"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sunday Sermon: Matthew 13.31-33 and 45-52. The thing about parables ....

Matthew 13.31-33 and 45-52


He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

‘And he said to them “Have you understood all this?” and they answered “Yes.”’ Well that’s a first – or at least it seems like it. The poor disciples have got a bit of a bad press, although less so in Matthew’s Gospel, for being a bit dense. More often than not we read that they had to have a special tutorial with Jesus because they hadn’t understood the nature of the parables: just before this section Jesus had told them the Parable of the Sower and had had to explain it to them in detail. In fact every time Jesus tells a parable it seems to me to be The Parable of the Sower all over again with the disciples taking the various roles outlined there:

Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

The disciples came to him and said, “We don’t get it.”

“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

I know I will have said this here before but when we hear or read Bible passages we always need to ask ourselves whether or not we are the primary or intended audience for the teaching in any particular passage. There are times when Jesus appears to be speaking to the Disciples, for instance, but is, in fact, talking to the Pharisees. So who is today’s Gospel passage directed at? We are told at the start of this chapter that “great crowds” had turned out to see Jesus: these were a real mixture of people and whatever motive they had for being there we would have to characterise them as “enquirers” and that would include the Disciples. Well, we’ve turned out to hear Jesus this morning: that must make us enquirers and many of us would self-identify as Disciples, so this teaching is directly for us and yes, like some of the them we can also be a bit dense from time to time, so a quick recap on the Sower wouldn’t go amiss for us too.

Some of you know I’ve recently retired from the full-time teaching of Religious Studies and this parable constantly puts me in mind of a group of less able teenagers:

·       The seed in the parable is the word of God. Well in my classroom it’s the word of Sir, although that could encompass the word of God.

·       Some seed falls on the path and the birds steal it. We are told the evil one snatches it away. Now far be it from me to describe any of my former students as evil but, “Sir, I can’t concentrate. Ryan’s stabbing me with a pen.”

·       The seed on rocky ground is the seed that can’t take root because it has no depth of soil and so may sprout quickly and showily but shrivel up quickly. “Sir, I couldn’t do the homework.”

But you were getting it right in the lesson.

“Yeah, but when I got home I didn’t get it.”

·       The seed in the weed patch represents those who are easily distracted by what’s going on around them. Where’s Tom? He was supposed to be presenting his topic this morning.

“Sir, he’s got football practice.”

·       Which leaves the seed which fell on the good soil and grew and flourished: This year Gemma has worked conscientiously; has taken a pride in her work and has shown evidence of real progress. She takes an active role in class discussions and is always prepared to ask when she doesn’t understand.

To me, the point about parables is that they are supposed to make us think. Too many of my students want to be spoon-fed. “I don’t get it.” Is the perpetual whine of most teenagers in the classroom and it’s shorthand for “I can’t be bothered to think about it.”

Well, we may not be teenagers but don’t we sometimes find ourselves in a similar mindset? “This is too hard. Just tell me!” It doesn’t say much for our discipleship does it?

“Whoever has ears, let them hear!” We’re supposed to struggle with it because often Jesus does leave the parable with its hidden moral unexplained and we are expected to be the seed that lands on fertile ground. “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
.” The Theologian N.T. Wright once wrote, "For too long we've read Scripture with 19th century eyes and 16th century questions. It's time we get back to reading with 1st century eyes and 21st century questions.” I identify very strongly with this observation: what are we today to make of the parables?
We look at the parables today - and this may just be me, of course, - but they lose something by their familiarity: “Oh yeah, I know that one.” And we pay less attention. They are also stories of their time and reveal the culture and concerns of the people of Jesus’ day. That impact may be to some extent lost on us today but we mustn’t underestimate the impact those stories would have had then: Jesus wrapped up his teaching in examples from everyday life that people could identify with. He talks about family life because everyone was, or had been, in a family; at a time when people built their own homes, he used building as an example; when most people were subsistence farmers, Jesus talked about agriculture; in today’s passage Jesus uses cooking as an example and on other occasions he talked about housekeeping; today he addresses the fishermen in his audience; today he talks about buying and selling. “The Kingdom of God is like this ….” By using simple examples from everyday life Jesus makes his message more understandable.

I think we all have a tendency to do that don’t we? I realised after I’d written it that I had done the same: to help make my point I talked about life in the classroom. We’ve all been teenagers. Many of us are parents. We understand about school. I simply put Jesus’ parable into a more modern context and I understand it better as a consequence.

Take the parable of the Good Samaritan: it’s one that I’ve used in the classroom regularly with 11 and 12 year olds. I read it to them. They look at me as if to say “So what?” Then I explain to them that I’ve been to Israel and I’ve done the journey from Jerusalem to Jericho – albeit by air-conditioned coach – and that it would be a difficult trek to make on foot because of the inhospitable semi-desert landscape and I show them pictures.

 At the time of Jesus it was a notorious place for the mugging of the lone or unwary traveller. When Jesus told this story, “There was a man who set off from Jerusalem to Jericho ….” His audience would have identified with the context: many would have done that journey themselves or they’d have known someone else who had. They knew about the trauma of that journey in the heat of the day through an arid landscape and of the importance of travelling in a group for safety. When Jesus talked of a lone traveller he’d got their attention because they were already forming an opinion of someone who was foolish enough to go on his own. Now my kids are listening because it’s become real.

Then their task is to update the story because finding a modern context for the moral makes that moral more compelling. It becomes about them, not some people from ancient history. And they are very creative: they talk about Leeds United fans being beaten up by Manchester United fans and, bleeding in the gutter with no mobile phones, are ignored by passing nuns – you’d be amazed by how many nuns are walking the streets where my pupils live – before being taken care of by a decent upright Manchester United fan. We’ve had soldiers in a war zone, astronauts and aliens. You name it and my kids can use it to retell the Parable of The Good Samaritan.

The point is, if I’d left it at a reading of the original, which seed would they have been in the context of the Parable of the Sower? They don’t forget their own versions, though. Which seed are they now?

We can all do that. We don’t have to be semi-detached when hearing a parable because it is overfamiliar in its original setting, so I think my challenge today – to myself as much as to you – is to go away and think about the stories Jesus told; to struggle to find the meaning or the hidden moral and, while remaining faithful to that moral, to reset it in the present.

Look back at the example that starts today’s Gospel passage. This is a parable about spiritual maturity and the growth of faith that benefits others. I don’t identify with mustard seeds. What could I use from my own culture and historical context that would be as compelling to me as football is to my pupils in the retelling of the Good Samaritan - and which would stick in my mind?

Then we have, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like yeast”. This is a parable about us as the yeast being spread equally in our society and making a radical change and difference to the original. Most of us no longer bake our own bread. How could we rework this parable to make it as fresh today as would have been when Jesus first told it?

As for fine pearls, well perhaps the story would have more resonance if it was about the unexpected discovery of early shares in Facebook.

How do we describe the Kingdom of God to others? At the heart of all that I’ve pondered on here, it seems to me that we are talking about mission. I take this short series of parables as a challenge to me to come to a better understanding of the Kingdom of Heaven breaking in around me and then to be able to explain it to others in simple terms they can identify with.

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