Friday, July 08, 2005

The Parable of the Not-So-Bright Sower

At the very end of JRR Tolkien’s wonderful book, Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Sam Gamgee comes home from the war to find his beloved home in the Shire has been laid waste.  Everything that was wholesome and good about the Shire has somehow been twisted and made ugly.  And so the hobbits set about putting things back to rights.  And Sam takes out his greatest treasure – the little box of magical elfin seeds that the great elf queen has given him – and instead of planting each one carefully in his garden, as everybody expected, he goes up the highest hill he can find and throws the delicate seeds into the wind, in great big handfuls, trusting that the wind will take it where it can do the most good.  And so it does.

Today we begin the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel where we find a wonderful collection of the stories we call parables, the sort of vivid stories that Jesus probably came up with as he walked through the villages of Galilee and observed people going about their everyday lives.  Stories that most of us probably know almost off by heart, and we know also that Jesus uses these stories to spring his listeners’ minds open, to surprise us into seeing something familiar from an unfamiliar angle – and we know Jesus’ stories are intended to make a point about what God is like, and what God’s point of view is like, but increasingly Bible scholars have had to conclude that Jesus’ parables never seem to have a single obvious meaning – but always seem to mean something a bit different depending on how you look at them. 

You know how fairy stories always seem to start with ‘once upon a time’? – for Jesus the opening line is ‘God’s kingdom is like this …’  Always the kingdom of God, in Greek, God’s basileia – when we hear it we don’t quite get how in your face it was to go around telling stories that start with the words, well, God’s empire is like this – but in first century Palestine there was only one empire and that was Rome.  To speak of another empire was a political act, it was not healthy.  Yet Jesus does it, Jesus tells stories about the "empire of God" - an empire directly in contrast to the empire of Rome.  Maybe that’s why these disturbing stories needed to be obscure, because they carried a different vision of how things could be, and a different vision of what mattered, and that’s what made them dangerous.

Unfortunately, in our own time, the danger in these stories often seems to be that they are not surprising enough.  They’re too familiar, and our minds jump too quickly to the punchline and to what years of churchgoing have taught us they mean.  But the peasant farmers and the fishermen and the housewives of Galillee didn’t have that problem – when a good storyteller wandered into town the whole village would get out there to listen, to argue over the storyline and judge how good it was – and today’s story falls flat on its face in the first line.

‘That’s not how you sow seed!’  [a bit like that ad for instant porridge a few years ago where the little Scottish boy looks on incredulously and says, ‘tha’s no how ye mak porridge] You’ve got to know something about farming methods in the ancient world, in this little corner of the Middle East that wasn’t very fertile, that had notoriously unreliable rainfall, where farmers lived a hand to mouth existence at the best of times – you don’t waste your seed-grain – it’s all you’ve got to keep from starving next winter – in a good season when you risk the last of your grain you might get back ten times what you planted – or you might lose the lot – even modern farmers sometimes decide not to risk it at all, not to plant their seedgrain if the rains haven’t come – but this sower just goes out and flings it round him, scattering it on the path and in the rocky, barren corners where nothing has ever grown.  Not where we come from, you hear them saying – you’re never going to get a harvest like that.  So, what’s with this sower?  Doesn’t he know any better?

But when Jesus explains it all to the disciple afterwards, it’s all about the soil.  Now the funny thing is that this parable and the parable about the weeds and the wheat are the only ones that Jesus explains – and this seems so out of the ordinary that many Bible scholars believe that this might have been the early church’s interpretation of the parable, not Jesus’ own words.  But it’s become the standard way of unpacking the story – are you good deep soil with plenty of nutrients so God’s Word can take root in you, or are you not listening deeply enough, are you going to give in when persecution comes, are you going to get distracted from the Word by the cares and responsibilities of everyday life?  It’s an interpretation that focuses on the individual responsibility of disciples – it sounds a warning that we have to do some work of our own here – because it’s possible to hear the Word and not be transformed by it! 

Maybe we need to stay at this level for a bit.  It’s really a very good metaphor for the inner life, after all.  Because it’s about doing the inner work, it suggests something about the need to explore our own depths, to turn the soil over and dig in the compost and the manure – it suggests there’s something organic about learning to be a receptive disciple, and it suggests the value of the earthy, formative experiences of human life, the experiences of intimacy and hard work and mess. 

It’s also possible that focusing on how ready the soil is to receive the seed might also have been a word of consolation for the early church as they began finding out that not everyone everywhere was going to welcome the gospel – ‘fell among the thorns, didn’t stand a chance!’ – and of course a word of consolation which today’s church also gratefully receives.  It seems to caution us to be careful where we risk the treasures of the gospel.  But before we seize on that explanation too eagerly we need to remember the sower who scatters the precious seedgrain just anywhere and everywhere.

You see, like Sam Gamgee, God is a wasteful, a profligate sower – the seeds that God chucks around are not just scattered on well-tilled or receptive patches of ground – in fact when we look at the story from the sower’s point of view we hear an echo of the parable of the sun and the rain that falls on the unjust as well as the just – the point that is being made, I think, is that God’s blessings are utterly indiscriminate and God’s economy is not sensible like ours – or, perhaps is the point that we are not really going to know which patches of dirt are fertile until we throw the seed on them?  Is it possible that we’re not so good at telling where the fertile ground is?  Could it be that we plant in the same places year after year until the ground is worn out, even though it still looks deep and black, and we miss out on sharing in God’s harvest because of the ground we overlook?

Last weekend in Melbourne I was one of four Anglicans amongst a crowd of five hundred at the Forge National Summit, and I found myself feeling deeply challenged – uncomfortably so at times – and energised by the discussion on what is being called incarnational mission.  Incarnational just means that we notice what God has done in Jesus and we try to do the same thing – we see that in Jesus God has become immersed in our world and in our culture, because that after all is the only way we can really see what God is like and what God intends for human life.  So living incarnationally means living as Christians within a secular society - like for example the large, tattooed and rather scary looking man at the conference who saw more value in living as a Christian bikie in the bikie sub-culture, than in trying to get bikies along to church.  Some of the imaginative ways of being church in unusual places that are being discussed at Forge are a real challenge to what mainstream churches are doing.  In other ways it affirms what we’ve always known, deep down – that we are in mission when we are living as Christians in the society we happen to find ourselves, living intentionally as salt and light.  Conversations like the one at Forge make us look again at the secular culture we live in, a basically pagan culture of individualism and consumerism – and ask ourselves again - is it rocky ground or fertile?  Should we be in retreat from it, or do we need to live more fully within it?

Which brings us to the point of view of the seed, and the most surprising thing of all about this story for the peasant farmers of Galilee.  Because this not-so-bright sower reaps a bumper crop – in fact, better than a bumper crop, an unheard of, an outrageously over-the-top return – yes, the story says, when you live incarnationally and take the risk of sowing your seed just all over the place you’re going to lose some, but these aren’t just your ordinary seeds.  Like Sam Gamgee’s magical elfin seeds, these ones are going to surprise you.  It’s a good word for Matthew’s discouraged church at the end of the first century, and it’s a good word for us.  Jesus is telling us that God’s Word does not fail.  Like Sam Gamgee, you give away the little you’ve got, you take by the handful and you throw it on the wind and trust in the one who gave it to you – a surprising claim, don’t you think? coming from a prophet who thinks that God’s empire is springing up within us and all around us – but who is about to find out that the only empire with the power to determine the success or failure of his mission is Rome?

Or is it a true claim?  Is it a claim that we ourselves can rely on?