The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE PARABLES
MANY PARABLES FROM THE FIRST GROUP
8th December 2011
Over the past few weeks most of the parables we have seen belonged the last group of Parables dealing with the Second Coming of Christ and the Last Judgement. The reason for starting with the last group was purely for practical reasons because the first group of parables are comparably short stories and for the time allocated for our talks it was easier to concentrate on just two bigger parables a week instead of 4 or 5 short ones. In the first group there are about 14 different parables and of these we have already seen three - The Sower, The Tares (Weeds) and The Mustard Seed. Today we will look at as many of the short parables as time will allow. Most of these were said by Christ at the beginning of his ministry during the Sermon of the Mount immediately after the Beatitudes. I would like to begin with the first of the Lord's sayings after the Beatitudes which many do not list as a parable and yet it is because Christ speaks allegorically.
The first is: "Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men." (St Matthew 5:13)
Ye are the salt of the earth refers to the Apostles and to all teachers of the Gospel who succeeded them. It can also refer to all who accept the Gospel of Christ and through their way of life become teachers to others. Salt has two main usages, one to preserve food from decaying and the other to give flavour and seasoning to food. The Apostles have both of these qualities. The earth refers to the whole world of people whom the Apostles had the task of preserving from moral decay and sin so that they remain spiritually fresh and healthy. But as salt gives flavour to food and makes it tasty and pleasing to the palette, so also the Apostles are the flavour which will give mankind the correct moral teaching that will raise mankind to perfection and become savoury and pleasing to God.
If the salt has lost its savour – in Greek it is "εαν δε το άλας μωρανθή" which translated is "if the salt becomes stupid" which in this sense means "if the salt becomes useless" and doesn't necessarily mean that it has lost its savour, but only that it is no longer suitable for preserving or seasoning. In those times pure salt was a rare commodity and costly. During the Roman Empire soldiers were paid part of their wages in salt and the word salary is derived from the soldier's pay of salt which has given rise to such expressions as "being worth one's salt." or "being worth one's weight in salt". Pure salt is very unlikely to lose its seasoning or preservative qualities, but here Christ is probably referring to the salt generally available which was impure. The rock salt gathered from areas surrounding the Dead Sea often had much earth and other impurities mingled with it and when this salt came in contact with the ground or exposed for long periods to the rain and sun, it became insipid and useless. Most things when they become rotten can be thrown into the fields and turns into fertiliser, but this salt could destroy crops and no farmer would allow it to be thrown onto his fields. It was good for nothing except to be thrown into the streets where it helped to keep the dirt roads free from weeds and slippery free on rainy days. It's only use was to be cast into the streets to be "trodden underfoot of men."
But what does all this mean in spiritual terms? If the Apostles, the teachers of the Church and all Christians in general are the salt of the earth, they must retain their spiritual purity. If a teacher mingles the teachings of the Gospel with other teachings of the world then he loses his spiritual integrity and strength and becomes useless to teach others, useless to season their lives with the Gospel teachings of life that will help preserve them in holiness and purity. A teacher must preserve in himself the freshness received from the Lord to be able to set free other men from the rottenness of their sins. Such persons have to persevere and preserve in themselves the Holy Spirit and abound in virtue, because the salvation of others is in their hands. If other men should fall and lose their savour it is possible for them to be brought back to freshness through the help of the teacher, but if the teacher was to lose his savour he not only destroys himself, but destroys those he is supposed to be teaching. Salt that has lost its quality for preserving and seasoning cannot become good salt again even if more salt is added to it, likewise also the teacher when he falls and apostates from the true teachings of the church will permanently lose his quality as spiritual salt for others and even through repentance he will not become what he once was. As an apostate he is good for nothing because he becomes an imminent danger of contamination for the healthy members of the church and needs to be cast out of the church like rotten salt to be trodden on by men meaning to be despised by men.
