In the miracle of the Feeding of 5,000 we briefly touched on how being truly compassionate with others is a suffering enterprise. When we help others, we are inevitably drained. If we are not suffering ourselves, we probably aren't doing much good for the other person. In this scripture we find the one recorded account when Jesus actually relays to us what it felt like for him to heal someone.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all...let your word 'yes be 'yes,' and your 'no be 'no.' Anything beyond this comes from the evil one." When making a promise, we should feel the need to pause and consider whether or not we can really fulfill our word. What we say is not only a powerful witness to our credibility, but as a Christian, our word is a witness to our faith in Christ. Words we utter can be as binding as gravity. But mostly we use our language flippantly, at worse coercively, not realizing the power behind them, not realizing the tangle we get ourselves into when we use words outside of truth.
To begin our journey into the miracles of Jesus, let's look at the difference (if there is one) between a miracle and general natural phenomena. Ever since our species has been able to wonder and ponder the cosmos, we have asked a number of important questions about the nature of things, mostly based on what, how and why. Aristotle had exactly four questions he asked when pondering the phenomena of nature. They have been called Aristotle's Four Causes.
This Sunday is the third Sunday in Advent, named Gaudete Sunday in the Catholic church, referring to Philippians 4 when Paul tells us to "Rejoice in the Lord Always." Today is the Sunday of Joy. The Parable of the Lost Son, like the Parable of the Lost Sheep, is a parable that should strike joy in the hearts of sinners like us. Does it for you? Or do we react like the older brother who is jealous? We can become cold and bitter as we await our beloved Jesus. Be careful not to, because it is then that our faith begins to die and if our church starts feeling that way, it starts to die as well.
When people gathered around Jesus what did his listeners expect to hear? Just his presence must have been an extraordinary event to witness, yet fully ordinary at the same time. Who did the people expect to see? A prophet? God himself? For me, when I heard Jesus speak the Sermon on the Mount in my heart, it changed my life. It put the nail in my coffin. The old me died. I realized that God himself was speaking to me. I now realize that God was speaking to all of humanity.
Who or what occupies your inner most self? Most of us are periodically plagued by terrible thoughts. Where do they come from and what are we to do about them? The Parable of the Unclean Spirit teaches that even if we take extraordinary measures to clean up our heart, our soul, and our life in general, it will do no good if we haven't filled our heart with Jesus. Our cleansed and empty heart will just be taken over by things more terrible than before.
Before Jesus went to the cross, his disciples rarely understood who he really was or what he was doing. "Do you still not understand?" Jesus would ask them. We are really no different today than we were then. We go about living in the world like we're waiting for something to happen to us. Rather than engaging in the kingdom of heaven now.
Like all of Jesus' parables, it's tempting to interpret the Parable of the Unfruitful Fig Tree in a way that makes us feel good and points to the other guy. It's easy to see that Jesus was talking about the Jewish establishment of the time. The fig tree long represented the people of God and Jesus was nearing the end of his three year public ministry. However, that wouldn't do the parable justice. We must look at the parable with sinner's ears and a repentant heart.
The Feeding of the 5,000 was the only miracle recorded by all of four gospel writers. Of any of the Bible stories, it ranks alongside Noah and Jonah as one of the top 'signs and wonders' that most non-Christians know about from the Bible. The story is rich with meaning and truth. Page after page can be gleaned and written from this one story. But the story is really less about the miraculous multiplication of food and more about the breaking of bread. It's really all about the breaking of Jesus.
Of Aristotle's four causes, I give the formal cause my closest attention, because I think it is most overlooked and most fascinating. For me, the best way to think about this cause is to think of what the artist does when he begins to work. He first thinks of something to create. He studies the picture in his head and then he begins to draw, hammer out, paint or mold his creation. He may have to study and sketch, but eventually, his dream becomes reality. The formal cause is the dream.
"Prove it to me."
"Show me the facts."
"When I see it, I'll believe it."
We are all keen observers, but even the best of us have been tricked with a sleight of hand. At one time or another we have all been lied to and cheated by the trickster and the magician, so that our species has become cold, rational and in need of indisputable evidence in order for us to say, "I believe." This is a reasonable response, especially if the world were steely deterministic, but thankfully, the universe does not work that way.
The gospel of John contains very few of the well-known parables of Jesus. But John did record a number of brief parable-like allegories. What could be called the Parable of Walking in Daylight is an extension of a repeated theme from John's gospel which beckons us to the "light" of Christ.
Jesus has always and will always make a ruckus in the world. While many misunderstand him and many people gawk at him, there will always be those who truly love him and that brings him great joy. In the series of parables from Matthew 13, there were all sorts of people were gathering in great numbers to listen to him, so many that he had to get into a boat and teach just offshore. I imagine it as a calm day with glassy seas, with his devoted disciples straining their ears, while rubberneckers, religious leaders and the bored churned up ill sentiment about him.
How much does it cost to be a disciple of Christ? We learn the answer in the mini-parables of the Tower Builder and the King's War Plan: Entering the kingdom of heaven is free, yet it requires everything of us. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the price for all of our sins. Yes, this is Christianity 101. Christ's work on the cross was not something we could ever do. He and only he could redeem us. However, we learn from these parables, as elsewhere, that we must also actively participate in the healing of the world. In fact, our relationship with Jesus enables us to directly assist in the consecration (making sacred) of the world.
What reward will you receive in the Kingdom of heaven? I've been present at various Bible studies (Protestant and Catholic) where people have discussed the merits that we receive when we get to heaven. The opposite has been also true, people have discussed the demerits—the low rungs of the heavenly ladder. I'm always floored by the conversations. Each time I'm stricken by the arrogance. I always feel like waving my hand, so I can say, "Is this about your crown or about Jesus?"
Do you isolate yourself from sinners or dive headlong into the dirty and broken world and love the people you encounter? The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector and the surrounding context helps us to understand who God befriends and who will stand justified before God.