Seeing it for the first time

For whatever reason, I almost never use the front door.

The other day, I used the front door to bring something bulky inside. I happened to look up as I was coming in. And it was like seeing everything for the first time.

It was all of the same stuff. Nothing had changed. But from that unfamiliar perspective, I saw things I hadn’t really noticed before.

Sunday’s first reading feels kind of familiar. Even if we’ve never heard it before. Because it calls to mind so many things in the Gospels.

All the parables about feasts. The finest food for the poorest people. Servants seeking guests to come and eat.

Sunday’s first reading shows us all of that. Stuff we’ve seen so many times that we don’t really notice a lot of the details.

But this time, it’s from a different perspective. God’s.

Suddenly, everything comes into focus. And we see things we hadn’t really noticed before.

Especially with Sunday’s Gospel. 

More on this Thursday.

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Read the instructions?

The other day, I had this conversation with a frustrated IT guy:

     …this is pretty basic stuff.  Did you even read the instructions? 

          Umm, maybe… 

     Well, they didn’t stick did they? 

          No, not really… 

That’s the problem with instructions.  Whether they’re incomprehensible, or they’re so generic they could apply to a printer or a bookcase, they don’t stick.  We forget them almost as soon as we read them.

houss instructions

In today’s Gospel, someone asks why Jesus speaks in parables.  And Jesus’ answer?  Not instructions, but something, well, different. 

Something to make us think.  Something that has more to show us when we read it again. 

Kind of like a parable. 

Readings for Today

What'll it be?

What’ll it be?  What’ll you have?  However you ask it, the answer to the bartender’s eternal question has consequences.  It marks the designated driver, and it separates a night you’ll want to remember from one you’ll always regret.  

Today’s Gospel is the parable of the sower.  We hear this one a lot.  But whether it’s today’s short version, or the long version we heard a couple of Sundays back, there’s something missing from it.  Bystanders.  

The truth of the parable of the sower is that there are no bystanders.  No matter how much we’d rather not get involved, we already are.  We’re stuck.  We have a choice to make. 

And just like the bartender’s eternal question, our answer has consequences.  So what’ll it be?

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The Five W's, or at least two of them...

Remember journalism?  Me neither.  

People "of a certain age" tell me that one of the clichés of that quaint activity was that a journalist needed to know the "Five W's" - who, what, where, when, and why.  

With the continuity of the readings so far, both the parables and the miracles of Ordinary Time speak to a particular thing or "what" - the kingdom of heaven.  But last week's readings also had a little extra, telling us something about the "who" behind the kingdom of heaven. 

This Sunday's readings are part of that continuity, but they also give us a bigger picture of the "who" behind the kingdom of heaven.  We'll look at the Old Testament reading tomorrow.

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A Moment before the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The readings for Sunday (all of them) are meant to be read and understood together (especially the Old Testament and the Gospel).  Likewise, the Sunday readings for all of Ordinary Time are meant to be understood together.   Which means that to understand these readings, we need to think about both parables and miracles. 

With this continuity, the readings tell us a lot about the kingdom of heaven.  Not only is it valuable and joyful, it is needed - and (amazingly) we are invited in, without price.  

To all of this, Sunday's readings make it clear that all of this is more than words.  It is real and (as the Gospel shows us) it is more than enough.

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Be Our Guest

After three Sundays of "the kingdom of heaven is like...", it's clear that the kingdom of heaven is something special, something priceless.  But it's also something apart - until now, we've kind of been on the outside looking in.  

There's a particular Gloria that is just so upbeat, so happy, that I am almost expecting that joy to burst forth somehow whenever we sing it in church.  It's like I'm waiting for something over the top to break out - like a production number from a Disney cartoon.  It's just that joyful.  

And that's exactly the feeling that Isaiah has here in describing the kingdom of heaven.  It's just that joyful.  

But there's more - not only is the kingdom of heaven that much of a joy, but we're invited.  And the price of admission?  It's free. 

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Valuable and Needed

Last Sunday's parables show the value of the kingdom of heaven.  Likening it to hidden treasure and a pearl of great price, the kingdom of heaven is worth selling everything to get it.  Okay, so it's valuable. 

But it is needed?  After all, most of us do just fine without selling everything to buy pearls of great price or land with treasure buried in it. 

Calling it both water and grain (the basics of bread, a staple food then and now), this Sunday's reading from Isaiah makes it clear that the kingdom of heaven is not optional (like pearls and treasure) but essential to life. 

Given the continuity of the readings, this means that the kingdom of heaven is both valuable and needed.  More on this tomorrow.    

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Parables and Miracles

Last Sunday's Gospel has a bonus parable, on people who hear and understand the parables about the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus compares them to someone "who brings from his storeroom both the old and the new."  Okay.  But we finished the parable series on the kingdom of heaven on Sunday, so why bring this up now?  

