And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
The New Testament is full of examples of parables; there are actually thirty in total. We encountered one of them last week in theParable of the Laborers in the Vineyard.A parableis an external and visible story or illustration that carries the mind into an interior and invisible truth. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parablealways involves the story of human beings; never places their moral education in the power of talking trees, birds, or brute beasts; does not mock or deride man’s condition; and represents the creation accurately as the work of a loving and engaged God. Thus a parable is not a fable. Nor is a parable a mythsince myth normally conflates or blends the divine and human, heaven and earth, good and evil in such a way that what is depicted seems to picture more of a conundrum than a solution. A parable, then, involves men and their reconciliation to God, focusing on one aspect or mode of human life that leads to or away from union with Him. A parable…moves in the spiritual world, and never transgresses the order of the natural world. A parable uses the external and visible to lead the mind to the discovery of inward and spiritual truth. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parablesof the New Testament are always about the choices that man makes in this life and how those choices affect his ultimate destiny. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants men to know the Good, but also because He wants them to will it. He wants them to will it since without moral decision a man cannot be saved. St. John Chrysostom writes thatJesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would convert, he would heal them’ (cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). God never forces Himself upon any man. He respects man’s freedom. That freedom is all about the ability of faith to ponder, study, explore and investigate what is not immediately known but which can be discovered and found beneath the surface of reality. In the parables, each of us is invited to study Jesus, to know Him, and thus to follow Him to his Kingdom. Pope Benedict says that Jesus Himself is the Parable…who, in the sign of His humanity, hides and at the same time reveals His Divinity. (Idem)
Yet, for Jesus to become the Parable of our lives, we must embrace His Word and reveal His Nature to the world through our thoughts, words, and works.Of course, every human being is already a parable.Man’s external and visible form already reveals an inner and otherwise hidden spiritual nature. Through his words, expressions, gestures, and actions man reveals what kind of man he truly is. He is a parable of his spiritual condition. You can tell the spiritual nature of a person by his appearance. You can detect if he is temperate, prudent, just, or courageous. You can tell if he is faithful, hopeful, loving, merciful, kind, generous, and so forth. Man is a parable that illustrates outwardly what he embraces inwardly.
St. Paul know this only too well. So, he maintains rightly that the parable of his life must be instrumental in leading other men’s minds to the nature of what is going on in his heart. He offers his experience as a parablefor the honest man who will plant his feet on the ground and resolve to follow Jesus Christ. The parable of his life will give external and visible witness to a true inner love from Christ that has transformed his heart. And itwill make a mockery of any false teaching which disregards the parableas an unnecessary and cumbersome way to Christ. He says, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) In other words, conversion and discipleship involve much more than cursory and perfunctory faith in God’s Word, evidenced in the parables of certain Christians’ lives that make a mockery of redemption.St. Paul maintains that if man is to faithfully endure the Word of God as it moves him from the external and visible surface of the world well into the depths of his own fallen self that sees the need for salvation, he must suffer. Conversion involves suffering. Man must suffer to find the truth that he does not have. Who is weak, and I am not weak? the Apostle exclaims!(Cor. xi. 29) The parableof St. Paul’s life reveals that the work of becoming a Christian involves the discovery of spiritual suffering. The process is painful as the soul suffers to confront this painful truth. The process is painful as the soul conforms to the truth. The process is painful as the soul suffers at the hands of the world who hates this truth. Yet, in the midst of the pain that suffering conversion brings, St. Paul insists, If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The confession of true weakness will yield to God’s strength. My Grace is sufficient for thee. My strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. xii. 9) St. Paul’s life is a parable of the way of the Cross. This is the parableof spiritual pilgrimage that involves the struggle for conversion, sanctification, and salvation.
All threats to this conversion parableare neatly summarized in today’s Parable of the Sower.Asower went out to sow his seed, Jesus tells us, andsome fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it.And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (St. Luke viii. 5-7) Some Christians hear God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls is trodden down by the habitual busy-ness of this world, and so they never become part of the parable.[Men] have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement…[having] laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) These men are easy prey to the Devil and his ways and, thus, have no time for Christ’s parable. As St. Cyril says, Into…minds that are hard and unyielding, no divine or sacred Word will enter. (On the Gospel: St. Cyril) They are hard and unyielding because their souls are addicted to the influence of all worldly things. They are too busy to notice the real nature of the parable.
