The disciples were in the ship, and the ship was being ‘tormented’ (14:24) by the contrary winds. What was the storm the disciples were facing? The story is told in symbolic language. The stormy winds were not just a literal storm on Lake Galilee, rather, Matthew is referring to the stormy passage through which the disciples were travelling.
Herod had just beheaded John the Baptiser. Because the Jesus movement was close to John, the disciples had every reason to fear the enmity of the King. Herod’s violence was making them uncomfortable. Herod represented the Jewish political class, and, as a puppet king of Rome, also represented the power of the Roman Empire.
John, we remember, had denounced Herod for marrying his sister-in-law Herodias. Herod was sensitive to the criticism and first arrested John, then murdered him. This mutual ‘discomfiting’ of church and the powers that be was to become a pattern.
When Matthew then tells this story for his mainly Jewish Christians community, conflict with the synagogue was increasing, and the Romans were harassing the emerging Christian Church. Just by being true to themselves, Christians apparently ‘discomfited’ the authorities, and they in turn ‘discomfited’ the Church.
This is a pattern that should always be part of the Christian Church’s experience. It becomes a litmus test: if the Church is too cosy with the worldly powers, if there is no mutual ‘discomfiting’, then we are not being true to ourselves.
It takes courage to speak truth to power, especially corrupt power. In 1993 and again last year during the ‘sports rorts’ affairs when political pork-barrelling by Labor and Liberal Ministers overcame good governance, few Christians condemned this immoral behaviour, perhaps too quietly to ‘discomfit’ the Government. The louder voices raised in protest are likely to be punished in some way for their dissent.
At other times, the ‘Love Makes a Way’ movement sitting in politician’s offices, has set off anger and vindictive behaviour against Christians, including police strip-searching peaceful protesters. Insisting that love is the way is being true to the Church’s calling, so the mutual discomfiting is not surprising.
It seems we cannot avoid this clash with politics. Our efforts, even as we remain true to our calling, will always be messy. In this chaos, this uncertainty, Jesus insists, ‘Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid!’ (14:27). The promise is that Jesus will grasp us, as he did Peter, and hold us safe in the storm.
We can say with the Psalmist: ‘God reached down from on high and took me; he drew me out of mighty waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me. They confronted me in the day of my calamity; but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me.’ (Psalm 18:16-19)
Most of us in Australia we are surrounded by abundance. We take for granted that there will be food for the day and for tomorrow. We have clothing for every day of the week. Advertising bombards us and warps our appetites. We are even conditioned into thinking that shopping for things we don’t need will make us feel better; we call it ‘retail therapy’.
COVID-19 has reminded us that much of the world lives in scarcity. The World Bank estimates that 10% of the world’s population (734 million human beings) exist on less than $1.90 a day, and that number will rise because of the pandemic. They believe that ‘the COVID-19 crisis will have a disproportionate impact on the poor, through job loss, loss of remittances, rising prices, and disruptions in services such as education and health care.’
Jacob had an abundance of possessions, human and animal. Living with his uncle Laban, he had acquired ‘oxens, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves’ (Genesis 32:4). When he returned to his brother Esau, these possessions gave him no comfort. They simply made him afraid: afraid that Esau would attack and purloin all his wealth. His plan is to sweeten his brother with gifts. The numbers are fantastic: he offers Esau ‘two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys’ (Genesis 32:13-15), and that’s just the first tranche!
It is only when he has completely separated himself from these possessions, ‘when he was left alone’ (Genesis 32:24) that Jacob finds his true treasure, One who will bless him, One who re-names him Israel for a new purpose. Simply by himself, Jacob sees God face to face (Genesis 32:30).
How are we to find the way to undo the emotional attachment we have to our abundance? What could motivate you and me to learn how to do without the material things surrounding us?
In the Gospel reading, Matthew shows the crowds who came to Jesus in a deserted place with nothing: no food for the day, nothing extra except their desire to follow him. The five thousand men, plus women and children, have only five loaves and two fish to eat. Jesus distributes what he has, he gives and goes on giving, and it turns out to be abundance.
