Prophet and Loss
October 17, 2021
“Prophet and Loss”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
Plato taught that life is like being imprisoned in a cave, only you don’t know you are a prisoner. I was nervous to offer his teaching to my college students because they were inmates in a medium security prison.
The state of New York funded college courses to a small number of inmates. I was hired to teach philosophy. I went once a week for three hours and lectured on classical, medieval and modern thought. You can’t teach such a class without Plato, and you can teach Plato without his analogy of the cave. But the idea of telling a group of inmates that I had any clue what prison really meant was daunting.
Sure enough, one of the students spoke up at the beginning of the lecture with a sense of dismissal. “Something tells me Plato didn’t do any time.” His claim received general accord and there were a few shouts of approval. I took a deep breath and said, “I am sure what Plato knew or didn’t know about prison is important. But let’s see what he was trying to say with the analogy of the cave.”
With this I walked them through the famous shadows on the wall. The shadows on the wall of the cave are meant to represent the limit of our understanding of the world around us, what the Apostle Paul called the seeing through a mirror dimly. And then we discussed the key moment in the cave where people turn around and realize that the shadows on the wall were made from a fire, an artificial light. This is important because so much of what we know is temporary or contrived or received.
When we got to the next part of Plato’s cave, the question of staying in the cave or leaving, the mood of the room changed. Part of the analogy of being imprisoned in a cave is that even if you realize you are in such a place, so often we feel powerless to change, we are trapped by fears or addictions or circumstances.
My favorite part of teaching in the prison was the need for the class to discuss amongst themselves if they believed what was being taught. For the next thirty minutes the students debated and argued and questioned the idea being presented. They pondered: can life itself be a prison? In the end they all agreed it can be such; it is. And then they turned back to me as if to say, “okay, you can start talking again.”
When I did, I walked them through the risk of leaving the artificial light and making your way through the dark of the cave hoping to find true light. To do this all of what you
know must be left aside, deemed as false, before you find the truth. In essence go into darkness to find light.
At this point there was a lot of heads nodding. This crowd could relate to working through darkness, of losing a life and hoping there is light at the end of the tunnel. Plato
believed, I told them, we could make it out, and this freedom is a whole new way of seeing the world, seeing it in the light of eternal truth. Again. there was concurrence. But I had yet to share the last part of Plato’s analogy. The need to reenter the cave.
There was an audible groan and genuine sense of disbelief, even betrayal. I gave them hope and then dashed it. One prisoner/student shouted at me, “I ain’t going back in the cave.” I said, “Okay, but consider each part: discovering the images on the wall were shadows, discovering the false fire light, becoming convinced there was a way out of the cave, someone helped us do that; we don’t do that alone. Those are the folks who came back for us.”
One prisoner said, “look, I’ll shout into the cave ‘you’re in a cave, you’re in prison.’ But I ain’t going back. Folks are on their own.” One man who didn’t speak much said in a calm low voice, “I am not going back into the cave for anyone except my daughter. That is it.”
Teaching Plato in prison certainly changed how I read philosophy. It wasn’t that it became less esoteric or less true; by seeing and hearing philosophy in prison it became a question of freedom. Does my belief, my understanding, my memories, do they bring me freedom? How does my theory of knowledge or my concept of will to power free me, allow me to live what is good and true and beautiful?
Each week when I taught at the prison there was a hazing ritual, I passed through in order to enter. The guards were not happy about prisoners receiving free college courses and some were simply resentful of anything given to them. One said, “you know they are very smart; and they spend all day trying to find ways to outsmart us; and then here you come and are making them even smarter. Not helpful.”
I guess I could have argued that learning philosophy which has so much to do with ethics and morality and common good could help by lowering the likelihood of violence or destruction. But to each weekly hazing I said the same thing, “this is a hard place for everyone.”
I am not afraid to argue or make my case; I tend to use persuasion on a regular basis. But I don’t believe the truth of life, what is good and beautiful, I don’t believe these are matters of persuasion or debate. The truth is for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Ears to hear and eyes to see is not for those who are “woke” or those who “get it” or the educated. Eyes to see and ears to hear are those who turned around, ventured out of the cave, and then came back.
