Hello! Here I am again with another in our series of daily meditations during this season of the coronavirus pandemic and quarantine. I am Jim Jelinek and I serve Trinity Church, Newport, RI, with my colleague The Rev. Alan Neale.
The gospel reading in Monday’s service of Evening Prayer was from Matthew’s Gospel [13:1-17]. The first part of that lesson is the parable of the sower who goes out to sow seeds on all kinds of different ground, the path, rocky soil, among thorns and on good soil, and the only one that brings a happy outcome, in other words, an abundant crop, is the seed sown on the good soil. I trust you are all pretty familiar with that part of the passage. However, there is a section which includes a dialogue between Jesus and only his closest disciples, and it has always fascinated me. Let me read it for you [vv.10-17]:
Then the disciples came and asked Jesus, “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 that 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 prophecy 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 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.’
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.” The Gospel of the Lord.
Jesus is not talking about secrets of the kingdom, as the RSV translates the term, he is talking about mysteries. Secrets are what we keep from other people, sometimes to be able to bring off a wonderful surprise, like a party or a gift, and sometimes just to exclude people we do not like or do not trust. But we handle secrets very purposefully, and very carefully. Mysteries, on the other hand, are matters that we want people to discover, and just telling them out straightforwardly doesn’t communicate them very well.
It is one thing to say God is a loving father, but that’s kind of bland and does not communicate much. Yet it becomes more understandable when we tell a story, like the story of the prodigal son, who asks for and is given all of his inheritance. He then goes to a foreign country and wastes it all on high living. And when it is all gone, he works on a pig farm, far worse work than he would have had with his father and brother. At first he is too ashamed to go home, but finally he is desperate and goes to his father.
Now the father does not know that he has changed his mind, that he has repented. He doesn’t even think of that. When he sees him on the road he tells the cook to kill the fatted calf for a party, asks someone else to get out the best robe to put on him and gets ready to give him the ring from his own hand. And then, not waiting a second longer, he runs out to meet him and throws his arms around him, yelling out this is my son, who was lost but now is found, who was dead but is now alive. When we hear the story, we see the lengths to which a loving father will go to express the depth and intensity of his love. And that is, of course, a parable about the God we know as the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
[I have preached on that story many times, but one Sunday in the late 1970s when I spoke about the father running out to greet and embrace and welcome his son, a man who was visiting burst into tears. Afterwards I asked him if he wanted to come in to talk, and he did a few days later. He told me he was gay and that ever since he told his parents, his father had disowned and shunned him. For him that story was an epiphany, a revelation that God could and did love him. He came back to church every Sunday when in town. He knew he was now welcome in God’s house as the person he was, and that was something he had never heard in church before.]
The parables, as they share mysteries with the hearers, invite them in, invite them to pierce the veil or the fog and see clearly. We could not say anything more clearly than that parable of the prodigal says about fatherly love.
But the disciples did not seem to understand, even though they themselves often understood the parables Jesus told. And Jesus says a very strange thing, which I think may be very parallel to a zen ko’an, which is a mystery that you reflect on, sometimes for years, until finally you see it, you have learned to live in it and let it live in you. [I am not a practitioner of zen, so don’t take my word for it.]
Jesus says plainly: “to those who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” For years I wrestled with this statement. Jesus was no preacher of the prosperity gospel like many televangelists who broadcast today, with “feel-good religion” and justification of the mad dash to accumulate wealth and hang onto every penny of it. Jesus was not cruel, and certainly did not believe God was. God never forced the poor to suffer more than what the society around them was doing to them. So what is Jesus talking about here?
I think it goes like this. Jesus was addressing the inner life of faith and hope, and he is saying that those who are rich in faith, rich in hope, will always have more. It will grow in them, or as Jesus said to the woman at the well, I will give you living water, so you will never thirst again.
But those folks who are always striving for something more, always chasing a new thing, always dissatisfied unless they have the latest and the best, those folks really do have something, but they are so hungry that they cannot step back, look deeply, recognize it and say “thank you” for what they do have and be at peace with those gifts. What is taken away from them, and I would say it another way, in keeping with the prodigal son, what they are squandering and wasting is any real peace, any true hope. They have little or no faith in any of that. The author of Psalm 78 said it beautifully [v. 30] when describing the people of Israel in the wilderness during their years of endless complaining and whining: “But they did not stop their craving, though the food was still in their mouths.” That is what it is to “have nothing.” You do not taste your food. Nothing satisfies, nothing is enough. What is taken away, is the time and energy that has been wasted in each one of these pleasure-seeking moments. Each of those experiences is more hollow and empty than the one before.
What Jesus affirms is what he sees in his disciples. Yes, there are times he sees them as “out to lunch,” too. But he sees their faith growing, he watches them really getting the message in the stories, really listening with ears to hear, eyes to see and hearts to understand. And Jesus praises them for that.
One of the Beatitudes in the RSV, is delivered as “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The NEB translates it as “How blessed are those who know their need of God.” I trust you know your need of God or you would not be tuning in to these reflections
In one way or another, all these stories and examples are telling us the same thing: God is good. All the time! Amen.
May this day be filled with blessings for you, and may you stop and take them in. +JLJ