Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Old and New

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

For the past two Sundays we have been reading from the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which contains several of Jesus’ parables. Today, we come to the final set of parables and the lectionary surprises us with a bonus. We get three additional parables with a fourth one thrown in at the end. This Sunday, I would like to skip the first three and turn your attention to the bonus parable, or the often forgotten eighth parable. It is often said that there are seven parables in the 13th chapter.  Only a few scholars would treat this one-liner as a parable. This is the parable of the householder-scribe-like disciple. What a strange metaphor? It serves as an apt summary of all the other parables. It begins with a question posed by the Lord to His disciples, in reference to all the parables that He had just shared with them, “Have you understood all this?”   When I stand here, I am tempted to end each and every one of my homilies with this same question, but on second thought,  I better not, in case I only see blank faces staring back at me.

However, in response to the Lord’s question, the disciples gave a resounding ‘Yes,’ which is an overestimation of their insight since the disciples have no clue about the nature of the kingdom and the suffering it entails. For example, Peter will object to the Lord’s crucifixion and all the disciples flee upon Christ’s arrest in Gethsemane. These and many other such examples merely indicate that their comprehension was partial. It is at this point, that we are introduced to this cryptic saying cum parable, “every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old.” What is unique about this parabolic saying is the combination of three different persons into a single metaphor – a scribe, a disciple, and a householder. They make strange bed-fellows.

First, let us consider the scribe. Among the Jews in the first century, a scribe was a technical position of one who had been educated formerly in the Law and Jewish tradition. We might think of him as a scholar, a serious student. He spent his life studying the Law, and stood before the people as a teacher. His primary duty was to expound and explain the Law to the common folks. A disciple of the Kingdom is entrusted with the same responsibility: to teach, to instruct, to catechise. It’s never to do so with one’s own ideas or opinions but only that which they had learnt from the Lord. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Our Lord commissions His disciples in this manner, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This commission is directed not just at the bishops, priests, deacons and religious but given to every baptised person. Parents are often reminded that they are the primary catechists of their children and that they have been entrusted with the responsibility of handing on the faith that they have received from the Apostles.

Perhaps, the reason why many within the Church suffer from a crisis of faith is because there is a lack of adequate catechesis. And the reason why there is poor catechesis is because so many of us are poor scribes, poor teachers. And if we were to connect the dots in the chain of causation, we could easily conclude that poor students make poor teachers. The Lord used a word in His saying to describe the scribe’s training – it was the verb form of “disciple.” The scribe had to be “disciple.” He had to be mentored, he had to become an apprentice of a teacher. Before he could become a teacher, he had to be a student. It was not enough to have an armchair book knowledge of the faith. A disciple-scribe is one who must study the truth, live it and he does so by imitating the Master. The disciple’s life is to be a mixture of both learning and living. He should never cease learning if he wishes to continue teaching.

The final image that is used in this parabolic statement is that of a householder, who is charged with the care of the treasures of the household. It is here, we finally see the role of the scribe-disciple-householder. He is entrusted not just with the task of safe-guarding the treasures but also dispensing them. What would these treasures look like? We are told that he must bring “out from his storeroom things both new and old.”

In an age of modernity and post-modernity, where the past and ‘old’ things are often scorned and discarded, the saying makes an essential point about the role of disciples. We cannot be selective about the teachings of the Church, about what we wish to adopt or discard at will. But rather we all have a duty, together with the Magisterium (the Teaching authority of the Church, i.e. the Pope and the bishops) to safeguard, preserve, defend and expound both “the old and the new.” In the context of Jesus’ days, He had already assured His listeners that He had not come to abolish the Old Law but rather to fulfil it, to bring it to perfection with the New Law. His teachings are revolutionary but they are also traditional. The old covenant is not abolished, it is judiciously integrated into the new.  Likewise, disciples are not to spurn the old for the sake of the new. Rather, they are to understand the new insights gleaned from Jesus’ parables in light of the old truths, and vice versa.  

As for the Christian, the ultimate question is not personal preferences of style, or whether something is old or avant garde.  Rather, it is whether or not it fits into the Kingdom of God, whether or not it is true. The remarkable thing about truth is that it has the quality of being both old and new at the same time. On the one hand, truth is not something that was invented yesterday. It is old because it has always existed. But if it were only old, then it cannot be truth. On the other hand, it is always new because the truth never ceases to be truth, no matter what time in history you live. It requires no updating.  But if it were only new, it wouldn't be truth because truth cannot be something that has just been discovered as if centuries of human beings before us were oblivious to it. It has always been the truth. Truth is eternal. The truth of God does not change. It can never go out of fashion. This is because God is Truth Himself. In the words of St Augustine, God is “Beauty ever Ancient ever New.” As a corollary, something false cannot become true just because it has now become fashionable. As the wise G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”

The Christian, who is a prudent scribe is neither a conservative prude, teaching what is old just because it is traditional or because he has sentimental attachments to it; nor is he a progressive revolutionary, throwing away all traditions and only teaching what is new. But the prudent scribe, the authentic Christian must teach, he must defend, and be even prepared to lay down his life for whatever the Church proposes in the deposit faith and which is found in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, not because it is traditional  or novel but because it is the revealed Truth. He does so even though this may earn him ridicule and hatred in the eyes of the world. He cannot substitute the infallible divinely revealed Truths with his own fallible opinions. As the Catechism appropriately reminds us, “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived,” (CCC 156) because these truths are “guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself” (CCC 144). When these truths are accepted with love and fidelity, what seems old, will always appear new, because Christ can never be out of fashion! He makes all things NEW!

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