Matthew 13:10-17 (The Message)
South Presbyterian Church – July 13, 2014
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift
I sat in a Foundations of Education class many years ago, and the professor said something I’ll never forget: people remember stories. They won’t remember textbooks and they may not even remember YOU, but they’ll remember the stories you told.
And then he went on to say: Regardless of your religious beliefs, one of the greatest teachers who ever lived never wrote a book. He may have drawn pictures in the sand, we don’t know, but he never wrote a book. He taught only be stories. And how do we know he was one of the greatest teachers who ever lived? Because he had 12 students and every single one of them died for what he taught them. Some people say that 11 passed his course and 1 failed. Don’t ever expect to do better than those odds, but keep telling the stories.
My Foundations of Ed teacher was my dad. And I think BECAUSE he was my father, it took me a lot of years to own just how brilliant he was. But I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I have recalled his wisdom … either to remind myself that Jesus was a great TEACHER, or that I am NOT Jesus and I won’t be able to reach EVERYBODY … even when I’m telling the Greatest Story Ever Told.
But it bears remembering because today we hear in our reading from the Master himself … well, the Master through the writing of the author of Matthew. And HE tells us why he teaches through stories. “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn’t been given to them.” I think that most of us don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to know that insight comes to some and not to others. It makes us uncomfortable in some way, doesn’t it? I know something but you don’t … this message isn’t for EVERYBODY. I’m special.
And in all fairness, that is NOT really what Jesus means here. He’s not talking about some secret message as much as he is about our readiness to be open to the radical NATURE of his message.
We don’t WANT to think of God as treating us special because, frankly, that puts a responsibility on us that we might not be willing to take on. If *I* know something and you DON’T, then I might have to act on what I know and YOU won’t have to.
It’s easier to not know.
But what we misinterpret about this is NOT that others won’t know, as I just said … it’s that what they know or hear or see will not be what WE know or hear or see at the same time that WE know or hear or see it because … well, because they’re not US!
So the way to convey these truths that speak to people at different times in their lives and have messages about different themes and values is to tell STORIES.
Now, there are two parts to the equation … the story TELLER and the story LISTENER. If the story’s not TOLD, then no one can BENEFIT from it. And if we are not prepared to hear it and take it IN, then it loses its efficacy.
Jesus goes on … Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is NO READINESS, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create READINESS, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state, Jesus says, they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it.
See … stories are metaphors. If I tell you I’m going to tell you a story with a hidden meaning in it, you will listen to the story LOOKING FOR that hidden meaning. You will HEAR it differently.
For instance … if I tell you a story about a man who is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family … and I tell the story in a court of LAW, its purpose is either to testify for him to be sent off to jail or for the judge to have leniency and mercy because of his circumstances.
If I tell the SAME story about a man who is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family … and I tell it in the context of a history class studying the French Revolution or maybe even one focused on homelessness in America … the way it is heard, the meaning given to it, is very different.
And still, if the SAME STORY about a man arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family is told in CHURCH … it might become an example of how God provides, or about how God sees EVERYTHING and justice will prevail.
The MEANING we give it depends on the way in which we HEAR it … the context … how we EXPECT to be led in the course of the storytelling … what we are listening for. Now, as human beings, we are always listening on multiple levels … You’re doing it right now. You’re listening to what I’m saying (I hope) but there’s a part of your brain that’s also trying to map out what it means before I finish my sentence. “Why’s she telling me this? … what’s the point here? … what’s this supposed to mean?”
So Jesus puts HIS answer to why he teaches by stories in a context that Matthew’s community can understand because they were primarily Jewish, remember. So he relates his answer to one of their greatest prophets, Isaiah … and he says: I’m saying this to all of you because I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again: (That forecast was that) Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.
Let’s just stop there for a minute. How interesting is this … and how TRUE. We don’t want to have insights … we don’t want to see God face-to-face because then we would have to let God HEAL us. We would have to CHANGE.
Think about that.
I know it SOUNDS counter-intuitive … but it’s really NOT. I’m sure we all know people who don’t want to get better in some facet of their life because people KNOW them as they are. They have cultivated a self-image that is of one thing all their lives and then if they change … how will anyone know them? How will they know themselves?
