The Bible Lessons:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The Prayer of the Day:
Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
A Few Thoughts:
1. My intention is to preach on the text from Romans, which incorporates my absolute favorite passages in the Bible. Here, though, I want to speak a little bit about the Gospel lesson from Matthew.
2. The lesson from Matthew has the conclusion of an extensive section from Matthew's Gospel, Matthew 13, in which Jesus tells parables.
As you know, the New Testament was written during the first century and was written in Greek, the world's second language in those days, occupying a place like that of English today. The word parabola, from which we have the transliterated word parable, is a compound made up of the Greek preposition para, meaning alongside, and bola, based on the word for throw. In His parables, Jesus told a story alongside of which were other meanings.
Parables were a common way of teaching in Jesus' day and before. When you think about it, they still are. In fact, I have a theory that parables and metaphors are the most common and inevitable ways of teaching. Stories have a way of lodging themselves in your memory and teaching you something. Metaphors, like the best parables, use things we already know and through the use of analogy, convey new information. Parables and metaphors are related, especially with Jesus. In fact, some of the mini-parables He tells here create metaphors.
3. Jesus tells six parables in our Gospel lesson. But I believe that there is a single prism through which all six should be viewed, Jesus' words at the end of the lesson:
And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52)Through much of the gospels of Matthew and the other three evangelists (Mark, Luke, and John), scribes get a somewhat bad name. A scribe was anyone who had mastered the writings of a discipline. (The word in the original Greek is grammateus. From our English word, grammar, you can see that a scribe is an expert on words or writings.)
The religious scribes of Jesus' day were among His most ardent opponents. They were so mired in the Old Testament Scriptures as a document of the past that they were unable to live with God in the present. They didn't allow themselves to see that the Old Testament Scripture they rightly valued and respected, also pointed to a God Who would send a Savior and do new things.
But Jesus said that being a scribe doesn't have to be a bad thing. After excoriating "blind guides" like the scribes (Matthew 23:24), Jesus tells His own followers, "Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes..." (Matthew 23:34).
4. My professor and mentor, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to talk about this passage, referring to it as one of the keys by which one can understand the particular themes of the entire Gospel of Matthew. He said that all Christians are called to be scribes of the kingdom of heaven, steeped in God's Word, through it not constrained to traditions that may or may not have outlives their usefulness, but free to operate in God's kingdom. God's people have a firm and inviolable foundation in Jesus Christ, but they are flexible in their practice.
Let me give a practical examples of what that might mean.
A woman is committed to her marriage. She knows that Jesus hates divorce. In fact, she hates divorce, too. But her husband, a basically decent guy caught in the clutches of alcohol and drug abuse, physically and mentally abuses her and their children. He's squandered all of their savings on drugs and alcohol. He can't keep a job. He refuses to seek help. For her own health and safety, for the health and safety of her children, and in order to give her husband a wake-up call that might bring positive change, that woman has no choice to get out of the house or get her husband out of the house and, barring the husband's enrollment in a program of detoxification and counseling, to begin the first steps toward divorce. This is precisely the kind of advice I have given to several women (and men) in the past twenty-four years of pastoral ministry. Several times, it has resulted in marriages being saved. In all instances, the harmed parties emerged healed and able to live.
A scribe of the kingdom must take the old, inviolable Word of God and apply it to the imperfect world in which we presently live. This application is not and cannot be done arbitrarily, it cannot be done based on one's feelings or personal thoughts, but based on what we know about God from God's Word.
In the case of this woman, we must know that besides hating divorce, God also hates to see the powerful abuse the less powerful. We must know that God cares about what happens to and in every person. We must know that God cares about children. We must know that God hates idolatry, which is what all addictions are, because all addictions destroy bodies, minds, and relationships. We must also know that there are times when fellowship must be severed in order for it to have a chance of being healthfully restored (Matthew 18).
A scribe steeped in God's Word--and every believer in Jesus Christ should strive to be a scribe--must not be a "johnny-one-note" in their theology. God has revealed many things about His character and will. God is still revealing things about His character and will.*
The Scriptures are the treasure of the Church. They are also the canon against which we measure our current actions. They aren't a straitjacket, but a life preserver and a rocket ship propelling us into the future, empowering us to faithfully and flexibly negotiate through the present.
4. The parables of Matthew 13 then, are prisms through which scribes steeped in Christ and His Word are enabled to negotiate the business of living, not just in giving advice, but in living their own day-to-day lives.
5. Eugene Peterson renders Matthew 13:52 in this way (note that Peterson renders the grammateus as student...not bad. That word connects to the word disciple, mathetes in the original Greek of the New Testament, a word meaning student or follower):
[Jesus] said, "Then you see how every student well-trained in God's kingdom is like the owner of a general store who can put his hands on anything you need, old or new, exactly when you need it."Jesus does not intend for Christians to be paralyzed by a religious hierarchy based on human rules. As followers of Christ, members of Christ's Church, we have accountability to God and to one another, for sure. But, through God's Word, the Sacraments, the preaching of God's Word, and the fellowship of the Church, we have direct access to God. Those well-trained in God's kingdom know precisely where to go as they move through the maze of life's challenges, excitement, and uncertainties...to the God we meet in Christ alone!
*But never, it should be pointed out, do the new things we "learn" about God violate what God has already revealed about Himself. God, for example, is not going to reveal to people that it's now okay to steal our neighbor's belongings or engage in sex outside of marriage. God may expand our knowledge of His character and will. And God can certainly forgive the repentant who violate God's will. But, God never changes His character and will. All that changes is our understanding of God. Such changes in understanding come to those who are scribes steeped in God's Word, committed to living the Christian life, and who are practitioners of prayer. This is important to remember the next time someone claims that God told them you should give them all their money or whatever the evil imbecility might be.
[This is an icon of Saint Matthew the Evangelist. It's in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Click to enlarge.]