July 24, 2005 - Pentecost +10
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
• 31 Jesus put another parable before them, "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, that a man took and sowed in his field.
32 It is smaller than all other seeds, but once it has fully grown, it is bigger than any garden plant; like a tree, the birds come and rest in its branches."
33 He told them another parable, "The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast that a woman took and buried in three measures of flour until the whole mass of dough began to rise."
. . .
• 44 The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field. The one who finds it buries it again; and so happy is he, that he goes and sells everything he has, in order to buy that field.
45 Again the kingdom of heaven is like a trader who is looking for fine pearls. 46 Once he has found a pearl of exceptional quality, he goes away, sells everything he has and buys it.
• 47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a big fishing net let down into the sea, in which every kind of fish has been caught. 48 When the net is full, it is dragged ashore. Then they sit down and gather the good fish in buckets, but throw the worthless ones away. 49 That is how it will be at the end of time; the angels will go out to separate the wicked from the just 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where they will weep and gnash their teeth."
51 Jesus asked, "Have you understood all these things?" "Yes," they answered. 52 So he said to them, "You will see that every teacher of the Law who becomes a disciple of the Kingdom is like a householder who can produce from his store things both new and old."
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• 31. With the parable of the mustard seed Jesus shows us that the kingdom of God must be a sign; it has to be something very noticeable in the world.
Any spiritual aspiration, cultural innovation or revolutionary movement must be expressed concretely, through one or several institutions, to make it a clearer and more visible entity. Likewise Jesus projects his Church as the bearer (not the owner) of the kingdom of God. Church means: "Assembly of those called together." Two of the characteristics of this Church are indicated here:
first it must be very visible and fruitful for the world, like a tree giving shade to birds;
secondly, it must be immersed in human reality.
Believers are not to separate themselves from those who do not believe, for they are the yeast of the world.
Jesus does not want an "invisible Church," that is an emotional fellowship and spiritual communion among all those in the whole world who believe in him. He wants a gigantic tree (in another place Jesus says: a city built on a hill), so that everyone can recognize that the seed was good and full of life. We need organized Christian communities, and ties between these communities, a hierarchy… Nevertheless the believers are not to enclose themselves in their chapels or little communities or to spend all their energies working for "their" Church. They must be useful and fruitful in the world together with all people of goodwill.
Let them be yeast for the dough, not small separate and finer dough. The yeast transforms human history, not by bringing all people into the Church, but by infusing into human activity the spirit that gives life to humankind.
• 44. The parables of the treasure and the pearl invite us not to let opportunities pass by, when the kingdom of God comes to us.
Some have been waiting for years for that word, or person or sign of hope that would give new meaning to their lives. One day they found it. Sometimes it was found through simple things: a forgiving word, a friendly smile, a first commitment offered to them and accepted. Then they understood that this was the way to gain all they were waiting for, and they entered the Kingdom happily.
The parable says: he hides it again. Ordinarily it is God who hides the treasure again after having shown it to us, for it will be really ours when we have worked for it and persevered.
Everything must be sold. We have to divest ourselves of all those habits, pleasures… that occupy our hearts without filling them. When trials come upon us like a frosty, icy night, we should not forget the treasure we have once seen, until we recover it. Plato, the great pagan philosopher, said, "It is during the night that it is beautiful to believe in the light."
"The pearl" is, in a certain sense, Christ himself. He alone gives meaning to all the sacrifices of a Christian life. These are not really "sacrifices," but the search for a love that has already been proven.
EVIL IN THE CHURCH
• 47. The Church has given the Kingdom to those who entered, but some of them belong to the visible family of the chosen ones, without having the spirit of the Kingdom.
By speaking of the net, Jesus reminds us that the first activity of the Church must be mission: "to catch people." Many of them surely will not persevere, but a Church that closes itself would die.
How we would like to have a perfect Church made of upright persons, in which each one would discover the gifts of God! Christ, however, did not want a Church like that, nor is that the way for the Church to save the world.
They will throw them into the blazing furnace. This affirmation which we have already seen (13:30) only confirms what the whole Bible says: we shall be judged and the plenitude of life offered to those who will be "in" God will have as counterpart the despairing lot of those who have refused life.
The Church has always spoken, according to the terms of the Bible, of an eternal hell. She has also adopted towards the twelfth century the word "purgatory" to designate the painful purification the saved will experience, unless they have already known on earth the terrible burning of the pure love of God.
The affirmation of purgatory shocks those who have not experienced divine holiness which is never without a burning of everything that belongs to us; have they ever really pondered what "becoming God in God" exacts of us? Hell does not hurt less. We know, of course, that fire is only a figure and we should not interpret it as a vengeance of God: it is the "damned" who are unable to renounce the harrowing solitude in which they have enclosed themselves; it is at the same time their enjoyment and their torture. However, we no longer accept the idea of pain that has no end and we readily support this with philosophic argument.
Certainly Jesus spoke the language of his time, not ours. This division of the world into good and bad was present in all culture. It is also certain that Jesus had deep and true knowledge of God and human beings. Had he found in this punishment something contrary to the infinite goodness of God he would have said so with-out any concern of scandal. He has spoken as he did because the infinite love of God does not take away our freedom to escape him and defy him.
However it is to be noted that Jesus does not only speak of condemnation for some horrible crimes: loss or salvation is an option for all. We must also recognize that he does not speak according to our categories of hell and purgatory: Gehenna (Mt 5:22; 10:28), or fire (Mk 9:42) are imprecise terms that can designate both at the same time. The "fire of hell" is said to be "eternal" in several places (Mk 9:47; Mt 18:8; Mt 25:41), but this word has not exactly the meaning we give it: it could be something that goes beyond our experience of time.
We can then ask questions, but we must also question ourselves on two matters. Firstly, to speak of what God should or should not do is rather like asking him to be just. But "justice" is not something that exists in itself: it is only an aspect of the mystery of God. What do we know of his mystery? Then let us not teach him justice. We must also reply to this question: if Jesus wanted to say that certain people go to unending suffering, how must he say it in order that we may not doubt it?
The mystery remains. If we understood to what God invites us and for an eternity in its truest sense, and that life is unique and that here below we shall give our response and finally give birth to our eternity are there words too strong for someone who has lost everything?
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1. Try talking simply about "the kingdom of God." Religious talk can get us talking past ourselves. Another way to use parables is to move us from yesterday to tomorrow. Simply talking about a desired future brings image after image to mind. So, wherever you see "kingdom" you might want to substitute "desired future."
2. When we are in touch with a desired future we are able access the old (the best of our heritage renewed) and the new (visions beyond any reason for them to come to pass). It is this sense of being able to be real that allows us to stand smack dab between yesterday and tomorrow to claim the best of both and to reimplement lost good and to put into place distant dreams.
3. While there are a multitude of creative images for experiencing the presence of GOD, the best parable has always been the life of a human being who is able to listen to GOD and live with Neighbors. This sort of living always becomes visible in the world around. It takes the phenomenal growth of a mustard plant to grow one's self and provide space for others. It takes phenomenal power of yeast to raise the experiences of life to new heights. It takes the treasure of forgiveness, received and given, to move one to invest in making life better. It takes an expansive person to cast a wide enough net to catch all of life.
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