Other Christians temporarily hear the Word of God with excitement and joy; it sounds so promising. But they prematurely anticipate its rewards without understanding the depth of faith that must establish its roots. They fall awaybecause they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) The parable reveals that for man to discover his true self and his need for a savior he must endure much pain and suffering. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no deepness of earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26) These are shallow Christians who love the husk of Christianity –the sounds, smells, colors, and movements of a beautiful form. And, as St. Cyril writes, As long as [these] Christians are left in peace, they keep the faith; but should persecution arise, they will be of a mind to seek safety in flight. (Idem) Their faith is superficial and their commitment to the work that is demanded of the Christian laborer in theparable is too costly and laborious.
Finally, there are Christians who hear and more honestly receive God’s Word but are choked and killed by thorns which sprung up with it. (St. Luke viii. 7) These men have become part of the parable. Here, the Word is growing, but only alongside that inner anxiety, fear, worry, and looming despair that eat away at and finally kill faith. They are crushed by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) The old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) The thorns and briars symbolize temptations to past sins that have not effectively been overcome through the soul’s habituation to virtue. St. Paul knows only too well that one or all of these temptations threaten the meaning and fulfillment of today’s parable.
The conclusion of the Parable teaches us that the seed of God’s Word can grow up effectually only in deep, dark spiritual soil that is weeded and fertilized by faith that opens itself completely to God’s Grace. Only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort can the Word of God, Jesus Christ,take root downward and bear fruit upward. (Isaiah xxxvii. 31)If we follow St. Paul, then we learn that each condition of soul described in Jesus’ Parablecould be a pitfall for us. Jesus knew this when He offered the Parable. Christ speaks to each of our natures. He challenges us to ask which level of receptivity best describes our relation to Him. He wonders what kind of parable our lives are revealing to the world. Every level, save the last, is, after all, inadequate to salvation. So Christ challenges us to take the utmost care with the cultivation of the seed of His Word in our souls so that our lives might be parables of men who earnestly follow Him to His Kingdom.
With St. Paul then, let us conscientiously die to all that threatens the life of Christ the Word in our lives. Let us fight the good fight against evil in our lives, so that holding the Word with a noble and generous heart, and enduring courageously…we shall yield a harvest. (St. Luke viii. 15, Knox) And though we shall suffer, we shall also, like St. Paul, become a parable to the world that reveals how inward faith in Grace gives hope to the world for the harvest of souls that God’s implanted Word intends.
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
St. Matthew xx. 16
The Church in her ancient wisdom is nothing if she is not keenly aware of the dangers that human nature poses for the process of redemption and salvation. Think about it. If she were not aware of human nature’s fallen tendency to fall back and away from the vigilance that is required in this process, she would not constantly and habitually provide seasonal themes in her lectionary that remind man of the dangers that accompany his spiritual journey. We have just emerged from the season of light -that of Epiphany, in which many a man is usually bedazzled by the brilliant and beautiful vision of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ. And were the Church not conscious of man’s tendency to treat it more like a deer in headlights than a vision of the glory to come, she would approach the period between Epiphany and Lent innocuously and tenderly. But thank God that the Church in her prudence has established the season before Lent with more caution and concern. The Church knows that man is more likely than not to fall into resentment and so to become hardhearted. She knows that her sheep are easily distracted by theories of good works and comparative goodness, and so she has given to us the Gesima Sundays, between the season of Epiphany-vision and that of Lenten-mortification.
So today we begin the Gesima Season- comprised of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sunday, named from the Latin words meaning seventy, sixty and fifty days prior to Easter. In this season the Church reminds us of the temptations and dangers that most commonly interrupt the Christian’s preparation for the coming Lent. In Lent, the Christian is called to see and experience the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in a life-changing way. So first Mother Church calls us to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind which will ensure that we are sufficiently prepared to encounter our Saviour’s Passion for us.
