Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-23
The most scary person in our world, is the one who is absolutely certain they are right and they alone have the truth of the matter. For those with such terrifying certainty, there is a deep inability to see another person’s perspective, they are unable to listen for what is new, they focus only on the thing they want or believe to the exclusion of everything else and anything and anyone else is irrelevant. Their worldview is the only view.
I think we all struggle with this temptation. I was recently reading a critique of the US Trump administration which said the conflation of ideas by some evangelical Christians, of Old Testament readings, the fundamentalism of their evangelical message and the apocalyptic nature of their analysis is not too far from the message given out by Islamic Jehadi terrorists. It reminded me we are all subject to the same pressures, the same desire for certainty, the same human need to remove our fears and not worry about the future; and if that means not to be open to questions or doubts, then even better. And if it means we kill those who disagree, then all to the good!
The Gospel reading together with those in Genesis and Romans speaks to that aspect of our human nature that is so challenging for all of us.
The Kingdom of God is the theme of these central chapters in Matthew’s gospel. There is a huge problem confronting people of good will – all of us who mourn over the suffering in this beautiful and broken world. If God is good, why is it like this, with the strong trampling the weak; where people who don’t want to do any trampling, look on as bystanders, sad and inactive. Where the Gospel message is ignored or rejected.
The parable of the sower is critical as we think about the type of community we want to be, to survive in a world where our worldly connections are more important than our relationship and commitment to Christ.
The parable of the sower is clearer to those who have a connection to the earth and the seasons, to farmers and those who value the health of this beautiful planet, who see every flower and tree as part of God’s kingdom; in the joys and challenges of working with the earth rather than against it.
Farming is a metaphor for discipleship. It is a useful comparison for us to reflect upon. Most of us are familiar with the explanation Jesus gives following the parable of the sower to his disciples where it seems most disciples don’t understand or listen properly, are unable to change or grow, and fall short for a variety of reasons. In this explanation it seems very few of us are effective disciples, able to hear, understand and bear fruit.
Another reading of the text puts us as disciples into the shoes of the sower. We believers are charged with the responsibility of farming God’s word. Like farming, it is not a task for the fainthearted.
Discipleship is not susceptible to careful planning, and while we hope farmers are good planners, the story emphasises something different to this orderly approach. Instead, it emphasises disorder and reminds us even the best farmers cannot control the world around them. Birds have a mind of their own, like storms, cold spells, heat waves, droughts, weeds and pests. Good farming, like good discipleship is found somewhere between planning and things we can’t control.
Discipleship is no stranger to risk and failure. This is challenging for many churches and people who have become risk averse, fearful of the unknown, trying to make sure we avoid failure and guarantee success, (like my earlier comments on the US). Our carefulness can make us cautious, like another of Matthew’s parables, where the servant buries the talent instead of investing it.
The farmer in today’s parable is not so careful: they invest, take the risk and scatter the seed, chance failure and often experience it. Crops fail sometimes; this is the reality for farmers. Discipleship is honest about failure and is not afraid to live into it. But how often do we criticise and blame those who tried and failed, those who make a mess, who have not stored up wealth and taken out insurance, and behaved in a way that is unplanned and risky.
Other interpretations speak to how we respond as disciples to Jesus’ word. Many welcomed it, others reacted with caution or challenged it, and dismissed it. Others gave up when they found it wouldn’t be easy. The world was chosen over Jesus and his message, just like today. Jesus’ work was difficult, and the results were only patchy and partial. This matches any sower’s experience.
Discipleship requires hope and resiliency. Farming is hard work, vacations are few and lots of farmers live at the edge of sustainability. Discipleship however, delights in God’s abundance.
I started out this reflection talking about how people desire certainty and reject doubt and find themselves wanting others to choose their way, ‘you’re either with me or against me’.
Jesus didn’t want to make the kingdom unconditionally accessible to everyone. He said…’The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’. This is difficult for us and popular religion struggles to accommodate it. It is much easier to leave this out and read the easy bits.
For Jesus, to share the blessings of God’s kingdom with those who when they see the works of the Kingdom can think only of rejecting and obliterating it, would be to destroy the kingdom itself. For those who reject Jesus and his message, their rejection in some instances is so thorough and forceful they have even judged the liberating love of God to be the work of the devil and plot to kill God’s Messiah; and they are still doing so even today.
We say so easily, ‘come as you are. God doesn’t judge you, everyone is welcome!’
We speak in this way in reaction to the harsh Pharisaic Gospel that was so popular in the past, and such judgementalism is now increasingly popular again in the fundamentalist, apocalyptic distortions being pedalled around the world as a facsimile of the Gospel.
But Jesus’ anger is not directed at the weak, the sinful, the disempowered or the outcast. For them, for you and I, Jesus is all compassion, and the ‘come as you are’ comes straight from his heart, from his love. He only denied the message to those who take pride in denying it to those weaker and less privileged than themselves.
And this makes sense. Tell a cruel, abusive person God doesn’t judge them, but accepts and forgives them as they are, and they will carry on trampling others with a clear conscience. This is what we see in our homes and our workplaces and communities. It is not helped or changed.
However, those who have listened to Jesus, seen his works and not been scandalised by him, but have come to him, gathered around him and accepted him, and have changed the way they live, have the key. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. He himself is the seed referred to in the parable, and he has scattered himself everywhere, mixing with everybody, tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes, lepers, women and Gentiles.
He has mixed with the judgemental and pitiless Sadducees and Pharisees, giving himself to them as liberally as to everybody else. He has spoken to them, despite their lack of compassion and care, as liberally as to those they despise – but his words have fallen on the hard path. And so, the birds, symbolic of evil, have come and eaten it up.
The simple meaning shows the Gospel must be taken in deeply enough to find access to all areas of our lives. We need to allow the grace of God to dig into our hearts, so the Word can penetrate, take root and grow in us. God does this through the hardships we experience as humans, so let us be encouraged knowing God is breaking up the rocky ground of our hearts so God’s Word can transform us.
We need to free up our lives, so the Gospel has priority. If thorns, like affluence and status become absolutes they obstruct the imperatives of love and forgiveness. Anything can become resistant to the Gospel if it is allowed to become a non-negotiable in our lives and the certainty upon which we live our lives. It is only our open hearts that can receive the Word and keep it to the fullness of harvest.
Discipleship is a wonderful adventure inviting us to share God’s word as a farmer plants their crops; with a clear vision of the world’s brokenness, a willingness to fail, to hope, resilience and the deep trust that by God’s grace some of our work will bear fruit, in spite of our doubts and questions. We just have to start; it is God who will make them grow.