And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be? (St. Luke viii. 9)
The New Testament is full of examples of parables; there are actually thirty in total. We encountered one of them last week in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable is an external and visible story or illustration that carries the mind into an interior and invisible truth. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always involves the story of human beings; never places their moral education in the power of talking trees, birds, or brute beasts; does not mock or deride man’s condition; and represents the creation accurately as the work of a loving and engaged God. Thus a parable is not a fable. Nor is a parable a myth since myth normally conflates or blends the divine and human, heaven and earth, good and evil in such a way that what is depicted seems to picture more of a conundrum and problem than any solution. A parable, then, involves men and their reconciliation to God, focusing upon one aspect or mode of human life that leads to or away from the generation of Divine Grace in the soul. A parable… moves in the spiritual world, and never transgresses the order of the natural world. A parable uses the external and visible to lead the mind to the discovery of inward and spiritual truth. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about the choices that man makes in this life, and how those choices affect his ultimate destiny. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know the Good, but because He wants them to will and choose it. Pope Benedict XVI says that to His disciples Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God; to others, instead, He must proclaim it in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, conversion of the heart; indeed, by their very nature parables demand the effort of interpretation; they not only challenge the mind but also freedom…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). God never forces himself upon any man. He respects man’s freedom; and that freedom is all about the ability of faith to ponder, study, explore and investigate what is not immediately known but which can be discovered and found beneath the surface of reality. In the parables each of us is given opportunity to follow Jesus to his Kingdom. Benedict says that Jesus Himself is the Parable…who, in the sign of His humanity, hides and at the same time reveals His Divinity. (Idem)
Of course this concealing and disclosing of truth is not unique to Jesus’ parables. Just think about how created nature hides a truth about itself that awaits discovery through man’s contemplation of it. Or, in a slightly different way, think of thoughts of men’s hearts that are reserved for those whom alone they love and trust. So nature and man in their respective integrities are no strangers to this method of revealing or sharing truth. And yet most men, it would seem, would rather be spared the effort and labor involved in the work of discovering it. St. Paul runs up against them in this morning’s Epistle lesson. Supposed spiritual masters and teachers have been teaching the flock at Corinth that St. Paul is blowing out of proportion the process of conversion to Jesus Christ. True Christianity, they insist, involves really nothing more than a kind of occasional appeal to Jesus the glorious miracle worker. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching, but should be softer and gentler, without any suffering at all. To which St. Paul responds with an almost violent attack, flavored with what some scholars have interpreted as self-justifying arrogance.
But St. Paul intends no such thing. Far from wishing to justify himself, he desires only to offer his experience as a kind of parable for the honest man who will plant his feet on the ground and resolve to follow Jesus Christ. The parable of his life will teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. And it will make a mockery of any false teaching which can only stand to pervert and corrupt the sheep of Christ because it bears no resemblance to everyman’s real life struggle to find, choose, and perfect truth in the soul. He says, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck… in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen… in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness….(2 Cor. 23-27) In other words, conversion and discipleship involve much more than any cursory and perfunctory faith in God’s Word, evidenced in the highs of questionable and superficial charismatic euphoria. In fact, it involves suffering to see and endure the Word of God as it moves a man from the external and visible surface of emotional instability well into the depths of the fallen self that sees the need for salvation. Who is weak, and I am not weak? the Apostle challenges. (Cor. xi. 29) The parable of St. Paul’s life reveals that the work of becoming a Christian involves the discovery of utter weakness. The process is painful as the body softens and breaks down, the soul weakens and yields, and the spirit resolves and fights to welcome God’s saving Word. St. Paul says, If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) Through [his] weakness, [Christ] is made strong. (2 Cor. xii. 9) His dying to the world, the flesh, the devil, and himself is as painful as Christ’s crucifixion because the way of the Cross is the parable of that reduction of human life to the indwelling rule and governance of the germinating Word of God.
The threats to this conversion process are neatly summarized in today’s Parable of the Sower. A sower went out to sow his seed, Jesus tells us, and some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (St. Luke viii. 5-7) Some Christians hear God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls is trodden down by the habitual busy-ness and commerce of this world, and so they can never hear the Word. Archbishop Trench tells us that some Christians are in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement… [having] laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root… (Parables, Trench, p.60) These men are easy prey to the Devil and his ways, since they live in a world full of so many words, that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others. So superficial is their faith that the Word of God is snatched up from them before they realize that it is missing. As St. Cyril says, Into… minds that are hard and unyielding, no divine or sacred word will enter. (On the Gospel: St. Cyril)
Other Christians temporarily hear the Word of God with excitement and joy; it sounds so promising, and so they prematurely anticipate its rewards without understanding the depth of faith that must establish its roots. They fall away because they cannot work out [their] salvation…with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, will demand too much of that pain and suffering, sacrifice and offering that they have spent their whole lives fleeing and escaping. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no deepness of earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26) These are shallow Christians who love the form and husk of Christianity, the sounds, smells, colors, and movements of a beautiful form. And, as St. Cyril writes, As long as [these] Christians are left in peace, they keep the faith; but should persecution arise, they will be of a mind to seek safety in flight. (Idem) When their faith is persecuted these hollow men surrender the Word for sake of earthly and temporal protection and comfort.
Finally there are Christians who hear and more honestly receive God’s Word, but are chocked and killed by thorns which sprung up with it. (St. Luke viii. 7) Here are they in whom the Word is growing, but only alongside inner anxiety, fear, worry, and looming despair, that kill its within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) With Archbishop, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while… but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars of sin may take the form of something enjoyed and/or something feared; in each case they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot overcome and rule the soil of the soul. One or all of these kinds of hearing God’s Word might well describe the kind of failure in faith that St. Paul is attacking.
The conclusion of the Parable teaches us that the seed of God’s Word can grow up effectually only in deep, dark spiritual soil that is weeded and fertilized by faith that opens itself completely to God’s Grace. Only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort can the Word of God, Jesus Christ, take root downward and bear fruit upward. (Isaiah xxxvii. 31) If we follow St. Paul then we learn that we are all in danger of beginning, continuing, ending, and even reverting to any level of receptivity described in Jesus’ Parable. Jesus knew this when He offered the Parable. Our Lord spoke as He did – cryptically but not unintelligibly – with the intention of provoking whatever reactions the nature of this or that hearer made probable. (Knox: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 81) Our natures in relation to God will determine whether or not the seed of His Word bears fruit in our lives. If with St. Paul we are conscientiously dying to ourselves and hold the Word with a noble and generous heart and endure…,we shall yield a harvest. (St. Luke viii. 15, Knox) And though we shall suffer, we shall also, like St. Paul, become a parable to the world revealing the love of the Word that grows in the hearts of His suffering servants. Amen.