Because the image of the old and new together gives us the key to understanding the readings for each Sunday, and for all of Ordinary Time - continuity.  That is, the readings for Sunday are meant to be read and understood together, especially the Old Testament and the Gospel.  Likewise, the Sunday readings for all of Ordinary Time are meant to be understood together.  

Even the parables about the kingdom of heaven that we finished last Sunday and the miracle stories that start this Sunday?   In a word, yes.  It's not parables or miracles - it's parables and miracles.  

More on that tomorrow.

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A Moment before the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Gospel closes the current series of readings where Jesus explains the kingdom of heaven using parables, with three parables about the kingdom of heaven (plus a bonus parable).  The way that the second and third parables begin shows that the three are meant to be understood together. 

The shorter parables are the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price.   Both show the discovery of something of great value, and the joy and the response of the one who discovers it.  

The longer parable is the parable of the net, a parable with two traditional understandings.  In addition to the explanation given in the Gospel (see Thursday and Friday’s posts), the net has also been seen as the Church herself – to be thrown wide by us in order to draw everyone into the kingdom of heaven. 

Keep these images in mind as you listen to the Gospel and to the homily - there is much to think about here (as with all of Jesus' parables). 

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Everyone gets sorted

The description of net fishing gives us the visual image that points to the meaning of the parable.  To make that image clear, the parable tells us how it works - everything gets swept in and sorted, some things are kept and some things are thrown away.  There is also some explaining at the end of the parable (“Thus it will be at the end of the age…”), and a nuance to the parable that drives home the explanation. 

In the Harry Potter books and movies, every school year begins with sorting.  One by one, each of the students is reviewed by a magical hat, and assigned to a house within the school based on their personality, character, intelligence, etc.  There are no exceptions, there are no neutrals.  A decision is made, everyone gets sorted. 

And so it is with the parable of the net.  There are no exceptions, there are no neutrals.  A decision is made, everyone gets sorted. 

More on Sunday’s Gospel tomorrow.

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Some things are kept and some things are thrown away

The longer parable in Sunday's Gospel is the parable of the net.  Unlike rod and reel fishing (one fish at a time), net fishing involves throwing out a net and dragging it back, catching lots of...whatever.  

The sorting seen in shows like Deadliest Catch (picking out crabs big enough to keep) gives some idea of what goes on in net fishing. 

But since the net drags in everything (even debris), net fishing has lots more sorting.  Much of what turns up in the net is unusable and gets thrown away.  

And that's the visual image that points to the meaning of this parable: everything gets swept in and sorted, some things are kept and some things are thrown away. 

More on Sunday’s Gospel tomorrow.

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The thing that is worth everything

The other short parable for Sunday is the hidden treasure.  Paired with the pearl of great price, both point to the same things - recognizing the value of the discovery and the response of the one who discovers it.  But where the pearl of great price has a simple image, the parable of the hidden treasure offers that image with something more – actually two somethings more.

The price.  This treasure is so valuable that once you know its worth, you would sell everything you have to buy it. 

The joy.  Once you know what you have…the sheer joy of that realization. 

If the pearl of great price reminds us of American Pickers, the hidden treasure feels like the joyful discoveries of Antiques Roadshow.  And that’s the image that points to the meaning of the parable of the hidden treasure – the joy of discovering the thing that is worth everything. 

More on Sunday’s Gospel tomorrow.

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Pickers and "Pearls"

Sunday’s Gospel closes the current series of readings where Jesus explains the kingdom of heaven using parables.  As if sensing the end, the Gospel packs in three parables (plus a bonus parable), just make sure we don’t miss out on anything.  

One of the short parables is the pearl of great price.  A two sentence parable, this is really more of a snapshot - with the focus being on recognizing the value of the discovery and the response of the merchant who makes the discovery.  

The merchant’s response mirrors what happens on shows like American Pickers where people pick through barns, old buildings, and storage containers looking for things to restore and/or resell.  In all of those shows, the drama comes from the moment that someone recognizes the value of their discovery and what they must do to buy their find. 

That’s the image that points to the meaning of the parable – recognizing the value of the discovery and the response of the picker who discovers it. 

More on Sunday’s short parables tomorrow.

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A Moment before the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jesus develops his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the…”) and the sayings that follow it (“You have heard it said…, but I say to you…”) with parables.  Jesus’ parables start with everyday things, and use very visual language.  They add stark contrasts, odd or unexpected twists, or both, to get us to think about what the story is really saying.  Jesus’ parables invite us to reach beyond the images to grasp the truths they contain.  

The two short parables in Sunday’s Gospel both point to the same truth, but do it in different ways.  The parable of the leaven (yeast) does it with an odd or unexpected twist (a twist that becomes clear when you realize that the woman is adding a tiny bit of yeast to enough flour to make 60 loaves of bread).  The parable of the mustard seed does it with a stark contrast.

