The great Disciples of Christ preacher Fred Craddock entitled one of his books Overhearing the Gospel. His point is that some truths are easier to overhear than to hear. We are likely to reject some ideas if they come at us directly, but if they come at us sideways or from the edge of our consciousness, they might just slip past our defenses and plant themselves deep within our conscious or subconscious like a farmer’s seed landing on good and fertile earth. That seems to be what Jesus was doing in his parables. “Who is my neighbor?” asked the scribe. Jesus could have said, “You know perfectly well who your neighbor is; it’s any person in need whose path you cross” but instead he told a story, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves…” And I feel sure that the scribe never again asked who his neighbor was.
Parables are not unique to the Christian faith. Probably every great religious teacher has employed parables for communicating ideas that cannot be expressed directly. The Old Testament and the rabbis of Jesus’ day often told parables, but the other religious teacher I most associate with parables was the Buddha. There are many wonderful parables that are attributed to the Buddha but my favorite parable is one that, like today’s gospel reading, also uses a mustard seed to teach a lesson.
One day a grieving woman named Kisa Gotami went to see the Buddha. “Master,” she cried, “My only son has died. I know you have the power to bring him to life again.” The Buddha looked on the woman with compassion. “I will cure your son if you bring me a mustard seed from a house where no one has died.” So the woman went from house to house to house, inquiring if anyone had died there. Finally, at the end of the day Kisa realized that death is common to us all and that salvation is to be found not in avoiding suffering but in opening our heart to the suffering of others.
For Jesus the mustard seed is an illustration, but for the Buddha it is a device, an excuse to get the grieving mother to move toward enlightenment. However, the Buddhist story provides an opportunity to connect the gospel with Romans 8. (And by the way, if you're using the Episcopal eucharistic lectionary, please write the Standing Liturgical Commission and tell them that a break between Romans 8.34 and 35 practically eviscerates what is arguably the most important chapter in the New Testament.)
The Buddha's answer (or non-answer) to Kisa Gotami is full of wisdom and we would do well to learn what he had to teach, namely, that when grief closes our hearts to others, it also closes our hearts to healing. But Paul's answer to Kisa Gotami is much more satisfying to me. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."