13 July 2014
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10A (RCL)
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
If the writers of the gospels lived close to an agrarian culture, the parables of Jesus either don’t show familiarity with that culture, or challenge the assumptions of that culture. Any decent farmer hearing this story would immediately think “What an idiot!” Cultivation was a common metaphor for education in the ancient world. But the metaphor usually focused in the preparation of the soil and then the tending of the plant as images of preparing the student to receive the teaching and then guarding the neophyte in the early stages of adopting the taught philosophy. This teacher simply squanders a good deal of the seed. The parable leaves us asking why.
Matthew supplies an interpretation, but the RCL’s edit is problematic. We leave out some dialog between Jesus and the disciples about the purpose of the parables, and how blessed the disciples are to see and hear the words of the kingdom. The parable is addressed to the crowds, while the interpretation is addressed only to the disciples. The way the RCL jams them together makes it seem like the interpretation is meant for all. Clearly, however, the interpretation already deals with “church” issues — who is an appropriate hearer, and how we ought to respond to the word. If we leave these concerns aside for a moment, we can ask more directly the purpose of the parable.
Matthew changes the setting of the parable from his source in Mark in one slight detail. In both Gospels, Jesus has sent out the twelve with their instructions to carry nothing and preach the kingdom to all comers. In Mark, the parable of the sower happens “on one occasion.” In Matthew, it happens “on the same day.” This connects the parable to the instructions to the disciples. Matthew also tells us that “Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.” We were never told that Jesus had gone into the house, so the detail must be important.
Houses are structured environments; the sea shore is unstructured. Even more unstructured is the sea itself. Commentators give many reasons why Jesus sat on a boat: sound carried better, it worked like a pulpit, it provided a natural amphitheater. I don’t think the Gospel writers were concerned with such practical details; the setting on a boat on the sea is a literary device. Fishing is often used as a metaphor for preaching the kingdom. In Luke’s telling of a similar story of Jesus teaching from a boat, after he finishes, he asks the disciples to put out to sea to fish. They complain that they fished all night and caught nothing, yet at his insistence, they let down the nets and take in a miraculous catch. Fishing is indiscriminate – the net takes in all the fish present.
So, the preaching of the kingdom is not to be like the standard educational program. Throw out your seed and see what happens. Move on from one place to the next without waiting to see if any of it takes. The harvester is someone other than you, so it’s not your concern what the yield is. The parable of the sower is an anti-metaphor, turning convention on its head. How many congregations fail to risk a new ministry because the soil isn’t yet prepared? Or close down a ministry because it is not producing “results”?
It seems that the goal of the early Christians was not to convert everyone, but simply to give folks a chance to hear and let God gather whatever harvest their work produced. Like the mustard seed that creeps in from the edge of the field, they never expected to take over the world, only to be a hidden force within it. If Rome taxed fields on their yield, there might not be motivation to produce a great harvest. Hide some good yield out there among the weeds, and you’d have enough to eat, like Gideon threshing his grain in hiding from the Canaanites. This is a shift from the “establishment” model we all grew up with. How do we count “success” in these times?