Tuesday, June 15, 2021

The Second Sunday after Trinity

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Second Sunday after Trinity. My podcasts are available wherever you listen to your podcasts. Search on your podcast app for: Ross Royden.

The Second Sunday after Trinity

Reading: Mark 4:24-34

For our Gospel reading this week, we are continuing to read St Mark’s account of the ministry of Jesus. We will be reading St Mark’s Gospel throughout the season of Trinity. So, what have we learnt about Jesus in what we have read so far?

St Mark told us at the very beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ (Mark 1:1). In St Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, God himself has also told us that Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 1:11), and, for good measure, the demons have repeatedly told us that this is who he is (Mark 3:11).

St Mark has given us a summary of the message that Jesus proclaimed as he went throughout Galilee. St Mark writes that Jesus proclaims:

‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ (Mark 1:15)

St Mark has given us examples of Jesus’ ministry. We have seen how Jesus heals, casts out demons, and attracts large crowds. We also seen how Jesus is a very controversial figure, not least because of the authority he claims for himself, and particularly the authority he claims to have to forgive sins and to decide what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath. Such authority was believed to be authority that belonged to God alone.

We today are not too bothered by Jesus’ claim to be able to forgive sins and to be Lord of the Sabbath. We don’t particularly feel the need to be forgiven for our sins in the first place. The possibility that we won’t be forgiven our sins doesn’t enter our minds. If we have a problem with the concept of forgiveness at all, it is with the idea that we need forgiving in the first place! As to the Sabbath, most of us treat all days the same anyway. We are not bothered by what can or cannot be done on one particular day because, as far as we are concerned, anything can be done on any day.

The religious leaders in Jesus’ day are, however, very bothered by Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath, so bothered, in fact, that they want to destroy him (Mark 3:6).

Whatever else, from the first three chapters of St Mark’s Gospel, we have learnt that Jesus has made an impression: both positive and negative. People are divided as to their opinion of Jesus. Some think he is mad (Mark 3:21); some, however, think him, not mad, but bad; so bad that they accuse him of being in league with the Devil (Mark 3:22). But mad or bad, they can’t ignore him.

Nevertheless, despite how much we have learnt about Jesus so far in the Gospel, we don’t at this point know very much about what Jesus’ plan is. We have been told he is the Son of God and that the Kingdom of God is central to his message, but we haven’t been told how Jesus understands the Kingdom of God or where this is all leading. We know Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, but exactly what is it that he teaches about the Kingdom and where does he think he personally fits into all this?

In chapter three, we have been given some clues as to what Jesus is up to. Jesus has chosen 12 men to be his apostles. The significance of the number 12 would not be lost on any Jew. It was the number of the patriarchs and of the tribes of Israel.

Now, at last, in chapter four, St Mark gives us some details about Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom of God. The problem is that rather than making things clearer, what Jesus says, and not least how he says it, raises as many questions as it answers. Rather than telling people plainly what the Kingdom of God is, Jesus instead tells stories; a selection of which St Mark gives us as examples. St Mark calls these stories ‘parables’, and he tells us that using parables was Jesus’ customary way of teaching. St Mark writes:

‘With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables …’ (Mark 4:33-34)

Some of the parables are well-known. The parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soils, which begins chapter four, for example, is one of the most popular. The parable of the Good Samaritan and what is commonly known as the parable of the Prodigal Son are two other popular parables. We begin to struggle a bit to remember them after this. One scholar I was listening to recently, however, estimates that there are some 55 parables in the Gospels. I doubt, however, that most people could name five, let alone 55.

In most people’s minds, the parables are stories that are designed to illustrate and help to explain Jesus’ message. They are the equivalent of sermon illustrations. Preachers today use stories all the time to illustrate their sermons. In fact, a sermon is not generally thought to be any good unless it does contain stories.

I was giving the sermon at Mary Rose School’s Graduation Service on Friday last week. I spoke about how I was given a violin as a child and was sent for lessons, but sadly, and to my great regret, because I didn’t practise, I never learnt to play it. In my sermon, I went on to talk about the violinist who was playing for us at the Graduation Service, and how she had had to work hard and have a good teacher to guide her for her to be able to play so well and make such beautiful music. My message was that we are given many wonderful gifts, but that we have to use them and need the help of others as we do so. Music is a gift, but it doesn’t just happen. Life too is a gift, and it doesn’t just happen either.

