The Last Parables Jesus Told
Adolph Julicher is a widely regarded Biblical scholar. In one of his works, he suggests that one of the things that happened in the Upper Room the night of The Lord’s Supper, was that a pair of parables was given to the disciples by Jesus Christ. Julicher writes: “The last parables which we possess from the Master are the parables of the Upper Room.”
I find that to be a very captivating thought. There is no doubt that Jesus often told His parables in pairs. The first parable was usually designed to make a point, the second was usually employed to amplify or to refine that point. We think, for example, of the parable of the mustard seed which is told in tandem with the parable of the leaven. Or there is the parable of the hidden treasure which is linked with the parable of the pearl of great price. And, of course, there is the parable of the lost sheep which cannot be separated from the parable of the lost coin. Now what Adolph Julicher is suggesting is that here in the Upper Room we have the parable of the bread and the parable of the wine, different, yet mutually supportive—one making the point, the other expanding it.
Furthermore, the simplest definition we have for the word “parable” is “an earthly story with a heavenly message.” Quite obviously, the bread and the wine when properly understood conform to that definition. They are the most basic elements of life on this earth, yet when Jesus took them in His hands and wrapped them in the beauty of His words, they became—and they remain—profound symbols for our salvation in Jesus Christ. And the message we draw from these earthly elements is nothing less than heavenly.
For example, the bread and the wine remind us that Jesus Christ is for all of us.
There are only three things that all human beings do. One is to breathe. Another is to sleep. A third is to eat. And eating is the only one of the three which requires individual initiative. Jesus then has taken the one thing we all do and must do by an act of will, and He has made it the center of the sacrament. I think it is also interesting to notice that all of the people of this earth look upon food and the eating of food with a kind of reverence. There are beautiful traditions arising from all of the world’s cultures which celebrate the noble activity of eating. Our own celebration of Thanksgiving included two key activities. One was worship when on Thanksgiving morning this sanctuary was jammed with people praising God; the other was dinner when Lee Fellowship Hall was filled with Christians sharing a beautiful and bountiful meal. Food is a universal symbol for life. And then I think it is worth recalling that when Jesus gave those two parables to His followers, almost everyone was involved in one way or another in the production of food. If you didn’t sow the seed or reap the harvest or prune the vines, or winnow the wheat, or guard these things, or buy these things, or sell these things, you were a rare person indeed. Even now, when you stop to analyze it, much of our activity in society revolves around the production or the distribution or the consumption of food.
So I think Jesus picked basic food to put at the center of the sacrament because bread and wine speak a universal language—they speak to all the world—and the message they deliver is that our Lord came for all the world, that no one is outside the circle of His caring. Crowns and thrones and empires may go whistling down the wind, but the sacrament of our Lord prevails. It may be served in different styles and it may be viewed from different theological perspectives, but the bread and the wine, or the substitutes used for them, are always present. Why? Because they speak to us of the universality of the love of God. They declare to us that Jesus Christ is for us all.
But also, the bread and the wine remind us that all of us are to be for Jesus Christ.
Have you ever thought about how bread and wine are made? The bread begins as a seed which is buried in the ground. Then it rises as the blade of wheat. Then it must be sickled, cut down. Then it must be ground up and baked in the fire. The wine begins as a seed that becomes a vine. The vines are pruned with sharp knives. The blossom buds are torn away from the vine before they have the chance to burst into full flower. The grapes are cut and then crushed in the press, either by machinery or under the feet of men. In other words, both the bread and the wine must lose their lives in order to become a source of life to us.
Surely you can’t miss the message in that. For we are told that Jesus was crushed, that Jesus was cut down early in life, that Jesus was trodden under foot, that Jesus was wounded with sharp weapons, that Jesus was thrust in the burning cauldron of Calvary, that Jesus offered up his life and was buried in order to give life here and hereafter for Himself and for all who truly belong to Him. That’s why the bread and the wine, which pour out their lives in order to become a source of life for us, were such perfect symbols for Jesus to choose.
And there is yet something else here. Do you remember how Jesus said: “Those who would be my disciples must take up their crosses daily and follow me”? Well, the basic element of bread and wine call us to be willing to sacrifice ourselves in the service of others.
Just over a week ago, I had a birthday. And on that birthday I got to reflecting back over the years of my life and I realized just how little I have had to sacrifice in life. I have never really suffered for the sake of Jesus. I have never gone hungry or thirsty for the sake of Jesus. I have never been jailed or tortured for the sake of Jesus. I have never had to carry out any really costly discipleship. I inherited this free land. I inherited the faith which is mine. I have claimed it for my own, but it required no fight or war to do so. In a very real sense, at age 48, I can say that I have never really shared Calvary. I have simply reaped its benefits. And mind you, I have done this at a time when thousands upon thousands of people have paid a tremendous price for their believing. In fact, more Christians have died in the service of Jesus Christ in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries combined. And at such a time and in such a world, I have not been called upon to suffer at all.
I suppose that is why when I look at the bread and the cup on the Lord’s Table, it comes home to me with great power that if I haven’t been called upon to die for Christ, then I ought, at least, to be willing to live for Him. As I partake of the bread and the wine which gave up life that I might be fed, I find myself being called to seek out those who are carrying crosses in life and to offer myself in whatever way I am able to make their burdens lighter.
If you ever go to Midlothian, Virginia you will see a most unusual sight. Right in the middle of the main street through town—literally in the middle—you will see a statue built to the memory of a doctor. He was an old country doctor who for years had given himself away without reserve to caring for the people of that area. The townspeople wanted to honor and thank him by building a statue for him. He was a very modest man and he categorically refused their offer. He said: “Just wherever I die, bury me there. It was a few weeks later, while on a late night call to one of his patients, that he was stricken and died right in the middle of the road. And right there is where they buried him—and that’s where they erected the statue in his honor.
I guess what I am trying to say this morning is this: if we are not called by the bread and wine to die, then we are at least called to be always on the road to those who are dying, who are hurting, who are suffering, making their burdens our own. Yes, if we are not called to die for Jesus Christ, then we are—all of us—called to live for Jesus Christ. I can do no better than to echo the words of the poet:
The symbols of the sacrament
I fain would make them mine;
Thy body is the broken bread,
The blood the poured out wine,
What blest significance they hold
What graciousness divine.
In Jesus’ name I invite you to receive the bread and the wine and to be taught by these two precious parables—the last ones Jesus ever told.