Pentecost 8 (A)
30 July 2017
We have four more parables this Sunday as we complete our series in Matthew 13. Not one of them involves farmers, so George can relax this week.
- Buried treasure (casual passer-by)
- Pearl of immense value (merchant)
- Fishing net (fisher folk on the lake)
- Scribe trained for God’s rule (scholar, rabbi)
These are three of my favourite parables, along with one that I could easily skip in its canonical form.
This set will wrap up Matthew’s parable collection, so please indulge me while I reflect on the three parables that speak most powerfully to me from this set.
First a brief comment on the Parable of the Fishnet.
It evokes the earlier Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, but the action has been translated from field to the lake.
Jesus spent a lot of time around the lake. He observed the fishers at work and included several of them among inner circle of 12 disciples.
We know that Galilean fishers used nets: small casting nets, larger nets dragged behind boats, and nets walked out into shallow areas then back to the shore. All such methods result in a mixed haul, like the shark nets installed on beaches recently.
Our task is to prepare the nets, repair and maintain the nets, and to deploy them in ways to gather in the largest haul. In other words, our responsibility is to fish and it is the Master’s role to sift and sort afterwards.
ASIDE: Allegory kills the parable
One of the problems with parables is how we use them.
Parables mostly designed to be heard as a whole. They work because the story subverts common sense. They tend to cut across the grain of conventional wisdom, but the people after Jesus were mostly not as adept as he was in using open-ended stories. They felt the need to explain everything and limit the potential meaning of the parable. At times they even undermined the point Jesus was making.
One strategy that they used was allegorization. In this way they could convert the parable into a moralistic story. They attributed moral and spiritual significance to each detail of the story. Such interpreters also tend to present the story in context of the great day of judgment in the distant future. Where Jesus called on people to live NOW as children of a generous a God, later tradition tended to use fear of the FUTURE as a discipline on morals.
We see all these in The Fishnet. At its core is a genuine saying of Jesus, but already by Matthew’s time it becomes an allegory as the simple story is elaborated with horrific scenes from the day of judgment. This parable does not occur in Mark, which was Matthew’s major source. He has found it somewhere else, and we can also find an earlier version in Thomas 8 – where there is no interpretation such as we find in Matthew. Most likely Matthew has created the judgment scene interpretation, a theme we find several times in his Gospel.
Three More Parables
This brief and simple story indicates the essence of the parable.
Here, God’s Kingdom / reign is like … the accidental discovery of a hidden treasure trove. The lucky finder disposes of everything else in order to acquire that field and gain the rights to the treasure trove.
No moral issues are entertained, just the excitement of discovering the treasure; the joy of passion; and the folly of enthusiasm.
The Pearl of Great Price
Next we have a similar story, this time featuring a merchant: someone always on the lookout for a bargain. Today he finds the bargain of his lifetime: a pearl of immense value.
Like the lucky treasure hunter he sells up everything he owns. Now he can possess the precious pearl.
This is a parable where we see the humour of Jesus at work. Think through this story.
The merchant has sold all he possessed: his house, his merchandise, his animals, any servants or slaves (and maybe even his wife and children).
So now he has his pearl. But what is he able to do with it?
This was folly: impulse purchasing at its worst. Jesus is not giving financial advice, but describing how God’s reign takes hold of us. This is not about success, not about respectability, and not about traditional family obligations.
Rather, this is about a passion for God, a passion for the ‘pearl of great price’, a thirst for
the spiritual wisdom we draw from the well of faith.
A Scribe Trained for God’s Kingdom
Now we come to one of my favourite parables. The central character is a scribe, a Bible scholar, in our terms a theologian or a priest. The scribes were usually seen as the opponents of Jesus, but the early Jesus movement must have included some. They were needed to write gospels, etc and also to copy and study the Old Testament,
So what is such a godly scholar like?
This is the part I especially appreciate: he is like the manager of a household who knows what to fetch from the shed as needs arise. Sometimes it will be something new, but other times it will be something old. Such is my vocation as a priest and a scholar.
That is a role we are all called to fill at times and one of those times will be at Parish Council later today. As we engage in our mission planning process we need the wisdom to blend the old with the new.
We finish our three weeks of parables now.
They draw us deeply into the mystery of God. They encourage us to be excited by mission. They invite us to take foolish risks for God. They demand that we stop critiquing others and learn how to blend the old with the new.
Here in the Bay these parables resonate with our context. We are called to move beyond the safe spaces and to venture out to risky places. We do that knowing always that God is already there: EMMANUEL is not just with us, but also ahead of us.
Thanks be to God.