“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”
Pentecost 8 July 30, 2017
Matt. 13:31-33; 44-52
PARABLES OF THE KINGDOM
This morning we heard Jesus recite a series of parables about the Kingdom of God. “Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables,” says Matthew, “he did not speak to them without a parable.” Why did Jesus teach in this way? Jesus hardly ever spoke as a theologian. What does this say about God, about how God communicates himself to us? Parables invite us to imagine and to wonder with ears alert for the unexpected. Who is that merchant who bought the pearl of great price? Was the purchase of that pearl an astute business deal? Or would his colleagues have shaken their heads, certain in their economic climate that the wise investor keeps a portfolio of diversified assets?
Matthew writes that Jesus taught with parables “to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.” So parables speak of things hidden – utter what cannot be brought to utterance and give voice to the Word which exceeds language. Parables are like glimpses of light in a dense forest. Look ahead! There must be a clearing! But as we follow the light, the clearing remains always a little ahead of us; now closer, at times perhaps more distant, but never leaving us and always inviting us forward.
Evidently, to answer the question, ‘what is a parable?’ requires another parable! By parables Jesus spoke of things hidden, but not in a way that makes them cognitively transparent. A parable is like a doorway. Jesus bids us to enter that doorway – through it is the kingdom of God. When we open that door, we find ourselves in a room – an inner chamber in which we find more doors. And so in this way we are invited to explore the house, always finding new doors in each new room; never finally seeing the whole plan comprehensively, but coming to recognize that just as each room is in the house, the whole house is also in each room.
Thus to understand a parable is not to be able to say, ‘this means this and that means that.’ Even when Jesus himself seems to say this, he is just clearly outlining the doorway he is bidding us to enter. For to understand a parable is not so much to grasp it, as it is to have it grasp us. To understand a parable is to stand-under it; is to listen for a Word whose sense, though spoken by all things and through all things, nevertheless lies beyond our senses. To understand a parable is to know its call upon our life.
This morning we were treated to five parables concerning the Kingdom of God: the parables of the mustard seed, the leaven and the loaf, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price, and of the net cast into the sea. There is not time enough to explore in depth any one of these, so I just want to say a few things, almost off the top of my head, about how these parables challenge us to live into the Kingdom they proclaim.
What strikes me first of all in each of these parables is the note of surprise and amazement: who could have guessed that such a tiny seed would outgrow every other plant in the garden? Or the bit of yeast, though almost nothing in itself, yet is enough to leaven many times its weight in flour; or of course the surprise of the man who found that treasure buried in the field. Imagine his delight in finding what had, moments before, been completely hidden from his sight! He cannot believe his luck – that this treasure, so long hidden from everyone, should come to him!
Where is the Kingdom of God? Imagine for a moment that small mustard seed, or that little clump of yeast. Jesus himself was only one man – a tiny seed, with a ramshackle following of disciples and friends, from a backwater district in an insignificant country. But that tiny seed was enough to transform the world. Imagine that the world is that measure of flour. When the baker takes the flour to bake bread, the yeast is by volume the least of all ingredients, but without it the bread turns out flat and hard – far from something the baker could eat with delight. “If God is for us, who is against us?” What if God’s purpose for His Church was never in fact to be the whole loaf, but rather the leaven that makes the whole loaf delightful in His eyes?
Or what about that note of ‘indiscriminate generosity’ we hear in the parable of the mustard seed – the full-grown tree providing rest for every bird, no matter what kind? That note comes again in the parable of the net. The net, cast into the sea, catches fish of every kind. A bit of realism there – no question the Church is a net full of strange fish! But then comes the less comfortable part of the story. When the net was filled, Jesus continues, “they drew it up on the beach; the good fish they sorted into vessels, but threw away the bad.” Does the indiscriminate generosity with which the story begins dry up in the end? Or is part of the lesson of the parable that in God generosity and judgment are not in conflict but, in a way we find difficult to reconcile, are ultimately harmonious virtues of divine love?
Observe, first, that if we imagine the Church to be the net, it is not the Church God tasks with the sorting of the fish. The net catches fish of every kind without discriminating, and when the time of reckoning comes, trusts in the love of God for all. Secondly, the parable doesn’t define what is a ‘good’ fish or a ‘bad’ fish – or even what a ‘fish’ is. A fish might be a human soul. Or the fish might be the sins imbedded in each of our souls. What a ‘gashing of teeth’ there will be when God finally removes our sins from us – removes like thorns from our flesh all that draws us away from God but which seem to us so essential to who we are!
Both alternatives contain, no doubt, an equal measure of truth, as must many others. For the purpose of the parable is to pull us into a deep tension at the heart of divine Love: that mercy and judgment are in God not irreconcilable, that one indeed implies the other – though just how this is must remain, like that clearing in the forest, always just beyond our sight. Amazement, judgment, generosity, delight: the purpose of the parables is to invite us into the life of prayer, in which we trust our understanding to the endless mystery and mercy of God.