A Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday
February 20, 2022
by the Revd. Fr. William Martin
And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be?
(St. Luke viii. 9)
We said last week that the Gesima Season is all about discovering the self-discipline that will help us to keep a more holy Lent. Part of that discovery involves a real effort at persevering in our pursuit of understanding what Jesus Christ teaches us. Last week we began our pursuit with Jesus’ Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. A parable presents us with a surface illustration or story that begs us to delve deeper into a spiritual and heavenly meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that a parable always depicts a human habit, experience, or labor with which most men can identify. It is different from a fable in that it does not involves talkative donkeys or philosophical cats who aim to teach us some moral lesson about earthly life. It is unlike a mythsince myth never ends up disentangling truth from the story. The myth is believed more as a sign of the union of the supernatural and natural rather than as the way from the one to the other. A parable, then, takes man seriously in his spiritual pursuit from nature to the divine. It considers the spiritual purpose that lies hidden in earthly intentions and ends. In the case of the parables told by Jesus, He never uses illustrations that contradict the natural and human orders but offers them as earthly depictions of spiritual aspirations and ends. (Summarized from Notes on the Parables. R.C.Trench)
But notice something else. The parables of the New Testament are always about earthly cares and considerations that are always capable of being perfected spiritually. Jesus uses parables not only because He wants to make men think and know but because He wants them to choose and decide for the sake of His Kingdom. Pope Benedict XVI says that Jesus can speak openly about the Kingdom of God to others or all sorts of people. But to those who will follow Him and become His disciples, He speaks in parables, precisely to encourage their decision, their conversion of the heart…. St John Chrysostom says that ‘Jesus uses parables to draw men unto him, and to provoke them and to signify that if they would covert, he would heal them” (Idem, cf. Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, 45, 1-2). Parables are used by Jesus to convert men’s hearts, to encourage them to become His disciples, and to give them a picture of what the process of spiritual transformation is all about. Parables stir wonder, questing, seeking, and knocking. The man who seeks out their meaning is the one who desires to know and find happiness in the discovery of a truth that, at first, remains hidden to him. In the parables, each of us is given the opportunity to follow Jesus and to discover God’s Hidden Meaning…which most men couldn’t be bothered about.
Think about how so very hard this is –I mean to decide to follow Jesus and to discover the meaning of His Parables! Last week we prayed for the temperance and perseverance that runs after God’s justice. This week, we are reminded that this self-discipline is no easy business. St. Paul, this morning, takes up the point as he addresses a community of new Christians in Corinth who are being swayed by false prophets to believe that no moral effort or self-discipline is needed at all. They were telling the Corinthians that this Paul was blowing the process of conversion all out of proportion. True Christianity, they insisted, involves really nothing more than a kind of new-age mysticism that promises an otherwise painless existence. True Christianity, they said, shouldn’t involve anything like what St. Paul was teaching but should be an easier, softer, and gentler endeavor that shouldn’t command any moral effort or suffering at all.
But St. Paul was incensed. St. Paul had digested the Parables of Jesus. For Paul, the life of Jesus Christ was a Parable intended to lead men to the long and hard study that should trigger imitation! Far from wishing to justify himself, St. Paul even desired to use his life as a kind of parable that might lead other men onto the road of conversion and redemption. Remember, the parable uses real human experience to carry the seeker’s mind into spiritual wisdom. St. Paul uses his own life as a parable to teach his flock what Christian conversion entails. He shows us that true discipleship requires the same effort that goes into understanding any good parable. He asks, Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck…in perils of robbers, in perils of waters, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen…in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…(2 Cor. 23-27) He tells them that conversion and discipleship involve running the race with temperance in all things to obtain an incorruptible crown. In other words, true conversion and discipleship will involve the training and discipline for running a spiritual race. This will demand suffering and toil. He tells them that this suffering might demand not only rejection from the outside world and its pleasures but even spiritual warfare and torture that threaten the presence of Christ within. Who is weak, and I am not weak (Cor. xi. 29), he asks? This business of becoming a Christian and staying the course are as real as the parable that his own life reveals. In other words, it hurts. Yet, he concludes, that the end justifies the means. If I must needs glory, I will glory in the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30) The parable of Paul’s experience teaches us that in humility, in weakness and suffering, Christ comes to the soul and reveals God’s hidden Word.
St. Paul’s life and witness comprise a parable for us all. But what had happened to his Corinthian converts so that they were so easily swayed by their new teachers and prophets? I think that we can find all or part of the answer in this morning’s Gospel Parable of the Sower. Jesus tells us that A sower went out to sow his seed. At first, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. (St. Luke viii. 5) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had heard God’s Word superficially; the soil of their souls was like the wayside, trodden down by the ongoing traffic and business of this world, and so they could not hear the Word. They might have been in this state because they have exposed their hearts as a common road to every evil influence of the world, till they have become hard as the pavement, till they have laid waste the very soil in which the Word of God should have taken root…(Parables, Trench, p.60) Such men are always prey to the Devil and his friends since they live in a world full of so many words that they cannot distinguish God’s Word from all others.
