(A sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 preached at All Saints' Littleton on 7/10/2011)
There’s no getting around this truth: Jesus’ words are controversial, on so many levels.
First off, there are the arguments as to what he really said and didn’t say. You may remember that numerous times I have said that having four Gospels is such a blessing for the church, because we have four very different portraits of who Jesus is: and it is only by combining them that we can answer the ultimate Jesus question “Who do you say that I am.” The problem with four Gospels, however, is you have four different versions of what Jesus said, and they often come into conflict with each other. Furthermore, there is a blurry line as to where Jesus’ words end, and the point of view of the writer emerges.
Then, there are the words themselves. Some of Jesus most controversial words were told in parables, like what we just heard. Parables go against the grain. They are stories that are upsetting because they fly in the face of accepted thought. Parables point us to deeper possibilities of truth and understanding. Jesus’ parables were especially dangerous because they confronted conventional wisdom.
This morning’s Gospel has two parts: Jesus first tells the story to the crowd, and then moments later retreats to a private area where he reveals its meaning. Taken at face value, Jesus tells and then immediately explains his story, so the mystery is stripped from the parable.
But would Jesus have really done this? Would the master storyteller immediately tell those who had just listened the one and only way that his story should be understood?
The parable itself was told by Jesus, that I feel certain. The explanation, however, is up for debate. After all, I imagine that there was intense discussion over what it really meant.
And to illustrate this, I wish to share with you: what might have happened...
Once upon a time, many years ago, four men gathered together. I don’t know their names, no one really knows for sure, but for the sake of argument, I’ll call them Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They had been charged by their communities to set down in writing the accounts of the life of Jesus. The stories of Jesus were alive and well, upon the hearts of many men and women, but there existed no written word that could be preserved for the generations to come.
Mark had written a first attempt at recalling everything he had heard and remembered about Jesus. The other men were helping him revise his work. On this particular day, they had reached the parable of the sower. In case you were wondering, it sounded nearly identical to what we heard this morning.
“Well,” said Mark, with a hint of worry in his voice, “What do you think?”
There was some silence. Then John spoke. “Well, the parable itself is just right. I remember it very well. What I don’t remember is Jesus explaining this parable. Did I sleep through that part?”
Mark smiled. “No, you’re right. However, we’re writing these stories down so people will know Jesus, AND will know what we, the Christian Movement, believe. We have to be unified and we have to be consistent. So we need to include what Jesus ACTUALLY MEANT with each story, and then we need show how it relates to our community.
Luke frowned. “That’s a problem. We talked and argued all the time about these stories. We’d come up with things and Jesus would agree or disagree with many of our ideas, but he never came out and said ‘This is actually what I mean!’ Do you remember Jesus explaining this story?
“Umm…no,” Mark admitted. “Of course, I didn’t take any notes. I think Mary was the only one writing stuff down.”
“She was, and I have her outline,” Luke said while waving a big parchment with the letter “Q” at the top, “but there’s no help here. There’s only the parable.”
“Look,” says Matthew, “I don’t see what the problem is. We heard this parable, and it’s easy to understand. Jesus’ words of God were the seed that was sown. The mission of Jesus fell on a lot of deaf ears. Lots of the seed was sown in vain. But even with the waste, there is some harvest. We should be confident that God’s work is being done. Some of our words will reach people. There is always some seed that grows and produces grain.”
“Okay,” agrees Mark. “But not everyone will interpret it this way. I want to have Jesus explain the parable so that there is one clear understanding. This will clarify what we believe and speak to the current problems that we are facing today.”
Luke is now nodding. “This will address the many pitfalls on the road of discipleship. Yet if we really hear and understand God’s word, we will bear fruit. The ‘fruit’ can then be seen specifically as the people that are won to Christianity by our preaching and teaching. We will reach whom we are supposed to reach."
John clearly disagreed. “You three are wrong,” he said. “The parable Jesus tells the crowd is dangerous, even if you try to explain what he meant. I will certainly NOT include it in my accounts of Jesus. If we say that the seed is the Word of God, and that it was just carelessly thrown around, we give the wrong message. After all, nobody farms that way: it’s wasteful! If I was sowing this field, I wouldn’t just throw the seed everywhere without taking care of it. I would use the best soil, the perfect blend of nutrients and water, and careful weeding to produce the perfect yield. No seed would go wasted.”
