Sergius, Abbot of Holy Trinity, Moscow
We live in a messy world; a world of contradiction, paradox, confusion, disorder, and inconsistency. We seek protection against so much of what seems uncontrollable in the patterns of our minds. The future can seem frightening because of this imperfect world we live in. “Thus we search for predictability, explanation, and order to give ourselves some sense of peace and control.”1
In a kind of order of ascendency, the Franciscan Richard Rohr suggests three common patterns that our minds assume when we experience the world:
First, many people are able to negotiate life as sensate beings. For these people reality exists in what they can see, touch, and feel; in what they can move and what they can fix.
A second group of people experience all of the beauty that their senses open to them but they also want to make “sense” of the world so they turn to science and technology to explain the world and make it coherent.
The third group of people also uses their senses to experience the world and the explanatory power of the scientific method but they have something else. They are open in a way that allows them to experience awe, wonder, and mystery which connect all in all.2
This third way, this more expansive, heartfelt way of experiencing reality seems to be a pre-requisite for dealing with and understanding the big issues. I’m referring to such matters as God, life, death, infinity, faith, justice, mercy. Parables are a way of entering that larger view. They offer us a way of living in apparent contradiction, paradox, confusion, disorder, and inconsistency.
Parables were a favorite teaching tool in Jesus’ time and they lie at the heart of his teaching ministry. But we shouldn’t think that they are somehow unique to him. Their popularity in Jesus’ day quite possibly arose out of an emerging rabbinical tradition that sought to continuously explicate the body of the Jewish Scriptures.
Among scribes there was a growing sense, now firmly established in Jewish thought, that the commentaries bear divine inspiration as do the original texts themselves.
Parables are difficult because they mimic the world. They are contradictory, paradoxical, confusing, disorderly, and inconsistent. Like the future they can seem frightening, and even threatening. Some parables are comforting, heartwarming, humorous, earthly, we might even say, picturesque, but always in some way or another, challenging. I think that much of their power is in the fact that they are in so many ways like how we experience life itself.
The thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew contains a series of ten parables. We’ve just heard the last two of that series read here this afternoon. If you are like me, you may often feel stumped and at a loss when first reading these parables and maybe in the same place even after having read them again and again. That’s because parables invite us out of our usual way of seeing reality, a reality that our minds often create for us, into a different sort of reality. And that’s difficult because our egos find it very difficult to entertain the possibility that there might be something amiss with our own thinking; especially if our assumptions are called into question. There is much truth in the observation that all of us are addicted to our own patterns of thinking. Parables are invitations to begin to see the world around us and other people, in particular, with Christ’s eyes; to enter that third way of seeing.
The first of this afternoon’s two parables compares the kingdom of heaven to a net cast into the sea bringing up all kinds of fish, both good and bad. When I was young, I mean younger than I am now, I spent a lot of time fishing. Fishing was my father’s idea of fun and father-son bonding, even if it wasn’t mine. So, I spent lots of time fishing either from lake shores, or on my father’s boat working lures into weedy pond edges in search of bass or trolling for whatever we were trolling for that day, or surf casting standing hip deep in the ice cold water along the Maine coast
Fishermen have developed lots of different sophisticated methods to catch this fish or that fish. But in point of fact, fish are fickle creatures and fishing is often more a matter of chance than skill even if I wouldn’t argue that point with any fisher- folk here today.
If fishing with line and pole is a chancy affair, net casting is even more so. That’s what this parable portrays. The net which the parable compares to the kingdom of heaven gathers in whatever enters the net. If you’ve ever been on a commercial fishing boat and seen what nets haul in you’ll know that there are all kinds of things other than fish and well, let’s just leave it at that. If, like me, you’ve thought of the kingdom of heaven as something portrayed as a sort of idyllic peaceable kingdom, then this parable will begin to undermine that assumption. Jesus’ kingdom of heaven is placed squarely in God’s weird upside down economy where everyone gets to enter. The whole mess of whatever the net drags in.
Now, here’s where I think our problems begin. Because we typically like to imagine that we know who gets into the kingdom of heaven. And we usually think that it’s the good people or more precisely our idea of who the good people are. But the parable says something quite different. It says the good and the bad are hauled in together all mixed up in that indiscriminate net. Of course, the parable does say that the bad get thrown out and into a “furnace of fire” at that. But I want us to hesitate before we decide just what that might mean.
And here’s what I would like us to hesitate over: how often we can revert to dualistic, either/or thinking, when we think good and bad. Good and bad are like black and white, convenient dichotomies. They are neat and easy ways of stepping around disorder, contradictions, inconvenient truths and people and things that just refuse to fit neatly into the mold that our minds create for them. But they are not helpful constructions in thinking and coming to terms with those big issues I named before: God, life, death, infinity, faith, justice, and mercy.
Remember the many instances in which people who thought of themselves as good, religious, faithful and on the inside track find themselves undone or overturned when they encounter the man Jesus? The gospels are peppered with people that in Jesus’ day were considered bad or in some way morally deficient or mistakes of creation. Lepers, gentiles, demoniacs, paralytics, hemorrhaging women, the blind, the mute, the lame, those unable or unwilling to maintain ritual purity, tax collectors, adulterers, fornicators and the list goes on and on. Religious people did not hesitate to point out to Jesus that all of those kinds of people were sinners or people who suffered as the result of sin, either their own or the sin of others.
Rather than avoiding humanity’s contradictions and disorder, Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as relishing them, seeking them out, and using them to undo the very things that other people took as certainties. An “amazing fact about Jesus, unlike almost any other religious founder, is that he found God in disorder and imperfection – and told us that we must do the same or we would never be content on this earth3 and that we would never enter the kingdom of heaven. So while the parable of the net contains the element of judgment what that judgment is and how it is exercised is something that we need to be very circumspect about doing well to refrain from our own snap judgments about those bad fish.
It’s always important for us to remember that Jesus showed us that God’s justice and human notions of justice are two quite different things. Not only different but sometimes at complete variance with one another. The judgment that Jesus shows us points to a new way; judgment in the kingdom is measured, deliberate and never afraid to reverse itself. The kind of judgment that we all long for in that moment of grace when we recognize our own need for mercy and forgiveness. Judgment grounded not in knowledge but in wisdom.
Time and again, Jesus teaches that God’s boundless love and mercy undermine our tat-for-tat ideas about fairness and equity. Think about some of those parables: the Good Samaritan where Jesus portrays a God who forgives before forgiveness is even asked and only knows joy at the returning sinner. Or the parable of laborers, who having worked hard all day long in the owner’s fields receive the same pay as others, having worked only a few hours. Human justice recoils telling us that this isn’t fair; it’s inequitable. But in the upside down world of the God of Jesus all share equally in the bounty of the Father.
Scribes trained in the kingdom of heaven delight that whenever they begin to see a pattern emerging in the Bible it’s bound to be contradicted and undone [the scandal of peculiarity]. If we have ears to hear and eyes to see, those contradictions and inconsistencies won’t seem nearly as disconcerting or mind boggling as they appear at first view. Then, like “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven”4 we will find ourselves delighting at treasures of new insight correcting and re-shaping old patterns of thinking and judging.
1. Richard Rohr. The Naked Now. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009, p. 15
2. Rohr, p. 27.
3. Rohr, p. 16
4. Matthew 13:52
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