Jesus talks funny. That’s right, our Lord teaches us by telling little stories from everyday life that reveal God’s reign, God’s way with the world, God’s will for his people. You would think something so big, so grand, and so glorious would be treated in a manner that is more worthy of its subject. But Jesus teaches us the way of God’s kingdom by telling down-to-earth stories that cannot be separated from his down-to-earth life and ministry: God with us. You might think of it this way: we can only live in a world we can see, and we can only see what we can say. In Jesus, seeing the kingdom and speaking the kingdom are inseparable, since as the incarnate Son of God and Word, he is the kingdom in person.
A well-known pastor of a very large church tells preachers that telling stories was the key to success for Jesus in his ministry. He says Jesus attracted large crowds of people because he was such a skilled storyteller. He adds that if we want to be successful like Jesus, we, too, must learn to tell stories that will attract large crowds. However, this popular pastor doesn’t tell us what the stories of Jesus are about, who is doing the telling, and why he told them. Nor does he tell us that the large crowds that were attracted by Jesus' stories eventually left him, turning against him and calling for his death on a Roman cross: “Crucify him; crucify him; crucify him!” It helps if you tell the whole story.
So there is a lot a stake when Jesus tells his little stories. They are not merely designed for entertainment, functioning like wrapping paper that Jesus uses to package a larger truth, principle, topic, moral, or application. Nor are they illustrations that give expression to our religious and spiritual experience. The parables of Jesus have a style of their own; they are his way of naming something that requires our imaginative participation, the investment of our whole selves in undivided commitment to him if we are to see what is going on.
The stories of Jesus direct our attention to something we have missed, overlooked, and failed to see, although it has been right here, hidden in plain sight, for a long time. The parables may also invite us to take seriously something we have previously dismissed because we have failed to perceive the truth of its reality. When Jesus speaks to us in parables, he calls us to a change of mind, to what Scripture calls repentance, to the joy of discovering the reign of God that is an ongoing call to conversion to God’s will for the world as it is realized in and through faith in Jesus as the Lord.
We need the parables of Jesus if we are to follow him in the way of God’s kingdom since it is all too easy to lose the participatory nature of the faith we share in Christ. The parables, in both what they say and how they say it, are a gift of the Holy Spirit that keep us engaged and involved with what God is doing in the church for the sake of the world. And our Lord knows, despite all our good intentions, just how fearful, discouraged, defensive, misunderstanding, stubborn and proud we can be. And so he speaks to us in a way that is gracious and merciful, while, at the same time, in a way that can be even shocking and outrageous. Someone has said the best way for us to understand the parables, to truly “see” what Jesus is saying, is to “stand on our heads.” This is actually a pretty good piece of interpretive wisdom, since in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has indeed turned the world upside down.
After a series of run-ins and confrontations with the Pharisees, Israel’s religious leaders and teachers of the Law, Jesus went out and sat on a lakeshore to teach. As usual, he found himself surrounded by large crowds of people, so many, in fact, that he had to get into a boat which he used as his pulpit. He begins by telling a story about a farmer who threw out an abundance of seed that fell on the road, on gravel, on weeds, and on good soil. The outcome was mixed; some seed sprouted quickly and then died out in no time at all. Some seed simply didn’t make it; while the seed that fell on good soil produced an abundant harvest that exceeded the farmer’s wildest dreams.
Although the disciples listen intently to the story, they do not understand. They are unable to see what he is saying, so Jesus explains the parable for them, which is also for our hearing. Having insight into God’s kingdom, into its workings and its ways is not enough. There must also be a readiness of heart, a desire to receive what Jesus gives, a receptivity expressed in answering the call to be his disciples. We can be thankful the disciples were good soil in which the Holy Spirit raised up the church to bear much fruit, an abundant harvest that by God’s grace has been extended across the centuries to include you and me.
Jesus follows with a story that calls us to resist the sin of impatience, an invitation to receive the joy that is God’s patience displayed in and by him. The reign of God, which is here among us in all Jesus says, does, and suffers, is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. While the farmer and his family and his workers slept, his enemy sowed weeds all through the wheat. When the roots of the good seed began to form, the weeds showed up in full force, too. As you would imagine, the workers were alarmed by the sudden appearance of weeds, since they threatened the life of the good seed at its roots. They had been caught by surprise, left wondering where all these weeds were coming from. After all, had not the farmer planted good seed? Well, the farmer speculated it must have been the work of an enemy, to which his workers promptly responded they must do something in order to save the wheat.
Now what the workers want to do makes sense; it sounds like good farming practice. In fact, it is the only thing they know to do that will save the good seed. “Let’s get busy pulling up the weeds right now!”
The farmer, however, cautions them to wait, to slow down, to consider the consequences of what they want to do. While it is true that pulling up the weeds may remove the threat they pose to the good seed, they will also run the risk of pulling up the good wheat which is mixed in with the weeds. What should they do? The farmer offers a way forward, but it is not what they want to hear. Wait. Slow down. Be patient. Let the weeds and wheat grow together until it is time for the harvest. Then I will judge; I will separate the wheat and the weeds, gathering the wheat for storage in the barn, but also tossing the weeds into the fire.
