Putting the Math in Matthew

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 96; 147:1-11, Ezra 6:1-22, Revelation 5:1-10, Matthew 13:10-17


In mathematics, a parabola is a type of symmetrical curve which can be described by an equation. The parabola has many real world applications, such as headlights, satellite dishes, artillery, and telescopes. Because of its symmetry and focal point, a parabola can both focus and amplify signals and energy.

In Matthew, Jesus tells many parables to communicate important lessons to his disciples. He commonly responds questions not with clear answers, but with stories. Unlike the straight line between a question and an answer, a parable throws us a spiritual curveball which offers more than a pat answer.

Not surprisingly, parable and parabola share a common source in the Greek word parabolḗ, meaning application or comparison.

When the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables, he quotes Isaiah: “You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive” and so on. By including this reference, Matthew makes a case for Jesus fulfilling the prophecies foretelling the messiah. But speaking in parables simply to fulfill a prophecy seems pointlessly circular, and Jesus does not do things without a reason. The parables themselves provide unique value to his ministry.

A parable like the Good Samaritan – which was told in answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” – didn’t lay out hard and fast rules. The last thing the people needed was more legalism; they already struggled to live in the spirit of the law of Moses while abusing its technicalities. Parables forced them to spend some time in thought about how to live and why. When we’ve found our own path to an answer, we own it rather than treat it indifferently or resentfully.

We can be quick to identify with a particular character in a parable – usually the one who comes off best – but we gain a much greater understanding if we consider how we might be present in each of the characters. At different points in our lives we can be the prodigal son, the welcoming father, or the jealous brother. We can be the vineyard owner distributing wages, the resentful morning laborer, or the appreciative latecomer. Jesus doesn’t usually tell you which one you are – or even which one you’re supposed to be – so we are given the opportunity to explore multiple perspectives.

A parable, like a parabola, both focuses and amplifies a message. And like the infinite lines extending from each end of the parable, there is no end to how often we can revisit a parable for new insight.

Comfort: Complexity can be a good thing.

Challenge: Don’t be too quick to apply a one-size-fits-all worldview.

Prayer: Bless the Lord, oh my soul. Bless the Lord. Amen.

Discussion: When it comes to spiritual questions, do you prefer a straight-up answer or an invitation to explore?

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