parabolic mirror

Why Parables?

A few weeks ago at the beginning of this Trinity season, Jonathan, in his message, likened the Trinity , the relationship of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit to a juggler, juggling three balls in the air.  All three rising and falling in a beautiful dance, with the arc of the balls being so fast that is not easy to separate one from another.  We were then invited to imagine ourselves as a fourth ball, being invited to join in this divine dance with our loving God who is three in one

As an analogy this helps us think about the Trinity, a hard concept so challenging to grasp we really do have to imagine it in some sort of metaphor.  Jesus, the greatest teacher the world has ever known, one of the three of the trinity, used short metaphorical, succinct stories like this to make deep truths come to light.  We call them parables.

Interestingly the juggler, throwing the balls in the air, learns to throw the next ball when the one he has just thrown is at the very top of its arc, the other one is just about to be caught.  I was teaching my son to juggle the other day and he quite quickly got the idea and began to have success in juggling three balls.  He could do this because we all have had practice catching balls thrown to us and a ball going through the air follows a predictable arc – it is called a parabola.  This is exactly the same Greek word as parable.  It comes from the Greek ‘bole’ and ‘para-‘ , literally ‘throwing alongside’.  The parable is a short story that reveals truth by telling a story that is in some way parallel to the true meaning that God reveals to us.  It is an extremely useful tool in helping us to understand a meaningful concept that simple instructions can’t always illuminate clearly.

Whether we realise it or not we all have an inner understanding of the parabolic arc, ours brains are able to do the extremely complicated reasoning to allow us to judge where a thrown ball is going to land, how it is going to fall, how far and fast it is travelling, which allows us to reach out our hand and catch it with just enough cushioning so that it fits snugly in our hands and doesn’t bounce off.  Although to be fair, a test cricketer is far better at this than I am!

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.  Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore.  Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.   As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.  But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.  Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.  Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.  Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Matthew 13:1-9

Over the next few Sunday’s the gospels focus on many of Jesus parables.  Today’s parable of the sower is probably one of the most well-known.  It is a very easy parable to teach to children in assemblies and Sunday school, and has the advantage of Jesus partial explanation to help preachers preach on it from the front of church.

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means:  When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.  The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.  The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.  But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”  Matthew 13: 18:23

Putting the Parable aside for a moment, let us go back to the parabola again.  Not only does a ball thrown in the air follow a parabolic arc, but a mirror with a parabolic shape focuses light in such a way that it can be used to make the giant reflecting telescopes that are used to see deep into space and allowed the renaissance astronomers to begin to understand the relationship between the planets and the stars and see more of God’s amazing creation in the universe.  During the second world war, before the development of Radar, a whole series of giant concrete parabolic reflectors were built into the hills on the South Coast of England.  A member of the Royal Observer Corps would sit right at the focal point of these reflectors and would be able to hear the enemy planes approaching from the distance far before they would be heard ordinarily.  The parabolic mirror has this amazing focusing property, a light source placed within a parabolic mirror right at the focal point will produce a light that does not spread outwards but is focused into a straight beam, or can be used to magnify the light in one place.  These mirrors are also used to generate concentrated energy from the sun.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Jesus’ parables have the same properties.  By teaching in parables, they allow us to grasp deeper truths, and help to train our minds to understand the pattern of God’s creation, bringing us closer to having the mind of Christ, as Paul describes it.  These parables allow us to hear things quicker and more effectively than if we have to wait until they are nearer our normal senses.  And perhaps most importantly they focus the meaning of Jesus’ stories into a point that is so bright and concentrated that in the intense brilliance of the analogy, even greater truths are revealed.

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.’ Matthew 13:10-13

In the Gospel for today, the confused and puzzled disciples asked Jesus why he taught using these parables.  Even in Jesus’ explanation of the parable there is the question; are we supposed to think of ourselves as the seed or the prepared or unprepared soil?

Going back to our juggling analogy, whilst we all have the inbuilt ability to judge the falling of a thrown ball, it takes practice to learn to juggle.  Not everyone will bother to try, some will start but then give up and others will wrongly believe themselves not capable of learning.

Jesus’ teaching in parables forces us to think more deeply about what he is saying, the meanings have multiple layers and point to greater truths.

Jesus seems to be inviting us to make a choice; to be unseeing and unhearing with calloused hearts closed to his truths, or to see and hear more clearly than we can normally perceive, allow His greater knowledge to fill us and to be open to the bright penetrating, focused light that reveals Christ’s heart and love for us.

Revd Stuart Huntley


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