And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
We said last week that the Gesima Season is all about discovering the self-discipline that will help us to keep a more holy Lent. Part of that discovery involves a real effort at persevering in our pursuit of understanding what Jesus Christ teaches us. Last week we began our pursuit with Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable presents us with a surface illustration or story that begs us to delve deeper into a spiritual and heavenly meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always depicts a human habit, experience, or labor with which most men can identify. It is different from a fable in that it does not involves talkative donkeys or philosophical cats who aim to teach us some moral lesson about earthly life. It is unlike a myth since myth never ends up disentangling truth from the story. The myth is believed more as a sign of the union of the supernatural and natural rather than as the way from the one to the other. A parable, then, takes man seriously in his spiritual pursuit from nature to the divine. It considers the spiritual purpose that lies hidden in earthly intentions and ends. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, He never uses illustrations that contradict the natural and human orders but offers them as earthly depictions of spiritual aspirations and ends. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about earthly cares and considerations that are always capable of being perfected spiritually. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know but because He wants them to choose and decide for the sake of His Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God to others or all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (Idem, cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). Parables are used by Jesus to convert men’s hearts, to encourage them to become His disciples, and to give them a picture of what the process of spiritual transformation is all about. Parables stir wonder, questing, seeking, and knocking. The man who seeks out their meaning is the one who desires to know and find happiness in the discovery of a truth that, at first, remains hidden to him. In the parables, each of us is given the opportunity to follow Jesus and to discover God’s Hidden Meaning…which most men couldn’t be bothered about.
Think about how so very hard this is –I mean to decide to follow Jesus and to discover the meaning of His Parables! Last week we prayed for the temperance and perseverance that runs after God’s justice. This week, we are reminded that this self-discipline is no easy business. St. Paul, this morning, takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians in Corinth who are being swayed by false prophets to believe that no moral effort or self-discipline is needed at all. They were telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing the process of conversion all out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that promises an otherwise painless existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching but should be an easier, softer, and gentler endeavor that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.
But St. Paul was incensed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should trigger imitation! Far from wishing to justify himself, St. Paul even desired to use his life as a kind of parable that might lead other men onto the road of conversion and redemption. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul uses his own life as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that goes into understanding any good parable. He asks, 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) He tells them that conversion and discipleship involve running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will involve the training and discipline for running a spiritual race. This will demand suffering and toil. He tells them that this suffering might demand not only rejection from the outside world and its pleasures but even spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Yet, he concludes, that the end justifies the means. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The parable of Paul’s experience teaches us that in humility, in weakness and suffering, Christ comes to the soul and reveals God’s hidden Word.
St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and prophets? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells us that A sower went out to sow his seed. At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was like the wayside, trodden down by the ongoing traffic and business of this world, and so they could not hear the Word. They might have been in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men are always prey to the Devil and his friends since they live in a world full of so many words that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others.
Next, …some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had hearts like gravely rock. For such people, the heard-Word of God with excitement and joy for a short time; it sounds so promising. They prematurely anticipate its benefits without counting the cost of growing it in the soul. They fall away because they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no depth in the 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)
Next, And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps some of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choke and kill it with cares and concerns of this life that end up being more important to them. Here the heard-Word is growing for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear that kill the growth of the Word within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, 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) These thorns and briars may take the form of earthly happiness found or lost. In either case, they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot grow. One or all of these kinds of hearing might explain what happened to St. Paul’s young flock and what can happen to us.
Finally, today’s Parable concludes with, And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. (Ibid, 8) The Parables are always about real life. In real life, seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the heard-Word is to grow in our souls. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable. With St. Paul we must proclaim, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30)
It is precisely in the admission that we are weak that Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God speaks His Word into it to save us. If we begin to hear God’s Word, to clear and cultivate the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance, to tend the seed with carefulness and devotion, and not superficially and carelessly, by God’s grace we shall bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a parable, where we, who hold the Word in earthen vessels can reveal His will and way to the world. And we can ask with Milton:
…What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?
(Paradise Lost: v, 574-576)
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