The Meaning of Everything
Seventeenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Euan Marley ponders on everything under the sun.
There is a statement that I sometimes make in sermons, which I am reluctant to make because it is dangerous. It is also a statement which I would expect many people to disagree with. That is not why I am reluctant to make this contentious statement. Disagreement can be useful to us, as long as there is a willingness to go further into why we disagree. We learn a lot from disagreement. Now here is the statement: ‘ultimately there are only two logical alternatives. Either everything means something, or nothing means anything.’ I think we can agree that statement is contentious. I still think it is true. The danger is that some people might agree but plump for the meaningless of everything but I also think that since few of us are entirely logical, we don’t accept either of these options. Instead we live in a messy, irrational and often self-contradictory view of reality. I should also say that to say that everything means something is not to say that we know what everything means.
Why would I claim this then? Without denying that I am thinking of God, I would say that if we ask about meaning, purpose and intention, to use three relevant words, if we allow even a little meaningless into reality, then all meaning would be eroded. We might say that we should make our own meaning but how can we believe that we are products of a meaningless reality, and still think that our own generated meaning is not swallowed up in a greater meaningless. I say that this is a logical truth, but just looking at the universe would suggest that if it isn’t pointing at something other than itself, it is quite literally pointless.
So let’s look at today’s Gospel, the third part of a sequence of parables we have been hearing over these past three Sundays. These parables are about all of reality, at least the human reality we must concern ourselves with. They are parables of the kingdom of heaven, bearing in mind that the Greek and Hebrew word for heaven also means sky. In fact it primarily means the skies. Under the skies, a man in a boat on the sea preaches to people on the land. The parables are themselves about the land and sea, about the sowing of the seed, the soil on which the seed is sown, the good seed and the bad seed sharing the human space, and what the seed will become, the great tree in which all the birds of the sky may make their home. You see how this parable connects the land with the sky, to assure us of our final destination.
Then there is the women who takes the yeast and hides this in the flour. Most translations miss this word ‘hiding in’ which is a pity because it leads on the to the parable of the treasure in the field, which is also hidden. The woman is like God who hides the leaven in the world to allow it to grow in life, but she is also like the Christian who must put truth and love into the world. Later we will be warned (16:8) against the yeast of the Pharisees, which implies that there is a yeast of good Christians. The man who finds the treasure is obviously the Christian, but in a way God finds a treasure in the world, because he finds a way to redeem this world. Christ, as both God and man, sells all he owns for the treasure of this redemption.
Then we have the pearl, which might seem a mere repetition of the parable of the treasure, but a pearl is both on land and sea, as the oyster is sometimes submerged and sometimes in the open air, depending on the tide. The pearl leads us to the parable of the fish in the sea. Like the wheat and weeds, there are those who try to produce their own meaning, and in so doing only succeed in making parodies of the Good.
All evil is just that, an incomplete, distorted version of the true treasure, the pearl of great price, a mere parody. These parables tell us that though we should believe in the meaning of all things under God, the meaning is not available to us yet. This is because it is still unfolding, as we wait for the kingdom. Faith and hope allow us to be at peace as we wait for the harvest, the gathering of good and bad alike, but love enables us to feel joy in the beauty of things even now. The seed grows and the treasure remains to be found.