A lot has changed in the last week and we’re all having to get used to a new ‘normal’, so Reflectionary will be changing too. With church meetings cancelled, we’ll stop publishing resources aimed at services and, from tomorrow, publish all-age Bible studies instead. And I do mean all-age; I don’t mean ‘for kids’.
You can use these resources for personal devotions, for family Bible times or for adults’ Bible study. Why not get together with some friends and discuss the questions by phone or skype? We can still be church together while we’re apart.
Each week will have
- A Bible passage with some teaching and discussion questions aimed at adults
- Creative and imaginative approaches designed to appeal to children (plus adults who prefer those styles)
- A space for your own thoughts and responses
- A colouring page (not just for kids!)
- A craft / art activity (not just for kids!)
- Some activities for the week
- A prayer
‘Together, Apart‘ posts will start tomorrow and appear every week for the foreseeable future. I’m also changing the publication day to Sunday, so that you can use them in weekly worship if you wish. You can find all the posts from the menu at the top.
I wish a warm welcome to the ladies of Manna, for whom I led a Bible study just hours before the the halt to church meetings, and who have joined The Reflectionary to replace those weekly gatherings. It’s great to have you with us. I hope you will find these resources, and the ‘Look, See, Pray’ posts by my good friend Richard, a great blessing.
And as a bonus extra for all my subscribers, please enjoy the text of my talk from Manna. It comes as the final episode in a series on Jesus’ parables, and I offer thoughts on some trickier stories, such as Jesus and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 and the fig tree in Mark 11, plus reflections on the revolutionary nature of Jesus and the little children in Mark 10 and parallels.
Whether you’re on lock-down, self-isolating, at home with the kids, or simply missing folks, ask your friends to sign up for The Reflectionary’s emails this week, then we can study the Bible together while we’re apart.
Talk for Manna, Christ the King, Kettering
Introducing a study based on
- Mark 10:13-16
- Mark 11:12-14, 20-21
- Matt 15:21-28
I Will Open My Mouth in Parables
I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old – things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us. (Ps 78:2)
Parables are some of the best-known parts of the Bible, so much so that many have passed into common speech – The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep – and that’s because they stick in our minds. These larger-than-life stories are easily remembered, and that’s why Jesus told them – stories stick.
Many of Jesus’ parables were about physical, tangible things – a fig tree, some little children – and I wonder if Jesus told the parable of the vineyard workers as he was walking past some labourers who had not been hired that day. Hanging parables on things that people could see every day made them immediate and memorable, giving them and us a chance to ponder their meaning over and over.
This pondering comes up in the Orthodox Church’s helpful concept of mystery. The things of God are in many ways a mystery to us. ‘Mystery’ here does not mean something we cannot know, because the God of the Bible is a God who reveals himself to us. But, like unearthing an ancient city hidden in the desert sands, there is always more to find, more to discover.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus told parables; they’re a brilliant way of keeping us looking and looking into the things of God, and always finding more. So grab your spade, and here are some useful tools to help us dig into these parables.
Don’t read a single verse from the Bible!
Some parables are easy to get our heads around, but others give us more of a “Huh?” than an “Aah!” So what can I do when I read something in the Bible that seems odd to me? How can I make sure that I’m reading it right? Or what higher authority can I use to test Scripture?
There is no higher authority (certainly not my opinions or the opinions of my culture), so I must check Scripture against Scripture. I should always read a passage in the context of the whole Bible, and never read just a single verse.
For example, look at Jesus’ meeting with the Canaanite woman where he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”. Was Jesus really saying that she was not worthy of his notice because she wasn’t Jewish? It seems rather out of character, and it’s the opposite of what Jesus said in lots of other places. Reading that story in the context of Jesus’ ministry and God’s expansive love shown throughout the Bible, I wonder if I’m missing something.
Jesus’ words about being sent only to the lost sheep of Israel come midway between him telling his disciples to take the gospel only to the Jews (in chapter 10), and to go to all nations (in chapter 28). So this passage is part of a developing ministry of expanding grace. We see this motif repeated many times in the Gospels and Acts.
Also, New Testament Greek didn’t have punctuation, so we can read the words either as a statement or a question, the same as in English: “You want fries with that.” Statement. Or “You want fries with that?”
