I Will Open my Mouth in a Parable

Message for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (7/30/2023)

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


I’m convinced that Jesus had a sense of humor. Consider the barrage of parables he unleashes on his listeners to describe the dominion of God in our Gospel from Matthew today: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field…. [It’s] like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour…. [It’s] like treasure hidden in a field…. [It’s] like a merchant in search of fine pearls…. [It’s] like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind….”

Then he asks, “Have you understood all this?” I imagine the question is accompanied with a wink and a smile. Jesus’ listeners want to be good students, so they reply, “Yes?” But, how could they possibly understand all that he’s just taught them? Not only are there several parables, but each one is charged with meaning. That’s the purpose of a parable, after all; it points beyond itself to a truth that eludes simple speech. Dodd’s classic definition still rings true: “The parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”[1] Since it resists being reduced to a single meaning, since it constantly cries out for interpretation, a parable always has the power to reveal something new about God and God’s dream for the world.

Think of Jesus’ second parable in our Gospel from Matthew today: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” That’s about as basic an image as we can expect from the Teacher – yeast, flour, and a woman baking bread. But as always, there’s more to this parable than meets the eye.

First of all, yeast is almost always a symbol for corruption in the biblical tradition. Unleavened bread is holy; leavened bread is common, profane. But, Jesus refuses to allow yeast to signify only one thing. Yeast, of course, brings the other ingredients in the dough to life, causing the loaf to rise, to expand. What does that have to do with the reign of God on Earth as in heaven? we might wonder.

What’s more, the quantity of flour makes a difference. Three measures of flour amounts to about ten gallons, enough to make bread to feed dozens of people. That’s a surprising abundance. Why would the woman prepare so much food, we might wonder, and what does that have to do with the reign of God on Earth as in heaven?

Finally, the image of baking bread also harkens to the famous account of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality for three mysterious visitors in Genesis 18:1-8. Remember the story?

The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

Three measures of flour for bread to go along with meat, curds, and milk– Abraham might as well have turned water into wine. This feast by the oaks of Mamre is the kind of extravagant banquet that so often characterizes biblical accounts of communion with God. Why does Jesus allude to an ancient story of divine encounter and shared abundance, we might wonder, and what does that have to do with the reign of God on Earth as in heaven?[2]

If you’ll pardon the pun, this one parable among many provides lasting food for thought. No wonder Jesus was so intent on teaching this way. To quote Barbara Brown Taylor, “If anyone in the world were qualified to speak directly about God, surely it was Jesus, and yet he too spoke indirectly… breaking open our everyday understanding of things and inviting us to explore them all over again.”[3] For those who would prefer that truth be straightforward, this might seem like bad news. But, can we receive Jesus’ inventive speech about God as a gift, a testimony to One whose reality finally surpasses all human categories, and thus whose love breaks down our barriers and whose peace passes our understanding?

By way of conclusion, let me point you to a beautiful resource at the back of our new hymnal supplement, the purple book, All Creation Sings. Turn to page 268 if you’d like to follow along with this introduction to the section called “Scriptural Images for God”:

“I will open my mouth in a parable” (Psalm 78:2); “I have said these things to you in figures of speech” (John 16:25). God, I AM, is an unfathomable mystery, a power beyond human comprehension, an embrace transcending human speech. However, both the Old and New Testaments use images to describe and address God. Some familiar images, such as “king,” recur repeatedly in the Bible. Some are quite startling and occur only once—for example, when God is likened to a drunken soldier (Psalm 78:65) or compared to maggots (Hosea 5:12). Some passages employ nouns, as in “the Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1). Sometimes the noun is implied, as when God issues forth smoke, fire, and glowing coals, although the word “volcano” is absent (Psalm 18:8). Psalm 147 ascribes to God twenty-five different verbs, each of which calls to mind its own image. Some images are paradoxical: God, who is our fortress, will help us leap over a wall (Psalm 18:2, 29). Some images describe the wholeness of the triune God, while others refer primarily to one of the three persons of the Trinity.

This selection of one hundred images from the New Revised Standard Version [of the] Bible testifies to the plethora of biblical images available for addressing the triune God. Thanks to this wealth of biblical imagery, we can complement those beloved images that we know well with the wide range of other images found in sacred scripture, thus enriching the language of our prayer and praise.

Friends, let me encourage you to flip through these pages and allow the richness of the biblical imagery to inspire you. And, as you return again and again to holy scripture and sacred song, let God speak a living word to you “in a parable,” that God’s wisdom might always come to you fresh and feed you in ways you never knew before.

[1] As cited by M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, 299.

[2] Boring 309.

[3] members.sundaysandseasons.com/Home/TextsAndResources/2023-7-30/2423#resources.

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