Future Priests of the Third Millennium

A little insight into the life of seminarians from various dioceses preparing for ministry as Roman Catholic priests, including daily activities, personal interests, special events, the spiritual life, news from the seminary, and almost whatever comes to our minds!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Why Christ Speaks in Parables (Part 2)

A. Matt 13:10 In Frederick Dale Bruner’s Matthew: A Commentary, he titles all of chapter 13 in the Gospel of Matthew the “Sermon of Parables”; calling the pericope we examine in this essay, “The Great Aside: The Paragraph of Privilege” in the “Doctrine on the Kingdom of God.” In Matthew: A Commentary, he asserts that parables are “riddle-like sayings,” leaving much to be uncovered, in as much as they convey truth. Depending on how we look at it, they can stifle us in confusion or curiously ignite our minds to uncovering their hidden truth.

The disciples perhaps looked at the “Parable of the Sower” in the former way, stifled in confusion. “There is a tone of recrimination” in asking, “Why are you talking to them in parables [or riddles]?” Jesus’ response is as effective as can be when communicating a difficult message.

B. Matt 13:11 Rather than directly explaining to them what he means, Christ compliments and praises them. This approach perhaps not only helps communicate his message in a charismatic and efficacious manner, but also indicates the nature of the meaning in his answer. In doing this, Matthew contrasts the disciples with those who do not have faith in him, Christ.

Christ tells them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11). He is complimenting them and directly siphoning them off from the rest of the crowd.

What secrets do they have? As a disciple of Christ today, what secrets sit inside the text that can help clarify what Christ means? This is important to us today. Our faith in Christ is a gift. It is given to us through Sacred Scripture and, understood through the dichotomy of faith and reason, with the help of Holy Spirit. There is a call and response embedded in this relationship with the Holy Spirit.

Saint John Chrysostom lived in the later half of the 5th century. As a patristic father he wrote,

“They to whom [the revelation] is not given are the cause of their own miseries [as, he says, Jesus’ Explanation of the Parable of the Sower, in a moment will show], and yet [it is true] that knowledge of the Divine mysteries if a gift of God, and grace given from above.”

Chrysostom’s comments refer to the respect we must pay to God’s divine calls and our responsibility to respond. Jesus is commenting to his disciples who are beyond a sense of “initiation.” When Christ uses the words, “To you it has been given . . . but to them it has not been given,” he is speaking about the “determining grace of God.” God is the “acting subject” that is doing the giving, granting the disciples “to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” This insight is what perhaps makes Matt 13:11 the central verse of this entire pericope. It also lends further support to the thesis of this essay on faith and reason.

This core verse speaks to the notion that the secrets to the kingdom of heaven are not a matter left alone to human intellect and natural insight. Rather, as we seek to set down the truth about corporeal life on Earth and eternal life in heaven, we use the “demonstration of power granted by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:4) found in Sacred Scripture. As we seek for that “truth” we are drawn up into the “Divine Light of Faith,” responding to God’s call of grace and, in doing this, we “reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or intellect.”

It is in this relationship of faith and reason that we properly respond to the calls and demands that God asks us. Furthermore, it is in this place of Divine Light, where we are enlightened to truth, that we understand that God is the cause of everything, that it [God] is origin, being, and life. These insights apply to what Christ is saying to the “insiders,” yet is available to everyone if they wish to respond. After all, this has been the message of the Father since his Covenant with Abraham. From the beginning of the Old Testament the notion of responding to the will of God has been the central theme.

C. Matt 13:12 Jesus himself must be obedient and willing to respond to the Father’s call. In making these statements, Christ is laying down the strong themes of justice and divine reckoning that exist in the Gospels and is accomplished through his paschal mission. This passage provides an eschatological dimension to this passage, the nature of parables as a means to communicate Christ’s message, and Christ’s mission as the Father sent him to accomplish.

Recall that Matthew’s Gospel was written to a Jewish community that was amidst the struggle of identifying Christ as the true Messiah. Yet, this verse also exists in Mark's and Luke’s account. Again, assuming Markan primacy in the order of compilation, perhaps we can safely assert this verse is universally core to Christ’s eschatological message.

On the surface, this perhaps could be seen as a “cynical or pessimistic bit of folk-wisdom.” The concept of those who are rich, seek their riches in life and, those who are poor, will be rewarded in heaven is all throughout the Gospels. Yet, in this context, Christ is not speaking about monetary or material possession, as he often times is not doing so in his messages. Rather, Matthew follows Mark almost exactly in this verse by showing Christ speaking in a “spiritualized” sense. The spiritual attainments made in life have a reward; they lead to further progress. Notice the words of “little” contrasted with “abundance” in this verse. Faith is a gift and it is a lot of work. One cannot make great advances in faith without the initial deposit and, “what little one has gained may be lost if it is not built upon.”

Also, there is a sense of privilege behind the words Christ uses. Now this does not suggest a Gnostic sense of faith, saying that only the spiritually elite will qualify at the eschatological reckoning when Christ returns in glory. Rather, it points to a proper sense of respect and fear of God; the type we see throughout the Gospels that healthily places Christ’s disciples in a state of wondrous awe.

Notice the use of the words “have” and “not” in this verse. To have Christ is to have everything we need, and having him is a “pledge of continual abundant future having; not to have Christ is, somehow, God’s righteous judgment, based fairly,” on the explanation Christ provides next in the “Interpretation of the Parable of the Sower.” The basis for Christ’s “righteous judgment” is the guilt associated with “preoccupied listening.” This verse nicely follows the last verse in its support to this essay’s thesis on faith and reason.