Our desire as Christians is to follow Jesus, a path which is difficult to tread with our abundance. Having possessions is itself a burden for us. Like Jacob, they make us fearful, because we know the security that they offer is a fiction.
But we find it so difficult to change. Our challenge is to detach ourselves from our emotional connection with possessions. We begin with the desire to do so, and then, like Jesus, we give and go on giving. In sharing everything with those who are without, we find a new kind of abundance, and a security that will last forever. Our new-found generosity will also be such ‘good news for the poor’ (Luke 4:18).
In 2003, Rae and I celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary by being tourists in Broome for a few days. We learned how pearls are grown off Broome’s coast. The pearl grows in a frame just beneath the ocean’s surface, starting as a tiny irritant inside the oyster’s soft tissue and over its lifetime growing to be a much-desired jewel.
Pearling can be dangerous. In the early days of the industry the lives of indentured Malay and Indigenous divers, slaves in all but name, were held cheaply. Many died then, but even in recent times, young divers have lost their lives.
Jesus’ parable about the pearl is a jewel in itself, only 24 words long in the original Greek. This pearl is extraordinary: it can be found in a field, but the finder cannot simply pick it up and claim it as her own. The finder must want the pearl so fiercely that she is prepared to give everything she has to obtain it. Even then, the pearl cannot simply be bought by itself; the whole field must be bought.
The parable speaks of a pearl as valuable as life itself. For what would we be prepared to sell everything we have to acquire it?
In the world of Jesus, and in the United States from the 17th to the 19th Centuries, people owned other human beings – slaves. Trafficking in human lives is still a wicked problem in the 21st Century.
As property, slaves have no freedom to order their lives: their time and their bodies belong to their owners. Some slaves could imagine no other way of living. Other slaves were prepared to give everything they had to free themselves and their families. Some saved up money out of crumbs to buy their freedom. Some risked their lives to run. Of these, a fraction succeeded to find their freedom in the northern states; others were killed or taken back under even more harsh conditions.
The pearl, for slaves, was freedom: freedom from being owned by another, freedom to be oneself.
Jesus says wanting to obtain the pearl is ‘like the Kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 13:45). The pearl we give everything for is the life-long process of seeking and knowing God.
We have been slaves. Nothing like the actual slaves of 18th Century America, but we have been unable to choose the right actions. We have let our greed for money, for others, for selfish pleasure, rule our bodies. Our thought-patterns are permeated by the sinfulness of the world, so without choosing it, we too are racist, we too are xenophobic. We have all been there. As hearers of Jesus’ parables we are former slaves on the way to freedom from these forms of imprisonment. The Holy Spirit works in each of us to become the person God wants us to be.
We can deceive ourselves that we are happy the way we are, or we can choose to work with the Spirit for our freedom. We can decide to keep our eyes on the prize, the pearl.
I am an activist. I confess it now. I have always believed that part of my responsibility as a Christian is to call out evil, to use what power I have to improve our community. So I write letters to politicians and newspapers. I sign petitions, although I only click on the Facebook polls that are of most concern to me. I fear cheapening my voice if I am simply a ‘clicktivist’!
I am not sure if I have made a difference in calling attention to Indigenous deaths in custody, or in protesting the inappropriately cruel treatment our country metes out to refugees, but I am convinced it has been worth trying.
I encourage you too to be actively involved in God’s task of making a better world.
So it’s puzzling, in this parable about wheat and weeds, to be told to leave the weeds. Not to act, but to wait until the end for God to give judgement. Not acting feels as if one if being unfaithful to God ‘who makes all things new’ Revelation 21:5.
The parable of wheat and weeds reminds us that, while there are times to be an activist, there are also times to stand back and wait. The evil storm will blow itself it. The weeds will be destroyed at harvest-time. Or God may simply want to deal with it in God’s own way.
This parable invites me to pray for two gifts: one is the gift of discernment, so that I know when God desires our action, and when God desires us not to act. Saint Paul tells us that discernment is a gift of Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:10), a gift that comes as we live out our Christian commitment.
