Br. Robert L’Esperance

Sergius, Abbot of Holy Trinity, Moscow
Matthew 13:47-52

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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  1. Ruth West on September 8, 2018 at 23:11

    This sermon is such food for thought. I felt I must reread the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Such teachings!
    Unlike the disciples who replied to his question (vs. 51) that they did understand all these things, I cannot say that I do. As you said, the parables turned their knowledge of the world upside down. Each one has a valuable lesson for us. The psalmist stated, “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.” What better way to get a point across than to tell a story about everyday life! Even when the conclusion might not be what is expected. Thank you. Much preparation went into this homily I know.

  2. Edward Franks on September 7, 2018 at 11:40

    Excellent sermon! Parables sometimes leave us ‘hanging out to dry’ so to speak by not giving us the answers we expect or want or a conclusive answer such as Kingdom may not arrive without participation in God’s intentions and the parable of the Samaritan which is more than an exhortation to be a good helper, but rather one cannot enlist God and religion to divide the human race. Jesus’ audience must have been shocked when the hero of the story was a Samaritan and not a Jewish person the third person to pass by. There is a saying that a Jew would rather eat pork than bread made by a Samaritan! From Now Hear the Parable by Bernard Brandon Scott. In regard to perspective we may want to remember that human beings see the world indirectly since everything is mediated by the meaning and value we place on what we see. Not so with other animals with a few exceptions possible. Also we make the mistake of assuming; and too often believing our opinions and interpretations are fact when we don’t have the facts of proofs.

  3. Elizabeth Hardy on September 7, 2018 at 09:23

    what a relief to be able to finally stop trying to control and order the universe – apparently someone else is in charge and making all the decisions!! Thanx Br. Robert.

  4. SusanMarie on September 7, 2018 at 06:37

    So many of the comments here express what I want to say about this extraordinarily beautiful and wise sermon, so I’ll just add my thanks for your continued insights and wisdom and for including the wisdom of Richard Rohr. Part of my practice every morning is to read the SSJE sermon and some of Rohr’s writings. It’s all a blessing.

  5. Faith W Turner on May 16, 2017 at 18:21

    I needed this today! When things are not going smoothly like the old 50’s family TV, we tend to blame the poor, other denominations, Victims etc. That is not going to do it! We need to say a short prayer, take deep breaths, and think what WE can do to bring the Kingdom of God to earth!

  6. Lynn on May 12, 2017 at 09:02

    I listened to the sermon three times yesterday on my way to an important medical appointment. Thank you, Brother. for filling my mind and heart with contemplation that displaced the anxiety.

    Finding God in disorder and imperfection is so paradoxical, so counterintuitive. and yet such a rich source of joy and wonder and peace. I have a few nonbeliever friends who want to reduce the Gospel to “be nice to each other” and dismiss it as kindergarten morality. I think you’ve given me a start at the words to express why following Christ is actually a PhD level challenge that we are given.

  7. Margaret A Fletcher on May 12, 2017 at 07:07

    I have read this talk several times and the starting premise of three catagories for knowing is a heavy judgement in itself. Myers/Briggs categories in varying combinations give a fuller and subtler perspective on human ways of knowing. Intuition that which comes to one as direct gift is there for everyone in some degree or other.
    Don’t the New Testament parables always point to a broader compassion or balance one another like the fish in the net coupled with separating the sheep and the goats? God sees the cup of cold water, defensively, secretly given where we may not.
    In the second to last paragraph “The Prodigal Son” fits better than the “The Good Samaritan”.
    I love Justin Welby’s call to pray “Thy kingdom come” when facing our ‘messy’ “complex’ world it seems to be the most direct plea. It would be my judgemen to add “May we have the grace of courage and will to make the sacrifices to bring it about.” The parables are a directive as to what needs to be done.

  8. Christina on May 11, 2017 at 09:57

    I think our judgments of good or bad, can be more subtle than they might appear. We may think that the killer, the abuser, the arsonist is bad. Similarly, we can put people in the ‘good’ category as we judge them. But what of the others who we feel are not on the same page as we are. It is a dangerous area and one that I have discovered it is easy to slip into.
    There is a woman in our congregation who has wanted to befriend me, but for me, I didn’t want to extend myself to her. Recently she was away for a while and asked me to visit her after her return. She had spent a month in India with Sisters who seek out girls who have been abandoned. She helped out with whatever she could – the girls ranged in age from five to seventeen. The Sisters’ aim was to care for them: feed them, cloth them and even more importantly, educate them. If they find younger little ones, they take them too. It is hard for them to safeguard those in their care as there may be ‘family’ members who want to take a girl out to visit someone in the family. They guard against it because that girl will not return. She will be sold off – perhaps into prostitution.
    So who am I to decide whether or not I like someone and put them off on one side of my life. I cannot imagine spending a month in the slums of India, or the slums of any other place. God forgive.

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  10. Jane Goldring on February 13, 2017 at 19:30

    Read through your commentary and thought how true. The Parables certainly have answers for us. Always remember Mom saying they are not dead yet, when you heard things some people have done. I enjoyed your article very much.

