Do Unto Others as You Would Have God Do to You

Sermon Notes for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost  2008                                                 

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. [24] When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; [25] and as he could not pay, his lord  ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. [26] So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ [27] And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. [28] But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ [29] So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ [30] He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. [31] When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. [32] Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; [33] and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ [34] And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. [35] So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

When Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to some human situation, like in the parable of the forgiving king, I think it is safe to say that he is contrasting the values of the heavenly Kingdom with how earthly kingdoms normally operate, for the description of the king in this parable is highly unusual.

Right now America is going through a banking and housing crisis caused by lenders agreeing to billions of dollars in loans that the borrowers could not repay.  The problem was based in greed, but it has put many people and the world’s economy on the edge of financial disaster.   More people were brought into the economy by being given loans which broadened the base population from whom banks could make money ($$$$ cha-ching!).  It seemed to benefit all, except too many could not repay their loans then the real value of the banks (their assets) themselves plummeted.   Such is the real world  of earthly kingdoms.   Banks are not charity institutions and cannot simply write off bad loans and still make sizeable profits.

Yet in the parable, this is what the King does.  The servant owes him 10,000 talents – some scholars say the talent was worth about one year’s wages.  The servant is 10,000 years’ wages in debt!  It is a phenomenal debt that he could never repay in his lifetime or a hundred life times.  And so the parable starts off mirroring how things would happen in the world –  the king wants some kind of payment – a foreclosure on the debt – and he orders the servant and his family be sold into slavery – it won’t come close to repaying the debt, but it’s the best the king can hope to recover – truly less than pennies on the hundred dollars!

Of course the parable raises other serious questions – how could a servant get in such serious debt?  Was the king a fool?  Or was the servant a liar and embezzler?  To get into this kind of debt would be like a worker stealing one hundred million dollars from a government contract but excusing it by calling it a loan. 

But judgment day has come – accounts are to be settled and the king demands payment on this incredible loan.    The story does not suggest that in heaven all is forgiveness, no questions asked.  There is a day of reckoning.  To this point the story is much like this world, and perhaps much like many think about the Kingdom of God – a day of judgment and justice.

The servant behaves like most would in this situation and begs patience and mercy from his king.  His situation is hopeless, so why not throw himself on the mercy of the king?  But the servant is a scoundrel.  He tells the king to give him time so that he can repay the debt – 10,000 years worth of income.   The man is an unrepentant liar.  He can never repay the debt.  He has no intention of repaying, but is trying to lie his way out of the mess.  He is treating the King like  an idiot.

And here is where the story takes the strange turn toward the God’s Kingdom, for the king relents, not just giving the liar a chance to repay, but forgiving him the debt – canceling all of it but certainly not because of anything the servant has done.  No Kingdom, like no bank, could survive this kind of behavior.   Yet the Kingdom of Heaven is not based in profits and prosperity.  It is based in relationships.   The only thing to be bartered is love which the King has more of than he has common sense or a business sense.  

The Kingdom of Heaven is not about justice and judgment, but about relationships and love and pardoning and canceling debt.   The Kingdom of Heaven is a continual Year of Jubilee.   The Kingdom of God is not like any earthly Kingdom nor is it based in any human economic system.

And what difference does it make what the Kingdom of Heaven is like?  Why was Jesus telling us about heaven when we have to live on earth?

 Well, the servant was expected to go back into his world – the world of his fellow servants and to behave like the king, and like he was living in God’s Kingdom.  He meets a man who owes him 100 denarii (some say a denarii is equal to one day’s wages).  This is not a small sum in the world of servants – 1/3 of a year’s wages.  But the servant does not live by the values of the Kingdom, and instead of forgiving and canceling the debt owed him, he demands to live according to the values of this world, and for this he earns the wrath and judgment of the King. He ultimately is judged according to the values by which he lived – he demanded justice from this neighbor, he was rendered justice by God.

