Tenth Sunday After Trinity 2008
Reading: Matthew 13
The parable season has arrived. Parables puzzle a lot of people, who can't imagine why stories have anything to do with religion. They have obviously not read what Bernard Shaw said in his typical very wordy way: “Without their stories, the truths of religion would for the multitude be neither intelligible nor even apprehensible, and the prophets would prophesy and the teachers teach in vain.”
What people don't seem to realise when they are baffled by a parable is that they are reacting exactly as they are supposed to react. For years preachers have been exploiting the credulous by purporting to explain the parables of Jesus. But in fact there is no such thing as the explanation of a parable. The purpose of the parable is to make the hearer think, and decide what he or she thinks the message of the parable is. Jesus said repeatedly: “Let anyone with ears listen!” The fact that different people will think up different explanations is exactly what Jesus intended. The power of the parable is to elicit an individual response in the hearer. Those hearers who want someone to explain the meaning of a parable have the same sort of mentality as those who want the Pope to tell them what to believe and how to behave.
When I say that the parable season has arrived I mean that in July in year A of the lectionary there are three successive Sundays when the gospel reading contains one or more parables. This is because the readings are all from St Matthew chapter 13, in which a whole collection of parables has been brought together. There is no reason to assume that Jesus actually told all these parables one after the other, as we have them in chapter 13, they have clearly been brought together by the Evangelist for maximum impact.
If we look at some of the non-Biblical stories about Jesus, like the Gospel of Thomas, we find that they are a miscellaneous collection of sayings without any linking narrative. The skill of the synoptic evangelists was to take a large collection of miscellaneous sayings and miracles and put them together in a classified order with a linking narrative. So we get collections of miracles in Matthew chapters 8 and 9 and collections of parables in Matthew 13. In this way the impact of the stories is greatly increased.
The next point is that several of these parables have attached to them an explanation, which is put by the evangelist into the mouth of Jesus. It seems highly unlikely that these explanations were actually spoken by Jesus, they are the Evangelist’s attempt to explain the meaning of the parable and its relevance to the church at the time that the Gospels were written. The stories as Jesus told them do not have a meaning or an explanation, because Jesus wants the stories to speak to us individually. So whenever a preacher stands up and offers an explanation of one of the parables, we have no obligation to take it seriously. Our own interpretation and the way that the story is received in our heart is what is important.
However, that said, preachers can never resist the opportunity to offer their own “take” on the parables of Jesus, even though no-one is obliged to listen. Most of the parables in Mt 13 begin with the words "The kingdom of heaven is like..." So it is clear that to have any understanding of what Jesus is saying, we need to know what he means by the phrase “The kingdom of heaven". One reasonable explanation of this is that Jesus sees the kingdom of heaven as his ministry and mission, and not something that is to be expected in the future, whether near or distant. To participate in the joys of the kingdom, you have to follow Jesus. There are lots of examples in the gospels of the sacrifices that people have made to become followers of Jesus: the disciples have given up their jobs, others have abandoned land or families. There are others like the rich young man, who although he lived an upright and righteous life, was too fond of his money and possessions to follow Jesus.
The two parables that I want to consider this morning are the parable of the Buried Treasure and that of the Pearl of great Price. They are both about the fact that to become a follower of Jesus you have to take great risks -- disposing of everything that you have and throwing caution to the winds in order to acquire that most precious of all gifts -- the kingdom of heaven. That is what the rich young man was unable to do.
Being a disciple of Jesus then is about taking massive risks including major lifestyle decisions, which we have to be prepared to do in order to achieve that kingdom. It is not just a matter of living an upright and moral life. By taking the plunge, we can participate at once in the joy of Jesus's love and his kingdom. That is why, when asked by people why his disciples did not fast, Jesus likens them to guests at a wedding. They are already tasting the joys of the kingdom and so have no need to fast regularly.
So the message of these two enigmatic parables seems to me to be the fact that to be faithful followers of Christ, our lives must undergo transformation, which may mean taking the plunge and leaving all our possessions and the trappings of the world behind, and finding the great treasure which is Christ's love and fellowship. But of course it is not merely a matter of getting rid of possessions. As Paul says, you can give all your goods to feed the poor, but without love you are nothing. The poor make the best believers just because of their lack of worldly baggage. It is notoriously difficult for the wealthy to demonstrate their love of Jesus, because they will never get rid of all that they have -- Bill Gates, for example keeps enough of his wealth to live in comfort. But you don't find the kingdom by living a comfortable life, you have to sacrifice that material baggage, and it goes without saying that this is a difficult challenge, particularly in age like the one we live in, where the whole economy seems to require us to want and purchase more and more consumer goods.
This does not sound like very practical thinking. So what do we do? We all know that Saint Anthony took this saying literally and sold all that he had and lived as a hermit. Not a practical solution for most of us. But the whole point of the stories is about taking radical measures to transform your life. So let's look at the problem another way, taking an approach that I think that Adrian would describe as ethical reflection. Maybe what we should be doing is not immediately disposing of our possessions and plunging ourselves into poverty in order to find Jesus, but asking ourselves what it is in our lifestyle that Jesus would not look favourably upon. Are we for example too fond of food or drink or sex or money or cars or football or household pets or computers? It is not so much wealth itself, as the goods that we can buy with it, that get in the way of serving God. It brings to mind another of Jesus's parables, the parable of the wedding guests, who all had excuses for not accepting the invitation: buying land, buying oxen, getting married. What we need to do is to try to look at our lives objectively, to see those aspects of our life where we are clearly not living up to the standards that Jesus expects of us and trying much much harder to do just that. If we willingly determine to try and follow the commandments and to live our lives as if these consumer trappings were not essential to us, to think more about other people and less about ourselves, then it may well be that the love of Jesus will recognize that striving within us and bless it and us.
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