Jesus is talking to the disciples, who regarded the woman as an annoying pest. Jesus tells them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”, but then, oddly, grants her request. Was he contradicting himself?
Try it, instead, with a question mark, challenging the disciples’ assumption: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel? Is that what you think?” And then Jesus gives a demonstration to back up his words. Does it remind you of another time when Jesus reprimanded his disciples for shooing people away?
And even the bit about not giving the children’s bread to dogs – which sounds dreadfully rude to us – could have sounded different to the woman. Jesus was not afraid to call a spade a spade when it came to calling out unrighteousness and hypocrisy, but his words to the lowly were radically kind and merciful. Would he really have been so offensive to her?
Canaanites knew what Jews thought about them, so being called a dog would not be unusual, but the word Jesus chooses is more like ‘puppies’. His words are softer than she might expect, playful even. Perhaps it gives her the confidence to snap back with that witty, sassy reply.
The fig tree also can be problematic. It seems a bit mean, cursing a tree for not having fruit when it was not the season. Again, it does not fit with what we know of Jesus in the rest of the Bible, so I wonder what I’m missing.
Fig trees are a recurring theme and often, like vineyards, symbolise God’s people. Jesus often used this metaphor, getting the idea from the Old Testament. In chapter 12 Jesus told the parable of the bad vineyard tenants. Compare this with the incident of the fig tree and Luke’s parallel account of Jesus approaching Jerusalem and prophesying its destruction.
It’s all the same message about a lack of expected fruit and the dire consequences – one an acted-out parable with a fig tree, one a story about bad tenants and one plain speaking. When we read a tricky passage in the light of ones we can understand more easily, it helps us to avoid tripping up.
Beware reading parchment by artificial light
We read the Bible with our spectacles on. But I don’t mean the ones on my nose. We wear glasses of our modern Western world, glasses of our background, glasses of our upbringing, assumptions and beliefs. Even me talking to you now is adding something to the glasses with which we all read Scripture.
We can’t get rid of our glasses – I can’t stop being a white British woman in the 21st century – but I can be aware that looking through my glasses will change how I see things, and remember that the people who wrote the Bible and those who first read it had different glasses from me.
‘Jesus and the little children’ is a great example. These days it makes a pretty poster to put up in the Sunday School room, usually with a few lambs gambolling in the background. But Jesus’ toddler-based parable wasn’t cute, it was crazy!
Today, we see young children as a gift, a blessing, a precious joy. But for people living in a subsistence-farming culture, they were just a drain on resources until they were old enough to be useful. Another mouth to feed. Animals at least earned their keep, whereas children were even more useless than women! They were right at the bottom of the social pile. Yet, according to Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them? Mad! Ridiculous!
The trouble is, with our modern glasses on, it loses effect, because we value children differently. So who would be the people at the bottom of the social pile today? Perhaps homeless people, refugees? Can we translate Jesus’ parables into the images and ideas our culture so that they stop being cutesy little stories for kiddies and regain that smack-in-the-face impact that they had when Jesus told them? How about making your own parables?
Making modern parables
I take a walk most mornings – an excuse to get away from the millions of jobs that need doing – and I am surprised at how many times I look at things that I have looked at a hundred times before, but this time I see something more.
Here’s an example: A couple of days ago I was walking past some fences, and I thought about what fences and walls are for, and how well they do it. Some are designed to keep things in, some to keep things out. Some create a safe space, some exclude. Some are very porous, merely denoting a boundary, without minding who or what crosses.
And it got me thinking about God’s kingdom. What’s the boundary to that like? Hedge, wall, white picket fence, invisible line on a heavenly map? Is it like a county boundary that I can cross without realising, and find myself unexpectedly in Lincolnshire?
It reminded me of Jesus’ parables about people who were in the kingdom and had not realised, and those who thought they were when they were not! Plenty to ponder, and all from noticing some fences on my walk.
This is something that all of us can do, whether out and about or at home keeping safe and warm, so I’d commend it to you. I’m slowly learning not to just look, but see, not to just listen, but hear.
For hundred-mile-an-hour folks like me, slowing down takes time. But time might be in slightly greater supply over the next few weeks and months. So, to slightly misquote Jesus, we who have ears to hear, let us hear.