And the message for us is that God forgives sins, forgives iniquities (Psalm 103:10), and expects us as the forgiven sinners to forgive the debts of our friends, family, neighbors and even of our enemies.  As we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses/debts, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”   We are asked to try to live in this world by the values of the Kingdom, not by the demands of society.  And the Church is the place where we can practice those values with one another.  Here we don’t have to treat others by the values of the world, but by the values of the Kingdom, and we need to value others as they are valued by God.

If we want God to judge us harshly and demand an exact accounting for every little wrong we ever did, then treat others that way.  The measure you give will be the measure you get.  If you want God to be angry at you for your every fault, then treat others that way.   But if you want God to forgive you, and take pity on you and be merciful to you, then treat others that way.  Our judgment on judgment day from God will mirror exactly how we treated others.  If we want to escape a terrible judgment, then we need to begin to practice the values of the Kingdom of God.   Do unto others as you would have God do unto you.  Love others as Christ has loved you.  The justice and judgment you receive from God will be the justice and judgment you gave to others.  Think about that each time you relate to another; however you treat others, so will God treat you in His Kingdom.   Your eternity will be the reality you created for others – forgiveness for all eternity, or eternal damnation; you are now creating your eternity by how you treat others.

The Synod: It’s Your Fault if You Accept What We Say as True

I will apologize up front for the sarcasm expressed in this blog.  The recent “pastoral” letter of the OCA bishops has left me sardonic.  The sad reality is those who profess to be shepherds acknowledge that they are both misled and misleading, and that they have misled and yet want to be honored as pastors.   

“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” says the LORD.  Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD.  Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:1-4)

A little walk through history (dates listed are of postings on might help the bishops of the synod to understand why their flocks do not feel they are following good shepherds:

20 January 2006    “At the Lesser Synod meeting today, His Beatitude, Metropolitan HERMAN, and the Members of the Lesser Synod, have reaffirmed the decisions made by the Holy Synod of Bishops, at the time these concerns were first raised, in 1999, and 2000. ….Metropolitan HERMAN has provided for a yet higher level of accountability…. “The Lesser Synod regrets certain information, and statements concerning the financial administration of the church, that may have been accepted as indisputably the truth.”

Yes, they reaffirmed in 2006 the decisions they made in 1999 and 2000 regarding the finances of the OCA, and that they had thoroughly reviewed the allegations.  They reassured us there were no problems.   They were either wrong or they were lying, either way, we have been warned about what they tell us – don’t accept what they say as truth.   And the metropolitan himself is pushing for a higher level of accountability – hopefully he will continue this when the SIC report is released to the church.   They also had regrets that certain information and statements they made and gave us may have been accepted as the truth – translation:  WARNING, when the Synod speaks, do not accept it as the truth because that is not necessarily how they intended it to be received.

17 November 2005   His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman, addressed numerous concerns that arose in response to information and statements circulated in recent weeks, primarily on the internet. Emphasizing that all financial matters are his responsibility, Metropolitan Herman informed council members that he plans to order independent audits by an outside CPA firm licensed within the State of New York. He further reported that the results of the independent audits will be made available to the Church at large.          “Our love and concern must be for the Church,” Metropolitan Herman stated, adding that recent allegations, especially those circulated on the internet, are ‘not for the good of the Church.”       In response to questions about earmarked donations, Father Strikis noted that such contributions are used as specified by the donors.

All financial matters are his responsibility the metropolitan said.  Let us hope he feels this way when the SIC report is released.   And the metropolitan assured us that the allegations circulating on the Internet are not for the good of the church – but apparently corruption, lying , theft, embezzlement, cover up, complicity, darkness and sin are for the good of the church – especially if committed by the leadership.   We also should take comfort that as honorable a man as Fr. Strikis told us that all earmarked donations are used as specified by the donors.

