Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matthew 13:8-10)
“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).
The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?
If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?” (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)
Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:8)
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul. And when she was baptized, with her household… (Acts 16:14)
The Orthodox Church, like most of the ancient traditions of Christianity have interpreted passages like those above to mean that everyone in a household was baptized, and that would include the children of all ages. Those traditions which have a strong sacramental and incarnational dimension, understand that God works salvation in and through the things of this world because God is interested in the entire human God created – not just their souls, but bodies as well. This thinking finds support in some other scriptural passages.
For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:14)
The children, even of a mixed marriage between a believer and non-believer, are claimed to be holy, purely by being the child of a believing parent. We baptize such children in recognition of their holiness – not to make them holy. We are simply recognizing what God is bringing about in the world.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them,  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:1-6)
Whoever receives one such child in Christ’s name, receives Christ! So in the Church we do receive such children and thereby receive Christ in our midst. The child brings Christ to us. The child is for us an example of greatness – the greatest in the kingdom of heaven according to Christ. The child shows us the way to enter the Kingdom. Thus when we baptize the child it is not only that we bring the child to Christ, but the child brings Christ to us. We not only lead the child to the kingdom, but that child leads us to the kingdom. The baptism of children is also for our salvation!
And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them.  But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.  Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:13)
The Kingdom of God belongs to the children who are brought to the Church to be touched by Christ. The child teaches us how to receive the Kingdom of God. We have much to learn at and from every infant baptism.
“For every Christian, the sacraments of initiation confer the dignity of prophet, priest and king. Every profession and state in life can be a form of this universal priesthood. In the liturgy, such a priest ‘makes of everything a human offering, a hymn, a doxology’. Then, in daily life, in the ‘liturgy after liturgy’ of St. John Chrysostom, such a Christian is
‘freed by his faith from the “greater fear” of his twentieth century, fear of the bomb, of cancer, of communism, of death; [his] faith is always a way of loving the world, away of following his Lord even into hell. This is certainly not a part of a theological system, but perhaps it is only from the depths of hell that a dazzling and joyous hope can be born and assert itself. Christianity in the grandeur of its confessors and martyrs, in the dignity of every believer, is messianic, revolutionary, explosive. In the domain of Caesar, we are ordered to see and therefore to find what is not found there—the Kingdom of God. This order signifies that we must transform the form of the world, change it into the icon of the Kingdom. To change the world means to pass from what the world does not yet possess—for this reason it is still this world—to that in which it is transfigured, thus becoming something else—the Kingdom.’ (Paul Evdokimov)”
“The first exclamation of the Divine Liturgy reveals the key to the entire celebration:
Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
With these words the celebrant announces the source and the goal of the divine service of the People of God, the very context and contents of the entire liturgical action. It is the Kingdom of God brought to the world by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and mystically reigning already in the faithful disciples of Christ by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
The Kingdom of God is eternal life in communion with God in loving obedience to his divine will. It is life in union with the Blessed Trinity; life lived toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is the life which Christ has given to men by his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification. It is the life to be lived already in this world by the People of God. To bless the Kingdom of God means to love it as one’s most precious possession. The response of the people to the proclamation of blessing by the priest is with the word Amen, which means so be it. This is the solemn affirmation that indeed the blessing of God’s Kingdom is fitting and proper. It is the official confirmation that this Kingdom is indeed the ‘pearl of great price’ for the faithful, which once having found it, they will love it and serve it and desire to have it forever (Lk 13.14).” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Worship, Vol. 2, pp 152-153)
Eaeh year in the Orthodox calendar during the Nativity Fast the Gospel lesson from Luke 14:16-24 is proclaimed on a Sunday a few weeks before Christmas. The parable is often interpreted as one of the parables of the Kingdom of God, this one referring particularly to the Messianic Banquet to be experienced at the end of this age.
At that time, the Lord Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”
Fr. John Behr comments:
“Coming together now, to get ourselves ready, we hear a familiar but very striking parable from Christ. A man is ready to give a great banquet, and sends out his servant to call the invited guests. But they all make excuses – and how familiar these excuses are: some need to work their fields or look after their animal, they need to take care of their business; while others are now married and need to look after their families.
The host doesn’t simply abandon the idea of having a banquet; he instead changes his guest list. He invites all those who had absolutely no expectation whatsoever that they would ever be invited to such a feast. He invites the maimed, the blind and lame, all the outcasts of society who live on the streets and in the lanes begging for their food.
