Readings 1 Kings 3.5-12, Matthew 13.31-33,44-52
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
There have been many things to take in, these last five days, from the calling to account of the Murdoch empire to the dreadful arithmetic of death: thousands in East Africa; nearly a hundred in Norway; and the one, solitary death of Amy Winehouse. All this is in our minds as we now take in the scripture readings we have just heard.
In the gospel reading, a string of parables. Parables are a key feature of Jesus’ teaching. What are they? Listen to some people who have given thought to this question. A parable is
a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness and strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.
are tiny bits of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the ray of something ultimate and glint it at our lives…‘are the jewelled portals of another world…have hooks all over them; they can grab each of us in a different way, according to our need.
Parables also ‘participate in the reality which they communicate’, which means that, since the parables of Jesus are about the kingdom of God, if I can just for a moment see what the story saying – or, better, feel what it is doing – then in that moment I shall meet God. So ask not, ‘What does this parable mean to me?’ but ‘What does this parable do to me?’
What hooks grabbed you as you listened to the ones we’ve just heard: the seed that blossoms and the routine baking of daily bread; the hidden treasure, the pricey pearl, and entrepreneurial risk-taking to make Lord Sugar drool; and the net of assorted fish?
In a reversal of what usually happens, I was hooked by the fish. It’s a parable of judgement, sorting good from bad, and we’ve had a dose of that lately. On Tuesday, the high court of Parliament hauled in some pretty big fish, some of whom (and here the metaphor breaks down) had already jumped out of the net by resigning. In the case of the News Corp trio, these were people who had done their share of pronouncing judgement upon others, and as we watched the scene or read about it I detected – not least in myself – a bit of that emotion for which the Germans have the perfect word – schadenfreude, shameful joy.
Such moments of judgement are rare, though, and most of the time we are all in the net together, fish of every kind. The unspeakable killings in Norway have shown us what a frighteningly varied species we are. Even in the most settled and prosperous and mature culture, there need only be a single human mind, one person’s will, one dark dream; then the mixed blessings of human cleverness can put in his hands the means to make his ghastly vision real. It seems that Anders Breivik, the man charged, identifies himself as in some sense Christian, and a Twitter account attributed to him quotes John Stuart Mill: ‘One person with a belief is equal to the force of a hundred thousand who have only interests.’
Now set Norway alongside the vast and ghastly vision that may yet become real in the horn of Africa. There is no competition, of course, but for many of us – again to our shame – the impact of the second may be smaller than the first: after all, that is Africa, where life is fragile and there are always wars somewhere; but this is closer to home, a reminder that in lands where living is easier, life is fragile too.
For those who seek the purposes of God in life, there is the usual question: why does God allow such suffering, such atrocities? Why does God not get on with it and (in the terms of the parable) pull out the bad fish? Scripture gives no direct answer, though if there is to be divine direct action against the murderer, that must mean similarly prompt action against my indifference. Am I ready for that? Then there are today’s other images – a plant gradually growing, bread slowly rising – that speak of time and patience. For me, God is the woman kneading in the yeast that in time will transform the dough into nourishing bread. Let my response, then, not be to call for dramatic gestures and leave it there; instead, let me see how I might be God’s yeast, an agent in a transformative process.
I cannot (and no more can you) do a thing to bring back the lives of nearly a hundred murder victims, or the life of one deeply talented, self-destructive singer. But I did read this yesterday: the cost of providing enough high-nutrition food to pull back half a million children in Somalia from the brink of death is put at £37m. I can make a small dent in that figure. We can: the combined assets of this congregation won’t be far off that figure. Each of us can act to reclaim for good those words of JS Mill about one person’s belief making a difference.
Parables, remember, are not explanations. They don’t inform, they transform. No surprise, then, to find the complete opposite of what I’ve described in the parables of the treasure and the pearl. No patience, no quiet incremental action here. They strike me as moments of crisis, when you have to make a judgement call about what really matters: the buried treasure – how long before someone else finds it?; the fine pearl – what if the next guy has deeper pockets than mine? You have to throw everything you’ve got at it, or you will lose it. There is a book in the children’s corner which we sometimes use on Wednesdays in our ABC (Adults, Babies & Children) group, and which tells the story of the great pearl. At the end it shows the merchant, having sold it all, sitting in nothing but his underpants and holding his prize, the happiest person in the world. That, says Jesus, is what the kingdom of heaven is like.
The kingdom of heaven, life with God, what we are part of here, this is not one more pearl for the necklace of life. It cannot take its place (however special) alongside the other rich and full experiences with which I fill my days. There is only one pearl, and this is it. And if I give it my all, if like Solomon I ask God only for the one thing that matters above all, then with Solomon I will find God not ungenerous in return. It is as Jesus says, and as we have just sung:
Seek ye first the kingdom of God
and its righteousness
and all these things shall be added unto you.
A poem of RS Thomas, inspired by the Welsh countryside (where the sun sometimes shines) and the gospel passage we have heard.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
A parable is… CH Dodd The Parables of the Kingdom (1935, Fount 1978) p16.
Parables are… Walter Wink Transforming Bible Study (SCM 1981) p159f.
£37m Andrew O’Hagan, ‘East Africa famine: our values are on trial’
When I asked what it would take to save those half a million children they said about £37m. Less than the transfer price for your averagely brilliant footballing hero I thought, as I put down the phone.
Donations to Disasters Emergency Committee appeal: https://www.donate.bt.com/DEC/dec_form_eaca.html?p_form_id=DEC03
The ABC (Adults, Babies & Children) Group meets every Wednesday in St Mary’s Church, Paradise Road, from 11am: songs and stories plus coffee for grown-ups (in August, just coffee).
Seek ye first… Matthew 6.31-33, which inspired the worship song.
RS Thomas ‘The Bright Field’. RS Thomas, Collected Poems, 1945-1990, JM Dent, 1993.