This sermon was preached on the 30th of July 2023, the ninth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text: Matthew 13.44-58

Like most kids, I spent a lot of time sitting in the back of my parents’ car, listening to the radio as we rattled around the suburbs on the weekend, shopping and running errands.

I remember, when I was very young, the people on the radio going on and on about a woman. She’d behaved scandalously. She’d shaved her head. And she was saying bad things about the Church.

Those people on the radio seemed to really dislike this woman. To really, genuinely dislike her – they railed against her, day after day. And I, the child sat in my parent’s car, couldn’t understand why. It distressed me to listen to it, to hear to that anger, even hatred. I remember asking my parents why it was happening; I can’t remember what they said in reply.

That woman, the woman being denounced, was Sinéad O’Connor, the Irish singer and songwriter, who died this week.

When I heard of her death, a verse from this week’s Gospel leaped into my head.

“Prophets are not without honour except in their own hometown and in their own house.” (Mt 13:57b)

Prophetic ministry is one of the most difficult callings a person could have.

We sometimes think that to be prophetic is to be granted some understanding of the future, to be given by God some mysterious insight into what is to come.

But in the Biblical tradition, prophecy is really about answering God’s call to speak against injustice. To name transgression, to name unholy behaviour. To speak out, even against one’s friends and neighbours.

No wonder, then, that prophets find little honour in their hometown.

The Greek word translated as ‘hometown’ really means those places where one is known. The places that the prophet is a part of, those places that they are in relationship with – their community.

The people of Nazareth couldn’t accept the prophetic ministry of Jesus, his critique of faith and society, his teaching against injustice… because he was a local boy. A tradesperson, Mary’s son.

They’d seen him running around with the other kids, as a boy; as an adult, they’d seen him doing humble work, just like themselves, before he commenced his ministry. And so he wasn’t doing what, in their eyes, he was meant to be doing. They wanted him to stay in his lane.

In the here and now, today, we too have strong expectations as to how people will behave. It’s discomforting when people act outside those lines. And that applies even to public figures, to famous people.

Celebrities are a big part of our culture. Most of us, whether or not we’re willing to admit it, follow with interest the lives of famous people who we’ll never really meet, we’ll never really know.

In 1992, Sinéad O’Connor spoke out against the scandal of child sexual abuse in the church. She was one of the first people to do so. She used her celebrity, her position in society, to name a great injustice, a great evil.

She did so in a startling, confrontational way: she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul the Second on live television, vocally denouncing the scandal of abuse in the church. Her act took the hosts of the sketch comedy show she was on by surprise.

This was a prophetic act. She could just have validly have delivered the same judgement against some of the then-leaders of the Anglican Church.

Then came the backlash, a wave of anger; the wave of anger that I remember listening to as a kid, rattling around in my parent’s car, listening to the radio.

It would be another ten years before journalists dared to seriously engage with the scandal.

Twenty years before, here in Australia, a Royal Commission was announced.

“Prophets are not without honour except in their own hometown and in their own house.” (Mt 13:57b)

Sinéad O’Connor was raised in the Church. The Church was her hometown, her house. And we did not thank her for speaking out, for naming an awful truth. Eventually, she left the church, and found another home in Islam.

It’s amazing how the words of Jesus, handed down over two thousand years, always manage to speak into the here-and-now.

Prophetic ministry is a costly ministry, a costly calling. But to listen to the prophetic, to listen when injustice is spoken out against, and named, is also costly. It’s hard, it’s very hard, to hear that we are going to have to change. It’s hard to let go of a comfortable status quo.

If we read through the report of the Royal Commission, we so often stories of otherwise good, well-meaning people, failing to act when serious issues were brought to their attention. Failing to listen, failing to act, because they didn’t want to rock the boat. Because the status quo was, simply, awfully, easier.

In today’s Gospel, the prophetic ministry of Jesus is rejected – not once, but twice. The people of Nazareth turn away from Jesus because they think that they know him, that they can define him. They want him to act the way they expect, to go back to being a simple tradesperson, a local, the kid from down the road.

The other rejection of Jesus is harder to see. At the start of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is talking to his disciples, to a gathered crowd. And he speaks in parables.

Over the past weeks, as we’ve worked our way through the middle section of Matthew’s Gospel, we’ve heard a lot of parables. And today Jesus gives the disciples – gives us – three more.

He speaks of hidden treasure buried in a field, of a merchant seeking pearls, of fishers catching both creatures both good and bad from the sea. And then Jesus asks a question:

“Have you understood all this?” (Mt 13:51a)

And the gathered people answer: “Yes.”


It’s an answer laden with irony. An honest answer might be “No, we really don’t understand.”

Or, “what on earth is going on with that treasure in the field? Why does the man find it, bury it again, and then have to go and buy the field? Why doesn’t he just take it straight away, and save himself the trouble?”

Or, “you’ve been talking to us for hours, we’re tired, and we just can’t absorb any more. Can we please get some sleep, and start again tomorrow?”

And so that “Yes” is, really, a rejection. Not a bold, active, honest rejection, as given by the people of Nazareth; instead it’s a passive, blithe rejection. A failure to engage.

We might translate that “Yes” as really meaning “Please, please, please, stop talking, stop giving us these difficult things to think about. Please stop challenging our behaviour. Please just let us be.”

Over the last few weeks, we have been going through a process of updating our Safe Ministry training. It can feel a bit tedious, to have to fill in paperwork, to have to go and get police clearances, to have to do an online training course.

And yet, it’s good work. It’s the response of the Church to those who spoke out, to victim-survivors, to those people who, like Sinéad O’Connor, answered the prophetic call to name a great injustice, too often at great cost to themselves.

And more than that, it’s a commitment to a certain type of culture. A culture in which we welcome people who speak up when they witness or experience something that makes them uncomfortable. A culture where we take what they say seriously, recognising that it can be hard to speak out. A culture where we don’t tune out from the things that are difficult to hear.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel, reminds us of the difficulty that we can have in listening to those who call for change, those who call for an end to injustice, an end to wrongdoing.

When we are baptised, we solemnly declare that we will reject selfish living, and all that is false and unjust.

God, the God who is always with us, help us in this. God calls some to speak prophetically, guiding and strengthening them by the Spirit.

We are called to listen to those voices, even and especially when they challenge us and discomfort us, remembering always God’s charge to us through our Baptism, and giving thanks for faithful prophets in every age.

The Lord be with you.