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.
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.
Yes, please, give me the BIG, IMPORTANT parables for the heavy lifting of evangelism and inspiration.
And yet, brevity has its beauty.
Years ago I backpacked with a friend where we settled into a cozy tent for the night, desiring—and needing—a good night’s sleep. As with most mountain adventures, the days involved struggling over trails with weight on our backs and the nights were cold and long. Sometimes, precious sleep seemed elusive. Muscles ached. Frigid gusts of wind rattled tent flaps. Odd nocturnal noises—was that a hungry bear or skittering mouse?—interrupted the moonlit night. To comfort ourselves, we swapped personal histories and oft-told jokes.
My friend had also memorized a host of “minute mysteries.” In a matter of seconds, he’d relate the details of the scene of a crime and I, the listener, used the provided clues for a solution. I can only vaguely recall one mystery, which included a victim and a puddle of water. The murder weapon? A sharp icicle! The mysteries were all as silly as they were brief. Regardless of what we shared in the tent at day’s end, our goal was sleep. One talked, the other listened, and eventually we drifted toward slumber.
And what of Jesus’ minute mysteries? They are not designed to give us contented rest, but to be challenges to wake up and live. To stay alert and discern God’s call, God’s hopes, God’s ways.
Would I choose a long, complex parable to create a verbal billboard for explaining and proclaiming Christianity? Probably. But maybe, if I wanted to quickly wake another up, to stir faith into action, I’d stick with those 32 words from Matthew’s story of a person finding treasure in the field. What is THAT treasure? What did a person find that mattered so much, she sold everything to possess it? What matters most to you? What is most precious, most truthful, most longed for, indeed so essential . . . you can’t imagine a next day or moment without it? I’m glad the parable merely and daringly only says, “treasure.” This is where conversation and conversion begins; this is the minute mystery of faith. I’ll bet you won’t say the treasure you wish to find is a million bucks or a new Mercedes.
Thanks be to God, I bet the treasure you seek is . . .
And here, whatever your truest, truest, truest answer is, is how a simple parable opens the door to your heart of hearts.