Friday, July 29, 2011

Parable Series - "The Parable of the Sower" - Matthew 13:1-23

Read the parable text here: St. Matthew 13:1-23

Reflections on the Gospel – Matthew 13:1-23 - “The Parable of the Sower”
A sower went out to sow… This is perhaps one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.  It is one of the few parables that appear in all three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:4-15) and in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.  Jesus even names this parable – “The Parable of the Sower” – which should give us a strong hint as to where the meaning lay.  But in the course of my preparation I read (skimmed) a number of other articles and commentaries about this parable and discovered that some have come up with another title for it: “The Parable of the Soil.”  And this 2nd title reflects one of the major struggles with interpreting Jesus’ parables, namely: we want the parable to be about us!  We are so self-focused that when we read the Gospels we want them to be a mirror that reflects us, and of course we want the interpretation to be that we are the good soil – of course.  Everyone else, all of those sinners; those who are not like me – well, they are those other kinds of soil.  We want to be the good soil!
But the parable is not about us.  The parable is not even about the soil.  Jesus’ title given in verse 18 should be a major hint: “The Parable of the Sower.”  This parable is about the sower – God.  God is the sower.  And like many of the other parables that depict God as not altogether competent (in our human definition of that word “competent”) God is actually not very good at sowing.  Jesus’ listeners would have known how to sow.  They would have known that you don’t just throw the seed here and there and everywhere in a disorganized kind of way.  Seed was expensive and so a farmer needed to take some care in how the seed is sown.  Not God.  But the picture we have is of God, the sower, throwing the seed everywhere.  And I mean everywhere!  The seed is not sown only in Israel, among God’s chosen people; the seed is not sown only among the elite Pharisees and those with means; the seed is not sown only among those who carefully fulfill all of the purity and ritual regulations.  No, God throws seed everywhere – among everyone.  No wonder there is such a negative discussion between the parable and its explanation in the Gospel text.  Even Jesus’ disciple’s didn’t want to hear that God was sowing the Word among those other people – the poor, tax collectors, sinners, Gentiles and other who are not like us!
And what is this seed? Jesus tells us in his explanation (vss. 18-23) that the seed is the word.  The Greek word used in this passage by Matthew is LOGOS.  Sound familiar?  John 1:14 = And the Word (LOGOS) was made flesh and dwelt among us.  The seed is the word which is Jesus himself.  Jesus is the word of God incarnate.  The Kingdom of Heaven comes into our world through Jesus – the Word.  God, the sower, is throwing the Word everywhere.  And everywhere it lands it grows.  This is where we enter this parable.  The soil represents those who hear and experience the Word of God and the reception this word receives.  But we don’t get to choose.  Does soil get to choose whether or not it is good soil or not?  No and neither do we.  In fact, we as individuals and as a community represent all of the soils together.  We are the soil which is hardened and from which the birds eat the seed, we are the rocky soil, we are the soil which nurtures weeds and thorns and we are the good soil from which God brings forth a harvest, for ultimately it is God that gives the growth.
So what do we take away from this parable?  It is about God, the sower, who sows the Word, which is Jesus incarnate.  The Word is sown everywhere, among everyone and God brings forth growth in every instance.  May we recognize the seeds of the Word that grow among us and may we be open to the growth which God brings forth from us.

 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Persistence Widow and the Incompetent Judge – Luke 18:1-8

For the summer we are moving away form the Lectionary and doing a sermon series on the Parables of the Kingdom.  We began last week and continued this week with the Parable of the Persistent Widow and the Unjust Judge from Luke 18.  I suggest that rather than think of the Judge as unjust we should actually look at him as being an Incompetent Judge.
Read the Text of the Parable here: Luke 18:1-8 
            What is the Kingdom of God?  This phrase is a central part of the Jesus’ proclamation in the Gospels – The Kingdom of God is in your midst!  Or – Today this saying has been fulfilled in your hearing!  Or – Thy Kingdom come….  So what is the Kingdom to which Jesus refers?  In Mark and Luke it is the “Kingdom of God,” in Matthew it is the “Kingdom of Heaven” and in John it is “Eternal Life.”  It’s all the same thing, even though the terms are slightly different.  So what is the Kingdom of God?  Let me begin by stating clearly what the Kingdom is not – it is not a distant and remote “heaven” which is apart and removed from our life on earth.  It is not “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by;” It is not something we get or go to only after we die.

            Throughout the Gospels Jesus is constantly repeating the same thing over and over again – the Kingdom of God is here in your midst.  The Kingdom is come – in Jesus.  The Kingdom is Now; the Kingdom is also Not Yet.  Which is where the tension resides: The Kingdom is here and now; the Kingdom in its fullness is not yet.  But over the centuries Christianity has lost a sense of the Kingdom Now and has tended to focus on the Not Yet.  But when we do this we loose an important and central part of Jesus teaching – we loose a sense of immediacy; and we also loose a sense of our own mission and calling.