Next, …some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. (Ibid, 6) Perhaps some of the Corinthians had hearts like gravely rock. For such people, the heard-Word of God with excitement and joy for a short time; it sounds so promising. They prematurely anticipate its benefits without counting the cost of growing it in the soul. They fall away because they cannot work out [their] salvation….with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) Salvation, they discover, is a parable of real life, full of pain and suffering, doubt and confusion, hard labor and effort. Like the sun scorching the blade that has no depth in the earth, these men’s hearts [are] failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth….(St. Luke xxi. 26)
Next, And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. (Ibid, 7) Perhaps some of the Corinthians honestly received God’s Word but choke and kill it with cares and concerns of this life that end up being more important to them. Here the heard-Word is growing for a season but only alongside inner anxiety and fear that kill the growth of the Word within. They are crushed, as the Gospel says, by the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life. (St. Luke viii. 14) As Archbishop Trench remarks, the old man is not dead in them; it may seem dead for a while…but unless mortified in earnest, will presently revive in all its strength anew. (Ibid, p. 65) These thorns and briars may take the form of earthly happiness found or lost. In either case, they have neither been killed nor banished from the soil of the soul, and so the Word cannot grow. One or all of these kinds of hearing might explain what happened to St. Paul’s young flock and what can happen to us.
Finally, today’s Parable concludes with, And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. (Ibid, 8) The Parables are always about real life. In real life, seed can grow up effectually only in deep, dark soil that has been weeded and fertilized. So, in the soul, the seed of God’s Word can grow in our hearts only with much care, cultivation, and determined effort. Like Paul, we must expect both punishment from without and suffering from within if the heard-Word is to grow in our souls. Each and every one of us is subject to the temptations that threaten the hearing and growth of God’s Word in this morning’s Parable. With St. Paul we must proclaim, If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities. (2 Cor. xi. 30)
It is precisely in the admission that we are weak that Christ responds to us with the love that alone can grow His Word. God has made the soul; God speaks His Word into it to save us. If we begin to hear God’s Word, to clear and cultivate the soil of our souls with sorrow and repentance, to tend the seed with carefulness and devotion, and not superficially and carelessly, by God’s grace we shall bring forth fruit with patience. (St. Luke viii. 15) Then you and I shall become a parable, where we, who hold the Word in earthen vessels can reveal His will and way to the world. And we can ask with Milton:
…What if earth
Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein
Each to other like, more than on earth is thought?
(Paradise Lost: v, 574-576)
February 6, 2022
The Revd. Fr. William Martin.
The parable of the wheat and the tares, painted in the 17th C. by an unknown Cuzco artist.
(Patrimonio Artístico de la Iglesia Católica del Perú)
Nay lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them.
(St. Mattew xiii. 29)
We have said that our Epiphany-tide is a Season of Light. And the Light that we have been trying to follow in faith, see and understand, embrace and cherish, is Christ’s Light. And so we have been learning that this Light comes to us to make new life and love in our hearts and souls. But there is a danger associated with this Light. We must remember that there is a difference between flashing, blazing, or sparkling light on the one hand, and enduring, persevering, and growing Light on the other. The first light is experienced as fleeting, occasional, and at best temporary. It is found, generally, with the kind of person whose spiritual life is characterized by part-time highs, cheap thrills, and instant gratification. The second Light, being Christ’s Light, is far more demanding, since it desires and longs to overcome, overtake, rule, and guide the whole of a man’s life. It is found in the kind of person, who intends that his conversion should be the first moment on a long journey into healing and transformation, redemption and sanctification, with the reward of salvation.
Now the problem for most of us is that we are always wanting Christ the Light to manifest and reveal Himself to us in the manner of the first light. We want signs and wonders, we want glamour and glitz, we want our walk of faith to be full of transfiguration moments. We expect that because we are faithful church-going Christians, our journey should not be marked by struggles, difficulties, temptations, and distractions. We expect that our common life together in the church should be perfect and that our soul’s journey into God should be the same.
