June 12, 2022 Parables & Other Precious Stories by Mac Watts

Genesis 2: Selected Verses

Revelation 22: 1 – 5

            Let us pray that our good and kind God will use my words in this time to convey His gracious Word to us.

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, and beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead….”  “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living….”  “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual wage he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle, and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard’….”

What I have just recited are the first sentences of three of the couple dozen stories by Jesus found in the Gospels, which have been such a rich treasure for the Church over the years. And the first two, about the Good Samaritan and about the Prodigal Son, have left an indelible imprint on our language. References to somebody being a “Good Samaritan” or being a “Prodigal Son” run off peoples’ tongues everywhere. The Bible wouldn’t be the Bible without Jesus’ various parables. But they are stories that Jesus made up. No archaeological search of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho would turn up the remains of the inn to which the Samaritan took the injured man, because there was no such inn. The story is Jesus’ invention from start to finish.

We don’t apologize for taking seriously those made-up stories; on the contrary, we rejoice in them. That being the case, is it possible that there are other stories in the Bible, invented by the authors, that instead of being embarrassed about we can rejoice in? Yes, there are. We can’t consider all of them, naturally, but let’s look first at the book of Jonah, as one example. In that book we hear God telling Jonah he wants him to go to Ninevah and preach repentance. Go to Ninevah? Ninevah was the city of the great enemy who had inflicted so much harm on Israel. Jonah doesn’t want to go anywhere near Ninevah. So he hastens to the port town of Joppa, and jumps on a ship there, hoping he can get away from God’s assignment. But getting away from God is not easy. God whips up a storm, which is threatening the lives of everybody on board. Jonah admits to the crew that he’s the problem, so they toss him into the sea. There he is quickly swallowed up by a great fish. After three days the fish regurgitates him, and God’s voice comes again, “Like I was saying Jonah, go to Ninevah and preach repentance.” And Jonah says, “Alright, alright, alright, I’m going already”. And he goes. Now, even if we don’t call this book —  so full of delightful humour — even if we don’t call this book a parable we can, nevertheless, compare it to Jesus’ parables. It’s a story that was made up many years after Ninevah was the problem for Israel —  made up to illustrate for the Jewish people that God cares also for those outside the Jewish community, even places like Ninevah. We shouldn’t spend our time in embarrassment trying to explain how Jonah could survive for three days in the belly of a fish, but rejoice in it as an inspired, made-up, funny story, just as we rejoice in Jesus’ parables.

So let’s go to the early part of the Book of Genesis for another example. There we find the story of the Flood. Every once in awhile there is a news item in the paper about the possible discovery of the remains of Noah’s ark. I hope none of you is stirred up by such“discoveries”. The remains of Noah’s ark don’t exist, because like the parables it’s a story that was made up. Or more likely it was a story that evolved over an extended period of time. It could well have risen out of communal memory of an actual dangerous flood, and of communal memory of an actual person named Noah, that got crafted over time in order to illustrate a point about God’s relationship to the human race, a race filled with people who go their own way and ignore God’s way. We shouldn’t in embarrassment struggle to explain how the ark could accommodate hundreds of animals for several weeks, but rejoice in it as an inspired made up story, in which truth is conveyed to us about our destiny in relation to God. For God was using those —  inspiring those —  who put such stories together, to convey His Holy Word to us.

So let’s turn now to the creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. I say stories, rather than story, since there are two distinct narratives. In the first chapter there is the glorious presentation of how in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. We hear God saying in that story “Let there be light” and there was light; we hear Him saying “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” and it was so; we hear Him saying “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night…” and it was so; we hear Him saying  “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind…” and it was so. And it refers at each point to the passing of time, evening and morning, one day, and then another day, and then another. And finally it says “and God saw everything he had made and indeed it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.” And then on the 7th day God rested from all that he had done. What we have in this wonderful passage is not history, but inspired testimony. It is testimony that arose within the community that celebrated Passover; testimony that arose within the community that observed the Sabbath Day. It is a God-inspired testimony, which is asserting that the God who brought the people of Israel out of Egypt is the One who created the heavens and the earth. He created them through His mighty Word, and what He created was very good.

But is the narrative demanding that we believe God fashioned the universe in six 24-hour days? This question has been debated in the Christian community for centuries, and is still a big deal for a lot of Christians. But the main debate has not been between those, on the one hand, who dismiss the story and those, on the other, who take it literally. No. Over the centuries there have been Jewish and Christian interpreters who studied the text with great respect, looking within it for clues about how we might understand it. Those Jewish and Christian interpreters knew, naturally, that our 24-hour day is dependent upon our relationship to the sun. And not surprisingly whoever was the source of the inspired original story knew that perfectly well too.

