Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Randy Greve, OHC
Proper 11 - Sunday, June 23, 2017
|Br. Randy Greve, OHC|
“Whoever says, ‘You fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away.” “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” “Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” “For many are called, but few are chosen.” “You brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
You get the idea. These phrases, out of context though they be, hyperbole though a few certainly are, are nevertheless the words of our Lord. F. F. Bruce wrote a book called The Hard Sayings of Jesus which collected and made comment on what Bruce called two categories of hard sayings; one group hard because they are an ancient culture’s idiomatic way of communicating, thus making their meaning to us unclear and their interpretation difficult. The other group he labelled hard sayings because their meaning was crystal clear - the doing it is hard.
Parables could be their own third category of hard sayings in the Gospels. Some have a clear moral message, but some are of the more mystical variety, and oriented toward a way of being rather than a particular action. Our Gospel today is of this second grouping. They describe the mystery of a process: a small, insignificant seed grows into a large tree. A bit of fermentation permeates a whole loaf of bread. A hidden treasure inspires one last, ultimate purchase. A merchant searches for the one, great, elusive find.
A net gathers in whatever happens to be swimming within reach. The images in these parables find commonality in their service to something greater than themselves at the beginning – the seed is not the tree, only its potential. The yeast of itself is useless without the dough. The hidden treasure, unless found, remains unknown. The one searching is not fulfilled without the discovered pearl. The net, unless it is used and cast, cannot get fish on its own. Each parable is about hidden power or desire let loose to do its thing; potential actualized which sets in motion a process which leads to fulfillment. Each object or motive needs activation, purposefulness, and meaning in order to do what makes its existence or action transcendent.
As a group these mini-parables begin to form some insight into the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. God is the cosmic conspirator of abundance. Kingdom is a verb. Kingdom is happening in the crisis of the recognition of the divine. The kingdom is not some distant or static time or place, but already present and happening now. It is a crisis because if truly recognized, its happening cannot be ignored.The reality of the kingdom is in encountering which must become responding, a reorienting of our lives around and toward that central, ultimate reality. The focus in parables is always on the urgency of the moment, the power of choice, which is all that is ours.
The parables of judgment which mention the end of this age are still of the present moment in rousing us to notice the path we are on – and its eventual endpoint. To our passivity and lack of attention, the kingdom can come as the experience of failure, but the cooperation with a process larger and more mysterious than we can grasp in the moment transforms the upheaval into life that could not happen any other way. If the Christian call is to being that is present to the possibility of this encounter and receiving it willingly, then these parables help us to know the kind of life we are welcoming.
Kingdom life is always a critique of our desire for immediate gratification, recognition, or control. The merchant is a good example of this. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” This is a hard saying, although it is not mentioned in F. F. Bruce’s book. Loving enemies and turning the other cheek have a certain concrete moral authority behind them – I can generally tell whether I’m even making an attempt or not. “In search” is certainly a hard saying. I want the great experience, the miracle, the big success, the quick fix. “Search” is more open-ended, a way of being bigger than the neat, nailed-down answers that get me out of the tension. On a search I am not in control, do not know the where or when.
I want to achieve, get it done, do it right. On a search I cannot conform, there is no map. Searching evokes a commitment to presence and attention and expectancy, especially if something of great value is waiting to be found. And in finally finding I am defined by new relationships and commitments, “selling” my old identity for the value of the priceless pearl.
Parables resist easy moralizing because they bend time and space. Is the merchant encountering the kingdom in the search, in finding the treasure, in selling all, or in buying it? Yes. It is not linear. They are happening simultaneously. In the searching is the hope of finding and selling all and buying the pearl. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis says in his commentary that, “this is the joy uniquely inherent in the one act that is at once, paradoxically, an act of supreme freedom and of supreme self-giving, of most radical self-emptying and of unimaginable fullness.”
Hard sayings are hard because they are telling us something about ourselves. It is not that Jesus is harsh, demanding, or rigid, but that these unflinching declarations about reality hit the equally unbending reality of my willfulness. But the parables will not bend.
It is I who must yield to their wisdom. If the parables and other provocative sayings of Jesus did not challenge our status quo, we would not choose to cooperate with the process of change desiring to work in us. Hard is good. Hard means they have the force of grace to break up my resistance, to reach my heart and change me as nothing else can.
The mystery of the kingdom is that God has chosen to be present and active in a way that is usually contrary to our egos’ inclination. This is the gift and the madness of the way of Jesus. While the miraculous can happen, most of the journey is day-to-day faithfulness in the realm of the hidden, small, and slow. The hiddenness, smallness and slowness of the kingdom calls forth attentiveness, patience, perseverance, and a trust that something is indeed happening and that it matters in the long run and in the big picture, even though I can only see partially and incompletely. Like the merchant searching for his perfect pearl, the distance between me and the pearl I desire is my conversion. And in this searching and hope my heart is formed into something more wonderful and loving than it could be by itself, because it encounters itself and rests within the reality of God’s conspiracy of abundance.
The conspiracy unfolds in God’s own way and God’s own time, but unfold it does. Everything on the way to heaven is heaven, St. Catherine of Siena says. Cultivate and honor the longing and waiting, it is doing its work. Let us plant our seeds and mix in our yeast and set out on our search and cast our nets – and trust in God’s name. Amen.