"How can we picture God's kingdom? What kind of story can we use? It's like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it."
With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. [Mark 4:30-34, Message Bible]
Everyone loves stories. More than that, we need them. Whether through a meaningful movie, a family memory, or in the joyful banter of friends sitting around a table, stories anchor our lives. They help us understand our world, see connections, and make meaning.
For the months of February and March we are going to listen intently to the stories of Jesus, his parables. And as we listen, we are going to ask some vital questions about life itself: where is all of this going? and how will it end? We want to do this together in community, perhaps even find some friends to do it with. Are there a few friends you would like to share coffee and good conversation with? Think about that.
It would be difficult (if not impossible) to live in a world in which the story we are part of is pointless or despairing. We need to know that everything is going to turn out for the best. If there is danger, we need to know about that as well. Perhaps the most important aspect of any story is that it takes us somewhere. Every story has to have an appropriate end.
When my children were smaller I would try to tell pointless stories, just for fun. I would begin with great energy, telling them about something in my day. I would provide vivid details, appropriately notice the scenery, and stretch out a narrative thread that seemed interesting at first, this is until that one of my girls would notice that something vital was missing -- like some kind of reason for telling what I was telling. And then one of them would say: “dad, is this going anywhere?” There is no reason to tell a story if its not going anywhere.
Life is storied. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is a story that is inherently purposeful, and that means that all of the details, all of the parts carry meaning. At least, the story-telling of Jesus would say this is so.
This parable we encountered above is a story, although a brief one. It has a beginning: once there was a small seed, a pine nut (or mustard seed). The image is of something small, something seemingly inconsequential, something easily ignorable. But as we follow what happens, we see the seed turned into a huge pine tree, large enough for eagles to nest in. A small beginning, a large end. The story has taken us somewhere.
For the most part, stories become more interesting when we fill in relevant details. For instance, we might ask what happened in between the beginning and the end, what the pine nut went through to become such a large pine tree, what it endured, and what made it grow. Details makes stories what they are, and in subsequent discussions of the parables of Jesus we will note how his stories choose details carefully. But for now, we take notice of the basic shape: what begins small (very small), ends large (very large). And that is the point. The seed had a future, and that future was to be a tree.
Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God more than he talked about anything else. But what he meant by that term was often clouded or confused by the images which dominated his listeners minds. So he often chose to tell stories, create metaphors, paint mental pictures. He would often say, “the kingdom of God is like…”. His stories and parables were ways to dislodge presumption and build a new way of thinking about God’s future.
It will take us some time, some imagination, some careful listening to discern what Jesus means when he talks about the kingdom of God. But we can be sure of one thing: the biggest part of lies ahead of us. This is a story going somewhere.
Questions and ideas to ponder:
1. do you have a favorite story? why do you think you like it so much? what kind of stories do you tend to gravitate towards? what kind of stories do you avoid? 2. how would you tell your personal story? as a drama? comedy? romance? how would you characterize your life story to this point? 3. what are the parts of your personal story that make sense to you? what are the parts that don’t make sense? what would it take to give the non-sensical parts meaning? 4. of the parables of Jesus that you know, which one especially intrigues you? mystifies you? confuses you? why? 5. what part of Jesus’ vision for the future would you like to understand better?