Texts: Romans 8: 35-39 ; Matthew 13: 31-51
Jesus asked the crowd, “Have you understood all this?” and they answered, “Yes!” (Matthew 13:51).
Well, they were lying. The people who heard Jesus’s parables were bald-faced lying when they claimed to have understood all he had been teaching.
Oh, maybe they caught much of the first parable about the sower and the seeds. After all, Jesus explained it in detail (though some scholars think the interpretation was not original to Jesus). But then he piled on more parables, with less detail and less explication. The Kingdom of God is like a little mustard seed that grows into a tree or a bit a yeast that can leaven a mound of flour—variations on this same theme. Four more parables about the kingdom round out this chapter. But before you and I assume these brief and homey stories hold self-evident meaning, consider that over the centuries scholars have filled volumes with differing interpretations of these parable about the Kingdom of Heaven. Have even the scholars been able to “understand all this"?
Let’s not glibly say WE understand “all this” until we consider that today’s parables themselves don’t extol “understanding” as the key to the kingdom. An intellectual understanding is not what makes the mustard seed grow and the yeast expand. The mustard seed can’t comprehend the processes of germination and photosynthesis. The yeast doesn’t grasp how fermentation releases carbon dioxide that causes dough to rise. They simply respond to an environment that fosters growth. The seed needs dark hiddenness to be a sign of God’s ways. The yeast needs to be worked into other elements. Like the yeast and seed, we don’t intellectualize our way into the kind of growth Jesus had in mind. Maybe spiritual maturation requires our willingness to be transformed from a dead thing like a seed into a living thing like a tree; from a substance like yeast to a growing process that makes an inert bread dough rise and eventually provide food for hungry people. Our lives can be like that—when God’s ways are lived out.
Every week I sample the plethora of articles and books claiming to know how to grow the church in this era when the Church is supposedly dying. But they rarely seem to address Jesus’s concern about growing the kingdom. And Jesus, unlike church growth experts, never spouted statistics or offered a formula for building up God’s realm. If Jesus had thought there was a simple formula for salvation, he’d have said—which he never did—“Believe these facts about me and you’ll be rewarded when you die.” Instead, Jesus told stories. Not to hide the path to God from those he loved and taught. He spoke in parables and paradox because spiritual growth is not a paint-by-numbers process. Because God’s saving work cannot be outlined in a sermon titled “How to Get into Heaven in 3 easy steps.” In fact, his parables about “the kingdom of heaven” are not about getting into a place called heaven. They are about participating in God’s kingdom or way of living as it unfolds, grows, develops right here and now.
I stress this point because many have claimed Jesus wanted us to believe certain things about himself, about God, about heaven. However, if that were the case—if he had specific essential doctrinal facts to transmit—he’d have communicated in a simple creed. He’d have catechized the crowd. He’d have stated explicitly what to believe. Instead, he said, “Follow me.” Instead, he told stories. If facts about himself were the “plan of salvation” he was trying to teach—as many have since then taught and believed—or if virtuous conduct, devoid of sexual sin in particular, is the way to “the kingdom of heaven,” as others have argued, then why did he never lay out these easy-to-follow steps to “salvation” from sin and hell? Jesus left no dogma, no simple direction, no password for entering heaven.
Instead, today’s scripture says Jesus taught ONLY through parables. He preached about the kingdom through suggestive short stories. He taught through a series of similes: “The kingdom of heaven is LIKE . . . . “ And from time to time he probably looked out at the crowd and said, “So are y’all following any of this?” Surely Jesus the rabbi was trying to be as clear as possible. He was not aiming for obfuscation. But God’s way defies simplistic summary, and spiritual paths have to be walked rather than studied. Artful language conveys the ineffable best. Narrative communicates life’s larger lessons better than rules and Christian apologetics.
When Jesus asked “Have you understood all this?” he might have been acknowledging our tendency to boil things down to three easy self-help steps—and he might have hoped for an honest answer: “Of course, we don’t understand.”
