Saturday, October 31, 2009

Things hidden from the foundation of the world

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet:

‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables;

I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’

- Matthew 13:31-35

We have read Jesus using the illustration of the mustard seed before - the same parable in Mark, and as an illustration of faith in Luke. Jesus uses "yeast" or "leaven" also in a negative way, by illustration of the effects of the attitudes of the Pharisees and Herod who are seeking signs and proofs.

What I like about this parable is the great illustration of the action of the growth of the kingdom. In some sense, we can see it as a parallel to the parables about sowing seed which we've just read (the parable of the Sower, the parable of the Wheat and the Tares). The kingdom is planted and will grow in all kinds of ways and conditions. But these two parables grouped together, the mustard seed and the leaven, tell us about the nature of the growth and its magnitude.

Yesterday, by chance, I was listening to a talk on the early centuries of the Church. It was striking how phenomenally these two parables illustrated what was going to happen. The speaker was giving a talk on how one could trace through the lives of the saints of the early Church the interconnectedness and growth that would happen as a result of each person's life and preaching and teaching. In one generation, one early saint (often a Bishop or other hierarch of the Church) converted someone in another region to which they'd travel, who in turn would travel and convert others, and so on. Origen, for example, was a child of a Christian parents in 2nd century Alexandria. He was given both a Hellenistic and Christian education by his parents. In 203, he revived the Catechetical School of Alexandra, whose last teacher had been Clement of Alexandria, who had been driven out by persecution. One student of Origen in Alexandria is Gregory the Wonderworker. Gregory the Wonderworker travels to Cappadocia where he baptized many Christians, including a woman known as Macrina the Elder. Macrina the Elder, in turn, became the grandmother of Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great, 4th century founding Fathers of the Church. By tracing these genealogies of the early centuries of the Church, one can see this tremendous growth that Jesus illustrates in his parables. The same thing is true if one studies the "age of martyrs" during those early first and second century persecutions, where, confounding conventional expectations, so many would die and yet so many more Christians would take their place.

As always, I wonder how these parables relate to our current conditions. In the West, there are great debates about the value of religion, the importance and meaning of the Scriptures, and of course interfaith and ecumenical dialogues. Around the world, we have worldwide bodies of Christians such as the World Council of Churches engaged in many types of dialogue. In countries around the world, one reads eye-opening statistics of conversion in recent times, such as in China where conversion to Christianity seems to be happening at a remarkable rate. In the regions of earliest Christianity, particularly among the Orthodox, there has been centuries of persecution or repression by various regimes, but where repression has taken place (such as in formerly communist countries), the Church rebounds. 2,000 years later, long after these words are preached, there is a dazzling array of historical information to take a look at and think about. When I heard the talk on the early centuries of Christian history, I couldn't help but be amazed at how it functioned as an illustration of what Jesus was talking about.

How do you see your part in this growth? Does the mustard seed parable have a reflection in your life, or in your observation? All around me, I read of great debates about religion and its value. But, if anything, the debate and interest itself is proof that these ideas are alive and well and as potent as they ever were - if not more. We return to the roots of what we understand, the Scripture. And then, from the mass movements of history and statistics and worldwide debates and movement, we turn to something deeper to think about:

‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables;

I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’

This is from Psalm 78:2. It brings us back down to earth, to what Jesus is about and has been about in this ministry. He has revealed his thanks to the Father that what was heretofore hidden from the wise and intelligent has been revealed to babes. The grace that he brings now shines forth in this quotation of prophecy as well. Truths hidden from the foundation of the world are revealed in his parables. It must all come back to grace. We must always recall the oft-repeated words in these gospels, with which he taught his disciples to preach and to teach: "the kingdom of heaven has come near." All of this action and conversion, the shifts of history and understanding of change means little if we do not include this understanding of what it is to accept these teachings. We are receiving grace and illumination of a spiritual kingdom which we can know through spiritual sight and the reception in our hearts. All the statistics of conversion in the world mean little when it comes down to what counts. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? Are we cultivating this capacity to receive in our hearts? What about the growth of the mustard seed that happens in us, in our personal lives, in our understanding of the "things hidden from the foundation of the world?"

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