The second is a spirituality of waiting. ‘Wait for the Lord;’ says the Psalmist, ’Be strong, and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord.’ (Psalm 27:14). We resist waiting, because we think waiting is passive; but real waiting creates an active space for evil to resolve itself and good to re-assert itself. Waiting is holding the space for God, or someone else, to act for good. Waiting is actively trusting that the seeds sown in God’s garden will grow and bear fruit.
This parable of God’s garden, with its wheat and weeds, reminds me that my activism has only a limited role. It invites me to see activism in perspective, and to implore God to give me the two gifts of discernment, taking time to see what God is doing here, and the courage and the strength to wait, and create change by intentionally not acting.
God has sown his seed into every possible situation, rich soil and arid, and God will reap a bumper harvest.
I saw this wooden sculpture of the Sower in the Cathedral bookshop in Hong Kong. I saw it and liked it. It called to me. I went back for three days and eventually bought it.
I like this Sower’s strength. He is well-muscled and strides purposively. He is no agricultural fool strewing seed in silly places. He has deliberately sown the seed everywhere. He knows there will be a harvest and that it will be surprisingly good – a bonanza!
In this interpretation of the Parable of the Sower, God is the Sower, Jesus is the seed, and all of us can be at different times hard ground, off the path, choked by thorns or even beautiful soil.
But, like many of Jesus’ parables, the Sower is not mainly about us: it is about God.
God has sown his seed into every possible situation, rich soil and arid, and God will reap a bumper harvest.
The seed is the way God’s power works. Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to, say, the ‘in your face’ power of the occupying Tenth Legion of the Roman Army, but with a seed. A seed is small. It disappears into the earth. Then its power is shown as it germinates, and the plant grows and produces its yield.
The Sower is a parable of hope: whenever we think that the Church is dying as this generation ages, we remember that God has sown onto hard ground, and will reap a harvest. Whenever we are choked by anxiety, perhaps by the unpredictably of Covid-19, God has sown into thorns, and a bumper crop will be harvested. Whenever we worry that this age is too secular to respond to the Good News of Jesus, we remember that God has already planted his seed off the path, and there is still bounty to be reaped. Whenever we rejoice at a friend’s spiritual growth, we remember that God sowed into rich soil, too. Then we see the bounty of the crop.
But whether we now see the bountiful harvest or not is not important. Rather we rejoice in the reality that God has already planted the seed of the Good News of Jesus in every possible situation.
When we moved our young family to the United States, we couldn’t find a ‘see-saw’ anywhere. When eventually we found a playground with a see-saw, we were told it was called a ‘teeter-totter’. On reflection, the American name is more descriptive than ‘see-saw’: ‘teeter-totter’ describes the way two children play on the equipment.
Each child sits at her end of the long plank and balances up and down. Two ends, a plank, and an elevated pivot are all that it takes to make a see-saw.
Jesus describes a spiritual see-saw at the end of this Sunday’s Gospel reading. There are two ends to the see-saw: one end is ‘Come unto me … and rest’. The other end is ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me’ (Matthew 11:28-30).
These are two poles of Christian life. At one end is the delightful world of prayer, of resting in God, of basking in a relationship with the One who utterly accepts us. At the other end, is the world of ministry, of efforts for the Gospel, of actively caring for others.
Spirituality and pastoral care, being loved by God and loving others. The see-saw reminds us that, though there may be two ends, it is one plank. In the end you cannot separate prayer and ministry.
In the Franciscan tradition, we say we Christians serve God in the Three Ways of ‘Prayer, Study and Work’. These are the three activities into which all Christians are invited. ‘Study’ is like the vertical beam of the see-saw which enables us to pivot between Prayer and Ministry. ‘Study’ is learning from Jesus (Matthew 11:29), considering mindfully both our prayer and our work for the Kingdom.
What we learn is that prayer and ministry cannot be separated. They are the same plank, the same life. Some Christians are tempted to spend ‘sweet hours of prayer’, retreating to the safety of spirituality, and never venturing out to practise on others the love which God lavishes on us.
