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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Open Ended Parables



It wouldn’t be anything new or revelatory or shocking to tell you that Jesus often taught the people and his disciples using parables. In fact, we are told that Jesus “would never speak to [the crowds] except in parables.” (Matthew 13: 34/ Mark 4:34 NJB). Many of us have been told about Jesus and his parables since we were children; we have them memorized; we have our favorites. We’ve sung songs and hymns based on the parables. We’ve seen them portrayed in skits, rendered in paintings, stained in glass windows, and filmed for the movie screen.

We know the parable of the sower, and the darnel (though we may know it more familiarly as the parable of the wheat and tares.) We know the parable of the mustard seed and yeast. We know the parable of the wicked tenants, the parable of the lamp, the lost coin; we know the parable of the prodigal son.

But, as familiar, as they have become to us over the years, perhaps it is still possible to be surprised by the parables. They really are intended to surprise, to catch the listener off guard with an eternal truth wrapped within a pleasantly told tale. Perhaps it’s time to be surprised by the parables again. Would you be surprised to discover that there are no parables in the Gospel of John?[i] There’s a lot of teaching going on in John’s gospel, but none of it is via the parable path. The parables that we know and love are all found in the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Some of the parable were told to deliberately obfuscate; some of the parables were riddles told with the intent to confuse, told so that they may not understand.

“Then the disciples went up to him and asked, ‘why do you talk to [the crowds] in parables?’ In answer, he said, ‘Because to you is granted to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not granted. Anyone who has will be given more and will have more than enough; but anyone who has not will be deprived even of what he has. The reason I talk to them in parables is that they look without seeing and listen without hearing or understanding. So in their case what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah is being fulfilled:

Listen and listen, but never understand!
Look and look, but never perceive!
This people’s heart has grown coarse,
their ears dulled, they have shut their eyes tight
to avoid using their eyes to see, their ears to hear,
their heart to understand,
changing their ways and being healed by me.’”

(Matthew 13: 10 – 17 NJB)

It may strike us as strange, but sometimes Jesus did not speak clearly. Sometimes his message was hidden inside a riddle. One of my homiletics instructors frequently reminded us to “put the good stuff on the bottom shelf so people can reach it.” But Jesus didn’t always do this. Sometimes he made his teaching difficult to understand.

This isn’t to say that he was always difficult, or that his message was consistently obscure, or that he never explained, or that Jesus cannot be understood. Jesus did sometimes, when pressed, explain the riddles; Jesus did, on occasion, explain the parables. But not often. Between the few that he explained and the ones told to deliberately complicate, there are a great many of Jesus’ parables that are simply told without explanation. They are left for the audience (whether the original aural audience, or us today as a reading audience) to interpret. These parables are told without a key, without a guide. And the audience is expected to work through them, without help, to find their meaning and application.

Our text for today is one of these unexplained parables. Neither Jesus, nor the author of the gospel has provided us with a key to the parable. And, what is more, it is an open ended parable. It has a beginning, a middle – but no definitive ending. It is up to us to provide the ending (provide the endings-plural?) and the interpretation.

In Luke 13: 6 – 9 we read:

He told this parable, ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it but found none. He said to his vinedresser, “for three years now I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and finding none. Cut it down: why should it be taking up the ground?” “Sir,” the man replied, “leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: it may bear fruit net year; if not, then you can cut it down.”’ (Luke 13: 6 – 9 NJB)

This parable comes in a lengthy section of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus has been speaking to a large crowd since the beginning of chapter 12.  He has been teaching them with plain instruction and ethical commands as well as with parables. And in this particular parable he used a set of stock images familiar to his audience.

The image of the vineyard and its owner had been used repeatedly in their religious history, going back to the prophets. The vineyard was readily understood as an image of the nation of Israel, as was the fig tree. And they recognized God as the owner of the vineyard.

We could get hung up on identifying the vine-dresser, or the three year period within this story (many commentaries suggest that this equates to the three year ministry of Jesus, but this isn’t necessary.
He tells the story but doesn’t end it. So let’s try out a few possible endings:

Ending 1
Then the owner answered the gardener, “Do as you have said.”  And the gardener lavished great care on the fig tree for a year - watering it, fertilizing the ground, carefully pruning it, but at the end of the year there were still no figs.  The man returned and said, “Dig it up and throw it into the fire. And let the ground be given to another that will bear fruit.”

This may be the most obvious ending, and is fitting with the context of the preceding chapter wherein Jesus speaks of imminent judgement, but it is not, by any means, the only possible ending. Shall we consider a few more possibilities?

Ending 2
Then the owner answered the gardener, “Do as you have said.”  And the vinedresser lavished great care on the fig tree for year – watering it, fertilizing the ground, carefully pruning it, but at the end of the year there were still no figs.  The owner returned and said, “Give it another year.  There still may be hope for this tree.”

If Moses could repeatedly argue with God to spare the people of Israel, and if Abraham could bargain with God for the people of Sodom, it could be that the vinedresser (who is he?) can plead on our behalf to the owner of the vineyard. It could be…

Ending 3
Then the man answered the gardener, “No.  This tree will not produce any fruit here.  Dig it up and move it elsewhere. Perhaps it will do better on the other side of the garden.”

Perhaps a change is necessary. Perhaps something new is needed…

Ending 4
Then the man answered the gardener, “No.  This tree will never produce any fruit. Cut it down.  But sell the timber to the carpenter.  There is still use in this tree even in its unfruitfulness.” 

Grace even in judgement? Perhaps.

Ending 5
Then the owner answered the gardener, “Do as you have said.” And the gardener lavished great care on the fig tree and, over the course of the next year it produced more fruit than any other tree in the garden.

It’s possible, the big Hollywood ending. Maybe it’s not entirely plausible, maybe it’s not the most realistic, but it is, I suppose, possible.

Ending 6
Then the owner answered the gardener, “Do as you have said.” And the gardener lavished great care on the fig tree and, over the course of the next year it began to produce fruit -not as much as the other trees, but still more than nothing and the owner was satisfied.

Ending 7
Then the man answered the gardener, “Do as you have said.”  And the gardener lavished great care on the fig tree for a year – watering it, fertilizing the ground, carefully pruning it, but shortly before the end of the year the tree was struck by lighting and burned to the ground. 

Hey – the future is uncertain. Open ended and uncertain. Disasters can and do happen, and we don’t know what time we have left.

There could be many more endings, different potential outcomes to this story. The parable is open ended, just like the future. It is up to us to think about this parable, to find its ending, to interpret its meaning and application. What will we do? What will we change? How will we live? How do we read this parable?


(this sermon was developed, from an earlier post of mine)





Crossan, John Dominic. The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. New York, NY: Harper One. 2012. Print






[i] “The Good Shepherd” and “The Vine” are sometimes described as parables, but they aren’t. Not really. They’re metaphors but they have no narrative. (Crossan 8)

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