Jesus’s parables are dependent on seeing and understanding
Proper 12A | Matthew 13:31-33,44-52
At the beginning of this chapter, we’re told Jesus is so swarmed by people that He jumps into a boat to teach the crowds surrounding Him on the shore. There so many people He has to put a barrier up; to separate Himself. Yet He teaches anyway from boat to the shore.
His teaching spans the whole chapter in this strange bunch of parables, all about the kingdom of heaven; some of which we heard the last two weeks. Parables about the sower and the seeds. Just like today’s collection of parables, which includes yeast, pearls, nets, and fish. All like the kingdom of heaven. Cutting up the story, the Lectionary is trying to do us a favor. Though again, the story, I think, is about the whole story.
In the middle of it all is a snippet that gets lost on the cutting room floor. We get throughout these parables the repeated references to those with ears to hear and eyes to see; to listening and understanding. But, in explaining why He teaches in parables, Jesus says
The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (Matthew 13:13-17)
Then He speaks of things hidden and found, saying that this is how the Kingdom of heaven is. That it is like something hidden from people and when found, we give everything up for it.
The Secret Inside
It is troubling to think that the kingdom is something hidden. I’m cool with celebrating when it’s found, but why is it hidden in the first place? Why isn’t the kingdom visible to everybody?
I suspect that it is. I suspect the kingdom is all around us. We just have trouble seeing it or understanding it. We have eyes, but often they aren’t open to see the Kingdom here, around us.
St. Augustine noticed that Jesus didn’t recruit the smartest or the strongest to be His disciples. He didn’t go looking for the best students from the elite high schools. He found commoners with no education. So if people see greatness in the disciples, it is not their greatness the people see, but the Christ Himself. That GOD is working through them. The greatness people would see is all GOD’s.
This is the way GOD treated Moses, David, and the Prophets. That they aren’t great, but the reflection of greatness acting through them elevates them.
What is hidden, is hidden in plain view; to be seen and discovered and celebrated. We simply struggle with understanding what is around us.
Even the separation Jesus describes, when the angels will throw the evil in the fire, He doesn’t say that the furnace causes people to weep and gnash their teeth. He says that is where the people do that. The teeth-gnashing is what the wicked do.
We are always struggling to understand. To see, hear. Because what we see isn’t only the kingdom of heaven and what we hear aren’t only its natives.
The New Scribes
Stanley Hauerwas calls Jesus “the parable of the Father.” That, as Jesus tells parables to the people to help them understand/perceive the kingdom of heaven, Jesus lives as a parable of the father’s part in the kingdom.
So Jesus asks them if they get it now. “Have you understood all this?” They claim that they do. But they can’t fully understand until the Jesus parable is complete. Hauerwas argues that they have eyes to see, so they can comprehend it, but it is in the crucifixion that they will come to truly understand.
Jesus responds to their affirmation by speaking of “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven.” The scribes were trained for literacy: writing and knowing scripture. They were the few that could read and write in the culture. Jesus seems to be invoking that these followers of His are being trained to be literate in the kingdom of heaven. Their academic work isn’t reading the word of GOD but reading the world of GOD. It isn’t writing about GOD on parchment, but writing the love of GOD on hearts.
Jesus calls these people who witness GOD’s work in the world to power and place in the kingdom of heaven. They are the elites. Not the educated, the well-healed, the monied, the right-familied, in other words, the people with any authority in Rome or the Temple.
Learning to Write
We are their inheritors, the kingdom scribes who are trained in worship and work, who see the kingdom in this world, in this place. We are empowered by Christ to read the world and write on hearts.
This authority doesn’t come from ordination or election. It does not come from being in this church for 45 years or from being a former warden. It comes from looking at your friends around you and seeing Christ in them. These friends here. When we fail to see Christ here, we cannot see the kingdom. It is not only our future, it is our present; it is not just our hope, it is our reality.
The kingdom seems hidden when we choose to weep and gnash our teeth: when we are wicked and make our church into infertile soil. But if we understand, it is because we can see not only what is, but who we are. The treasure, the pearls, the net, the seed. We are the kingdom and how the kingdom is known.
There is only one legitimate response to that idea.
We need to make the kingdom of heaven more obvious. GOD isn’t hiding the kingdom from us, we are hiding it from each other! From our friends, our children, the strangers we meet off the street. We don’t just see the kingdom, we reveal it. When we love, when we care, when we give. When we ask for help and when we accept it.
That’s our job as Christians: revealing the kingdom. Everything else comes after. We reveal the kingdom.
So now we open our eyes, unplug our ears, and behold the kingdom in all its imperfect beauty! We give thanks for it in prayer and song! And when we show off Christ’s writing on our hearts in words of love and generosity. Don’t keep that kingdom hidden! Show it off! That’s the only way we’ll see the kingdom and the only way we’ll understand it.