How difficult could it be?
“You guys, we’ve got to do a quick run to the post office. This shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes max,” I told my three school-age kids. “This’ll give us a chance to take a quick peek at our new hometown. Grab your coats.”
Our family had relocated from Chicago to Waukesha, a small city near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just three days earlier. We jumped into our beat-up van, and I paused to study the city map and figure out where we were going. The post office, near the center of town, located in a spaghetti bowl of random, crazily plotted streets. The effect was as if someone had taken the scribblings of an angry toddler and decided that one of the crazed crayon drawings would make an ideal layout for a city. For a nervous moment, I wondered whether this trip would be quite as simple as I’d billed it, but then I reminded myself that I was a veteran Chicago driver, navigating the streets of that city like a cabbie. Finding my way around a burg like Waukesha would be a cinch.
A frustrating half hour later, 10-year-old Ben had taken on the role of tour guide. “Hey, Mom, didn’t we drive by this vet’s office twice already? And look, it’s the motorcycle place again. Those are cool dirt bikes. I want a dirt bike for my next birthday.” The other two kids chimed in with their own observations. “Can we stop at that Hardee’s and get some fries the next time we drive by it?”
I responded with the words said by lost drivers everywhere when they’re not quite ready to admit defeat: “I’m sure we’re almost there.” I muttered under my breath, “How difficult could this be?” as I swiped for the now-rumpled map again, hoping that when I looked at it this time, it would miraculously make sense. It hadn’t on any of our six previous circuits through the labyrinth of streets. It didn’t this time, either. Ready to admit defeat, I pulled into the parking lot next to the vet’s office to try to get my bearings.
Ben asked pointedly, “Are we lost?”
I told him, no, we weren’t exactly lost, but that, apparently, someone had misplaced the post office. I flagged down a passerby and asked him for directions. The man laughed wickedly and said, “Oh, you can’t get there from here.” He then launched into a series of directions so complicated that not even a civil engineer would understand them. I gamely asked clarifying questions. The man seemed to believe that I understood what to do next, and left me with these ominous words: “Yeah, Waukesha’s streets are crazy, but it was worse when these was all one way streets down here. It’s better since they turned most of ’em into two-way streets a coupla years ago.”
Better? I couldn’t imagine how these streets could have been even more confusing. I smiled weakly, thanked him for the help he thought he gave me, and dove back into the spaghetti bowl. Hot tears of frustration strayed down my face.
It had gotten really, really quiet in the back seat. I glanced in my rearview mirror and realized the kids were watching me with the kind of intense concern that told me that maybe this trip was about more than just mailing a package and buying some stamps. They needed to know that we’d all learn together how to navigate life in this strange new place.
I needed to know the same thing.
I bit my lip, forced my tears back inside of me, and smiled weakly. “Okay, we’re a little lost, and it’s more than a little frustrating. I know that there’s a basic law of physics that says that matter doesn’t disappear into thin air,” I told them. “It just changes form. Maybe the post office has turned into a pumpkin or birdhouse or something.”
It was a stupid joke, but it was enough to cut the tension, and two of them giggled. Minutes later, I stopped a lady outside the Hardee’s we’d managed to find for the seventh time. She dictated another set of unintelligible directions.
I admitted defeat and accidentally figured out how to get back to our new home. I never found the post office that day.
How difficult could it be?
Later, I learned I had driven past it at least two or three times. I was so disoriented from doing circuits around the tangle of streets that I’d lost sight of what I was searching for.
For a long time, I have felt like I’m reliving that frustrating trip round and round Waukesha when it comes to my life as a follower of Jesus. I’ve been a part of a variety of different Christian faith communities ranging from hardcore fundamentalist to freestyle charismatic to old school liturgical to pop evangelical. I’ve tried to use the helpful maps that various expert tour guides have handed to me with the promise of a less messy journey through life: sermons, books, small group bible studies, and lots of confident-sounding advice.
But I keep looping past the same scenery again and again … and again … like I’ve been belted into a slow-moving centrifuge. How did the colorful maps and helpful directiongivers become a substitute for following the one who promised to be my straight, narrow path, leading me home? Jesus could have given his followers a map showing the route from here to eternity that would have offered us a nice, neat shortcut straight through the complex tangle of life.
Instead, all he says is, “Follow me.”
At the height of his celebrity, Jesus had crowds tracking him like thundering herds of lost sheep. A pretty sizable percentage of the herd was there for the show: Theater of the supernatural included dramatic healings and deliverances, raw truth, and tangible, fiery love. The crowds cheered it all. If Jesus were going to pass out maps, this moment in the spotlight would have been the time.
Instead, Jesus told the crowds parables. Parables, by definition, are little bursts of story that paint a picture of an everyday object or situation in order to help the hearer create an analogy with something else, something deeper. The stories that Jesus told mapped the inside-out, upsidedown landscape of his kingdom.
