“Swimming Lessons: Getting In Over Our Heads”
Sunday, February 17, 2008
Matthew 13: 10-17
Jesus taught the crowds using parables…stories and analogies and illustrations. According to Matthew, at one point in his ministry, Jesus began using parables almost exclusively in his teaching, telling one parable after another. The 13th chapter of Matthew alone reports eight parables Jesus used.
Jesus’ disciples asked him why. “Why do you speak to them in parables?” they asked.
There are certain ways I might expect Jesus to answer their question.
I might expect Jesus to say that stories are accessible to ordinary people. People who might not be able to understand a complicated theological concept or idea can grasp a story. Stories are accessible to the common folk.
Or I might expect him to say that stories are memorable. People remember stories. People can forget the idea you used a story to illustrate but still remember the story. When I am teaching preaching I warn students about this. Don’t make your illustrations more memorable than the point they are meant to illustrate.
Or I might even expect Jesus to say that stories are entertaining or amusing or poignant, as many of Jesus’ stories were.
But Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question is very different from what I might expect him to say.
When his disciples asked him why he spoke in parables to the crowds who came to hear him, Jesus said: “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.’”
Jesus says that he speaks to them in parables because they aren’t going to understand anyway; they aren’t going to get it; they aren’t going to turn to him; and they aren’t going to be healed.
Jesus says to his disciples, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”
I speak to them in parables because they aren’t going to get it anyway, they aren’t going to respond; they aren’t going to be healed.
What do we make of this?
I selected this scripture passage for this Lenten sermon series on the theme of “Swimming Lessons” in part because it reminds us that Jesus’ teaching is not a gut course.
I happened across an unofficial guide for students at a nearby university on the internet. The guide said that the only way to do well at this particular university and still be able to have a good time was to make sure you took a couple of gut courses every semester – courses that you could get good grades in without doing a lot of work. It said that if you wanted to figure out which courses were gut courses to check out which ones had a lot of Lacrosse players in them.
C. H. Dodd, the biblical scholar who pioneered in the study of Jesus’ parables defines a parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life [that] arrest[s] the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leav[es] the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[i]
The purpose of a parable is to shake people out of their conventional ways of thinking and to engage their imaginations in order to get them to see reality and life in a new way. Parables create enough doubt about their meaning so as to make people think and to think in new paradigms.
Jesus was not about easy answers. He was about imponderables. He was about truths that are true not because we understand them so clearly but truths that are true because they stretch the limits of our understanding.
George Buttrick, one of the most thoughtful preachers of the last century, had been at a conference and was flying back home. He got out a pad and pen to begin preparing his sermon for the coming Sunday.
The man in the seat next to him asked him what he was working on. He explained he was a pastor and that he was working on a sermon.
The man said, “Oh, religion!”
“People make religion such a complicated and confusing thing. It is really very simple. I’ve always thought all anybody needs to know about religion is – ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
Buttrick listened to the man patiently and then asked him what he did. He said he was a professor of astronomy at a university. Buttrick said, “Oh, astronomy. I always though all anybody need to know about astronomy is – ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star…’”[ii]
Jesus’ teachings aren’t easy or plain. They raise as many questions as they provide answers. They are unsatisfying to those who want things to be unambiguous and clear cut and black and white.
Jesus says to his disciples that he teaches in parables because most people aren’t going to be willing to do the kind of hard work that is required to change their ordinary and comfortable way of seeing the world. They won’t be willing to give up their easy answers. They just won’t get it.
But they will speak to those who are willing to engage with Jesus, to become his disciples, whose ears and minds are open.
us try to work Jesus’ teachings into simple truths or laws or principles that
we can manage to grasp or that reinforce our biases and comfortable assumptions.
Especially American Christians do this. Liberal and conservative Christians
do this. Thomas Long says that the greatest heresy in
Jesus’ goal is to disrupt our conventional thinking, to disorganize, to stir the pot, to agitate, and he seems to have realized that most of us in any given generation will not get it. We will not hear. We will not see. We will not understand. We will not turn to him. We will not be healed.
It is sad really. Jesus is trying to open our eyes to a new world and we cling so desperately to the broken, diseased, oppressed world we’ve known.
Lent is the season when we remember that following Jesus takes us into the wilderness. It confuses us. It makes us children again. It puts everything into question. It strips us of our defenses and filters. And not a lot of us can manage this. Most of us will cling to our old sureties and answers.