20 April 2000    Metropolitan THEODOSIUS also discussed the implications demographic change has had on the Church’s finances and administrative structures. In the area of finances, the Metropolitan reported that he and His Eminence, Archbishop HERMAN of Philadelphia, Acting Treasurer of the Orthodox Church in America, together with a number of trusted professionals, met with the accounting firm of Lambrides, Lamos, Moulthrop and Co., which subsequently completed and signed the audits for 1997 and 1998.

            Good news, our current metropolitan with a number of “trusted” professionals was over looking the OCA finances.  We are in good hands and so have nothing to worry about – let the professionals take care of things, but let us not have Christians handle it for they would reveal the whole truth.

20 November 1999  Financial questions reviewed, year 2000 budget passed. Questions involving the OCA’s financial situation were also reviewed in detail by Metropolitan Council members. His Eminence, Archbishop Herman, Acting Treasurer, reported on the status of the financial audit, noting that some questions had arisen with regard to the Metropolitan’s Discretionary Fund. In response to this report, Council members issued a statement concerning the fund. [The complete text of this statement is available on the OCA web site.]

Unfortunately that statement and some other financial reports and statements are no longer available on  But not to worry, for the bishop surely would tell us the whole truth, and even if something was wrong, the metropolitan would accept complete responsibility for it – he didn’t say he would correct the problems, nor reveal them, but apparently for him accepting responsibility for them meant he would try to insure that no one ever found out about them.

The Fear of Failure

Reflection on the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)   

The man who was given the one talent (a talent is a coin of immense value), because he was afraid of his master and his master’s judgment and of failure, buried his one talent.  He thought what his master had given him was too valuable to be put at risk by using it – even though the master had given it to him for a purpose.   He decided to give back to his master exactly what his master had entrusted to him.  St. Martyr Maria Skobtsova, who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945) writes about such fear of failure and judgment:  

“Why were the prophets stoned?  Because mankind had learned to be afraid of freedom.  Because mankind knew where this freedom had led it.  It knew that with freedom of choice it might follow the prophets or it might sink into the final abyss. 

No, better not to risk, not to try, not to be tempted, not to be seduced.  What is due is measured precisely.  A tithe of mint goes to the temple.  You don’t accomplish much on this path, but on the other hand you don’t risk anything. 

Immobility is a guarantee against new shocks, catastrophes, tragic shifts.  It is also a guarantee against liberation, against melting down – all right, but it’s still better, solider, calmer this way.

And so the prophets were stoned.”   (Mother Maria Skobtsova, Essential Writings, p 121)

An Example of the Power of Words

Bill Clinton is another one of people I never thought I would ever have reason to quote, but I thought his line at the DNC convention was memorable.  Speaking about the United States,  the former president said:

“People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

Admittedly this comes from a man whose personal morality was anything but exemplary but he wasn’t talking about himself but about the ideals of America. 

A number of Clinton’s opponents and those on the opposite side of the political spectrum immediately began blogging against the quote saying those oppressed by the Fascism and Communism were much more impressed by and grateful for our power than our example.  From my point of view they represent something I am not particular proud of in America – the end justifies the means and the might is right ideologues who constantly push for the increasing militarization of our country. 

Because if these advocates of unmitigated military power are correct and what the world really admires about America is its ability unilaterally to force its way on the rest of the world and to justify anything it does (or the only thing they admire about us is having uncontested military power and the ability to disregard and disrespect the family of nations), then as China, India, Brazil, Russia or any other nation comes to power in the world (as they all are currently doing), the U.S. can expect they will never cooperate with the U.S. but will each in turn unilaterally aim to dominate us, until America so weakened by endless wars and disputes and isolation and overspending, no longer is the world’s only superpower, but becomes a nation struggling to survive like all other second rate nations of the world.

Co-operation and mutual prosperity are preferred to mutual.y assured destruction.