            Last week we began our summer sermon series on the Parables.  And it is with the Parables where Jesus is the most blunt with his descriptions of the Kingdom come Now into our midst.  We started with the story of the Workers in the Vineyard and we learned that one characteristic of the Kingdom is Generosity.  God is generous – in fact God is illogically and overwhelmingly generous.  And since we are Citizens of the Kingdom Come, through whom the world experiences God’s Love and Grace; and through whom the world intersects with the Kingdom – we are called to be generous also: Generous with the gifts God has given us – our time, talents, generous with the love and grace He has given to us and generous with our financial resources – none of this is our own, it comes to us from God.

            This week we hear the rather odd story of the Unjust Judge or the Persistent Widow and like most of Jesus’ parables there are a variety of ways this one can be interpreted.  One approach is for us to identify with the Widow.  In this interpretation we acknowledge that we seek after justice and while justice is denied and denied and denied the parable teaches us to be persistent and never stop praying or working for justice.  (I have pointed out previously that prayer, like faith is best understood as an activity – so to pray for justice is not just to wish for justice or to point out the need for justice to God – but also to actively work for justice).  And so, persistence is a key word here – like the widow we should never give up.  We know that God is a just God for whom justice is a priority.  And so we work for justice – no matter the obstacles – we recognize that it is our job to reach out to those who are in need of food or clothing or comfort and so on.  And we are to remain committed to this work over the long haul – we are to be persistent.

            Another way of interpreting this Parable is to relate God to the Unjust Judge or maybe we might think of the Judge as the Incompetent Judge.  Some are so uncomfortable with this idea that they say, well the Unjust Judge is a negative example: the parable shows us what God is not.  But, what if that is not the case?  What if the point is that God is the Incompetent Judge in that God’s love for God’s people and God’s commitment to justice is so overwhelming that God throws fairness (which is usually a characteristic of a good judge) out of the window and showers love and grace abundantly on those who do not deserve it.  We always assume that the poor widow was in the right and the judge was unjust because he refused to rule in her favor.  But the parable never actually says this.  Nowhere does Jesus state that the widow’s suit was right or just.  And the problem with the judge is that he just doesn’t want to waste his time on what he might see as a frivolous case.  The injustice then is that she can’t get a hearing.  And in the end she still doesn’t get a hearing because the judge rules in her favor just to get her out of his hair.

            Perhaps God is like that.  God knows we are guilty and that we have no case.  But because of God’s overwhelming and overflowing love for us, God rules in our favor and sends us away to continue to work in the Kingdom.  It is as though God is saying to us: Stop trying to justify yourself – stop judging others – get to the work of the Kingdom: the work of Generosity, the work of Finding the Lost, the work of Sowing the Seeds, the work of seeking Justice for our neighbor – and commit yourselves to this work – be persistent in your work and always remember that God is not so interested in judging as God is interested in loving!

Bibliography - I have been inspired in my understanding of the Parable by the work of Robert Farrar Capon - especially his book: "The Parables of Grace" and "Hunting the Divine Fox."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A CHRISTIAN FRAME OF MIND – by W.S. Gilbert


I just got back from vacation and I spent my vacation at a Gilbert & Sullivan Festival in Gettysburg.  It was wonderful.  I became acquainted with this little story by Gilbert which he published in FUN in 1870.  As is always the case with Gilbert his insights into the human condition and our social system are searing and right on.  This story is no exception - and is posted in dedication to all of those who feel like being right and breaking away is their calling from God (instead of being faithful and working to be vessels of God's healing and inclusive love).  SBD+  Enjoy.....
A CHRISTIAN FRAME OF MIND – by W.S. Gilbert
There was once a Colonial Bishop, whose see was on coast of Africa.

He was an energetic Bishop who laboured nobly, according to his views, and no
man gainsaid him.

In his immediate neighbourhood resided a barbarous tribe, The Tribe of the
Canoodle-Dums. You may have heard of them.

They were idolators.

They were ft simple race, with a primitive religion. They were a
mild and peaceable people, and lived in prefect harmony with one another.

The Bishop said (and very properly), "I will convert these poor benighted
heathens.'

He entered among them and they received him hospitably, He is indebted to them
for teaching him the flavour of ape which, to this day, is always served in
various forms at the episcopal banquets There are few pleasanter dishes than ape
stewed with oysters and port wine. But, on the other hand, he found them but
little prepared to listen to the beauties of the religion he was about to unfold
to them.

