also teaches that God’s liberating sovereignty and love is already present, with disciples called to live now in the light of that coming reign.

 

Antony Billington

Parables (6): Mystery and Blessing

November 5, 2012
05 Nov 2012

The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak
to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘The knowledge of
the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to
you, but not to them… But blessed are your eyes because
they see, and your ears because they hear.’
Matthew 13:10-11 & 16

How, we might ask, does God exercise his kingly power in the world? And Jesus responds with stories of a farmer sowing seed, of yeast in a lump of dough, of treasure hidden in a field, of a net full of fish, of a man hiring workers for his vineyard, of a wedding banquet, of ten bridesmaids… Puzzled? Jesus’ parables are bound up with his announcement that God has begun to exercise his longed-for reign on earth – but it’s not always easy to see the links. Even the disciples found it difficult to draw the dots between the one and the other.

Jesus’ parables are often thought to be down-to-earth stories illustrating points which people would readily understand. But in many cases, instead of making the message clearer, they appear to make it harder to get! And there lies the challenge: implicit in every parable is a question – are your ears and eyes open to what God is doing?

Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question gives us a clue – maybe even the key – to what’s happening when he teaches in parables. The disciples are distinguished from the crowds not by their instant and intuitive understanding of the parables, but by their seeking of explanations, and by having the ‘secrets of the kingdom’ revealed to them. So it is that they are ‘blessed’, says Jesus, not because they are cleverer than others, or more deserving than others, but because God has given to them what he has not given to others – just as God granted Daniel access to the divine ‘mystery’ that the Babylonian sages were unable to understand.

In this case, the disciples witness God fulfilling his promises of salvation, even though it’s not happening like most people thought it would or should. One day God’s rule will embrace the whole earth, but he is already at work in unexpected ways – and each of the parables in Matthew 13 illustrates something of this tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of God’s reign.

For us too comes the challenge and incredible privilege of discerning God at work in the everyday, perhaps in quiet and unanticipated ways. Now as then – for those blessed with eyes to see and ears to hear – it’s possible to detect the extraordinary in the ordinary. Where will you see evidence of his reign today?


Antony Billington

Parables (5): All Prepared?

October 29, 2012
29 Oct 2012

At that time, the kingdom of heaven will be like ten
virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet
the bridegroom… The foolish ones took their lamps
but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones,
however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.
Matthew 25:1-4

The cry fell on all their ears: ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ In five successive parables, Jesus promises his return; whether sooner or later than we expect, he will definitely come. Each of the parables has a distinct emphasis, but together they carry a single theme: be ready!

The ten young women were entrusted with a specific role: to join the joyful wedding procession and accompany the bridegroom into the banqueting hall (Matthew 25:10). Five made adequate preparations; five didn’t. While we might not be able to draw firm conclusions from this parable about the conditions for or nature of the final judgment, it is clear that there will be one. Jesus’ point, however, is that this should have a profound impact on how we live meanwhile, on how we ‘wait’. Being prepared for the coming of the bridegroom does not mean that life stops in the interim.

The foolish bridesmaids could be accused (like our politicians?) of short-termism. If everything went according to the printed programme, they would be fine. But they didn’t sign up for a long and wearisome wait. The wise anticipated a possible hitch, and made provision for it.

They had a specific duty, but what about us? Although our lives will not be finally assessed by whether we meet the sales target by the end of the financial year (or its equivalent in our own field), we have duties too. We need imagination and foresight as we serve Christ in our daily responsibilities – professional, domestic or social – so that at any point, when called to account, we shall be ready.

No doubt the young women all set out dressed up, beautiful and excited; but as time passed they all got weary, sat down and fell asleep. Their excitement faded, their flowers wilted. Still, dusty and crumpled as they may have been, those who were prepared were admitted to the feast.

Dusty and crumpled we too may feel at the unexpected twists and turns of our lives, but the oil in our lamps – perseverance buoyed up by hope – can still keep us burning.


Helen Parry

Parables (4): What Kind of God Do We Serve?

September 10, 2012
10 Sep 2012

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
Luke 18:10

Jesus hated self-righteousness and hypocrisy, and the Pharisees were the butt of his most caustic denunciations: ‘Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites’, he cries repeatedly in Matthew 23. And the elder brother in the parable of the two sons (Luke 15:11-32) is an embodiment of self-righteousness.

The younger brother in that parable, and the tax collector in this one, present a total contrast to the Pharisees. One an undutiful son, who has ‘squandered [his father’s] property with prostitutes’ (Luke 15:30), the other a despised pawn of the hated Roman regime, they were clearly beyond the pale.