So for my money, for my patriotism, for my concern for the U.S., I much prefer to see the U.S. promote good in the world rather than to simply enforce its power.  Admittedly, that is my idealism.  It is probably true that if America was but a tiny nation of the world, or a third world nation, all the nations of the globe would not care one whit about our morality, our ideals, our democracy.   

But we should not forget that our strength as a nation comes from our concern for justice, for democracy, for freedom, for opposition to oppression and tyranny, and for prosperity for all (In the words of Emma Lazarus carved on the Statue of Liberty:

 “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”).

It is right which gives us might, not might which gives us right.   This is what I think Bill Clinton got right and his detractors have failed to understand about what is great about America.

I never voted for Clinton, and was offended by his personal example.   His popularity still mystifies me.  And even if his line was nothing more than proof of the witicisim that even a blind squirrel occasionally gets an acorn, it does capture for me an American hope and idealism.

The All Powerful Self-emptying God

The question gets asked as to why if God is omniscient (all knowing) and omnipotent (all powerful) is there evil?

At least a partial answer is offered by John Polkinghorne  in his  THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST):

“I have suggested from a theological point of view the roles of chance and necessity should be seen as reflections of the twin gifts of freedom and reliability, bestowed on his creation by One who is both loving and faithful.   … God’s gift of ‘freedom’ to his creation is conveyed by his respect for the integrity of these processes.   …   The act of creation involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other, and there is a consequent kenosis of God’s omnipotence.  This curtailment of divine power is, of course, through self-limitation on his part … It arises from the logic of love, which requires the freedom of the beloved.”

What I get from Polkinghorne is specifically that God giving free will and freedom to His human creatures means God does accept a degree of chance in His creation.  Humans really do have choices to make with real consequences, and so what humans think, say and do, matters for all; we are shaping our future in the same way that the universe is expanding and forming its own boundaries.   God is not predetermining or predestining every decisions and action of every human being, and is allowing human decisions to shape history.  Humans are thus influencing the space time continuum. 

God gives humans freedom and free will and then freely chooses to circumscribe His own powers to relate to and work with the humans in His creation.  The incarnation is the main story of God’s self emptying (kenotic) love.  The Virgin Mary is Theotokos containing the uncontainable God in Her womb in an inexplicable mystery. 

Freedom and free will are the corollaries of love – you cannot have one without the other.  Thus for love and forgiveness to exist in the world, there has to be free will, and if there is free will there is the potential for evil.  This is the strange manner in which the self emptying and self limiting love of God allows evil to exist.  It is not that God wishes evil to exist, but His love is such that He allows His creatures to reject Him and to practice evil rather than destroying His creatures.  This is the mystery of the phrase, God is love.

Conventional Wisdom

I was asked if I was going to blog about the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.   I can only say that I write about the things which make me think, but conventions and campaigns do not seemed designed to make me think, rather they try to control my thinking and to hijack my emotions.   I also admit that I will watch virtually none of it on television, not because I am avoiding the Conventions, but because I never watch much television.  The conventions are staged performances – true theater – definitely geared to excite the Party believers.

As I have confessed before, I am a bit of cynic when it comes to politicians, so I don’t give them very much of my attention.  I wish for statesmen more than politicians.  I think President Bush’s speech after the 9/11 attacks was that of a statesmen and I think a high point of his presidency, but then there have been an awful lot of dismally disappointing days for his administration, which in my estimation got lost in ideological politics.  I do share NEWSWEEK’s Fareed Zararia’s sense that this year things have improved in the administration’s policy making.    

As I see things as a Christian and a pastor, these presidential campaigns really become very stressful to many people – way too negatively stressful.   As the campaign wears on so also wears out the faith and hope of the people.   Some of this is due to the heavy negative campaign ads which take their toll on the souls of all.   I resent those ads totally.   My solution:  all Christians should turn their commercial TV and radio stations off during the last month of the campaign.   And I think that America would do well to adopt what I understand France does – all campaign advertising is forbidden in the week before the election.  Campaign advertizing does nothing to uplift anyone, rather it is a heavy burden on the soul of individuals and the nation itself.   And those ads shed no light but create a lot of heat.

