As a biblical subject, the parable has received considerable attention. It has been suggested parables, together with the Beatitudes and the various accounts of Christ’s birth and death, form most of the basic knowledge which many Christians as well as non-Christians possess concerning the person of Jesus. The fact that the thrust of the teachings of Jesus often centred on parables reinforces the effectiveness of this method of communication.
The late Robert Funk was Founder of the Jesus Seminar, a symposium of theologians convened to assess the degree of authenticity of the words attributed to Jesus. Funk says that “In his parables Jesus re-imagined the world called the kingdom of God. It presents his followers with a new option for living, one that contrasts with the default world of the everyday.” Having said this, let me be clear in saying that a parable is not necessarily easy to decipher or to get to its deeper meaning. The same observation is equally relevant to the task of interpreting any scripture. Hence the preacher has to be careful that his or her interpretation does not trivialize what is critical teaching for how we might conduct our lives and our affairs. The concept of the kingdom of God is introduced in some of the parables using the preface statement: “The kingdom of heaven is like” and then Jesus proceeds to tell the parable. In this age of gender equality the term “kingdom of heaven” is then referred to as the “realm of God.” Jesus is not talking about a way of being and acting in a later unknown location but in the here and now of this life. Through a parable he is setting forth an ethic that is worthy of our attention.
There is much that has been written on the subject of parables. I personally like the definition of parable offered by the author David Granskou in his book Preaching on the Parables as the experience of comparison. In elaborating, Granskou says that the parable is as old as a person laughing at his or her reflection in the pool. The first language seen on the walls of caves from prehistoric times was comparison by means of pictures.”
Contrary to some belief, Jesus did not invent the parable as a form of teaching. He was aware of the antiquity of this method of presenting truth and his contribution of parables to religious literature is said to have raised such a method to its highest level. The parables would have been well received during the time of Jesus. William Salmond in his handbook on The Parables reminds us in his chapter dealing with The Charm of Figurative Speech, (i.e. the use of metaphor) that speech of this kind had a special attraction for the people of the East, with whom the imagination is quicker and more active than the logical faculty. This suggests to me that those listening to a parable in the time of Jesus possessed a greater appreciation of subtleties.
The art of imagination is now being used more and more extensively as a learning tool. I believe that in the classroom the cultivation of a child’s imagination remains a high priority. I am reminded of a note that an eight year old wrote to God, which I may have shared on an earlier occasion. She writes: “I didn’t think that orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was cool!” There is certainly something very refreshing about a child’s imagination and innocence. Oh that our complex minds and world could be as innocent and trusting and recapture such a playful sense of imagination.
As a firm believer in lifelong learning I have come to appreciate how powerful a tool imagination can be. It can help us grasp a concept or identify with another person’s experience. Let me interject here and offer an example of where we might be advised to consider or imagine a much larger picture. In the arena of theology it is essential in that, in a pluralistic world of faith expressions, we need to see our particular brand, Christianity, as one of many…no greater or lesser than others. It is unfortunate that in some arenas of Christianity, the words attributed to Jesus …I am the way the truth and the light have been used to defend the position that Christianity is superior and to negate all other belief systems. Bishop John Spong, in his controversial book Why Christianity must change or die, says that this is an arrogant stance and that when Christianity is recognized and accepted by Christians as one of many faith expressions, then it will be viewed as one of the world’s great religions. In other words, Christianity has done itself a great disservice by the exclusive claims of some that access to God is only through the person of Jesus. Recognizing an inclusive image of God enables us to identify with God from a range of individual perspectives. In summary, the use of imagination can be freeing and increases our awareness as well as, in this case, challenging our sense of exclusivity.
There is a constancy about a parable in that it never ceases to be current. Let us not underestimate the power of the parable, which is often observed as turning the world upside down. This morning’s parable most often referred to as that of the Rich Young Fool might be more appropriately called The Parable of the Misguided Farmer. In today’s story, once again we find Jesus speaking with his disciples and surrounded by huge crowds. Out of the blue comes a request from a person in the crowd, Teacher, please tell my brother to divide our father’s estate with me. It was not uncommon for a person to bring a dispute of this nature to a religious leader. The law or the Mosaic Code as it was called did not distinguish between criminal, civil, church and moral law. Therefore a rabbi was expected to be proficient in all things. In many of Jesus’ encounters he is to be found trying to correct the confusion around what was morally right and what was legally right. I doubt whether any of us have escaped some of the personal inner turmoil and soul searching that can arise around this distinction. As a society we are continually faced with complex issues such as euthanasia or reproductive technology. We have come a long way since the cloning of Dolly the sheep. Such developments have continued and raise serious questions as to what is legal, what is ethical, and what is moral. The legalization of assisted dying; the potential long range consequences of legalizing marijuana; and the dismissive nature of some governments in relation to the need for planet saving climate change represent serious questions of legality, ethicality, and morality.
Jesus was a master at grasping the unexpected opportunities. Such was the case in today’s encounter when he turns an interruption into an opportunity. He quickly responds to the person in the crowd by simply saying, Who appointed me judge or arbitrator over you? He then immediately turns to the crowd and launches into the subject of greed, Watch out, he says. Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, no matter how rich he or she may be. Then follows the parable of the rich man whose land was productive.
In my early years in ministry in rural Nova Scotia I recall being very careful in preaching on this particular parable. You see both of my pastoral relationships were in farming communities and the local farmers rejoiced when the harvest was bountiful. This parable is not intended to alienate successful farmers. It is not a condemnation of wealth as it is sometimes irresponsibly interpreted. Rather, Jesus is condemning the illusion that possessions can give ultimate meaning to our lives. He is not saying that possessions are somehow evil. He is saying that as long as possessions are regarded as things to be used and directed responsibly and compassionately, there is no problem. As I alluded this parable can be preached on in a less than responsible manner, usually in the context of stewardship. The preacher focuses on God’s words to the farmer that he is a fool because his death is imminent and therefore who will get his wealth. Hence we have the popular contemporary phrase; You can’t take it with you! Not exactly an appropriate slogan for a stewardship campaign! If the parable is given this narrow interpretation then it does a great disservice to the principle that Jesus is conveying. It is perfectly okay to build barns and even bigger barns. Such actions on the part of the farmer or landowner can be very responsible. But to get to the heart of the matter, we run into difficulty when the accumulation of possessions is seen as the ultimate meaning to our lives.
I respectfully suggest that stemming from this parable, the question to ask ourselves this morning is How are we investing our lives? The parable prompts us to consider both our economic well-being and our spiritual well-being and at the same time makes it clear that these do not follow one another. Economic well-being is both important and desirable. To provide for the present and the future is a perfectly normal objective. The danger sign however is when such objective becomes an obsession and desire for accumulation and the building of larger barns becomes the ultimate value in human life.
When Jesus says to us, I am come that you might have life and that you might have it more abundantly, we know very well that the abundance of which he speaks has nothing to do with the accumulation of wealth and possessions. It speaks of life with all its potential wholeness and vitality. Such wholeness calls for us to share our bountiful resources and adopt an attitude of continuous gratitude.
Unlike our material well-being, which is vulnerable to external forces, our spiritual well-being will only suffer when we cease to give it nourishment. The ultimate value of life resides in our richness towards God and our desire to emulate the Way of Jesus. This was Jesus’ message long ago, which he illustrated in a parable about a farmer whose crops were abundant but whose soul was barren. AMEN.