The following is a talk I gave in my ward on June 10, 2018 Introduction I’m grateful to speak t...
(the following is a talk I gave in my ward July 25, 2021)
The topic I was invited to speak on is Ministering as the Savior did. This is a great topic to think about. But it came with a curve ball when I was asked to focus my remarks on a specific scripture. When I think about the way Jesus ministered, my mind goes straight to his works and miracles: healing the sick, forgiving the adulterous woman, ministering to the marginalized in society, etc. But the scripture I was pointed to focused on a different aspect of Jesus’ life. Matthew 13:10-12 reads:
10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
11 He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
12 For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
Originally the bishopric were thinking of having me speak the week after Irene spoke. But our vacation gave me extended time to think about this. What did these parables mean to Jesus? What might they have meant to His disciples? And what do Jesus’ parables have to do with our ministering today?
Lowell L. Bennion, who founded the Institute of Religion next to UofU, wrote a book titled “Legacies of Jesus”. It’s a short book you can get from Deseret Book and could read in an afternoon. In his chapter titled “Jesus’ Art of Teaching” he gives an insightful description of Jesus’ parables:
As a teacher, Jesus is most famous for the parables he created. Parables are stories taken from life, crafted by Jesus’ imagination and insights, that illustrate gospel principles… Parables have been described as earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They are a particularly good form for the purpose that seemed to dominate Jesus’ teaching—to transmit principles rather than rules or mere information. Life is dynamic; conditions change in almost infinite variety. Rules become outmoded; principles do not.
Two phrases from that stick out to me and make me think about the question Jesus’ disciples asked him in the scripture I was pointed at:
- “Parables have been described as earthly stories with heavenly meanings”
- [The purpose of Jesus’ teaching was] “to transmit principles rather than rules or mere information” since “rules become outmoded; principles do not.”
While the rules, policies, or programs structuring our ministering in the church have changed more recently (from the previous home or visit teaching programs), the principle remains the same: to serve each other with love in the mundane, earthly things while pointing each other to heavenly things. And I think that we can learn how to minister more like Jesus did by studying his parables. In this way, parables are a way of sanctifying the mundane parts of life and turning them into symbols that point us to God and one another.
Since my time is limited I’ll only be able to speak briefly about two or three parables.
Several of Jesus’ parables talk about what kind of Kingdom God is creating. These parables often talk about the “mystery” of God’s Kingdom. Just before his disciples asked him why he taught using parables he gave them the parable of the Sower. Luke chapter 8 gives the shortest version so we’ll read that one:
4 And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable:
5 A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.
6 And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.
7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it.
8 And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus gives a basic interpretation of that parable:
- The seed is the word of God
- The soil is the hearts of those who hear it
- Fowls are things which pluck the word of God out of people’s hearts
- Rocks are temptations which prevent the word of God from taking any root in people’s hearts
- Thorns are other things which can occupy our hearts and prevent the word of God from taking root
This parable is useful to think about our own personal responsibility to receive the word of God. Another way of approaching this parable can shed light on how we minister in our ward. What if we thought of the soil not just as individual’s hearts, but the heart and soul of our ward? What might cause the soil of our ward to be too hard for the word of God to take root in people’s lives? How might the word of God be plucked up from this soil? And what things might be acting as thorns, choking the seedlings of hope in our ward? Am I doing things to turn this soil softening it and mixing nutrients into it? Am I choking the seeds of the gospel growing in others?
In our callings, our classes, firesides, activities, and hallway ministries we are all in this soil together and our actions can have significant consequences. In my half a lifetime in the church, I’ve seen people’s lives miraculously transformed for the better in the soils of wards. I’ve also seen the fledgling roots of hope plucked up by well-meaning but ultimately injurious actions. One of the greatest harms any of us can do in a ward is to make someone feel unloved or unwelcome - which plucks up or chokes the word of God. And conversely, one of the greatest works any of us can do in our ward is to help people feel loved and welcome - giving nutrients and air to the soil in our ward. What kind of soil can we create together in this ward in how we minister?
There are so many parts of ministering in our ward that are mundane: meetings, planning, baking, moving boxes, those iconic metal folding chairs, building cleaning rotations, donations, pretty much everything clerks or secretaries are responsible for, and more. But these too are part of this gospel soil. And the way in which we do these things can make the difference between their remaining mundane or being sanctified to grow the gospel seed in our ward.
Doctrine and Covenants 81:5 helps give us vision here in what our focus should be in our callings:
Wherefore, be faithful; stand in the office which I have appointed unto you; succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.
The Prodigal Son
Several more of Jesus’ parables deal with loss and and redemption. One of these is the parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s a longer parable so I won’t be able to read it but instead just summarize it - from Luke chapter 15:
A man has two sons, one who obeys his words and the other who disowns the family asking for his inheritance.
The father does so and the prodigal son leaves, subsequently wasting that inheritance on “riotous living”.
The prodigal son hits rock bottom, then decides to return convincing himself he’ll just be one of his father’s servants.
The father sees him coming, runs, welcomes him, and throws a party celebrating his return as his son.
