Posts Tagged ‘parables’

Good citizens or bad?

July 29, 2017

Pentecost 8 – 2017

Matthew 13:30-33, 44-52

Marian Free

In the name of God who refuses to be bound by the limits of the human imagination and who challenges us to go outside our comfort zone to be part of God’s kingdom. Amen.

In our society used-car salesmen and real estate agents are, in general, held in suspicion. There is a belief (based on the experience of some people) that a used-car salesman will use all his persuasive power to convince an unsuspecting buyer to purchase a “bomb” and that real estate agents will in the same vein exert pressure to induce someone to buy a home that may or may not be what they were looking for. Naïve and not so naïve buyers can find that they have spent more than they intended on a car or house that fails to live up to their expectations or that costs them more than it was worth.

Every age has stereotypes that are imposed on members of certain professions, cultures and social classes regardless of whether or not they are an accurate representation of all the people who could be included in a particular category. In every age there are those who contradict or confound the expectations of those around them. Not all used-car salesmen take advantage of their customers’ trust and not all real-estate agents behave in ways that cause alarm.

Today’s gospel consists of five parables, the first four of which have in common that Jesus uses an image that has a negative connotation and turns it around so that it says something that is positive. In order to understand the parables of the mustard seed, the leaven, the treasure and the pearl, we first need to know something of the culture of Jesus’ day.

In first century Palestine, mustard was a noxious weed. Farmers would routinely pull it out of their fields. Leaven was an agent caused decay and while used correctly it could cause bread to rise, it was also an image for evil or corruption. In the absence of banks, treasure was often buried to keep it safe from robbers and marauders. The hidden money is no surprise then, but to whom does it really belong – the owner of the land or the person who has been illegitimately digging around in a field that does not belong to him? Finally, we have a merchant and a pearl. Merchants occupied the place that used-car salesmen and real estate agents occupy in our time. In other words, they would try to purchase goods at the lowest possible price and to sell them for as much as they could persuade someone to pay.

Parables that in the first instance appear to us as bland and almost self-evident, take on quite a different flavour when seen in the light of the culture of Jesus’ time. In comparing the kingdom of heaven to a weed, an agent of corruption, a thief and a merchant, Jesus is giving status to things and people that would normally be considered as contemptible. He is subverting the normal cultural view and suggesting that the kingdom of heaven is very different from anything that his listeners might have envisioned.

Can you imagine the response of Jesus’ listeners when they heard these four parables? No doubt they, like us, had in their heads some sort of idea as to the nature of the kingdom of heaven and what it might take for someone to attain it. I suspect that they, like us, associated the kingdom of heaven with righteousness and good behaviour. They assumed that it was a place (an existence) in which all corruption, unscrupulousness, dishonesty and all that was worthless had been weeded out. A place not too dissimilar to the world with which we are familiar, minus all the things that in our eyes are not “good” or not “worthy” of the kingdom.

Jesus’ parables often contain contradictions that force Jesus’ listeners to see the world and to see the kingdom in a new and different way. Wheat that can yield thirty, sixty or a hundred fold, weeds that are left to grow among the wheat, a Samaritan who is good or a father who welcomes back a son who wished him dead. Here as elsewhere Jesus turns convention on its head reminding us that no matter how hard we try we will not be able to put ourselves in God’s place or to begin to dream what God sees, what God thinks and what God plans for the future.

In other words, so long as we think according to the conventions of our time, we will be blind and deaf to the possibilities of the kingdom. Jesus is suggesting that sometimes being a good citizen of heaven means being a “bad citizen” in terms of the world. Standing up for justice, confronting evil and corruption or challenging unfair, discriminatory practices may mean putting ourselves on the “wrong side” of the law, outside the boundaries of so-called respectable society and challenging the status quo. By behaving in a way that is non-conventional, by operating in ways that differ from the standards of the world Jesus implies, we may in fact discover that we are conforming to the values of the kingdom.

Jesus tells parables, not to provide comfort, not to give us nice stories to tell our children and certainly not to help us to “fit in” to the culture of our time. Jesus tells parables to shock us out of our complacency, to challenge the arrogance of our preconceptions and to open our eyes to the endless possibilities of the kingdom, possibilities that far exceed our ability to imagine. Parables force us to ask ourselves whether, by concentrating on being good citizens of this society, by conforming to the values of the world around us and by fitting in with our culture, we are in fact squandering our opportunity to learn what it means to be good citizens of the kingdom of heaven.



God’s future is not in our hands

July 26, 2014

Pentecost 7 – 2014

Matthew 13:44-52

Marian Free

 In the name of God whose future is not in our hands. Amen.