After giving us the parable of the salt Christ then said:
"Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." (Matthew 5: 14-16)
Christ first said: "you are the salt of the earth" and now "you are the light of the world". The light of the world in its total and absolute meaning is Christ himself for as he said elsewhere: "I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life" (John 8:12) and "I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness." (John 12:46) In a more general meaning the disciples and all the faithful are also lights because through their example they transmit the moral truth of the Lord's word to men living in the darkness of sin.
As lights they must shine brightly and be seen by all just as a city on a hill cannot be hid. It is possible that from the mount where Christ gave his sermon, there was a city clearly visible on the opposite hill and that Christ pointed to this city as an example. What he is actually telling his disciples is that they must be visible for everyone to see them and that they should by their fame as his disciples reach to the limits of the inhabited world. They must not out of a false humility remain inconspicuous, for just as men do not light a lamp and then place it under a bushel, but place it upon a lampstand so that it can give light to all the house, so also they must not hide their knowledge and virtues, but let them be seen by all the world. A bushel is a weight measure and in this case probably a basket for measuring certain crops. Is Christ then commanding us to live our lives proudly displaying to others that we are such great Christians: somewhat like the Pharisees who considered themselves above all other men because they considered that their knowledge of the Law and their external religious observances placed them above the common person and prided themselves in self righteousness? This is a human weakness and every person likes to shine. We want people to know about our achievements, our giving, our acts of charity, so they may praise us.
But what Christ is saying is far from this and makes this clearer in the following verse. "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." Let your light shine, let the pureness of your life, your speech, grace and virtue you have received from God shine and be an example to other men for when virtue is so great it cannot be hid even if the person who has this virtue tries to hide it from others. We are not told to shine for personal recognition and fame, but so that through our good works, our very words and actions, will testify that the light that shines forth from us is not our own: we are the lamp, but God is the light, thus through our way of life others will recognize the grace of God that is in us and have occasion to give glory to God our heavenly Father.
The Sermon on the Mount continues with Christ giving many new teachings in place of the Old Testament teachings like turning the other cheek instead of an eye for an eye. He continues telling us how we should do our almsgiving in secret and teaches us the Lord's Prayer, then how to fast and what treasures we should seek, how not to judge our brother and many other things that constitute a way of life pleasing to God. Just before finishing his Sermon on the Mount he said the following Parable:
"Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it." (Matthew 7: 24-27)
"Whosoever therefore heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened unto a wise man." Christ is referring to everything he had told them during his sermon that whoever hears, obeys and puts into practice what he has told them is like a wise man. The man is wise because he built his house upon a rock. The rock is Christ himself who is stronger that any material rock and higher than the waves of the sea. A man building his house on Christ lives in safety and is not afraid to face the storms that come his way. The rain, the floods and the winds that blow upon this house are the calamities and afflictions that befall men; such as false accusations, plots, deaths, loss of friends, vexations from strangers, persecutions, demonic temptations and in general all the ills in our life that any one could mention.
The soul that has Christ as his foundation and remains steadfast in his doctrines can withstand any turmoil, any temptation and overcome even the devils plotting against him. St. John Chrysostom says: "And that it is not vain boasting so to speak, Job is our witness, who received all the assaults of the devil, and stood unmoveable; and the apostles too are our witnesses, for that when the waves of the whole world were beating against them, when both nations and princes, both their own people and strangers, both the evil spirits, and the devil, and every engine was set in motion, they stood firmer than a rock, and dispersed it all."
Our faith in Christ should be as strong and unwavering as the Apostle's faith so that even the threats of imprisonment, torture and even martyrdom, if called for, would not bring us toppling down through fear.
Alternatively the person who hears what the Lord has said, but doesn't obey and implement these teachings into his life is like a foolish man who built his house on sand without a firm foundation. For what can be more senseless that to submit to all that sweat and labour needed in building a house only to see it destroyed by the physical elements because the foundation is weak to support it. The man that does not have Christ as the foundation of his life cannot withstand the temptations that life will bring and will be drawn into a life of corruption, fornication, drunkenness and a slave to the passions which will bring about his downfall. And as Christ said his fall will indeed be great because Christ is not referring to bricks and mortar, but to the soul and the loss of heaven and those immortal blessings.