Jesus explains the meaning of the Gospel’s longer parable, the wheat and the tares (weeds).  To help see the deeper meaning of the parable, as you listen to Jesus’ explanation, keep in mind the parable’s striking visual image – two things that start out very much alike, but that end up very differently. 

As with all of Jesus’ parables, there is much to think about in these three stories, and much waiting to reward those who make the effort. 

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Not just any old weed.

In the parable of the wheat and the tares (weeds), a landowner discovers that his wheat has been sown with tares, and decides to wait until harvest to separate the two.  If you've ever weeded a field or a garden, you know that letting weeds grow just makes the work of weeding harder.  This makes the landowner's decision look like one of the odd or unexpected twists that show up in Jesus' parables. 

But it's not, because tares aren't just any old weed.  Tares look like wheat when they're small.  You can't tell you have weeds until the tares are full grown. 

And by then the roots of the plants are so entangled that you can't pull out the tares without destroying the wheat.  If tares are so much like wheat, why not keep them both?  Because while wheat will make you bread, tares will make you sick.  

So the landowner's decision actually makes sense.  It also gives us a visual image for the parable, and a stark contrast pointing towards meaning - two things that start out very much alike, but that end up very differently.  More on Sunday's Gospel tomorrow.

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"He spoke to them only in parables..."

Instead of announcing abstract concepts, Jesus teaches with parables - stories intended to reveal truths.  So how does that work?

Jesus' parables start with everyday things (to make them accessible).  They use very visual language (to make them memorable).  They add stark contrasts, odd or unexpected twists, or both (to point towards meaning).  They are designed to get us to think about what the story is really saying (in a way that is open to anyone - no PhD required).  

That's a lot to pack into a short story, some of which are only 3-6 lines.   

That there is so much packed into these little stories means that there is something to think about in them, and something to reward those who make the effort.  We'll start unpacking Sunday's other parable tomorrow.

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Mustard trees.

One of the points of using parables is to create a memorable visual image related to the truth that the parable is meant to reveal.  The other short parable in Sunday's Gospel is the parable of the mustard seed.  In the parable, the mustard seed is called the smallest of seeds, and at 1-2 mm across it might just be the smallest.  The mustard plant that it grows into is described as a large bush that birds nest in.

So I went to my local farmer's market today and I had this conversation with one of the herb growers: 

Me: "How big will your mustard plants get?" 

Farmer: "About 3, 3 1/2 feet tall." 

Me: "Do birds ever nest in them?"

Farmer (looking at me oddly): "No. Is this that Bible thing?" (apparently I wasn't the first person to ask) 

Me: "Yeah."

Farmer: "Well, the ones in Israel grow into trees.  These are annuals, they don't."

According to my local herb growers, mustard trees are actually a thing.  So the visual for the parable is something very big coming from something very small.  More on Sunday’s parables tomorrow.

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60 loaves of bread?

Jesus uses parables to reveal the truths contained in their imagery, inviting us to reach beyond the images to grasp those truths.  One clue that there is something more going on in Jesus' stories is the presence of the odd or the unexpected - like the incredibly bad sower (what farmer sows seed on a road?). 

Take the parable of the leaven or yeast (one of three in Sunday's Gospel).  The typical recipe for 2 loaves of bread uses one packet of yeast and 5 1/2 cups of flour, so when Jesus talks about adding leaven/yeast to 3 measures of flour, it sounds like a basic recipe for a loaf of bread.  So what's odd or unexpected about that?  

The stock translation of "3 measures of flour" doesn't tell us what measure, just that there are 3 of them.  The original Greek tells us what measure - the σατον ("saton").  Three of those things equals (with apologies to my 4th grade math teacher for not showing my work) just over 165 cups of flour - enough flour to make 60 loaves of bread.  Who can make 60 loaves of bread with one packet of yeast?  

There's the odd, the unexpected - the clue that this isn't just a comment on how yeast works or a recipe for bread.  There's something more going on here.  More on Sunday’s parables tomorrow.

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Why parables?

In Matthew, Jesus starts off teaching very directly.  With the Sermon on the Mount (“Blessed are the…”) and the teachings that follow (“You have heard it said…, but I say to you…”), there’s no guesswork, we know Jesus is saying.  But with last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus switches to parables – and the Apostles ask “why parables?”  

Dictionary.com defines a parable as “a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson.”  That’s what parables are, but why use them?  This Sunday’s Gospel gives us one reason – to fulfill what a prophet had said.  

Okay, so Jesus is doing what he is supposed to be doing, (not to sound like a 3-year old) but why?

To reveal the truths contained in the imagery.  Instead of scholarly tomes, Jesus develops his teachings with parables.  Jesus uses stories with everyday settings to invite everyone to reach beyond the images and grasp the truths they reveal.  We’ll look at Sunday’s parables tomorrow.

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