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Sermon illustrations

The Parables

An Acted Parable

The entrance into Jerusalem was an acted parable. It gave the faithful the sign they had been waiting for. It inaugurated the Master’s final mission to his people and was a fitting prelude to the days of intense activity and emotion which were to follow. It focused the whole city’s attention on Jesus, so that wherever he went during that closing week, crowds followed him, and his name was on every tongue.

And, not least important, it flung down the gauntlet to his enemies. It defied them. Much they could endure, but this procession through the streets was intolerable. This fanatic and usurper must be put down finally. Jesus in that tumultuous hour was issuing a challenge. Every token of royal honor which he accepted that day gave point to the challenge, and every hosanna of the crowd drove it home. Let the powers of evil do their worst; he knew his power. He was the Lord’s anointed. He was riding to the throne which God had given him. He was ready for the last campaign.

James S. Stewart, The Life & Teaching of Jesus Christ.

Common Things and Cracks in the Surface of Reality

The child became a man and the man became a preacher whose sermons were full of commonplace things: seeds and nets, coins and fishes, lilies of the field, and birds of the air. Wherever he was, he had a knack for looking around him and weaving what he saw into his sermons, whether it was sparrows for sale in the marketplace, laborers lining up for their pay, or a woman glimpsed through a doorway kneading her family’s bread…”

The kingdom of heaven is like this,” he said over and over again, comparing things they knew about with something they knew nothing about and all of the sudden what they knew had cracks in it, cracks they had never noticed before, through which they glimpsed bright and sometimes frightening new realities…Every created thing was fraught with divine possibility; wasn’t that what he was telling them? Every ho-hum detail of their days was a bread crumb leading them into the presence of God, if they would just pick up the trail and follow.

Barbara Brown Taylor

Getting Behind the Myths

The thrust of the parables is to subvert the distorted myths in which people live their lives. To understand what we mean by “living in a myth” just think of a couple of our own contemporary myths. Take the myth of “the All American Boy,” for example. This is the young man who gets straight A’s in college and graduate school, climbs the executive ladder, and perhaps becomes the head of a multinational. Or the “American Dream:” two cars in every garage, vacations in Florida, houses in Spain, and so forth.

On a more serious level, the American dream has been a vision of America’s invincibility, of its absolute entitlement in the eyes of God. A myth is often what holds people’s lives together. It is an attempt to resolve the tensions of everyday life by promising an idealized future in which one will be rescued from all the problems of ordinary life.

When a myth begins to falter, great leaders may try to find ways to recapture the glory of earlier days, like John F. Kennedy’s effort to rekindle the American dream by sending a man to the moon. American astronauts did go to the moon, but meanwhile the Vietnam war devastated the prestige of American invincibility and with it the American dream. For the Israelites of Jesus’ time, the tension between everyday reality and a mythical vision of Israel as God’s chosen people was felt with particular urgency.

From the heyday of national power and prestige during the reigns of King David and King Solomon, Israel had been on a downhill slide for several centuries, its kingdom conquered and divided several times over. If one lives in occupied territories, as the Israelites of Jesus’ time did, the question naturally arises, “Is this ghastly oppression by the Romans a punishment from God, or is our suffering just part of the human condition?”

In the particular myth in which the people of first-century Israel were living, the kingdom of God had specific connotations of power, triumph, holiness, and goodness. The kingdom, when it came, would introduce a glorious new age of universal peace, with God’s chosen people at the head of the nations. The cultural symbol for this myth was the great cedar of Lebanon. Cedars of Lebanon were comparable to the huge redwood trees of California. They grew straight up for two or three hundred feet or more. Every kind of bird could enjoy their shade. This image was deeply embedded in the cultural conditioning of the Jewish people. The kingdom of God as a nation would be the greatest of all nations just as the great cedar of Lebanon was the greatest of all trees.

Thomas Keating, Meditations on the Parables of Jesus, The Crossroad Publishing Company, pp. 21-23, 2010.

Metaphors, Parables and Dramatic Actions

The biblical writers and reciters make extensive use of metaphors, parables and dramatic actions. Jesus does not say, “God’s love is boundless.” Instead, he tells the story of the prodigal son. He does not say, “Your benevolence must reach beyond your own kith and kin.” Rather, he tells the story of the good Samaritan.

He does not say, “Try to influence the community around you for good.” But he does state, You are the light of the world. A city set (by men) on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do they (i.e., the women) light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. (Mt 5:14-16; author’s translation)

Taken from Jacob & the Prodigal: How Jesus Retold Israel’s Story by Kenneth E. Bailey Copyright (c) 2009 by Kenneth E. Bailey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com