Minute Mystery

None of Jesus’ parables are long; several are quite short.

The 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for July 24, 2011

“He put before them another parable…” (Matthew 13:31)

The lengthier ones unfold over several paragraphs and, if spoken, will still take less than five minutes to complete. The briefest? You could tweet them, using perhaps one or two easily understood abbreviations, and they’d remain virtually (and literarily) intact.

Often the shortest stories seem as simple and uncomplicated as their subject matter: seeds, bits of yeast or a single pearl. One of the leanest parables, and a favorite of mine is . . .

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44, NRSV).

32 words. 157 characters and spaces. This flash-in-the-pan parable is unique to Matthew’s gospel. I could jokingly imagine the writers of Luke and Matthew (who most reputable scholars would guess scribed their accounts around the same time, perhaps 40-60 years after Jesus’ ministry) got together and picked straws to determine who used which parables. Matthew clearly kept getting the short straws since Luke has the word rich, complex parables like the so-called Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan. To unfairly expand this short straw vs. long straw rivalry, maybe the writers of Mark and John weren’t allowed to even play. Mark contains only a handful of parables and John—with one or two debatable exceptions—is tale-less.

We settled into a cozy tent for the night...

If I had to choose only one parable to help a non-Christian understand what it means to follow Jesus, or to help a believer revitalize his or her faith, I likely wouldn’t choose the tweet-ready shorter ones. If I’m going to proselytize a pagan and inspire a backslider, I’ll go with the grandeur of the Good Samaritan. Its multiple characters are engaged in life and death struggles and (here, have a John Williams film score swell in the background) a hero emerged who does the right thing at the right moment. Maybe, if I wanted to guide my curious pagan or bored-in-the-pew occupant down a long and winding path, I’d take a deep breath and tell Matthew’s Workers in the Vineyard parable. That’ll get a debate underway quicker than you can say, “Idon’tgetit.” Since the Workers story (Matthew 20:1-16) can easily trigger unsettled reactions, we might soon be debating the contemporary hot potato of illegal immigrants working in the field or how bosses are unfair. All parables, but especially the longer ones, easily transport a first or twenty-first century audience into digressions and disagreements. But after all the sound and fury, signifying something, I’d steer the conversation back to Matthew’s novel-like Chapter 20 story about how some seem never to understand God’s gift of grace. Continue reading →

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Bagpipes on Maroa

Sarah*, my friend and associate pastor, asked me to pick some things at her home to take her wedding this weekend.

That’s why I drove north on Fresno’s Maroa Avenue around 7:30pm on Tuesday evening and saw the man playing bagpipes.

It all happened more quickly than the time it took you to read this sentence.

My car was jammed with a ficus tree, a stool, a large metal pail, and many other items all mysteriously connected to Mike and Sarah’s wedding. (I didn’t ask, I just loaded the car!) I loafed along at thirty or so miles an hour, mind wandering as a long day finally concluded. Then I spotted a man with bagpipes, standing at the far end of his driveway.

We made eye contact for a split-second. He played. I drove.

End of story? Not really. What was he doing there? Why was he, clearly Hispanic (though perhaps he had Scottish ancestors), playing a bagpipe?

*     *     *

Richard Brautigan wrote short stories in the 1960s and 70s. I lost track of his career years ago, but I remember his stories were truly “short” and often comical. Like, for example, his “The Scarlatti Tilt.”

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.**

Now that’s a short story!

And yet it tells a full, complete tale. And it’s as funny as it is sad, especially if you have heard someone learning to play a violin. It takes an awful lot of awful noise to attain the violin’s exquisite sound.

So I think of that guy and the bagpipes. I can imagine—and I might be totally wrong!—a little bit of his world. Of course he’s playing a bagpipe closer to Maroa Avenue than his home. His family and neighbors won’t let him do anything else! I further imagined that, though he doesn’t have any Scottish background, he’s part of a military outfit that uses bagpipes for ceremonial purposes and he volunteered to learn the instrument.

And then I also thought that he . . .

In those split seconds, I imagined many scenarios. Doing that reminds me of how complex we humans are. We all pass lives each day we know nothing about. We look at a stranger and see a glimpse of a face, a bagpipe or briefcase in a hand, a business suit or sweat pants the attire, and then they are gone.

I try to remember the beauty and pain behind every face I glimpse. They, like me, lead complex, grand, disappointing, worrisome, wonderful lives.

There are so many Gospel scenes of Jesus having brief encounters with people. The “woman with the hemorrhage,” the “Gerasene demoniac,” the “Syrophoenician woman,” the children he held in his arms, and so on and so forth. In every Gospel account, they come and go, glimpses all. Of the many themes of our Gospel tradition, the encounter with the stranger continually challenges me. How will I see the stranger? How do I imagine their lives? Will I remember they are more like me than different from me?

Every single person is a gift, with a life rich and textured. And every day, we glimpse the other. And they us. We barely know each other, but we are all glorious children.


* I stumbled across this essay from May, 2003. I am long gone from the church I then served. Sarah, in 2003, was soon to marry and soon to leave for southern California. A few weekends back, I saw her and Mike again. How delightful! She’s an Episcopal priest now. I wish I’d asked them about the ficus.

**Found in Brautigan’s REVENGE OF THE LAWN (Simon and Schuster)

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