We probably find it difficult to identify with either of these extreme types, though our observance of the formalities of Christianity might make others identify us with the Pharisees. But is it in the formalities, the lifestyle, that the real difference lies?

The Pharisee in this parable saw God as a kind of adjudicator, like the judge of Olympic gymnasts or divers ticking off on a list the movements that each competitor performs. According to his own criteria, he scored top marks. The elder son saw his father as an inflexible taskmaster, to whom he had given unswerving obedience. Jesus makes it clear that both had a distorted view of God.

But was the tax collector’s, and the younger son’s, view of God the ‘right’ one? Both acknowledged their wrongdoing and begged for mercy. The son underestimated his father’s forgiving love; but the tax collector knew that he had nothing to bargain with and was totally dependent on God’s grace. Both received unconditional forgiveness.

That was Jesus’ point. But it isn’t the whole story. The Pharisee and the elder brother were both loyal, disciplined and obedient; they lived up to the principles they had been taught. For the younger brother and the tax collector, repentance would be only a first step: a lifetime of service – not legalistically endured but joyously devoted – is the fruit of genuine repentance.

So, for us, seeking to know God in his fullness, there have to be elements of both – a recognition of our unworthiness and constant falling short, as well as a wholehearted commitment of our lives, in every part, to the one who has justified us and embraced us in his love.


Helen Parry

Parables (3): Between a Rock and a Fertile Place

August 6, 2012
06 Aug 2012

A farmer went out to sow his seed… some fell along the path… some fell on rocky places…
[some] fell among thorns… Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop –
a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

Matthew 13:3-8

This parable is very familiar, and so is the explanation of it that Jesus gives to his disciples (Matthew 13:18-23). But as we think about its implications, questions rise up like the industrial chimneys at the opening of the London 2012 Olympics.

‘Whoever has ears,’ Jesus said, ‘let them hear’ (Matthew 13:9). It’s to do not so much with the identity of the sower or even the nature of the seed, but with the soil – the hearts and minds of the hearers. How do people receive and respond to the ‘message about the kingdom’?

At each end of the parable there is an unambiguous category – those who totally reject the word and those who receive it, believe and bring forth fruit. In the middle, there are two other groups of people who initially respond, but ‘trouble and persecution’ and the ‘worries of this life’ prevent the plant from growing.

The middle two groups perhaps present something of a theological dilemma – though we need to be careful not to derive our theology from parables alone. We are not meant to conclude either that people’s destiny is predetermined nor that those who receive the gospel in less than ideal conditions cannot be saved. The goal of farming is to produce a harvest. This is the criterion by which we will be judged.

Most of us struggle with temptations from the world, the flesh and the devil; many of us succumb, but cling on to our faith; some find the pressures too much, and give up. Jesus is not teaching that these are watertight categories. Praise God, many come back to him after long periods of alienation from him. ‘By their fruit you will recognise them’, Jesus said (Matthew 7:20), in line with John the Baptist’s ‘Produce fruit in keeping with repentance’ (Matthew 3:8). The fruit of some will be less than that of others, but the Lord still recognises it as fruit.

Jesus told this parable to crowds of curious and needy people, who were hearing the ‘message of the kingdom’ for the first time. His message to them, as to us, was ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear’.


Helen Parry

Parables (2): A Reckless Investment?

June 25, 2012
25 Jun 2012

The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls.
When he found one of great value, he went away and sold
everything he had and bought it.
Matthew 13:46

Value. What phrases immediately come into our minds when we hear that word? Value for money? Market value? Presumably these would have been the calculations of the merchant in Jesus’ parable. But as always, of course, Jesus was looking beyond the surface level of his story.

In his recently published book, What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel writes that we have drifted from ‘having a market economy to being a market society’. Does your heart sink through the floor when you hear those doom-laden words: ‘We must let the market decide’?

No, Jesus would reply, we must not let the market decide; we must seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). The kingdom of God: his reign, the arena in which the Lord rules, in which his values determine policy and behaviour. These values, as Scripture makes clear, embrace the health of the whole created order and the flourishing of the whole human race.

Is this seemingly abstract ideal, then, what we should be seeking, what we should value so much that we are willing to give up everything else in order to attain it? Well, yes and no. An ultimate goal it may be, but you won’t reach the moon unless you first learn to fly. What are the implications for us? Where should we start?

We have to start with ourselves, because Jesus offers us a new life, under his kingly rule – a life free from guilt and the power of sin, a life of purpose and adventure, a life of wholeness, of shalom. From that base overflows the strength and resolve to love our neighbours as ourselves, to bring God’s shalom into our homes, our workplaces, our society, to care for the poor and for the environment.

A pearl of great value, indeed.


Helen Parry