If we are healed of whatever it is, our lives will be different and sometimes people can’t bear the difference. Sometimes it’s easier to stay in PAIN than to have to accept new routines. New identities. New ways of BEING in the world.
If I’m an abused spouse, the thought of having to redefine myself WITHOUT that other person can paralyze me into staying in that abusive situation.
If I’m an alcoholic and stop drinking, I’m going to have to face the consequences of things I did when I was drinking. That means changing my relationships and it’s hard work.
If I’m someone who needs to lose or gain a lot of weight, for instance, and I DO that … my appearance changes but so does my self-IMAGE. Time that used to be spent eating with others might now be spent at the gym… or vice versa. And maybe those dining friends aren’t INTERESTED in exercise, or the gym friends don’t want to go out to eat.
Friendships change. Self-CONCEPT changes. And in order to stay CONNECTED when we change, we have to make an EFFORT to shift as the people around us shift.
Not EVERYONE is going to shift at the same time even if they WANT to.
So Jesus says to us 16-17 “But YOU have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear!
“A lot of people, he says, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given ANYTHING to see what you are seeing, to HEAR what you are hearing, but they never had the chance.”
The secret is readiness. If there is no readiness, he teaches, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. Our job is to make ourselves RECEPTIVE. And frankly, it is an ONGOING commitment that we have to undertake. CHOOSING to be receptive … SEEKING to be receptive … LONGING to be receptive.
Receptive to God’s grace and mercy … Receptive to God’s PLAN even if it’s not our own (that whole “thy will be done” thing) … Receptive to our own responsibility to tell our OWN stories.
It’s our STORIES that have meaning for others. When we talk with people about our life experience … about our faith … about how we get through hard times … we are telling our stories and other people can spot the similarities and parallels with their OWN life stories. And then they think, “Well, if MARY can get through this … then maybe *I* can get through this.” Or “Well, if JOHN is a prayin’ man, then maybe *I* should try praying sometimes, too.”
But if Mary doesn’t TELL them how she got through things, or if John doesn’t SHARE that he’s a prayin’ man … well then the story isn’t TOLD and no one can hear it and become OPEN.
But the other piece of this is that we are responsible for telling our COLLECTIVE Story, too. Our story of being open to trying new things. Our story of God’s FAITHFULNESS to our little merry band of believers. Our story of HOPE and NEW LIFE.
The people who have ears of readiness will hear … the ones who have eyes of readiness will see. And not everybody will see or hear it at the same time … any more than WE all see or hear it at the same time. But we have to be READY to.
That story about a man arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family? Of all the contexts we could hear that story in, we left out the most IMPORTANT context of all … how would GOD see and hear it? God, who knows every INTENTION, even when it is unspoken. What would have meaning in all of that story in terms of GOD? That is, after all, the perception we should be trying to develope… not so much What Would Jesus Say as much as What would GOD see in this setting.
THAT’s how we develop our READINESS … by being READY to see and hear God and God’s PERSPECTIVE in everything around us. By reframing EVERYTHING – conversations and situations – and thinking about them in terms of GOD’s vision. Are we willing to choose to be HEALTHY? Are we willing to be OPEN and READY to let Jesus NUDGE us?
Are we willing to CHANGE and let go of the comfortable things or how we see ourselves in order to be ready for God’s message and God’s plan and how GOD sees us???
It doesn’t come easily. Learning to do that is like learning any new habit. We need to be INTENTIONAL about it. But it can be done.
Maybe at first it’s a half-SECOND that we say to ourselves … “God’s view” and then we slip back into our own narrow vision. But the more we SAY it … the more we THINK it … the more that intentional viewpoint becomes a PART of us. And the more it becomes a part of us, the more open and ready we become to be nudged by Jesus in the direction that we’re supposed to be going.
That’s our challenge … and that’s our job as Christians … as men and women of faith.
Growing that habit and learning to tell our STORIES … that’s what we’re called to do this week. So let’s give it a try, shall we???
And may the power of the Holy Spirit lead us on that journey … may Jesus, our Master Teacher, remind us throughout the week to change our perspective … and may the God who IS all and is IN all … bless us with new insights about the stories in which we are engaged. Amen.