Some find it easy to ignore the pesky questions about God and prayer and put all their effort into social activism, caring for the refugee, standing up against racism, feeding the hungry – and forget that it is not sustainable. We need also to be fed ourselves, and nurtured and healed.
The wisdom of Jesus is that both are needed: ‘Come unto me…’ and ‘Take my yoke upon you.’ The challenge of the end of this Sunday’s Gospel reading is this: how is your balance on the teeter-totter? Do you move ‘up and down’ between prayer and ministry, or are you stuck at one end or the other? What ‘study’ do you need to help integrate spirituality and ministry?
The story of the (near) sacrifice of Isaac is foundational for Jews, Christians and Muslims. Abraham’s faith is proved. It is a mysterious story with many threads. I have written the story The Witness to highlight one of those threads.
The climb up Yahweh-Jireh in the wastelands of Moriah brought me to the edge of insanity, but I honestly don’t think it shook my faith in Lord Yahweh, blessed be his Name.
The lands of Moriah are barren and windswept, bad lands where even sheep don’t bother to go. They are dotted by rounded steep hills which at first glance look identical to each other. Actually each one is slightly different in height and shape. It’s a maddening place to find your way through. You are never sure of landmarks, and even the sun casts shadows in unpredictable directions off and around those hillocks. A place to lose your way and your mind.
The only place to go when God asks you to weigh up what you value most: your faith or your son. How can you make such a value choice? My faith gives me life; my son is the brightness of my life. Everything I have comes from God, and I acknowledge that by faith. Everything I am, and everything that I have produced, is summed up in my son.
I think I would die of grief and emotion if my son was taken from me by disease or accident. I know I would die from the spirit down if my faith was taken from me. Yet here was I being asked to take the initiative in killing off one or the other. Your son or your faith. This was not the thief’s choice of
“your money or your life”.
This was the no-win choice of
“your life … or your life”.
We set off, travelling light. Just two servants, young men who would not awkward questions, new workers for whom I hadn’t yet built up that lifelong sense of mutual loyalty. But I travelled with that heavy-heart of dread that drags a man down, dreading the moment when Isaac and I had to leave them and go on on our own.
Isaac could ask awkward questions. He always had that sense of freedom with me. I encouraged it, indulged him, if I tell the truth, because he was the son of my old age, the miracle of God’s provision. You can’t believe the joy of knowing that one time in my life when I was capable of fathering a son, and the even more intense joy that that son turned out to be Isaac. Don’t blame an old man for spoiling his son, for idolising what God had given, when his faith had proved him right.
Yet for all my errors, God was never faithless. God never let me down. You might feel it was cruel of God to place that ultimate test before me: stand and deliver, man; hand over your faith or your son. Your life or your life.
It was hard to bear, I can tell you that. My throat cramped with pathos at Isaac’s innocent question. “Father, the fire and the wood I see for a burnt offering, but where is the lamb?” I choked out my reply, “Yahweh Jireh” … God will provide. No logic in my answer, but it was the deepest statement I could give. With my whole being, I knew it in my depths. Yahweh Jireh. God will provide.
But I was caught, like a ram caught in a drafting race. I had to go through with it: The fascinating horror of it all drew me on. I built the altar on the desolate hill-top. My hands carried stone after stone, building what I thought was his tomb. Isaac was eager to help. “Father, let me carry that large stone,” he kept saying, each offer a stiff blow to my chest.
Numb to the core, I motioned to my lovely son to lie on the wood on top of our altar. I tied him there with a rope, forcing myself to look into the beautiful eyes consenting strangely with patience and trust to this ultimate violation.
As he lay, his head fell back a little, not fully supported by the dry branches. His throat was exposed. I raised the monstrous knife, my eyes affixed to that new skin, not yet stubbled with a man’s beard, and my brain seemed to explode as I brought down the knife thrusting to kill God’s most precious gift.
After that appalling moment, I opened my eyes. Isaac was alive. My hand was still above my head, still poised, but there was no purpose left in it. The knife hung slack like a broken question mark. My head was light, almost dizzy. I vaguely realised that a sacrifice was about to take place, and there, caught in a thicket of thorn bushes, was a ram. A most pleasing subject for a burnt offering. Yahweh Jireh. The Lord had provided. The feeling in the depth of my being was right: deeply and marvellously right and in tune with the heartbeat of the Universe: In the most desperate, the most threatening, the most tearing apart experiences, trust and wait. Yahweh Jireh.
