Creatives know the struggle. How overt do you make your art? Do you feed people facts to change their minds, knowing the facts will drown in the data swamp? Do you inspire people with the seeds of what’s possible, knowing that most people won’t grasp your meaning?
There was a time I wished the Bible told it plainly. Just spell out what I must do instead of all that story and poetry. I was wrong, and Jesus knew it.
Jesus constantly went out on a limb, choosing the creative extreme. Not even his close friends understood his stories at times.
One day, they confronted him, “Why do you speak in parables?” Did you expect a straight answer? Here’s what he said:
Matthew 13:10-17 (my translation, compare ESV)
10 His followers approached and asked him, “Why are you speaking to them in parables?
11 He answered them, “To you has been given secret information on the kingdom of heaven, not released to the public. 12 The one who gets this will be given a great deal more; the one who doesn’t get it, will have it removed from them.
13 This is the reason I speak to them in parables: ‘Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear or understand.’
14 Fulfilled in them is what the prophet Isaiah described,
‘In hearing, you will hear and never understand,
and in seeing you will see and never perceive.
15 Obstructed was the heart of this people; they heard with blocked ears.
Their eyes they closed so there was no way they could see with their eyes and hear with the ears and understand with their heart and turn back and I would heal them.’ [Isaiah 6:9-10]
16 But your eyes are blessed so they see, and your ears so they hear. 17 Truly I tell you that many prophets and upright people yearned to see what you see and didn’t see it, and to hear what you hear and did not hear it.”
What was Jesus talking about? What was it that the crowds were seeing, but failed to see? What were the crowds hearing when they failed to hear it? What was it that Jesus disciples were seeing and hearing that the crowds were missing? What did the prophets and right-living people of the past yearn to see that the disciples could now see?
A strange sculpture sits on Elizabeth Quay in the heart of Perth. It’s a silver bird, standing in a canoe, its wings outstretched like sails. First Contact is the work of indigenous artist Laurel Nannup. When her people first saw the white man’s tall ships sailing up the Swan River, they had no frame of reference to understand what they were seeing. According to their story, they understood the ghostly sails to be the spirits of their ancestors returning from across the sea.
The people of Galilee saw a chap from Nazareth, but they did not see their king. They heard a story-teller, but they did not hear their commander-in-chief. They were unable to perceive what their senses told them.
They did have a frame of reference. Prophets had told them that a son of David would come to restore God’s reign, that God would give the kingdom to a son of man. But just as hard-hearted people did not listen to God’s messenger in Isaiah’s day, the people who held power resisted God’s anointed ruler (Christ) when he arrived. Already, they were conspiring to destroy him (12:14).
That’s why Jesus changes tack. Instead of continuing to confront those who called him Satan’s servant (12:24), Jesus turns to parables. He paints cameos of life under his kingship. He plants in their minds the seeds of his kingdom.
If you’re a creative, Jesus’ method will set you singing. C’mon, song writers, script writers, story tellers, photographers, artists, musicians, and movie directors! Can we help people see and hear their king? Cut loose! The sower lost three quarters of the seeds to gain the harvest.
In a world drenched in stories of violent retribution and post-apocalyptic barrenness, we acknowledge the horror of sin and the struggle to survive. But can we also plant seeds of hope and justice? Can we paint images of a kingdom, a community coming together under the one who became king by giving his life to lead us?
A sower went out to sow. And the creatives followed in his footsteps.
What others are saying
Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 1989), 45–46:
Words are the real work of the world — prayer words with God, parable words with men and women. The behind-the-scenes work of creativity by word and sacrament, by parable and prayer, subverts the seduced world. The pastor’s real work is what Ivan Illich calls “shadow work” — the work nobody gets paid for and few notice but that makes a world of salvation: meaning and value and purpose, a world of love and hope and faith — in short, the kingdom of God.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (London: SPCK, 1996), 176:
This … is how stories work. They invite listeners into a new world, and encourage them to make that world their own, to see their ordinary world from now on through this lens, within this grid. The struggle to understand a parable is the struggle for a new world to be born.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Parables Of The Kingdom, (Fleming H. Revell, 1907):
They had rejected the King at the commencement of His ministry, and without, the King they had no key to the mysteries of the Kingdom.
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Update 2022-05-05: Translation replaced paraphrase.