Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
The focal point of much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching in the gospels is “the kingdom of God.”
The opening of Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mk 1:14-15) Of course, this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is quite unlike the kingdoms of the world that we human beings know from experience:
God’s reign is not about exerting authority; it’s about offering service;
it is not about dominance and power; it’s about humility;
it is not about being first or greatest; it’s about identifying with the lowly and the poor.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employs a number of images or metaphors to introduce the concept of God’s kingdom to his hearers, most of whom were peasants, subsistence farmers, living in an agrarian society. Jesus speaks about agriculture, about planting and harvesting, about sowing seeds – images easily understood by the people. His images regularly startle and surprise his listeners, and us. Over and over again, his point seems to be that this kingdom of God is never quite what we expect.
Saint Augustine, the African bishop and theologian of the early 5th century, spent many years writing about God as a Trinity of Persons, a mystery which both consumed his attention and yet eluded his understanding.[i] So the story goes, he was walking by the seaside one day, meditating on the Trinity, how God could be One essence, and yet, at the same time, three Persons. He came onto a little child. The child had dug a small hole in the sand, and with a seashell was scooping water from the ocean into the hole. Augustine watched him for a little while and finally asked the child what he was doing. The child answered that he wanted to scoop all the water from the sea and pour it into the hole in the sand. Augustine felt impelled to correct the child. “That is impossible,” Augustine said. “The sea is too large and the hole is too small.” And now it was this child who was impelled to correct Augustine. The child said, “That is true, but I will sooner draw all the water from the sea and empty it into this hole than you will succeed in penetrating the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your limited understanding.” Augustine turned away in amazement, and when he looked back, the child had disappeared. Augustine had been put in his place, not a bad place, but simply in a place of recognition that he, too, was a child of God, a God whom he would mysteriously experience but never fully understand.
“Make yourself at home.” It’s a nice thing to say to someone when they come over. It’s meant to put them at ease. It’s warm and inviting. I remember being told this a lot when I was asked to house-sit for people. And, as kind as it was. I knew it was only conditional. It was a temporary offer. I was welcome to eat some food from the fridge or lay down on the couch but painting a bedroom or organizing the kitchen cabinets the way I wanted to was never part of the bargain.
When Jesus invites us to abide, to dwell, to make our home, he’s offering more than a conditional bargain. He’s offering us eternity at home in God.
When John writes in his gospel that the “Word was made flesh” he chooses a word the resembles something more like “tented,” “tabernacled,” set up a temporary dwelling. The Word was made flesh and camped out among us. But, when Jesus talks about the relationship he’s offering with his disciples it has a more long-term, if not permanent ring. Make your home with me.
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Life is full of mystery. Especially people. We are all such mysteries. Yet there are these moments when we learn something about another person, and it’s like the light turns on in our heart of understanding who they are and why. It may be in our learning about their family of origin, their life history, their health, their abilities and training, their failures or successes. Whatever. And we have this “ah-ha” moment. It’s like a missing piece has been found in the puzzle of understanding this person… and their life now makes much more sense to us. Perhaps even what before had seemed to us a stain on this person’s character, we now can see is a scar which they have worn and wear well. We realize they are something of a walking miracle. You probably have had this experience. I certainly have.
The word in the scriptures that captures this deep sense of understanding another person is mercy, often also translated as compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion comes from the same root as the word for womb. Compassion is womb-like, for both the giver and the receiver.[i] Compassion safely, gently nurtures life. Estelle Frankel, a rabbi and psychotherapist, says that, “With compassion we enable all things to grow into their most beautiful and complete form, and with compassion we learn the wisdom of the womb,” how to hold, when to hold back as we carry someone in our womb of awareness.[ii]
When I was 26, I went to the Holy Land for the first time. The day I remember most was getting up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning with my fellow pilgrims and leaving our hotel in Jerusalem and getting into our coach, and in the dead of night driving due East. Ahead of us lay the great Judean wilderness. We could see very little, but eventually the coach stopped and we climbed out into the utter silence of the desert. As we stood in awe, our eyes slowly made out the shape of the hills, below the twinkling stars. Then the bus drove off. We were alone – standing together on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We, like the man in the parable, were going to walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The ancient road is not the modern highway which now carries countless pilgrims down to Jericho in their air conditioned coaches. The road which we were taking winds its way between the hills and the rocks and the canyons, but always going down and down. For Jerusalem is high in the hills, while Jericho is way below sea level, one of the lowest points in the earth’s surface. The cities are less than 20 miles apart.