Why anyone listens to the negative campaign ads is beyond me.  They are soul deadening.  Their goal is to stimulate your worst passions – your fears, anger, paranoia, prejudices,  hatred, and disgust to manipulate you into voting against the other candidate.  Unfortunately, the campaign machines know that negative ads work – people are willing to let themselves be manipulated and emotionally hijacked, and they are willing to let their reason flee as their passions rise.

Better then listening to all the campaign ads – as the election nears, come to church more frequently and pray for our country and our country’s leaders and for the armed forces and for peace for the world.   That would at least do some good for all of us.   Fretting over the election will not contribute anything to your life or to the life of the world.   Take time for silence in your life as the campaign heats up.    You do not need any advertisement or talk show host to tell you what to think about any candidate.     Turn your radios and TVs off, and read the Scriptures, or listen to music that uplifts or calms the soul.    Don’t let the negative campaign ads fill your heart and mind with gloom and doom and fear.  Seek peace. 

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me-practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”   (Philippians 4:7-9)

I think if you have prayed well during the weeks before the election, your vote will come from a thankful heart, rather than from the heavy hellish darkness created by campaign ads.   And I think if anything Americans should be the most thankful people on earth, not those feeling most oppressed.     If you really can’t stay away from the politics, I would say instead of watching any TV ads whatsoever, go back and watch the Saddleback Civil Forum with Rick Warren as the host.  There you will get a much more calm view of the candidates and you can hear them speak for themselves rather than listening to the negative ads telling you what the other candidate is really saying.    Campaign ads and political pundits create a hurricane that spawns tornadoes.  There are far better ways to learn what both candidates offer America.   Anytime a campaign ad come on, turn it off and sing, “God bless America.”  That will do more for you and our nation than the billions spent on negative campaign ads.

The Open Mindedness Required to Believe in God

Some atheists and agnostics today ask why do believers continue to persist in believing in God, or even introduce God into discussions about the universe when the advances of science have time and time again managed to explain the universe in natural terms without having to introduce God into the picture/equation?  

One reason is that mystery still exists.   There are still a countless number of things that we do not understand about our world, our universe, our selves – on the cosmic scale and on the micro scale.  Even when science can offer explanations of how things work, there remains the question of why?  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why are we aware of our existence?  Why do things happen in the natural world that defy human logic? 

“Kamerlingh Omnes discovered the totally unsuspected property of superconductivity in 1911.  More than fifty years elapsed before it was explained.  It could not have been understood in 1911, since it is an intrinsically quantum mechanical phenomenon and modern quantum theory was then unknown.  It would have been foolish to have taken its mysterious character as a reason for denying its existence.”    (John Polkinghorne,  THE FAITH OF A PHYSICIST)

The fact that there is mystery in the universe prompts the believer to use his or her creativity and aspirations to seek to understand the universe beyond the limits of science.  Scientific inquiry puts over us a ceiling and says we cannot understand anything beyond the empirical universe.  It is a ceiling that involves space, time, temperature, velocity, beyond which science cannot see.   Believers are not so limited because above that ceiling, the limits of scientific inquiry, and beyond space and time, we think there is more to the universe than can meet the eye.  We believe human aspiration is not leading  us to nothing but to something greater than ourselves and the empirical universe.

And just because our experience of the Divine leaves us with the sense of God’s mysteriousness, we do think it foolish to therefore deny the existence of a Creator.   Humanity has grown through history an ever increased capacity for abstract thinking.   This is obvious in the realm of algebra but also in physics.  Our worldview has changed and we have realized that things we thought were absolute truths which could not be transcended, have in fact been proven limited by further reflection and discovery.  Algebraic equations which at one time humans were sure could not be resolved, have in fact been resolved by the increased capacity for abstract thinking that has emerged in history.   The Newtonian science which allowed us to accomplish many great things has been shown to be limited and has been eclipsed by quantum mechanics.   And so, the believer, seeing this truth about human creativity and the growing capacity for abstract thinking, can imagine that even beyond our most sophisticated understanding, there is a logic in the universe which we have yet to grasp, and a Logician who said, “Let there be light” and what resulted was our ability to think beyond the limits of space and time. 

