Parables of Miracles
Rev. Douglas Taylor
May 4, 2014
A mother asked her son what he learned in Sunday School. He said he learned about the time Moses led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt. “When they reached the Red Sea, they crossed over on a pontoon bridge,” the boy said, “and did not get their feet at all wet while God sent a fighter aircraft to stop the Egyptian soldiers and blow up the pontoon bridge when the Egyptians tried to cross it.” She was surprised and asked if that was really what he was taught. He said, “No, but if I told you what the teacher said, you wouldn’t believe me.”
It is an old story that Unitarian Universalists are people who left Christianity because they no longer believed the doctrines and beliefs of their childhoods. For many their departure from Christianity was a departure from a belief in a supernatural deity performing supernatural miracles. It is an old story that is no longer the dominant story of the generation. It holds true still for some, for perhaps a fair number – but it is not the only way we Unitarian Universalists approach Christianity today or, to my point this morning, the idea of miracles.
I grew up in a Humanist Unitarian Universalist congregation. The trajectory of your beliefs about miracles likely took a different path. But I was taught a message that the Bible was a humanly inspired collection of books that have valuable lessons as well as irrelevant material that no longer serves. I was taught that we live in a natural universe that has evolved according to natural laws; and the stories in the Bible of miracles are fanciful inaccuracies, part of the irrelevant portions of the Bible.
As a teen I was given a copy of Jefferson’ Bible, the cut-and-paste version of the New Testament that the third President of the United States had created for his personal devotions. I saw the ‘Loose-leaf Bible’ that my minister the Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert had created and adapted over the years as an ongoing examination along the lines of Jefferson’s Bible.
My education was still grounded in the basic premise of Sophia Lyon Fahs who said
[The Bible] as interpreted by Biblical Scholars is avowedly a combination of myth, legend, and historical record, mingled together without discrimination. All the records were made during a period when miracles were commonly believed to occur, and before man had conceived of the scientific concept of a law-abiding universe. (Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage, Fahs, 1952, p80)
When talking about specific accounts of miracles, of Moses parting the Red Sea, of Jesus waking on water or raising Lazarus from the dead, of the resurrection, Fahs says this:
Such an astonishing story could be believed by Christians during the second century after Jesus lived, but modern man, whose whole thinking about this universe is scientifically conditioned, cannot believe. (Ibid, 9 81)
So despite the evidence that countless Christians do, in fact, believe the miracles to be real, I was raised to believe that miracles are not real. To believe the miracles are not real is still a strong belief held by a number of Unitarian Universalists. This disbelief in miracles (that was handed to me) was hard-won by others. My upbringing, however, provided me a freedom to explore possibilities. So let us consider the different ways we see miracles as Unitarian Universalists today.
It was Albert Einstein who wrote: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” The basic outline of my Humanist upbringing is that nothing is a miracle. But there are others from within our history offering the opposite perspective.
‘Miracles have ceased.’ Have they indeed? When? (Asks Ralph Waldo Emerson,) They had not ceased this afternoon when I walked into the wood and got into bright, miraculous sunshine, in shelter from the roaring wind.
Another option that is widely held today is that the word ‘miracle’ has a natural meaning, one that is wider than the historically Biblical miracle. Like the Humanists, Emerson and other Transcendentalists in Unitarian history reject the Biblical miracles. But for Emerson, it was not that the Biblical version of a miracle said too much, but rather too little! In his Divinity School Address of 1838, Emerson said:
[Jesus] spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.
From The Divinity School Address by R.W. Emerson
Walt Whitman echoes this sentiment in his poem Song of Myself:
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles,
and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy
whatever I touch or am touch’d from
The Transcendentalists saw life itself as a miracle; and nature as an ongoing refulgent flow of miracle. Miracle, by the definition of the Transcendentalists, was not just another word for the majesty or awesome beauty of nature. It was wrapped up in virtue and all that calls us to our highest sense of self in harmony with nature.
Yet contrary to what Albert Einstein claims there are more than two ways to look at miracles. The perspective that they are exaggerations or literary troupes that never happened is one way. The perspective that miracles are ‘one with the blowing clover and falling rain’ is another way. I haven’t done a study or anything, but it seems as though these two perspectives are the two dominant perspectives on miracles among Unitarian Universalists today.
Here’s the thing for me, however. Neither of these perspectives takes the Biblical miracle stories seriously. I do not want to read the miracle stories in the Bible as mere fact or as supernatural proof of Jesus’ divinity. I do want to read them as deeply mythic stories that can help us understand life and ourselves better. I want to read the miracle stories as parables.
A parable is a lesson-story told in metaphor. Parables are told by Jesus throughout the gospel accounts. What if we saw the miracle stories as parables about Jesus or – as any good parable will be – about you and me. In his book Power of Parable, Jesus Seminar Fellow, John Dominic Crossan writes this about parables:
A parable is a metaphorical story and, as such, it tends to generate a special mode of participation by hearers or readers. It does not want you to get into its story, but to get out of it. The Sower parable does not want you to get into sowing and ponder agricultural data. It wants you to get out of sowing – but into what? Parables are traps for thought and lures for participation. You are seduced or even provoked into thinking like this: If sowing is not sowing, what is it?
