And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
Have you ever wondered why Jesus speaks in Parables? The New Testament is full of examples of parables; there are actually thirty in total. We encountered one of them last week, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable is an illustration or story of something that is meant to lead our minds into a deeper truth. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always involves the spiritual realm as it relates to the natural order. It never violates the natural order and natural law but unlike a fable it transcends it but penetrates it with spiritual truth. The fable never moves above the earthly realm and earthly truth. Fables teach human truth through talking trees and animals. Also, the Parable is different from a myth since myth confuses fantasy with reality. A parable, then, involves men and some aspect of their natures that needs correction or reformation. It considers the human condition with earnest seriousness, and sets out to correct what it finds to be wrong from the spiritual perspective. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, he never uses illustrations that contradict the created order but offers examples drawn from it that can compare to the human soul. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The Parables of 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 and understand but also because He wants men to find the source and origin of their choices and decisions. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God, to others -to 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” (cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). So parables are used by Jesus in order to convince and convert men’s hearts that they might discover the truth and embrace the spiritual transformation that He longs for them to embrace. Of course, Jesus always respects man’s freedom, and that freedom is all about the ability to learn and understand, and then to choose and decide. In the Parables, each of us is given opportunity to follow Jesus to his Kingdom.
But think about how so very hard this is –I mean to make a decision to follow Jesus, to persevere and to persist in our spiritual journey. Last week we prayed for concentration, courage, and temperance. And this week we are reminded that such an effort is no easy business. St. Paul this morning takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians who are being swayed and moved by false prophets and philosophers. No sooner had he established a new church at Corinth, than supposed wise men and teachers had seduced them with ideas and teachings that contradicted his own. They were basically telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing up the process of conversion all of out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of spirituality that promises a painless and happy existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching, but should be easier, softer, gentler, and without any kind of suffering at all. To which St. Paul responds with his characteristic zeal and passion, flavored with what some scholars have interpreted as self-justifying arrogance.
But St. Paul intends no such thing. Far from wishing to justify himself, he desires only to use his life as a kind of parable of what happens to honest men in real life who make a conscious decision to follow Christ. Remember that a parable presents a real story drawn from earthly reality to carry the listener to a spiritual understanding. So Paul uses his own experience as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true conversion and discipleship make a mockery of the false teachers who are seducing his flock. 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) He tells them, in other words, that conversion and discipleship involve much suffering, both physical and mental or bodily and spiritual. He tells them that he suffers not only because the world rejects him and his teaching but because inwardly and spiritually he endures spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within his soul. 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. Paul claims and confesses his weakness, his vulnerability, and his exposure to the assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And yet he offers up his suffering as a way and means for Christ to work His redemption into his soul more deeply and lastingly. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) For it is precisely in his weakness and suffering, in that real struggle to open his soul to God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, that his life is a Parable for the virtue of humility.
So Paul’s life is 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 gurus? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable. Jesus tells the parable of the sower [who] went out to sow his seed….He tells us that some 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 of St. Paul’s flock heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was trodden down and hardened by the traffic and business of this world, and so they never really heard the Word. They became habituated to this hardness 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) Some of Paul’s Corinthian sheep became easy prey to the Devil and his friends since they lived in a world full of so many words, that they could not distinguish God’s Word from all others. Others in Paul’s flock at first heard the Word of God with excitement and joy but trusted in the promises’ fulfilment prematurely without counting the cost of its growth in the soul. They fell away because they were not prepared to work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discovered, seemed too much like real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. 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) Finally there were those in Paul’s church who heard God’s Word but were choked and killed by thorns which sprung up with it. (St. Luke viii. 7) In these believers, the heard-Word was growing, but only alongside inner anxiety, fear, worry, and looming despair over mammon and earthly riches. They were 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 always take the form of something enjoyed when possessed but accompanied by fear because they can be lost. One or all of these kinds of hearing God’s Word might explain what happened to St. Paul’s new flock at Corinth and what can happen to us if we are not wise and vigilent.
But today’s Parable does conclude with the seed of God’s Word sown in a good heart, like the heart of St. Paul. Remember that 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 real life the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must resign ourselves to persecution and suffering for it at the hands of the world’s unbelief and the attacks which we endure inwardly and spiritually. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations and sin that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable.
Thus, for all the more reason we must identify with St. Paul who, again, says, if I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) For it is precisely in the admission that we are weak, vulnerable, and exposed to Satan’s assaults that God responds to us. God has made the soul; God speaks his Word into it in order to save us. But when we confess our weakness and infirmity, we acknowledge with the Collect that we put not our trust in anything that we do and that power of God’s Grace alone can protect us from any adversity that might uproot us from journeying to Christ’s Kingdom. We claim, too, that we must prepare the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance to clear the ground so that God’s grace might enable us to bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a Parable or illustration that reveals not only the truth of God’s Word, but its secure place in the soil our souls, fertilized by our infirmities.
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