To be a believer in God requires one to be a lot more creative and open minded than being an atheist.  It requires embracing human aspiration and a level of abstract thinking which is not limited by the current theories of science.  Like Omnes, we see and experience that which humanity is not yet capable of comprehending.

Passivity is not Pacifism

Perhaps peace is not, after all, something you work for, or “fight for.”  It is indeed “fighting for peace” that starts all the wars. What, after all, are the pretexts of all these Cold War crises, but “fighting for peace”?  Peace is something you have or you do not have. If you yourself are at peace, then there is at least *some* peace in the world. Then you share your peace with everyone, and everyone will be at peace. Of course I realize that arguments like this can be used as a pretext for passivity, for indifferent acceptance of every iniquity. Quietism leads to war as surely as anything does. But I am not speaking of quietism, because quietism is not peace, nor is it the way to peace.

– Thomas Merton,   Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander  

Indeed somehow each time a war is begun some believe it is the path to peace or the war to end all wars.  St. Paul wrote: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

And yet with Merton, I am troubled by the fact that evil is a real force in the world that must be reckoned with.  It cannot be ignored.  Those intent on war will not be stopped by the threat of war, nor by the activities of pacifists.  Pacifism is not passivity.  One has to choose to wage peace, peace will not happen by doing nothing, unless one thinks death and burial gives peace to the pacifist.  The violent, the terrorist, the tyrant are not moved by pacifism.  Jesus’ descent into Hades was not the act of a pacifist, but of a conqueror.  Liberation and salvation are active concepts demanding energy be expended.   Death, the final enemy, is overthrown, trampled down, and destroyed  by Christ not ignored, lulled to sleep or pacified .  We are neither to compromise with evil and death nor form an alliance with it.  We are not instructed by Christ to live at peace with evil or death but to overcome them.    This is why pacifism cannot mean passivity.

The Kingdom of God in Matthew 21:43

This is the third and final blog in this series of reflections on the Parables of Jesus.  Part 1:    Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus       Part 2:  The Parable of the Sower

Jesus uses parables as a teaching method to point to a future reality: the Kingdom of God which is to come.   The parables are signs along the way to help us find our way to the Kingdom and to recognize our destination.

But a parable also reveals to us how different the Kingdom of God is from what we might imagine – in fact the parable expands our imagination so that we truly see how the Kingdom of God is not merely the best of human imagination, but it is totally different from how humans would imagine it.  The Kingdom is truly God’s and heavenly and not just the product of human aspiration, intelligence or creativity. 

Jesus told many parables about what the kingdom of heaven is like.   There are many things we might think about when we think about God’s Kingdom.  We might think the Kingdom of God is something which comes in total power and transforms the world permanently.  Or it is the end of this world and the establishment of God’s glory.   Or it is the Judgment Day and the end of all things.  It is the final destruction of all evil and of death.   It is the fulfillment of all God’s promises and the wiping away of every tear, sorrow, sighing, and suffering.  It is the totality of God’s glory and the end to all that is sinful, evil and wrong. 

Let us consider what Jesus says in Matthew 21:43  – 

” Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”

The context of this saying is that Jesus just told the parable of the householder and the unruly tenants.   Additionally the chief priests and the Pharisees clearly perceive that Jesus spoke this parable about them (they do form an allegorical understanding, they realize they are the wicked tenants in the parable).  However, what they fail to understand is in what manner this parable is a sign of the Kingdom of God.  Their minds have moved far away from God’s Kingdom, and they are now filled with hatred for Jesus because they fear He is simply trying to turn the crowds against them.  So they have ears but cannot hear for their minds are filled with their own understanding of the parable, rather than allowing the parable to reveal the Kingdom of God.  In fact their hearts and minds have been narrowed by a legalistic and literalistic reading of the Torah.

