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