Rationalism has its place in the dynamic of human reason; its heightened developments in the Modern Era of Biblical criticism have developed the very historical critical methods used to compose this essay. However, its limits have been exceeded far beyond any boundary that a proper relationship between faith and reason establish. In what sense is an hyper-rationalized view of theology and God similar to “preoccupied listening” that Christ means in this passage? In as much as the Gospels are a mystery, so is this very passage we examine a mystery. In the world today, the notion that truth can exist has been replaced with the notion that there is nothing we can say about anything. Such an assertion is absolutely wrong.

Truth is a reality and it is a gift given to us and understood by faith in Christ as our savior. The Christian faith is a sacred privilege we hold as precious. The lesson in this verse is to listen for the voice of God, rather than to rationalize what faith is and, in doing so, deny truth.

D. Matt 13:13 Christ is direct now that he has explained himself. In this verse Christ is basically restating the question posed by his listeners and answering it on his own. He speaks to the people in parables because “in seeing, they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” Whose question is he answering? It is Israel’s question. “Israel’s failure to see and to hear is for Matthew an established fact.”

Now Christ’s speaking in parables did not cause this confusion. Rather, his choice of parables is a response to this lack of understanding. This speaks to the nature of the reason why the incarnation had to occur: Christ had to complete his ministry, and Christ maintained his devotion and obedience to the Father in accomplishing his paschal mission. Christ had to come and save Israel, because Israel could not do it independently.

Matthew is explaining that the parables are penetrations to the hardened state of Israel, who are constantly unable to uphold their side of the Mosaic covenant with God. The next set of verses gives further clarification and support to this when Christ quotes from the prophet Isaiah.

E. Matt 13:14-15 This is where Matthew really drives Christ’s point home. First notice the word “fulfilled.” Prophets were understood to predict the coming of the Messiah and the fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant. Certainly the word “fulfillment” is used throughout the Synoptic Gospels. It is important to note that of all those “fulfillment quotations,” Matthew is the only one to present them as the actual words spoken by Jesus, rather than a theological assertion of the evangelist.

Matthew uses the entire passage from Isaiah 6:9–10. As the synoptic Gospels were written in Greek, we see Matthew’s translated insertion of Isaiah that is different from the Hebrew text.

When Isaiah had his primary great vision in the temple, he went to the temple to preach to the people about the hardness of their hearts. The Hebrew is much harsher and stronger than what Matthew inserts. The Hebrew speaks of making the hearts of people grow fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes, lest they see . . . ” The lesson in these verses is that Christ’s ministry is as much of a ministry of judgment as it is a ministry of grace. Matthew seems to stress things more along the lines of “moral guilt of the people of Israel.”

Notice the literary tool Matthew uses in making comparisons of “shall indeeds” to “but nevers” in these verses. Matthew is not concerned with the Israel of the 8th century that Isaiah preached to long before Christ. Rather, Matthew is looking at the Jewish-Christian community of his own time. “If the hearers of a former age turned deaf ears and blind eyes to the prophet Isaiah by reason of an unsettled willingness to repent, this is of interest to the evangelist chiefly because he sees in it the pattern of what happened in the ministry of Jesus, and is still going on in his own days.

F. Matthew 13:16–17 First, it is fair to assert that these particular passages cannot ever be verified as a verbatim of Christ’s words. The theme of what is being said seems to support the view that Matthew’s aim is to present Christ teaching a moral lesson to a community that fails to repent. Matthew uses this blessing of Christ as another opportunity for Christ to instill a sense of privilege. Look at the words “truly I tell you . . .” Christ’s words possess a sense of gravity to call attention of the disciples to the “incomparable privilege” to their discipleship. This sense of respect and reverence in these verses is the final point for support to this essay’s thesis on faith and reason.

In one of his great treatise titles in his Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysius uses the word “theology” in a manner that speaks to the sense of privilege in Christ’s words, “truly I say to you . . . ” First, the word “mystical,” as a theology, is to refer to Dionysius’ explanation as a part of the whole of theology in general. However, at the time of Dionysius the whole science of theology did not exist, as we know it today. So it is better to examine in what sense the term “theology” has meaning in Dionysius’ lifetime. This will speak to what Christ means in this passage because the sense of “theology” that Matthew’s community held is much closer to that of Dionysius’. Furthermore, Matthew is an evangelist called up into that Divine Light of truth and articulated it for us in his Gospel.

The English translation of “theology” is from Greek word “θεολογία.” However, English meaning does not match the meaning of Dionysius. Dionysius is not referring to “θεολογία” as a scientific discipline in a university. He also does not mean the literal sense of studying the nature of God. What he means is “the Words of God.” This is the whole of canonized Sacred Scripture in the Jewish and Christian Tradition.

“Theology” or “θεολογία” is the words and work of God “only insofar as it repeats in a more accessible way the content of scriptures.” As we read in the scriptures about God’s plans for our salvation, we can therefore infer that theology is the articulation of God, allowed to be given to us by God. Matthew is strongly making this point by quoting Christ in this way. This is why it is important to view Sacred Scripture as the “living Word of God.” Matthew’s writing is, as we believe in faith, the Word of God.

When we embark on the study of this particular passage in Matthew and make an exegetical application we are articulating something far beyond the content of Matthew’s writings. We articulate the meaning of the Word of God, the words of Christ — mediated to us through Sacred Scripture; and this is true of all Sacred Scripture in the canon. This privilege requires a humble ear and a faithful demeanor. It demands respect and reverence. In order to do it properly there must be a deposit of faith.

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