If you were to write a parable, how do you think you would start? Would you write about the nature of God or the in-breaking of God’s kingdom or about what it means to be a disciple of Christ? Perhaps it’s not a fair question on the second week of our summer series on the parables of Jesus found in the gospel of Matthew but I wonder what it would be like to write a parable. Todd gave us several definitions of parable last week. They came from a variety of sources, though he didn’t mention my personal favorite. My personal favorite is that a parable is a small story with a large point. That is Frederick Buechner’s definition. These small stories do have large points. Parables are pointy stories that, perhaps, are intended to nudge or shake or poke us out of whatever makes us comfortable in our life of faith. We like to be comfortable. The parables can cause some discomfort. They can be pretty convicting, if we’re paying attention. Amy Jill Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt says the parables indict us. They tell us things we already know but would rather not think about.
Jesus’ parables subverted expectations and reminded the hearers about what it means to be faithful. Jesus’ parables tell us something about the nature of God and what it means to live as a disciple of Christ. Often Jesus’ parables were prompted by questions as they are in our text today. It seems that people were curious about Jesus and about his behavior. Inquiring minds want to know…how exactly should a disciple of Christ behave? Who should a disciple eat dinner with? How should a disciple prove his or her faithfulness? What does a disciple have to do to appease God and earn favor? How should a disciple show gratitude? Inquiring minds want to know. And Jesus had some puzzling answers. His puzzling answers tell us a great deal about God and a great deal about ourselves.
Our text today begins with the call of Matthew. It is a brief story. Jesus saw Matthew sitting at the tax booth and simply said to him: Follow me. And Matthew did. Jesus was walking along and he saw Matthew. He saw Matthew not as a tax collector though that was probably how everyone else saw him, Jesus saw Matthew…he saw him as a child of God. He saw him as a disciple. He saw him as all that God created him to be and Matthew must have realized that as he got up and followed him. Being seen, truly seen is rare, I think. Seen as a child of God, seen as a disciple, seen as redeemed and worthy and lovable. Seen as more than our profession or the role we play or our status in the world. We’re not good at seeing people. We label and we categorize because life is more manageable that way. He’s a tax collector. She’s a widow. He’s a blind beggar. They’re all sinners. She drives a nice car. He sleeps on the street. He has a title. She’s a single parent. He’s gay, she’s alone.
Each of these labels or categories carries judgement. Each of these labels helps us to put people into neat little boxes so that we can manage our world and our expectations but none of these labels helps us to see others the way that Jesus did. None of these categories helps us to see what Jesus sees…children of God, disciples, redeemed and worthy and lovable. When we label others or place others in neat, manageable categories we excuse ourselves from caring about them, being in relationship with them, loving them. We give ourselves reasons to write off the people we don’t like or don’t understand or don’t want to deal with. It’s easier. It means we don’t have to try.
It means we don’t have to spend energy on other people. It means we don’t have to consider others.
Which brings us to the first question directed to the disciples. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Inquiring minds want to know. Well, Jesus steps in and answers for the disciples. “Those who are well have no need of a doctor but those who are sick do. Go and learn what it means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call the righteous. I came to call sinners.” What do we already know about this question and answer? We know that Jesus spent time with undesirable people. We know that Jesus shared meals with all the wrong sorts. We know that Jesus wants us to err on the side of love and grace rather than the side of judgment and exclusion. We know that Jesus desires for us to be generous toward others. We know that Jesus has little time for our words of devotion if we are not matching our deeds with our words.
So, what part of this story sticks? Jesus reveals to us that the nature of God is to include and not to exclude. Jesus reveals to us through his own actions that God’s love is all encompassing. We are called to build a longer table not a higher fence. To me, this falls in the category of things we know but don’t always want to think about. When we build a longer table, there is room for everyone. When we live the idea that all are invited to God’s banquet, we cannot exclude anyone. When we say that we are followers of Jesus Christ, we have to look past the labels and the categories of the secular world and see God’s children. And then we invite them to dinner. It’s not easy. It takes intention. And it means we can’t write off the people we don’t like or don’t understand or don’t want to see. Our faith in Jesus Christ won’t allow it. That’s the large point.
Now, the second question in our text is posed to Jesus himself. The disciples of John asked him, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” It seems that a customary way of showing devotion to God was through fasting…abstaining…giving up. Fasting was meant to show contrition and sorrow over sin which was a means of exhibiting faithfulness and attempting to earn favor with God. I think what they were really saying was, “This is the way we know to show devotion to God, this is the way we know to try and earn God’s favor. But y’all don’t fast. So, how do you show devotion to God and try to earn God’s favor?” They were stuck in what they knew. The couldn’t see another way of doing things. Why didn’t Jesus’ disciples fast? Because they were rejoicing in God’s goodness, instead. They were giving thanks for grace, instead. They were responding to God’s love in new, joyful ways, instead. Fasting was the old way of responding to God and the disciples were responding new ways. Jesus and his disciples knew that grace and favor with God was not earned but was a gift for which to be grateful. Theirs was a joyful response.
The sayings about a new patch on an old cloak and new wine in old wine skins are to illustrate the incompatibility of old and new. We get stuck in what we know. We allow our preconceived notions about what is and is not appropriate stop us from seeing what could be. We allow our old ways of thinking to stop us from seeing when God is doing a new thing. And if we can’t see when God is doing a new thing, we can’t respond with joy to God’s activity in the world.
When our vision is narrow and constrained, what we see can cause us grief. We see different ways of worship that don’t make sense to us. We see change in the church happening faster than we can keep up. We sing news hymns that sound strange to us. We see familiar spaces being torn up and knocked down. These things make us yearn for the old, for what we know, for what we are used to. But when we get stuck there in the ways we’ve always done things and in the familiar, we have a hard time allowing for new possibilities. We have a hard time accepting that God may be doing something new. And that God’s new thing may require a different response from us. We know that in order to see what God is doing we have to keep our eyes open. We know that allowing for new possibilities may mean doing things differently than we’ve done them before or thinking differently than we have in the past. Jesus doesn’t say that the old way is bad. Jesus simply invites us to allow for the possibility of something new. That’s the large point.
We know these things and they are hard things. We tend to like our old ways of doing and our old ways of thinking. They’re familiar and comfortable. Allowing for new possibilities might mean that we have to adapt or change, learn and grow. Change isn’t easy but it is inevitable. And so we keep our eyes open to God’s work in the world. We allow for new possibilities…new ways of thinking and new ways of doing. It’s essential if we want to move forward in our lives of faith. We are never done learning and growing in the love and knowledge of God. Living this disciple life takes energy and intention and it’s hard but it’s worth it. It’s the way we respond to the grace we’ve been given in and through Jesus Christ.
What I hope we will consider as we journey with the parables this summer is that they might make us uncomfortable, they might convict us, perhaps even indict us. And with that discomfort and conviction may come new ways of doing things…new ways of living this disciple life. I hope that we will keep our eyes, our ears, our minds, and our hearts open as we hear some stories we may feel we know well enough already. And the questions I want for us to consider today are these: How might we begin to see people in the way Jesus saw people? In what areas ought we build a longer table? Where might we be stuck and missing God’s activity in our community, in our world, and in our lives? Think on these things, beloved of God.
Rev. Alex Rodgers
Decatur Presbyterian Church
June 18, 2017