|Rembrant's iconic interpretation of the
Parable of the Prodigal Son
"Has anyone heard the story before, but just can’t tell it to us?"
"Does the phrase 'good Samaritan' mean anything to anyone?" Hands finally went up in the air, and they explained that this is how you describe helping someone out, being nice to someone in need, going out of your way. They even knew about "good Samaritan laws" that reduce the liability of those who stop to help strangers in need.
But none of them could describe the actual Parable of the Good Samaritan. I had a very similar experience with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The difference in our interaction with this other iconic parable was that they were able to piece together the details of the parable, but didn’t know that it had an official name like “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
That was ten years ago. Just last week I had yet another variation on that experience as I prepared our Middle Schoolers to spend a year learning about and exploring the parables of Jesus. We talked about the parables as stories that Jesus told to help illustrate theological concepts by connecting them to ordinary things - like Aesop’s Fables. One of our 6th graders said, “Oh, I know one of those…it’s the one about the grapes.” I expanded her example, telling Aesop's story of the fox and the grapes, which is the origin of the expression sour grapes. She corrected me and said, ”No, the story about the workers who worked different amounts of time during the day, but all got paid the same thing and were mad about it.” “Oh, you mean the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.” “Grapes…vineyard…I always mix those two up,” she said.
So below, in my ongoing series on the things that students should bring with them to Confirmation Class, are five iconic parables (though now I wonder if maybe I should have included the Laborers in the Vineyard) that we should not only tell to our children but also teach them to recognize as important pieces of the message of the Gospel. I will summarize each and then briefly explain how a prior familiarity with them can impact the conversations we have in class together.
46. The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37)Jesus tells this parable in Matthew, Mark and Luke in a response to a question about the law and eternal life. The law is summarized by saying that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus uses the parable to answer the follow-up question to that summary of the law, “But who is my neighbor?” The laws of loving both God and one’s neighbor are rooted in the Book of Leviticus and would have dictated the moral and ritual laws of the Jewish people. Jesus tells this story of a man who is attacked as he travels on a road. While lying hurt on the side of the road, not one but two men pass him by without helping: first a priest and then a Levite…both men who would have presumably understood the command to love one’s neighbor. It is only when a Samaritan comes across the injured man that he stops and helps him beyond reasonable expectations - the moral of the story being that it was the Samaritan, someone viewed as outside the Jewish community, who acted as the true neighbor.
In Confirmation class we can talk further about the laws of the Old Testament, about how the majority of Jesus’ teachings were about how Jews were to interpret the laws. How do we as Christians today still follow some of the laws in the book of Leviticus? We can talk about what it meant for the hero of the story to be a Samaritan. Who were the Samaritans in the ancient world, and why were they outcasts? Who are the “Samaritans” in our world today? We can also talk more about a theological understanding of the word neighbor. Is a neighbor just someone who lives near me and lives a life like I live, or is a neighbor anyone who might be in need? How do we as modern Christians love our neighbors?
47. The Lost Sheep and Coin (Luke 15:1-10)Jesus told these two very short parables to justify his association with some of the "less desirable" folks in the community, after hearing complaints that he spent too much time with sinners. The two stories are very similar: one of a shepherd who leaves behind his flock of 99 sheep to find the one that is lost, and the other of a woman who, having nine coins, searches her house relentlessly to find the lost tenth coin. Both the shepherd and the woman gather their friends and family together to celebrate the recovery of the lost item. Presumably, Jesus here is making the point that his work, and God’s work, is not just concerned with the found, but intentionally focuses on the lost. The only way to find the lost and bring them home is t0 seek them out.
In Confirmation class we can talk about God’s relentless pursuit of us, even when we have gone astray. We can remember that God is not locked inside the church waiting for us to find him there. Rather God actively looks for us, and for all sinners, when we are lost. This is also a great opportunity to talk about how parables can paint vivid pictures of who God is. Our language for God is limited to our human understanding. Parables like these can give us more varied images of God to help us better understand the nature of God. What are the qualities of a shepherd that make him like God? What does it mean to imagine God as a woman cleaning her home?
48. The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)This parable, also from the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, continues with this theme of being lost and being found. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son we hear the story of a man with two sons: one asks for his share of his inheritance early from his father and goes off and spends it frivolously; the other remains at home, faithful to his father’s household. The wayward son, upon returning home, is welcomed back with open arms and a celebration far beyond what he deserves. The faithful son becomes bitter and struggles to understand why his wayward brother has been rewarded despite such bad behavior, when he himself is the one who deserves a celebration.
With the help of this parable we can talk about how we understand the grace of God. We can talk about the foolishness of God’s love continuing to welcome home and embrace even those who have turned their backs on him. We can talk about how it feels to be that older brother who always does everything right and never feels appreciated. We can talk about how even 2,000 years ago people understood sibling rivalry and the complicated nature of human relationships. We can talk about how the father was always there waiting with arms open for the son to return, and we can connect this story to the lost sheep and the lost coin - God will go to great lengths to make sure we come home safe.
49. The Sower (Matthew 13:1-9)In this story from the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is teaching a crowd and is telling many things to them in parables. To explain the struggle to understand his teachings and why he speaks to them in parables, he tells yet another parable - that of a farmer who sows his fields in a somewhat haphazard way. In the process, seeds land in a variety of places, not all of them promising: on the edge of the field, on rocky ground, in the thorns, and then on good ground - the only place where the seed can take root, grow and flourish. Interestingly, this is one of the few parables for which the Gospels provide a detailed explanation of its meaning. The seed represents the Word. The different kinds of ground represent people's varying levels of willingness or ability to receive/hear his word.
A discussion about this parable can be twofold. First, we might talk about the obvious meaning of the parable. How do we as Christians prepare ourselves to be that good ground? Does that mean studying scripture faithfully, praying regularly, attending worship? What are some of the things that we do in our lives that keep us from having ears that can hear the word of God? But then there are some other things that this parable might allow us to talk about. Why does Jesus speak in parables so often? Why is it that sometimes the meaning of scripture seems to elude us? Why in the rest of this passage does Jesus so clearly state that there are some people who just will not and cannot understand what it is he is trying to teach them? Shouldn’t there be some way that he is able to break through and connect with all people?
50. The Mustard Seed (Matthew 13: 31-32)Finally, in the Parable of the Mustard Seed we have an example of the very, very short sayings that we call parables even though they do not take on the same narrative form as those I have discussed above. This particular parable is one of several that we call the Kingdom parables, in which Jesus uses object lessons to describe the nature of the Kingdom of God. It is so short that instead of summarizing it I can just go ahead and reproduce it here: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (New International Version)
This image of the smallest seed and the largest tree can provide a great opening to talk about what the Kingdom of God is. Is it like an earthly kingdom? What does it mean that it can start with the smallest seed? What might Jesus have meant the seed to represent - Him? Us? Scripture? Faith?
Jesus uses the image of the mustard seed one other time in the Gospel of Matthew. In a teaching about faith and how much one needs to have he again draws upon the tiny little mustard seed for an illustration. Even that small amount of faith will be enough to move a mountain. Four years ago at the end of one of my most “active” Confirmation classes, the students (and their parents) gave me a small charm on a necklace, a miniature vial containing a collection of mustard seeds. Ironically, though they are small, there are smaller seeds in the world. On the bottom of the vial they had engraved “planted 2009.” As we continue through this series of essentials for children and youth, it is not a stretch to consider each one a tiny little seed that we can plant within our children, which has the potential to grow into a life of faith.