This Sunday we complete the sermon on parables. The last four parables teach us to be smart, and so to repent.
The Lectionary pairs them with Solomon’s prayer for wisdom. Two notes on how the Hebrews, and the Hebrew language, thought about these things:
First, in our translation, Solomon asks for “understanding.” The Hebrew word, though, means listening. He wants, needs a listening heart. This is a good thought to pair with the sermon on the parables, the theme of which is, “he who has ears ought to hear.”
Second, he wants to be able “to distinguish right from wrong.” This word, distinction, is key to the Old Testament. You need to be able to tell the difference.
Pope Francis (using an old Ignatian idea) talks a lot about discernment. Make sure you know which are tares and which are wheat. You have to be intelligent. And to do that, you first need to listen to God’s Word.
In our first parable this week, a man finds a treasure hidden in a field. The key phrase, of course, is, “he sells all that he has and buys that field.” The wise man – the listening, discerning man – knows that God is worth everything.
The second parable, the pearl of great price, is so like it that we need to look for the difference. On the one hand, Jesus is doubling down on the punchline: “he goes and sells that he has and buys it.”
The main difference is what they’re doing. The treasure in the field seems to be a surprise, but the merchant is “searching for fine pearls.” The digger “hides again” the treasure so that the owner of the field won’t know why he’s buying it, but the merchant is buying the pearl itself, so it appears that someone is selling it.
Sometimes we stumble on the kingdom of heaven where we least expected it. Sometimes we are searching. Together, the two parables seem to say that it makes no difference. Like the parable of the eleventh hour (which is not in this sermon), whether you deserve to find it is irrelevant. What matters is if you will sell everything to keep it.
And so the third parable, the last one about the kingdom itself, says the kingdom is also like a net thrown into the sea. Our translation says it “collects fish of every kind.” But the Greek doesn’t say fish, and the word it uses for “kind” is the word for “the nations,” the goyim, the gentiles. And when the net “collects” them, the word is “synagogue”: the gathering place. The double meaning is that all nations are drawn into the community of Israel. The kingdom can find everyone.
And do we find the kingdom, or does the kingdom find us? Are we searching, or are we caught in a net? Well – both.
But in another twist on the same theme, the lovely are brought home and the rotten are thrown out. Jesus ends his sermon with those terrible words about a fiery furnace and weeping and gnashing of teeth. We have to say it: contrary to the idea that a snuggly Jesus overcomes the mean God of the Old Testament, far and away the scariest threats of the Bible come from the lips of Jesus himself.
Because always the message is: repent. Give up everything and follow. If you don’t appreciate the pearl, you don’t have to have it. That seems to be the central theme.
At the end, parallel to our “ears to hear” in previous sections, Jesus asks the disciples if they understand. Then he adds one more parable, not about the kingdom, but about the disciples. In fact, when it says, “who has been instructed,” the word is the word for disciples. But our translation is right to emphasize that the word for disciple is not so much about moral formation as about listening. We are formed, we grow in discernment, by listening.
Then the parable says, the good student of the kingdom “is like the head of a household who brings form his storeroom both the new and the old.”
The “head” here is not a servant, not the butler. You’re going to have to do this yourself. And the Greek has less to do with “bringing” than with “casting out.” One way of reading this parable is that, with the discernment we gain from hearing the word, we learn not to cling to what is old or new, but to reject whatever is contrary to the Gospel, old or new. The kingdom means cleaning house.
Our reading from Romans has the comforting words, “all things work for good for those who love God.” But how? No, he will not buy you a Cadillac. Rather, we are “conformed to the image of his Son” – the crucified. Love casts out all things contrary, and so gains the beloved, though all else may be lost.
What is the Gospel calling you to get rid of?