Sunday, July 13, 2014

Hearing the Parables

I love this Gospel, because Jesus sort of takes away the homily by explaining himself what the whole parable means. On the one hand, Jesus took all the best preaching material already when he explained this parable, but on the other hand it's nice when you have it on Jesus' authority that this is what a parable means, and you don't have to take it on the authority of some preacher. So we need to look at two things today: Why use parables at all, and what can we learn from this parable.

Van Gogh's The Sower
Why did Jesus use parables at all? What was the point of them? They're not a simple way of making a point, we can see that from the fact that the disciples had to pull him aside and say "Hey, what's the deal with all the parables?" The disciples ask a fair question. If this story of a sower has hidden meanings that need explanation, then why not just tell the people straightforward what they need to know?

Parables are not an easy way of making a point. They can be interpreted and misinterpreted, and sometimes, like today Jesus himself has to set the record straight about what they mean. So far in Matthew's gospel, Jesus has been a bit more straightforward in his teaching style. With lessons like the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes, there is no ambiguity about what Jesus means. The Beatitudes are a simple way of making a point. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek. That easy to understand. But the parables have hidden layers of meaning. So why use them? Speaking at length in parables is a new thing in the story, and the disciples picked up on this, so they asked him today why he was teaching in parables. When they asked him, he said "Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted." That sounds harsh, so we have to understand what has been happening so far in the story.

The chapters right before this show how the "old Israel," the Pharisees and the leadership of Israel, and even whole towns, had rejected Jesus. They didn't want what he offered. So parables are a form of judgment on the old Israel. He is declaring them spiritually bankrupt because they did not hear and accept his words. What Jesus is doing in these parables then, at least in Matthew's gospel and Matthew's view of the world, is creating a new Israel. Rather than dealing with the old Israel, Jesus is constituting a new Israel around his disciples, around those who hear the words of Jesus and understand them. This new Israel is going to be the Church he will establish. This will culminate in Peter's declaration that Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus' declaration that Peter will be the rock of his new church. We won't hear that until late August, so keep coming back.

So when we understand that Jesus is forming a new people here, a people who hear and understand his word, then his answer to the disciples seems less harsh. When the disciples ask him why he uses parables, and he says to them "Knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but to them it has not been granted" we understand that because you hear and understand my words, you get to know about these deep mysteries, but they don't, because they don't hear me. The crowds at this point in Matthew's story represent those who do not hear Jesus, so by means of parables we see Jesus turning inward, shifting his focus from the wider world to just those who will accept his word. He is shifting from the whole world out there to focus on you and on me.

Knowing that the parables are Jesus' way of shifting the focus of his ministry to us, to his disciples, what do we do with a parable like this? Jesus gives us the answer, in the parable and then in the explanation. Our job is to make ourselves the fertile ground that can accept Jesus. We can't just accept his words, he is not just a moral teacher with some cool ideas. We have to accept his very self into our lives. When we look at the analogies that Jesus gave of the path, the rocky ground, the weedy ground, and the good ground, one of these already typifies your life.

So examine your life, does the Word of God bear fruit in your life? And I know what you're thinking: "I don't know." What should it look like if God's word is bearing fruit in my life? I think that means that your life is primarily characterized by the values of faith, hope and love. It doesn't mean that life is always happy or easy, we don't preach the gospel of the happy-go-lucky or the gospel of easy street, we preach the gospel of the Crucified Lord. So through the crosses of this life, can you identify yourself as a faithful person, as a hopeful person, as a loving person? When the sower sows the seed, if the ground it finds is receptive, not hard, not rocky, not thorny, then faith, hope, and love will grow there.

It's kind of a self-perpetuating process. If I have faith, hope, and love in my heart, then when I receive God's word I will increase in faith, hope and love. So how do I start? How do I make myself receptive to this word? How do I prepare my heart for this word to take root? Well, that's kind of a trick question because I can't. God has to get the ball rolling. The sower himself has to prepare my heart. So I have to ask Jesus to come into my heart and make it receptive to his word, and I have to pray for the humility to let him work in my heart. So examine your heart and ask the Lord to make it a receptive heart. Ask the Lord to make it a heart that bears fruit a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

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