Sermon at St Mary’s Church T7 – 30th July 2017
Genesis 29 vv 15 – 28 Jacob marries Laban’s daughters.
Matthew 13 vv 31 – 33 and 44 – 52 Parables of the mustard seed, yeast, treasure, pearl, catch of fish.
- Introduction. Parables have been the subject of the gospel readings on the last three Sundays. We began two weeks ago with the parable of the sower, which forms a fitting introduction to other parables, of which we have no less than five this Sunday. You may have missed the parable of the sower because of the Tonbridge Fun Day. How many parables can you name from the gospel reading that we have just heard? Let me just remind you. Firstly the mustard seed, secondly the yeast, the treasure hidden in a field, then the pearl of great worth, and finally the catch of fish. It is not my intention to explain the parables. Jesus rarely explained them. A parable is meant just to make one basic point. Often the point is self-evident. A parable is different from an allegory, which tells a story, which by many parallels, illustrates a more complex event, process or principle. So, this morning I will just give a little supporting background to two of the parables, the growth of mustard seed and pearl of great price and then go on to consider the last parable today about the catch of fish.
- Growing mustard. Perhaps many of you have grown mustard, maybe on blotting paper on a wet saucer. You are well aware of the smallness of the seed but think, surely Jesus hasn’t got it right when he says that it will grow into a sizeable shrub. My parents started farming in 1943 on a small, 72 acre farm. In part of one field we grew mustard, under contract to Colman’s Mustard. The crop was harvested in the summer, I think in August. By then each plant was about the same height as I was then, at the age of 7 or 8. Unlike wheat with its single stalk, it has multiple branches growing out from the main stem. I don’t recall birds actually nesting in the plants but it was perfectly possible for sparrow-sized birds to perch on the branches. By contrast the seeds that we harvested were just as small as the ones that you grew mustard with on blotting paper. So small that my mother cut open farm sacks and then sewed them together to line the wagons so that when we carted the sheaves of mustard to the farmyard we lost as little of the crop of seeds as possible. It maybe that the mustard plant grown in Palestine in the first century was a different, even larger, plant.
- Pearling. Now a little background to pearling. For two years, 1968 – 70, Julia and I lived in Bahrein. Up until the 1930s, in the Spring, a large fleet of dhows, the Arab sailing ships, would go out to the pearling sites in the Gulf, for perhaps 6 weeks at a time. The Gulf is fairly shallow. Skin divers would go down to the sea bed to a depth of maybe as much as 15 m (about 50 ft) to bring up the shelled sea creatures in which the pearls formed. Food ships would come out to supply the pearling dhows. What though about water? Believe it or not, there are fresh water springs on the sea bed. The divers would go down with a water skin, invert it over the spring. When it was full they tied it at the neck to keep out the salt water and brought it to the surface. The Captain of the dhow had a chest in which he kept ships papers, money and the harvested pearls. We brought back such a chest, which you can see on the chancel step.
- Catch of fish. Now let us move on to the parable of the catch of fish. It is not popular these days to preach about judgment and hell, despite the fact that Jesus frequently spoke about both. There are over 20 references to Hell in Jesus’ teaching recorded in the gospels, quite apart from indirect references as in today’s gospel. Rightly, we like to preach and speak about love. But for love to be true love, there has to be choice. There has to be the possibility of not loving. At the outset God made it as simple as possible with a single command to Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. By disobeying this simple command they opened up the whole range of moral choice.
God, being a God of love, will not force his will on any of us. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray to God, ‘Your will be done’. But to that person who persists in flouting God’s commandment and saying ‘I don’t believe there is a God’ or ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with God’, God will ultimately say, ‘Your will be done.’ That is hell, being cut off from God for eternity. Because it is such a serious state, it is portrayed in vivid terms of a fiery furnace, a place of torment. The whole of one’s life here on earth is a preparation for the future life, an opportunity to say ‘Yes’ to God, to walk in his way or to say ‘No’ to God and be separated eternally from God.
There are those who believe that ultimately everyone will be saved. I don’t see this as being a Biblical doctrine – “Let’s eat, drink and be merry” and hope that it will be OK in the end seems to me to from a pragmatic point of view, a risky philosophy.
What though you may say of good Muslims, Jews, Hindus and other faiths? The Apostle Paul tells us, in the opening chapters of his letter to the Church in Rome, that people will be judged by the light they have received. He also says that the very existence and to some extent the nature of God is revealed in his creation. I will give you just one example of this from the last testament of the Native American chief, Seathl, after whom the city of Seattle is named.
“One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover – our God is the same God. You may think now that you own him, as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of man, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white. This earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth, is to heap contempt on its Creator. The whites too shall pass; perhaps sooner than all other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.”
Are we then being judged in this life? In a general sense ‘yes’. We see that there are moral and practical consequences of our actions. On the other hand there is a randomness about suffering, that is actually quite important. Jesus had to challenge the prevailing view of the times that a person suffered either because of his parents’ sin or because of his own sin. Remember that Jesus said, “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were more guilty than others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will perish” (Luke 13 vv 4, 5).
I said that the randomness of suffering is quite important. If there were always a direct correlation, a direct connection, between our sinful actions and our suffering we would develop into a harsh judgemental people. We would lose our compassion for the sufferer, because we would say that he or she is suffering because of their sin. We mustn’t interfere in God’s judgement.
As a final remark about the parable of the good and bad fish, related to my last remark, I thank God that Jesus specifically told us not to judge others but to leave judgement to God. Such teaching comes in the last chapter, seven, of the 3 chapters, of St Matthew’s Gospel which we know as ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. We had that reading about not judging as the second reading in Evensong last Sunday.
- In conclusion, let us rejoice that, through Christians of many nations who have found Jesus as the pearl of great price, the most valuable treasure, the mustard seed has grown into a huge worldwide fellowship, let us pray that the Church in our own country may be leaven to permeate for good, society as a whole and that people may realise that this life is a preparation for the life to come in which there will be a final judgement, and that they may say ‘Yes’ to God, to the glory of God. Amen
1504 words Christopher Miles