13 July 2014

Expect Wonders

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost/ 13th July 2014

Parables sometimes make my head hurt. And my soul. They can give anyone a good headache. And Jesus was the parables-gives-me-a-headache master.  No one told a parable quite like him.  He wasn’t the first to use this teaching method. In the Greco-Roman world, public speakers, politicians, philosophers, including Socrates and Aristotle, used parables. Within Judaism, prophets and rabbis told parables. Jesus didn’t create that parable form, but he was brilliant in its use. 

In the Gospels we are hearing vintage Jesus. We have his core teaching, the mind of Christ. They were shocking then and should be shocking now and if they’re not shocking today, that says more about us than about Jesus and his parables.

What are parables? Yes, they’re stories with a lesson.  They’re designed to teach us something.  Yes, they’re often read as allegories, with one thing standing for something else. This is probably what you learned in Church school. It’s what I was taught.

However, stories with lessons containing allegories rarely give one a headache and if you don’t have a headache, if you’re not confused, if you’re not wrestling with what Jesus said and not sure how to respond, then you’re not “hearing” the parable.  Parables are not “example stories,” they’re not morality tales, telling you how to behave. They’re parables 

Parables pack a punch.  They’re supposed to generate an experience, touch us deeply, hit us in the gut, and knock us off our feet.  They’re very similar to a Buddhist koan, which are designed to provoke, such as this famous one: “What face did you have before you were born?”  Parables make us think. They force us to wrestle.  They mess with the way we view the world.  They are intentionally disorienting, which is probably why we want to turn them into morality tales.  But then they wouldn’t shock us and they’re meant to shock. 

“Listen! A sower went out to sow….” Sounds harmless, doesn’t it?  The shock-element of this parable is subtle; it’s actually counter-intuitive, which we’ll see in minute. 

Let’s go deeper.  Matthew, Mark, and Luke include this parable in their Gospels, each with slight modifications.  The Gospel of Thomas also includes this parable, which means that what we have in this text is right at the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry. That alone makes it significant. The story is straightforward enough. Some seed. Some soil. Simple.  The sower casts—broadcasts—the same seed on different types of soil or soil conditions, which yields different results. There’s nothing startling about this.  It’s obvious, even for a city-dweller. 

Let’s break it down. The first nine verses of chapter 13, especially verses 3 through 9, record the original parable.  The lectionary then skips over a section and returns with verses 18-23, in which Jesus interprets the parable.  Matthew, like Mark and Luke, includes the original parable and then offers an interpretation.  Most scholars believe that the interpretative verses were not part of the original parable, but were added by the early church—very early, but still added.[1]  Only the Gospel of Thomas has the original parable standing alone.[2] All of which poses considerable problems for modern-day readers and preachers.  Why? Because the explanatory text (verses 18-23) doesn’t square with the intention of the parable on it’s own.  The interpretation modifies how we read the parable itself.

For example, if we read the parable through the lens of the explanatory text (again, verses 18-23), in which Jesus explains the parable, the parable becomes essentially about ethics and morality, about how we should behave.  The emphasis is on where the seed lands, the four environments.  Seeds land on foot worn paths that are dry and dusty, and the birds eat them.  Seeds land on rocky ground, with little soil, not enough for deep roots.  Seeds land among thorns that choke what is trying to grow.  Seeds land on good soil.  From this perspective the four environments or soil types become metaphors for the hearer of the parable, for you and me.  Therefore, we think the parable is about us.

So we begin to look at our lives and ask: what kind of soil am I? What kind of soil are we as a church? 

Has the word been sown in your life but not taken root because, but you’re soil-less, flat, downtrodden, dusty, well worn by life, and therefore think, “nothing of God can be planted in me”?

Or, has the word been sown in your life and you’re feeling happy and joyful in Jesus, but something is wrong, these feelings can’t take deep root now that your life is a mess, you’re a mess, your family is a mess, you’re facing considerable financial or emotional or personal challenges, you’re not sure what you believe any more and you’re thinking, “nothing of God can be planted in me”?

Or, has the word been sown in your life, you know God’s love and grace, have known it since childhood, but you worry and worry and worry and the cares and concerns and anxieties of the world have become like weeds choking the life out of you and you’re thinking, “nothing of God can be planted in me?” 

Or, are you good soil, the one who hears and understands what has been sown in you, and your life bears and yields much fruit, because you think "something of God has been planted in me?”

Can the seed that the sower is sowing take root and flourish in our lives or not?  That’s a worthy and important question to ask. 

In fact, all of these are important questions to ask at certain times in our lives, both individually and as a church.  It’s not surprising that these texts have been used as a way to talk about evangelism, for aren’t we as a church called to spread the word, plant the seeds of the gospel, bring them to life?  Isn’t that how we grow the church? If we cultivate ourselves, as soil, then God’s good seed will take root in our lives, and we will grow, grow, grow…hundredfold, sixty, thirtyfold.  What church wouldn’t like these membership statistics?  Who wouldn’t like that kind of yield? In fact, the explanatory verses here are exactly the kinds of things that churches and institutions are most concerned about: growth. (This might be another clue that Jesus never said these words, but were included by the early church.)

Now, all of this is fine.  But, remember, the emphasis in the explanatory verses is upon the soil.  And with such a reading it’s natural for us to judge the soil, which means judging ourselves.  Were you judging yourself as I described each seed/soil scenario?  Were you comparing and contrasting one environment to another? Were you judging others who have a different soil scenario from yours? I’m curious—I won’t ask for a show of hands— how did you answer?  How many answered, “I’m good soil”? My guess is not many. We love to judge ourselves.

What if, then, we stay with the original parable and try to set the traditional explanatory lens aside; we come out with a different take on this text. 

First, did you notice that Jesus never judges the soil scenarios; he just describes them. Yes, he says that one scenario is good, but he doesn’t judge the others for not being good.  They just are.  Second, he doesn’t tell us how the good soil became good. There’s no mention of rehabilitating the “bad” soil to make it good.  He doesn’t tell us to aerate the path, feed the soil with nutrients.  He doesn’t tell us to remove all the rocks from the soil.  He doesn’t tell us to pull all the weeds—as someone who has spent hours this summer weeding his yard I wish all weeds were forever cast into the fires of hell!  But Jesus doesn’t say this.

Maybe because the focus on the parable isn’t the soil, but on the sower and the way the sower sows.  This, then, is the counter-intuitive aspect of the parable. It’s not what we expect. We think the parable is about us—that’s because we think everything’s about us—but it’s really about the sower and what is being sown. 

Here’s a story: many years ago I heard a powerful sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), preached by Fred Anderson, pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City.  He helped me see something I had never noticed before about this parable.  I’ve never forgotten it.  That story should really be called the Parable of the Prodigal Fatherprodigal can mean wasteful, but it can also mean extravagant.  And in the story, you’ll recall, the father’s grace toward the wayward son is nothing less than extravagant and exuberant and irrational, given what the son did to the father. The father’s extravagance toward the wayward son then infuriates the eldest son who stayed at home.  When we focus on the behavior of the good or bad son we turn it into a morality tale, an example story. We think the parable is trying to teach us what we should or should not do—don’t be prodigal like the son—when Jesus is really trying showing us through the parable that we are children of a Prodigal God.  That’s the point.

Similarly, the sower here is God.  God is the sower sowing the seeds of God’s Kingdom—the message of God’s coming Kingdom or Realm is the most important element of Jesus’ teaching.  We really need to be clear about this: the Kingdom and all that it represents—wholeness, grace, healing, liberation, salvation, radically inclusive justice, together stand at the very center of Jesus’ preaching and teaching.  Not—dare I say—the cross, not his death and resurrection even, but the good news of the Kingdom.  It’s Kingdom living and teaching that might cause you to suffer (probably will), maybe even get you killed (like Jesus), but don’t worry, for the last word in the Kingdom is resurrection. That’s what Jesus came to share and embody and he wants his disciples, he wants us, to help spread the word. 

“A sower went out to sow.”  Broadcasting—literally, broadly casting gospel-seed, wildly, arbitrarily all over the place.  Not in neat, well-ordered rows of Presbyterian respectability.  Not in predictable places.  Not in places that are already cultivated and ready to receive the message of the Gospel.  Not in places that even want to hear about God’s justice-love and mercy and grace.

The sower sows gospel-seeds in good places and thorny places and rocky places, on good people and thorny people and rocky people and shallow people, and will not stop sowing seeds. That’s how God operates. That’s how Jesus operates.

Remarkably, what we discover from this parable is that “God is a really, really, really bad farmer.”[3]  The Sower isn’t “wondering whether the rocky, or the hardened, or the thorny soil measures up or is worthy of the sower’s seeds.”[4]  So, for heaven’s sake, stop judging the soil and look at the sower—and what a sower God is!  “God doesn’t stop sowing the seeds of divine love because the soil isn’t perfect”—of course the soil isn’t perfect! What soil is?  “Rather, God is busy sowing indiscriminately, irresponsibly, irrationally.”[5]  It’s not about you or the soil.  Depending upon the day or hour, you might be thorny, good, and completely worn-out.  Yet, “God is still sowing love, and always will.  God’s love is relentless.”  It’s inexorable.  And in time it will yield.

My colleague David Henson says, “God is throwing seeds around like an intoxicated fool at the bar buying another round of drinks that she can’t afford.”[6]  We might be pushing a limit here with this image, but it makes the point. It’s kind of zany. There’s no limit to the extravagance, to the generosity and love.  “What kind of farmer sows seeds on the hard path? What kind of farmer plants in the thorn bushes? What kind of farmer tosses seeds among the rocks? What kind of farmer wastes so much?”[7] The kind of farmer who is madly in love with you and me and the world.

This is who God is.  This is what life is like in God’s Kingdom. It’s significant that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus begins to offer parables, particularly this one, just at the moment when Jesus and the disciples are facing pushback from the Jewish authorities, when the early followers are facing hardship and discouragement.  This parable of the kingdom is saying to them—and to every disciple facing discouragement and every church worrying about its future—this message: it’s not about you, so relax.  Yes, some seed falls where it never takes root, most of the seed won’t take.  That doesn’t stop God from sowing.  And don’t let that stop you.  The yield will come; it always comes.  One hundred, sixty, thirtyfold might sound a lot to us. But these figures are actually in the range of an average-to good harvest. The figures aren’t outrageous.[8]  God’s work will yield, as it will.  The Kingdom will yield in due time.  There will be enough, more than enough.  Don’t worry about that. Trust in the sower.  The seed will yield.  So, “expect wonders” as Thoreau (1817-1862) said.[9]

In the meantime, sow some gospel-seeds yourselves.  Bushel loads of seeds. Go wild. Be prodigal. Hold nothing back.  Expect wonders!

“The church is called to ‘waste itself,’ to throw grace around like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow, and it belongs to God.”[10]  It all belongs to God.  So, relax. Just keep throwing more grace around—and expect wonders.


[1] Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 150.
[2] Gospel of Thomas, Logion/Saying 9.
[3] I’m grateful for David Henson’s imaginative sermon on this text, “Dirt is Resurrection and God is a Bad Farmer.” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2014/07/god-is-a-bad-farmer-homily-for-the-parable-of-the-sower/. I refract the text from a slightly different angle.
[4] Henson.
[5] Henson.
[6] Henson.
[7] Henson.
[8] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 199), 356-357.
[9] From the quote printed in the bulletin by Henry David Thoreau: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
[10] Long, 151.

1 comment:

Lydia Reid said...

Yes, better title.