Biblical truth, transcultural as it is, has an indispensable message for modern man.
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Frame of Reference Jill Carattini
God is so often not the God we expect Him to be, and often it is shocking to discover it. God comes near and offends our sense of understanding; He affronts our categories and overturns our sense of familiarity. In the language of the parables, Jesus does the same. With his stories, he offended disciples, scribes, and crowds alike. With the same stories, he continues to jar hearers awake and move followers near.
The Greek word for parable literally means "a placing beside." It is a comparison of one thing beside another, an association of pictures that teaches. In a wider sense, the parable is a figurative discourse, a riddle full of light and shadows. In his parabolic language, Jesus vividly lays a full and layered picture beside us: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed; it is like yeast, or a mustard seed, or a master who prepared a great banquet. His comparisons often offer simple scenes or everyday images, and yet they are bafflingly difficult. How on earth is the kingdom of heaven like a seed?
Thus, we are pulled into a parable on multiple levels. At the narrative level, there are countless nuances and peculiarities that compel us to listen and question. We react to the characters before us--to the foolish prodigal son and what almost seems a foolishly loving father, to the master of a great banquet and the guests that cruelly shun him. But we also react to the character of God on some level, his kingdom and its economy. How is this forgiving, welcoming father like our heavenly Father? How am I like his wasteful son or this frustrated older brother? And how, then, does this image call me to live? We are jarred awake by a story; but so we are moved to reckon with its implications.
In other words, we are moved to reckon with nothing less than the kingdom of God among us and the one proclaiming it. The parables were not just spoken by anyone; they were spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, whose preaching fulfilled the cry of Isaiah and the promise of a savior:
"[T]he people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned" (Isaiah 9:1-2, Matthew 4:16).
As with his preaching, the parables of Jesus call hearers to respond to the presence of God today, the kingdom in our midst, the person standing before us. We are remiss to interpret the parabolic language of Christ apart from his entire ministry, his shocking narratives apart from his shocking death, or the peculiar notion of the kingdom he describes apart from the unfathomable notion of his resurrection, which touches both this world and the next. Like Isaiah before the throne, our former visions of God are undone by the God in our presence.
God will not let us remain blinded by our ideas of Him. A prayer by Walter Brueggemann expresses the power of our expectations and the danger of clinging to them:
We are your people and mostly we don't mind, except that you do not fit any of our categories. We keep pushing and pulling and twisting and turning, trying to make you fit the God we would rather have and every time we distort you that way we end up with an idol more congenial to us.(1)
The parables draw pictures that, like Jesus, turn everything upside down, exposing idols that look curiously like us. It is in the light of his words that we see the insufficiencies of our perceptions and the incongruence of our behavior. Like the one who voiced them, the parables order a mandatory reframing of perspective. "Thus it is with the Kingdom of God," Jesus declares, and he overturns our world like the money-changers' tables. Jesus calls those who will see to see, and sometimes it is a call for a different way of thinking. Other times it demands an entirely new frame of reference. But he is always calling. For who God is in our minds must always be shattered by who God .
Jill Carattini is senior associate writer at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Walter Brueggemann Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 35. Joachim Jeremias writes:
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A real-estate agent was driving around with a new trainee when she spotted a charming little farmhouse with a hand-lettered "For Sale" sign out front.
After briskly introducing herself and her associate to the startled occupant, the agent cruised from room to room, opening closets and cupboards, testing faucets and pointing out where a "new light fixture here and a little paint there" would help. Pleased with her assertiveness, the woman was hopeful that the owner would offer her the listing.
"Ma'am," the man said, "I appreciate the home-improvement tips and all, but I think you read my sign wrong. It says, "HORSE for sale."