Itinerant teaching

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 10A (RCL); Genesis 25:1934; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

I’m always curious when we leave out verses in a reading. The bit left out of the Matthew reading has to do with teaching, and people not understanding. God has hardened the hearts of the hearers, so they hear and don’t understand. Not the happiest of Jesus’ sayings.

Often, in the ancient world, agricultural images were used as metaphors for teaching. Like last week’s reading, when a student was said to take on the yoke of the teacher, in this image, the teacher spreads seed, which bears fruit in the student. Typically, though, that image involved the teacher spending a great deal of time preparing the soil, so that the teaching would fall on good soil.

This teacher seems cavalier, and even careless with his teaching. He throws it around rather indiscriminately. Some of it produces no fruit at all. And the bit we leave out seems to indicate that such is God’s purpose. What can be the point of that? It could be written in to Matthew’s Gospel to account for a failure of the Christian teaching to have had the impact hoped for. The explanation of the parable certainly seems to fit with such an interpretation.

In that case, those who do bear fruit, bear it in amazing quantities. When Jesus sends out the disciples, he tells them to stay in a house that offers peace, and to shake off the dust of the feet leaving a town that refuses to hear the message. The early Christian itinerant teachers were proclaim a new kingdom (much like the Cynics) that most people simply wanted to ignore. But for those who chose to live in it, it proved immensely exciting.

Paul experiences much the same thing. His fellow Jews, his kin according to the flesh, seem uninterested in the message of the crucified and risen Messiah, and even hostile to it. But for Paul’s little communities, this new message of a renewed family of Abraham, and the fulfillment of the promises of the covenant meant they were living in direct confrontation to empire and with the absolute assurance that they were on the right side of history.

When our message falls on deaf ears, or meets with hostility, we can take comfort that it has always been so. In that way the parable tells us we should never lose heart and spread the teaching of the kingdom far and wide, even if most of that message will simply be ignored. This new community of Jew and Greek together, living by faith, in the Spirit, away from the divisions made in the flesh is God’s purpose for the world. If most of the world doesn’t want to hear, we can know that we are living those purposes, and like those early Christian itinerants, we should continue to cast the word far and wide.

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