You have probably observed that chapter 13 of Matthew’s Gospel consists of a collection of parables that have some common themes. The parables of the sower, the mustard seed and the leaven all have to do with growth. No matter how carelessly the seed is thrown, the gospel will grow exponentially when it lands on the right soil. With little or no human input, the kingdom of heaven will grow miraculously. The parables of the wheat and the weeds and of the dragnet are reminders that good and evil exist side by side both in the world and in ourselves. We are reminded that only God can distinguish the good from the bad and therefore only God is in a position to judge. The parables about the treasure and the pearl indicate that people can come across the kingdom both by accident and by diligent searching. When someone does find the Kingdom, that person will be so entranced that he or she will give everything they have in order to possess it. Finally, the saying about the scribe suggests that in the light of the Kingdom a person’s wealth will no longer be perceived to be of any worth.

In the midst of these parables of growth and desire, there are warnings or reminders that not everyone will receive the gospel with the same passion or enthusiasm. In fact, no matter how widely the gospel is spread, there will be many that hear the Gospel, but who actively reject it. That is to be expected. The parable of the weeds and the parable of the dragnet provide a reminder that In the present, believers and unbelievers will co-exist, and an assurance that there will come a time when unbelievers no longer have a place. These two parables occur only in Matthew’s gospel and are told with Matthew’s particularly florid language: “the angels will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42, 50).

In placing these parables together, the author of Matthew appears to be trying to answer the questions: “If the kingdom of God has come, why are there those who do not believe? and If the Kingdom of God has come, why does evil continue to exist in the world.” Placed together in this way the parables provide a number of answers to the question: firstly, it should be expected that the response to the gospel will be varied – some will respond enthusiastically and others will not. Secondly, those who have believed do not have to worry about those who do not – the Kingdom will continue to grow – mysteriously and secretly. Thirdly those who respond to the gospel and those who do not will co-exist in the world until such time as God chooses to separate them. There is no point in being concerned about such things because those who do believe have a gift that is beyond compare.

It is this last that is the focus of today’s gospel. Leaving aside the parable of the dragnet (which repeats the theme of last week’s gospel) we have two and a half parables all of which make a similar point about the inestimable worth of the kingdom. The treasure is an accidental find, but creates such joy in the one who discovers it that that person sells everything in order to possess it. The pearl is a treasure that has been much sought after and when at last it is found, the seeker sells everything to make it their own. Matthew seems to be implying that those who already believe need not be anxious about those who do not. The worth of the kingdom is such that those who seek it and those who simply come across it, will know its inestimable worth and do all that they can to obtain it, just as those who have already become disciples will have cast out all their treasure – the new and the old for it no longer has any hold over them.

Matthew was speaking to a time and place vastly different from our own, but he could just as well be addressing this chapter to us. We live in a time when fewer and fewer people are responding to the gospel and in which we have our own questions as to why it is that people do not believe. We are constantly looking for new ways to engage with the world around us and asking ourselves whether we can or should do things differently to make our faith and or our worship more attractive. These are important questions and we need to prayerfully consider whether what we do and how we practice our faith are consistent with the gospel. At the same time we should never despair. God’s future does not depend on us nor is it necessarily tied to that of the church. God who sent Jesus into the world is more than capable of getting the attention of humankind should that be necessary. God will continue to make the Kingdom of heaven known in the most unlikely and likely of places and where that Kingdom takes root is will continue to grow secretly and mysteriously. Good and bad, believer and unbeliever will continue to exist together until such time as God will separate one from another. Some people will continue to stumble on the Kingdom as if by accident and others will continue to seek it out and those who find it will know at once that it is worth all that they have.

If it is we who are the scribes who have been trained for the kingdom, let us truly understand the worth of what we have received and let go of anything that we value more highly than the privilege of knowing and being known by God. Who knows – if others see how much the kingdom means to us whether they might not seek it for themselves, or if, stumbling across our contentedness they might abandon their present pursuits and join us in ours.

Safe in the hands of God

October 19, 2013

Pentecost 22

Luke 18:1-14

Marian Free

In the name of God who raises up the humble and puts down the mighty and who never abandons us to face our trials alone. Amen.

When the weather is good, Michael and I like to eat outside. Not only is it a pleasant environment, it also gives us a chance to observe the natural world. Among other creatures that inhabit our garden are some rather large, but harmless ants. Needless to say they are very much in evidence should anything fall from our table. On one particular day a rather large crumb was picked up by two of these ants. We watched as they moved it somewhat awkwardly across the cement amazed that they should think that the trouble was worth it. Because the ground slopes, the concrete has a large crack in it – too wide for the ants to cross. The two of them spent ages trying to manoeuvre the crumb down one side of the crack and up the other. If one ant dropped an end, the other clung tightly until the first had regained its hold – a process repeated over and over again. They did not seem to be discouraged no matter how often they had to repeat the process. It was hard to believe that one small crumb warranted such persistence – especially when there were others, more manageable, to be had.

