Foreknowledge, predestination, and human will
Today, is the 4th sermon in the sermon series, “8 Questions from the pews,” we will tackle the question, “Matthew 13:10-15—Is this an example of pre-destination? It seems rather harsh and final, that whatever little they do have will be taken away.”
My short answer is, “No. Matthew 13:10-15 is not about pre-destination. It’s about why Jesus speaks in parables.”
But that wouldn’t be a very satisfying answer.
After all, there are larger questions lurking behind this question—questions about pre-destination and the harshness and finality of some of our sacred scripture.
To think about these questions we’ll touch on the section of Matthew’s Gospel we read today, but more concretely we’ll consider Pharaoh’s hardened heart.
So, we’ll be looking at pre-destination and the harshness of scripture.
When we consider pre-destination we tend to balk and then climb into one of two camps—the puppet camp or the free will camp.
In the first, we consider Pharaoh, and take the author of Exodus at his most literal. That the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, was a puppet show. God takes Pharaoh’s heart, his will, and forces it in a certain direction.
You’ve heard the phrase, “Jesus take the wheel,” this would be a little different, “Oh my, God has hijacked the vehicle!”
The LORD walks Pharaoh through a thought process and across a stage like a marionettist would his puppet.
If we go too far down this road we start to call everything fate. We become nothing more than debris on an ocean current. We lose a sense of agency and efficacy.
God becomes a character of Greek myth—the Fates. Three old Crones creating the lives of mortals on a mystical loom. As the thread thickens, so does our heart, when the thread snaps, our life is done.
At least, in this view of things, there is someone else to blame.
In the second camp, the free will folk, we turn into a young child, stamping our feet and always saying, “I can do it my own self.”
We take the tact of the Philistines in the book of Samuel, and interpret Pharaoh’s hard heartedness as something he has chosen.
We believe we have that power of choice.
We respond to John Donne’s famous line, “no man is an island,” with “Na-ah, I’m an island!”
We ignore any outside influence upon our lives. How our society shapes us, how our family forms us. We ignore that our self only exists in relationship with other people.
Ultimately, we ignore that we are “part of the main,” because this radical individuality gives us a sense of power, and control in a fickle world.
But, as Lutherans, we affirm that our will is bound, “we are bound to sin and can not free ourselves.”
We profess that we’ve sold out.
We say this often, but what does this mean? What does this look like?
We’re saying that of course Pharaoh didn’t relent.
not because he was a puppet pulled around by the LORD, but because he was a human being.
When confronted by a power greater than himself, something that threatened his narcissistic sense of control,
He dived into himself.
He defended his non-existent free will, shaped by forces he neither understood nor could control.
The LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart simply by being the Law for Pharaoh there
—by giving limits to a man who considered himself god,
by pointing out to him “you are mortal, I am God,”
Pharaoh’s heart grew recalcitrant, because, outside of the Gospel message, this is almost inevitably the human response to being shown where we stack up in the universe
—seeing the world as it is, without also seeing God as God is, inevitably leads to a hardened heart.
As for the question about harshness and finality, we can think of it this way: is this judgment on Pharaoh too harsh or too final? It is not.
Pharaoh’s heart is hard, as are our own. We just aren’t often reminded of this fact.
Likewise, is it hard to say, as it says in Matthew:
“if you don’t meditate on the parables of Jesus, the message will be lost on you/
but if you listen to his message it will blossom….
No, it is not too hard… because this is how Parables work, if you work on them, they work on you.
As I say every chance I get, you chew on Parables until Parables chew on you. You read them until they start to read you.
Is that harsh?
Yes, yet it’s simply something like a law of the universe… a spiritual law sort of like physical laws… it is harsh only…
Only if gravity is harsh.
Only if Chemistry is harsh.
Only if cause and effect is harsh.
Yes, these things are harsh, and yes these things are final—immutable things.
But I thank God every day that Jesus’ love steps beyond the harsh cause/effect relationship of our world.
I thank God that the way the world works, the way our hard hearts respond to an honest assessment of our place in the universe,
the way our unlistening ears ignore the best and deepest truths…
I thank God,
that the final word is not by these things
—the final word is His.
And it is not harsh, but instead a word of comfort, a word that plucks us out of our alternating throws of fatalism and false independence.
He takes our hearts of stone and makes them hearts of flesh.
He takes our ears and unstops them so that we might here the final word—the gentle comfort of the Word Made Flesh.
Thank you God, that in your greatness you free us from our bondage.
Thank you God, that in your greatness you unite us to yourself and to one another as sister and brother.
Faced with this freedom and this fellowship, My heart… my soul…can not help but sing How Great thou art.
Let us sing together, How Great Thou Art.