Monday, July 28, 2014

Matthew 13: Parables of the Reign of God

St. Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 13, has shown us, for the past two weeks, and again today, specifically how Jesus, through the use of simple parables, reveals the reality of God’s reign/rule/kingdom. The Collect, in fact, refers to God as “our ruler and guide”, helping us to “pass through things temporal” so that we don’t lose “things eternal

Parables, according to commentator Deidre Good, describe God's realm in ways that move hearers“to rethink priorities so as to make room for something outside human control yet within human potential.” Dr. Richard Pervo adds that “Parables would seek to lead us to perceive once again with the freshness of discovery the graciousness and surprise of the ordinary, the myriads of miracles erupting in our daily lives; would lead us to see these wonders and then urge us to find the presence of God’s reign in just such apparently prosaic routines. Look, our Lord says, for the advent of God in the ordinary, for appearances of the kingdom in people and deeds that seem no more important than mustard seeds and pieces of yeast.
It might be helpful to backtrack a bit, in order to see where we are in Mt 13:

A.  July 13 - Mt. 13:1-9; 18-23
In the Gospel two weeks ago, Matthew begins with Jesus going out from the safe haven of the house, and sitting by the sea, the realm of storms and uncertainty, so as to teach “the crowds”, “in parables”. He then recounts the Parable of the Sower (1-9), then skips eight verses to where Jesus explains the Sower Parable to the disciples (18-23) apart from “the crowd”. In those eight verses which the lectionary unfortunately skips, between the parable and explanation, Jesus says this:
...the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the reign of heaven, but to them it has 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 see, 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.”
The disciples are the ones who’ve responded to Jesus words and actions for some time now. They’ve taken to heart Jesus’ words in Luke 17:20-21: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’  For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.
B.  July 20 - Mt 13:24-30; 36-43
In last week’s Gospel, Matthew continues with the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares or Weeds (24-30), but the lectionary omits the next six verses, skipping over two other parables. 
C.  Today, July 27 - Mt 13:31-33; 44-52
Matthew’s Gospel today back tracks to those two skipped parables (31-33): those of the Mustard Seed and of the Woman Leavening Flour, and adds three other parables (44-52): those of the Hidden Treasure in the Field, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Net and the Fish.
The Mustard Seed
The first pair of parables, The Mustard Seed and The Woman Leavening Flour, are rather everyday, humdrum parables, dealing with common, mundane things: planting a field and baking bread. In the first, a man, in the peasant context of rural Galilee, does the outdoor, physical labor of sowing a tiny mustard seed, which matures into a sizeable bush. It’s not a tree, nor will it accommodate nesting birds, which may allude to the Old Testament emphasis on the universal reach of God's kingdom. Nevertheless, poetically, Matthew states that it “becomes a tree”, perhaps hearkening back to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision (17:22-24) of God restoring the people, and symbolized in what Ezekiel calls a “noble cedar” in whose branches “every kind of bird will live...winged creatures of every kind”. The mustard bush isn’t even an perennial plant, only an annual. In the same way, God’s reign doesn’t strike most of us as much at first, except for every now and then when the risen presence of Jesus, all of a sudden, breaks into our lives through other people and events. It appears in those quickening moments, stirrings of love, fleeting flashes which you and I experience from time to time: in nature; in our times of intimacy; in solitude; in music, poetry and art; in the experience of birth; in observing children and young people; in helping others, and even in experiencing death, our own or that of others. The intuition, the hint, of what the reign of God is like is so real at these times that it’s almost palpable. Jesus’ message, according to Matthew, suggests that God’s reign grows from tiny beginnings to worldwide size. 

There’s also a slightly subversive element to the parable, as Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (published around 78 AD), notes: "mustard…,” he says, “is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild...but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed, when it falls, germinates at once."

The Woman Leavening Flour
The other of the first two parables contrasts the man sowing in the field with a woman, a homemaker. Jesus, says Joel Green,  "asks people -- male or female, privileged or peasant, it does not matter -- to enter the domain of a first-century woman and household cook in order to gain perspective on the domain of God.Here she is, starting to mix yeast with flour, actually hiding it, in a peck and a half of flour, about 12 quarts. The King James Version says “hid” which is also the meaning of “mix” = enkrypto, in Greek. The leaven permeates the flour, so that the dough rises into a large loaf. The mysterious substance that makes bread rise is akin to the hidden, pervasive character of God’s reign. Also, the large quantity of flour hints at a planned festive occasion, since the bread produced will obviously be more than for just one family. It’s hard to miss the implication of the powerful growth of God’s kingdom from small beginnings. The final outcome is inevitable once the natural process of leavening has begun. 

We then shift in today’s Gospel to two more parables: that of The Hidden Treasure in the Field and The Pearl of Great Price. These parables also offer a contrast, this time, between a laborer and a merchant.  

