Parables for the Voluntarily Self-Blinded
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, October 15, 2023
Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
Today’s Gospel reading is a story that is quite familiar to most of us. And because we are so well versed with the Parable of Sower, you’ve likely heard a variety of explanations as to its meaning. Some seeds fell among the rocks, some fell among the thorns; some fell along the path, and some fell into the good soil. Countless sermons have expounded upon the proper way to interpret this parable. But what struck me about this parable this week, while reading through it, was the fact that certain people in the story seem to be intentionally obscured from knowing the fullness of the truth as revealed by Jesus Christ. "To you it has been given,” states the Lord, “To know the secrets of the kingdom of God. But for others they are in parables, so that [in] seeing they may not see, and [in] hearing they may not understand.” Why would God choose to teach in a manner by which some “may not understand?”
Matthew’s version of this same parable provides some additional context that I believe will help us to discern what’s going on here. Matthew reminds us first off that Christ is quoting the Prophet Isaiah in the midst of this parable. And this is something that we don’t see in Luke. Jesus states in Matthew 13:
“Hence I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they neither hear nor understand. And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, when he says, ‘With your hearing you will hear and in no way understand, and in seeing you will see and in no way perceive. For this people’s heart has grown crass, and they have listened with their ears grudgingly, and they have closed their eyes, so that it may never happen that they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with the heart and turn back, and I shall heal them.”
(Matthew 14:9-16 (The New Testament: A Translation, David Bentley Hart). 25.)
So we learn here in Matthew’s version of the account that it is not God who is preventing anyone from hearing the truth, but the people who voluntarily delude themselves into believing something other than the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. The text tells they listen, but only “grudgingly” and with “hearts that have grown crass.” And it is therefore this type of person who prevents any proper understanding from taking root within their own heart. And this is important for us to understand!
It easy for us to hear this message and think that well… it’s not me to whom this parable is speaking. “I am an Orthodox Christian after all, and my heart is always open to the truth.” This is really to miss the point! We must remember that it is not simply those outside of the church who are prone to shutting out the truth, as we might think. There are many within who prefer to live in delusion and insist that their own understanding of truth is correct one. There are those in the church who teach, for instance, the necessity of a 2nd baptism, even though this contradicts the very teaching of our church. (It’s blasphemy of the Holy Spirit!) There are those who seem rather obsessed with things of the “End Times,” and “toll houses.” And others still who are deeply invested in the “culture wars.” (And there is often a fervent zeal that seems to accompany the person who believes such things) But none of these things have anything to do with the traditional teachings of the Orthodox faith or the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Moreover, these are all outward facing dispositions. And an outward facing disposition is one that is not focused upon the inward journey. It is focused, rather, on the ‘other;’ not the ‘self.’ And what is truly at the core of this outward facing disposition is the conviction that “I am right.”
The truth of today’s Parable, however, shows us that the seed which falls on the outside of the good soil — this is the seed that does not take root. Yet, we learn that it is only the seed which falls on the good soil that is taken in and nourished properly, so that the inward journey — the cultivation of the heart — can begin.
St Theophan the Recluse tells us that:
“To arrive safely at our inward objective, we must travel safely past the imagination. If we are careless about this, we may stick fast in the imagination and remain there, under the impression that we have entered within, whereas in fact we are merely outside the entrance… This in itself would not matter so much, were it not that this state is almost always accompanied by self-deception.”
(Igumen Chariton, comp. E. Kadloubovsky and E. M. Palmer, eds. The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966). 182-183.)
This may provide us a clue as to why Jesus allowed certain people to hear the truth, as told only through parables. If he told them the truth of the Kingdom of God straight out, they probably wouldn’t believe him. There are plenty within our own church, after all, who would probably react no differently were this parable first told today. Try telling an Orthodox Christian that the church has long held to some measure of universal salvation, and you’ll likely get a heated lecture on the necessity of eternal damnation. Tell an Orthodox believer that women were once ordained at our altars, and participated in the clerical ministry for over 1000 years, and I guarantee you’ll get more than a sideways look. It is extraordinarily difficult to dislodge an entrenched belief once it has taken root deep within - once the person has zealously determined that “I am right, and they are wrong.” Just so, with today’s Gospel reading, perhaps it was better that Jesus not tell the crowd the truth of the parable flat out, because their hearts were not prepared to hear it. Better that He teaches in a manner they might one day harken back to.
And so, this is the message we should carry with us: outward facing ideologies are a pathway toward delusion and self-blindness. Once a person has made up their mind on a given matter and put themselves on the “winning side,” so to speak, leaving no possibility they might be wrong, this is when we risk voluntarily self-blindness.
This may be why the Apostle Paul warns us in today’s Epistle reading to:
“…avoid foolish speculation and genealogies and controversies and wrangles about the law. For they are useless and lead nowhere. Drive out a person who is causing divisions after a first and a second warning: know that such a person is perverted, and sins because he is self-condemned.”
(Titus 3, Nicholas King Translation of the New Testament. 485)
I can’t think of a better person to write such a warning because the Apostle Paul himself was literally blinded when he came face to face with the reality of Jesus Christ. Paul, then called Saul, was so certain there was no other truth possible than the one he held dear. He was a student of the Law after all, and was instructed by one of the best in his field. Saul knew the Scriptures backward and forward, and interpreted them so well that he was ready to kill for it. And so he did! And his encounter with Jesus Christ, thereafter, did not go so well. Like the seed that fell outside the good soil and only along the path, Saul had heard the word of God preached through St Stephen. But so certain was he of his own understanding of the Jewish Scriptures, he justified an act of murder in the taking of St Stephen’s life.
If we are seeking to cultivate hearts that resemble the good soil, we must abandon any disposition that resembles the egoism of “I am right, and they are wrong.” I recommend instead the words of John the Baptizer who heralded the coming of our Lord in saying “He must become greater. I must become less.” (John 3:30, NIV.)
May each of us have the ears to hear, and the hearts to recognize the word of the Lord in our midst.