The other brother finds out, apparently he didn’t get the invitation in time, and becomes jealous.
The father reassures him that his brother’s forgiveness does not undermine their relationship and that he should find joy in his brother’s return.
There are so many lessons from this parable - again, that’s part of the beauty of parables. Falling out, pain, loss, self-worth, forgiveness, the economy of grace, jealousy, self-righteousness, etc. While working in soil bears fruit, it is also messy and sometimes pungent work. People and wards have sharp edges, roots to trip over, and stubborn rocks that sit in this soil. I’ve found that the fruit of the gospel grows best in wards with mound and mounds of grace turned into the soil. While this parable shows a single event with resolution, many of us have experienced how reconciliation is an ongoing process. I recently ran across this poem by Allison Funk titled the ‘Prodigal’s Mother Speaks to God’. In it, she imagines a possible future for this family where reconciliation in their family ministry is still a work in progress:
When he returned a second time,
the straps of his sandals broken,
his robe stained with wine,
it was not as easy to forgive.
By then his father
was long gone himself,
leaving me with my other son, the sullen one
whose anger is the instrument he tunes
from good morning on.
There’s no room for a man
in the womb.
But when I saw my youngest coming from far off,
so small he seemed, a kid
unsteady on its legs.
what will you do? I thought,
remembering when he learned to walk.
Shape shifter! It’s like looking through water—
the heat bends, it blurs everything: brush, precipice.
A shambles between us.
This poem doesn’t have an ending that resolves like Jesus’ parable, but I think that is exactly the point: it conveys the longing for resolution and the struggle for it in the middle of the process. In the messy work of ministering to and with one another, Jesus’ parable here places grace and forgiveness at the top of the list of things we will need. In what ways can those we minister to (assigned or not) need to receive our forgiveness or our asking for forgiveness?
The Good Samaritan
One of my favorite parables of Jesus is the parable of the Good Samaritan. One of the reasons I like it so much is because of how deliberately provocative Jesus was being with this parable. If Jesus could have chosen any protagonist that will run counter to His culture’s norms, I don’t think he could have been much more provocative than choosing a Samaritan. In John 4:9 the Samaritan woman at the well, surprised Jesus was talking to her, stated plainly, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” Before I read the parable, I wanted to give some background into the intense tensions between Jews and Samaritans at the time:
- The separation of Samaritans and Jews went back more than 700 years before the time of Christ. These tensions and differences were very much woven into the fabric of each other’s race, culture, religion, and even their genes. The conflict can even be attributed back further to the sons of Israel.
- The Jews and Samaritans make contending and contentious claims of ancestry, priesthood authority, scripture, land rights, nationality, and temple worship.
- Less than 200 years before Christ, probably still very fresh in the minds of the Jews and Samaritans, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was seeking to establish a universal religion with the penalty for resistance being death. Facing almost certain genocide, the Samaritans aligned themselves with Antiochus which required cutting religious and cultural ties with the Jews in the south. Naturally feeling betrayed, the ancient Jews viewed the Samaritans as traitors, heathens, and heretics.
- About 100 years before Christ, the Jewish ruler John Hyrcanus waged war on Samaria, eventually conquered, destroyed their temple, and redirected their religious offerings and priesthood to Jerusalem.
So, for Jesus to ask his audiences to see a Samaritan as the protagonist in this parable (even over their Levite and Priestly religious authorities) was asking people to rethink their ideas of priesthood, national identity, and religious claims. In our ministering, do we place those things ahead of the principle of love? Or do we put love ahead of our religious, national, or political preferences or assumptions?
Here is the parable from Luke chapter 10:
30 A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
32 And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
33 But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
34 And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35 And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
36 Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?
37 And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.
How can we “do [so] likewise” in our ministering? One of the great blessings and challenges of a ward is it tosses all sorts of people together (at least within a certain geography). We have progressives and conservatives, introverts and extroverts, those who see the gospel more literally and those who see it more symbolically, soldiers and pacifists, different races and nationalities, gay and straight, different genders, the old who just don’t “get it” and the young who just don’t “get it”, and (close to my heart) those who think Miracle Whip is manna from heaven and those who think it is of the devil.
Is our ministering big enough and courageous enough to cross these divides? Or is our love and ministering limited only to “them which love you” which Jesus warned against in his sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:46)? Do we see the “Samaritans” in our life the way Jesus does? Or do we see them through these lines of division - choosing to walk on the other side of the road? I think one of the greatest strengths our ministering can have is when it sees the gospel as bigger than than these divides - bigger than politics, bigger than personalities, bigger than racial or national identities, bigger than gender, and bigger than generations - and willing to cross the road as Jesus describes here.
These are just a few of the parables Jesus taught. When I look at these and other parables I’m struck with how multi-layered, multi-faceted, and multi-dimensional these are. Jesus took the mundane and even strained parts of everyday life and showed how we could point to Heaven in them. This is sanctifying work. And in the various ways we minister we can learn from these parables, take the mundane or strained parts in our lives and relationships, and see how we can sanctify those with principles that point to Heaven.