I am not claiming it was either a good talk or that it was particularly original, but you get the idea. This is what most people think Jesus was doing when he taught in parables: using a story to help explain his message.

This sounds all very well and good until, that is, we read what Jesus himself actually says about the parables and the reason he himself gives for using them to teach. Jesus seems to tell his disciples that the reason he teaches in parables is not so the crowds will understand what he is saying, but so that they won’t! When the disciples and apostles ask Jesus about his use of parables, Jesus replies to them:

‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ (Mark 4:11-12)

The meaning of the parables is hidden from most people who hear them; those ‘outside’, as Jesus describes them. It is only the disciples that Jesus explains the parables to.

It would be like me going to Mary Rose and only talking about how I didn’t manage to learn the violin, but how the teacher who was playing for us did. That and nothing else; no word of explanation or application. It might have been quite interesting as a talk about learning the violin, but, on its own, not exactly what you would expect for a Graduation Service. But that’s what Jesus did with the parables. He told stories, but didn’t bother explaining them until he was alone with his disciples, and even then, only to his disciples. Jesus’ stories weren’t sermon illustrations; they were the sermon.

Sometimes it might have been possible for people in the crowds to work out what the point of the parable was. But very often it clearly was not. The meaning of the parables is not obvious. In Mark chapter four, Jesus says to his disciples after telling the story of the ‘Sower, the Seed, and the Soils’:

‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?’ (Mark 4:11)

Even after Jesus has explained the meaning of several of his parables to the disciples, however, they still don’t always get their meaning, and they find themselves being told off by Jesus for not understanding him (Mark 8:17). Jesus sees the disciples in danger of being like the crowds who are spiritually prevented from understanding what it is he is trying to teach them.

You might think that today, with the benefit of hindsight, we would be able to work out what Jesus meant with the parables he told. As anyone familiar with New Testament scholarship will tell you, however, it is not that simple. Scholars continue to argue over why Jesus spoke in parables, what he meant by the parables, and even which of the stories Jesus told actually are parables. The only thing that everyone seems to be agreed on is that Jesus did teach in parables.

If, then, Jesus told the parables as sermon illustrations to make his teaching clearer and easier to understand, he hasn’t succeeded. We can perhaps understand the disciples’ own frustration with Jesus’ way of teaching. In St John’s Gospel, St John writes that as the disciples listen to what is known as the Farewell Discourse, they say to each other, ‘We do not know what he is talking about’ (John 16:18).

Where, then, does this leave us? As far as St Mark himself is concerned, it would seem that Jesus taught in parables to keep the crowds amused and deliberately to hide the meaning of his teaching from people. The meaning of the parables, on this understanding, is meant only for the disciples’ ears. St Mark tells us that while Jesus spoke only in parables to the crowd, ‘he explained everything in private to his disciples’ (Mark 4:34). Jesus’ hope, according to St Mark, seems to be that the disciples will eventually, at least, come to learn how to interpret the parables for themselves.

We may not like this answer to the question of why Jesus taught in parables, but it is at least an explanation that makes some kind of sense of Jesus’ approach. There is, however, one major problem with this way of understanding the parables. (Isn’t there always?) Why does Jesus bother preaching to the crowds in the first place? If Jesus doesn’t much care whether the crowds understand or not, why bother talking to them?

This idea that Jesus wants to limit whom he includes seems to go against what Jesus says he has come to do. After all, when criticised earlier in St Mark’s Gospel for eating with the tax-collectors and sinners, Jesus says explicitly:

‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Mark 2:17)

If Jesus’ purpose is to call sinners, isn’t it rather counter-productive only to speak to them in a way that they are going to find hard to understand? Shouldn’t it be the sinners in the crowds that Jesus explains everything to in public, rather the disciples in private?

Now, I should say that what I am about to say needs to come with a health warning! My own approach to the parables is not one that everyone would share – not by a long way. Many simply cannot accept that Jesus would make it difficult for anyone. So, by definition, any suggestion that Jesus was deliberately using an approach that he knew would lead to people not understanding what he was saying must be wrong. Jesus, it is commonly believed, must have wanted the crowds to understand what he was saying.

All I can say is that this really isn’t how it sounds from what St Mark writes. Many scholars would acknowledge this, but argue that this, then, must mean that St Mark, and indeed the early Church itself, got it wrong and misunderstood Jesus. You have in that case to decide who is more likely to understand why Jesus spoke in parables: St Mark and the early Church or scholars and people today.