Our lections for this Season progressively help us to prepare our bodies, souls, and spirits for a closer walk with [Christ] up to His Cross. Today we focus on our bodies and then on our relation to other people. Our work must begin in the external and visible world before we move to the inward and spiritual. We might find this odd, but we shouldn’t. Adam chose to make a false god out of the creation. What ended up moving and defining him now, more than the grip that God once had upon him inwardly and spiritually, was the outside world and other men. Adam was first tempted through his senses. So it is here that our gesima-work commences.
St. Paul tells us that our work will be like running a race. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he compares us to athletes or runners who are in training and will compete to win the prize. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. (I Cor. ix. 24) St. Paul appeals to an external and visible image of athletics to rouse our souls to spiritual exercise. If we are faithful to our calling, we should be striving to win a prize, the way runners do. For our mind’s eye to be focused on the spiritual journey that lies ahead with Jesus, we must temper and moderate our bodies’ physical passions. Every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. (I Cor. ix. 25) We must remind ourselves that because we seek a spiritual and eternal prize- which is eternal salvation, our physical natures- appetites, impulses, feelings, emotions, and desires, must be tamed and then subordinated into the service of our soul’s good. What and how much we eat and drink should only be what is absolutely necessary for running the race that is set before us. Thus, the virtue of temperance will be needed for our spiritual race. St. Ambrose says that what we observe and seek most in temperance is tranquility of soul. (De Offic. i. 42) So if our passions and appetites are moderated, we shall not be consumed with the false gods of the external and visible world and our souls will be focused on the race. St. Paul says that people whose loyalties are divided and who worship others gods do it to obtain a corruptible crown (I Cor. ix. 25) –they seek earthly rewards of impermanent meaning and unlasting significance. But we Christians run to obtain an incorruptible crown –a gift and prize of eternal worth and lasting importance. So we are called not to run blindly, erratically, pointlessly and capriciously. Since we know our end, we should moderate and temper our physical lives in such a way that best suits us to pursue our spiritual goal or end.
St. Paul is running to obtain the incorruptible crown.The man who has tempered his appetites and is moderate in all things desires that the free gift of God’s Grace should change his life and move others to share in the same. The effort is directed at all who desire to receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. (1 Peter v. 4)
That the crown on glory that fadeth not away is a gift and cannot be merited by human effort is nicely summarized in today’s Gospel Parable. Here Jesus says:
…The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an household which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them
into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others
standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the
vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and
saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him,
Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard;
and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. (St. Matthew xx. 1-7)
Archbishop Trench reminds us that the Parable is offered in response to the question which St. Peter asked in the preceding chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peter had said, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus had promised the Apostles…twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) He said also that others who had forsaken all…would receive an hundred fold…and…everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) But He concluded his promises with the words of the Gospel parable. But, many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) Here, Jesus warns us about that kind of spiritual attitude that might very well imperil our salvation.
The parable teaches that some, like the Apostles, who were already industrious workers, would be called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later, perhaps out of idleness, with no more specific promise of payment than whatsoever is right [or just]. (Ibid, 4,7) When the workday was over, the Lord of the vineyard would instruct his steward to pay the laborers. But notice this interesting detail. We read that steward was to pay the laborers beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. (Ibid, 8,9) Jesus tells us that the last are called first. And the order is not well-received. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12) It appears that the first have a real problem with the last. They are moved by envy and jealousy and so want to begrudge the last the reward promised only to the first.But the Lord rebukes them with these words: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? (Ibid, 13-15) As Canon Crouse reminds us, It matters not when they come into the vineyard- at morning, midday or the eleventh hour; the point is that they are called into the labor and that they work for one reward- the one penny that God’s free Grace provides. (Parochial Sermons) The first are meant to set the example of temperance. Temperance in all things must not only tame our excessive appetites but also moderate our temptation to think that we ought to receive more than what God gives to all repentant sinners or to all who are equal in their sin.