The next parable in chronological order is the twin Parable of the new cloth on an old garment and the new wine in old bottles. So let's hear the parable:
"No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse. Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved." (Matthew 9:16-17)
To understand the parable we need to see the occasion that caused Christ to say it. He was eating with his disciples at the house of Matthew while Matthew was still the despised tax collector. Christ was asked questions from the Pharisees concerning why he sat to eat with sinners and then the Disciples of John the Baptist asked him: "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don't fast?" (Matthew 9:14). The Lord told them that He was the bridegroom and as long he was with them they couldn't fast, but later when he would go away, then they would fast. He then told them the parable in question so its meaning has a direct reference to why his disciples didn't fast.
Before we look at the spiritual meaning let's see the illustrations from common life that Christ used. "No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse." The original Greek is rather difficult to translate into easy English and the new cloth mentioned is not just any piece of new cloth. It is referring to unscoured cloth, in other words cloth in its rough state before passing under the hand of the fuller who will shrink and press it. If this unshrunk piece of cloth is patched onto an old garment when it is washed it will shrink and tear away at the old garment leaving the tear worse that it was before.
"Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved."
The bottles in question are wineskins made from the leather of sheep or goat. With long usage these bottles stretched and became tender and could easily be burst. It was unthinkable to put new wine into old bottles because new wine has still to go through its state of fermentation. This would cause the old bottles to stretch even further and the result would be that the bottles would burst or even explode and the wine would be lost. Therefore new wine was always put into brand new bottles which had the strength to stretch while the wine was still fermenting.
Spiritually the old garment is the teaching of the Pharisees which should have been the teaching of the Old Testament, but the Pharisees corrupted this teaching and made it like a garment of rags full of holes. The new cloth is the new doctrine that Christ came to teach. But Christ said this parable in connection with why his disciples didn't fast. Thus he is saying that his new doctrines are still new even to the disciples and they have not yet become strong enough to accept them because they have not yet been renewed by the Spirit. Christ is teaching them what we call in the Church oikonomia, a dispensation and relaxation of the old laws without the burden of the strict observances of rules which would only hinder their spiritual progress. The religious practices of the Pharisees had done away with the wholesome commandments of God and righteousness was defined as obedience to external rules rather than love for God and for others. These spiritual practices were not done with a view to growing spiritually, but only as a burdensome duty and obedience. Christ's new doctrines focused not on external practices of duty, but in preparing his followers to open their hearts and allow God's grace and love to heal them from the old and destructive ways like the Pharisee's strict and rigid fasting which had no spiritual benefit.
Slowly then Christ is preparing his disciples with new laws and rules, but also teaching them that when they begin to convert people from all over the world, they too must deal with then gently and not expect them to change overnight from their old ways, but with one step at a time. He also said elsewhere: "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth." (John 16:12-13) Here too he was telling them that they were still too weak to receive more of his new doctrines, but when they become stronger and filled with the Holy Spirit then the time would be right for them to hear the rest.
Christian prudence requires that the weak, and newly converted, should be managed with care and tenderness. It would be wrong to impose on them strict rules at a time when they are not yet strong enough to implement them into their lives. The only thing we would achieve is to burden the person to the extent that he gives up altogether and abandons the spiritual life. The Christian life is like a ladder reaching to heaven. We do not leap to reach the top rung, but for safety we carefully take one step at a time. As we become more confident of the height of each step so we add more difficult and demanding spiritual exercises to our lives.
The twin parable with the new wine and new and old bottles is interpreted similarly to the new cloth on an old garment, but with a slight difference. The old bottles are the Pharisees and the new bottles are the disciples and the new wine is the Gospel of Christ. To graft the new Christian religion onto the old Judaic religion would not only break the Jewish faith, but it would also be catastrophic for the Christian faith because it would be bound to the rigid Jewish practices. The Jewish faith would not be able to accept and uphold the new teachings and like an old wineskin would break and the new Christian Gospel would spill out onto the ground. It would be as destructive as putting new wine into old bottles because both would be destroyed. Thus a new religious system has to find new forms of expressing itself. It needs a new nature and new people not attached or bound by old traditions, but free to accept new ideas and new methods.