Then, as there is still more room, the net is cast wider, this time going outside the city to the country roads and fields, so that, he says, the house will be full; and then he adds, full that ‘not one of those who were formerly invited shall taste my banquet.’Clearly, the point of the parable is to question the confidence of those who think that they will be present at Christ’s own messianic banquet when he comes again in glory. All those who were assured of a place turned out not really to want it. So, we need to ask ourselves, do we really think that, when we are called, we will act any differently from those in the parable? Why should we think that we will have the conviction and the strength to act differently, when even the disciples of Christ didn’t?” (John Behr, The Cross Stands Still While the World Turns, pp 107-108)
St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) offers us straightforward advice on how to stay focused as a Christian on what is important. There are so many things we might imagine that each of us Christians individually are to do, or collectively as Church are to accomplish. Cassian reminds us that it is easy to lose sight of the goal and then all of our spiritual activities will be aimless. This is as true for each of us in our spiritual as it is for a parish council or an entire parish or any committee or institutional assembly. We have to know where we are going in order to know if we are getting close to our destination or to know if we have arrived. St. John would want to remind us that before we begin any deed to keep in mind the goal of Christians is the Kingdom of God. Before we begin any activity or meeting, we might ask ourselves how this activity or meeting moves us toward that goal.
“In the same fashion the objective of our life is the kingdom of God, but we should carefully ask what we should aim for. If we do not look very carefully into this we will wear ourselves out in useless strivings. For those who travel without a marked road there is the toil of the journey – and no arrival at a destination. Seeing our amazement at all this, the old man resumed: ‘As we have said, the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. But our point of reference, our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target. If we keep to this point of reference we will proceed with all assurance, as though along a carefully drawn line. If our minds wander a little from this we can come back to it again and keep our eye on it, using it as a standard by which to give ourselves sure guidance.” (Conferences, pg. 39)
In the Scriptures, we find an interplay between the ideas of sleep and death. The Psalmist writes: Lest I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:3), indicating there is some relationship between sleep and death – the two states are seen as being similar. The dead in the Old Testament are sometimes pictured as sleeping with their ancestors.
Sleep is sometimes used as a euphemism for death, as we note in the Gospel narrative of Jesus’ good friend Lazarus (John 11) who Jesus tells His disciples had fallen asleep, meaning Lazarus had died. The implication in the Gospel of course being that death is not a permanent state, but a temporary one from which Christ can summon a person by command.
As St. Paul expresses it:
“But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first…”(1 Thessalonians 4:13-16)
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)
This play on the image of death as a form of sleep can also be read backwards into the creation story of Genesis 2 where God puts Adam to sleep and then removes a rib from the side of Adam to use for the creation of Eve. Genesis 2 doesn’t mention death in relationship to Adam’s sleep, but later the Patristic writers will see in the story of Eve being taken from the side of the sleeping Adam as a prototype or prefiguring of the Church, Christ’s bride, coming from His wounded side when he fell asleep upon the cross.
We can see this intentional play on images in one of the hymns from the Lenten Triodion:
I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness,
but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the Cross,
awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.
The “heavy sleep of sin” is certainly another way of implying that sin leads to death. The Scriptures call for us to be vigilant, which Christian monasticism often interpreted literally to mean we should ward off sleep and watch for the coming of Christ. But sinfulness causes us to be sleepy and disregard the warning that Christ will come at an hour when we don’t expect it.
The call to prayer is one which implies both arising from sleep and death in order to call upon the Lord. In Muslim countries the morning call to prayer reminds believers that prayer is preferable to sleep, an idea Islam no doubt learned from Christian monastics.
Christ’s falling asleep yields the resurrection and the defeat of sin and death. Christ arises from His sleep to awaken us all to that day that knows no evening – the day of the Lord.
And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day—and there shall be no night there…” (Revelation 21:22-25)
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In the blog series St. Simeon’s Interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46, we encountered St. Simeon’s effort to reread the Parable of the Last Judgment so that it applied directly to the lives of monks. Below is another comment of St. Simeon on the same Parable and we get another sense of how he applied his interpretation to the parable. In St. Symeon’s comments below Christ is “the light” who is speaking.