The Treasure Hidden in the Field
A laborer, tilling someone else’s field, just doing his job, hits a buried container, perhaps a jar or a box, with his plow. It wasn’t at all unusual, especially in times of war or disaster, for people to bury their precious treasure. Sometimes they didn’t or couldn’t reclaim it: perhaps they were killed, or maybe displaced or had moved. Maybe they simply forgot what and where they’d hid their stash.
Whatever the reason, the laborer is surprised and elated. He keeps it to himself, hides it, even as the woman hid the leaven in the flour. The hidden nature of the treasure may indicate that God’s kingdom "is not yet revealed to everyone." The man hurries to liquidate all that he has to secure the treasure. Matthew’s phrase, “sells all he has”, invites us to recall Jesus’ invitation to the rich young man in Chapter 19 (v. 21), to sell all that he has and to become a disciple.

The Treasure Hidden in the Field is a parable about discovery without seeking, and willingness to take action, whatever the cost. God’s kingdom is of great value. The good fortune reflected 
in the "finding" reflects a "special gift, a privilege" and a source of joy, but also reflects a challenge to relinquish all in order to lay claim to the greater treasure one has found. (John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew)

The Pearl of Great Price
In the second of this parable duo, a parable about opportunity, we have a merchant whose business it is to travel around “in search of fine pearls”. Pearls were luxury items, associated with other valuables such as gold and precious stones. The pearl itself is a beautiful, single entity, formed through suffering in the heart of the oyster. Unlike precious stones which must be cut and polished to reveal their clarity and beauty, the pearl is perfect as it comes from the oyster. 
In Matthew 7:6 Jesus acknowledges such quality when he warns hearers “not [to] throw your pearls before swine”. This merchant is actively seeking a quality product, always on the lookout, for not only pearls, but for that one best pearl, the “deal of a lifetime”, which he’ll recognize, and maybe others won’t. Eventually he finds it. He responds immediately and completely, sacrificing everything he has to get it. John Nolland says that Matthew shares the notions of "good fortune and demanding action in attaining the kingdom of heaven", but stresses the importance of "diligent seeking." Those who aren’t prepared to accept the kingdom of heaven at the price of staking their whole future on it are unworthy of the kingdom.

The Drawing in of the Cast Net
Finally, in the concluding verses (47-50) we have the Parable of the Net and the Fish. Fishing evokes the idea of searching, of mission. Matthew says the net is thrown into the sea and catches “fish of every kind”. The net is full and is all-inclusive. It’s taken ashore and the fish are separated: the  “good”, into baskets; the “bad”, thrown out. Matthew says that in the reign of God "the angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous" in a similar way. It’s an evaluation, a judgment, according to standards of quality. God’s reign is a mixture of good and evil, even as the seed sown or the wheat with the weeds. When Jesus says (v. 48), “...when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad”, there’s a hearkening back to the opening verse of Matthew’s 13th chapter: “Jesus went out” and “got into a boat and sat there, while the crowd stood on the beach...”, perhaps an allusion to the earlier invitation of Jesus Mt 4: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (v. 19) This final parable suggests a time of decision. 

There’s clearly a shift from everyday time to the end of time, to the final judgment. Goodness/rightness is equivalent to understanding.  As Jesus asks his disciples: “Have you understood all this?” Evil is whatever violates trust on which relationships are built, whether with God or with our sisters and brothers in the kingdom.

Finally, Matthew summarizes it all in v. 52. He mentions the “scribe” = the writer/secretary/clerk/note-taker who “has been trained for the kingdom of heaven”. Such a person is like “the master of a household”, someone who knows how to manage, to take care of, things, to bring “out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” This speaks of a balanced person, one open to all of life, open to both the human and the divine, one able to take in and discern the good from the bad, one able to keep trust in relationship to God and to all who inhabit the reign of God. 
In Matthew 13, Jesus has provided us with a description and formula by which you and I can see to it that “the kingdom/reign/rule of God is within you”. St. Paul clarifies our relationship in this “mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints.” He says, in today’s Epistle, “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness...that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words...We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to [God’s] purpose...If God is for us, who is against us? [God] who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will [God] not with him also give us everything else?...Who will separate us from the love of Christ? 

Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. ” (8:26; 28; 31-32; 35; 37-39)

The reign of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’  For, in fact, the kingdom/reign/rule of God is within you.


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Of Parables & Ourselves

Parables are meant to get people to think. The bottom line is that we don’t interpret parables, so much as parables interpret us. Parables guide us to see things in different ways, with paradoxes, multiple, even conflicting interpretations. Parables get us to think, especially about the reign of the Holy One. 

Matthew’s parable of the sower focusses on four types of soil. The sower uses a method of sowing, called “broadcasting”, sort of flinging the seed every which way. Matthew pictures a series of failures and successes. The effect is rather monotonous and repetitious. Very much like life. Life has its cycles and patterns. One season or year is quite like the foregoing ones. The challenge is whether you and I can ever see more than we want to see, to check whether we’ve let our eyes become dull, if we’ve come to the point of asking, “Is this all there is?” 

Results of sowing seed vary. Matthew’s account lists the good soil’s yield as a hundredfold, sixty, and thirty. Mark lists the return as thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, written before either Mark or Matthew, puts it this way: “ produced a good crop: it yielded sixty per measure and one hundred twenty per measure.” Whatever the yield figure, between 60 and 120, God’s superabundant graciousness is far beyond what we might expect.  

