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 embracing 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. As Archbishop Trench remarks, Jesus uses parables to withdraw from certain hearers the knowledge of truths which they were unworthy or unfit to receive. (Notes on the Parables, p. 7) Of course, being unfit or unworthy to receive means that their souls were neither ripe nor ready to think and pray about the truth. And in an age as intellectually uncurious and slothful as ours, this might seem to register as highly insulting. But we must remember that Christ, like Plato and Aristotle before Him, not to mention the Jewish prophets, was intent upon thinking faith. Thinking faith is wholly necessary to our salvation. By using parables, then, Christ leads men’s faith to search for meaning and understanding. With parables, much effort is required to move from the external and visible realm to the inward and spiritual.
Notice, too, that the parables of the New Testament always make use of earthly and human illustrations to teach the truth. Jesus uses parables that are familiar enough to human life to reveal the moral truth and to elicit the willing of it 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 encourage us to think about what we believe, to discover the true meaning, and to will the truth of it all in our lives. Parables stir wonder, asking, 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, beneath the superficial layers of an otherwise emotional and appetitive existence.
Think about how very hard it is to decide to follow Jesus, to find the meaning in his Parables, and to embrace the truth for our lives. Last week, we prayed for the temperance that runs after God’s justice. This week, we are reminded that self-discipline is no easy business. This morning, St. Paul 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 St. Paul’s Corinthian converts that he was blowing the process of conversion out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that assents to the truth without any need for applying it to human life. True Christianity, they insisted should involve an easier, softer way that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.
But St. Paul respectfully disagreed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ itself was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should elicit 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 into the imitation of Christ. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul’s life is used as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that discovers the meaning of any good parable and applies it. 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) St. Paul’s conversion and discipleship involved running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will demand the training and discipline for running a spiritual race. This will require suffering and toil. As Paul suffered to die to himself and come alive to Christ, he was rejected by the outside world. Paul knew that the world and its pleasures 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 with prudence and in humility Christ comes to implant God’s hidden Word, which is to be known and obeyed with the deepest sense of honor and privilege.
St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But why were his Corinthian converts so easily swayed by new teachers with a message of comfort and ease? 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. (St. Luke viii. 5) At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (Idem) 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 life so that they could not hear the Word. They had exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they had become hard as the pavement, till they had laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men, in every age, are always prey to the Devil and his minions since they live in a world that has been hardened, cold, and indifferent to the Word of God in Jesus Christ.
Next, …some [of the seed] fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Others had hearts like gravely rock. For them, the Word of God in Jesus Christ was first received with joyful expectations because it seemed so full of immediate gratification. They prematurely anticipated its benefits without counting the cost of growing the seed in the soul. They fell away because they would work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they soon discovered, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Thinking is painful and costly. 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, we read that some [of the seed] fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps not a few of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choked and killed it with cares and concerns of this life. Here the Word grew for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear over the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life (St. Luke viii. 14) that killed the growth of the Word within the soul. They were crushed, as the Gospel says, for the old man was not dead in them; for it may have seemed dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, would presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars take the form of earthly happiness, to be found or lost. In either case, they had neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word could not grow. One or all 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. Thus, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like St. Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the Word of God in Jesus Christ is to spring up and bear fruit in our souls. With reason, each one of us can see the temptations that threaten the meaning and operation 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) To will the good against all temptations is to find glory in the process.
In admitting that we are weak, Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God plants His Word in 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 hold the Word in earthen vessels. 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)
Earth is a parable for the soul. In this morning’s Collect, we pray that the soul might be defended against all adversity. (Collect) We are protected against all adversity when our souls, in all humility, suffer to know the Word and will it by God’s Grace alone.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: