We’ve been hearing from Paul’s letter to the Romans and from the gospel of Matthew for weeks now, since the last Sunday of June, and we’ll continue to read from Romans and Matthew through September 11th, which is the Sunday after Labor Day – or, as it is known in many congregations, Rally Sunday, the big fall kick off.
If you’ve been paying attention you might have noticed that we’re not exactly reading straight through either book of the bible. More like the highlights along the way. The lectionary tries to help us out by matching texts thematically from the Old Testament to the Gospel reading. So, for example, this morning we hear the story from First Kings about Solomon asking God for wisdom, rather than long life or wealth, signaling that today’s theme is related to wisdom. Then the gospel reading for today picks up on that theme, presenting a string of parables all requiring wisdom to understand.
Sometimes, as the lectionary organizes texts around themes, chapters and verses get reorganized. This is the third Sunday in a row that we’ve read from the 13th chapter of Matthew, and after today we will have read almost all of it, though not quite all, and not quite in order. And that always makes me curious about what’s been left out or rearranged.
For example, you can tell just by looking at the verse numbers today that we’re leaving something out, right? We read verses 31-33, and then 44-52. What about verses 34 – 43? Well, for the most part we heard those verses last week, but not all of them. Verses 34 – 35 read like this:
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Mt. 13:34-35)
Matthew’s gospel, which is often referred to as the most Jewish of the three synoptic gospels, is always concerned with showing how Jesus’ teaching and prophetic ministry were the continuation and fulfillment of Hebrew prophesy. So, here Jesus is quoting Psalm 78, beginning at verse 2, which reads,
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from our children;
we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD,
and his might, and the wonders he has done. (Ps. 78:2-4)
And after these two verses, the gospel of Matthew continues with an explanation of the parable of the weeds that you heard last week when Julie Boleyn was the guest preacher, and you might remember that at the end of that parable’s explanation Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears listen!” Or, some other ancient copies of this text read, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
This brings us to the other section of the thirteenth chapter of Matthew that the lectionary leaves out, verses 10 – 17. Two weeks ago we began reading the gospel of Matthew, beginning at verse 1, with the parable of the sower and the seeds. You remember this parable, where some of the seed falls on the path, and other on rocky soil, and other among the thorns, and finally some on good soil. And, again, Jesus ends that parable with the words, “Let anyone with ears listen!” (Mt. 13:9).
But then the lectionary jumps over verses 10 – 17 and goes straight to the explanation of the parable of the sower, beginning at verse 18. What did we miss? Well, we miss out on a conversation between Jesus and his followers that seems somewhat important, where they ask him why he’s teaching them with parables. Given that this is our third week of parables, I’m kind of curious about this as well. Listen to what Jesus tells them:
Then 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 kingdom 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 prophesy 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 heard 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.” (Mt. 13:10-17)
Jesus tells the disciples that he is speaking and teaching in parables, because the people he is trying to reach have grown self-satisfied and complacent. Their hearts have grown dull and their ears and eyes have shut. They are so familiar with their religious scriptures and traditions that to simply read scripture and provide an explanation, as would be the custom in synagogue – or as we’re doing here, right now – wouldn’t really reach them. They know what to expect, and anything unexpected would just get tossed out.
This puts the preacher in a bit of a quandary, since the dynamic Jesus is pointing out is one that we continue to wrestle with today. Having a tradition is a wonderful thing. It allows us to develop a shared vocabulary, through a shared set of texts and symbols and ideas that we share with our children while they are young so that, as they grow older, the
y can turn to those texts and traditions to help them make sense of the world around them and find meaning in their lives.
Our traditions help us stay alert for God’s movement in the world. Grounding ourselves in sayings and stories about how God has moved in history, we become more sensitive to how God might be moving at this moment in time. But then, at some point, our traditions carry the dangerous potential to become fixed. We can become so attached to them, that they actually get in the way of sensing God’s movement – particular when God begins to do a new thing.
This is what Jesus seems to be describing as he answers the disciples’ question about his peculiar pedagogy. Why does he teach in parables? Because he is trying to awaken people’s senses. He is trying to re-engage their imaginations. He is trying to rouse people from patterns of being and relating that have kept them captive to a status quo that was killing them, quite literally, as oppressed people under occupation.
