Sermon for Proper 12A
(I Kings 3, 5-12. Matthew 13, 31-33, 44-52)
We’re just coming to the end of the season of church annual synods. Many of them – the Methodist, the Church of England, and the United Reformed Church among them – have been considering contentious issues to do with gender and sexuality.
On the surface, these issues are about ethics and church practice; but actually, what lies beneath the ethical and theological arguments are questions about the Bible, and more specifically the use, abuse, status and authority of Scripture. This is not a new issue (though some commentators would have us believe it is a 21st century phenomenon) It is an issue which comes up again and again in the history of the church. It is a perennial question, which takes an enormous amount of unravelling, because it is so closely entwined with culture, and varying concepts of what constitutes authority.
Anglican belief has always been based on a combination of Scripture, tradition and reason. Methodists add ‘experience’ to those three. But some parts of our traditions insist that Scripture takes precedence, or even that it is the only basis on which we make judgements about what is right to do. But even if you accept that, how do we judge which bits of Scripture to obey?
If we are to deal intelligently with the debate over the use of Scripture, we need to understand the way different parts of scripture came into being, the different forms it takes, and the cultural and religious context in which it was formed.
Our readings today give us the opportunity to look at two different forms of Biblical teaching – wisdom literature and parables.
In the Old Testament tradition all wisdom literature, and particularly the Book of Proverbs tends to be ascribed to King Solomon (just as all Psalms are ascribed to David and all Law to Moses). Hence the significance of our Old Testament passage, where the young king asks God to grant him wisdom.
Wisdom literature is a distinctive strand in the Israelite tradition. In our Old Testament it is found in not just in Proverbs, but also in Ecclesiastes, in most of the Book of Job, in Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112 and 128 and in the Song of Songs. In the Apocrypha, it is found in Ecclesiasticus and in the book entitled ‘Wisdom of Solomon’.
However, modern scholarship has shown that it is highly unlikely that all of this writing was the work of King Solomon. Wisdom writings were common across the ancient Near East, and there are numerous parallels in the Book of Proverbs to the Egyptian ‘Instruction of Amen-em-opet’. The Apocryphal book called the Wisdom of Solomon was almost certainly written after the Exile in Babylon. The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha , in fact, comes from across the whole time span of the pre-Christian period.
Wisdom literature was able to cross cultural boundaries because it was chiefly interested in the individual, and the problems of human existence, and because its teaching drew on observation of the natural world and human life to make its point.
One strand of wisdom consists of practical advice, expressed in short memorable phrases about how to get on in life and run your family. Much of the Book of Proverbs is like this. There are lots of proverbs about bringing up children – and several about living with a nagging wife! There are proverbs about being lazy or stupid or being wise and hardworking, and others about how to deal with powerful and rich people.
Another strand however, is more philosophical and ponders on the deeper meaning of life: what is the point of existence, why do good people suffer, where does true wisdom come from? The link between the two forms of wisdom writing, the practical and the philosophical, was the belief that both the moral world and the natural world reflected the mind of God
In Jewish tradition, wisdom was seen as a gift from God, and later wisdom writing saw Wisdom (who became almost a separate divine person, and who was female!) as the companion and agent of God in the process of creation. In the New Testament, Wisdom became identified with ‘The Word’ and therefore with Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity.
Then, in our Gospel reading we have a collection of parables, another form of Biblical writing. The Hebrew word for proverb, ‘mashal’ was also the word for parables. Both were memorable ways of teaching. Both drew on observation of the natural world to cast light on the spiritual world. Both could be quite short.
There is a lot of discussion among biblical scholars about what passages in the Gospels are the actual words of Jesus, and which have been added by the Gospel editors. One thing on which they are all agreed is that the parables are the original teaching of Jesus, and that parables were the characteristic mode of teaching which he used in his public ministry.
There’s a comment in Mark’s gospel chapter 4, which says that Jesus taught in parables so that some people who heard him wouldn’t understand. That is almost certainly an addition by the writer of Mark, designed to explain to his readers why the Jews who heard Jesus did not accept him as the Messiah. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus taught in parables precisely because this concrete, pictorial teaching would be accessible to anyone, no matter what their education or intellectual ability. Since the parables, like the wisdom literature, drew on observations of the natural world and human society which anyone could make, the parables have continued to be accessible across cultures and across time. Though we may no longer live in a predominantly agricultural society, we still have sufficient contact with the natural world, and with largely unchanged human nature, to understand what the parables are describing.
The allegorical explanations for some of the parables were very probably added by the Early Church, to apply them to current situations in their religious life. Originally, however, most of the parables were designed to make one particular point. Some of them were just a couple of lines; others were full blown stories with a cast of characters. In all of them, the hearers are presented with a situation, asked to make a judgement on it, and then (either explicitly or implicitly) challenged to act on that judgement in their own lives.
One big difference between wisdom teaching and parables is that, whereas wisdom taught generalities, which could be applied in any situation and any culture, parables were about a specific situation. So, to understand Jesus’ parables, we need to understand the context in which they were told. Very often, as in several of the parables in today’s Gospel reading, we are given the context. Jesus tells us he is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, (better translated as ‘God’s Sovereign Rule’) which is being ushered in by his ministry. He is challenging his hearers to recognise that, and to act on that recognition.
With that in mind, we can make an attempt to guess the particular point each parable is making. The Parable of the Mustard Seed refers back to passages in Daniel where a great tree sheltering birds stands for the reign of God, and so perhaps challenges us to recognise that although Jesus and his disciples are few, the Kingdom of God will come through their ministry.
The parables of Treasure in a Field and the Pearl of Great Price are perhaps emphasising the supreme importance of following Jesus and making enormous sacrifices for the Kingdom. The Parable of the Drag Net, seems, like other parables to be promising that the consummation of the Kingdom is coming soon, but also gives the message that it is up to God, not us, to sort out who will be admitted into the Kingdom and who rejected. And then there’s the parable at the end of the passage – which some might not recognise as a parable at all – about the householder who brings both old and new things out of his store; is this, perhaps, urging the teachers of Israel to be ready to learn about and incorporate into their faith new insights from Jesus into what the Kingdom is all about.
But these are only possible explanations. The whole point about parables is that they were vivid and memorable, yet at the same time they left the mind in sufficient doubt about their precise application to prompt people into continued questioning of the stories, trying to tease out what exactly they meant. That was Jesus’ chosen way of teaching. He didn’t give rules; he didn’t provide set answers; he said ‘This is what I believe the Kingdom of Heaven is like; what do you think?’
This is something we need to remember when certain sections of the Church try to tell us “You have to believe this” or “You have to subscribe to that” if you are to be counted as a Christian. If there is any element of compulsion in that decision, it is not Jesus’ way.
The Word, in his wisdom, chose to teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven in parables, inviting us to walk with him, alongside others who are seeking the way, and to explore and question and decide, each one for ourselves, what God wants of us. Let those who have ears to hear, listen!