By Donald Schell
I was folding laundry. My wife, international programs director of an NGO doing AIDS work in Africa, Ph.D. trained gerontologist, amateur actor, mother of three splendid grown children and stepmother to another splendid grown child, does her best to avoid using the dryer. We hang out our clothes year-round, which actually means that in San Francisco’s soggy November, December, and January and foggy July and August, we hang our clothes “in”; on a drying rack in the bedroom, one in her study and one in mine.
So, she was off at her work, and I was folding laundry before heading down to my office, and as I shook and hand-smoothed a pair of her black jeans, I found myself singing, “Love, your are love, better far than a metaphor can ever, every be.” It was a corny, enjoyable moment as I thought of her and remembered first hearing the musical “The Fantasticks” on the radio when I was 16 or 17. A lot of reading of philosophy and thinking about language lay ahead for me, and seminary too. I didn’t know Ellen then. Marrying her was a dozen years ahead of me. I also wouldn’t have imagined that I’d have some difficult experience and a failed marriage before between singing “You are love” and knowing she was the ‘who?’ I couldn’t yet answer. But the song stuck in my 16 year old brain because I wanted to know that face and because ‘better far than a metaphor’ spoke compellingly to me.
Better than a metaphor. I’m frustrated when my fellow theological liberals engage the literalist/fundamentalist dilemma with a blithe proclamation, “It’s all metaphor.” The things that matter most to me in life are themselves, real, immediate, compelling, and yet they point beyond themselves. Ellen isn’t a metaphor for love. She’s her own flesh and blood real self, the woman who decided we’d spare the environment a bit by hanging the wash on folding racks. That kid singing along with the radio knew that something called ‘love’ would have that kind of different meaning for knowing someone he didn’t yet know.
I imagine part of what prompted my recent singing moment with the laundry was the run of parables we heard this summer – the Sower (or the Miraculous Harvest), the enemy sowing darnel (or the wise farmer), and the mixed catch in the dragnet. Listening and talking with lay listeners before I preached on those readings and talking and listening with them after my sermons, I was intrigued at how hard we all found it to dislodge the allegorical tags the Gospel writers supplied for each of the parables.
Is the parable of the sower warning us about the cares of the world and exhorting us to be a particular kind of soil?
Is the parable of the darnel direction on how to deal with a diabolical spiritual enemy?
Are the undesirable fish caught in the net an allegorical warning of the perils of hell?
Several of the people I talked to around these three sermons were relieved to hear that many scholars tell us the allegories (red letters in such a Bible, officially “Jesus’ words”) were editorial insertions, probably the voice of early Christian preachers. They sensed that the hellfire threat skewed the parables. The logic of the allegory and the logic of the parable felt different. People felt relieved to hear how each of these parables begins with the storyteller’s trick of offering the soul-numbing familiars of hard work and bad luck in farming and fishing and then each takes the familiar to an unexpected place of abundance, grace, and ease. God is at work. As my youngest son says of so many things, “It’s all good.”
But whenever we talked about the parables, we kept falling into our own allegorizing. We did delight in these parables more-than-metaphorical (and vastly more than allegorical) vibrancy, and we wondered at what parts of our everyday lives and experience a storyteller like Jesus would seize hold of (“…a homeowner was building a new house and before the painters could come a gang member came with spray paint by night and tagged the garage door”).
But we found ourselves hooked again. We slipped back to thinking it was God sowing the seed or wondering that if the inedible fish didn’t go to hell, what happened to them?
What’s so compelling about this allegorical point-by-point Gnostic offering of the inexorable workings of the world?
First off, I think it’s that it’s amazingly difficult for us to even imagine ourselves into hearing these stories freshly. Two millennia and our many Sunday School and sermon iterations makes us know these parables cold, but that cools them. They were told hot, structured to surprise us and structured so the ending made us jump or nod a warm smile of unexpected recognition.
But additionally allegory lets us off the hook. That Ellen “is love better far than a metaphor” actually poses me some day-to-day choices that beginning with a more cosmic, abstracted or interpreted way of speaking of love would not. Because she IS love, I was folding laundry.
Jesus is challenging his hearers to feel their way into the pain and risk of seed-time, the anger and frustration of an anonymous hostile neighbor deliberately spoiling our best efforts to make something happen well, the back-breaking labor of hauling in a net full of fish knowing that there’s a bunch of fish in there that we’ll just be throwing back. Choices, the circumstances that make us resigned, bitter or cynical about life…and God at work in the mystery of seed growth, in our sowing, in our patience, and in a plentiful harvest of the sea.
What I find most life-giving in our church practice, things like singing, like the presence of Christ among us and in bread and wine, like offering one another God’s Peace, like sitting together in God’s silence, those things that are closest to my heart, what we’re doing in moments when we find God at work just won’t sit still to be reduced to metaphor. Neither heartless literalness and nor heady metaphor lives as they do. They’re better far than a metaphor could ever, ever be.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.