Today’s gospel consists of two parables which, at first glance, appear to have nothing to do with each other. A closer look however reveals that they are both about faith – a relationship of trust in God that persists in difficult circumstances and that is built on openness to God in prayer.

To understand the parables, we have to understand the context in which they are being told. The Pharisees have asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God will come. Jesus’ response was to tell them that the coming of the Kingdom would not be observable by outward signs. Indeed, he says, the Kingdom is already among them. It is just that they have failed to recognise it. Jesus concedes the world is not yet perfect. It is full of uncertainty and suffering which will only come to an end when God’s rule is firmly established. Jesus warns his followers that they are to expect difficult times – and the letter to Timothy indicates that the believers do experience persecution and suffering. The disciples and the church live in this in-between time. They are aware of God’s rule in their own lives, but conscious of how far from the ideal of the Kingdom the world still is. They accept that in this still unperfected time that their life will not necessary be one of peace and ease.

The parables are told to encourage the disciples to remain faithful even in difficult times and to trust God to vindicate them against those who oppress them. Jesus is responding to the unasked question: How are the disciples to live, how are they to pray in this time after Jesus coming and before the realisation of God’s rule over all the world?

Even though it seems to be taking a long time for things to change, the disciples are to persist in prayer, confident that God will respond. They are not to abandon their faith at the first sign of difficulty, but to preserve against all odds. God is not like the judge who has to be worn down before he will act, and then only acts in his own self-interest. God’s loving goodness has the disciples’ interests at heart, and though the Kingdom seems long in coming, they are not to be discouraged even when times are tough. Jesus urges them to continue in prayer and to remain faithful, confident that even if God does not act as quickly as they would like, God will respond.

Having told this parable, Jesus tells another – about two people at prayer. The Pharisee, confident in his own goodness is keen, not so much to pray, but to tell God just how good he is in comparison to everyone else. Certainly, he is living in a way that is consistent with the law and he is observing the spiritual disciplines expected of him. However, he cannot see that even though he fasts twice a week, gives ten percent of his income away and does not earn his living by collecting taxes for the Romans, his very arrogance, self-centredness and lack of compassion place him as far from God as every other sinner. His belief in his own perfection has blinded him to his own faults and shortcomings. Worse than that perhaps, he has made himself judge, thus standing in God’s stead and doing God’s work for him! He might think that he believes in God, but in fact by his attitude he demonstrates that he doesn’t need God. He can be judge and jury all on his own.

The tax-collector on the other hand, is only too aware that by circumstance or design, he falls far short of the ideal of perfection. In fact, he is so aware of his failings, that he cannot hold his head up high, nor can he wait for God to pass judgement on himself but beats his breast as a form of self-punishment. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax-collector knows only too well how much he depends on God for anything like a good outcome at the judgement. He hopes against hope that God will overlook his present situation – his role as tax-collector – and that God will restore him to a relationship with God. The Pharisee does not need God to tell him how wonderful he is. The tax-collector, knows how much he needs God if he is ever to be declared wonderful.

This is the difference that Jesus wants us to observe, and why he commends the tax-collector who, to his contemporaries is a traitor and one of the worst kinds of sinners. What matters, Jesus implies, is our relationship with and dependence on God, our recognition that we fall far short of godliness and our belief that, despite our faults, God will vindicate us if only we trust in God and not ourselves. The widow’s persistence and faith in God teaches us to persevere and not to be discouraged. The tax-collector’s humility in prayer teaches us to trust in the mercy of God even though we are far from perfected.

Today, we continue to live with the tension that faced the first century church. Like them we might wonder why God who sent Jesus to save the world, continues to stand back, to hold his hand when a baby dies every three seconds, children starve in Syria because adults cannot agree on how to bring about peace, millions of people languish in refugee camps, Christians are persecuted and killed and people’s homes are destroyed by fires so ferocious that they are almost unimaginable. We do not and will not have the answer to this question, but Jesus tells us that we must not be discouraged, we must not give up. We must continue to pray, confident that God is not only listening, but that God has everything in hand and in God’s own time God will respond.

So we must continue to pray, and when we do, we must be honest with ourselves and with God. We must recognise that if the world is not perfect, it is in part because we are not perfect. When we ask God to change the world we must first ask God to change us.

We are to have faith in this in-between time when Jesus has come and the world is still not perfected. We are to keep the faith even in the most difficult and trying circumstances. We are to understand that faith does not consist of doing the right thing, but first and foremost consists of a relationship with God which is honest and transparent, which is open and responsive to the presence of God and willing to be transformed by that presence.

Persistence and humility are two characteristics, two attitudes that should inform and support us in a world that is far from saved. Persistence in prayer prevents despair when our circumstances seem impossible. Humility in prayer acknowledges our solidarity with (rather than our superiority over) the world around us. Both evidence a trust in God which places our future and that of the world firmly where they belong – safe in the hands of God.

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