Finding God in All Things: Jesus’ parables teach us how to see life’s hidden treasures
By PAT MARRIN
This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Celebration. Pat Marrin is Celebration editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Preachers this July will find no fewer than seven parables in the Sunday readings. Matthew collects them in Chapter 13: the parable of the sower, the wheat and the weeds, the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure, the pearl and the dragnet. Jesus told stories to his disciples and to the crowds to convey the mystery of the kingdom of God. Preachers are invited to be storytellers like Jesus.
There are 57 parables in the Gospels. Why were parables so important and what do they reveal about Jesus and his message?
First of all, scholars tell us that the parables offer the clearest glimpse we have into the mind of the historical Jesus, a master storyteller. Because these sayings come before the post-resurrection theologies that shaped the four Gospels, to grasp their meaning and intent is to meet Jesus beneath the multiple layers of interpretation that became the faith of the church. To the extent that we can uncover the Jesus of history, we also come face to face with the person the apostles remembered and preached as the Christ of faith.
Another key to understanding the parables is that along with their content, these stories were Jesus’ way of teaching us how to see both the surface and the depth of life. He wanted us to see what he saw and the way he saw. Jesus was constantly seeing God in all things. The parables reveal Jesus’ own experience of God. The parables invite us into his intimate relationship with God. The good news is that we are not saved by achieving something or getting somewhere but by knowing Someone. What saves us is our relationship with God.
Jesus’ parables were his stories about God. Once we learn to see as Jesus did, we discover God revealed in the narrative of our daily experiences and especially in our relationships. To the eyes of faith, God the Creator is speaking in the patterns of nature: the sky, the weather, the seasons, the beauty of wildflowers and the birds of the air, in the cycles of planting and harvesting. With faith we see God active in the dramas of ordinary life, in family relationships and in our friendships, even in failure and pain, when conversion opens us to deeper life and shows us how to live as God lives.
The parable of the treasure (Matt 13:44) captures this invitation: “The kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field which someone finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Gospel for July 27, 17th Sunday in OT).
Finding a treasure hidden right under our feet changes everything. But we must act decisively. Go, joyfully sell everything you have and buy that field. Pay any price. Claim that treasure before all else.
The invitation comes at different levels for different people. Some in the crowd heard just an entertaining treasure story. Some heard a wisdom saying about being alert to opportunity. But some knew in their hearts that Jesus was himself the treasure of God, and they decided in that moment to leave behind everything to follow him. They discovered that being with Jesus brings every other good: “Seek first the kingdom and everything else will be given you besides” (Matt 6:33).
Finding the parables in our own lives extends this invitation to us. Treasures wait to be discovered. Our lives are like fields in which the kingdom of God waits to be uncovered.
Learning to see
After years of pondering this mystery, I have come back to the simplest prayer of all: Lord, teach me to see you in all things. I work in a city, in an area called midtown that has lots of low-income apartments. The street south of my building is home to many immigrants. Early in the morning, I pass women in housekeeping uniforms walking to their jobs in the large hotels nearby, or parents and children waiting for school buses.
One day I saw a man waiting with a small boy. It is unusual to see a man with the children, but perhaps this father had worked a night shift or was unemployed while his wife worked, so it was his role to make sure their child got on the bus. Father and son were both small in stature, and I thought back to my own school days and the fate of undersized boys, the nicknames they endured from their classmates. But today, the father had lifted the boy onto his shoulders and they stood triumphantly at the curb to greet the approaching bus. I had witnessed a parable I would ponder throughout the day.
On another occasion, I saw a woman meeting her daughter at the end of the school day, and as she knelt to tie the child’s shoe, the little girl steadied herself by putting a hand on her mother’s shoulder. That familiar gesture radiated the simple beauty of their relationship, truly a pearl of great price.
Jesus amplified this truth by telling stories about the sustaining web of relationships that holds us and gives meaning to our lives. For we are also stories of God’s hidden presence. Jesus found deep faith among the anawim who depended on God for everything. Overflowing with joy, he cried out, “I thank you, Father, for what you have hidden from the wise and learned you have revealed to little ones” (Matt 11:25, Gospel for July 6, 14th Sunday in OT).
The parable of the sower (Matt 13:1-23, Gospel for July 13, 15th Sunday in OT) is about the good seed God sows in our lives that sprouts and multiplies wherever it finds receptive ground. It is not always simple or easy. There are other competing stories in our world that do not give life, but instead keep people from relationships of trust. The pervasive message of consumer culture takes root in our consciousness and produces a harvest of discontent until we purchase the many products that promise happiness. Life is complex and the results often mixed. The parable of the wise landowner who lets wheat and weeds grow together until the harvest acknowledges that we must live in the world by negotiating our way among many influences and choices (Matt 13:24-33, July 20, 16th Sunday in OT). We need wisdom, which enables us to see as God sees.
Pray for wisdom
In 1 Kings 3:5 (first reading for July 27, 17th Sunday in OT), Solomon has a dream in which God offers to give him whatever he asks for. The king asks for wisdom, a discerning heart. This is the first and most important gift that brings every other gift. Once we learn to see God all around us, parables never cease.
Jesus tells so many parables about getting started, however tentatively. Even the tiny mustard seed will produce a large shrub, giving shade and a home to the birds. A small amount of yeast hidden in dough produces enough bread to feed a village.
Persistence pays off. The seeker with an eye for quality and the patience to search until he finds it will claim the pearl of great price. Discernment helps us sort through life’s random experiences to spot what is of value. Like the fisherman who casts his net out into the deep, we will find treasures among the flotsam and jetsam. Wisdom prepares us for every kind of outcome.
Other parables teach us that God comes to us in paradox and reversal, where loss is gain. Several years ago my car was stolen and I found myself riding the bus to and from work. Despite my initial frustration, over the next few months I was opened to a world of parables I would never have heard or seen in my car commute. A blind woman with her guide dog got on the bus each morning and knew all the regulars by their voices. Another woman in hospital scrubs filled the side bench seat in front of the bus and held forth to everyone on the ironies of life.
One afternoon a woman from Central America sat conversing with her toddler son, their voices like birdsong. He would point at things out the window and she would say the names. When he tired of this, the boy nestled in close to his mother, who in all probability had risked everything to come north to make a better life for her children, including this son, who, had they remained, would have become either a member or a victim of a gang. Here was a parable of a mother dreaming a different future for her child. We are all saved by relationships.
A storytelling God sustains the universe. We are called and blessed to be characters lovingly rendered in unique stories filled with light and shadow, joy and sorrow, moving chapter by chapter toward completion. Isaiah celebrated God’s unswerving purpose: “So shall my word that goes forth from my mouth not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11; July 13, 15th Sunday in OT). When we entrust ourselves to God’s providence, we enter the larger story of life that enfolds our small corner of the universe.
The parables of Jesus are glimpses of God accompanying us, encouraging us. Like yeast, his stories are the starter for ours. Faith opens our eyes to see God’s leaven hidden in ordinary life, multiplying our small gifts in community, where treasures wait, seeds sprout and multiply, wisdom is freely given and every relationship holds the hidden face of God.
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