Jessus asks them, “Have you never read in the scriptures…?”   Of course they read it, countless times.  But they didn’t understand it, or apply its meaning to their lives.   They have eyes to read it, and ears to hear it proclaimed in the synagogue, but they are blind and deaf to its meaning and purpose as they have hardened their hearts and stiffened their necks by making their own interpretation of the Scriptures as more important than the Scriptures themselves.   So though the Kingdom of God is essential to them, they have blinded and deafened themselves to the Kingdom by the very way they interpret the Scriptures.

Read again Matthew 21:43 above.  

Note some strange things about the Kingdom of God:

It something which can be taken away from you.

You can have it and lose it.

It is something which can be given to someone else.

And you can be excluded from having it.

Others can have it, but you will not. Or you can have it and others might not.

The Kingdom really belongs to those who produce the fruits of the Kingdom, not to those who have been entrusted with the Torah.

What is this kingdom of God that it has these characteristics? 

What does this one scriptural verse reveal to us about the Kingdom of God that we don’t get from the other parables of the Kingdom or from the prophecies of the Old Testament?

The Kingdom of God is a whole lot stranger than we imagine, for the description is almost that it is something small, that can be handed around, given and taken away.

Parables are given to make us think – to stretch our imaginations so that our hearts and minds can better experience and understand the Kingdom of God; or perhaps more correctly to prepare our hearts and minds to be able to see the kingdom even when it appears so differently than we imagined.   The parables help prevent our spiritual lives from being limited by our own imagination, reason and intelligence.

Sometimes like the disciples we are too quick to want someone else to tell us what the parables mean.   But the Word of God contained in parables was proclaimed by Christ to the crowds, to the public, to the world, to all who have ears to hear.   Before leaping to someone else’s conclusion about a parable, see in you can hear the Word of God.  What is God saying to you?

Don’t rush to look at the footnotes in the Orthodox Study Bible.  Those footnotes are not the Scripture.  Let the Word of God dwell in you, and grow in you, and grow the Kingdom of God within you like a mustard seed producing a huge bush.

Don’t be eager to give the parable over to someone else to explain or understand, for that is like having the Kingdom of God taken away from you and given to someone else to produce its fruits.   Let the parable dwell in you richly, productively, abundantly, fruitfully.   Let it grow slowly, and allow it to produce an abundance of fruit in you.

Be the farmer and gardener who takes weeks, months or even years to cultivate fruit from the garden of your heart.   Don’t be quick to seek answers, take the time to form the questions which need to be asked.  To gather fruit from the orchard, you have to do a lot of work – to fertilize and water the trees, and to protect them from insects, disease, and drought, to restore them after storms, to prune the wild branches.  

That is the way we need to approach the parables of Jesus.  Yes commentaries might help us gain some insight into the parables, but we have to let those parables speak in and to our own hearts.  Otherwise, when we let someone else formulate the meaning for us, the benefit from the joyful fruit of the Spirit, while for us the Word and Spirit remains outside of our experience.   We certainly should listen to others experience, that is what being part of the Church is about – to gain the wisdom of all of those who have experienced the fruit of God’s Word and Spirit.  But then we have to let those seeds sprout and propagate in our hearts, and we have to work the soil of our hearts.   That is why we read the Scriptures to this day, and don’t assume that just because someone else gained fruit from the Scripture that we should be satisfied with that.  God’s Word is a seed to be sown in each heart, and to produce the fruits of the Kingdom, so that we will be given that Kingdom by God.

The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)

In the first blog in this series, Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus, I offered a few introductory thoughts about Parables and how truly hearing them is to understand and interpret their meaning.  Here I offer a few comments on parables by focusing on the story of the Sower from Matthew 13.

