The Old Testament contains very few parables, but this is one of them and a powerful story at that. Nathan the Prophet is sent to King David with a warning, but autocratic kings are dangerous and unpredictable people. Wisely Nathan dresses his warning up as a story about someone else, and then invites David to respond to it as a dispassionate observer looking in from the outside. In other words by giving David some distance from the story, Nathan allows him to be objective about it, to make a careful and considered judgement that might otherwise be impossible.
And that's the advantage of parables for us, too. As we identify with - or recoil from - the characters in the story, each parable allows us to reflect upon our own situation from a different point of view, from the vantage point of the storyteller, and thereby to gain new insights into our situation and greater self-awareness.
Let me tell you a modern parable that illustrates the power of parables to unlock new ways of seeing and understanding our world.
An expert on development was sent by the charity she worked for to a village on the African coast. She sat and observed the people. One of the elders of the village was a fisherman and each fine day he took his small dug-out boat and his nets into the bay and caught enough fish for that night's supper, plus a few to spare which he sold to a fish merchant who came - each evening - in a battered pickup from the town and bought up the leftover fish from each of the villages on his round.
Eventually, the expert felt she had seen enough. 'Why do you persist in going out in your dug-out boat to catch just a few fish each day?' she said. 'Wouldn't you be better off if you and some of the other villagers invested in a trawler?'
'Why would that help us?' asked the village elder. 'Because you could catch more fish,' the expert replied. 'You would have a huge surplus to sell to the fish merchant instead of just a few fish.'
'Look,' said the elder. 'I'm a man of simple tastes. I catch enough fish to make sure my family never goes hungry. The few spare ones that I sell are just enough to cover the cost of school fees and medical bills and because it doesn't take me long to catch what I need I can spend the rest of my time helping my wife in her vegetable garden, or playing with my children, or chatting to my friends.'
'Yes, but if you caught more fish,' the expert explained, 'You and the rest of the villagers could dispense with the fish merchant. You could deal directly with the factory. You could buy a pick-up truck of your own to take the whole of the day's surplus catch to the big city and you could get a much better price for it than you do now.'
'And why would that be better?' asked the elder.
'Well, once you were getting a lot more money for a lot bigger catch you would be able to invest in a fleet of trawlers and catch even more fish.'
'But why would that be better?' asked the elder.
'Because then you would be able to buy your own factory, and sell direct to the European importers. You could even go to Europe yourself and negotiate a better deal direct with the supermarkets.'
'But why would the deal be better?' asked the elder.
'Listen,' said the expert in exasperation, 'If you made a lot of money from catching your own fish, and processing it and exporting it, soon you would be able to retire and then you wouldn't need to work any more. Just think what you could do with the extra time you had once you were retired.'
'OK,' said the elder, 'But I'm a man of simple tastes. If I were retired I would spend the rest of my time helping my wife in her vegetable garden or playing with my children, or chatting to my friends. How would be different from what I am doing now?'
In Nathan's story, the poor man who treats his one precious lamb with so much affection that he treats it like a daughter is clearly an exaggeration. A poor farmer couldn't really afford to get so attached to an animal. But, of course, the fact that the poor farmer loves the lamb makes it all the more appalling when the rich man snatches it, slaughters it and serves it to his guest.
David doesn't even wait to be asked what he thinks should happen to the rich man. He is so angry that he bursts out, 'The man who has done this deserves to die!' And then, of course, comes the shocking denouement of the parable. 'You are that man!' David finds himself condemned out of his own mouth.
We have heard what the parable's meaning was for David, but what does it have to say to us? One of the good things about parables, of course, is that we can each take our own meaning from the story. It doesn't need to have a single interpretation, and it can have new meaning for each unfolding situation.
One of the things that strikes me when I read this story is that it was the bankers and the politicians - the rich and the powerful - who messed up our economy, but it's the poor who are now paying the price. Sir Fred Goodwin walked away with a pension, even after it was reduced in size, that was still worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, whereas people in manufacturing industry, and in telephone call centres, who are being made redundant because of his mistakes, are losing their whole livelihoods.
People like Sir Fred clearly deserve to be punished, whereas instead they are being rewarded. It's the victims, not the perpetrators, of the recession who are paying the price. No one is baling car workers or so-called 'telesales executives' out of trouble. Of course, we may understand why the banks had to be rescued, whereas other industries have been allowed to collapse, but it's not a very fair or just outcome, is it? And one suspects that there will be a day of reckoning.
Psalm 51 has long been assumed to be a psalm of David, written out of the contrition that he felt when Nathan exposed his wrongdoing to him. His crime was perhaps much worse than wrecking an economy. He had murdered a loyal officer and stolen his wife. So the psalm, with its theme of guilt and sinfulness which need to be blotted out by God's mercy and steadfast love, is very appropriate to David's situation.
