Matthew, chapter 13
What’s wonderful about the seven parables in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, and all the parables in scripture, is that they can mean so many different things. They can speak to us in so many different ways. There are all these levels.
If we’re depressed, if our life seems empty and barren and flat, the parables are saying: yes. Sometimes that’s the way life is. Life is a field, a barren field, a fallow field.
But wait. There’s hope, too. There’s a treasure buried in that field. There’s a pearl beyond price.
If we’re upset with the Church, if we’re mad at the Church, if the Church has disappointed us, the parables are saying: yes, of course, what did we expect? The Church, too, is a field. The Church, too, covers things up. It buries things.
But wait. There’s a treasure here, underneath. There’s a pearl.
If we’re disappointed with a child, or a spouse, or a parent, or a friend, or with ourselves, the parables are saying: look deeper. Look beyond the obvious, because the truth is rarely obvious. People are like the sea, they are full of good fish and bad, as the Church is like the sea, full of good fish and bad, and we just have to get over it. We just have to accept that.
If we’re doubtful about God, if the existence of God doesn’t seem obvious, if there doesn’t seem to be any obvious proof, the parables are saying: yes, that’s true. The kingdom of God isn’t like a fleet of giant space ships that comes sailing in over our cities and just floats there above us, for everyone to see. It’s like a pearl. It’s like a seed. It’s small. It’s easy to overlook. A bird on a branch. A certain slant of light. An intuition.
That’s the good news: that God is everywhere and always. The bad news: we can’t pin this down, we can’t make this stick. “I wanted to be as certain about things which I could not see,” Augustine says, “as I was certain that seven plus three equals ten.” But that’s not how it works. It just doesn’t.
If we’re mad at people who disagree with us, at people who vote for the wrong candidate or people who don’t share our particular understanding of the faith, the parables are saying: who are we to judge? It’s the angels who will sort out the fish, not us, it’s God who separates the good from the bad, and that’s not going to happen for a long time. There’s still plenty of opportunity for things to change, in us and in others. In the meantime, we just have to mind our own business.
If our lives are hectic and chaotic and out of control, if we don’t have time to hear ourselves think, if we’ve buried ourselves in commitments and possessions and anxieties, the parables are saying: sell it all, give it all up, and keep what matters most. Simplify.
If we don’t know what matters most, if we can’t figure that out, they say: wait. Be patient. Give it time.
They say: follow your joy. Follow what most gives you life and hope. That’s what the man does when he finds the treasure in the field. He sells everything, and not out of fear, not out of narrow, unthinking conviction. He sells “out of joy,” Matthew tells us. He acts out of joy.
If you feel joy like that, if you feel pulled like that, if you feel this hope—that leaping up of your heart, that surge: trust it. Listen to it. That’s God speaking to you, underneath everything else. That’s God calling you.
All these meanings, all these levels and layers, because these texts today are the field, and these texts today are the pearls, and there is treasure everywhere and there is paradox everywhere and there is meaning and invention and hope.
If we’re lonely and afraid, we have to act,
If we’re lonely and afraid, we have to do nothing.
Act: because the treasure is buried. It’s not handed to us on a silver platter. It’s not spoon-fed to us. It’s not for children but for adults and it’s time we grew up and stopped criticizing God for not meeting our own immediate and childish needs; time we examined who we really imagine God to be, deep down, unconsciously, a sugar-daddy, a granter-of-wishes, or something far richer and deeper and infinitely more believable.
Do nothing: because it’s the angels who will sort it all, in time. It’s God who will make sense of all this, not us. Sooner or later. And we have to surrender to that, give in to that, with humility, which is hard, but also with trust, which is finally freeing. There’s nothing to be afraid of. The challenge is simply to be patient. The challenge is simply to accept the way the world really is, in its subtleties and its mixed-upness, and the way we are, too. The challenge is to believe, is to have hope, and so to let the love beyond all love enter into us and enter into our situation and change us and change others, and to believe that it can, that He can, and to believe that He will, to believe that everything can change, and that it will, and that it always is. That whatever is intractable will be moved. That whatever is unsolvable will be solved. Will be softened. Will be opened. Will be found.
Just not in the way we expected it to be. Just not in the way we wanted it to be. In a better way: far, far easier, far more joyful, far more playful, far more multiple and leveled and layered.