By the Bedside
By JIM NICHOLS
One of the most well-known pieces of the Bible is the set of parables of Jesus. Concentrated in certain areas of scripture but also sprinkled at random elsewhere, they contain lessons that are both profound and precise. That is not to say they are necessarily easy to understand.
We generally suggest that they are stories using a simple illustration to make a deeper lesson. In contrast to a proverb or metaphor centered on a phrase or word, a parable is broader. It often includes a whole story with multiple people, places, and actions. Sometimes there is a clear message or punchline, but more often (I believe) the Holy Spirit guides us to hear from God in a personal way. I may, in fact, hear something different from what you hear. We need to be careful about our own strict interpretation of the meaning of a particular parable.
One temptation is to view the details of a parable as simply a practical lesson for our behavior. Is there something symbolic here that critiques or supports my actions in life? While that may well be true in instances, we should notice how often a parable begins with the phrase “. . . The kingdom of God is like . . . “One could make the case that the parables are given to us to reveal something about the kingdom of God, not simply guide our behavior. There is almost some imprecision expected when Jesus begins so many parables with that phrase; the reader or listener does not know what to expect. We must wait for the Spirit to interpret it in our hearts. What will we sense Jesus is saying to us about the kingdom of God?
Let us connect that thought of imprecision with the idea of how the Spirit can touch us through material things. This is to speak of sacraments. We do not fully understand what is occurring with the bread and wine or the water of baptism, but our spiritual hearts know something important is here. A smudge of ash on my forehead is more than a smudge of ash on my forehead.
Since we live in a material world created by God, there is a high likelihood that material things have a sacredness we should seek; they illustrate God’s continued activity. When we look for the sacramental nature of our surroundings (people, places, things), new senses awaken in us. It becomes clear that God is present and alive in the world around us. This does not occur unless we allow ourselves to look past the “physicalness” of what is before us and see, instead, the glimpses of the kingdom of God being revealed.
For instance, “The kingdom of God is like a daughter sitting by the bed of her dying father.”
The man has not had any food or liquid for 48 hours. He is breathing with his head back in what appears to be an uncomfortable position, though he does not rearrange himself. His eyes are closed. His mouth is open and, periodically, a nurse or aide uses a short stick with a small sponge at one end to moisten his lips; these resemble miniature candy suckers.
An adult daughter sits by his side. This is one of two children who are alternating during the day in that same chair; they are keeping watch. At first, they spoke to their father, but his lack of responsiveness soon led them to just sit silently near him. Their minds and hearts are engaged in a review of memories of their family; those are not all positive, but they are the truth. He taught them important things about life and is still teaching them. They wish they did not have to learn this one.
Some faith traditions have well-developed “anointing of the sick” or “last rites” procedures. Whether or not these are present, however, the concept always exists in these scenes at the bedside. At this place one realizes the holy. Without our clear understanding, and amid our grief, we sense we are encountering the Divine Presence in the world. An ordinary, though sacred event is before us.
The kingdom of God is like a daughter sitting by the bed of her dying father.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain