Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Multi-layered Stories (The Purpose of Parables)

Matthew 13.10–17 – with oblique reference to Exodus 19.1–2, 9–11, 16–20

Over the last few weeks, especially on Sundays, we’ve been hearing some agricultural parables of Jesus.  We’ve had the parable of the sower (or the seed, or the soil, depending on the focus), and we’ve had the parable of the wheat and the weeds.  These parables, quite unusually, have had detailed explanations attached to them.  Have you noticed that these explanations were always given to the disciples, in private, at a later point in the day?  It seems, from today’s reading, that Jesus was quite resigned to letting the meaning of his parables remain opaque to the general public.

Story-telling is an art-form, with many layers of meaning.  It is entirely possible to read any story just for the narrative thrust…enjoying the interplay of the characters, or living through their joys and challenges.  But to the discerning listener, most (if not all) stories have hidden layers, which can be dug up and applied to our own lives. 

I was watching a science-fiction story recently, from the Star Trek series, ‘Strange New Worlds’.  It was a fantastical story about a strange radiation from a planet which made all the crew of the starship lose their memories.  They had amnesia, and could not remember who they were, or who their friends were, but they could still carry out their basic functions.  The ship’s pilot could still operate the controls, and the ship’s doctor still knew how to treat a wound, even though they couldn’t remember their own name.  I was enjoying the story, just as a piece of pure escapism, when suddenly it dawned on me what the story was really about.  Science fiction is a favourite genre of mine, because it so often helps us reflect on our daily experiences, by creating fantastical scenarios.  In this case, the writers clearly wanted to give us an insight into the experience of living with dementia.  They showed how minute-by-minute memory could be lost, even a sense of identity, but that it’s still possible for people with dementia to love, to care for others, and to continue to be productive and loved members of a community.  In the story, the crew of the ship managed to escape from the radiation by focusing on what they could still do, (rather than what they had forgotten about themselves) and by co-operating with one another.  (I have to tell you, though, that the trouble with being someone who always looks for the underlying story of a movie, also gets told to shut up by his family, quite a lot!)

Stories are the way human beings understand a truth they have not yet absorbed in detail.  Like music and great art, they open up the creative centres of our brain, so that we begin to ask questions.  What does this story say to me?  How might I live my life in the light of this story?

Jesus was perfectly content to let the general public make up their own minds about the exact meanings of his stories…and he cleverly wove many potential meanings into them, which have kept preachers busy for 2000 years.  Take a story like the Prodigal Son, for example.  Is it a story about a sinner who repents and is welcomed and forgiven by his father?  If so, then we can be assured that our own repentance has value.  Is it a story about a loving Father who forgives even the worst that his son can do with his inheritance?  Then, it’s a story about how we too can use up the inheritance of the earth, and still find God’s grace and forgiveness.  Perhaps it’s a story about the other son, who is jealous of his brother, for whom the fatted calf is killed?  Then perhaps it’s a warning to us not to let jealousy sour our relationships.  In fact, of course, it’s all three – and many more layers of meaning beside.

Story helps us to shape our understanding of reality, and we remember story much more easily than we remember ideas in isolation.  I wold be willing to bet that by tomorrow, you will remember my story about the Starship Enterprise, but you will struggle to remember the more theological musings of this sermon.  Jesus was a genius, and he knew that the same would be true of his listeners.  He could have gone around for his entire ministry telling people to love strangers, and reach out to foreigners. But like most ethical teaching, it would have been quickly forgotten.  But his simple story of the Good Samaritan said it all – and has become a foundation stone for our understanding of our human duty to one another.  When we hear another person described as a ‘good samaritan’, we know precisely what kind of person they are, don’t they?

Jesus knew, however, that some of his teachings, even through story, would fall on stony ground.  Quoting Isaiah, he says ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand.  You will indeed look, but never perceive’.  There’s a reason for this, as Jesus goes on to quote…”For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears of hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes”.  Jesus understood that there will be some, even many, whose lack of humility, or whose weight of selfishness, will dull their ability to perceive that there could be another way of living.  They are the ones who are content to live unexamined lives…lives which just amble from day to day without any serious contemplation of what life, itself, is even about.  It is was Socrates who said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, and there is huge wisdom in that phrase.

So Jesus’ invitation to all of us, today, is to delve into the depths of the stories he told, and all the great stories of the Bible.  Let us not get hung up on trying to prove whether this or that detail of a story really, factually, happened.  The Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, the Parting of the Red Sea, the story of God at Mount Sinai – may all have happened, or they may be elaborate myths.  It really doesn’t matter.  What matters is what those stories, and the parable of Jesus have to say to us, today, in the here and now.  The past is the past.  We can do nothing to change it, whether it is real or imagined.  What we can do is learn from the past, and move on, in its light, to the future God lays before us. Amen

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

God through Jewish Eyes - A lecture.

Session 2 – God through Jewish Eyes
(Part opf the 'Roots and Realities' Course, offered at St Faith's Havant.

Last week,


Fr Frank introduced us to some of the archaeology of faith.  We saw that faith itself, as a phenomenon has a very ancient history, stretching back far into the origins of the human race.  We also saw that the Jewish Faith, from which Christianity emerged, was itself an amalgam of ideas which circulated all around the Middle East, including Zoroastrianism (the faith of the Babylonian Empire) in which senior Jewish leaders and thinkers spent 70 years, during the time known as the Exodus.

As Frank also explained last week (of which is worth reminding ourselves) the Old Testament – or the Hebrew Bible was largely put together, we think, around 500 years before Christ.  It was a setting down of what had been mainly oral stories and legends up until then, although no doubt there were some written manuscripts to which the ancient scribes had access.  Both Jewish and Christian scholars agree, however that 500 years BC is a pretty good date for the Hebrew Bible we now hold in our hands.

Let’s pause for a moment, to get a VERY broad sense of the timeline of the Old Testament…

This week, we want to take a very broad look at some of the themes of the Old Testament, especially as it would have been (and still is) read by Jewish people.  As Julie Andrews might say, I’d like us to start at the very beginning.  It’s a very good place to start!  And so we commence with the opening chapters of Genesis.

Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are among my favourite chapters of the Bible.  I love it because, right at the very beginning, it shows us the folly of attempting to read the Bible literally.  It may have escaped your notice, as it does many, that chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis are, in fact, two different, complementary stories of Creation. 

In the first story, creation is fashioned over six days. 

There is a specific order to creation, starting with light and darkness (on the first day) then, the earth and moon, vegetation, animals and finally, on the sixth day, human beings.  In this account, there is no reference to a garden of Eden, and human beings (both male and female) come last on the list of created things…we are, if you like, the pinnacle and conclusion of the Creation story.

But turn over the page to chapter 2, and we find an alternative account of the creation, cheek by jowl with the first one.  The first thing we notice is that in verse 4, the earth and the heavens were made in a day, not over a number of days as in Chapter 1.  In verse 5, we note that no plant of the field was yet on the earth.  And yet, with the earth in a sterile state, no plants, no animals, the Lord God created ‘the man’ from the dust of the earth.  Then God plants a garden, and puts the man in it.  Then, God creates the animals, supposedly as helpers and partners for man.  God creates them, and brings them to the man “to see what he would call them”.  Only then does God create woman – because from among all the animals, “there was not found a helper to be his partner”.

There are, of course, various ways in which people who read the Bible literally try to do mental gymnastics to explain the difference between these two accounts.  But, as a wise old teacher once said to me, the trick when reading the Bible is to accept that ‘what is plain is main, and what is main is plain’. 

The plain meaning of these two chapters is that the writer of Genesis wrote down two comparable myths about how the world came to be.  It was as if he was saying ‘I don’t know what is literally true – but here are the two primary stories which have been handed down to us.  You decide.  Or just read them as myths.’  The plain meaning of the myths is that God is the creative force behind all life.  The details don’t really matter, frankly.  It’s the plain meaning we need to focus on.

Another clue to the many voices that made up the Old Testament are the various names that are given to God. 

In the earlier writings, God is known by such names as El, and Adonai (meaning Lord or Master).  These are often conflated with another adjective, describing a characteristic of God, such as El Shaddai (which can be translated as ‘the many breasted God’ or the ‘God of the Mountain’, but which is usually rendered ‘Lord God Almighty’).    Other names are ‘Qanna’ (which translates as ‘jealous’), and finally ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’ – the name God gives himself to Moses at the burning bush, meaning ‘I AM’ – conveying a sense of God as the cause and ground of all existence. 

All these different names for God would be confusing to the modern reader, so most modern translations simply write ‘The Lord’ when such names are encountered.  What they do though, taken together, is make us realise that the Hebrew Bible managed to absorb some of the names which other tribes and nations used for God, appropriating them for Jewish use.

So, we find that the Bible is, in fact, a wonderful amalgam of ideas, concepts, stories, poetry and myths.  Some of the really ancient stories,

like Noah and the Flood, are also found in other middle eastern cultures…suggesting that there may indeed have been an enormous flood in human history, the horror of which has been carried forward over the centuries.  Some archaeologists have speculated that this might have been

when the Atlantic smashed through the land corridor between Africa and Spain, at the Straits of Gibraltar (which the ancients called ‘the pillars of Hercules’) forming the Mediterranean, and possibly drowning Atlantis on the way.  Another theory is that the Mediterranean broke through what is now the Bospherous, to form the Black Sea.   Whatever happened, it certainly would have been a cataclysmic event, for anyone who experienced it.  And for people who thought the world was flat and small, it would have felt as though the whole world had flooded.

Another fascinating feature of the Old Testament is the way that different writers and characters appeal to God to support their own prejudices.  There is, for example, a battle of ideas throughout the prophets, which could be defined as ‘nationalism versus universalism’.  Take for example the story of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah was a leader of Israel in Babylon.  After the 70 years of exile, he finally persuaded the Babylonian King to let him return to Jerusalem, with the other Jewish leaders in exile, and he got permission to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.  Once he and the other Jewish leaders arrived back in the city, the High Priest Ezra led a public service, to gather together all the peasants and poorer Jews who had stayed behind in Jerusalem.  He read them the book of the Law – which was probably the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), and which had no doubt been edited and re-compiled in exile.  Then, in a rather shocking move, Ezra and Nehemiah commanded that all Jews who had married women from other tribes during the Exile, had to send their wives away – to divorce them.  Nehemiah and Ezra invoked the name of God, and in his name, they demanded racial purity.  They did not want pure Jewish blood to be mingled with that of the neighbouring tribes.  Nationalism was a strong theme in Jewish thinking – along with the theological notion that they were God’s chosen and unique people, with a special mission to lead the world back to the one true God.  It’s worth saying, at this point, that the Jews were by no means the only tribe to believe this of themselves.  Every tribe believed that their idea of God was the only true one.  They still do today, by and large.

But set against this tide of nationalism, other prophetic voices spoke too.  In particular, the prophet Jeremiah. 

Writing around the same time as Nehemiah, Jeremiah had a vision of Jerusalem as a city for all the nations.  His was a universal vision, in which all people would come from the four corners of the earth and find themselves welcome in the Holy City.  Jeremiah’s vision was still Judo-centric.  He inevitably saw the Jewish Temple as the focus of a world religion.  But his was a much more open and welcoming, universal vision that the one shared by Nehemiah and Ezra.

Similar tensions existed between prophets and teachers over the keeping of God’s laws.  On the one hand, some writers emphasised the importance of detailed laws and regulations over every aspect of life. We can read their laws in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, for example.  But others wanted to free the Jewish people from slavish devotion to ritual, and towards a more general and all encompassing vision.  The prophet Micah, for example, famously said

that God hates all your festivals and legalistic sacrifices.  Rather, what God requires is to ‘do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God’.

So, you see, the Old Testament is a vast library of opinion about God and the ways of God.  For every line of strict legalism, one can find another line of welcoming openness.  Every ancient story of long-dead ancestors like Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses are laden with story-telling techniques which even children would have known not to take literally.  Rather, these stories are mythical lenses through which we can examine our own lives, and hold up a mirror to our own society.  They invite us to consider what kind of community we want to build.  Will it be one, for example, in which Nationalism is allowed to gain traction (as it did for Nehemiah), or is it to be a universal vision of shared humanity.  These are questions which the Bible invites us to consider.  It doesn’t always give us an unambiguous answer…but it does offer some themes and principles for us to consider.  These are themes that Jewish and Christian scholars have debated for millennia – and anyone who claims to have taped down a precise understanding of the Bible’s teaching on any great ethical matter has probably not studied the Bible enough, yet!

The Bible’s stories also invite us to think about what God may be like.

Take for example, the Book of Job. 

I’m sure you’ve all heard the expression ‘the trials of Job’ – but it’s not a book which gets much airtime in the Sunday lectionary.  Scholars generally agree that it was written between the 7th and 4th centuries before Christ.  It is an account of a probably fictional character, who debates the problem of evil and suffering in the world with a group of friends.  In  chapter 1, the prologue on Earth introduces Job as a righteous man, blessed with wealth, sons and daughters. The scene then shifts to Heaven, where apparently God asks Satan (who seems to be hanging around in heaven!) for his opinion of Job’s piety.  Satan accuses Job of being pious only because God has blessed him with riches.  Satan says that is God were to take away everything Job has, then he would surely curse God.  God then gives Satan permission to take Job’s wealth and to kill his children and servants – and thus begins the trials of Job.

Over the subsequent chapters, in dialogue with his wife, his friends and with God, Job ranges through a wealth of emotions and ideas about God.  In the early chapters, Job berates God as intrusive and suffocating, unforgiving and obsessed with destroying a human target.  According to Job, God is angry, fixated on punishment, hostile and destructive. Job complains that the wicked have taken advantage of the needy and helpless, but God does nothing to punish them. 

If you were only to read the opening chapters of Job, the picture you would receive would be that of a very angry and unfair God.  But as the book unfolds, through a series of monologues, dialogues, poems and speeches, Job eventually finds his way to a new understanding.  He realises that he knows nothing of what God is really like.  He confesses his own lack of knowledge of things beyond him which he did not previously know.  He retracts his earlier statements, and repents in dust and ashes, and is then, finally, restored to health, riches and a new family – getting to see his children to the fourth generation.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I could go on like this for a very long time! 

The Hebrew Bible is such a rich and varied source of competing and illuminating visions of God and God’s will for creation and humanity. 

My central point in sharing these stories is that we need to learn to read the Bible as Jewish people do - and indeed as Jesus himself would have read it.  We make a huge mistake if we imagine the Old Testament to be some kind of historical novel, by Hilary Mantel, carefully written down to unfold a particular timeline and unique understanding of history, and a single unified picture of God. 

Some more fanciful readers imagine that the whole of the Old Testament was written by God, essentially taking over the hands of the Bible’s scribes, or dictating it word by word, line by line.  But in reality, it is nothing like that.  As we saw when looking at Genesis, the Bible is perfectly capable of offering two entirely different accounts of the same event – Creation.  It is capable of questioning the very goodness of God (as Job did).  For every page that proclaims God to be the loving Father of all the children of Earth, there is a page declaring that he is the jealous and tyrannical god of a small Middle Eastern tribe, capable of commanding the crack troops of Israel to rape, pillage and destruction in pursuit of a ‘promised land’.  Nehemiah’s nationalism sits side by side with Jeremiah’s universalism.  God’s angry destruction of sinful humanity at the time of Noah sits side by side with his compassion for sinners – especially in the sending of his own Son.  For every claim in the Bible that marriage is only between one man and one woman, the Bible also shows us men who had many wives, and close loving relationships between people of the same gender.

So, you may well ask me, what do we mean when we say the Bible is true?  Is it God’s word, or not?  Let me put it this way, in the words of John Dominic Crossan,

“My point is not that those ancients told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally”.  The idea that the Bible is inerrant and literal arose rather late in the story of our Faith.  It really rose up in the 1600s, as a result of the Protestant Reformation.  In many ways, it rose up as a reaction against the emerging claims of science, which were starting to challenge the way the world appeared to the ancient writers of the Bible.  Scientists like Copernicus and Newton began to deduce, for example, that the world was round, and that it went round the sun.  But the Bible says that the world has four corners, and that the Sun goes round the earth.  Biblical literalism arose out of a sense of unease, that science was upending beliefs that had been held for centuries, even millennia.  And that process continues today. 

So, in what sense is the Bible true?  Let me quote another scholar, Marcus Borg, who affirmed: 

“the Bible is true. And some of it actually happened.”  By this we mean that the Bible reflects truth, through story, myth, poetry and prophecy.  It points to an underlying truth at the heart of the Universe – the truth that God simply IS, and that we, like our ancestors, are invited to seek God.  We might also speak of the fundamental truth, as Fr Frank said last week, that Love is the creative and sustaining force behind the Universe. 

Like our ancestors in the Bible, our search will sometimes head off down blind alleys, and weird paths.  We can read the record of our ancestors’ search for God in the pages of the Bible.  We can recognise our mistakes in theirs, and sometimes we can glimpse, with them, the true face of God. 

For Christians, the most truthful, most complete picture of God is the picture offered to us by Jesus of Nazareth.  But that, my friends, is the focus of next week’s talk.

Discussion questions…





Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The Groaning of Creation

Romans 8.12–25 & Matthew 13.24–30,36–43

As I’m SURE you remember, last week we tackled the parable of the sower, or the seed, or the soil (depending on one’s focus).  This week, we are blessed, in the midst of our flower festival, with another agricultural parable.  It is sometimes called the parable of the wheat and the weeds, or in old English, the ‘tares’.  And, like last week, Matthew helpfully offers us an interpretation of its meaning.  We’ve just read Jesus’ reported interpretation, involving the devil, angels, the end of the age, and the furnace of fire.  All very apocalyptic, and very much a theme of Matthew’s sometimes very creative interpretation of the Gospel of Jesus.

Underneath all the apocalyptic imagery, however, is an abiding truth, which we do well to consider.  Jesus is addressing the very real problem that all people of faith encounter – namely the problem and the challenge of living in a world that also has evil people, with evil intentions within it.  You’ve heard me say, in the past, that there is a ‘now and not yet’ dimension to the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Jesus declared, at the very start of his ministry, that the Kingdom of Heaven was among us.  He proclaimed it with that wonderful reading from Isaiah, ‘“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’  (Luke 4.18-19).  In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went on to promise blessing on all those who are poor, downtrodden, mourning and the like.  He demonstrated the power of the coming Kingdom with supernatural acts of healing and the control of nature.

And yet, despite these proclamations and signs of hope, Jesus also warned that the Kingdom was not yet fully established.  He taught us to pray ‘Thy Kingdom come’, as a prayer of yearning.  He warned that ‘you will always have the poor with you’ (Mk.14.7) – indicating that it would take time to bring about the promise of blessing for the poor.  And in this parable of the wheat and the weeds, he envisions a time, at the end of the age, when the children of the devil will finally be conquered, and “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father”.  This is what I mean by saying the Kingdom is ‘now’, but also ‘not yet’.

St Paul understood this dichotomy too.  In today’s reading from his letter to the Romans, he writes out of his suffering and imprisonment of “the glory about to be revealed to us”.  Like all New Testament writers, Paul had the impression (or at least the hope) that the end of the age was upon them – that Jesus would return imminently, to vanquish evil and establish the Kingdom.  But he, like Matthew and other writers, had clearly not absorbed Jesus warnings that “no-one will know the time of the coming of the Son of Man” (cf. Mat 24.36).  Paul may have been a bit optimistic about his timings, but he writes beautifully about the state of the world in this ‘now and not yet time’ in which we live.  He says, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rm 8.19) and “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rm 8.21).

What a glorious vision this is for us to contemplate in a church filled with flowers!  Each flower speaks to us of the beauty of creation.  Each artistic arrangement reminds us of the beauty and power of human creativity, in combination with that beauty.  And yet, it’s all just a glimpse – a fragile gaze through a glass darkly, at the promise of the Kingdom to come in all its beauty and power.  Tonight, these spectacular arrangements will taken down, before they start to rot in their vases and containers.  For, as Paul says, ‘all creation is in bondage to decay’.  And this is the nature of the time we are in.  It’s a metaphor for us and for our time.

Human beings have put all creation in bondage to decay.  From the day we stepped out of the mythical garden of Eden, from a time of living harmoniously with the land, we have begun to subjugate the world.  At first, we began to grow crops.  Then we hunted entire species to extinction.  (Did you know that only 4% of the animals in the world are wild?  96% are domestic animals now).  Then we started to dig up the many gardens of Eden, to burn their trees and exploit their fruits and soil.  We have replaced glorious, self-sustaining biodiversity with monocultures and pesticides.  We have dug out the carbon storage of past eons, and pumped that carbon into the atmosphere.  And yes, now we find in Paul’s words, that creation is groaning. We may be thankful that the random position of the jet-stream has protected the UK from the current European heatwave.  But the reality is that heat records are tumbling all over Europe, fires abound, and in other parts of the world, flood waters are rising.  Yes, creation is groaning, alright.

But, there is hope.  Paul extends his analogy of groaning to suggest that these are but ‘labour pains’.  The uncomfortable truth for a species which imagines itself to be in control is that whatever we human beings do to degrade creation, and cause it to decay, Creation itself will survive.  Humans may not.  We might well be facing our own destruction in the coming decades.  But the Earth, will adapt, heal and go on.  In that sense, the presence suffering of Creation can indeed be thought of as labour pains.

The book of Revelation, chapter 21, concludes with a promise of a new heaven and a new earth.  All humanity will be caught up to dwell in eternity, either in the presence of God, or in the furnace of fire (for evildoers) where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (to return to the Gospel reading).  Is this a vision, perhaps, of a future in which God removes humanity from the physical earth altogether – a time when (in Jesus words) ‘the righteous will shine like the sun in the heavenly Kingdom of their Father’?  Is that how, in Paul’s words, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”? (Rm 8.21). Perhaps. 

But, whatever future God has planned for us, for now we live in the in-between time.  We live in the ‘now and not-yet’ time of the Kingdom.  Like wheat among the weeds, we are called to shine God’s light of truth, love, compassion and justice wherever we go, even when we feel as though the weeds of evildoers are strangling us.  We may hope for the completion of the Kingdom.  Indeed Jesus commanded us to pray for it.  In Paul’s words, “we hope for what we do not see.  We wait for it with patience” (Rm 8.25).  May God give us the strength to endure the “sufferings of this present time” for they are “not worth comparing with the glory to come”. (Rm 8.18).  Amen.

Tuesday, July 18, 2023

It’s no yoke!

Matthew 29-30: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’  See also Exodus 3.13–20

Today’s Gospel reading is part of a text that everyone who loves the Book of Common Prayer has heard many times.  Jesus offers rest to those who are carrying heavy burdens, and then (in a verse we don’t hear so often) he invites his followers to take on his yoke.

I’m sure that you, like me, have heard many preachers over the years say that the word yoke is a metaphor for Jesus’ teachings.  But, I decided to do a little research for this sermon, and I’ve discovered that isn’t quite right.  In fact, it turns out, there are no primary sources from that time which equate the yoke with a rabbi’s teaching at all.  It seems to be one of those ‘truisms’ which get passed down from generation to generation, without anyone actually checking their facts.  In these days when the checking of truth is becoming ever more important, I thought I should do my own reality check!

First of all, let’s be clear what we are talking about.  I want to make no assumptions about what you already know, so let me be clear that we are not talking about an egg yolk!  Rather, a yolk is a kind of halter, usually made of wood, which was placed on an animal’s neck, to help them haul a cart or a plough. 

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, quoting from the authoritative Encyclopedia Judaica, the yoke was a symbol of servitude, in the Bible. Sometimes, it was described as being made of iron, to emphasize the weight of oppression.  Take Deuteronomy 28:48, for example, when the disobedient nation is warned: “Therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and he shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until he has destroyed thee.”  

It was also a symbol of the burden of slavery or taxes upon the people.  Consider the story of King Rehoboam, in 1 Kings 12:11.  The people had complained to him that his Father, King Solomon, had taxed them too hard (not least to build his splendid palace and the temple).  But when the people asked Rehoboam for relief from those taxes, he replied: “My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions”. Throughout ancient Scripture, freedom from oppression was described often in poetic and prophetic literature as the breaking of the yoke. 

In rabbinic writings more widely, however, a specific contrast is made between ‘the yoke of the kingdom of man’ and the ‘yoke of the kingdom of heaven’.  One celebrated Rabbi taught that “whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah…” (that is, the laws of the Kingdom) “…they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns” (See Avot 3:5 of the Mishnah)

It's worth reminding ourselves that Jesus (or Yeshua as the Jews called him) was steeped in this kind of teaching.  He was, in other words, inviting his followers to take on the yoke of the Kingdom, the laws of God, and to free themselves from the yoke of the government, which was at the time the oppression of the Romans.  In other words, there’s a choice to be made between focusing on the Kingdom, and focusing on the government and worldly concerns.   

Jesus promises that those who take on the yoke of the Kingdom will find rest for their souls.  He promises that his yoke is easy, and his burden light.  What might he mean by that?  I don’t know about you, but I spend far too much time focusing on the great evils of the world, usually being brought about by powerful men.  I get caught up in worrying too much about climate change, for example, when in reality the UK is only responsible for 2% of the world’s CO2 output.  I need some balance.  I get caught up in watching what’s happening in the Ukraine, and watching politicians argue with each other about public finances and policy.  In reality, I can do very little, if anything, to change Putin’s mind, or the mind of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.  These are all examples of me taking on the yoke of government and worldly concerns.

But what if I put that yoke off, and take up instead the yoke of the Kingdom.  Well, then, my focus shifts, away from the national and international scandals (about which I can do practically nothing) and towards the immediate needs of my neighbour and my community.  This is where I really can make a difference.  This is, in fact, what the monastic movement has to teach us.  Over the centuries, many monks and nuns have withdrawn from the cares of the world, to focus exclusively on praying for the world in general, and caring for one another and neighbour as much as possible.

Ranting on the Internet about inequality or corrupt politicians might make me feel better.  The media (and it's billionaire owners) loves to distract us with tales of horror and scandal.  Just look at the fuss made recently over Huw Edward's private life!  But we can do nothing about such things.  But buying some food for the foodbank, or making a gift to the Rector’s Discretionary fund for the relief of poverty, volunteering for charity or spending some time welcoming visitors to the church, or campaigning for local issues might actually make a real difference, in a real person’s life.  

More than that, the yoke of the Kingdom includes the teaching that I should take time, every day, to practice the presence of God, whether through prayer, meditation, reading or silence.  If more of us took Jesus seriously about this teaching, surely we would all find much rest for our souls.  The prayerful life is calming and gentling process.   It involves us giving over the cares of the world into the hands of God, the great I AM, the one who acts to rescue slaves and poor, as we heard in our first reading.  Having offered our worldly cares away, we get the chance to ask ‘what can I do?’  How can I play my part in the building of the kingdom, here, in Havant, in my family, among my neighbours today?’

In a sense, the concept of the rabbi’s yoke is not altogether wrong – especially when the rabbi in question is Jesus of Nazareth.  But let us not make the mistake of thinking that when Jesus says ‘come to me to find rest for your souls’ he’s not offering to give us a great big hug.  Rather, he’s inviting us to take on a new vision of the Kingdom, in which each one of us, freed from the burden of worldly concerns, focused on the things we CAN change, finds that his burden is lighter than we ever might have thought.  Amen.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Parable of the Seeds

 Isaiah 55.10–13 & Matthew 13.1–9, 18–23

It’s quite wonderful that today’s readings happen to come to us just days before the great St Faith’s Flower Festival.  (And if any of you are wondering why Sandra looks a little less composed than normal, it’s because of the Great St Faith’s Flower Festival!). 

Isaiah, first, offers us a vision of the trees clapping their hands, while mountains and hills burst into song.  Cypress trees replace thorns, and myrtle overcomes brier and bramble.  Rich metaphors indeed – to underline God’s promise that his word will accomplish that which he purposes for it.   Isaiah uses the metaphor of rain.  For an unscientific man, writing in the Bronze Age, Isaiah demonstrates quite a profound understanding of how the climate system works.  Rain and snow fall from heaven, and they ultimately return there – which demonstrates that Isaiah understood the principles of precipitation and condensation.  But, like the word of God, Isaiah says that rain only returns to the sky once it has accomplished its purpose; of watering the earth, and ‘giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater’.  God’s word has power, and despite the best that the thorns, briers and brambles of the world can throw at it, God’s word will accomplish its task.  He promises it.

It is entirely possible to see Isaiah’s poetry as foreshadowing the work of Jesus, the Word made flesh.  He too comes from heaven, accomplishes the task for which he was sent, and then returns again to the heavenly realm.  He completes his work on the cross and from the tomb, and then returns to the right hand of God.

And while he lives on earth among us, Jesus teaches us not just how to live, but how to live on the Narrow Way of faith.  In the Parable of the Seeds Jesus outlines all the ways in which the word of God can end up strangled in lives of complex human beings.  Jesus didn’t often unpack his stories for us to understand so easily.  For us theologians, that can feel a bit some of the fun has been taken out of it!  We love to debate exactly what Jesus meant by some of his more obscure parables!   But clearly, Jesus wanted to leave us in no doubt about this one. 

There are four kinds of ground in which the word of the Kingdom gets sown:  the path, the rocky soil, the thorns, and then the good soil.  But before we focus on the four types of ground, we must not miss the nature of the seed that is being sown.  Jesus says that the seed is ‘the word of the Kingdom’.  He’s very specific about it.  Unlike Isaiah, who talks about the word of God in general, Jesus narrows it down.  He’s talking about his message of a new Kingdom, in which the mighty will be brought down from their thrones, and the humble and poor lifted up.  He’s talking about a Kingdom of love, in which the poor are blessed, the stranger is welcomed, where warring factions lay down their arms, and in which justice flows like a river.  This is a grand vision of the upside down Kingdom, in which everything we think we know about how to live gets turned over, reversed, reset and repented of.

But there are mighty forces arranged against the success of the Kingdom.  Along the path, “the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart” (v19).  This is an obvious reference to the Devil, or Satan: which I believe to be another metaphor – this time for all the evil that human beings do to each other.  When we oppress one another, or when the rich steal from the poor, or when arms dealers provoke wars to line their pockets, or when massive international companies destroy the planet for personal gain, these are great evils.  And these great external evils can snatch away our hope in Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom.  We can’t see how it can possibly be true, when so much is obviously wrong with the world.  So, with hope snatched away, like birds taking seeds, we retreat into our shell, and the hope of the kingdom within us, dies.  The seed on the path, therefore represents all the external forces, which press down upon our faith. 

The seed sown among the thorns, however, represents all the internal forces do the same.  These are the forces which we, ourselves, have the power (with God’s help) to do something about.  Jesus summarises them as “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth”, and these are the thorns which can strangle our faith, if we let them take hold.  So, when the maintenance of our home, or our garden, our social life, or our shopping habits begin to strangle our ability to function as agents of the Kingdom, we need to beware.  We need to take stock.  How much are we letting ‘the cares of the world and the lure of our wealth’ strangle the hope of the Kingdom inside of us?

We need a defence against these external and internal forces arrayed against us.  The defence that Jesus offers is the maintenance of good spiritual roots.  Seed sown on the rocky ground, is seed which initially hears the word of the Kingdom with joy – but which then develops no roots.  These are the people who, for example, might love the atmosphere of church and the social dimension of belonging.  They love the music, they love the friendship, they even enjoy the occasional sermon – especially when there are jokes! 

But that’s as deep as it goes.  The core message, of the radical life-changing possibilities of the Kingdom, never penetrates beyond the surface.  It never goes deep.  We resist the radical call of Jesus, to really live life lightly, to let go of old resentments, to embrace compassion and justice in every encounter, to take time often to be in the presence of God and to hear his quiet voice. 

Jesus says, “such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.”  Without the deep and cultivated roots of faith, without regular worship, regular practice of the presence of God, the generosity of love, we are unable to combat the external forces of evil, and the internal forces which threaten our Kingdom vision.

So, how are we to be the good soil, in which the word of the Kingdom bears fruit in varying quantities?  Incidentally, I love the way Jesus says that the fruit of the kingdom is borne in different quantities in different people…”in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty”.  By these words, Jesus acknowledges that the Narrow Way of faith is a tough road to follow.  He has compassion on those of us who struggle to let go of the thorns of worldly care, or fail to let our roots go deep, or who are frightened by the external forces of evil.  He know that these forces are real, and their effect is profound.  Which is why he encourages us, each week, each day, to seek forgiveness, and the strength to try again. 

And that, perhaps, is the very heart of this story.  I have certainly recognised myself in these descriptions of the different soils, and I imagine you have too.  I know that I sometimes get fixated, and not a little scared, by the great evils in the world.  I know that I can sometimes let the cares of the world and the lure of wealth cloud my daily practice of the Narrow Way.  I know that sometimes I am less than diligent in the pursuit of the deep roots of faith.  But I also know that Jesus offers me his forgiveness, for every time I fail.  All I need to do is ask for it, and it shall be given.  And through the gift of his body and blood, his nourishing spiritual food, he strengthens me to once again step out on the journey of faith.  Amen.