Preached from the Pulpit of Good Shepherd Church, July 13, 2014, by The Rev. Dr. L. William Countryman:
In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus was, in a way, just pointing out the obvious about his ministry. Some people “got” what he was talking about and some people didn’t. And why didn’t they? In some cases, they didn’t really understand it—couldn’t quite see what it had to do with their own lives. In other cases, they got quite excited when they first heard it, but the excitement was just a thing of the moment. In yet others, their attention was tugged away by the necessities of daily life—or maybe, beyond the necessities themselves, the struggle for prestige, wealth, security, certainty. Only in certain cases—maybe not all that many—did Jesus’ good news really take hold of people and give them new hope, the kind of hope that blossoms into a whole new kind of life. And those people, as Matthew has it, became like plants that “brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
Yes, most of the people in those big crowds that came out to hear the hot new rabbi from Galilee went away shaking their heads and lost interest as the initial public excitement faded. And then there were the others, the ones who kept listening and mulling things over and letting the teaching work on them and change them.
So what is this all about? Is this a matter of separating good people from bad? sheep from goats? Is Jesus condemning the people who didn’t get it? It doesn’t really look that way when we read it carefully. In some cases, Jesus says, “the evil one” was at fault, snatching the seed away before it could take root. In others, he blames the shallowness of people’s environment: it dried out too fast, didn’t give them a chance. In still others, it’s the weeds of worldly cares and temptations that choke the seedlings. To tell the truth, he doesn’t even give much credit to the people who do get it. Their seeds just happened to land in the good soil.
What’s going on here? Aren’t parables (or, for that matter, sermons) supposed to be moral pep talks? We expect them to tell us that we need to try harder. The bonus from that (and it has to have some bonus or we’d have given up on the process long ago) is that if we do manage a bit better, we can then feel good about ourselves for how well we’ve done. You can almost imagine the first disciples, on hearing this parable, turning to one another with a humble smile to acknowledge how good they all were. They must surely be the productive grain Jesus was speaking of.
But, then again, maybe not. The earliest Christians, in fact, had a strong sense that their faith in God owed very little to their own efforts. Think of St.Paul’s conversion. He certainly didn’t deserve any credit for that, did he? No, he got knocked off his feet (or, if you prefer the more dramatic version of the mannerist painters, his horse). (I do worry about that, though. If he was on a horse, how many other injuries did he sustain besides blindness?) In any case, he was as uncooperative as he could be. His conversion was something God did to him, not something he did for God.
That’s why he could write in Romans, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (8:2) We’re not just trying harder, he says; we’ve actually been turned into something new. Thanks to the gift of God’s Spirit, we’re living a different life with a different kind of energy.
Those early Christians discovered that they had somehow become new. And it hadn’t been primarily of their own doing. It was rather a gift from God. God somehow got through to them and showed them something astonishing about the love of God, something they had never suspected; and that gave them a new kind of life, one built on trust and hope and love and actually making a difference in who they were and how they behaved.
They didn’t all get knocked down on the road like Paul. Probably most of them were not quite as stubborn or hard to get through to as Paul. But they did get caught by surprise and given a new start. And it was God who did it, not they themselves. So they really couldn’t think of their faith as evidence for their own moral superiority.
So here’s Jesus undermining his disciples’ self-importance (that, of course, means our self-importance, too) right from the start, just as he was undermining that of the religious establishment of his day. “You think you’re pretty hot stuff? No, you just happened not to be living in a stony field or a weed patch. Lucky you!”
This teaching wasn’t new with Jesus. The same story was told in another way in our reading from Genesis today. Two children are born. The older, Esau, grows up as a bit of a free spirit, a bit disorganized, a bit irresponsible, but not a bad sort at all. The younger, Jacob, is hard working and efficient, but also rather mean-spirited, as we saw in the story about the stew. Yet, it’s Jacob who becomes the focus, the main character of their story in Genesis. He has no right to it. He is the younger son. (I doubt anyone took that story of buying his brother’s birthright seriously. There were no witnesses, after all.) And he’s not morally superior to his brother; if anything, the reverse. At the end of their joint story, it’s Esau who takes the risk of making peace (Gen. 33:4). Yet, God takes him and makes something of him.
God doesn’t pour the Spirit out selectively on the good. We don’t have to try to convince God or ourselves that we deserve it. No, God pours it all out willy-nilly, letting it splash on anyone within reach, and delighted when anyone catches on and opens up to it. Maybe some who turn a deaf ear to it at one time will be caught by it at another and changed in ways they could never have imagined. They’ll find themselves living new, more courageous, more generous lives than they had thought possible.
But wait a minute! Does this mean that God is unfair? Shouldn’t those of us who are trying to be good get at least a few favors? Well, whatever good God is up to in this world, we already know that it doesn’t add up neatly or perfectly, not in ways we can calculate and appreciate.
We often want a God that makes everything come out neatly in the end. It may be an intrinsic human desire. And it got a big boost in the Enlightenment Era, when Newton’s theory of gravity was the end-all of physics and one theologian (an Anglican priest named William Paley) even compared God to a watchmaker—a God with a place for everything and everything in its place, all to produce a thoroughly consistent world.
But our world is not ruled solely by gravity and predictability. We live in a world shaped intellectually by quantum theory and evolution. It may not be very comfortable, but it does at least leave us free to admit that sometimes the world is a mess. If God is at work in this world at all—and God is—then God is working, as people of earlier times also knew, in a world where chance plays a large role. God doesn’t rescue us from chance and make life safe for us. What God does is to live our lives along with us and fling seed in all directions in the hope that some it it will find fertile soil. And it does.
If our lives have some fertile patches in them, it’s no particular credit to us. We know from our own life histories that sometimes the seeds tossed at us have landed in the weeds or the rocks or along the path where the devil or anybody could have picked them off like a flock of hungry birds.
The world is not perfect. And we’re not perfect. But God is deeply involved with us and our world. And if God doesn’t get through to us on the first try, God will try again. And when the seed lands in the right spot at the right time of your life, it will grow and flourish. It will do that by God’s grace. And when it does, you find yourself becoming, maybe just ever so slightly at first, a new person, a person with riches to share, with gifts to give.
“Other seeds . . . brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”