God knows what that choice is like. God also sent his son to a wasteland – the loveless, lifeless, sad place that Israel was under Roman occupation – and took his lovely son Jesus up the hill of Calvary and broke his heart too.
God, though, completed what I couldn’t complete. He allowed the sacrifice of his only Son, his only hope for the future. He killed him off. From my experience I can whisper of some of the pain which that caused God. Some of his grief, some of his extreme agony. God brought that knife down and took the breath away from the son whom he loved as his own life.
But my experience also tells me of the deep hope that runs strongly underneath even in that nightmare time. The knowledge – far deeper than wishful thinking, far more real than casual hoping – the sure knowledge that Yahweh Jireh – it will be provided.
Surely Yahweh himself had that deep knowledge as he waited for the resurrection of Jesus – Yahweh himself must have shouted with joy on the first Easter Sunday, “Yahweh Jireh” – my son is given back to me!
Surely each one of you, though you may not, as I was, be driven to the edge of madness, but simply as you live, as you cope with joy and sorrow, as you experience the attainment of relationships and their breaking-up, as your career paths open and close, with all that makes up life, you too can shout with the deep knowledge “Yahweh Jireh” – in God’s providence, it will be provided.
You cannot put a price on human life. Maybe it’s acceptable to buy and sell live animals in the market, ‘two sparrows for a penny’ (Matthew 10:29), but human life is beyond price. Centuries before, Moses had delivered God’s commandment, ‘You shall do no murder’ (Exodus 20:13). When God made human beings, he pronounced them, ‘Very good’.
Note that he made human beings, two individuals, one male, one female. We can conclude that God values three things about us:
1. All human beings are ‘very good’. All of humanity has God’s stamp of approval. I strongly agree that ‘Black Lives Matter’: even more I affirm that ‘All Human Lives Matter!’
2. As individuals as well as a species, you and I are ‘very good’. Every individual is cherished.
3. The differences between male and female are to be celebrated. Diversity is valued. God’s good creation is beautiful because of diversity. I’ve learnt that every magpie has its own personality. Every pebble in a gully is unique.
To treat one human being as though they were of less value than others is sinful. It defies God’s explicit values. To treat groups of human beings as though they were less than others is sinful. It denigrates God’s evident joy in diversity.
It makes me sad and angry that we need to declare that ‘Black Lives Matter’. The truth is that in Australia, as in the USA, we live in a world made for and by whites. Our community is systematically distorted by the sin of racism.
The brute facts spell this out:
* 432 Indigenous deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission.
* 29% of people in prisons are Indigenous, yet there are only 3% in the wider population.
* For the period 2008– 2012, about two-thirds (65%) of Indigenous deaths occurred before the age of 65, compared with 19% of non-Indigenous deaths.
There is much for us to work on to combat the scourge of racism.
Our first task as Christians is to loudly declare the equal value of every human being.
We proclaim the virtue of humility, yet one of the white community’s worst traits is to believe that we know the best for Aboriginal people. It is surely time to listen to Aboriginal voices, to hear what they say about their disadvantage and about white privilege.
It will be an uncomfortable journey. It’s painful to recognise one’s own prejudice. Moreover, people who protest racism, either in person or at a rally, easily divide those around them, ‘settinga man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.’ (Matthew 10: 35-36).
Opposing racism, however, is a crucial struggle for Christians. When we see racism in action, we need the courage to call it out, and not allow people in our circle to get away with casual racist comments. We may be called to work at a political level to oppose racism, making sure Government policies do not cement racism into place, and exhorting politicians to listen to Aboriginal voices.
Surely to be racist, or to allow racist behaviour to continue, is the same as to deny Christ before others (Matthew 10:33). Acknowledging Christ and his values is our calling.