Maybe the reason that so many don’t understand the parables today is that they are a part of the equivalent in the present of the crowd that Jesus speaks to only in parables. Perhaps we too are members of the crowd who don’t understand rather than his disciples to whom Jesus explains everything in private when they are alone with him.

But what about the crowds, then and now?

In St Mark’s Gospel, we read how Jesus is calling people to follow him and become his disciples, and we see how he is gathering disciples around him and around his chosen apostles. That much may be clear, but where is it all leading? St Mark hasn’t told us yet or given us any clues, but, as we shall see as we continue to follow St Mark’s account, he will. We still, however, have to explain what the parables are all about.

If we are to understand the parables and Jesus’ purpose in using them, I believe it is necessary to make an important distinction within Jesus’ ministry. It is the distinction between, firstly, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom and his call upon people to repent and believe the good news, on the one hand, and, secondly, his teaching about the Kingdom to those who have repented and believed the good news, becoming his disciples in the process, on the other.

To be clear about this: we need to distinguish between Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God to the crowds and his teaching about the Kingdom of God to his disciples.

The crowds are those who, while interested in Jesus for all sorts of different reasons, do not respond, or have not yet responded, to Jesus’ message. In St John’s Gospel, the crowds represent the ‘world’, which does not believe in Jesus. St John closes his account of Jesus’ public ministry with the words:

‘After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah …’ (John 12:36-38)

St John goes on to quote from the prophet Isaiah in order to explain why the crowds don’t believe in Jesus. St John includes in what he quotes from Isaiah the words Jesus himself quotes to explain why he doesn’t explain the parables to the crowds. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus continues after this to teach the disciples in private. St Mark and St John may structure their Gospels differently, but they describe this separation of the disciples, who believe in Jesus, from the crowds, who do not.

Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom in the parables is for those who have responded to Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom and to Jesus’ call to repent and believe the good news. Jesus tells the parables to the crowds knowing full well that they won’t understand them, but in the hope that some, perhaps, will want to become his disciple, so that they can learn how to understand them. We might say that anyone is welcome to join the club and membership of the club is open to all, but the benefits of membership are only available to those who join.

I realize that this distinction between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ is one that completely goes against modern approaches to Jesus and his teaching; it is a very different way of seeing things to how the Church today sees its mission and role in the world. It is an approach that is not without its dangers, but all approaches have their dangers!

The church’s approach to mission today is often based on the assumption that all, in principle, are in already and that everything Jesus said and did is for everyone. From a New Testament perspective, however, this is simply wrong; nice and inclusive though it may sound.

Jesus’ invitation and welcome is indeed for everyone, but what Jesus says to those who respond to his invitation and welcome is different to what he says to those who do not. Jesus’ desire is that all should respond, but there is also a recognition in Jesus’ teaching and throughout the New Testament that not everyone will.

Much of what Jesus teaches is for those who are his disciples and, indeed, Jesus’ teaching can only be understood by those who are his disciples. St Paul explains why this is. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul writes:

‘Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.’ (1 Corinthians 2:14)

This need for spiritual understanding is why Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be ‘born again from above by the Spirit’ (John 3:1-8). Unless he is, Nicodemus will continue to struggle to understand what it is that Jesus is saying to him, and so for that matter will we, unless we too are born of the Spirit. As Jesus says:

‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ (John 3:3)

The problem for us in understanding the parables and the teaching of Jesus today, as it was then, is not simply one of understanding the parables on an intellectual level. Our problem is spiritual. We don’t understand the parables and the teaching of Jesus because, at a fundamental level, we are not capable of understanding them. We will only be able to understand the parables when we have made a personal commitment to the One who tells the parables and have become his disciple. Then he will explain everything to us too.

Those who refuse to make this response of faith to Jesus can never hope to understand what it is that Jesus is saying. Again, this is not simply an intellectual problem. The problem is spiritual. As Jesus says, we are unable to see the Kingdom of God without being transformed spiritually. Unless we are born from above, we will remain unable to see the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ parables. As St Paul explains, when writing about his preaching of the Gospel:

‘… the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’ (2 Corinthians 4:4)

So, what has all this to say to us today?

Firstly, there is an important message to us as the Church. We love crowds. We want people to like us, even if it is only on Facebook or Instagram; the more ‘likes’ the better. This translates into our church life as a concern for how many people come to our services or how many members we can claim that we have. If we need to build bigger church buildings to be able to fit the crowds in, then so much the better. It is a sign of our success. It shows that we are growing.

