10 July 2011
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Matthew has a tendency to interpret the parables he receives into allegories. If you read on to the next parable (the weeds among the wheat), you see that he gives each element of the parable an interpretation, turning it into an allegory. He almost does the same here (of course, in keeping with Mark). The bits we leave out are not at all nice — the purpose of speaking in parables is precisely to prevent people from understanding the message of the Kingdom. That sounds to me like the sour grapes of Mark’s community, at the failure of their evangelism.
So, what if we read the parable without Matthew’s (or Mark’s) interpretation. A sower went out to sow. Clearly, this man is not a farmer. If he were a farmer, we would be told how carefully he prepared the ground that was to receive the seed. We would be told how carefully he tended the seed once sown, cultivating it, weeding, watering, etc. He would have made a scarecrow to chase the birds away. But, he just sows his seed any old where.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, in order to be holy as our Heavenly Father is holy, “for God causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and his sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous.” God is pretty profligate with God’s graces. Presumably, we are to be equally profligate with our graces. Some of it will be wasted, unappreciated and go for naught. That’s not our problem. I had a friend in Massachusetts who would give money to winos in Boston. People scolded her for it, saying “They’re just going to buy booze.” Her response was always, “That’s not my concern. My concern is my relationship to my money.” God causes God’s rain . . .
In the reading from Romans, we hear more of Paul’s (seemingly) confusing discourse on flesh and spirit. I am convinced that Paul is more of an anthropologist that a theologian. He is delving into the problem of what it means to be truly human, rather that into the nature of God. We can define human being in two ways: flesh or spirit. Human being defined as flesh is constrained by things like appetite, skin color, foreskin or no foreskin, male or female, slave or free. We could add rich or poor, gay or straight. You can extend the list: what kind of car we drive, the clothes we wear. We live in a society that wants to define people by flesh — beautiful, ugly; just watch tv. Paul likewise lived in such a society: Roman, Jew, citizen, slave. Or, we can define human being by spirit; relationships within community. Baptism creates a new community and a new set of relationships. The trick is to live fully in that new definition. What the law couldn’t accomplish because of the flesh was the creation of a new human being defined in these terms. So God took on flesh, and did what the law couldn’t do: condemned sin (the diminishment of the human being on the basis of flesh) to death, so that we could live in a definition of human being that allows for the fully value of each one.
Jacob and Esau are trapped in definitions of the flesh (Esau/Edom is red, Jacob is a trickster; Esau is born first, Jacob second, etc.). The narrator, however, lets us in on the irony that even though Israel and Edom are implacable enemies, nevertheless they are brothers, according to the flesh.
So, if we are to be holy as God is holy, we are to scatter our graces without thought for definitions of the flesh. We are to do our best to live in a new world (to walk in newness of life, as Paul puts it), in which those distinctions don’t matter. Some of our graces will fall by the wayside, and the birds will eat them (Yay for the birds). Some will be choked out by the cares of the world. But some will return to us a hundredfold. Some will be gifts given in community, and redound to the fullness of life.