“He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”
I want a manual for spiritual growth. I love clear rules. I crave acronyms for prayer and how-to guides for the spiritual disciplines. Sometimes I fear that what I yearn for is a God with the predictability of a bureaucrat. Approaching that God is easy: set a reminder, read a good number of verses, pray for X minutes. More importantly, this is safe. A God who gets a small carve-out of my agenda can’t go about upending my life.
Jesus is having none of this. He did not come bearing good news of a step-by-step guide for knowing God. Instead, He brought parables—runaway sons and mugging victims, coins and fig trees, rich fools and debtors. And seeds. Lots of seeds.
The parables sift us out. Anyone who came to Jesus looking for easy explanations was set for disappointment. Consider the rich young ruler, who came touting his compliance with the commandments but left painfully aware that none of this had brought him close to the Lord of those commandments. He had replaced relationship with rote obedience. On the other hand, those who came willing to press on through the parables, to search for the deeper meaning, got so much more. “Privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” Learning the ways of the kingdom of heaven means sitting at God’s feet, engaging with Him and His word, letting Him explain everything. Jesus—God, the Lord of all creation—wants a relationship with us. And that means He lets us—makes us—pursue Him.
The point, I think, is that it’s easy to get Jesus backwards. We focus on the things that flow from a close relationship as if they are the way of establishing that relationship. Communication and time together of course matter, but a relationship goes nowhere if those characteristics of closeness are instead just mechanical obligations.
The good news is that God offers us the way out of mere relational maintenance: Himself. As Jared Wilson observes in The Imperfect Disciple, “the Spirit who empowers our conversion will empower our discipleship.” This doesn’t mean our efforts are unnecessary, but it does put those efforts in their proper place: “We are not holy because we work. We work because we are holy.” So, when it feels like we’re just going through the motions, we can remind ourselves that the very Spirit of God is nevertheless at work in us, drawing us near even when we perceive ourselves coming up short.
To be sure, there is nothing safe about pursuing the Lord of the universe. But there is everything to be gained. Relationship with God is not ascending levels of spiritual attainment; it is the seed that “sprouts and grows; [we] know not how.” And what once was a tiny seed grows into an absolute force: the kingdom of God, the lamp that shines on a stand. Praise to our God of parables.
Bill Coglianese is an attorney who (sadly) really does love clear rules. He lives in Takoma Park with his wife Nicole (a nutritionist working in international development), daughter Evelyn (a beautiful and robust 7-month-old), and Stamos (a dog, not the 90s heart-throb).