Pentecost 4A, 2011
A LIturgy is also available
FAITH WITH JESUS, RATHER THAN FAITH IN JESUS
At last.... with this morning’s parable we are into some of Matthew’s stories.
‘A sower went out...’
Indeed, this parable is the beginning of a group of three,
and it provides us with an opportunity to reflect
on Jesus as a composer and teller of parables.
Of all the work which the Jesus Seminar has done,
it is their work on parables that interests and excites me the most.
Because it is in the parables we can hear
some of the word/story fragments of Jesus.
And get a glimpse of the way those in the early Jesus movement
heard and saw him re-imagining the world
as they experienced the world much later.
More than anywhere else in the Gospel tradition, hearing the parables
enables us to go on the journey that Jesus first chartered
rather than to worship that journey.
Matthew, this morning’s storyteller, and Mark before him,
shapes the story into three sub themes:
The act of sowing.
What happens to the seed.
The resulting crop.
So let me now place this parable back then...
And let us try to imagine those who are hearing this story.
Who would more than likely be in the audience when this story was being told?
Around the time of Jesus, Galilee’s rural areas,
especially in the lake area with its abundant supply of fresh water
and crops of wheat, barley, olives, grapes and vegetables,
were being taken over by the big city ‘Macquarie Street’ farmers.
Mounting debt, payable to both Roman officials and priestly aristocracy,
meant the crisis of debt and dispossession grew deeper.
Small farm owners were losing their land and
farmer labourers were being forced onto the unemployment line.
Farm land was being eaten up by a big city development.
And a new Roman taxation system was extracting nearly every last cent.
Penalties for non-payment could be severe.
It was a horrible reversal of the stories of Exodus.
The atmosphere was explosive.
Let’s imagine some more...
If the audience was made up of peasant, landless farmers,
and if the sower was pictured as one of their landlords, their bosses
“they might react with disdain toward the sloppy and wasteful manner of sowing” (Reid 2001:80).
What a waste!
What is wrong with this bloke?
When seed is precious, what sane farmer
would allow some of it to fall among rocks
or on a well worn, probably limestone, footpath?
If the audience was made up of peasant, landless farmers,
and if the sower was pictured as one of them,
a tenant farmer or day labourer
“their reaction would be sympathetic. They would know all too well the amount of seed and effort that is expended that never bears fruit because of the difficult conditions” (Reid 2001:81).
And they listened some more.
It is here the story takes a major shift.
Away from the sower and his practices, to the seeds and their fate.
Some fell on a well-worn pathway.
Some fell on rock.
Some fell among thorns and weeds.
Some fell on productive soil.
From failure to success! But how successful?
Well, I discovered that the commentators all had different opinions
as to the level and meaning of the success.
Some claimed Matthew’s ‘point’ was: the harvest was a superabundance.
Others, examining what they have been able to find out
from other sources, claimed:
four hundred fold was incredible,
one hundred fold was very good (Scott 1989:357).
So, with the ascending scale of 30, 60 and 100,
I reckon we can say the yield was an average-to-good harvest.
A modest success.
Within the bounds of everyday expectations.
How would the hearers - peasant landless farmers and day labourers - hear it?
How would they respond?
We are not told.
It is difficult enough for us to hear it and work it out.
But that is what makes this a parable, not just another story.
The ending is a surprise because of the twist in the tail.
But did we sense the twist?
Let me pursue this some more.
Many of the commentators whom I mentioned before,
reckon we need to hear this as a story
about the growing and coming kingdom of God
in all its wonder and glory and splendour - even if at the end time.
That is, in spite of everything, the harvest will be plentiful.
God has made a beginning.
Failure is pushed aside.
But following some other commentators I want to offer another suggestion
which I reckon is more in line with the story itself.
This is not an ordinary, common garden variety, story. It is a parable.
And a parable does not teach us something.
It just gestures toward.
And it does it’s best work when it turns our world
our conclusions, upside down.
So how is our world, our conclusions turned upside down in this parable?
By acknowledging that in the kingdom or realm of God
failure and miracle and normality are present.
“In failure and everydayness lies the miracle of God’s activity” (Scott 1989:362).
That God’s activity or creative presentness
can be and is experienced in the so-called ‘unfamiliar’ of guises.
An only-average harvest.
A public servant.
A house wife or house husband.
A shop assistant and office clerk.
That is, in the ordinary and the normal.
For both belong to the miracle of the realm of God.
So says Jesus, the rebel who, according to Bernard Scott, “revolts in parable” (Scott 2001:138).
The realm of God does not require moral perfection
or only ‘effective’ and ‘efficient’ actions.
And those considered outsiders, are in.
That’s the surprise, the twist in the tail of this parable.
That’s the re-imagining rather than the point of this parable.
And that’s good news for us if we have ears to hear.
Yes, good news, of the sort that invites us,
not to have faith in Jesus but to have faith with Jesus,
in the re-imagined world of the parables.
Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.
Scott, B. B. Hear then the Parable. A Commentary of the Parables of Jesus. Minneapolis. Fortress Press, 1989.
Scott, B. B. Re-imagine the World. An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2001.