However, the juxtaposition of the psalm alongside Nathan's parable in our lectionary also reminds us that the parable is not just asking us to call other people to account, to look for the bad guys in our current situation and see that they are being properly punished, it's asking us to examine ourselves. It's asking us to acknowledge that we have transgressed.
Someone has pointed out that, however cross we might feel about the bankers and the politicians, Sir Fred and Gordon Brown, a great many of us were only too happy to benefit from rising house prices, cheap mortgages and good interest rates on our savings' accounts. Our sin should be ever before us! And even if we are one of the minority of people who don't share in the collective guilt for the Credit Crunch, none of us is perfect. We all stand in need of being washed clean from our iniquity.
For a long time contrition has been out of fashion. In fact, it sometimes seems as though a whole new generation has grown up without any! For years religion has been accused of dwelling too much on sinfulness. And I think that, in response, there has been a conscious attempt by faith leaders to play down the need for repentance and to concentrate, instead, on the upside of religion - regeneration, renewal, wholeness and new life.
It's funny, though, how everyone starts to look for someone to blame - for someone who has transgressed - when things go wrong. Suddenly, guilt is back in fashion. Past ambition is being recast as greed, and the ruthlessness of men like Sir Fred 'The Shred' Goodwin - which was once admired - is now being seen as a symptom of foolish pride and vainglorious stupidity.
But, of course, it's still only other people who should feel guilty about themselves. We're not so keen to be reminded of our own guilt, are we? Politicians were happy - at first - to harangue the guilty bankers, but less happy when the spotlight was turned on them and their own expenses' claims. And BBC journalists were happy to explore the guilt of everyone else, but less comfortable when the amount spent on parties and junkets at the BBC itself was exposed.
Maybe it's about time, then, to remind ourselves - and the rest of the world - that 'sin' is not a dirty word. All of us are born with the innate capacity for selfishness, anger, greed, deceit and unkindness. All of us need to be contrite, to feel guilty and to seek cleansing.
And yet, this attitude can go too far. Early Methodists were far too fond of describing themselves as despicable worms and wallowing in self-loathing. They gave the Methodist movement a bad name because they forgot the upside of the psalm. We can be forgiven. God wants to be merciful. And so there is also a place in true religion for joy and gladness, for rejoicing that God has put a new and right spirit within us and hidden his face from our sins because of the steadfast love he has for us, as revealed once and for all in the death of Jesus on the Cross.
Ephesians takes up where our reading from Psalm 51 leaves off, because it accentuates the positive. It doesn't dwell upon the trickery, craftiness and deceitful scheming of which all of us are capable. Instead, it focuses on the good things that come from God - the so-called fruits of the Spirit - humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance - that is bearing patiently with one another's faults in love, unity, peace and hopefulness. 'Each of us,' says the writer, can be 'given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift'. And the measure of Christ's gift is truly awesome. Sin normally holds people in captivity, making them obey their baser instincts and desires, but Christ has 'made captivity itself a captive'. What a wonderful thought! Christ has 'kicked ass', as the Americans say, down in the realm of the dead where the bad side of human nature previously held sway unopposed, and now he has transcended our universe so that he might fill all things which his boundless love.
The writer goes on to talk briefly about the teamwork which is required if we are to be equipped to serve Jesus properly and then he concludes by reminding us what all these gifts of grace are for - what Christianity, in fact, is all about. The aim is that we all might be brought to spiritual maturity and enjoy the same stature as Jesus Christ himself. What an incredible idea - that, working together within the Church, we might be promoted and built up in love until we are all equal - in love, and compassion, generosity and kindness - to Jesus Christ!
Being a Christian is not about wallowing in guilt, though we do have to recognise our weakness and aspire to overcome it. However, the ultimate goal of Christianity remains to become so full of the knowledge and the spirit of the Son of God that we become like him!
We all know that's what we're supposed to do, but it's much easier said than done, isn't it? My working day is spent as a professional fundraiser and this is my busy time of year, because a lot of funders deliberately fix their deadlines for the summer months. I guess it cuts down the demand for funding because some people are on holiday, and so can't make the deadlines, and others think, 'What the blazes, it's summertime, I'm not going to slog my guts out writing funding bids when I could be sitting in the sunshine or stoking the barbecue.' Well, OK, the funders miscalculated this year because the summer sunshine happened in June, not in July. But the point is, you might think charities would be the very last organisations that would be infected by the desire for food that perishes. But charities need funds, just like everyone else, so I have been working on five or six funding applications over the last couple of weeks, for sums of money that run into hundreds of thousands of pounds
My wife reminds me sometimes of the fisherman, who caught just enough fish to feed his family and spent the rest of his time taking things easy. Why can't I do the same, she asks. And, of course, she has a point. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel story that being and believing are more important than doing and consuming.