(Or, “what was that sermon about, and how on earth do we do anything useful with it?”)
This article first appeared in The Annunciation magazine, June 1999. See also the sermon on wisom on which it is based – link below.
By Simon Barrow
When I worked for Southwark Diocese I was once asked to preach in a small inner city church in South East London. As usual I talked to the local vicar on the phone about one or two details concerning the service and a parish lunch they were organising afterwards. I was about to put the phone down when she dropped her bombshell. “Oh, by the way,” she said (rather too innocently!) “It’s the custom in our parish to have questions and responses from the congregation after the homily. You don’t mind, do you?”
Actually, far from minding I was rather pleased. The sermon has always struck me as a rather unaccountable piece of communication. Barring snatched remarks over coffee afterwards, which tend naturally towards the polite ‘thank you’ if you’re a visiting preacher, there is no real opportunity to find out whether what you have said has made sense to anybody, let alone to give people their rightful opportunity to disagree. Mind you, none of that stopped me being terrified at the prospect!
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we try such an exercise at the Church of the Annunciation. The vicar would kill me for doing so for a start! Besides, the deep value of the liturgy is that it has a ritual flow and meditative ‘presence’, centring on the Eucharist. This carries us prayerfully into the presence of God in a way in which words rarely can. So while I’m fairly flexible liturgically I tend to the view that in our kind of Catholic tradition chat is best kept to before or after Mass — even educational chat.
Even so, my mind still went back to that experience in South-East London as I stepped down from the lectern last Sunday, having given my 12-minutes worth on the subject of ‘wisdom.’ (Should you care to be reminded of any of it, you will find another take on what I said in what follows).
Part of the reason my mind turned to the possibility of ‘audience participation’ was because I’m aware that the way I talk and think about life may be very different to the way you do, and because conversation can build bridges of understanding which someone addressing you without reply cannot. What’s more, we were reflecting on Jesus’ use of parables to describe the coming of the kingdom of God. And the whole point of a parable is that it provokes response. ‘What did he mean? Why can’t he be more specific? So what does he want me to do, then?’ A parable is an image or a story which engages the imagination without closing it down – unlike a definition which (this is what the word means) ‘sets limits’ and offers us clarity.
The puzzle of the Gospel
Besides, you have to keep on talking about it because Jesus is infuriatingly imprecise. Just flick through the Gospels to see why. This ‘kingdom’ of which he speaks is here but not here, he says. It is to come, yet it is already present for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It grows like a seed, but it also comes like a thief in the night. It is like a priceless pearl or a treasure trove, yet it requires us to abandon hoarding and open ourselves to the poor and despised. It turns the world upside down, but it is not the imposition of some political ideology. You can’t see it, you can’t pin it down, you can’t define it … yet it is more real than anything around us that has those reassuring qualities.
Wherever you turn in the ministry of Jesus there are puzzles like these — and questions to be asked. Yet whenever Jesus’ followers ask one of these questions he just tells them another story. It must have been infuriating! It was certainly a bit too much for Matthew, the writer whose Gospel we are working our way through in the lectionary at the moment. This is why, as you may have noticed, Matthew has a bit of a habit of having Jesus ‘explain’ his most difficult sayings and stories in a way that doesn’t happen in the other Gospel accounts. So when Jesus tells the parable of the ‘wheat and tares’ (which is all about the messiness of the world, and how God both lives with that and directs it towards the good), Matthew provides an exact analogy for each element of the story so that we can ‘make sense’ of it.
We can never really know, of course, but many Gospel scholars think (as I’m already implying) that these tidy explanations owe rather more to Matthew than they do to Jesus. This is because neatness and clear definition are not what exemplary stories (parables) aim to achieve. If you can say it just as effectively some other way, why not do that? Why talk in parables and riddles? So it is more likely that these ‘tidyings up’ are the work of the gospeller. “After all,” you can hear Matthew saying, “Jesus would hardly have left people wondering what on earth he meant, would he?”
Well, actually, that seems to be precisely what he did much of the time. On one occasion Jesus even told his followers that the reason he taught in parables was so that they would see but not perceive, hear but not understand. How charming! But the reason for this, perhaps, is that he wanted people to be active, imaginative, creative participants in his words and actions about the kingdom of God, not mere onlookers. Perhaps he also wanted to prevent his closest followers from ‘pinning God down’ (something that happens all too easily to those who get the idea that they know something about God) and from running away with the idea that they had some ‘hotline’ to the divine.
Besides, the things of God are so much greater than our puny minds that it would be silly to imagine that we could capture them in human concepts. So Jesus’ parables give us a pictoral idea of what God is like, what God is doing and what God is up to… but they also leave things uncertain, open, unfinished. They invite us towards that ‘more’ with which faith always has to contend.
