In the next few weeks, we are going to be hearing or reading some of the parables that Jesus taught. Much of his teaching was done through telling stories – at least in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Many of the stories told linger in our imaginations and have found their way into our everyday vocabulary – think The Good Samaritan.
Sometimes it seems that whenever Jesus was provoked or challenged, he answered with a story. People grumbling about his fraternising with ne’er-do-wells? There was once a man who had two sons and he continues with the parable of the Prodigal Son. Who is my neighbour? challenged the young lawyer. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho said Jesus and so began the story of the Good Samaritan.
Stories work on us in a different way to more orthodox teaching; rather than being instructed we are invited to find our place in the story. We must do some of the work ourselves, rather than just being deposit boxes for the wisdom of others. That is worth remembering over these weeks ahead as we hear more of Jesus’ parables – let’s try to use our own imaginations to deepen our sense of what Jesus is trying to tell us – especially about the nature of the Kingdom of God. It is where the practice of Dwelling in the Word can be so helpful – allowing the words of the Gospel to linger, as we abide with a word or a verse that seems to connect.
Why did Jesus teach in stories? Well it was very much part of the rabbinic tradition and to that extent Jesus was treading a well-worn path. But if you read the missing verses in the Gospel (Matthew 13 verses 10 to 18) for today, Jesus gives his own explanation. When his disciples ask why he teaches in parables, Jesus’ response suggests it is a strategy of concealment.
To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
He continues with words from Isaiah about the people’s heart having grown dull and their ears being hard of hearing. His stories are provocative and can work by shaking us out of complacent ways of seeing and hearing and expanding our circle of empathy, as outsiders become exemplars and losers become winners. He draws his authority to teach in parables from the words of the prophet
I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world. (Mt 13.35)
In todays passage Jesus unusually goes on to give his disciples (but not the great crowds who had heard just the story) an interpretation of the parable of the Sower, which we read in todays Gospel.
So, if you are wondering, Ch 13 verses 1-9 were told to a crowd who were standing on the beach, while Jesus was in a boat, but the interpretation (verses 18-23) was told to a much smaller group of his disciples.
What do we make of it? The explanation that Jesus gives is self-explanatory – as the sower sows the seed, it falls on a variety of soils and as any good gardener knows, the nature of the soil will determine the crop. Jesus tells us that like soil, we too respond in a whole variety of ways. Sometimes we bubble over with enthusiasm, but quickly move on to something else; other times we are full of good intentions that go the way of New Year’s resolutions and still other times we are the good soil, blossoming and returning a good harvest. I think it fair to say that all of us are pretty much all the soils – the rocky, the weedy, the thorny and the rich!
Now it may be that we think that as Christians we ought (we are good at oughts aren’t we?) to be the good soil and most of the time we have a pretty good idea of what that good soil looks like, and if we are honest it is people like us. We spend quite a lot of time pulling out the weeds, clearing the paths of stones or cutting down the thorns to make sure that we are the good soil that bears abundant fruit. But as we discovered last week, when we were reading the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, change is difficult. Even if we want to do things differently, we find ourselves seemingly trapped in the same old ways, repeating the same old mistakes and then we give up. We are all capable of great acts of love and generosity as well as being prone to small mindedness and pettiness.
The Church through history has not always been a great example either – to continue the gardening theme, spending more time on fertilisers and weed killers than attending to the patient, painstaking process of improving the condition of the soil. The Church is not always seen as being tolerant, loving and generous. Here is what an American writer wrote:
How I wish that the Church — the Church across the ages, the Church across all cultures, denominations, and circumstances — were known for its absurd generosity. How I wish we were famous for being like the Sower, going out in joy, scattering seed before and behind us in the widest arcs our arms can make. How I wish the world could laugh at our lavishness instead of weeping in the wake of our stinginess. How I wish the people in our lives could see a quiet, gentle confidence in us when we tend to the hard, rocky, thorny places in our communities, instead of finding us abrasive, judgmental, exacting, and insular. How I wish seeds of love, mercy, justice, humility, honor, and truthfulness would fall through our fingers in such appalling quantities that even the birds, the rocks, the thorns, and the shallow, sun-scorched corners of the world would burst into colorful, riotous, joyous life.
The parable describes a confident sower, dispensing seed with abandon; there is no lack of seed here; we may think the sower is wanton, wasteful in the way the seed is dispensed so recklessly and without thought. And in so describing the Sower, Jesus is describing a God who doesn’t behave in the measured, controlled sensible way that we like; rather a God who throws seed come what may – into the murky and inhospitable places of our lives and over the troubled landscapes of our world; insisting rather than calculating, forever loving rather than demanding, insisting rather than instructing. And when we do the patient, quiet work of prayer, listening and paying attention we too bear abundant fruit, and become like lights shining in the world, full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self -control, as Paul wrote so beautifully in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 5. 22/23).
Revd Jonathan Morris