But our Lord knows otherwise and never intends that we should be mistaken about the nature and character of our journey into His Light. This is the reason for the parable which he offers for our meditation this morning. Let us listen to what He says. The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field…(St. Matthew xiii. 24) In this parable we are told that the kingdom of heaven is identified with a man, whom we should recognize as Christ the Son of Man, the Life and Light of God the Father, whose kingdom is about hard work and business. And yet no sooner has He been laboring than we read that while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way – which we ought to see as provocations and temptations. But when the blade [of wheat] was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. (Ibid, 25, 26) What is interesting is that God, through His Son, works hard and sows only good seed, but that a devious and mischievous enemy, the Devil, comes in the night – while men sleep, and attacks the planting with blight and parasites. St. John Chrysostom tells us that the Devil did not sow before this, because he had nothing to destroy, but when all had been fulfilled that he might defeat the diligence of the Husbandman [the Son of Man]. (Catena Aurea) God’s creation begins as a good work. He gives His Grace to sustain His people the Jews in hope and then sends His Son to perfect the work. But the devil has always tried to corrupt God’s human creation and with renewed vigour he attacks Christians. The enemy intends to quash all conscientious and earnest men who intend to journey into Christ the Light. The devil’s ways are so devious that until the Christian begins to spring up as a blade of righteousness, it takes time for the Christian to recognize that the garden he is cultivating is full of tares. Prior to his growth into holiness, through Christ the Light, the Christian sees only other men who look very much like himself. The tares are men who have surrendered to the devious corruption of the Devil. For, as Christ says in another place, ye shall know them by their fruits. (St. Matthew vii. 16)
So we read in the parable that the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. (Idem, 27, 28) What the Christian realizes, as Calvin remarks, is that wicked men are not created by the devil, but, having been created by God, are corrupted by the devil and thrown into the Lord’s field, in order to corrupt the pure seed. (CC: volume xvii) The Devil desires to prevent Christ the Light from growing the good seed, and so he plants tares in the Lord’s field or the church. And the Christian’s response to this malicious attack seems logical enough; he wants to pull up the tares and burn them so that his spiritual experience is free of temptation, struggle, and distraction. Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up (Ibid, 28), the servants ask?
But the Lord’s answer is direct and deliberate: Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. (Ibid, 29, 30) Here we find a rebuke of that Christian zeal and passion to root out all evil with force and suppression. Before God’s judgment day, it is always wrong for Christians to use violent means for the suppression of error (R.C.T. Notes on the Parables), as Archbishop Trench remarks. The Lord means to warn Christians against forced conversion of the evil to the good. For one thing, we do not know who are the wheat and who are the tares. Again, the wheat and tareslook very much the same before each grows up and bears fruit. God [alone] knows the secrets of the heart. (Ps. xliv. 21)Christians must not uproot the tares before the time of harvest since the tares will be burnt and the wheat will be saved. A man who is a tare today might become wheat or fruitful seed tomorrow.
Come to think of it, contrariwise, shouldn’t we all beware of the danger of becoming tares ourselves? Isn’t the real point of the parable that we all are liable and susceptible to the temptations and enticements of the Devil? To be sure there are men who become tares rather easily and quickly since they have never experienced the true nature of Christ the Light. But if the tares bother or distract us, so that we judge and condemn them, hasn’t the Devil made us into tares and not wheat? This happens when we don’t heed St. Paul’s advice this morning to put on, as the elect of God…bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another….(Col. iii. 12) Haven’t the tares become false gods to us because we are so obsessed with other people’s sins that we have forgotten the need to confess our own in the Light of Christ’s forgiveness? Then the Devil shall have so corrupted us that we truly become tares ourselves.
This is where I think the parable reveals its true force in our lives. The Lord allows the Devil to tempt and distract us. The point is that we must not be overwhelmed by the temptations of sin whether they confront us in other men’s lives or in our own. To be sure, we are called to resist the continual presence of temptations, their determination to sever and break our complete reliance and dependence upon God. But this is just where they can be turned round for our good, and we can beat the Devil at his own game. Far from being the occasion of our unfaithfulness to God, they can yield in us a more vigilant determination to please God in all our lives. Temptations are not sins, and they need not make us into tares. In a positive way, they can reveal and disclose to us, through Christ the Light, our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We even learn that the tares, while attractive and alluring, are false gods that can become the wheat of God or the good seed only through his power and constant care. To be made good, we must depend all the more upon Christ the Light to grow us up and into the fruit that he intends us to become. And more than this, but just as important and instrumental to our becoming that fruit is the need to pray for the conversion of all tares into the good seed or faithful sons and daughters of God. If the tares have helped us to become good seed, why shouldn’t we help them into the same state?
Today, my friends, let us be determined to become the good seed sown by the Son of man. To do so, let us thank God for the temptations, struggles, and difficulties that the tares of this world bring to us. When we become aware of tares, let us look within our own souls and see if we don’t often indulge the same sin or follow the same temptation. Let us thank God for the temptations of the tares, which in their own way, remind and recall us to our deeper dependence upon Christ the Light. Rather than their being flashing, blazing, or sparkling lights that lead us into superficial spirituality, and thus sin and sorrow, let them generate in us that deeper need for the Light of Christ that alone grows us as good seed into perfection. And, let us never be content that those tares should remain tares. And again, with the Apostle, Above all, let us put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness (Col. iii. 14) as we more earnestly pray that the tares become wheat because Christ the Light desires that all men should become His good seed. If our relation to the tares is one of longsuffering intercessory prayer that they be turned from the Devil, the Light of Christ shall shine forth out of us and into the lives of the tares, whose conversion is no less intended by God. For, Christ the Light longs to shine into all men’s lives, drawing us and them closer and closer to the day, as Archbishop Trench remarks [when] the dark hindering element [of the tares will be] removed [from the lives of the faithful]…[and] the element of Light, which was before struggling with and obstructed by it, shall come forth in its full brightness. That shall be the day ‘of the manifestation of the sons of God’; they ‘shall shine forth as the sun’, when the clouds are rolled away, they shall evidently appear, and be acknowledged by all, as ‘the children of Light’….