The next group of parables are sometimes called the "kingdom parables" because they begin with the words: "The kingdom of heaven is like". Of these belong the parables of the sower, the tares and the mustard seed which we saw during our first talk on the parables. After these are another four shorter parables which we will now look at. The first is the Parable of the Leaven.
"The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened." (St Matthew 13:33)
The kingdom of heaven is the community of God with man which begins with the Church here on earth. The kingdom of heaven can also be the word of faith and its action in human hearts. Christ compares the Kingdom of Heaven not to leaven itself, but to its action on flour and dough. A small trace of leaven in a large volume of dough can stimulate fermentation, like the inner, hidden action of the Gospel which can quicken the world and human hearts.
St. Paul writes: "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?" (I Corinthians 5:6). Leaven, no matter how little, imparts acidity to the whole mixture of flour. The living, creative action of the Kingdom of God is likened to dough, raised by leaven. The heavenly leaven - the Divine Spirit - placed by the Saviour in human souls quickens the Kingdom of God on earth, so that its true children can emerge. But notice that the woman hid the leaven in the flour meaning that the word of God and the divine fermentation enters into the world quietly and unobserved. The members of the Church increase silently like the dough without the loud commotion we see in some modern churches. Also, the heavenly leaven. like ordinary leaven or yeast can only act on dough made of unspoiled flour. Stale, spoiled flour will not turn sour, rise, nor yield to the action of leaven, just as the grace of God does not act in a negligent soul. For Divine leaven to do its work, we must repent and struggle with all vices and passions, and prepare the dough of our soul and body in patience.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field." (Matthew 13:44)
People of ancient times used to hide their treasures in the ground or in secret places during times of war so the enemy would not find them. The place was known only to them and they could retrieve their treasures once the danger was lifted. The parable is talking about such treasure that someone buried and which another person digging in the field found. The man rejoices at the find, but keeps it secret. Hoping to make use of it, he carefully hides it again in the field, so that no one else would find the treasure. He sells everything that he owns and buys the field. Now he is the owner of the field and has the right to the treasure. Under Roman law a person finding treasure was entitled to receive half its value, but here the man wasn't satisfied with just half and wanted all of it. One could also say that the man acted deceitfully by not revealing the treasure to the original owner of the field which would have hindered his chances of buying the field. But the main point of the parable is not the ethicality of how he obtained the field. The story is used just to give another view of the kingdom of heaven as a priceless treasure.
The kingdom of heaven is again the Church on earth and the priceless treasure is the Gospel and the moral life it teaches. Compared to the Gospel, all the treasures of this world are nothing. Man may obtain the whole world, but without a moral life according to the Gospel, he is nothing. On the contrary, he is rich whoever follows the Gospel although in all else he be poor. But why is this priceless treasure hidden in a field? Within the teachings of the Gospel there are indeed many treasure and mysteries hidden from those who hear only with their ears and not with their hearts. Perhaps the man of the parable had passed by that buried treasure hundreds of times, not knowing it until he discovered it. Similarly, a man may listen to the Gospel for years and not see its treasure, until suddenly one day it penetrates his heart. When this happens nothing else in the world has value and a man with joy will sacrifice everything to gain the kingdom of God. This is the meaning of selling all that he hath to buy the field. Of course the Kingdom of heaven is not bought with a fixed price or with money. To sell everything one has is to fight against the passions and carnal desires, to fight our slothful disposition and above all to give up our own will and what is pleasing to us for the will of God and what is pleasing to God.
Blessed, eternal life is hidden in the treasure of the Gospel. It is only necessary to find the treasure in order to make use of it. But where is one to seek it; in which field? There are many things that can be interpreted as the field, but one particular field which we can all find is the Church. Hidden within her assemblies are many treasures and mysteries. In them is hidden the presence of Christ the Lord Himself, and in Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Colossians 2:3), as well as the treasures of all other gifts spiritual and Divine. The reading from the Gospel is a treasure, for the same power, which, proceeded from Christ as he spoke, which cast out demons, healed infirmities, raised the dead and enlightened those in darkness, still proceeds now every time we hear his divine words. What treasure there is in the services of the Church, the Sacraments and especially in the Mystery of the Body and Blood of the Lord! In it there is hidden eternal life for as the Lord said: "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life" (John 6:54).
