A many-sided mystery

Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33,44-52

 

As I read through our Gospel passage

at the weekly Zoom bible study on Wednesday morning,

the line that struck me most, that left an impression on me,

was when Jesus says,

“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”

 

As I reflected on why it stood out for me,

and left an impression,

I realised that when someone says to me,

Do you get that? Do you understand?

– I don’t know whether you can identify with this –

I have a strong gut instinct to just say yes,

whatever the truth is.

Without even consulting my conscience.

I don’t want to appear slow, stupid, or out of touch.

 

That makes me wonder whether the disciples

really did understand what he said.

Whether they, like me, were too quick

to tick the box and move on.

And so miss the point.

 

I like the expression, which we have in this translation,

of Jesus laying before them another parable.

He doesn’t simply tell them new information,

but he lays before them a very curious thing,

a many-sided mystery he calls the Kingdom of God.

 

Have a look at this, he seems to say.

Move around it and look at it from different angles.

See if you really get a sense of the thing.

You see, Jesus is not interested in just filling their heads;

he is interested in touching their hearts.

His concern is not information, but transformation.

 

And he lays more than one of these parables

before them for their consideration.

In our passage alone we have five.

Five different ways of looking at this mysterious reality

he calls the Kingdom of God.

Jesus clearly knows the Kingdom of God is hard to understand.

 

So, like a jeweller showing off a prize diamond,

he describes different facets of this many-sided mystery.

Because he knows we’ll need quite a few different ways

of looking at this

before the penny drops,

before the reality sinks in.

 

And I think many of us,

perhaps especially ordained ministers,

are far, far too quick to answer a glib Yes

to the question of whether we understand these teachings.

I’ve already mentioned our Wednesday morning

Zoom bible study group.

Well, so far we’ve tended to use a method of bible study

called Lectio Divina,

which is not about gaining information about the bible,

but opening ourselves up to the Spirit for transformation.

It promotes a spacious posture of listening and curiosity

so that we can let our guard down,

and learn to hold our questions in humility,

with openness and receptivity.

And what makes lectio divina so rewarding

is that God is always so ready to fill our open hands,

pouring his grace into the empty space created

by this practice.

I warmly encourage you to join us

on Wednesday’s at 8.30am on Zoom

to get a feel for this powerful

and personal way

of reading scripture.

 

The reality that Jesus is describing in our passage,

he calls the Kingdom of God.

But he’s doing more than describing it,

he’s trying to give us the experience of it.

Again, he’s not interested in filling our heads with information,

but in touching our hearts and bringing about transformation.

 

I think that’s why he uses the language of parables,

because they’re not straightforward.

They are not understood simply or literally.

They are designed to slow us down,

and to invite us into a deep contemplation

of a many-sided mystery

which will transform us.

 

So, as in Lectio Divina, the best way to read a parable

is with an open and receptive heart.

That means being honest about questions we may have,

our uncertainties and doubts.

It means sitting with and even wrestle with

those passages we might understand superficially,

but which may yield more profound treasures

if we dig a little deeper.

 

Let me give you a personal example.

The fifth of our Kingdom parables –

that the kingdom of heaven is like a net

that was thrown into the sea

– this parable jars with me, and which I find difficult.

It speaks of the righteous and the evil being separated,

and the evil being thrown into a furnace of fire,

where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

 

My first reaction to this is to resist the idea of an angry, punishing God,

who will allow the angels to cause such dreadful, eternal suffering.

My deep conviction is that the cross of Christ

– our great authority and interpretive key –

reveals that there is no violence in God, at all.

Rather that the violence is in us.

I believe that was why Christ suffered and died

– not because of the will of his Father,

but at the hands of sinful man.

So whatever else this passage is saying about God

it is not, in my view, that he is vengeful and punishing.

Crux probat omni – the cross tests everything, as Luther said.

 

But as I continue to sit with this difficult parable,

and open my heart to the Spirit,

I can admit at least the presence

of both good and evil in the world.

Certainly there are people

who seem to be capable of great evil,

but often such people are products of institutions or cultures

such as Nazi Germany,

which justified and obscured their collective evils,

allowing individuals to commit great crimes

without troubling their conscience at all.

Responsibility for evil in that sense – at least in God’s eyes,

is not borne by the individual alone,

but collectively by the group.

 

I also believe that given the right set of circumstances

we are all capable of terrible things.

The line between good and evil

doesn’t run between those who have sinned and those who haven’t

(there is no such distinction for all have fallen short of the glory of God),

nor between one tribe of people and another,

whether white or black, nationals and foreigners,

gays and straights, right wing or left wing

The line between good and evil

runs through the heart of every person.

So perhaps at the end of time

the parts of each of us that are darkened by evil

will be removed, cut out like a malignant cancer,

freeing the soul to live in eternal health.

 

As I sit with the notion of suffering caused by evil,

I begin to see a truth I can support here too.

While the cross rules out the possibility

of punishment at the hands of God,

my personal experience is, as Richard Rohr says,

that I am punished by my sins, not for my sins.

 

There are always consequences to our actions,

and choices made outside the flow of love

will bring pain and suffering to myself and to others,

if not now then later.

And should I use my God given free-will to forever reject love

then my suffering, it follows, will be great,

and will endure as long as my rejection of love endures.

So I will not be punished by some fiction of an angry, vengeful God,

but am being given a realistic picture of the pain created

by those choices I make outside the flow of love.

 

 

Jesus asks us, do we understand these things?

Let us not be too quick to answer yes.

This is a passage that I thought I understood.

Disagreed with yes, but understood and dismissed.

By bringing a posture of openness and receptivity to it

through the practice of lectio divina,

treasures both old and new have opened to me.

 

I hope you will consider joining the Zoom bible study.

We all need different ways of looking at the many-sided mystery

which is the Kingdom of God,

before the penny drops,

before the reality sinks in.

 

Our passage today gives us permission

to not know all the answers,

to let our guard down,

and to hold our questions in humility,

approaching God, the Bible, Holy Communion, other people even,

in a spacious posture of listening and curiosity.

 

Because when we do this

we do so much more than fill our heads with information,

we allow our hearts to be changed,

and we can experience transformation.

 

AMEN.