July 13, 2014, Pentecost 5 – Life in the Dirt
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The disciples asked Jesus once, “Why do you always speak to the people in parables?” And Jesus answered them in his typical, maddeningly cryptic way, “I speak to them in parables because they see, but they don’t really see, and they hear, but they don’t hear or understand at all.” A lot of the time, Jesus taught by telling stories, stories about sheep and wildflowers and disobedient children and thugs along the highway and and seeds and dirt. It was a completely different kind of teaching than they were used to, which was the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, who taught them the fine points of the Law in great detail so they could obey it better. But these stories that Jesus taught weren’t about learning to obey the old law better; and they weren’t a new set of laws either. They were all about learning how to see and hear in a whole new way. They were about freedom, and life, and transformation, and they took the people by surprise, because Jesus taught in a way utterly different from the teachers of the law that they were used to listening to.
People, in our fallen humanity, are natural born legalists. I think sometimes that is the heart of what we call original sin, the broken birthright we inherited from our father Adam. We are obsessed from early childhood onward with fairness and justice – as far as it concerns ourselves, anyway – and we like to be able to measure ourselves and others with the yardstick of rules and regulations. You notice that Christians make a lot of noise about having the right to post the Ten Commandments in public places, but I’ve never heard anyone fighting for the right to carve “Love Your Neighbor” on the wall of a courthouse.
When we hear the parables of Jesus, then, there are two different ways for us to hear them. There is our way, the way of the world, and Jesus’ way, the way of the kingdom of heaven – or, as Paul says, the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit. The world’s way, according to our human nature, is to sort of plug ourselves into the story. Obviously, we are supposed to be the good, fruitful seeds in the story, we say, and therefore we need to prove it by showing that we are fruitful – or at least more fruitful than the next guy. Maybe we can’t claim a hundredfold fruitfulness, but we might decently lay claim to sixty – well, thirty for sure. The more honest among us might hear the parable and have an attack of guilt or discouragement because surely we are those seeds on the path. How many times, we tell ourselves, do we hear the Scriptures read and we don’t have a clue what is being talked about? We’re stupid, so of course we aren’t fruitful. Or we despise ourselves and realize that we are gutless cowards who couldn’t stand up to any amount of persecution. Or we wallow in self-pity, thinking that we have had to endure more than anyone should have asked us to endure, or that we are too tired out by the daily grind of trying to get ahead in the world and so of course we aren’t fruitful.
Our human minds like labels and certainties and rules and so it is our default mode to read the parables of Jesus as allegories, where each character and event in the story is assigned a nice, tidy, unchangeable identity. We pigeonhole ourselves, we seal ourselves into a neat box and label ourselves, with smug satisfaction or with weary resignation or with despair and self-loathing. Or we pigeonhole our neighbor, whose flaws and weaknesses are so often more glaring than our own. We’d like to say for sure that we are the Good Samaritan who helped the man along the road, or that we are the prodigal who came home to his father – or would it be better if we were the older son who never went away? But because sooner or later our lives fail to provide the proof we need to show that we fit into the box we choose for ourselves, in the end the parables end up condemning us. Hearing, we haven’t really heard, and seeing, we still can’t see, and even what we thought we had seems to have been taken away from us.
But there’s another way to hear the parables of Jesus, the way that Jesus was teaching his disciples, because even they found the parables difficult. It is comforting that even his twelve close companions had to come to Jesus and ask, “Please, explain the parable to us.” And I find it very comforting that Jesus never told them to go work it out for themselves, but he patiently explained the meaning of the stories, which were not diagrams for moral behavior, but pictures from real life that point the way to growth and change and forgiveness and healing.
The parables are intended neither for condemning ourselves nor for patting ourselves on the back; if we can hear them, they are invitations out of the familiar slavery of the world we know, and into the freedom of the gloriously unfamiliar Kingdom Jesus brought with him when he invaded our world. If we know how to look and listen, the parables paint scenes for us that show us the way into freedom and transformation and real life – that abundant life Jesus came to share with us.
