"I'LL TALK IN RIDDLES TO MAKE SURE YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND" EH?!

A sermon preached at St.Paul’s church, West St.Brighton in July 2008. Text: Matthew 13. verses 10-13

I’m sure you all know what I mean by the so-called “hard sayings” of Jesus? Like:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother....and one’s enemies will be members of one’s own household.

Imagine reading this passage at Mass and holding the book aloft in time-honoured fashion and proclaiming “This is the gospel of Christ”, only to be declaring a few minutes later, with a somewhat rueful smile,“The peace of the Lord be always with you”!

Now. this morning’s gospel is a bit hard to swallow for the same sort of reason: He tells a story about a sower with some seed and then, when he has finished, his disciples ask him “Why do you talk to them in parables?”

“Because”, He replies, “they look without seeing and listen without hearing.” 

Come again? You’d think that was a good reason for speaking as plainly as you could. And there’s a parallel verse in Mark which puts it even more uncomfortably. There, He says:

“Everything comes in parables so that they may not understand, lest they should turn again and be forgiven.”

Curiouser and curiouser (although the sting in the tail in Mark’s version is actually a direct quote from Isaiah where God is lashing out sarcastically at the unfaithful Israelites).

But iIs Jesus deliberately trying to prevent people from getting his message and being reconciled with the Father?

I think we can assume the answer to that must be NO - otherwise you’re probably wasting your time and I’m certainly wasting mine!

But to make sense of what Our Lord is up to in using these “hard sayings”, we need to try to put ourselves in His position and appreciate what He was up against.

He saw His whole vocation as bringing the news of God’s kingdom to as many people as possible and finding a way of persuading them to repent, to turn around, to make a fundamental shift in their attitude to life so that they could share in that kingdom.

But the trouble was that He was addressing people who were either ignorant - constantly getting hold of the wrong end of the stick and thinking He was an earthly messiah ready to lead them in armed rebellion against the Romans - or who were downright hostile to Him, seeing Him as an upstart unofficial rabbi threatening the religious establishment and daring to question the traditional teaching of the scribes and pharisees.

It is sad, but fair, to say that at the time Christ by and large failed in His active mission to get His message across. After all, He was a prophet and prophets fail because they go too much against general opinion and the comfortable habits of life. It is only through and beyond failure and rejection that their word becomes effective. In Our Lord’s case, it meant going through death. 

You and I, who came later, know who He was and we have the advantage of being able to read the gospel accounts of his ministry in the light of His own ultimate self-sacrifice.

And we can relate that “hard saying” about faith causing dissension and even splitting families to our personal experience. (My first marriage was destroyed by my becoming a priest.) Christ does bring peace - the ultimate peace which the world cannot give - but only at the possible cost of losing human relationships which would get in the way of giving God priority.

And so what about this alarming strategy which He resorted to of speaking in parables, fully aware that people would find them puzzling and obscure?

The answer is that He was trying to shock and provoke his audience into a crisis of faith and conscience - planting an idea that might challenge and disturb complacency and prejudice, but only once the hearer had started to think for him- or herself about what it might mean. 

That is why He deliberately didn’t explain or neatly finish off His stories. He left them in the air. Like a whodunnit with the last page containing the denouement ripped out or like a joke without a punchline. So that you went away with something to puzzle over.

I say He told His parables “without explaining them.”

Hang on, though. In this morning’s chunk of Matthew, Our Lord is portrayed a few verses on interpreting the sower and seed privately to His disciples, taking them on one side and saying “Actually, chaps, just to let you in on the secret, here’s the key: the sower = God, the seed = the news of His kingdom.....&c &c”

Unfortunately in this way, the parable would become what we call an allegory; not a mystery after all. More of an artificial puzzle to which there’s a cut and dried solution, so that if you get bored you can cheat by looking it up at the back of the book.

That’s not Jesus’s style. Those later explanatory words in Matthew are not part of the original gospel. They were slipped in afterwards in some misguided attempt at being neat, at dumbing down the message.

But the message about the kingdom of God cannot be dumbed down. It is too important and it is too shocking in its attack on wordly values. Most people need it to creep up on them by suggestion and metaphor before they can face it head on.

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And think how narrow the parable of the sower and the seed becomes if we are locked on to the tidy formula that the sower = God etc. Surely for a start it should occur to you that Christ Himself is in one sense the seed rather than the sower. Is He not the grain of wheat which must fall to the ground and die if it is to bear fruit?

 And then go on. Try doing a little private meditation, putting yourself in the part of the sower, then starting again with you being the seed, then with you being the soil and so on. You’ll be amazed how stimulating that experiment is and it’s just the sort of spiritual exercise which Jesus wants us to practice.

 And you can do the same with all the other parables which He told.

A really explosive one is the story of the vineyard owner who paid all his labourers the same rate, whether they had worked the whole day or just one hour.

Don’t settle for the simplistic allegorical explanation that the boss is God and the workers are human sinners, some of whom repented of their sins early on in life and some of whom only repented on their death-beds but all of whom are equally forgiven.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Try another meditation. Put yourself in the shoes of the cock-a-hoop latecomers who can’t believe their luck in receiving a whole day’s pay. Then feel yourself as one of the disgruntled full-time workers who want to maintain differentials and renegotiate the rate of pay they originally accepted. Lastly, be the vineyard owner.

You’ll begin to feel the intoxicating power of the full message:

God is prodigally generous. Fine.

He embraces us all with equal love without regard to merit. Well, yes, I suppose I must accept that.

But - ouch! - here comes the crunch.

He wants me to be like Him. To be ready to give others the love, the “emotional wages” which they need, rather than what I consider they deserve.

If we go on like this, we will see that these vague, mysterious, open-ended parables of Jesus are dynamite.

And the reason He used such a risky method of communication is that his message - the good news about the kingdom - is itself dynamite.

Any neat, simplistic painting-by-numbers would be a travesty- no better than those noisy evangelical bishops who want to boycott the Lambeth conference because they know all the answers and the rest of us are going to Hell if we don’t accept their cut-and-dried interpretation of the bible.

What the parables demand of all of us is a critical process of self-examination and self-judgment. Only those who are ready to risk spiritual pain can dare enter into Jesus’s stories, praying for honesty, experimenting, playing all the parts and allowing the text to do its unsettling work.

Do we dare?

If not, we can melt away in the crowd, keeping his strange, unsettling teaching at arm’s length. We can line up with those who will always look without seeing and listen without hearing, who will never have the candour or the courage to grapple with His word.

If we do dare, if we say “Yes,Lord, open my eyes and my ears to your wisdom, whatever it costs me” then we give ourselves the opportunity to use the gospel as we have never used it before:  a stick of dynamite to blast open our minds and our hearts to God’s truth.    

Spike Wells