Suddenly, a new voice spoke. “Fortunately for the world, John, you are not God.”
The four men turned around. “Oh, Mary, come in. How long have you been there?”
Mary sat down. “Long enough to hear John’s brilliant plan on improving how God works in the world. I’m sure, John, that your garden would be nice and ordered with all of the deserving people in it. But God throws seed everywhere without expectations. No specific return is projected. There are no boundaries and no specially prepared ground. The rain falls where it falls and the sun shines where it shines, and lots of stuff sprouts up without thinning or weeding. And when it’s time for the harvest, everything is harvested, and God rejoices no matter how large or small the number. And that may sound impractical and foolish to you, John, but that is how generous God is.”
Mark, Luke, and Matthew appeared to enjoy seeing John put in his place. For his part, John looked like he wanted to be somewhere else.
“Way to go Mary!” “Well done!” “That’s telling him!”
But Mary was not finished. “Oh yes, you three, I bet I can guess what you all came up with. A nice explanation to take heart in the fact that while your preaching falls on deaf ears, that some people do hear and are converted to your right answers.” The room grew silent. “That’s a fine explanation when you see yourself as a teacher and the rest of the world as your students.”
“What happens when your fruit looks different from you? What happens when the person produced is not an intellectual teacher? You may want your converts to stand and sit, but what happens when they want to wave and clap their hands?”
“And what if the good fruit produced is the devoted Jew, the faithful son or daughter of Ishmael, or the pagan who is a good and just neighbor? The grain that is produced in this parable does not all look the same, and you are arrogant to think otherwise!”
There were shocked expressions on the four men’s faces.
Mark finally got the nerve to speak. “So you don’t agree with my interpretation of the parable?”
“It’s ONE interpretation Mark, and it will speak to a certain type of person. But the original parable has the ability to do so much more. It speaks to all sorts of people. A Pharisee, a leper, a Jew, and a Gentile can all hear this story and be touched in different and profound ways. The parable challenges people where they are, and invites them to new, wonderful ideas. Trust God…take heart …God works even when we can’t grasp what is going on. This is the power of the parable. No single group of people owns the parable. Ownership is shared by all.”
Luke looked pained. “But what about the Christian community? Didn’t Jesus tell us to go make Christians out of everyone?”
Mary shook her head. “Luke, ‘Christian’ was an unknown word to Jesus. We call ourselves Christians because of the way we’ve come to identify with Jesus. It is a description that we now use to describe ourselves. But Jesus called us to be FAITHFUL to God’s creation, which is far more reaching and inclusive of the world.”
“Jesus tells us to love God with everything we are; to love our neighbors and ourselves the same way. And Jesus practiced that. He cared for all, and He was especially gracious and loving of the people whom society discarded. Jesus was critical of people who insisted that everyone had to behave in the “proper” way. Jesus was calling the Pharisees not to abandon their religion, but to return their focus to loving God and caring for people. You’re heading down the road of the Pharisees if you insist that everyone must think like you!”
John looked angry. “So you don’t think we should be sharing our faith.”
Mary sighed. “Of course we are called to share our faith. Jesus not only taught this…he practiced it. But let’s be clear why we share our faith. We share our stories because God has engaged each and every one of us in a special way. We all have had moments of laughter, sadness, joy, and love. These moments have shaped who we are, and have forever changed us. We share ourselves because there is power, healing, and grace in each of our stories.”
“But sharing is about giving and receiving, and our stories will be received in different ways by different people. We also must be careful to spend more time listening to others than talking ourselves.”
The four men looked tired and frustrated.
“Look,” Mary concluded. “We can all write accounts of Jesus’ life. We can all pick and choose what we want to include: we have that luxury because we are the first to write these things down. The events live in our personal memories. But how will it read hundreds, even thousands of years from now? I am confident that Jesus’ example will stand the test of time. I am less confident of our words. We may not want the future generations to be tied to our single interpretation. What makes sense in our present world may lead to disaster in the future. We want our descendants to keep open minds: to live in the words and examples of Jesus."
"Well, 'Let anyone with ears listen.' Trust those words. Tell the story, and let the people of God hear for themselves."
Hear what the Spirit is saying to God’s people...