That’s entirely evident when we hear in the story that God creates lights in the dome of sky — that is the sun and the moon — “to separate the day from the night…” But in the narrative God creates light on the first day while the sun and moon aren’t created until the fourth day (Gen. 1: 14-19)! So it’s plain that the author, or authors, have something larger in mind than 24-hour days. It is the rhythm of seven in God’s time undergirding the rhythm of seven in our time, and thus Sabbath observance is one of the central concerns for the authors of the story. Naturally the authors had no inkling of the several billion-year geological history of the planet. And they didn’t know that the earth moves around the sun rather than the sun round the earth. Nevertheless, what we have in the Genesis narrative is not naive primitive science that we are locked in to, but rather inspired testimony that all things have been created by the good God who brought His people out of Egypt and gave to them the blessed commandments, which include the call to observe the Sabbath Day.

Let’s move on, then, to the second creation story. It has a very different atmosphere. The first story is formal, almost austere. God is high and lifted up. By contrast in the second narrative the Lord God is portrayed as walking around the garden at the time of the evening breeze! It is a much more relaxed story, as we can see by the casual way it starts. Which is like this: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet on the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground — then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” That’s the first, long, rambling sentence of the second creation story, so unlike the controlled, spare, language we find in the first. And whereas in the first story we have reference to a process of seven days here it refers to something happening on one day! And in the first narrative human beings are created male and female from the beginning (Gen. 1: 27), while in the second the author has the Lord God fashioning a male human first and then a female partner is made by Him out of the male’s body (Gen. 2:21,22).

And so in the second story we have the narrative of Adam and Eve. Once again, in spite of the fact that it is supposedly providing a profile of the first parents of the whole human race, the story arises out of one tiny sliver of the human race, the people of Israel. It is an amazing God-inspired tale to illumine for us the human condition in relation to the Lord God. And even though it’s not history, it’s not a story we need to apologize for, but rather rejoice in, because it conveys essential portraits which are found nowhere else. Suppose the book of Proverbs were to be taken out of the Bible, it would still be the Bible. Suppose the two books of Chronicles were to be taken out of the Bible, it would still be the Bible. But if the story of Adam and Eve was removed from the Bible something essential would be lost. Adam and Eve may be fictional but they are the essential archetypes for the exposition of both Jewish faith and Christian faith. Thus St. Paul in his letters speaks of how in Adam we all die but in Christ all are made alive. That which was lost in Adam is restored in Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:12-21; I Cor 15: 21 – 23)Then Christian writers in the second century began to do with Eve what Paul did with Adam. They contrast Eve’s disobedience with Mary’s obedience. And what Paul says makes a vital theological point, even though Adam is an imaginary human construct while Jesus was a real historical figure. And what the 2nd century writers say makes a vital theological point, even though Eve was an imaginary human construct while Mary was a real historical figure. So because the Adam and Eve narrative is not history, but a story, when we ask questions about where Cain and Able got their wives we are forgetting the kind of narrative we have here and looking away from the point, or points, it is intended to convey.

If a journalist were present this morning, they might run off to file a story, and tomorrow there would be a headline: “Minister Says Adam & Eve Story Not True!” But that assumes what is true applies only to what is called “history”. But I believe the story of Adam and Eve to be true. It’s not history in the ordinary sense but it’s entirely true, in that it conveys essential truth about the human condition through the means of story. God’s Holy Word comes to us through it.

And think of the wonderful images that are provided in the narrative about what is to be found in the Garden of Eden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The second tree is pivotal in the original narrative; God explains that if the fruit from that tree is eaten there will be fatal consequences. But Eve is persuaded by the Tempter that God’s warning related to the tree is not to be taken seriously; rather there will be huge benefits to her from eating of its fruit. The grim results from her decision, and of Adam going along with it, are spelled out in the narrative, as we all know. In the end they are expelled from the Garden, and thus kept away from access to the tree of life. And those images from the beginning of the first book of the Bible turn up in the final pages of the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. Listen again to how it goes: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations….” (Rev. 22:1,2) In the Genesis story it is suggested that the tree of life might allow Adam and Eve to live forever (Gen. 3:22). But here in Revelation the tree of life is for healing.

Yes, it is for healing of the sickness in the human race left by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, healing for the sickness left by the disobedience of the millions of successors of Adam and Eve.  So when in a couple of his sermons recorded in the Book of Acts St. Peter refers to Jesus as being put to death by hanging Him on a tree (Acts 5:30; 10:39) we are drawn into the whole stance within the New Testament where the tree of death becomes the tree of life. It is the Cross that provides for the healing of the nations. But that’s the subject for another sermon, isn’t it? Amen. Thanks be to God!