I don’t hear this parable as just another cute little story with a moral. Our Lord encourages us to endure patiently and hopefully in a world that does not acknowledge God’s kingdom has come in his life, death, and resurrection. His parable of the wheat and weeds shows us what God’s kingdom is like, not just what it was like in the past, or what it will be like in the future, but what it is like, which means the kingdom is present today. This is what we pray for when we say, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And if our Lord’s Prayer is the very heart of our life, we can be confident that it is not necessary for us to weed out all those who we perceive as having failed to live up to the standard of the gospel. We can wait on God, confident that Jesus has planted the church among the nations as a living witness to God’s patient hope for the world.
Writing in the second century about Christian witness, Justin Martyr describes patience as central to the life of his community in Rome. He calls attention to the teaching of Jesus to show the significance of patience for Christians. They turn the other cheek when someone harms them; they give generously to others, even those who are underserving. They avoid the sin of anger, going not only one mile but two miles to love and forgive their enemies. Justin says people are intrigued, fascinated when they see Christians behaving like this; they wonder at the God whom Christians say motivates their behavior. Justin says Christians live their good works visibly and with integrity, in the sight of others. Their patience calls attention to the reign of God that is hidden, misunderstood, dismissed, and rejected. Christians live this way because they are committed to a “strange patience” that is attractive, compelling, and capable of drawing people to faith in Jesus.
I don’t need to tell you that patience is not one of the virtues typically displayed by churches in North America. We need to think less highly of ourselves and learn from the witness of brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who have lived in circumstances that require patient endurance, hoping in God’s providential love and care amid overwhelming opposition, oppression, and persecution. I am sure those of you who are from churches in other cultures have observed that we Christians in North America are busy, active, productive people, who are in a hurry, often running ahead of God in order to do what we think needs to be done.
We are not very patient. We do not like to wait on God but instead look for ways to be in charge, taking matters into our own hands. We are much more passionate about doing whatever it takes to make things come outright. And we do this in any number of ways, convinced that ours is a righteous cause, that we are on “the right side of history” and have the responsibility of “changing the world” for God.
Have you ever thought that perhaps the problem is that God is slowing down and starting to feel his age? After all, he has been God, the Ancient of days, for a very long time. It must be difficult to keep working at the pace God did way back when during the times of the Bible. You know, God created everything that is in just six days. And in the rest of the Bible, he is always on the go, way out in front, with poor old Moses and little Israel struggling every day to keep up with a wild God whose way of doing things is simply astonishing and terrifying at the same time. And there is no letup in the New Testament with the coming of Jesus, who from his birth to his death, overturns all expectations of what would happen when God finally moved to fulfill his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
What are we to do with this God who seems to have lost his get-up and go, a God who wants us to slow down and wait? How are we to participate in God’s patience with a church that often refuses to worship and serve God alone?
Doesn’t God know what we are up against? Does God need a refresher course in history and doctrine to remind him of how the Christian past is filled with moral failure, doctrinal infidelity, cultural accommodation, political expediency, and human brutality? Doesn’t God read what is on the Internet, George Barna’s latest polls, or the Pew Trust religious surveys? Doesn’t God have access to all the data that shows the growing loss of confidence we have to deal with both in the church and from the culture? Hasn’t God heard that we now live in a secular age, that people are convinced he is dead, or, at the least, that the idea of God as a necessity has died? Doesn’t God know we are fighting just to survive in a world that has no need of us, a world that takes great delight in resisting and ridiculing all we believe, live, and hope for?
Doesn’t God know that even as we take him and his will seriously, as we seek to worship and serve him, striving to be faithful and obedient to his will, our disappointments continue to increase? Doesn’t God know how tired the church is, how hard we work for him, and how difficult this work is becoming? And why doesn’t God allow us to figure out better ways of getting things done for him rather than listening to the wisdom of Scripture and the Christian past? And if he would just turn things over to us, we will come up with ways to make his kingdom victorious over all its opponents and enemies. Because if we can’t get rid of the weeds, we can surely find a way to beat them at their own game.
And doesn’t God know just how big of a mess the church has been in for such a long time now? Isn’t it time to clean house, to weed out those people from both the past and present who do not comply with our chosen way of thinking and doing things? What is God waiting for? What is taking him so long? Why is God so slow to anger and quick to forgive? Doesn’t God know it is finally time to create a triumphant church that will fulfill his ideals and make him proud?
Friends, our Lord Jesus Christ assures us that despite our history as a church that has so often failed to wholeheartedly embrace God’s kingdom in him, it will surely come in its fullness, and God’s plan for the world will succeed. In the end, it will bear much fruit and produce a rich harvest. The good news is that this has been happening and still happens in the church’s ordinary, everyday places since the advent of our Lord. Patience is a mark of the church; it enables us to follow the way of Jesus Christ, living from the generosity of our heavenly Father who blesses the just and the unjust, who loves both those who are good and those who are evil. Jesus says that to see the kingdom coming in him is to live in a world ruled by God’s abundant goodness, mercy, and forgiveness, a way of life that has unsurpassable value. And although the wheat and tares continue to grow together, he is Lord of both the church and the world. He is the One who was judged in our place and the One who will be our judge, justly separating that which is true from that which is false for the glory of God which he reveals in its fullness.
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit; that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your Name through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Michael Pasquarello III is the Methodist Chair of Divinity at Beeson, where he teaches Christian preaching and pastoral theology and directs the Robert Smith Jr. Preaching Institute and the Doctor of Ministry program.