We all learn differently. I think I’m more of an experiential learner. I like to see the instructions, but, more often than not, I get more out of the doing than reading the “how to.” But, like I said, we all learn differently and it’s always better to be able to learn the way that works best for us. That’s not always possible, though, and sometimes we have to struggle a bit to find our way.
That was going to be a segue into “there’s no instruction book for Jesus,” but, of course, there are moments when Jesus is quite specific and direct. In addition, we’ve had centuries of wisdom, study, interpretation, more study, more interpretation and experience to help us understand Jesus better. I think we have to acknowledge that not all of that has been positive, especially when that study and interpretation has led us to distort Jesus’ teaching or find a way to work around it when Jesus is specific and direct. Like when Jesus says “love your enemy” and we find a way to interpret that that’s not love at all. Yeah, things like that.
Sorry, a bit of a tangent and I don’t want to go there today. Another time. Where I was going today, was to story. One of the things I love most about knowing Jesus is the story of Jesus. We don’t have a theological treatise illuminating our relationship with God by one Jesus Christ, we have stories of a life lived in showing us how to live. We have examples of how we might experience love, compassion, and grace and how we might share it with others in a way that gives life.
Within that, we have stories told by Jesus, many of them parables. Long, short, detailed, simple, there’s a variety, but also a variety of imagery and contexts. I think Jesus told parables for the same reason we tell stories of Jesus: instead of instructions for behaviour, story invites us in to an experience that we can connect to on a deeper level. It engages our imaginations and encourages us to bring the story into our own lives, to make it part of our life, and inspire us in the story we are each living.
This is why I like to re-imagine bible stories and write them for children of all ages. In his book, ‘Does God Have A Big Toe? Stories About Stories In The Bible,’ Rabbi Marc Gellman says “a midrash is the Jewish name for a story about a story in the Bible. There are collections of old midrashim written by old rabbis, and I have learned from them, but the stories in this book are modern midrashim.” By doing this, Gellman says, we find new perspectives and new ways of understanding the stories. I couldn’t agree more.
Here’s a short, simple example. This week, we’re hearing the parable of the sower in Matthew 13. It’s pretty well known. A sower goes out and casts seed everywhere and it lands in different places: on the road, among rocks, in the weeds and on good soil. The seeds grow – or don’t – as you’d expect and Jesus himself provides an interpretation. The seed is “the word of the kingdom” and where it lands is how it is received. In our own interpretations, we tend to focus on the seed and how it is received (spoiler: we want to be the “good soil”). But what if it didn’t get that far…
Jesus got up one morning and went and sat by the sea. Seeing him there, many people crowded round. They’d heard about Jesus and were hoping to hear one of his famous stories. Jesus put down his morning coffee and stood up. The crowd hushed.
“A farmer went out to sow some seed,” Jesus began. “they picked up the bag of seed and began randomly throwing the seed in every direction, even before they reached the field that they’d prepared for it. The first few handfuls landed on the sidewalk and the road, and then …”
“Hang on a minute,” shouted a farmer in the crowd. Several people turned to look at them and frowned. “Shh,” the master is speaking.
“Yeah, I know,” said the farmer, “and he obviously doesn’t know anything about farming.” He shouted at Jesus “no farmer in their right mind is going to waste seed like that, Jesus. That’s just ridiculous. You should re-think this one.”
“Shh,” went several people. One said “you hardly let him get started.”
“But he’s wrong right from the get-go here,” said the farmer and they turned to yell to Jesus again. “Farmers wouldn’t waste seed by just throwing it anywhere. We plan, we till the ground and we carefully – that’s carefully – plant seeds where they’ll do the best and produce the biggest crop. Otherwise we’re losing out, money, time and effort. You don’t know what could happen, otherwise.”
There was an awkward silence as the bewildered crowd looked at the farmer, then Jesus, then the disciples, then back to Jesus.
“You’re right,” said Jesus, “you just don’t know what could happen.” Jesus smiled. “But this seed is God’s love. Let me start again.” Jesus cleared his throat. “A farmer went out to sow some seed. They picked up the bag of seed and began randomly throwing the seed in every direction …” I think we can take it from here, Jesus.