Another field is our heart. At our Baptism God breathed invisibly into our hearts and buried there the treasures and gifts of the Holy Spirit. Within us is divine treasure, but has each of us found it? The treasure is buried in the depths of the heart and to find it we must dig depth and throw out the earth that is covering it; we must throw out the thoughts of vanity and pride and all impure and iniquitous thoughts. But then, when we have found this treasure, do we boast proudly of the gifts of grace within us? This is a sure way to lose the treasure. We must do as the man in the parable and rebury the treasure of grace in humility.
The next parable is similar:
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it." (Matthew 13:45-46)
In our times cultured pearls have made pearl necklaces available to all women at an affordable price, but in past centuries and during the time of Christ only Natural pearls were available and people paid great sums for a pearl especially if the pearl was of a good quality and size.
In the parable the pearl of a great price is the Gospel. The world has many pearls, many forms of knowledge, but only one is precious, which is faith in Jesus Christ. The merchant represents all men that seek knowledge and truth. Like in the parable of the treasure in the field, the merchant sold all that he had and used the money to purchase this one great and precious pearl. The difference in the two parables is that with the hidden treasure in the field the meaning is about suddenly finding God's truth, but in this parable of the pearl it is about finding this truth after a very long search. Most people are like merchants searching for the truth. They study the philosophers of old and works of scientific discoveries in the hope that in them they will understand the mysteries of life, but rarely do they find the answers they are searching for. One such merchant was St Justin the philosopher. While still a pagan he studied all the philosophical systems of his time, but his broad knowledge did not answer questions that interested him about God, the soul and immortality, until an elder, St. Polycarp, told him about Jesus Christ and the prophets. Study of the prophecies and the Gospel brought St. Justin to the one true philosophy, the pearl of great price.
The last parable for today is the Parable of the Net.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away. So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13:47-50)
This Parable is almost identical to the parable of the weeds which we heard a few weeks ago. In that parable was mentioned good wheat and weeds growing together and in this one good and bad fish.
The net is the Gospel teaching which the apostles preached to the world here signified by the sea. The one time fishermen through the Gospel had become fishers of men. The Pentecost hymn which we sing at the beginning of our talks speaks similarly of the Apostles "Blessed art thou, O Christ our God, who hast made manifest the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Ghost: and by them hast drawn the world into Thy net. O Lover of mankind, glory to Thee."
The fish of every kind are the human race of every nation and creed. All men, whether righteous or sinners, will be gathered into this net and at the end of time when the net is full it will be pulled up to the shore. Then the separation will begin like fishermen who separate the good fish to be sold at market while the bad fish not suitable for eating is cast away. But at the end of time this separation will not be done by the fishermen, that is the Apostles. They have done their work by preaching the Gospel. The separation will be made by the Angels who will gather the good into vessels of the Kingdom of Heaven, but the bad they will sever from the community of the good and cast them into the furnace of fire where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
But being a Christian does not automatically mean that we will be considered as good fish and placed into the vessel of the kingdom. In the Church there are many kinds of people. Some live pious and zealous lives, according to the preaching of Christ and the Apostles, while others live carelessly and unconcerned of the future judgement: Christians by name yes, but not according to their way of life. We are not in a position to discern or judge who is good and who is bad, but if you remember last week's parable on the last judgement, Christ will be able to separate us as a shepherd can separate the sheep from the goats. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Today we have heard nine or ten parables and have finished with the parables belonging to the first group. We have also seen all the parables from the third and last group leaving us still to see the parables from the middle group. These we will leave until after the New Year. Next week will be our last talk before we break up for the Christmas and New Year holidays and appropriately our talk should have a seasonal flavour.