Some commentators have said that the reward of one penny is meant to symbolize the eternal and incorruptible reward of salvation. Archbishop Trench thinks this is wrong, and I agree with him. If the one penny symbolizes salvation then it would appear that the first workers or the men who are full of resentment, bitterness, envy, jealousy, and a begrudging spirit are saved, since we read that they received every man a penny. But bitterness, envy, jealousy, and immoderate or intemperate ambition can never land a man in Christ’s Kingdom. The one penny symbolizes God’s Grace. If it is received humbly and gratefully as what we neither desire nor deserve, in body and soul because the heart is sound and the body tempered, then we shall be transformed by God’s Grace.The last shall be first…. We might even, in this Gesima Season, in body and through soul, hear Jesus’ invitation to go up to Jerusalem as the call that binds us closer to all men. We live in a sinful world. We Christians are sinners. We have contributed to the exceedingly sinful nature of our world. Perhaps God’s Grace is given to us first, so that being temperate in all things, by way of example we might behave like the last and the least. If we do so, our humility and meekness might be perceived in our demeanors and dispositions. They might even awaken the hearts of others to that householder who longs to give us all the one penny of salvation!
And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea,
insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but Jesus was asleep.
(St. Matthew viii. 24)
Throughout the season of Epiphany-tide you and I are subject to the wonderful manifestations of God in His Son, Jesus Christ. We have learned that He has revealed His Divine Kingship to scientists or Magiseeking Him out through the study of nature. We found too that at the age of twelve He was already lingering behind in Temple at Jerusalem, wholly consumed with His Heavenly Father’s business, studying the Word that would define the whole of his life. Next, we discovered that He makes the best of all wines and saves them at last as a reward for them that will follow Him through death and resurrection to His Kingdom. And last week, we saw that the key to supplicating and securing His healing love is to trust that He need only pray and send His Word and all manner of sin might be overcome. In sum, I pray that we have been allowing ourselves to be moved both by who Jesus is and how we are called to respond to His Mission of Salvation.
Today, we continue to learn more about both Him and us. In our prior lessons, we have discovered the great wonders wrought in the life of our Saviour. Those signs and wonders were done on land in the security and stability that we rely on with too much ease and too little thankfulness. In the wisdom of our Master, the Lord Jesus, we must now launch out with Him onto the stormy sea of human life. The stormy sea, its proclivity to uncertain and abrupt movements, its threat of instability and impending doom, are all in the mind of the Saviour as He takes us through it to another place. We must endure, withstand, and persist through the stormy seas of life if we are to cultivate that faith in Christ that not only yields protection and care from nature’s vicissitudes but that also attacks and defeats our inner demons.
So, today we read that when Jesus was entered into a ship, his disciples followed
Him. And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but He was asleep. (St. Matthew viii. 23, 24) Matthew Henry reminds us that Christ does not have us follow Him across the sea in a pleasure-boat but in a common and less comfortable fishing vessel. He tells us also that They, and they only, will be found the true disciples of Christ, that are willing to go to sea with him, to follow him into dangers and difficulties. (M.H. Comm.) Christ shows us that the way to Heaven is not easy and that we must be willing to follow Him into uncertain times under unpredictable conditions. We ought not to seek out the comfortable and safe way necessarily. Christ intends to bring us into a state where our faith in Him must be strengthened and our hope in His power securely established no matter what the circumstances.
The Apostles in today’s Gospel were eager to follow Christ in faith. Through what next transpires, Christ shows us the state and nature of their faith. And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish. (St. Matthew viii. 25) Origen of Alexandria tells us that Christ allowed the storm to arise and Himself to fall asleep to elicit the fear that lay concealed in the hearts of His disciples. (Origen: The Testing of the Apostles) Christ comes to us to reveal not only His wisdom, power, and love but the condition of our souls in relation to Him. How often are we eager to follow Christ, on land, in the near reach of security, stability, and safety of kith and kin? How often do we want our spiritual journey to be a bed of roses, bereft of any thorns and worms! How often does our faith fail when we must struggle with some great storm. The storm might come to us, not in the form of being tossed about upon the wild seas, but it might come to us in another way. Perhaps we learn that we have contracted a deadly disease. Perhaps we have finally admitted to ourselves that we have been living a life of extreme unhappiness under the pretense of peace and joy. Perhaps we have found ourselves in the grips of an addiction that we cannot beat. Whatever the form the storm takes, it hits us and we are full of anxiety, worry, and fear. Origen reminds us: But the Lord was asleep. O great and wondrous thing! Does He who never sleeps now sleep? Does He now sleep that rules the heaven and earth? Is it He who never wearies or falls asleep that here is said to fall asleep? (Idem) The storms of life overtake us, we are tempest tossed, we reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at our wits end. (Psalm 107: 27) And all the while we feel that the Lord Jesus does not care, He couldn’t be bothered, He can no more be intreated, His mercy is clean gone forever, and His promise has come utterly to an end for evermore. (Ps. 77, 8,9) Jesus is asleep! we exclaim.