“For this reason the light speaks as follows: ‘Wicked servant, from your own mouth I will judge you because, as you say, I came and dwelt in you Who am unapproachable to the orders of angels. You, knowing this, allowed Me to lie buried by the darkness of your evils, just as you yourself say. And, while I was patient for so many years, expecting your repentance and awaiting in addition the doing of My commandments, you did not, even to the end, choose somehow to see Me out, nor did you pity Me Who was choked and cramped within you, nor did you allow Me to find the drachmas which I had lost – I mean you – because I was not allowed to take flame and see you and be seen by you, but was perpetually concealed by the passions which are in you. Therefore, you worker of iniquity, depart from me to the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels; because I hungered for your repentance and conversion, and you gave Me no food; I thirsted for your salvation, and you gave Me no drink; I was naked of your deeds of virtue, and you did not clothe Me with them; I existed in the narrow and filthy and dark prison of your heart, and you did not wish to come visit Me and lead Me out to the light; you know Me to be lying in the infirmity of your laziness and inactivity, yet you did not minister to Me by your good works and deeds. So, go away from Me!” (St. Symeon the New Theologian, On the Mystical Life: The Ethical Discourses, pgs. 162-163)
Notice that on the first 3 Pre-Lenten Sundays, the Gospel Lessons are each a Parable: The Publican and Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment.
The fact that Tradition places 3 parables on the Sundays before Lent is intriguing to me because so often we see Great Lent as THE religious season of the year. One would almost expect to find Gospels in which Christ COMMANDS us what to do. Yet, instead we are given stories, parables to ponder not direct commandments. Parables call us to reflect and meditate and think about what lessons are being offered to us. It is not mere obedience to religious law that God wants from us, He teaches us how to change our hearts. We can listen to the Gospel parables and learn what behavior to imitate and what religious behavior is not pleasing to God. I think it is St. Mark the Ascetic in THE PHILOKALIA who says fulfilling the commandments is one thing but virtue is something else. Christ is teaching us to be virtuous not just obedient.
Interestingly the Lessons are almost in contradiction to the ideas of religious LAW, for note the heroes in each of the Pre-Lenten Gospels: it is not the Law-abiding religious person. In the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee, the Pharisee is clearly the religious person and righteous, but not the hero of the story and not the one who has God’s approval. In the Prodigal Son it is not the son who stays home and is completely faithful to his father who is the hero, but it is the profligate prodigal who squanders his father’s livelihood (not just his wealth!) in frivolous partying with HARLOTS who is the stories hero. And next Sunday in the Parable of the Last Judgment it is not the irreligious and those who ignore the 10 Commandments who are condemned in judgment, but those who failed to show mercy. The Parables of the up-side-down Kingdom challenge our thinking about what is important to God. God recognizes we are sinners and not perfect and so it is the penitent not the self-righteous who is commended to God and justified by God. God not only desires mercy rather than Pharisaic faithful to law, but God practices mercy in judgment on those who have been merciful.
So before Great Lent we are taught important lessons by Christ in parables. But why parables?
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “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 those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.’
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
The answer to the question about why are we taught in parables is that we might receive the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven. Lent is not so much about self sacrifice as it is about opening our hearts and minds to receive the mysteries of God’s Kingdom. We are to shake up our thinking so that we can be receptive to God’s message.
Christ quotes in explaining “why parables?” a passage from the Prophet Isaiah. And here we see the nature of prophecy. Prophecy does not predestine what is to happen. The point of Christ quoting Isaiah is not to say “the inability of people to understand parables was bound to happen as Isaiah said.” Rather prophecy is a glimpse into what might happen, but it is also a warning that it is not too late to change behavior.
Think about the Prophet Jonah. He reluctantly goes to Nineveh and warns the people that in 3 days the city will be destroyed. But in 3 days the city was not destroyed. Did Jonah lie to the Ninevites? NO! They heard his message and repented – their repentance changed the course of history. The Prophet Jonah saw what was going to occur – where things were headed – but then the people changed their ways.
So too with Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah foresaw a time in which people’s hearts, eyes and ears would be hardened to God’s Word. A time when people wouldn’t listen to God. Jesus quotes Isaiah not to predestine the people of His day to fulfilling the prophecy but to cause them to think again so that they would change their behavior and change history too.
The Parables of Jesus give us a glimpse at the Kingdom of Heaven, reveal to us the mysteries that are being laid open to us through Christ and through our following Christian discipline. We have the change in contemplating the Parables to see and hear what God is doing in our lives today as we progress through Great Lent toward the great day of the final Resurrection.
