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. (R.C. Trench: Notes on the Parables, p. 1-14) 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, and good and evil in such a way that it pictures more of a conundrum than a solution. A parable, then, involves men and their reconciliation to God, focusing on 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. (Idem, Trench)
So, 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 men to know the Good, but also because He wants them to will it. He wants them to will it since without moral decision a man cannot be saved. St. John Chrysostom writes that Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would convert, 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. That freedom is all about the ability of faith to ponder, study, explore and investigate what is not immediately known but can be discovered and found beneath the surface of reality. But there is something more. In the New Testament, each of us is invited to discover the connection between the parables and Jesus. Pope 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 are 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 the 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 the process of conversion to Jesus Christ way out of proportion. 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, characterized more by transfiguration transport than sanctified suffering. To which St. Paul responds almost violently and with what some scholars have interpreted as self-justifying arrogance.
But St. Paul has no interest in justifying 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 give the external and visible witness of a true inner conversion. And it will make a mockery of any false teaching which can only stand to pervert and corrupt the sheep of Christ because it refuses to reveal the true nature of spiritual transformation that conversion entails. 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 cursory and perfunctory faith in God’s Word, evidenced in the highs of the questionable superficial charismatic euphoria of his detractors. In fact, if man is to faithfully endure the Word of God as it moves him from the external and visible surface of emotional instability well into the depths of the fallen self that sees the need for salvation, he must suffer. Conversion involves suffering. Man must suffer to find the truth that he does not have. Who is weak, and I am not weak? the Apostle exclaims! (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 soul suffers to come to terms with the inner truth. The spiritual combat that welcome God’s saving Word in the face of the world’s enmity and opposition is painful. Yet, in the midst of the pain that suffering conversion brings, St. Paul insists, If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The confession of true weakness will yield to God’s strength. My Grace is sufficient for thee. My strength is made perfect in weakness. (2 Cor. xii. 9) The way of the Cross is the parable of that reduction of human life to the rule and governance of God’s Word.
The parable of St. Paul’s life can also be understood in relation to 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. Conversion is ignored in favor of earthly goods. [Men] 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 that has no time for conversion. As St. Cyril says, Into…minds that are hard and unyielding, no divine or sacred word will enter. (On the Gospel: St. Cyril) They are hard and unyielding because their souls are addicted to the influence of all worldly things. And so when the Devil snatches God’s Word from them, they don’t even notice it.
Other Christians temporarily hear the Word of God with excitement and joy; it sounds so promising. But 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 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 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)
Finally, there are Christians who hear and more honestly receive God’s Word but are choked 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 that inner anxiety, fear, worry, and looming despair that eat away at and finally kill faith. They are crushed by the cares, riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) With Trench, 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 symbolize temptations to past sins that have not effectively been overcome through the soul’s habituation to virtue. St. Paul knows only too well that one of these kinds of spiritual disposition always threatens his spiritual life as a parable of total surrender to Jesus Christ.
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 each condition of soul described in Jesus’ Parable could be a pitfall for us. Jesus knew this when He offered the Parable. Christ speaks to each of our natures. He challenges us to ask which level of receptivity best describes our relation to Him. Every level, save the last, is, after all, inadequate to salvation. So Christ challenges us to take the utmost care to cultivate the seed of His Word in our souls. With St. Paul then, let us conscientiously die to all that threatens the life of Christ the Word in our lives. Let us fight the good fight against evil in our lives, so that holding the Word with a noble and generous heart, and enduring courageously…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 that reveals how Jesus Christ, God’s own Word, can be planted in our souls and yield the harvest of salvation. Amen.