Friday, July 28, 2017

Play to the Ref! Reflections on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52 (RCL Proper 17A, 30 July 2017)

Play to the Ref!
Reflections on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

RCL Proper 17A
30 July 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52

                  13.31 [Jesus] put before them another parable:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

                  33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

                  44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

                  47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.  49 So it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

                  51 “Have you understood all this?”  They answered, “Yes.”  52 And [Jesus] 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.”

            In the autumn of 2002 our younger son Owen began to play rugby for Magee High School and for the Meraloma Club.  He was the only one of our children who became involved in organized sports, but Paula and I supported him in this new endeavour.  What made it even more joyful for all of us was that Owen was good at the game and loved it.

            When I was growing up in the United States, rugby was a game played only at elite private boys’ schools.  So, I had to learn the sport from the sidelines.  One of the first lessons I had to learn is that rugby, ‘a ruffians’ game played by gentlemen’ --- and now ‘gentlewomen’ --- has no rules.  Rugby has laws and it is the role of the referee to interpret the laws as the game is played.  For example, a player may be technically off-side but, since his infraction did not impede the play of the other team, the referee may not choose to blow the whistle and award a penalty.  When a player is tackled, he or she must roll and release the ball.  Each referee seems to have a different internal clock to determine whether the player has complied with the law.  Throughout a game, you will hear the referee instructing the players, warning them and even thanking them when they heed his warnings.  Among rugby players you will frequently hear someone say to her or his teammates, ‘Play to the ref.’  In other words, ‘Don’t complain.  Learn quickly how the ref is calling the game and play on.’

            In the Judaism of Jesus’ day there was a Law --- the Law of Moses --- found in the first five books of what we call the ‘Hebrew’ scriptures.  And, as in our own time, there were different approaches to how one followed the Law.  Some Jews were what we might call ‘literalists’.  For them what the Law said is what the Law meant.  Other Jews, including Jesus, believed that what the Law said is not always what the Law meant.  These Jews would ask questions such as ‘What do the prophets say?’ or ‘What does the tradition of interpretation say?’

            As you can well imagine, there could be very lively debates about how a particular text was to be interpreted.  For example, Ezra and Nehemiah condemn the marriage of Jewish men to non-Jewish women.  Why?  Because ‘Jewish-ness’ is transmitted through the mother not the father.  But in the book of Esther, a non-Jewish woman marries a Jewish man.  She is lauded for her faithfulness to her Jewish mother-in-law and becomes the direct ancestor of the great Jewish kings David and Solomon.

            In Jesus’ time it was the role of what Matthew calls ‘scribes’ to interpret the Law to the common people.  Other translations use the phrases ‘legal expert’ (Common English Bible) or ‘teacher of the law’ (Revised English Bible) to describe the role of the ‘scribe’ in the Jewish community.  In a society where religious law and civil law both blended and conflicted, you can well imagine how important a role the scribe played.

            But like all legal experts the scribes could become obstacles to faithful life.  No doubt some scribes fell into the trap of believing that tradition is ‘the dead faith of the living’ rather than ‘the living faith of the dead’.  You and I have heard such voices in our own lives of faith:  ‘We’ve never done it that way?’ or ‘We’ve always done it that way?’  And so, as Jesus travelled throughout the Jewish communities, he was often opposed by the scribes because they perceived his message as ‘new’.  And what Jesus asked them to consider was not whether his message was ‘new’ but whether it was ‘true’.

            And what is ‘truth’?  You have heard me say what I am about to say many times.  I hope you will bear with me if I repeat myself.

  • Truth always does justice.  Justice means that each and every creature of God is treated with dignity.  Justice means that our societies are structured so that every child of God can become more fully the person that God has created her or him to be.
  • Truth always loves mercy.  Mercy means that ‘an eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth’ ends up with two partially-blind people who cannot enjoy a decent meal.  Mercy means that laws must recognize that ‘circumstances alter cases’ --- one size does not fit all.
  • Truth always walks humbly with God.  Humility means that all of us have to come to the uncomfortable realization that we are not the centre of the universe.  Humility means that my ‘wants’ cannot trump the ‘needs’ of others.

            Truth is not carved in the stone of some chosen past.  We believe that Jesus is ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6) and that ‘[the Spirit of truth] will guide [us] into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to [us] the things that are to come’ [John 16.13]  In every generation Christians face the task of drawing out of the treasure of the good news of God in Christ ‘what is new’ as we build on the foundation of ‘what is old’.  What is ‘old’ is the heritage of faithful ministry in the places where we have lived and worked for generations.  What is ‘new’ is how we live justly, mercifully and humbly as disciples of Jesus in the present.

            So let us ‘play to the ref’.  Let us listen to the voice of Jesus who speaks to us in the Scriptures.  Let us attend to the voice of the Spirit who speaks through our prayers  Let us listen to the voice of God who speaks to us in all the works of creation.  Play on!

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