The Apostle and we must learn that in the body of His humanity, Jesus sleeps. In the power of His Divinity, he both brings on the storms of life and then proves His mastery and control over them. Jesus intended that the fear of the Apostles should be revealed and manifested in the storm at sea. Jesus intends that our fears should be disclosed and exposed as we are assaulted by the storms of earthly life. We must overcome all fear and despair if we would follow Jesus. Origen insists:
O blessed and truthful disciples of the Lord! You have with you the Lord our
Saviour, and you are in fear of danger? With you is life, and you are fearful of
Death? Fearful of the tumult of the sea, you thus waken its Creator, who is beside
You, as if, while sleeping in His Body, He could not calm the waves or hush
Them to rest? (Idem)
Jesus is with us always and yet we fear and despair. Jesus can calm all of the storms that our fallen condition is called to endure. Jesus can overcome all of the storms that He visits upon us. He brings them to us so that we might trust all the more in His power over them. He carries them to us so that our faith in Him might be greater than our fear of what earthly sickness, natural disaster, human sinfulness, and spiritual poverty can do to us. Down upon us, He showers these storms so that we might put our whole trust and confidence in Him! He says to the Apostles: Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? (Ibid, 26) Next, we read: Then He arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of Man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him! (Ibid, 26, 27)
We fear and tremble in the midst of the storms of life. Our faith is weak. We struggle with besetting sins so that we might discover our utter dependence upon Jesus’ healing power. Jesus says, Draw near.We are stricken with illness and sickness so that we might find spiritual health in His presence.(Idem)What do we fear? We fear sickness and disease. We fear death. We fear uprooting and overturning the false forms of peace that have dominated relations with family and friends. We fear ourselves and the sins that we hide deep within our souls. We cry: Lord save us. Carest thou not that we perish? (St. Mark iv. 38)
We want to be saved from the storms of life. Christ will save us from them. We must put our whole trust and confidence in Him. But He might not save us in the way that we desire. He will not save us from all suffering. Sometimes He requires that we suffer in order to build our faith and trust to hope in His Grace. He might deliver us from sickness or He might not. He will deliver us from sin, that is for sure. But He will require us to work with Himas we die to sin and come alive to His righteousness. Jesus is not a Magician. He respects us too much for that. He wants to perfect our minds and purify our hearts as they learn to suffer gladly for Him in order to be made good. So He will require that we play our part in His work as we die to sin and come alive to righteousness. It does no good for God to work miracles in our lives. Miracles are like fine jewelry and clothing -they fade in worth, value, and meaning as soon as they are obtained. God in Jesus wants us to work with Him as we are in the process of being perfected and saved. Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?
We fear because our faith is small. Our faith ought to be the anchor of our souls. It ought to secure and ground us in the knowledge and love of God that we find in Jesus Christ. Our faith ought to remind us that though we be tossed about by storms on the sea of life, we aim for the distant shore where rest will be secure in the Lord. Jesus wasn’t bothered or awakened by the storm. He was sleeping and resting because He was preparing for a far greater storm that He would endure before He obtained salvation for all of us. The great storm of His own affliction in His suffering, passion, and death awaited Him on the horizon. And yet, what could He do, but approach it with courage! He was perfectly wed to the goodness hidden in His Father’s will. He was perfectly determined to carry it out.
So, today, dear friends, we must pray for an increase of faith in the Lord. Let us pray for that faith that feeds upon the saving power of Jesus Christ whose sovereign power can vanquish all sin and overcome all evil. Let us pray for that faith that trusts that the Lord who has died, risen, and ascended and ever makes intercession for us with the Father. Let us pray for that faith that rests confidently in the Holy Spirit who always longs to steady our hearts and anchor our souls as we sail through the tumultuous seas of life. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: