Monday, July 14, 2014
Text: Matthew 13: 1-9; 17-23
The parables were not earthly stories with heavenly meanings but earthy stories with heavy meanings, weighted down by an awareness of the workings of exploitation in the world of their hearers. The focus on the parables was not on a vision of the glory of the reign of God, but on the gory details of how oppression served the interests of a ruling class.—William Herzog in Parables as Subversive Speech[i]
A sower indiscriminately scatters seeds onto a hard path, among rocks, and in thorns—and these seeds yield nothing. But a few seeds land on a bit of fertile ground, and these yield a harvest beyond imagining, a harvest that will bring hope in a hungry land. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells this first of many parables and then, in this rare instance, he interprets the story. It’s as if the very first parable is the algebra problem the teacher writes on the board and works as an example for the students before they solve the rest of the equations themselves.
Since Jesus handily concluded this parable with an interpretation, maybe there’s nothing else for me to add. Jesus explained that:
SEEDS = the word of God’s kingdom (verse 19)
SOILS = the situations that either permit or prevent kingdom growth (verse 20-23).
We might just head into the narthex now for refreshments. Jesus has already solved the equation, explained the story, preached the sermon. We’re outta here.
Yet interpreting a parable is really not like solving a math problem. In fact, the very point of this parable seems to be that parables cannot be solved or explained. They must be experienced by and revealed to and grown within receptive soils . . . or souls. Jesus’ followers are being acculturated into a new world, a new realm he called God’s kingdom, a new way of being. The kind of understanding Jesus expects of his disciples is a deep, experiential way of knowing, not just head knowledge. Parables offer discussion starters, not pat pronouncements. “It is not a monologue to be heard and accepted but an invitation to conversation and communal reflection” (Herzog 265). For learning God’s ways, a parable is just the thing.
And how like Jesus to match his message with his method. Quite simply, Jesus practiced what he preached. His parable is not solely about the seeds that grow God’s kingdom; the parable is itself a kingdom seed planted in the hearer’s heart.
I’m going to share a particular meaning germinating in my heart. But before I do, I want to suggest how this first parable of Jesus teaches us to read parables—and maybe to read scripture in general.
1.This parable teaches me to expect the unexpected with Jesus and his parables. The kingdom of heaven, as Jesus describes it, doesn’t work the way this world works. This parable surprises me by describing the kingdom as carelessly and wastefully planted—not what I might have expected from God the sower. Nevertheless, an extravagant harvest results. Jesus also says that the things I might expect to further growth and success can actually be impediments. Consider the thorns in today’s parable that choke out the kingdom. Jesus said they represent money that can thwart kingdom growth. Then, as now, the kingdom of this world requires money for growth. So this parable—and those that will follow—upset his listeners’ expectations and keep hearers a little off kilter. Let us take note: be suspicious of our interpretations when they leave us feeling smug and sure. If we unpack a parable in ways that reinforce the ways of Wall Street or Washington, if we use a parable to prop up our preconceptions and prejudices, shore up our way of life, or judge someone else as not quite kingdom material, there’s a chance we do not understand Jesus. Despite this parable’s cozy familiarity and Jesus’ helpful interpretation, the parable of the kingdom seeds must continue to tease our minds into uncomfortable incongruities and insights and lure our lives into more faithful though unexpected paths of followship. William Herzog categorized Jesus’ parables as subversive speech intended to upset the interests of those in power.[ii] In reading parables, we must look out for the edgy and unexpected.
2. This parable also teaches me to listen to parables not only with my ears but also with my life. The seed the Sower plants cannot remain just on the surface. It must penetrate deep into our lives. The meanings must move into our very being. In some ways, a parable is like a poem, which, as poet Archibald Macleash advised, “should not mean, but be.” Let this parable be. Which is not to say let it alone. Let it be what it is. Which is not a riddle to decipher. Let God’s Word penetrate and become part of you.
If you’ve ever planted seeds in Dixie cups of dirt with a Sunday school class of 5-year-olds, you know there will be one child who just can’t resist taking his cup from the window ledge each Sunday and pulling his lima bean out of the soil to check on it. I am hoping to let the seed of understanding grow in my life. I am trying to resist pulling this parable out of the earthiness and preserving it under plexiglass and typing a neat caption above it that declares one meaning for this parable for all time. I want to listen to this parable as it continues its growth deep inside the totality of my life. And since my life is different from yours, the seed of meaning may develop a bit differently in me than in you.
3.Finally, the parable of the seeds illustrates Side by Side Thinking. The word parable comes from a Greek verb meaning “to set side by side.” Think of parallel lines. A parable works by analogy. You bring one thing alongside another for comparison. By putting the concept of God’s kingdom alongside the story of the seeds, we glimpse something of the ineffable, still not completely realized Realm of God. The parable is a seed: encapsulated mystery, growing in darkness, revealing only a little of the hidden potential for meaning. How could we glimpse God’s ways except through analogy and paradox?
The Side by Side way of thinking allows us to appreciate a story that came out of one culture and later shared in the context of another culture. You will know what I mean if you ever figuratively put the Bible alongside the Mobile Press Register to ponder where God is amidst today’s headlines. This side by side process is different from prooftexting, which extracts a Bible verse from its contexts and forces it in literal form onto a contemporary situation to score a debate point. Instead, side by side thinking lets us hold two realities together, fully aware of their different contexts—and yet in that side by side relationship, sacred meaning can open up for us. Parables in the Bible and events today live side-by-side to help us see that the kingdom of God is not far off but is beginning to unfold here, is already a realm we can be living into, for those with eyes to see.
Scholars may try to get to the “root” of the original Jesus saying that “germinated” the parable as now recorded. It’s right for us to be cautious about how we appropriate a story from a very different time and place in order to see meanings for us today. But as Jesus said elsewhere in this same chapter, “Listen with your ears but understand with your hearts.”
Here’s how I imaginatively plant the seed parable alongside the full sweep of the Biblical story and modern understandings of this world. I imagine the Cosmic Sower recklessly scattering stardust like fists full of seeds into every crevice of time and space out of a boundless desire to multiply life. With boundless love, the Sower then planted a precious seed into a human womb within a dangerous empire, and that seed grew into the image of Love itself. It was killed—but lives again and eternally. Flamboyantly, excessively, the Sower of life and love continues to breathe new hope for peace and justice in dark places, for seeds must begin in the hidden darkness. Even in times of war, of inequalities, of greed, of hatred, there are seeds breaking through to the light. According to today’s parable, most of the seeds failed, but the few seeds that fell into fertile ground produced a harvest that yielded 30, 60, even 100 fold.
Oh, the harshness of this world can make it seem as if God’s kingdom exists as a hopeless fairy tale, or some remote promise that will materialize only in another place and time, but our lives as well as scripture tell us that God’s mercy, justice, and loving community are already here in part. The Gospel does not promise wealth and power, in fact warns they thwart the kingdom—as do the worries of the world (verse 22). Yet the Gospel does not turn mere positive thinking into religion. On the contrary, the Gospel is quite realistic. But Jesus heralded a grace-filled kingdom to fulfill God’s purposes of love, of justice, of peace.
I invite you now to place alongside Jesus’ parable and the entire Biblical story, some part of your story. What kind of soil were you planted in? Even if you landed in the soil of easy growth, you’ve seen potential for the God’s Kingdom wasted.
So call to mind now those times in your life when you have planted a seed—invested your energy or emotion or resources in a plan or relationship or cause that just never took off.
Recall also the plight of others—for instance the refugee children from Central America piling up in our border towns—that make you wonder why the seeds of God’s justice have yielded so little fruit.
Think of your own tendency to look at a loved one and focus on what is lacking in that relationship instead of appreciating what is thriving or might yet grow. Jesus honestly acknowledges that all God’s seeds have not developed.
But hear this good news: when hearts are ready, God’s bounty, though long hidden, will spring up in surprising places. Give thanks for the times that a seed did grow in your life in ways you never expected: a chance meeting yielded a life-long friendship; a simple change in circumstance took you down a better path in life; a bit of hard work brought you positive results.
Reflect now on ways our faith community—called a new church “plant”—is bearing fruit in our community. Not all that has been planted will produce fruit. But much already has. Just in this past week I’ve been contacted by several folks I’d never met who have heard about Open Table and are thankful for your commitments to God’s welcoming ways. This week I met with someone in our larger community who needed spiritual counsel from a pastor who supports LGBT folks. Another person I’d never met before called to ask me to perform a same-sex union ceremony and I agreed. Yesterday I was invited (while we were painting our new office) to speak to the PFLAG group that meets at All Saints. (One member of that group said she’d heard Open Table’s ad on Alabama Public Radio and was overjoyed to hear a church proclaim that it is “pro-gay, pro-green, pro-science, pro-arts, pro-questions, pro-YOU.” She could quote almost the entire ad.) Last night I received an email from another person I’ve never met who wanted more information about our “diverse” community. These evidences of life and hope are not very visible, not the kinds of things I report to you regularly, but the seeds growing in our hearts and congregation are producing. Let’s give thanks for that.
This sermon will not end with a pithy summation. The parable is not yet finished with us. For some, not all, it will keep growing, instructing, nudging, needling. This sermon ends with these words of Jesus: “Let anyone with ears listen.” And continue to listen.
PRAYER: Extravagant God, We pray that our hearts will be fertile soil, ready to receive new seeds of understanding. Amen
[i] Herzog, William R. Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, p. 3.
[ii] Herzog’s title, Parables as Subversive Speech includes a subtitle, Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed, that borrows from Paulo Freire’s famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which advocated an educational model that respects what learners already know about their culture and uses it to liberate people from oppression. See Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2007.