Mystery and imagination
How unlike a sermon this procedure is. Well, most of mine, anyway. The whole point of a good sermon (so they tell people in theological college) is that it is supposed to be clear, concise and understandable – to explain the Gospel in everyday terms and to enable people to make sense of it in their everyday lives. So much for the theory! Actually most of the worst sermons I’ve heard have been excellent at doing all that. What they robbed me of, however, was the mystery and imagination on which the life shaped by prayer is formed. What’s more, they domesticated the awkward words of Jesus so that I was able to fit them into my world. The trouble being that what Jesus’ words actually seem to require is the overthrowing of precisely that world of mine (and yours).
Which brings me back to ‘wisdom’. As you may recall, I suggested in my reflections on our readings (1 Kings 3. 5, 7 – 12; Romans 8.28 – 30; Matthew 13. 44 – 52) that the wisdom of Christ is, in many respects, quite unlike that of Solomon. Now Solomon was brilliant at getting to the heart of human dilemmas, certainly. He was a pretty good top-down nation-builder. He was wealthy and smart. He had huge amounts of what we often describe as ‘common sense.’
Jesus, on the other hand, had little interest in propping up the nation, had no wealth to speak of, and played fast and loose with common sense — the conventional wisdom of the time. He did not look at the world as it was and ask ‘why?’ He looked at the world as it could be, under the conditions of the love of God, and asked ‘why not?’ The result was a divine reversal of worldly ways — the last, the least and the lost gained the best place at the divine Feast (which they had previously been denied) while the rich, the rulers and the righteous were duly demoted. In that way everyone could share, but not at the expense of others.
The source of love
One of my dearest mentors, the late Alan Ecclestone (an Anglican priest from Sheffield who is reckoned one of the great English spiritual writers of the latter half of this century) put all this very succinctly. The Gospel, he said, is the triumph of the way of love over the way of power. In Jesus Christ, “God approaches us only with love” … and pays the ultimate price. As we respond to this love we are called into a Body which both feeds on the source of love Christ himself, and which begins to model and advocate the kind of community which can respond adequately to it. And if we want to know what this will demand of us, we need to look first and foremost at the words and works of Jesus himself, and to be drawn into the conversation and practice of love through him.
Put this way, the Christian message is both remarkably simple and awesomely challenging. The challenge, in particular, comes from recognising the huge gap that exists between the way of love and the ways of the world — or, for that matter, the ways of the Church. (As someone once cynically put it, “What Jesus preached was the kingdom of God, but what we got was the Church!”).
Moreover, although we Christians are offered the hope of the Resurrection as a sign of the ultimate power of God’s transforming love, the bad news within this Good News is that what lies before Resurrection is the Way of the Cross. This is because the powers-that-be who rely on a domination system to benefit the few at the expense of the many will not allow their privileges to be overthrown without a fight. This is why both the religious and political authorities of Jesus’ day conspired in his killing. But by undergoing even death on a Cross, Christ demonstrated the ultimately superior power of a divine love which embraces suffering rather than allowing it to be inflicted on others.
If this is anything like the central issue at stake in the Gospel, as it seems to me it is, then the Christian message (when it is proclaimed faithfully) has enormous — and frankly rather frightening — implications for the way we run our lives, our world and our Church. To be committed to facing these challenges together, within the power of the Spirit, mutual support [what we weakly call ‘fellowship’] and the sacraments: this is what it means to be a Christian. So we are not alone. Nevertheless, the task is daunting, and the kingdom which Jesus promises us and which he experiences as near at hand still seems very far off to us.
Hang on, what about the serpent?
Fair enough you may say. Nice theory. But isn’t this kingdom of God business simply an evasion of the realities of power? All this stuff about the first coming last and the last first might be fine for the next world, but it hardly fits with this one. And besides, I’ve got my bills to pay first! In one of his many wise sayings, Jesus addresses this rightful concern by suggesting that we need to be both “wise as serpents and gentle as doves.” There is no avoiding the need to deal intelligently with the mess and compromise of the world, but the question of ultimate loyalty to a different way (that of gentleness rather than might) must always be central for us.
So at the heart of what some might regard as the wild idealism of Jesus’ vision of an upside-down kingdom is a certain hard-headedness. This is not a world-weary cynicism of the ‘but there’s no alternative’ mentality when difficult decisions have to be made. Rather, it’s a tough-mindedness which says ‘there is an alternative, but it will demand more of you than you can imagine, and its cost will be enormous. But it’s God’s way, it’s the way in which all can be healed, so you’d better get used to it.’ This is why grace alone which can sustain us in treading Christ’s path, as the great martyrs of our century (like Archbishop Romero, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer) so powerfully show us.
Over to you…
What, then, does all this have to do with us? What difference does this puzzling and radical Gospel of Jesus make to our daily lives? How does it suggest we handle all the current disputes in the churches? What impact does it have on the agenda of our church council? What does it demand of us as Christians in the community, in our use of money, in the political arena, in relation to our neighbours? Well that, I think, is precisely what needs to be talked about together in our churches at the moment. But not, you’ll be relieved to know, during Mass. Well, not necessarily….