J. D. Crossan, Power of Parable, 2012, p 244)
Last month I facilitated a discussion course using the book A Short History of Myth written by religious scholar and historian Karen Armstrong. In the book she explores the evolving nature of the myths through the different eras in the evolution of humanity. According to Armstrong, myths serve a purpose. A myth is not meant to provide factual information or eye-witness history. The purpose of a myth is to guide people in understanding problematic aspects of the human condition and the world we live in.
Since the eighteenth century, (Armstrong writes in the first chapter) we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened. But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant.
A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality. (p 7)
I have no preference as to if we talk about the miracle stories as myths or as parables, my goal is that we talk about them. The miracle stories are not found in Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-paste Bible. Because they are heard as historical facts, Jefferson and many others choose to discard them as unreasonable.
But we can look at these stories as parables, if you will, as metaphors or myths. Leaving aside the facts for another day, we can look to the stories and see what we can get out of them, what life-giving messages may be revealed.
Consider the miracle story of the few loaves and fishes – there are six occurrences throughout the four Gospel accounts, so it is clearly a significant story. A literalist interpretation says this actually happened; that if the video camera had been invented by then it could have captured the event exactly as written. A similarly literalist interpretation says it say it never happened and is only a meaningless fiction or at best irrelevant. A Transcendentalist might also say the story is irrelevant, but look instead at the extravagant way of nature’s abundance in the world. What I’m suggesting is a mythic or parabolic reading to see it as a story of God’s abundance and your abundance if you will step into the story and learn the lesson it contains for you.
Another memorable miracle story is of Jesus walking on the water, (Matt 14:25-27, Mark 6:48-51, and John 6:19-20,) but in one version (Matthew) Peter also steps out of the boat and walks on the water. This version casts a question in my mind at least about the meaning of this story. If walking on water is meant to be a sign of Jesus’ divinity, does Matthew’s Gospel suggest that Pater is also divine? Or might it suggest that the story is not really about walking on water. Perhaps it is a story about trust and our capacity to be more than we usually believe we can be.
In all four accounts of Jesus’ arrest, the story is told of one of his disciples drawing a sword and striking the ear off one of those come to take Jesus to trial. In Luke’s Gospel (22:51) Jesus is reported to have healed the wounded man. In the three other versions Jesus does not heal the injury. It seems as though the healing is not the primary point; the lesson is the point. Put away your sword. To truly follow the example of this non-violent prophet and healer, you too must be non-violent, compassionate, and just.
Personal meaning can be found; political meaning is in there too. Really, my point today is that we should not ignore or dismiss these powerful stories. And we need not subscribe to particular beliefs and creeds to hear these stories and benefit from them.
In Chapter 5 of Mark, Jesus meets up with the Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20). The man spends all his time in the tombs. No one can subdue him. They tried to chain him up with shackles, but he broke the chains to pieces. “Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones.” We can be trapped, at times, consumed in our fears or preoccupations, unable to see past our own calamity or turmoil. We dwell in despair, among the tombs of a half-life, unable to break free, unable to reign in the darkness and the anger. The Tombs can be a place of replenishment and solace as well as a place to hide or even grow numb – as the reading from this morning reminds us (SLT #628) But in no way is it a place to set up residence. The Tomb is no place to live.
Jesus says, “What is your name,” and the man answers, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” I can’t figure out who I really am because it feels like there are dozens of me inside me and not all of them are attractive. I can’t tell you who I am because I am not really sure myself. I am a bundle of conflicting emotions and desires vying for expression.
Whatever your interpretation of miracles or your understanding of God and power, this story offers witness to the difficulties we can experience in life, the doubt and despair, the fragmentation and alienation we can endure. It also witnesses release that can come when we surrender ourselves to life. In the story, Jesus saved this man, but in my own story the role of Jesus was played by different people at different times: a wise counselor, a 10th grade art teacher, my best friend, my spouse, a Methodist theology professor, the Spirit of Life, and even my own meandering journal entries.
“What is your name?” Why are you so restless? What is breaking your heart? Why do you linger here at the tombs? The questions Jesus asks can break us open, the questions the Spirit will ask when we are at the bottom, the questions and the support and the love can save us. I know this to be true. And I don’t mean “save” as in get into heaven, (I’m a Universalist – that part is covered,) I mean “save” as come back to life after living among the metaphorical tombs.
Do not take the story of the Gerasene Demoniac out of my Bible, I need that story. Leave me the ones about healing as well, I need all the clues I can find. Jonah swallowed by the great fish, Moses standing before a bush that burns but is not consumed, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and the parting of the Red Sea are all stories I need from the Hebrew Scriptures that would not pass as historically literal in our modern scientific and naturalistic understanding. The healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter and Jarius’s daughter and the unnamed woman Jesus called ‘daughter,’ are all miracle stories I need from the Gospels.
I read these miracle stories as parables with lessons about life and hope and love abundant. You may not see miracle stories this way. You may see my perspective as going too far or as still not going far enough. But that also is why I contend we need more stories not less. What stories do you have in your life that lift you or wash you or help you move forward? What are the myths that give you meaning and healing amidst the reality of facts and events of life? May we each find ways to encourage the uncovering of truth and light in each other’s lives. May we discover anew the life-giving messages contained in old stories.
In a world without end
May it be so.