He began by entering into conversation with their Chum, or High Priest.

The Bishop learnt from the Chum, or High Priest, the heads of the
Canoodle-Dummers' faith.

He found that at sunrise they were summoned to prayer by the beating of a tom-
tom, or the blowing of it horn.

"It does not matter which," said the Chum.

"How is this?" said the Bishop. "it does net matter which?"

"It does not in the last matter, whether it is tom-tom or a horn," said the
Chum. "Why should it?''

"Oh," said the Bishop, "This is a terrible state of things." And he thought to
himself, "it in useless, just at present, to endeavour to inculcate the beauties
of Christianity. In their present Butte of mind they will not appreciate what I
have to tell them. I will begin by endeavouring to instil a healthier moral
tone, so will they the more readily apprehend the doctrine that I shall then lay
before them."

With the permission of their chief, he summoned the tribe. They
came like lambs.

"Oh, : Canoodle-Dummers," said he, "I am pained to find that you are indifferent
as to whether a tom-tom or horn is used to summon you to your devotions."

"We are quite indifferent," said they, with one voice, "so that we are
summoned."

"But," said the Bishop, "Observe, if a horn is right, a tom-tom must be wrong.
So, likewise if a tom-tom is right, a horn is out of the question."

"But, why?" said the Canoodle-Dummers.

"Why?" echoed the Bishop, indignantly, "Why, of course!"

"I see," said each Canoodle-Dummer thoughtfully. And the members of the tribe
looked askance at each other, and each edged away from his neighbour.

And the neat day the tribe was divided into two mighty religious factions, those
who stood up for the horn, and those who stood up for the tom-tom.

The Chum, or High Priest, endeavoured, but in vain, to reconcile them.

"Why," said the Chum, "should you quarrel on such a point? You are all good
men. You are all amiable, sufficiently virtuous, tolerably sober, charitable,
and generally well-conducted. You agree on all the vital points of your
religion. Why divide on matters of unimportant detail?"

"Why, indeed! "said the tribe. And the two factions embraced.

"Stop!" said the Bishop, "I am pained beyond measure to see this. What are the
ingredients of a plum pudding to the shape of the mould in which it is boiled?""

"Nothing at all," said the tribe'. And they were again and finally, divided,

The Bishop persevered.
He addressed the Horn Party, and said, "I notice with pain that some
of your horns are long, and some are short. This should not be."

"Which is right?' said the Horn Party.

"I am not of your religion," said the Bishop, "so I cannot undertake to offer an
opinion. But one thing is certain, if one is right the other is wrong."

So the Horn Party was divided into two sects, the Long Horns and the Short
Horns. And the Long Horns hated the Short Horns more than the Horn party hated
the Tom-tom party. And the Short Horns returned the compliment

The Bishop then addressed the Tom-tom party and said, "I am grieved to see that
some of your tom-toms are long and narrow, while others are short and stout. If
it is that a tom-tom should be long and narrow. It is a sin to use those that
are of diametrically opposite form."

And the Tom-tom party were accordingly divided into two sects, the Long and
Narrow Tom-Tom party and the Short and Stout Tom-tom party

And the feud that existed between the Horn party and the Tom-tom party was as
nothing compared to that which raged between the Long and Narrow Tom-tom party and the Short and Stout Tom-tom party.

The Bishop still persevered..

He pointed out in the Long Horn party that same of the long horns were sharp and
some were flat.

So the Long Horn party were subdivided, and became the Sharp Long Horns and the
Flat Long Horns,

He pointed out to the Short Horn Party that some of the short horns were cows'
horns and some were rams' horns.

So, the Short Horn party were subdivided and became the Short Cow Horns and the
Short Rams Horns.

The Bishop still persevered

He pointed out to the Long and Narrow Tom-tom party that some of their long and
narrow tom-toms were headed with the skin of sheep and some with the skin of
pigs.

So the Long and Narrow Tom-tom party were sub-divided and became the Long and
Narrow Sheepheaded Tom-tom party and the Long and Narrow Pigheaded Tom-tom
party.

He pointed out to the Short and Stout Tom-tom party that some of their short and
stout tom-toms were boxed in with wood and some with iron.

So the Short and Stout Tom-tom party were sub-divided into the Short and Stout
Wooden-boxed Tom-Tom party, and the Short and Stoat Iron-boxed Tom-tom party.

And here the good Bishop took breath and rested. For by this time there was only
one man to each sub-division, and this process of disintegration could he
carried on no further.

Let us hope, however, that he was as successful in converting them to
Christianity, as he was in bringing them to a Christian frame of mind.

By Sir W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) Published in "Fun" January
8, 1870. page 115.