The Parable Sermon: Matthew 13.1-53 By Canon Jim Foley
The Parable Sermon: Matthew 13.1-53 By Canon Jim Foley
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A Year with Saint Matthew
The Parable Sermon
Is the kingdom of heaven inside out or outside in?
In keeping with a long-standing tradition, this chapter usually carries the title of ‘The Parable Sermon’ and does so with good reason. Matthew has gathered together seven of Jesus’ parables illustrating various aspects of the Kingdom of heaven. Attention is given as much to the response of the audience as to the activities of the main protagonists in the parables such as the Sower, the other farmers, the merchants and the fishermen of Galilee, even if at first our attention is directed to them.
Other topics of equal importance are raised at several points in our text. These are considered in the first part of this Reflection. The following outline gives a general view of the entire chapter:
The first Parable: the Sower 13.1-9
The purpose of the Parables 13.10-17
The Parable of the Sower Explained 13.18-23
The second Parable: the Weeds and the Wheat 13.14-30
The third Parable: the Mustard seed 13.31-32
The fourth Parable: the Leaven 13.33
The use of Parables 13.34-35
Parable of the Weeds Explained 13.36-43
The fifth Parable: the Hidden Treasure 13.44
The sixth Parable: the Pearl of Great Price 13.45-46
The seventh Parable: the Net cast into the Sea 13.47-50
Conclusion: Treasures New and Old 13.51-53
The sequence of seven parables is punctuated by a discussion of the purpose of speaking in parable. This discussion surfaces from the outset of the sermon, as does a further debate as to why some people respond to Jesus’ message while others do not.
Although the parables can present us with a number problems, the other issues raised in the course of the Sermon can prove to be even more intractable. To these issues may be added the brief but devastating claim of a final separation between those ‘outside’ and those ‘inside’. The former ‘will be thrown into a furnace of fire’ while the latter ‘will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (13.42f).
Commentaries on the chapter offer a variety of conflicting explanations of these passages. For some, these echo a heated debate that was already taking place among the first generation of Christians over whom Matthew presided in Antioch. It seems obvious that these would have included converts from Judaism, as was Matthew himself, and others who had found their way into the Christian faith from other religions or from no religious affiliation. In other words, this is an internal debate within an early Christian community faced with divided loyalties. There were those who clung tenaciously to the traditions and practices of Judaism and those who did not share their loyalties
This conflict of interests evidently continued into the following generations as we find Saint Paul grappling with exactly the same issues within the churches in the province of Galatia and in the city of Corinth. Saint Paul’s impassioned appeal for unity sums up the situation perfectly: Has Christ been divided? (1 Cor 1.13). Eventually Paul felt the need to visit Jerusalem to confront the leaders of the church there, Peter and James. It was agreed that Peter and James would continue their mission mainly to Jewish converts and that Paul would persevere in his mission to the gentiles. They shook hands and parted ways.
Others again look beyond this internal domestic conflict to raise much wider questions. Why do some, whether Jew or Gentile, choose to welcome Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of heaven while others decline to do so? Is blame to be allotted to the latter or is there some decision already made that establishes this great gulf between those who can claim to be ‘within’ the kingdom and those who are destined to remain ‘outside’? The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, preserved in the Gospel of Saint Luke, would leave us in no doubt that such a definitive separation is to be taken seriously: ‘Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us’ (Luke 16.26).
These issues are not limited to the distant past. Divided loyalties have visited the Christian communities down the centuries with the capacity to mutate from place to place and from one culture to another. Those of us who have lived through the fifty years that followed Vatican II can bear witness to that. Conflicting loyalties remain an issue, not only for the Christian communities of the world, but for mankind in every corner of the earth/
The disciples’ question and Jesus’ answer.
We begin this Reflection with these issues which are introduced in the form of an abrupt question from the Twelve after the first parable in the series:
Then the disciples came and asked him,
Why do you speak to them in parables?
