A Ridiculous Parable

Reflection Offered on Good Friday, April 2, 2010   
For an audio file of this sermon, click here.
St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)

Today we are invited to enter the most pain-filled aspect of the Christian story, the darkest moment of our life together in Christ - a day that calls us to remember Jesus’ final march through Jerusalem, a death march to the cross. In some respects, a Good Friday sermon is like a eulogy – a meager attempt to sum up a person’s life in a few short words, hoping to capture the highlights, to conjure up memories in the minds of others – memories that will cause tears or perhaps a few nervous laughs as a funny moment in one’s life together is recounted. An attempt to do justice in words to a life that has already spoken for itself. Who among us is up for such a task? Certainly none of us. And yet, here we are on the anniversary of the death of our Lord. Waiting and hoping. Waiting and hoping for words that will do what? Comfort? Heal? Embrace? In the end, they will be just words.

In life, Jesus was a teller of parables. He used these stories to help his listeners understand his ministry, to understand the in-breaking of God’s reign, to shift the mental images and preconceived notions about what messiah-ship was all about. In a recent article in The Christian Century, Kay Lynn Northcutt describes a parable as a story that “throws something beside something else – unexpectedly.” She goes on to say a parable is “like a belly flop into a lake” leaving the listener “feeling emotionally and theologically stinging, breathless, disoriented.” She uses, as an example Jesus referring to the kingdom of God being like a woman. Like a woman? Really? “Women are property. Women are chattel. Women are impure. The kingdom of God is like a woman? Impossible. Ridiculous. Insulting.”(1)

As I considered Northcutt’s description, two other parables came to mind. The first, the story of the Samaritan traveler who came to the aid of the man on the road to Jericho. A Samaritan? Really? Not the priest who saw him first? Not the devote Levite who came along next? A Samaritan? Really. Or the story of the mustard seed? That tiny seed? That’s what the Kingdom of God is like? Are you kidding? That’s ridiculous. What about the planned take over of the Roman Empire? What about fighting for freedom from the imperial reign? A mustard seed thrown into a garden. Really? That’s what God’s Kingdom is like?

Parables bring together things that are unimaginable even ridiculous. Jesus life and death are themselves a ridiculous parable. Ridiculous because it didn’t need to end this way. Death on a cross – that ancient instrument of torture – is a ridiculous end for any one. Made even more ridiculous when that one is our God. What can it mean that our all powerful and all knowing God chose death on a cross? A ridiculous death.

John Sutton of St. Anselm’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette, California shares his reflection, “If Only”

“If only Jesus had gone down the mountain after the transfiguration and headed back to Galilee.

If only he had been more discreet in his Sabbath healings.

If only his responses to the Pharisees had not been so biting and clever.

If only he had not been so indignant with the moneychangers in the temple.

If only Judas had understood the nature of his kingdom.

If only a rabbi sympathetic to Jesus had the ear of Caiaphas.

If only Pilate had seen freeing Jesus as a way to assert his authority over the Sanhedrin.

If only he had not been scourged and mocked and suffered so horribly.

If only the fabric of events that led Jesus inexorably to die on the cross had not been so perfectly woven.” (2)
John’s gospel makes it infinitely clear that Jesus’ life and death are completely orchestrated by Jesus. There seems to be no time in which Jesus is not in control. When the soldiers arrive in the garden, looking for Jesus, there is no need for Judas to betray him with a kiss; instead, Jesus comes forward and asks the soldiers, “Whom are you looking for?” When they respond, “Jesus of Nazareth,” Jesus replies, “I am he.” When Peter is ready to fight, Jesus tells him to put his sword down and adds, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Jesus’ conversation with Pilate includes those memorable words, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth?” At every turn, Jesus is in control. In John’s account, Jesus carries the cross by himself and he does not stumble. He carries the cross to The Place of the Skull – to Golgotha – and there he is crucified. And even here, on the cross, he is in control. His final words, “It is finished.”

Nelson Mandela once said, “It always seems impossible until it's done." That, to me, is the essence of a parable and the essence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is finished. And the love of God for us, God’s children, is completed by the death of his only Son on a cross.

(1) KayLynn Northcutt, “Lessons in Dying: Lent’s Terrible Gift,” The Christian Century (March 9, 2010), pp. 12-13.
(2) John D. Sutton, “If Only,” in Synthesis, April 2, 2010 (Good Friday – Year C)