I need to be careful here because this teaching of Jesus is slippery and can do real harm if it is not handled with care. We can take his words about “those who are given” and we can fall into the trap of election and predestination and chosen people. I was reading a commentary on our passage today and the scholar began his reflection by saying, this is simply the doctrine of election, which is some are chosen by God to be saved and some are chosen by God to be damned. I closed the commentary at that point. No need to read further.
We need to be careful because this teaching could be used to justify inequity. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer, same as it always was. If we don’t watch where we are walking, we can head down this very cynical acceptance of suffering. Such is the case when Jesus says, you will always have the poor with you. This claim can excuse a great deal of indifference. Why help those who cannot help themselves?
To avoid these pitfalls, we need to remember Plato’s cave and the two most important parts of it. People don’t know they are in a cave; and people must lose all false understanding before they see the light of day. You must go through darkness to reach the light. This is the mystery Jesus speaks of a mystery like losing life to gain it, giving away to keep.
Yet the key to all the parables, what Jesus is explaining, is that he is always talking about this life, our life, our heart, our earthly existence. He is bringing the light of heaven to earth so we may be freed from the darkness. The parables are about the “kingdom of heaven” coming to earth. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s always about the earth.
Let me give you an example. You know the simile game. If I say husband, you say wife; or I say cat you say dog. They can be opposites in a way, but there is a similarity, a connection. More in common than opposition. If I say, heaven, what word comes to mind? Clouds, harps, angels, family you long to see, rest, peace. Maybe you are a pearly gate believer or a judgment hall devotee. Lots of possibilities. But never would you be likely to say, dirt. When I think of heaven, I think of dirt. But that is what Jesus does. The kingdom of heaven is like a sower who went out to sow seeds in a field; the field is dirt; it’s about the earth.
Our teaching today is elusive; it is hard to understand because it is about not understanding. Jesus is teaching in parables not to make a case or argue or debate. In fact he
continually infuriates the Pharisees because he won’t argue or debate. He answers a question with a question; he will only enter a debate if all agree first that we don’t understand. To the Pharisee’s question of authority, he asked them of John’s authority, what did they believe? That they could not answer was the right answer.
A number of years ago I was standing in the shrine to the Beatitudes in Galilee. Beautiful place. After I gave a small lesson on the teaching of the sermon on the mount a man from a very fundamentalist church who was on our bus approached me. He was stumped. “Is this the place” he started. He wanted to know if this was the place where Jesus would be standing once a particular prophecy was fulfilled and the end of time had begun. “Is this the place?”
I thought for a moment. How do I respond? He had so much heart felt need to be sure, to be certain, to determine what would happen in the future, for the bible to be an operations manual, clear guide. He needed to know what God was going to do, where Jesus could be found when the trumpet sounds. I thought, what do I say that would help him given how little he could see he was a prisoner in a cave of delusion. The best I could come up with was: “no, this isn’t the place.” And I walked on.
Jesus speaks in parables so there is possibility that we will see we are imprisoned in darkness, delusion, and we don’t know it. Jesus speaks in parables so to create that moment of confusion; he casts seeds of doubt, so all of our misguided confidence finds the possibility of truth. Jesus speaks in parables so we can turn around and see how false the definitions are we made heretofore.
This makes people really mad. How Jesus teaches makes people so mad, they killed him, just like they did with Socrates. Parables seem so nice and simple. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, it’s like yeast, or a treasure in a field. Lovely images but they can conjure hate.
Most of the parables revolve around dirt, soil. They speak to the most basic part of life. He says the kingdom of God is in you and you are, well, dirt, of the earth, from dust you came and to dust you return. They seem so simple, but each one leads us to the daunting possibility, the great moment of fear: what if how I look at life is false? What if I am unwittingly imprisoned in cave of misperception?
The parables each have this moment where we can say, I am living in the dark; I need to turn around and find my way out.
Although his words were harsh when the taciturn student said, I am not going back in except for my daughter, even though they were meant to dismiss others, his motives are closest to the kingdom of heaven. Once freed of darkness, we must return for those we love. We must remember: Jesus doesn’t talk of God’s love saving us in Matthew. All the saving, the rescuing, that’s up to us. Will we find the lost sheep, heal the Samaritan, anoint the dying? Will we head back to the darkness once we have seen the light? Will we give our life to save the one’s we love? I pray we continue to turn and return. Amen