Jesus answers them in stages including a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah which clearly inspired his reply:
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 is indeed fulfilled the Prophecy of Isaiah which says:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
And you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
Ands their ears are hard 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.
13.14-15 quoting Isaiah 6.9-10.
Having reminded the Twelve at length of the dark side of the history of Chosen People, Jesus also reminds them of the blessing that they have received by responding to his teaching about the Kingdom of God:
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, and did not hear it.
Jesus’ words confirm the survival in his lifetime of a dichotomy which is reasserted down the ages in the Hebrew Bible. There will always be some, perhaps even a small minority, referred to on occasion as a ‘remnant’, who are chosen by God to understand and embrace the mysteries of the kingdom and others who are not and find themselves excluded.
In fact, the distinction runs even deeper. Those who are privileged to understand will be enriched even further, while those who do not understand will be deprived of the little understanding they have acquired.
Hardening of Hearts.
It is not always possible to attribute responsibility for this confrontation between those who are ‘included’ and those who are ‘excluded’. There will be those who are satisfied that nobody is responsible. However, every human instinct persuades us that this is not the work of the Creator. Every single item that comes from his hand is seen to be ‘good’ and the whole of creation is proclaimed to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.1-2.4). We must look elsewhere for an explanation of such an unwelcome distinction.
The history of the Chosen people is punctuated with evidence for a process of ‘hardening of hearts’ and subsequent exclusion. Adam and Eve were banished from Eden and from the presence of the Creator. On their way out they engage in a series of recriminations. Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. The serpent has nobody left to blame but himself (Gen 3.1ff). The Book of Wisdom attributes this fall from grace to ‘the envy of the devil’ (Wisdom 2.24). So the devil is to blame. Cain, likewise, falls victim to temptation which he is assured he can resist if he chooses (Gen 4.6ff). Many other examples follow in quick succession till, on the vigil of the Deluge, this process finds an extreme expression. Yet even then a hatch is opened for one just man to survive and prosper, Noah. He is found not guilty.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great on earth
and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts
was only evil continually.
And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on earth,
and it grieved him to his heart.
But Noah found favour in the sight of the Lord.
Original Goodness under Seige.
This amounts to a profound and relentless obduracy on the part of a race of creatures that had received every possible grace from the Creator. This included endless appeals for them to mend their ways and to have a change of heart when they had failed to do so, as was so often the case.
The Creator would not deprive them of their original goodness and freedom of choice. To impose his will would diminish both heir identity as creatures made in the image of God and equally, their capacity to respond freely to the love of God given freely. They would lead the procession of the walking wounded. The choice remained theirs no matter what the cost. Pride had supplanted their true sense of identity as creatures and they had become set in their ways. It seemed that no power in heaven or on earth could call a halt to this tragic fall from grace.
The Mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Against this background we can better appreciate the Parable Sermon, embodying as it does, such a range of powerful images of the mystery of the kingdom of God and the responses from mankind. Each image, in its own way, proclaims the wonder of the kingdom of God and the lengths to which those called to be part of it must go to secure a place therein.
At the same time the parables of the kingdom are well able to reveal a dark side to human nature and the abuse of free will. There is strong resistance to the Sower’s efforts from people on the margins, from shallow customers, from rootless critics. There are ‘enemies’ of the kingdom who are prepared to undo maliciously the good work of others.
Destined to burn like a furnace or shine like the sun.
Perhaps most unsettling of all the issues raised in this sermon is the conviction that there will be a final day of reckoning when judgement will be passed on those who knowingly resisted all attempts to persuade them to change their ways for the better, to close the distance between themselves and the love of God and their neighbour. The imagery associated with the day of reckoning is both frightening and definitive. If love never ends, then the same can be said of the absence of love:
The son of man will send his angels,
And they will collect out of his kingdom
all causes of sin and all evildoers
and they will throw them into the furnace of fire,
where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.
Then the righteous will shine like the sun
In the kingdom of the Father.
Let anyone who has ears listen.
