Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I think that our Gospel this week (Matthew 13:24-43) poses the question ‘What are parables for?’ The fact that Jesus tells so many, especially in Matthew’s Gospel, suggests that this was a common teaching form in the Semitic world, a method frequently used in teaching the non literate, or those who did not use the written word unless absolutely necessary, and for whom the images the parable created would have been long lasting.
But we should not therefore think that parables were or are ‘flat’ things, capable of only one meaning. The very fact that they were so memorable (after all, originally they were part of the synoptic oral tradition for some 30 years or so before being written down) suggests they were meant to be mulled over, interpreted and applied, and thus speaks to their long and lasting usage.
As I have been at pains to point out previously, Matthew wrote his Gospel in the aftermath of the failed Jewish Revolt, and at a time when relations between Jews and the increasingly distinctive ‘Christian’ movement was becoming ever clearer. His Gospel brings to the fore the level of animosity between Jesus and the leaders of Jewish thought and belief which led to his ultimate crucifixion at their hands. Last week we looked at the parable of the Sower in precisely this context; and I believe that the rest of the parables which follow are all part of Jesus’ and Matthew’s exegesis of this tragic and painful divide, whilst designed also to point towards the positives in it, as the rise of the new movement was expected. Matthew and the other synoptic writers move from affirming Jesus as the long awaited climax of Judaism, affirmed by Moses and Elijah the bastions of Judaism, to understanding him as the Christ cut loose from Judaism to turn his saving grace to the pagans.
Originally therefore, our parables, like the Sower, must be comparing the fate of the Jews (the darnel) with the “good seed”, in other words the nascent Christian community. Here, as in so much of this Gospel, the outcome for those who reject Jesus is harsh and uncompromising. Jesus/Matthew has turned his back on the rejecting and murdering cabal, and gone out to those who will accept his word. In common with the tenor of this Gospel it is not a comfortable picture, “Collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.” Goodness, what a history of anti-Semitism that has provoked, but we have to recall that that is not in the text.
Yet Matthew then goes on to some far more positive images for believers, for those who have a glorious future in Christ. We see this in the growth of the tiny mustard seed into a large tree, symbolic of the small and fragile beginnings of the Church, surely the promise of something truly impressive and lasting in which there seems to be room for many birds to find shelter. Clearly, at first, the Christian movement was quite a diverse thing. Matthew has moved on and looks positively towards a future for converts from paganism.
In our final parable too, we are taken into the glory of the flourishing of this new community. In English its significance loses a lot in translation. In French it comes out blindingly. The woman takes 25 kilos of flour to make bread! These are preparations on an industrial scale! Gone is the housewife and the odd loaf, for this woman is preparing for the eschatological banquet. She is confident and knows exactly what to do. So this selection of parables speak to the situation in which Jesus lived and took his saving ministry out to the masses. The fact that the rest of our reading returns to the negative could simply be due to the way the parables were ultimately written down, and that would heavily influence the way later generations have read this passage. Those who go for the wrath of God picture will surely feel justified in their negative appraisal of the scenes, those who look for a more positive and hopeful outcome will rejoice in the banquet.
When Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome (Romans 8:26-17) he surely placed all his hope on the love and mercy of God, since as we have previously seen, he believed we were totally sunk without it. Whilst he rejects the power of the Jewish law to ‘save’, he being a Jew, can never simply trash his race, but simply points to the limitations of the law. There would have been Christians in Rome who came from Judaism – hence the whole bent of the letter – as well as converts from paganism; and he thought and wrote for their salvation, knowing full well the enormity of the shift Jews would have to make, as it was one he himself had made. The approach to the Father through Jesus Christ and the power of the Spirit would have been something entirely alien to Jews reliant on the following of the law, and their firmly held convictions that faithfulness to it would make them righteous. Paul’s genius lay in his appeal to reality, to our common incapacity to live well even when we know the rules, and his knowledge that Jesus did not spend his time going on about the following of them, but threw himself away on the ‘sinners’, on those whose lifestyles, jobs and physical disabilities cut them off from perfection. He realised that perfectionism in this life is a dream, and that it was only by throwing himself on the grace made real in the human Jesus that anyone could come to God. Jesus had irrevocably changed his understanding of God.
Curiously it is our Reading from Wisdom (12:13.16-19) which helps us to connect both the Gospel and Romans. This work, possibly as late as 50BCE and coming from Alexandria is undoubtedly a Jewish writing but does seem to travel beyond the simple belief that law-following will do the trick. It recognises the sufferings of the righteous and appeals in humility to the all powerful God who it believes to be “mild in judgement”, one who ‘governs with lenience’. How we all need it!