I like to imagine him responding: “Good. If you say you don’t understand, you’re on the path to deeper understanding.”
Richard Rohr describes the spiritual journey as “a journey into Mystery, requiring us to enter the ‘cloud of unknowing’ where the left brain always fears to tread. Precisely because we’re being led into Mystery, we have to let go of our need to know and our need to keep everything under control. Most of us are shocked to discover how great this need is” (Richard Rohr's Daily Meditation, “Letting Go” July 21, 2014).
Think about your own faith life and the list of things you long to understand, the questions you ask and ask:
How long, O Lord, must ___ continue?
Why has ___ happened?
Where, God, are you leading me?
Yet something about NOT knowing fosters spiritual maturity. Certitude is the antithesis of faith. We can and should seek wisdom. But most of the time we just respond to God in the unknowingness. We "live the questions," as Rilke advised. We give up the quest for simplistic answers or the illusion that we can be in control. We hold conclusions tentatively. We refuse to see parables and the rich biblical stories in general as simplistic sermons. Instead, we choose to lay bare our hearts and expose ourselves to the demands of loving this crazy world without any hope of understanding it. We do so because “God so loved the world.” Those who follow Jesus trust in his compassionate ways and join in his saving work of love.
Perhaps God plants us like tiny seeds in dark times and deep places. Nothing may happen for a long time. We rest in the utter unknowingness. Until our hard outer shell cracks. And out spills something, and it feels our life is ebbing out, and we no longer can contain and control what’s happening. But that cracking point might be, spiritually speaking, a way out and up into the light. And that new path toward life will offer life to others: a tree that gives shade and shelter to others.
Or God may knead us as a woman with strong, aching hands mixes yeast into a pile of flour. Left all to ourselves we are inert. Added to flour and worked and worked and pounded and stretched, our yeastiness is dispersed through the dough. The woman’s hands shape and reshape us. Nothing happens for awhile. But the warm hands massage us and wordlessly teach us what we’re called to do in that flour-y world. And even in the oven we keep expanding: eventual nourishment and strength for others.
No. I don’t understand the spiritual biology or chemistry of being seeds and yeast. It’s a learn-as-you-go-along project. No, unlike the crowd Jesus taught, I admit I do not understand and may never understand in any deep way many important things. In fact, I confess I do NOT understand . . .
how to love God purely. . .
how to follow Jesus consistently. . .
when to hold my tongue. . .
where to stand my ground. . .
I do not understand why some experience tragedies that refine their spirits while others experience tragedies that cripple their spirits.
I cannot fathom my husband’s patience and tenderness, my mother’s quiet dignity, my daughter’s strength and courage.
I cannot wrap my mind around words like
No, sweet Jesus. I do NOT “understand all this.”
And you don’t have to understand, either. But these parables invite us to engage them. Jesus’s parables are prompts for our ethical and spiritual response—not an argument to be settled.
As one Bible scholar theorizes, Jesus’s parables might have originally been discussion starters—not catechism. A parable “is not a monologue to be heard and accepted but an invitation to conversation and communal reflection” (Herzog 265). The meaning in the parable “lies in the interaction between parable and community” (Herzog 266).[i]
So I invite you to share something you understand –or don’t understand—about today’s parables, about the kingdom of heaven in general.
I like to imagine that Jesus would have urged us not to try to “understand” the Apostle Paul’s exquisite faith statement from today's Epistle reading--that “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Instead, I imagine Jesus suggesting that we try to inhabit and rest in that vision of God’s enduring love. We understand Paul’s faith statement to the extent that we have lived into its meaning for US. We have experienced God’s enduring love in our lives. Do I often feel this love and live it and breathe it? Yes! Do I understand all this? No.
PRAYER: We, your seeds and yeast, O God, are here to serve your kingdom of love. Amen.