And because we see the presence of crowds as a sign of success, we adopt a three-step approach in the hope of appealing to them.

First, we try to come up with a plan to attract people to our churches. What can we do to get people’s interest and encourage them to come? How can we entice them through the doors?

We work hard to make our churches accessible.

Secondly, there is no point getting people to come if they are not going to like what they see and hear when they get here. So, we seek to accommodate their likes and dislikes. For example, we change the format and style of our services to make them more user friendly, more exciting, and more entertaining.

We work hard to make the experience of coming to church agreeable.

Thirdly, having got people to come and having created an environment where they will feel comfortable, we have to make sure that they don’t go away. So, we adjust our message to avoid putting people off and so we won’t cause them to question whether they are in the right place. We play down or drop altogether those parts of the message that they may not like or may find offensive.

We work hard to ensure what we say is acceptable.

So focused are we on the crowd and whether they are coming and staying that we don’t realize how different our approach is to how Jesus went about it. In our love of the crowd, we fail to hear Jesus’ warning to us. Jesus said:

‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’ (Matthew 7:13-14)

Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus gave his disciples a mission (Matthew 28:19-20). He told them to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’. They were to do this, first by baptizing them, and then secondly, by teaching them to obey everything that Jesus had commanded them. Our goal as a Church should be to make disciples who obey. The teaching that Jesus gave to his disciples, which has been passed on to us and which we have in the Scriptures, we are to pass on to those whom we have made disciples. This isn’t about keeping anything secret from those who are not Jesus’ followers; it’s just that the reality is that those who are not followers of Jesus won’t be able to understand Jesus’ teaching until they become his followers.

Yes, we speak to the crowds, not so they will come and fill our churches, but so that they will hear the Gospel. Our hope is that they will believe in Jesus; some will, most won’t. Jesus said so. Those, however, who do believe and who become Jesus’ followers will then be in a position to understand the teaching that we will pass on to them, and they will have been given the chance to obey it. There is a parable about this! The parable of the Sower, the Seed, and the Soils helps us to understand how people will react and behave after hearing the Gospel. Spoiler alert: it isn’t all positive.

Secondly, not only is there a message to us as a church, there is an urgent message to each one of us as individuals. Jesus says quite plainly, ‘Pay attention to what you hear’ (Mark 4:24).

To any who have not yet responded to Jesus’ call, the message is to ‘hear and believe’ in Jesus.

Jesus calls everyone to believe in him and promises that he will welcome and accept anyone who trusts in him. Anyone that is, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what we have done. No-one is ever turned away (John 6:37). No message could be more inclusive. It only becomes exclusive if we reject it. No-one is excluded; we exclude ourselves.

To those of us who have responded and have become followers of Jesus, the message is to ‘hear and obey’.

As Jesus’ disciples, we are to obey everything that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20). If we love him, we will keep his commandments (John 14:15). But we can only do that if we know what they are! Again, as a church, we have a responsibility to make sure that Jesus’ followers know Jesus’ teaching. Those of us who been given the responsibility of teaching in the Church need to do what we can to present the teaching of Jesus in as clear and understandable a way as possible. This means we need to give more time and attention to teaching the faith in our churches, and perhaps spend less time on some of the other things that so occupy us.

But all of us, as Jesus’ followers, have a responsibility to listen and learn. Hearing Jesus’ word to us is not a passive activity. Jesus said that the measure we give, will be the measure we get (Mark 4:24). In other words, we will get out, what we put in. If we think that all we have to do is turn up on Sunday and listen to a ten-minute sermon, then we may find that even this little that we have will be taken away from us. It’s up to us to make time to listen to Jesus, and, having listened, to obey.

In St John’s Gospel chapter 6, Jesus teaches his disciples about what is required of them if they want to continue as his followers. They hear what he is saying, but they don’t like what they hear. ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ is the response of many. And many subsequently turn away and stop following him. Jesus says to the 12 who remain, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6:67). Peter replies, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68).

We too, as we listen to Jesus, may find some of the things he says difficult and hard both to understand and to accept, but Jesus never promises that it will be easy, only that it will be worth it. He has the words of eternal life, and our life depends on us hearing them.

Jesus says, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ (Mark 4:9). That’s where we need to begin: by listening to Jesus. But then, having listened, we need to act. Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper:

‘If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’ (John 13:17)

May we be amongst those who are blessed by our Lord and receive the eternal life he offers.


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