The clear implication is that growth isn’t guaranteed. The rhythm of normality is deceptive, and the divine presence tends to be 
easily missed by those without ears to hear. The coming of the reign of God is neither an explosive event, nor a predictably rising curve in which things keep getting better and better every day. It’s a mixture of failure and success. Note that at the beginning of the Gospel passage, Jesus “went out of the house”, out of the place of security, and “sat beside the sea”, which is the realm of chaos, of uncertainty, associated as the sea is with fierce wind, swelling waves, and unpredictability. 

Parables can be terribly frustrating for “bottom-line” folks who just want to "cut to the chase", perhaps missing the importance of the routine, the mundane in human life. You and I continually sow without really knowing what’s going to come up, yet we keep sowing. Learning to appreciate the 30’s and 60’s, and not lament them, takes work. Anyone can brag about the 100’s. What was going on between Jesus and the disciples, Matthew says, was a learning process. One may easily interpret the sower parable in relation to mission, but that would be to miss the important connection of parable with learning, with being formed spiritually. One thinks of the root meaning of the word seminary, deriving from the Latin for seed: a place where seeds are sown and planted, but which take long periods of time in order to mature and come to fruition. 

This parable of the sower, leads also to other insights. You can't, for example, grow wheat on rocks. Nevertheless, when we’re called to do something, the results aren’t necessarily restricted by soil. Sometimes bad soil and weeds are too much, and don’t produce yields, or very little ones. Sometimes, the astounding happens. Either way, that’s not our concern. In our call we’re to be faithful, not necessarily successful.

Another thing modeled in the parable is that, after sowing the seed, even if the “growth”, the response, seems meager, it’s still important to be patient with those willing and eager to “listen”, and to go deeper with them into the sacred mysteries. Likewise the parable may be pointing us to the fact that, though the reign of the Holy One is inseparably bound up with the proclaiming of it, the task of a sower is simply to sow, not to create the seed. Finally, as we try to relate Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the sower to our own lives, you and I can recognize that we’ve been like all the types of soil at one time or other. 

I was raised very devoutly from childhood by my Roman Catholic mother, and attended church every week. The family Bible, which I still have, endlessly fascinated me, though I didn’t actually read much of it at the time, probably because of the archaic language of the Douay Rheims Version! What grabbed me particularly were the etchings, depicting great biblical stories. 

When I was in 7th grade Mom gave me my first spiritual classic : The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, which I read and reflected on many times, along with the Scriptures which I read nearly every day during 13 years in Catholic seminary, and in my early years as a priest. Perhaps this was the “good soil” phase, in which the seed of the Word was sown? 

Later, while I was a college chaplain and philosophy instructor at, in the mid-60’s, I was actively involved  along with many of my colleagues in the civil rights movement, then front-page news. We were outspoken on behalf of African-Americans on campus and in the community, and openly critical of conservative clergy in the area. Yet, when invited by friends to join them in going to Alabama, to march and give witness in the now-famous 1966 walk from Selma to Montgomery, I cringed and backed off out of fear, and offered all sorts of excuses for not going. Well, obviously, some of that “good soil” of the Word seemed to have deteriorated a bit! “...let some trial come, or some persecution on account of the Word, and that person falls away at once…

After my release from the Catholic priesthood in the late ’60’s, I  went through a period when I stopped reading, stopped going to church altogether for some time. The rocky ground where the seed fell seemed to allow what had been sown in my heart to recede in importance to me.

In the early ‘70’s, I’d mostly resumed what spiritual practice I had. By then I was employed in textbook sales in a large territory in the South. On the road or in the air most of the year, I became consumed with sales quotas, earning commissions, competing within other company divisions, and trying to please the boss. It was easy to slip into becoming the typical salesman stereotype who worked hard all day and partied harder after hours to relieve the stress. I was no slouch in wining and dining customers to ensure sales, nor in being “out on the town” with the other guys and gals. It took me a good four years to realize how tired, and empty, and unhappy my spirit was, and, truthfully, how relatively unproductive I was. Kind of like seed choked by thorns.

Over the years I rode the spiritual roller coaster, as most of us do: up and down, faithful and lax, fervent and lukewarm. As we all must, I faced my inevitable share, of difficult, depressing personal situations: the death of a former spouse; divorce; conflict with parishioners; serious illnesses of my children; the challenges of aging. 

Do you and I ever fully understand what’s happening on the ground of our soul, or how, or why? T. S. Eliot reminds us, “In my beginning is my end...For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I eventually emerged able to continue sowing and receiving the seed, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly: from the Scriptures, from other holy writings, and even occasionally from The Imitation of Christ. I stand in wonder at the ever new sprouts of growth popping up from the soil of the spirit, most often in the events and people who are in my life. The measuring of growth of crops and yields doesn’t concern me so much now. It’s enough at this point to “set the mind on the Spirit [who] is life and peace”, to know that “the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you [and me]”. 

We shall not cease from exploration,” says Eliot, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.