And so we set out for several hours of silent, prayerful walking .We began to see more and more clearly, and then there was a glorious sunrise, and we all sat down on the rocks and had Eucharist together.
On we walked, as the temperature rose; it became incredibly hot. “Keep drinking, keep drinking!” said our Palestinian guide. We did. But, sadly, we never made it to Jericho. The heat and sun became so intense as we walked lower and lower that some of our party felt unwell, and we called for the bus to drive us the last few miles into Jericho.
When I was a student, one phrase always sent my spirit sinking, “group work.” Invariably I would be assigned a partner or two who, to my mind, were only there to drag me down or distract my self-esteem by their more finely formed intelligence and work ethic. “Couldn’t we just do these assignments on our own?” I would ask myself. I wanted to be in sole control over anything I had to surrender for the teacher’s scrutiny. So focused was I on the state of my own GPA that I dreaded the idea of having to compete with, or worse still, depend on another. “Surely,” I thought, “real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
I think it is safe to say that we live in a culture that suffers, to varying degrees, from this pivotal misunderstanding. While cooperation and mutuality are concepts routinely praised from the political podium, in classrooms, and in many an ideological platform, at the end of the day, we still notice something unsettling: individualism and individual choice, the right to be an island, and the desire for private ownership still guide so much of the world around us as goods in themselves. It is clear that we know we should temper these behaviors, but we still manage to miss the mark. We seem to be uncomfortable working beyond our own, or our community’s, assumptions. We want to be in control.
“Surely real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
Isaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17
Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading! Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse. O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.
Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah. But who would he be? How will we know who it is? People were always asking “who are you?” “Where are you from?” Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….” He will be the one. We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.
Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination. And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination. So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity. They are called Jesse Trees. We see them in stained glass windows. (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.) We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.) And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you. It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century.
The kingdom of God as a great dinner, as banquet, is an old image. 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah wrote that one day God would make a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all peoples. At that time, God would also destroy death and wipe away all tears.[i]
Over time, a few groups reinterpreted Isaiah’s vision inserting limits, saying it was not for everyone but rather for good religious folk, those who kept all the religious laws, not for unbelievers, not for foreigners.[ii] Likely some reclining at the dinner with Jesus were expecting him to affirm the reinterpretation: Blessed are the righteous, those who keep the rules, who (like us) will be worthy to be welcomed to God’s party.[iii]
Instead, Jesus tells this story. “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.” One invites, get confirmations, and from that number prepares appropriate food. When the food is ready, guests are invited a second time to come over, like as we say “now come to the table.”
Contrary to all custom, the guests refuse, giving ridiculous excuses. “I bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it.” Yet anyone would look at a piece of land extensively before buying. “I bought five yoke of oxen, and I have to go try them out.” Yet oxen must work well together yoked. It would be foolish to buy without testing them first. The third says, “it’s my wedding night. I can’t come.” These are not: I’m so sorry. Something I couldn’t have foreseen just came up. These are absurd. They are offensive, public insults to the host.[iv]
For good reason, the master of the house became angry. One rightly expects retaliation, or cutting off relationship, or withdrawing and stewing. When you or someone you love is insulted, threatened, hurt or attacked, what stirs in you? How do you want to respond, or what do you find that you do with your anger? Right the wrong with revenge. Fight back with force. Wound with words. Hit to hurt. Shame.
There was once a young man who was beginning his spiritual journey in the religious life. He sought the council of an old man who was well versed in spirituality, and asked him what all he must do to live a disciplined religious life. The old man opened his Psalter and read the first verse of Psalm 39: I said, I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue. “STOP!” cried the young man as the older was about to proceed; “when I have learned that I will come and receive further rules.” And so he went away and at the end of six months, the older man, curious about the progress of the younger, sought him out and asked, “Are you ready to continue with the other lessons?” “Not yet,” he replied. “I have not yet mastered the first one.” Another five years passed and curiously the older man again sought out the younger. This time the young man replied, “I have no need of the other lessons, for, having learned that first rule, to master the tongue, I have gained discipline and control over my whole nature.”[i]
The past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. I am struck by one of the Letter’s reoccurring themes: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness; if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.[ii] Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, the author of the Letter is admonishing his audience to put right words into right action. Certainly, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to comprehend yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. Bits in the mouths of horses, small rudders guiding large ships, great forests being set ablaze by small sparks: all of these poetically call into question our mastery over this small, unruly member of our body: the tongue. With it, he says, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. You might summarize this major theme of James’ Letter this way: words matter. What is your experience of this? What metaphor would you use to illustrate the power of speech? How have you come to know that words matter?
Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.