The word “kingdom” conjures images of castles (like the kind they have at Disneyland) and jousting matches in Merrie Olde England. It helped me a lot to learn that most of us in modern times might better understand the kind of kingdom that Jesus was talking about if we thought about it as a revolution. Jesus was showing and telling the crowds about a kingdom-revolution that was nothing less than heaven invading earth, bringing radical transformation to everything it touched, from blind eyes to stone-cold hearts to entire communities.1
Jesus’s parables were completely familiar and completely subversive to his hearers. The people who flocked to hear him understood how exciting it would be to stumble across buried treasure, how frustrating it could be to wait for justice in the midst of corruption, and how their children behaved at the playground of the local marketplace. He told his stories with the quick, vivid verbal edits of a master film director.
Even though the parables used familiar images, Jesus’s hearers gained more questions than answers. What on earth was he really saying? Right there, smack dab in the middle of Israel’s occupation by a hostile Roman government, Jesus was inviting people to move into a kingdom that had nothing to do with geographical boundaries and the politics of might and wealth.
The closest he came to giving his hearers a map of this kingdom was sketching short, surprising word-pictures of the revolutionary life to which he was calling them. His hearers didn’t get it. Yet Jesus wasn’t being intentionally obscure or oppositional. He ached for each person in the crowd to truly see and hear.
Jesus’s closest friends pulled him aside at one point to ask him why he insisted on speaking in the secrets of story and mystery: Explain yourself, Jesus.
And so, he did:
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”
He replied, “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 he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. This is why I speak to them in parables:
“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:
“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’”
“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. For I tell you the truth, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
Jesus tells his secrets out loud, right there in broad daylight.
He quotes Isaiah, the prophet and friend of God who lived about 600 years prior to Jesus’s birth. God had called Isaiah to give the people of Israel the message that they needed to reject the do-it-yourself religion they had been practicing and turn back to him. God knew that most of his people wouldn’t respond to that message because their hearts had grown hard.
Isaiah’s message, like that of most of the other prophetic voices of the Old Testament, was proclaimed to people who were determined to follow their own carefully mapped routes away from God. His words formed a part of God’s promise that salvation from this grim cycle of failure was coming. This promise burned in the hearts of a small, ragged remnant of people who longed to follow God.
So Jesus tells his friends the secret: He is the culmination of the desire of generations of ragged remnants of Godfollowers. Jesus could hear the turning of their uncalloused hearts toward him as they listened deeply and obediently to his words.
That turning, Jesus says, brings healing. This healing was a hallmark of his revolution. The word for healing that Jesus used (iaomai) embraces more than the gift of physical healing. It captures the idea of salvation, of making someone free from sin.
Though Jesus spoke plainly to his disciples, he was telling his secrets in story form to everyone who was willing to turn toward him, hungry to hear. And it turns out that the ones who were best able to understand those secrets were blind and deaf and sick or sleazy or broken or desperate or simply tired of the stranglehold of the mapmakers and tour guides on how to live a life of faith.
So when I turned to him, weary and heartbroken, and told him that I was tired of driving the Indy 500 around the spaghetti bowl of the Christian world, Jesus pulled me close and started telling those stories of his. Those stories that had once been as familiar as old wallpaper have become as urgent and contemporary as graffiti.
His healing has arrived in the form of eyes and ears that are able (at last!) to hear and see his stories being written in the lives of a completely unorthodox assortment of people. Some of them have been faithful companions and friends. The irony wasn’t wasted on me that there wasn’t a single professional map vendor or tour guide among that collection of people. Healing is also coming to me as I’ve discovered the way that he tells his story in the lives of those who have acted as my foes. And there’s a mutt assortment of others who have dropped into my life when I’ve least expected it, in some pretty unusual ways, reminding me that God’s revolution has the power to invade and transform everything.
God wants to give you the same gift—the healing that comes in the form of eyes that can see and ears that can hear him telling his story to you, through his word, illustrated by the people he’s placed in your life. You will hear him telling you about a kingdom populated by blind, deaf, sick, sleazy, broken, desperate, tired people who are living the parable life, learning to follow Jesus, choice by choice.
People just like you and me.
There’s no map for how you “should” navigate ParableLife.
Every chapter tells its own story, so dive in anywhere. Each of this book’s ten remaining chapters offers five different ways you can experience some of the stories that Jesus told.
Each of these parables deals with the theme of what it means to choose to follow Jesus each step of your journey. These chapters are intended to help you hear, and see, and respond to the story as if you’re experiencing it for the first time:
Each chapter includes these sections:
Listen to the story Jesus told
Hear that story reloaded—a biblically faithful retelling of the same story from a different angle.
Watch the story being crafted in contemporary life in the section called ParableLife. Each of these stories is true, though in some cases names and minor details have been changed.
Recognize his story in your life in real time. This section of the chapter offers thoughts and ideas you can use to connect his story with your own.
Continue the conversation. Each chapter ends with a question you can use to spark discussion with others.
May each of us receive the gift of hearing eyes and seeing ears. May we turn, and follow him home.