Having an Understanding Heart.
“Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad.” [1 Kings 3:9]
As many of you know, I have been in France for about three weeks and came home this past Tuesday night. Well, coming back from France usually requires about ten days for my body clock to reset itself. Consequently, this week I have been going to bed at about 9:30 at night, but waking up at about 2:00 a.m. because my body still thinks it’s about 11 o’clock in the morning.
Of course, I think I am functioning fine until something happens that makes it clear I am not quite firing on all pistons. This week on Thursday I was at Aaron Brothers to get the glass replaced in our picture that was downstairs. When I went to start my truck, it wouldn’t turn over. I tried several times, but to no avail. Finally I called for a tow truck.
When the tow truck arrived, the man got into my truck and immediately turned it over. He then explained to me that, because of the high temperatures this week, a lot of starters are overheating. As he was explaining this, it suddenly occurred to me what had really happened. In France, my rental car would not start unless the brake pedal was pressed down; in my truck, it won’t start unless the clutch is pressed. I was trying to start my truck by pressing down the brake! Obviously, I am NOT functioning as well as I think.
Well, writing this sermon was a similar situation. For hours nothing was coming to me. The only thing that did come was how much I had in common with our Old Testament lesson. Just like Solomon, I was praying for wisdom. But then it came to me – thank God!
In our Gospel lesson for today, we have several parables strung together. But, have you ever thought why Christ spoke in parables? I mean, wouldn’t it have been better to speak clearly and distinctly?
When I was in college, I studied English Literature including Chaucer and Shakespeare. In the Middle Ages, the meaning of things were purposely obscured in passages because they believed that, if a lesson was worth learning, it was worth the work finding it hidden within a puzzle. In Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” the meaning of the three caskets becomes important in revealing the personalities of Portia’s suitors. But Christianity is NOT Gnosticism. Hidden truths are NOT part of our faith. In fact, we believe the truth has been revealed by Christ to all. So, again, why the parables?
In our lesson for today, Jesus is trying to describe the Kingdom of God. But that which is spiritual defies definition. By its very nature, it is not of this world. However, through parables, Christ is able to describe spiritual things using concrete, human images. In other words, Christ is doing the exact opposite of what the authors in the Middle Ages did. He is trying to make spiritual things clear and apparent – and more.
Not only is He trying to describe spiritual things in a way that we can understand, He is actually bringing believers into these spiritual realities. By describing the Kingdom of God in parables, Jesus is leading us ALL into this very kingdom! In other words, He is making it a reality for us all.
So, then why is there so many references in the Gospels to people who did not understand these parables? The Hebrew word for “parable” also means “allegory,” “riddle,” or “proverb.” Jesus did not intend the parables to be a riddle. However, if someone does not believe, the parables ARE a riddle. In other words, faith makes these parables comprehensible, and the lack of faith makes them more obscure.
So, Christ’s parables are a challenge to us all. It is a challenge to go beyond hearing, to go beyond the intellectual, and actually to “hear,” not through our ears, but through our faith. It is our faith that makes these many parables understandable. Thus, it becomes OUR responsibility to be receptive. If we are not, then we too will not have ears to hear. But if we open ourselves to being receptive, then the truth becomes clearer.
But I will caution you all on one other issue. There may not be just one interpretation. Rather, parables can be multifaceted, revealing multiple truths. The one thing that CANNOT happen is for a parable to reveal contradictive “truths.”
With this in mind, we can see how the parables for today can work both as statements regarding the Kingdom of Christ and also regarding our individual faith.
The many brief parables today speak about three things: the SPREAD of God’s Word; the VALUE of God’s Word; and the ultimate JUDGMENT of all, including those who belong to His Church.
In the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leavening, Jesus is speaking about how a small amount of something grows or spreads into something quite mighty. In the parable of the Mustard Seed, the Roman Catholics see this as a reference to His Church – how it started out small and persecuted and has grown into a mighty tree. They also point to the reference to the birds in this passage:
“but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree: so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.”
Roman Catholic theologians point to the fact that gentiles in the Old Testament are sometimes referenced through the image of birds. Roman Catholics therefore see the reference to birds here as an allusion to the reception of gentiles into God’s Kingdom – into His Holy Church.
Eastern Orthodox sees these passages as references to self-growth – how when we accept Christ, our faith grows within us. And they see the reference to the birds as an allusion to angels.
Again, these are NOT mutually exclusive interpretations. Both may and are correct.
The parables of the Hidden Treasure and of the Pearl of Great Price are references to the value of our faith. When we come to realize what our faith is all about, we realize how valuable it really is. We are willing to sell all in order to obtain it.
When we are baptized into the faith, we commit ourselves to renouncing the world, the flesh, and the devil. We are in essence saying that, being in God’s Kingdom, being a believer is more important than anything in this world. And for this reason, some people have literally relinquished all in order to devote themselves to God.
But such austerity is not required by all. We must know our devils. We must know what holds sway over us and what does not. For some, alcohol is their demon, and for that reason, they should not drink. But for others, it holds little or no sway. It does not draw them away from God.
We must know what will keep us from God and what does not. And then, we must “purchase” our faith by “selling” that which will keep us from God so that we may “buy” the land with the Treasure or the Pearl of Great Price. We give up that which will keep us from God, because being with God is more important than literally anything else in our lives!
The last parable is actually cut short. It is the parable of the Dragnet. In it, we are presented an image of God’s judgment which we would not know had Jesus not revealed it to us. In it, we have the net of the fishermen catching a huge amount of fish of every kind. However, then the fishermen go through and keep the good, but discard the bad.
This is another image of Christ’s Church. It is also revealed in the parable of the Wheat and the Tares and the parable of the Sower. There are many people who become Christians. They hear the Word proclaimed and they join. But this does NOT mean they are true Christians. They may be nominal; they may even be non-believers. Just joining the church is not enough. We MUST believe. If we do believe, even just a little, then our faith will grow like the leaven that leavens the meal.
But, in the end, those who do believe will be separated from those who only SAY they believe but really do not.
The part that was left out of our lesson for today was the part from verses 49b and 50:
“So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth , and sever the wicked from among the just, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”
So, what is our lesson for today? Is it to wait to write your sermon until after you have recovered from jet-lag or is it something else? I submit it is to start looking at all things through the eyes of faith.
When reading the Bible, do not depend solely on your eyes or your intellect, but use them in conjunction with your faith. If you do this, you will see what others do not see and you will hear what others cannot hear. And by all means, pray constantly what Solomon himself prayed:
“Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart.”