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Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday

2012/02/07

Septuagesima (Readings for Epiphany V)

Colossians 3:12-17

St. Matthew 13:24-30
The Gospel reading is a parable that is easy enough to comprehend. It doesn’t take great effort to understand what is going on in the text, what the imagery refers to.  Even so, in case we don’t get it, it comes with a full explanation because the disciples, it seems, didn’t get it. Towards the end of the same chapter, St. Matthew gives the following account:

And his disciples came unto him, saying, Declare unto us the parable of the tares of the field. He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one; The enemy that sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels. As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.  (Mat 13:36b-43)

William Blake, The Good Farmer

I will deal only briefly with the parable itself, because, after all, I just read to you the explanation of its meaning. Bad seed is hidden in the rows of good crop. Bad seed that grows into fully fledged grass and not only spoils the soil but crowds out the crop. Bad seed sown subsequent to the good. St. John Chrysostom comments on the statement that while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and departed: “He here shews that error arose after truth, as indeed the course of events testifies; for the false prophets came after the Prophets, the false apostles after the Apostles, and Antichrist after Christ. For unless the Devil sees somewhat to imitate, and some to lay in wait against, he does not attempt any thing.”

This is what we are talking about—error and heresy. It creeps in when those who are called to oversee the Church slumber. It had happened among the Israelites, it happened in the early church and it is happening today. Error and heresy creeps into the Church. At first difficult to distinguish from the good crop, but eventually, when fully matured, it becomes evident that it is alien. We can all immediately think of too many examples of this in the modern Church—where bishops are not only asleep, but where many bishops are in fact tares and weeds themselves; wickedly and relentlessly working to spoil the crop, to crowd out the faithful, to replace the good seed.

I think that it is no illegitimate stretch of this parable to think of the field as ploughed—after all, it was well tended by the good sower—and then to think of each furrow as a generation. Each furrow contains wheat and tares side by side—each generation has its particular manifestations of heresy to deal with—but they all have that in common, that they are not the seed of to good sower. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclus 1:9). The parable states this as a fact. It is not a parable that presents us with a choice, a right and a wrong with some soothing possibility for a way out.  This is a fact, and we are to suffer it with forbearance. Judgment is not ours, but the Lord’s. A day of reckoning will come.

This parable has historically been used as a basis for arguing for religious tolerance and diversity—we are not to root out the weeds, but grow side by side and let God judge when the time has come. It has, by extension of this way of thinking, been used as a foundation for the principle of separation of church and state. Most famously perhaps by Roger Williams, the Baptist preacher and theologian who founded the Providence Plantation, Rhode Island. But there is another side to this parable that lends itself to arrogance. After all, wheat is wheat and tares are tares and one can never become the other. It lends itself to a sort of predestination theology—the wheat is destined to be gathered into the barn, the tares are destined for burning. And, of course, everyone is always the good crop—the other guys are always the weeds.

The reality is that we are presented here, in this parable, with a small insight onto a partial truth in a distant place. Don’t worry, I am not referring to the Gospel as partial truth–but what is a parable, and what purpose does it serve? This is the topic on which I intend to dwell for the remainder of this sermon, because it is important to understand what we can, and cannot extract from Scripture. How we should and how we should not read it. I hope to offer some pointers on this vast subject matter.

A general definition of a parable is ‘a short story that illustrates a universal truth.’  It comes, not surprisingly, from the Greek word παραβολή, which means ‘comparison’ or ‘illustration.’ By comparison to something that we know well, we get a sense of something larger.  But it is only a sense, a glimpse.It is never the full picture; it can never be the full picture

Immediately following this parable is that of the mustard seed, in which the Kingdom of Heaven is likened, not to a healthy crop beset by weeds, but to the humblest of seeds that grows into the greatest of herbs. Immediately following the parable of the mustard seed is that of the leaven, in which the same Kingdom is compared to that mix of bacilli and yeast, the leaven, that, when mixed with flour and water, makes the whole lump come alive. Not separate as the wheat from the tares, not humbler but grander as the mustard seed, but essentially comingled with the rest of the lump. These are parables that Jesus’ audience, a agrarian society, would have understood intuitively. They would have understood that these images are not only saying very different things, but that these differences, on the face of it, are incompatible.

Each of these parables illustrates an aspect of Truth about the Church in the world, but none captures the fullness of the divine and unknowable mysteries that lie at the heart of true religion. We are talking about the Kingdom of God, after all. Parables are by their very nature and design signposts that capture aspects of truth, point us to something that lies beyond language and beyond debate and discussion. Beyond word games and cleverness. It is significant that Christ speaks these parables to the multitude, the masses, in order to share with them some insight into his ministry. St. Matthew tells us, All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.

This fulfillment of prophesy that St. Matthew refers to is Psalm 78, which begins with the words Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old. This, then, is the Truth to which the parables point us: the things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world; the dark sayings of old. Taste those expressions for a few moments. Reflect on whether or not they could possibly be adequately captured in human language—or if, in fact, what is required of us is not understanding mere words on a page, but prayerful reflection and meditation on Scripture’s deeper meaning.

Once he had sent away the multitude, Jesus was approached by the disciples who asked for clarification. He obliged. But what he described were the moving parts of the parables, the ‘dramatis personae’—not the universal Truth to which they point. This is because that explanation cannot be given, it has to be experienced.

Dionysios the Aeropagite wrote that “the divinest and the highest of the things perceived by the eyes of the body or the mind are but the symbolic language of things subordinate to Him who Himself transcendeth them all.” He writes of the true meaning of Scripture as that “which exceedeth light and more than exceedeth knowledge, where the simple, absolute, and unchangeable mysteries of heavenly Truth lie hidden in the dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence, outshining all brilliance with the intensity of their darkness, and surcharging our blinded intellects with the utterly impalpable and invisible fairness of glories which exceed all beauty!”

Through Scripture, we are pointed to Christ. Through Christ, creation is reconciled with the Creator. These are mysteries beyond comprehension and expression–but they are made realities by the Christ whom we confess and described in the Scriptures. The Divine comes to us as the Word, and the Word, in turn, comes to us in Scripture and the sacrament that we are about to celebrate. These are things beyond comprehension, but not beyond experience and feeling.

Our task, then, is not to quip and argue about meanings, but to follow the example of the Blessed Virgin who kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19). The way to Christ is not intellectual, of the brain, but experiential, of the heart. Humility and patience; reflection and prayer. As we heard in the epistle reading, Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts.”

May the Lord continue to have mercy on us all. Amen.

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