“…seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen…” (Matthew 13.13)
Jesus taught in parables. And he explains his reason for doing so in the gospel today. Simply put, his enemies will not understand what he is saying. And that’s a good thing, because Jesus has work to do, and doesn’t need to be arrested and murdered until he has put in place the foundations of what will be his Church.
Now, it must occur to us that if his enemies can’t understand him, how would anyone understand him apart from his inner circle to whom he speaks later and explains explicitly what he is talking about? What possible benefit is there to him preaching publicly at all if what he says sounds like a lot of spiritual gibberish?
Well, it is a recurring theme in the gospels that the wise and intelligent of this world cannot understand him, and, to quote last week’s gospel, it is “to infants” that God’s wisdom is revealed. That is, a lot of people have no trouble understanding what Jesus is saying even if they don’t have the benefit of education or that they aren’t particularly sophisticated thinkers.
I’m sure many of you, without either presuming to be exceptionally intelligent, or thinking yourselves as being not very clever, you “get” what Jesus is saying. The points he makes are not entirely lost on you.
Now, we know that his teachings, the very words he uses, these have depths of meaning that are beyond any human ability to exhaust; you can explore the depths and never hit bottom, traverse the breadth, and never get to the end of it, but you can still understand the basic message. How then can the “wise and intelligent” miss the meaning?
Well, let’s begin by looking at the reason Jesus gives the disciples (he’s paraphrasing the words of the prophet Isaiah 6.10) : “…this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes: so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn – and I would heal them.” (Matthew 13.15)
Isaiah in his day was witnessing Israel in abject decline, just a generation from its complete defeat and destruction. He saw a widespread spiritual malaise and a falling away from the covenant. Success as a society was reduced to mere political independence and the maintaining of institutions little different from those of the Gentiles save for what we might call a slight monotheistic and ethical inflection in how they expressed themselves. Jesus, speaking seven hundred or so years later, sees the same thing, but then the situation of the people is even worse.
Jesus speaks of people who have “shut their eyes” because they do not want to see the truth. They don’t want to know because it is rather too painful to acknowledge their sins, their failings, their responsibility. They look to blame others, blame circumstances, point the finger of blame away from themselves.
It’s such a psychological commonplace that many think it doesn’t pertain to them: we see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear; when we seek out evidence to confirm our worldview, something called “confirmation bias” kicks in and we only absorb the facts that fit our worldview, we only acknowledge the data that bolsters our arguments.
Today, from a Christian perspective we can see all too clearly the divisions within our society, and while we might describe the dominant factions in political terms, of being of the right and the left, of being conservative, liberal and progressive, or “post-modern” the underlying quality of all these movements, ideologies and philosophies is a turning away from the Christian heritage of our civilization and a closing off of the mind to the truth that God has revealed in his Word—his Word that was spoken by the prophets and made incarnate in Jesus Christ. Our task is then to listen, listen to them all so as to understand as best we can their various frustrations, but also their hopes. Listen, above all, to Christ, to know how to answer the anger, but also speak to the dreams.
Jesus himself stood between the factions, each of which eyed its rivals and seethed. Look at the viciousness of the current protests, the vulgar obscenities hurled at police, the violence directed toward them because they are regarded as representing the political establishment. Consider the disdain shown to the activists because of their confused, contradictory, muddled ideology. The contempt each has for the other reflects something real. The police, as appreciative as we are of them in the context of our relatively peaceful community, are nonetheless protectors of the status quo. And the status quo falls short of what God calls us to as a human society. We are to be more than materially comfortable.
One can sympathize with some of the sentiments expressed by the protestors. They oversimplify and are too reductive in their thinking; and sadly, tragically, seem incapable of civilized conversation. If we consider their circumstances, their frustration and anger become comprehendible. Many are trapped in generational poverty. Now, when we see young university students and recent graduates out in the streets causing mayhem, we might be tempted to dismiss them as spoiled brats, but consider their prospects.
The classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson recently observed of those who are out in the streets protesting that, “Few seem to be earning the sort of incomes that would allow them to marry, have children, pay off student loan debt, buy a home and purchase a new car… they grow angry when they realize that they will never become securely comfortable… it’s increasingly difficult for recent college graduates to find a job that will allow for upward mobility.” (https://dailycaller.com/2020/07/09/victor-davis-hanson-the-fragility-of-the-woke/)
When the routes to success are blocked, and alternative pathways narrow and few, it’s no surprise that among the young there is discontent with the structure of our society. If you are an ideologue or a demagogue of even modest talent, you can harness that discontent by offering them all simple answers to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”
Hitler had an answer. Mao Zedung gave an explanation. Vladimir Lenin laid out a whole program in a pamphlet entitled, What is to be done (1902) by way of responding to the frustrations of an earlier, but not that distant a time in the past. We know their answers were flatly wrong, tinged with evil, built on mad theories of conspiracy that blamed Jews, the middle class, independent farmers, business people, intellectuals, and so on. Just ask any Ukrainian about the socialist paradise that exterminated 10 million of their people through an engineered famine.
To the problems of the world people are still looking for answers, and the desire is one that can only be categorized as a religious yearning for truth. And so, they unconsciously make a religion of their political belief systems with a fanaticism of the worst kind—the kind that cannot admit any other perspectives, tolerate any criticism of their creed.
What is dangerous in our day is to be Christ to the world, and stand among the contesting parties and offer the Gospel. But stand and offer it we must; and to be clever about it so that the truth is spoken to those who have ears to hear it.
G.K. Chesterton wrote a book entitled, What’s Wrong with the World (1910). In that volume Chesterton mocked much of what we are seeing today in the pulling down of statues and the desire to erase the history of the West because too much of it is problematic. He regards the attacking the past as being in no way courageous or bold—he said it was like offering to fight one’s grandmother,
“The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past.”
That is, someone who can look at the past and appreciate it for both its achievements and its evils, and learn; who can hear the wisdom that whispers across time despite the blaring noise of the demagogues, the tyrants, the warlords, the sound of firing squads, the mad cheering of the mob at the deaths of innocents.
Our young have had their minds hardened into stone upon which the seeds of the gospel fall uselessly. Our universities indoctrinate, they do not teach.
As Hanson concluded in his piece,
“The woke but godless, the arrogant but ignorant, the violent but physically unimpressive, the degreed but poorly educated, the broke but acquisitive, the ambitious but stalled — these are history’s ingredients of riot and revolution.”
And as to the rest of us, well the media moulds our opinion through the stories it chooses to tell, and the stories it keeps from us; they stir up anxieties and undermine confidence in our community to adjust, reform, find its humanity from within and its wisdom from God—for them the novel is too often the answer, and old wisdom is to be mocked in favour of new or seemingly new ideas.
We as a Church must be tillers of the ground that is the minds of the young. Not to indoctrinate into mindless, unreflective belief, but to offer the true liberty that is inherent in the gospel of life. We must pull up the stones that rattle around in all our heads, so that the ground can receive the good seed that is God’s Word.
Jesus Christ looks upon those confused young people being seduced into a destructive revolution, and looks at the rest of us in our worries being too ready to accept a tyrant in exchange for peace, and what he sees is a field to be planted. This world of men and women, young and old is a field to be prepared, ploughed and planted; cared for, tended, and made ready for his harvest.