To do this, he takes situations familiar to the hearer to illustrate a point. “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with working preachers about mustard seeds and shrubs and trees. We’re all confused about how big theses plants are. We’re constantly turning to the internet to find photos and descriptions of the plant. How big is it? where does it grow? We can spend lots of time trying to get the facts right so that we make the proper interpretation of this parable, but that misses the point I think. Jesus is teaching using images that would have been familiar to his audience, so if you don’t know much about a mustard tree, just keep going.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Are there any bakers here? What does yeast do? How much do you need for it to work? Not much, right? There’s a principle at work here of small things that grow into larger things to feed and care for the world around them.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Or, “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” We don’t spend much time in fields looking for buried treasure, or scouting for pearls, but we get the point: who wouldn’t give up all that they have for an even greater treasure, something representing the best of all you’ve ever been looking for?
Or, again, “the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into the baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Umm… yeah. That’s a rough one, but not because we don’t get the point, it’s just a pretty scary point. But, by this point in the gospel Matthew has already told the parable of the weeds and the wheat, and here again the parable suggests that it will be God’s angels that do the sorting, and not we ourselves, and so we are encouraged to leave the act of judgment to God.
As I contemplate what the angels will do with the fish, when we come to the end of the age, I draw comfort from Paul’s words to the Romans, especially where he says, “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” (Rom. 8:38-39). Ha! Take that, you sorting angels! Not even you can separate me from the love of God!
And perhaps that is what not so different from the point Matthew is also trying to make, as he casts the image of a net filled with fish of many different kinds, and tells us to leave the sorting to God.
After telling them all these parables, told using images and experiences familiar to people in their everyday lives, Jesus asks, “have you understood all this,” and the people reply, “yes.” And, I think we should take them at their word. I mean, I think they understood Jesus as well as any of us do. They understood what he was trying to say, even if they still struggled to apply it to their own lives: the kingdom of heaven is something small and weak that, in time, grows into something like food and shelter. The kingdom of heaven is more precious than anything you own, something for which you would trade your most precious possessions. The kingdom of heaven includes people of every kind – some are the kinds you might choose to throw away, but God might not, so we leave the act of sorting to God and God alone.
Jesus wraps things up neatly then, saying “therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” And here’s how I read that:
Part of what it means to follow Jesus is to be faced with some of the same difficult issues that Jesus faced. We also are challenged to break through the sense of familiarity that comes with long-held and beloved words and traditions. We too can grow dull of heart, hard of hearing and dim in the eye when it comes to our attempts to worship the God who is always breaking into time in new and surprising ways. We as well need to find words and images and tunes that speak to eyes and ears and minds of those whom God loves and to whom God is reaching out. But how do we do that, when we are already so comfortable with what we have known for so long?
Jesus says, “let anyone with ears listen.”
I don’t think this is a cryptic as it’s made out to be. It might just be some practical advice. Let anyone with ears listen.
Let me see a show of hands from anyone who has already had a one-on-one conversation with a member of the justice team this summer. I had mine earlier this week. Libby came to my office and we talked for about 45 minutes. It was a friendly conversation, but it wasn’t just chit-chat. She was there to listen to me. She asked me for stories about how and why I ended up at St. Luke’s. She asked me what I see as pressing concerns out in the world, and how I’d like to the see the church get involved. She took the ears God gave her to hear, and she listened. I know the other members of that listening campaign are doing the same as they meet with each of you. And I know that it’s their intent to meet with as many people as they can this summer, including everyone who worships with us regularly. I think they’re aiming for 50 interviews by the end of the summer.
This kind of listening is how we learn enough about each other to find words and images and practices that can enliven our hearts, open our ears and clear our eyes. I think this is not too different from the kind of listening that Jesus did, that allowed him to tell parables that made sense to the p
eople who were following him.
If we want to follow Jesus, it’s useful to spend time researching mustard seeds and the trees that they become – but it’s more useful, I suspect, to spend time listening to people you don’t already know. It is by learning the vocabulary of each other’s lives that we discover new ways to strengthen and enliven our service to and worship of the God who has created us in love, and from whom we can never be separated, in life or in death.
Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!