This is the conclusion to the blog that began with Jesus & Augustus, Christ & Caesar (I). In these two blogs we are looking at how the early Christians intentionally shaped the understanding of Christ and the Christmas story as a challenge to pagan and imperial Roman ideas concerning religion, creation, kingdoms and lords. For example, Christians came to read some of the Jewish prophets as writing for and speaking to the Gentiles to prepare them for the coming of the Christ, and they came to see even in pagan literature references, however oblique, to the coming of the Messiah.
“Finally, as we saw in the previous chapter, a major aspect of popular early Christian perceptions of Isaiah was undoubtedly his role as a prophet to the gentiles. In the patristic period the Book of Isaiah was much used in debates about one of the most intriguing gentile ‘messianic prophecies’, namely, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil, known as the ‘Pollio’. In language and imagery often strikingly close to Latin versions of Isaiah, this first-century BC poem, written in honour of the emperor Augustus, foretells the coming of an age of peace, a new heaven and a new earth, heralded by the appearance of a virgin (iam redit et virgo) and the birth of a boy (nascent puero), where mountains burst into song, trees and flowers grow up in wild places, and goats and lions live together in peace.
The early Christians were so awed by the truth of the Gospel that they saw it supplanting and fulfilling not just Jewish prophecies or the promises of God in the Old Testament but also pagan religion and its oracles. As already mentioned, the Roman Empire had no separation of church and state but understood the truth about religion as being foundational to its very success. Thus the emperors’ own understanding of religion and divinity was essential to the well being of the empire.
“It was Augustus who established this dominant role for the emperor, and his divine power was conveyed through the various titles used for him. Divi Filius, meaning ‘Son of the Divine,’ or ‘Son of God,’ was his favorite title. This title appears on almost every coin that Augustus had minted. … Augustus was considered Son of God because he had a god for his father, Julius Caesar. Julius was deified upon his death by Augustus, thus also giving Augustus divine status. Another prominent title for Augustus was Dominus in Latin, or Kyrios in Greek, which means ‘Lord.’ … Another title for Augustus was Soter, meaning ‘Savior,’ a title conveying that he had saved the empire from instability and foreign powers for peace. Augustus was also Pontifex Maximus, ‘High Priest’… Such is the sketch of the dominant kingdom and king in Paul’s lifetime—the kingdom of Rome, the kingdom of Augustus, the kingdom of god. This divine king brought peace to the kingdom by means of military victory, and he was worshipped as a god by the people as a basic expression of loyalty to him.” (John Fotopoulos in THINKING THROUGH FAITH: NEW PERSPECTIVES FROM ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN SCHOLARS, p 25)
The Christian Gospel was a direct challenge to the commonly accepted ideas about the emperor and about religion. Thus Constantine’s embrace of Christianity was a true conversion for the empire. He came to accept the meta-narrative of Christianity as being the correct way to understand himself and the Roman Empire which he governed. This challenge to imperial and pagan religion began in the First Century of Christianity, when Christianity had no empire or army to support its claims.
Stanley Porter in his book, HEARING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, describes the Gospel of Mark as a direct challenge to the Roman Empire’s claim about Emperor Vespasian (reigned 69-79 AD). Even Jewish Historian Josephus (d. 100AD) claimed the Jewish scriptures foretold Vespasian’s coming to power. Porter claims Mark’s opening line to his Gospel (“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ”) was written to oppose any idea that the Old Testament prophesied Vespasian as the savior:
“the Markan evangelist has challenged the imperial cult of the divine emperor… The Markan evangelist puts forward Jesus as the true Son of God, in whom the good news for the world really begins.”
Porter thinks Mark wrote his Gospel the same year that Vespasian came to power. Vespasian was
“regarded as divine, as savior, and as the beginning of thegood newsfor the world. In many other inscriptions and papyri Augustus is referred to as ‘son of God.’ … The language is applied to Vespasian when he was acclaimed emperor. According to Josephesus, ‘every city celebrated the good news (evangelia)… the whole empire being now secured and Roman state saved.’” (Porter, pp 93-94)
St. Mark rejects the notion that any Roman Emperor, mere mortal, could be the savior of the world. The Roman Emperors’ reigns and ability to save the world were limited to their life on earth. Jesus is prcoclaimed in the Gospel as a King who rules forever, not from some earthly throne, but seated on God’s throne in heaven.
Thus the Christmas narrative though containing human description surrounding the birth of Jesus, was actually written to challenge both imperial claims and pagan myths. The Christmas story as written is a powerful message of God’s Kingdom which transformed the mistaken beliefs of an empire into a proclamation of the truth about God, government and creation.