In the Gospel According to St. Matthew, after listening to their Lord tell the Parable, the Twelve Disciples do not let on if they are puzzled by the meaning of the parable of the sower, but “the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?'”    What puzzles the disciples is why Jesus speaks in parables at all; why does He use parables to teach the crowds, the others, those who aren’t part of the inner circle of chosen disciples, them

We do not know if  the disciples themselves understand the parable.   Interestingly, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus proceeds to explain the parable to the disciples, not to the crowd.   Jesus realizes the disciples are saying in a way to avoid embarrassing themselves, “we don’t know what you are talking about.”  In the Gospels, the disciples not understanding the sayings of Jesus is fairly commonplace, and they are sometimes embarrassed by their failure to comprehend.   Before Jesus explains the parable to His disciples, He answers their question (“why do you speak to them in parables?”) in the terms in which they asked it.

And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.  For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.  This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.  With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive.   For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’  But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.   Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”   (Matthew 13:11-17)

The explanation of Jesus touches upon the heart of His message in the Pharisaic world of 1st Century Judaism – you think literally following the Torah is the way to salvation, but your way is in error and has caused you to be deaf and blind.  You are following your own ways and own interpretation, but I am here to heal your eyes and ears and hearts and minds so that you can find the Kingdom of God.  The Jews thought they had found the way – strict adherence to the Torah according to their own interpretation of it.  Jesus says your way is narrowing your mind, hardening your heart and causing you to be deaf and blind to what God is doing, to God’s love and God’s path to the Kingdom.

After talking about why He teaches in Parables, Jesus does explain the Parable of the Sower to His disciples; He sees their question about the crowd as really their own question – what does the parable mean?  In Luke and Mark’s Gospel (Luke  8, Mark 4) it is much more clear that the disciples do not understand the meaning of the parable and Jesus explains the meaning precisely because they have not comprehended it.  As Jesus asks the disciples,   “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” (Mark 4:13)  It is the meaning of the Parables, their interpretation which is essential to Jesus.

 In Mark and Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does proclaim the parables to the masses of people, not just to the disciples, but His explanation of the parables, he apparently offers privately to his inner circle of disciples.  There is a public proclamation – the evangelization, the preaching, but then there is the teaching, the explanation which is given to those who have ears to hear – those who care and want to know what the meaning of the parable is.  “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; [34] he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything”  (Mark 4:33-34).

It is interesting that neither St. Paul, nor the Acts of the Apostles ever mentions one of the parables of Jesus.   In the New Testament writings outside the Gospels, the public proclamation – the evangelization and preaching, does not include the parables of Jesus.   There is a difference between the preaching and the teaching of the Church.  What is proclaimed to attract others to the Faith is one message; but that Good News is further explained in the teaching of the Church, which includes the Parables of Jesus.   The Parables belong to the teaching of the church, to the disciples, and those who have ears and are willing to hear.   For those who reject the Good News of God’s Kingdom, the Parables will be of little value for they point to and reveal the Kingdom of God, the very thing non-believers already reject. 

Though St. Paul never mentions the Parables, there is in his writings a very close parallel to the parables in his reference to speaking in tongues.

1 Corinthians 14:19-25 (RSV)  [19] nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. [20] Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature. [21] In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” [22] Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. [23] If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? [24] But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, [25] the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

As the disciples and the crowds struggled with understanding the parables, so to St. Paul sees the people in his generation wrestling with something equally incomprehensible – the speaking in tongues.  It is the understanding, the interpretation, the meaning of either parables or tongues which is most important for the church.  But whether listening to the Parables of Jesus when He was preaching, or listening to the speaking in tongues, the difficulty lies not just in hearing the sounds, but in realizing what these sounds mean and what they are revealing to the hearer.

Next: Part 3 The Kingdom of God in Matthew 21:43