Sermon for Evensong and Benediction Sunday 13 November 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Matthew 13. 1-9, 18-23
“And he told them many things in parables, saying, ‘Listen!’”
Like me, some of you will have grown up with the definition of a parable as “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Jesus clearly had a memorable knack for taking the everyday to speak of the eternal, the natural to speak of the supernatural. However, that definition can give the impression that parables have a meaning which can be discovered once and for all, but things are not as simple as that.
Our word “parable” comes from the Greek parabole which means literally to put one thing next to another- in this case in order to explain its meaning. It is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures for the word mashal: which could mean an illustrative story or image, or a puzzle, a riddle, an enigma.
So parables can be either:
- A means of communication and learning or
- A puzzle or riddle which can mystify or even alienate.
The great English scholar of the parables, C.H. Dodd, described the parable as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
Jesus uses parables to teach, to shock and disarm, to open up new worlds of meaning, especially in connection with the kingdom of God. So, while many found his parables illuminating, and still find them so now, others were and are mystified and disturbed. We should not be surprised if we find ourselves feeling both ways at one time or another.
Jesus sets out to provoke and stimulate his listeners into thinking through the consequences of what he was saying and doing. A parable can sink a thought-provoking shot into the minds and hearts of the hearers bringing about a change of outlook and attitude, confronting the listeners with a decision that needs to be made.
So, the telling and the hearing of a parable is the beginning of the process not the end. The process of understanding can take time, it may produce different levels of understanding on the part of those who originally hear it and for those for whom it was recorded and intended. The parable is not told only once and in one situation. In the history of the Church, the risen Christ continues to speak through the parables to people in situations which may seem as far removed from those of the original hearers as ours does from 1st century Judaean farmers.
The first parable told by Jesus, while he preaches from a boat on the lakeshore, is usually known as ‘the parable of the sower.’ from the title Matthew himself gives in the explanation which formed the second part of our reading this evening. It contrasts failed crop with abundant harvest. We might also think of it as the parable of the seed or the ground, or the abundant harvest. But it’s setting in the gospel as a whole, and the explanation which follows, point to the preacher of the word who is compared to the sower. Jesus, like the sower, ‘went out to sow’ the word and Matthew’s intended readers, obviously include Christian preachers likewise called to sow the word.
Matthew’s placement of the story reflects the fact that, for all his teaching and healing, Jesus is facing increasing hostility and rejection. The explanation of the parable, which many think reflects the situation of Matthew’s church facing the fact that the majority of the Jewish people had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah.
When the parable is taken together with the parable of the seed growing secretly and that of the mustard seed, all three are seen to focus on growth beyond expectation. However, this parable describes the spectacular growth against the background of a triple failure in growth and the emphasis seems to fall on the impediments to growth. The triple abundance more than compensates for the triple failure.
In the actual telling of the parable Jesus does not spell out in detail the possible application to life of the various types of ground and the images used. Audiences then and now are left to ponder on what exactly is meant by the parable. Listening is not just hearing and understanding intellectually, with our minds. It is a hearing and taking to heart in such a way that it changes our lives. We need to think it through. The disciples, who have been left to work out the meaning, fail to do so and have to ask Jesus to explain it to them.
“Why do you speak to them in parables?”
These verses are inserted between the parable and its explanation and the compilers have omitted them from the lectionary. Here it is now:
He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they seem and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’
Rabbis would often explain pronouncements or judgements they had made on some question later to their disciples. Jesus, too, regularly explains in private to his disciples what he had been teaching in public. In his response to this question from them, he makes a distinction between ‘you’ (the disciples) and ‘them’. ‘To you has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven but to them it has not been given.’
This saying emphasizes the necessity of choice, the impossibility of sitting on the fence: ‘For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance.’ On the other hand, ‘The one who has not , even what he has will be taken away.’ Those who do not accept, believe and understand will find even the belief that they have is taken away. The little faith that they have will wither and die. Israel is being warned as it becomes apparent that many are rejecting Jesus’ message. Rejecting the new dispensation they will lose out on the blessings of the old on which they are relying. Before we heave a sigh of relief, this may have been a warning to Jewish hearers then, but it is just as much one to Christian ones now; it is a warning against resting on our spiritual privileges; what we used to call in parishes like this one, “full catholic privileges,” things like being able to come to Benediction on a Sunday evening.
Jesus sets the negative reaction to his ministry in the wider context of Israel’s response to God’s messengers; as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 6.9-10: “You will listen and listen and not understand and see and not perceive.” This is followed by a description of the reason they neither understand nor perceive: “For the heart of this people has grown hard, their ears have grown dull of hearing and their eyes blind of seeing.”
For Matthew seeing, hearing and understanding with one’s heart are the marks of the disciple. Hardness of heart is the block on the road to discipleship. But there is a note of hope, pointing to the possibility of making a choice, a ‘turning round‘: ‘Unless they see with their eyes, hear with their ears and turn around (be converted) and I will heal them.”
The purpose of revealing the secret of the kingdom is to put before the hearers the choice that demands acceptance or rejection. Just as in the case of Moses and the prophets, now in the case of Jesus, God’s intervention provokes a reaction or acceptance or rejection.
It is the disposition of the listeners that does not allow them to understand the parables and that divides them into those who see only riddles and those who question and seek further insight and clarification.
We hear this parable and its interpretation, not in 1st century Galilee but early 21st century Britain. We hear it in the context of ongoing decline in Church membership. Whatever may be happening in other parts of the world, for the Church here in Europe there seems to be no abundant harvest.
We can and should look at the reasons why the soil on which we sow the seeds of the word is so unproductive. Getting to know the mission field in which we operate is always a good idea. We need to understand and come to grips with why so much of our society seems either hostile or indifferent to religion. We need to understand a society so shaped by individualism that it has devalued what we gain from the communal and inherit from the traditional; so conditioned by a century or more of scientism, an ideology of science more than the real thing, to assume there is no place for God; a society formed by consumer capitalism to believe that all its needs can be met by the purchase of goods and services; a culture so programmed to expect instant results and quick fixes as to be devoid of patience. Ours is a society which needs to learn the limitations of science as well as its possibilities; to be content with enough rather than constantly demanding an unsustainable more; to realize anew that it is not good for us to be alone and that the end-result of radical individualism is an epidemic of loneliness; to learn the virtue of patience and perseverance if we are to create anything of enduring worth.
All that is important, and it is important, too, that we not blame ourselves for every failure in mission. These great cultural factors require a concerted response by the whole Church. Individual response is important, but cannot solve everything.
But it is important for us as individuals and as a community to engage in that attentive listening to the parable which enables us to see how we who are the disciples of Jesus can be or become so hardened that the seed of the word no longer penetrates our hearts, so shallow that enthusiasm peters out minutes after we have left the church door, or so distracted by the blandishments of the world that we are deafened to the call of Christ. When these things happen to us, is there any wonder that the seeds we sow fail to germinate?
And he told them many things in parables, saying, ‘Listen.’