We Christians are a people who have been sent. Apostles. Envoys. In a long line of sent people, we are part of the Apostolic Church. We have a mission, the mission of God, which is to bring God’s healing and liberation to others.
The Franciscan Third Order, to which I and my wife Rae belong, states ‘Our primary aim is to make Christ loved and known.’ By virtue of our baptism, every one of us is called to evangelism, to respond to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:10).
Some are called, like Billy Graham or Saint Augustine, to preach to stadiums and summon people to respond to the message. But that kind of evangelism is the exception, not the rule.
We are called to live the Gospel and let our lives be the message.
Living the Gospel means at least three things.
Firstly our lives display our openness to God’s healing and liberation. We should live with integrity, our standards being higher than those the wider community demands, so that people can see God’s goodness in us. Christians don’t fudge our tax returns and we don’t steal from workplaces or shops, or from anyone, for that matter. We live the Gospel and let our lives do the talking. A saying attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi puts it this way, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.’
Secondly, Christians care passionately. Christians actively love wife or husband, children and those they meet every day. We refuse to take them for granted. We care about the hungry, the homeless and the refugee. We worry about the systemic racism which allows higher rates of incarceration for blacks. We raise our voices to protest the culture which leads to deaths in custody.
We resist the temptation to tear down our leaders and look instead for opportunities to build them up. Being loved by God, we actively allow God’s love to flow through us and bring other people and all creatures the healing and liberation God wants.
Thirdly, we allow ourselves to be healed and freed. We can bring healing to others only as we open ourselves to be changed for the better. We work to know ourselves better so that we can be better instruments of God’s care. We seek to free ourselves from those hidden habits and attitudes which can harm our relationships with others.
All this we do – and it can feel overwhelming if we forget that it is not our initiative, it is not our mission. It is God who sends us, and God who empowers us.
As we return to our churches to worship, we are aware that at the end of every Eucharist we are sent out: ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ That is who we are: people sent by God.
Once upon a time, the good book tells us, heaven and earth, that is, God’s creation, had it all together. God said, ‘It was good… it was good, … it was very good.’ (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,25,31). The first account of creation in Genesis appeals to us and challenges us because we recognise that the world we know is not so good: it is marred, fractured.
We see the degradation of the environment, even Covid-19 is a result of the unwanted collision of wild animals and humans. We feel the rupture of relationships, our own and those around us. Ultimately the cause of this broken world is a mystery, but we can be sure that God means to mend and restore creation.
The Gospel tells the astounding news that we are part of this great project of bringing heaven and earth back together.
Matthew recounts how Jesus led the Eleven up a mountain. For Matthew, going up the mountain meant two things: on the mountaintop we experience the power of God, and secondly, on the mountain, Jesus, like Moses before him, teaches about the reality of God.
So we are there with the Eleven on the mountaintop to experience something of God’s power and to open ourselves, week by week, to God’s teaching. Like the Eleven, we both ‘worship and doubt’ (v.17). We are human beings after all. But our power to believe or not it is not relevant.
‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,’ Jesus states (v.18). The extraordinary claim of the Gospels is that the Risen Jesus has all God’s authority. We can be tempted to domesticate Jesus and turn him into a harmless friend. The reality, however, is that Jesus acts with power in our lives.
The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) was born to agnostic Jewish parents. From her childhood, she took seriously the teaching of Jesus to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. After a lifetime of activism loving her neighbour, she was drawn more deeply into the life of Jesus, experiencing his power in a series of prayer experiences. Weil’s book, Waiting for God, has become a spiritual classic. After reading George Herbert’s poem ‘Love III’, she wrote, ‘Christ himself came down and took possession of me.’ These experiences transformed her into ‘a great spirit’ recognised by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Our journey may not be as extreme as Simone Weil’s, but the reality of Jesus’ power in our lives shapes us also to be instruments of healing.
So Matthew reminds the Eleven – and us – of the colossal enterprise to which Jesus calls us: the healing of earth and heaven. We, the community of the faithful, are called to teach all nations his commandments, those of love and healing.
And the best of the Good News is that Jesus ‘will be with us always, to the end of the age.’ (v.20).