So when Jesus sat in the boat and taught the crowds of people on the beach who were straining desperately to hear his every word, it was as if he were throwing out a lifeline to rescue them from themselves.
“This people’s hearts have grown dull,” he told the apostles. “They can just barely hear with their ears and they are almost blind. But if they could only hear and see and understand I would turn and heal them all.” “So listen,” he called out over the water, “there was this man who went out to sow his seeds in the field…”
Some of the seeds just dropped along the path, where there was no soft earth to receive it and where the birds were just hanging around waiting for a free lunch. No sooner had it fallen to the ground than they snapped it up and it was gone. What I mean, he told his disciples, is if you don’t understand what I have to say, the world is right there to snatch it away from you. First of all, Jesus didn’t mean if you’re not smart enough to figure out what I talking about then you just won’t ever make it into the kingdom. We know that is true because the disciples themselves had to ask for explanations all the time; they certainly weren’t always the sharpest tools in the shed. What Jesus did mean is that if you don’t seek understanding when you hear the word of God, if you don’t take hold of his word and plant it in your heart, by thinking about it, and praying about it, and meditating on it – well, the world has a million and one things to offer in its place. The world would love to distract you and entertain you and preoccupy your mind and heart with anything but the life-giving word of God, because as long as you are caught up in its fruitless philosophies and vain speculations you won’t ever grow into more than you are now. As long as the world can keep your mind and your heart full of celebrity gossip and political controversies and hurt feelings and self-improvement and advertisements that promise us more stuff and better stuff, the life-giving seeds of the gospel have nowhere to grow.
And some of those seeds fell onto rocky ground. They popped right up because the soil was so thin, but as soon as the sun beat down on them they withered away in its heat. You might hear the voice of God and get all excited about it but if you don’t put down some roots you’ll wither at the first blast of trouble. You might get religion and go around with a big smile on your face and spout Bible verses for a week or a month or a year, until you lose your job or your child is born with Down Syndrome or your spouse cheats on you, and suddenly you are faced with the blazing heat of doubt and fear and your faith withers and crumbles and blows away. You need roots, Jesus told his disciples; you need that relationship of trust and love with the Father because that’s the only thing that will see you through all those things that the world throws at you. You will face troubles, and you will feel doubt and fear. The world will throw all that and more at you, but if your roots go deep, if you learn to bring everything to God, your joys and your sorrows and your anger and frustration – everything – then you will be drought-proof – you won’t wither in the very hottest sun.
And then there were those seeds that fell in the trashy part of the field, Jesus said, where they were surrounded by crabgrass and thistles and that awful Bishop’s weed that I can never seem to get rid of, and they popped up all right, but all those other plants closed in and choked the life right out of them. The world is a weedy place, full of dangers to worry about, and full of attractions to keep us unsatisfied, and full of burdens to weigh us down. And you know what happens if you get slack and stop weeding your garden even for a little while. Go away on a camping trip for a week and you’ll have to really hunt around to find the tomato plants among the ragweed or to separate the pole beans from the morning glory vines. The world would like to make you think that’s just the way it is, that real life is all about fear and lust and trying to keep your head above water, and that you really can’t do anything about that. But Jesus invites you to do some weeding. If you make space for the word to grow in your life; if you rebuke the fear and tear out the lust and hand over the load, just watch and see what will grow – more than you could ever imagine, a hundredfold or sixty or thirty times what you even started with!
I invite you, Jesus called out to the multitude of people on the shore,I invite you out of the fruitlessness of life in this kingdom of law and condemnation, and into the fruitfulness of life in the kingdom of your Father, the kingdom of freedom and grace. Hear this parable of the sower, with the imagination God created in you: to long for understanding, to ruthlessly cast out what is worthless, and to grow your roots of trust and dependence deeper day by day into the source of all life and all fruitfulness.