The nature of this final separation is expressed in extreme terms as ‘the furnace of fire and weeping and grinding of teeth’. Likewise the seventh and final parable, although less specific, speaks of ‘being cast aside’. Every effort has been made to interpret these expressions as metaphors not to be taken too literally. Matthew’s final Sermon may persuade us to think again about the nature of this final judgement (Matthew chapters 24-25).
I chose to place the image of the Sower by Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875) at the head of this reflection. I do so in the conviction that his paintings capture, better than many an erudite commentary, the agenda written into the pastoral scenes depicted in Matthew chapter 13.
No doubt the first impression created by the seven parables is that there is nothing in this life to compare with the kingdom of heaven. In the first sermon we were introduced to the human and spiritual ideals of the kingdom. The second demonstrated how these ideals were to be communicated to the entire world. Now our third sermon considers how the world would react. In other words, the main thrust of this Sermon concerns the response to what Jesus has had to say.
What did Jean-Francois Millet make of all this? Like many of his contemporary artists, he was hard at work at his easel in the same field as Matthew and, if you will excuse the mixed metaphor, in the same boat as the fishermen of Galilee. He recognised in the rural communities of 19th century France, the dark side of a society in which the poor were exploited, denied a living wage and bent double under the burden of their labours.
However, he was also quick to realise that this could not go on much longer. There was revolution in the air. His version of the Sower takes us into another world, far removed from the world celebrated by poets and landscape artists before his time. He takes us into the world of the exploitation of the working classes in the shadow of the Industrial Revolution.
Millet’s sower appears to be bearing down on us as he scatters the seed all over the place. His cap is pulled down over his face to avoid recognition. Otherwise his life could be at risk. Not everyone would tolerate his message. In fact, he looks like an aggressive propagandist selling his papers hand over fist from the bag over his shoulder. ‘Read all about it. The revolution is under way!’ It certainly was in the Europe of the artist’s day. This image was used by the revolutionary press of Millet’s day. It was a call to arms only once removed from General Haig’s finger pointing the way to war.
Millet’s other ‘agricultural’ paintings carry the same message. Farmers heading into the fields, with their scythes and pitchforks over their shoulders, look like an army going into battle armed to the teeth. His women and children are bent double, as much under the weight of social oppression as by the bundles on their backs. As always, they are the real victims in every conflict.
Even Millet’s gentle Angelus, which has enjoyed a privileged place on the walls and in the piety of so many Christian homes, shows the husband furtively wringing the hat in his hand as his wife joins her hands in prayer. The sun is setting on yet another day’s futile work. The soil under their feet looks arid and barren, even hostile. Her husband is more interested in a share of justice and peace than a share of piety and prayer.
The year 1848 is usually associated with the beginning of the transformation of society from rural to industrial pursuits. Leo XIII (1810-1903), a contemporary of Millet, was soon to publish an Encyclical Letter that has stood the test of more than one hundred years. He gave it the title ‘Rerum Novarum’ which is the Latin for Revolution! His purpose was to protect the individual and the family from exploitation by industry and by the state.
There were those, and evidently Matthew was one of them, who were determined to move on from Israel of old to embrace a new Israel with the freedom of the sons of God and to escape from the tyranny of out-dated loyalties. Moses and the Ten Commandments had to come to terms with Jesus and the eight beatitudes.
Things New and Old.
Matthew ends his anthology of Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom of God by declaring his preference for things new but without completely abandoning the best of the old ways. He had already given ample evidence of this at considerable length in his rendering of the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5.17-48). Genuine fulfilment of ancient loyalties was the key to access to the new Israel. Vatican II confronted recent generations with the same dilemma. The time had come, not to destroy the precepts of the Law, but to fulfil them in the spirit of the Gospel.
I began this reflection with a question: Is the kingdom of heaven inside out or outside in? The time has come for those of us who believe we are ‘inside’ to take a turn ‘outside’ in the hope of persuading those ‘outside’ to take a turn ‘inside’. If our treasure is still buried in a field, the time may also have come to dig it up again and share our hidden treasure with others.