I speak to them in parables, Jesus says, because they aren’t going to get it anyway; they aren’t going to respond; they aren’t going to be healed. Only those who are willing to take the risk of abandoning easy answers and entering into the vulnerability of being transformed by a relationship of discipleship will hear and understand and be healed.
The story of Jesus’ disciples asking him why he teaches in parables and his answering appears in three gospels – Mark and Luke in addition to Matthew. Each of the Gospel-writers tells the story in a slightly different way.
Matthew includes part of a quote from the prophet Isaiah that doesn’t appear in the other Gospels. The quote says: “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.” (Matt. 13: 15)
Matthew is saying that the problem of people not understanding isn’t an intellectual problem, but a heart problem. “For this people’s heart has grown dull.” Therefore their ears are hard of hearing and their eyes are shut and they won’t understand and they won’t be healed.
What Matthew says is that our understanding needs to follow our hearts if we are to he healed.
I might put it this way. We need to let our hearts get us in over our heads if our heads are going to get to the place of true understanding.
When my sister and I were small our mother decided we ought to learn how to swim. Because neither of our parents knew how to swim, she took us to swimming lessons. The first lesson was to learn how to float. It took me weeks.
It was nearly impossible for me to learn how to float because I could not intellectually bring myself to believe that water would be able to hold me. It made no sense to me intellectually. The swimming teacher had to work with me individually and to hold me up and get me to trust her holding me and then slowly, after a long time of trusting her, withdraw her hands so that I could experience the water holding me up. My mind alone could not get me to the place of believing that water, which seems so insubstantial, could hold me. I could not think myself there. My heart had to get me to the place where I could experience it before I could understand it.
Our intellects are wonderful things. Reason is a wonderful gift. Methodists love reason. But reason is best at helping us understand and make sense of what our hearts take us to. Reason rarely helps us break new ground. Love breaks new ground. Reason helps us make sense of it.
We’ve lived in a homophobic world society for a long time. We’ve been part of a homophobic church for a long time. Most of us will not intellectually think ourselves to a new understanding in a vacuum. We will get there as the result of relationships of caring which open our minds to think in new ways.
In the weeks ahead we may have occasion to talk to other United Methodists and other Christians about gay and lesbian committed relationships and why we want to recognize and honor them here.[iv] We should remember that rationality alone probably won’t be convincing. But our hearts may get us to some places that will help understanding to follow.
We may have five or six verses of Scripture quoted to us repeatedly. I love the Bible. I study it daily. The Bible is the living invitation of God to enter into a relationship – it is not a fact book or a rule book or an easy answer sheet. Like the parables, it is an invitation into relationship.
My encouragement to you is to allow your heart to get you in over your head somewhere in your life this Lent.
I spent a year of my life trying to understand intercessory prayer intellectually. I studied science and theology to try to understand how it might work that prayer could change the course of events in the natural world and in history. I never did a good job of figuring it out. I wrote a thesis about it that my professor told me didn’t really make much sense, but they let me graduate rather than keep me hanging around.
As a pastor, I found myself sitting next to the hospital beds of parishioners whom I had come to love, and I found myself praying intercessory prayers for them with all my heart. My heart took me to a place that my mind could not get me to. I learned more theologically as a result of those prayers than I did as a result of a year of endless writing and thinking. Most of the intellectual and theological growth in understanding that I have experienced has been the result of my heart taking me to place where my mind could not have gotten me.
I encourage you to let your heart take you in over your head this Lent. If you have trouble intellectually understanding prayer, pray anyway. See where it takes you. If you have intellectually difficulty with giving away your time or your money, do it anyway. See where your heart takes you. If you have trouble intellectually forgiving, be forgiving anyway.
Jesus taught in parables because he was not simply teaching ideas. He was inviting us to be transformed. Let’s get in over our heads this Lent.
[i] Jacobus Liebenber , The Language of the Kingdom and Jesus: Parable, Aphorism, and Metaphor, 53, at http://books.google.com/books?id=bJXFWD7rHZkC&pg=PA53&lpg=PA53&dq=dodd+parables&source=web&ots=6coFTeRrsy&sig=wEPF-FNDu06sDVAMbRJtihsBvFU.
[ii] From Thomas Long’s sermon “Going Deeper” at http://www.calvin.edu/worship/podcast/cep/archive/tlong_mark4.mp3.
[iii] From Thomas Long’s sermon “Going Deeper.”
[iv] See http://www.foundryumc.org/pdfs/A%20Pastoral%20Letter.pdf.