  11. William Coats on February 13, 2017 at 10:25

    God bless you Br. Robert. I think you are onto it with the parables. They are contradictory. But you might try this. Let’s assume some parables were uttered early in his ministry when the issue was who are the good guys and who the bad. Let’s assume over time he changed and the message changed. The parables of the lost coin and lost sheep cannot function like previous parables. Coins and sheep cannot repent, but if lost can be found. This involves a different logic. Now Jesus is after all the lost and salvation becomes his standing in for us,

  12. Michael on July 21, 2016 at 09:27

    Questioning our own thinking frees us from our own myopia.

    • Dann on February 13, 2017 at 07:59

      Indeed – myopia is a close cousin to certainty. I think of the kind of scientists who believe nothing that isn’t proven in a double-blind study (I studied chemistry, and am a technology journalist). Not all scientists are thus – a rare few are absolutely closed of mind – but those who are, I would describe as “myopic.”

  13. Rhode on July 21, 2016 at 08:43

    The parables beautifully reflect our lack of God-logic. They turn us upside down so our pockets are emptied of our manmade rules about what is good for me and what is good for you. He uses what we think we know to show us we really do not. The beauty is the power of the HSpirit to open our eyes to a love not afraid to address the evil and despair that continues to undermine and separate us from the truth of the greatness and goodnes of God. Through Christ in us, God has, is and will prove all things are possible to anyone who opens the door to Him. Our insecurities and fears will be what the evil one will try to use over and over to place our hope in the false god of weapons and walls and wealth. The parables reveal that. Thanks be to God!

  14. Sally Baynton on July 21, 2016 at 08:08

    Fast forward 11-months…I just love this post! I love how you describe the parables as a little messy. They are certainly that and more. They provide us with a wonderful glimpse into the “reality” of heaven. Thank you!

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  16. Mister White on August 12, 2015 at 23:49

    Thank you for your message. We want to love the sinner (not the sin) but we would much rather heal and compensate and reward the victims of sin (sinners) than perhaps “use” them? Your very kind and enlightening sermon states : “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.”. . .
    Why do we have disorders in the first place ? Is it wrong to have certainties and stability? To be certain of God’s love and mercy is a certainty we could be ok with ? to be certain of heaven and its safety and bounty and joy is something we could live with? Sin or disorder is an outcome of an imperfection in the ecosystem and environment and is never the fault of the victim of the sin (sinner). Perhaps? To be certain that we will have love and plenty and shelter and clothing and food and transportation and friends and lovers is a certainty (and a safety net) that even fallible governments and flawed man made institutions attempt to provide, perhaps? then why not our God, please? We do not want our (or any) people to be scarred and traumatized by the sight or knowledge of imperfection or sin or suffering. We don’t want them to know what leprosy or disability is. We want them to perhaps be so used to perfection and beauty and love that they don’t even know that disability, disease, suffering, disorder can exist, please? Perhaps? Why should our people have knowledge of evil or sin or imperfection even ? Why are our innocent children aware of “fornication” and diseases of the spirit and diseases of the body and diseases of the environment (harmful barren lands and plants)? Why would anyone relish encountering imperfection and ghastliness ? We want them eat and love and frolic with abandon and never know any suffering or pain or fear of punishment. Is it not a flaw in the system that these innocent children are sobered and their joy assailed by the sight of disability and human suffering and they have to distinguish between what is love and what is fornication and what is adultery ? Why put these innocent children through so much ? Why put me through this? The best of spirits for everyone and the best of environments for everyone so all are become innocent and never do their foreheads crease from worry or their hair become gray or fall off and never may any known the taste of tears or the sight of imperfection. Perfect ethereal beauty and heaven for all and nothing less please. Please forgive me if I have said anything inappropriate.

  17. Jean Barnes on August 11, 2015 at 13:57

    Disordered Parables – oh, how I am going to enjoy trying to unpack all the wisdom, all the gifts, and all the insights packed into this exciting explanation of the parables. Thank you! I find your posts always inspirational and have developed a thirst for them. They do indeed feed me! God Bless.

  18. Anders on August 11, 2015 at 05:32

    Thank you. I’ve always been drawn to parables and dissatisfied how they were glossed over in my church of origin in favor of more zealous dualistic teachings of Paul. Now I see a discrepancy between them that I certainly cannot fill. So I will put my historical good faith hygiene aside to explore my nets. This does not work in my logic but my constraints of faith are fortunatly wider.

  19. Josephine (Chepi) DiCalogero on September 26, 2012 at 17:59

    To All, I had just commented on “Lex Orandi Lex Credendi”, a sermon by Br. Kevin Hackett, on how ones thoughts progress to ones destiny. I wrote how my anger was preventing me to find the forgiveness for myself and those you had injured me and then here is Br. Robert L’Esperance giving me a way to see and hear God’s mercy and judgment and find myself wondering who am I ,who has a lot of judgments, not to allow mercy to come into my life and the life the others who have hurt me, the very ones I say that I love.

    When I am able to follow each of the SSJE posts there certainly is a pattern and I am so grateful today for God allowing me to hear and see his kingdom. Deo Gratias. May all in God’s kingdom, good and bad and in between, find mercy in their hearts.

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