When [Jesus] was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,and may indeed listen, but not understand;so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” -Mark 4:10-12 Internationally celebrated graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher produced a large body of work which invited the viewer to see the world from new and perhaps impossible dimensions. His 1961 lithograph Waterfall has hung in my office since the beginning of my ministry. It is a portrayal of water flowing down through an aqueduct which seems to proceed appropriately when observed through each small portion of the picture. The water flow culminates in a waterfall but the pool below the fall is the original source of the aqueducts flow. The flow of the water in the picture is a perpetual cycle and while it makes sense in small segments when perceived as a whole it is not possible.
Albert Einstein famously said, “make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Keeping things too simple is ever the temptation for us. In an effort to understand and manage our lives and surroundings we are prone to look at a small segment of behavior or circumstances and then draw conclusions about larger realities. It is only with patience, even perseverance, that real discernment emerges. One reason I believe Jesus teaches in parables is because the “moral” of a story can very often be shallow and sometimes lead to wrong conclusions. The richness of a story cannot be captured in a cliché and yet for simplicity’s sake we can come to believe that such short cuts are prudent.
It is interesting to note that Jesus’ detractors were the religious authorities; the very ones who had the resources to understand God’s big work missed it because they focused on small litmus test observations. Even John the Baptist struggled with this as he knew Jesus to be Messiah but expected him to be doing more judging and “fireworks” than healing and teaching (Matthew 11:2-6). The Pharisees attempted to cover up their insecurities by proclaiming certainty and it moved them from being humble servants to taskmasters acting as if God worked for them. Now of course, in a sense God does work for “us,” but it is different to receive the grace of a loving caretaker who chooses to act on our behalf than it is to seek to make God an instrument of our manipulations. Parables disarm our preconceived notions and force us to suspend our judgements. We are forced to consider the possibility that Samaritans could be good, and law-abiding priests miss the mark. To get at real perception and understanding, we must receive the whole story before deciding who is good and who is not, and in so doing our presuppositions are vulnerable to new perceptions.
At Pentecost, the church emerges from an unlikely band and meanders through a series of surprises. The elevations and inclusion of gentiles, women, and untrained “preachers,” the establishment and loss of Jerusalem as the ministry center, and perhaps most surprising the eventual conflict and slow transformation of the community’s understanding of grace through the words of an ex-pharisee. God can do more than we can ask or imagine, but that does not mean that asking or imagining, humbly, is to be avoided.