Last revised: July 15, 2014
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PROPER 10 (July 10-16) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 15
RCL: Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
RoCa: Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23
Reflections and Questions
1. The going out of Gods word is to be followed by the going out of Gods people. Gods promise goes before them making the way back home.
2. Confidence in the effectiveness of God’s word here in Isaiah 55 has the same context as it does in Jesus’ parable of the Sower: namely, the call of Isaiah in chapter 6, which Jesus quotes (Isa. 6:8-12):
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”
It’s a strange, ironic setting for such confidence in the fruitfulness of the Word, isn’t it? Apparently, it is only after our human wisdom brings us to desolation that God’s word can truly blossom.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 148-150, makes some sense out of the terms “flesh” and “Spirit” as describing ways of life that correspond to living under the Sacred and being free from it. Link to an excerpt of this section on “The Law and the Flesh.”
2. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4.
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Correctly interpreting Romans 8:3 (“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…”), along with 2 Cor. 5:21 (“For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin…”), is a central task of Schwager’s section entitled “The Cross as Judgment” (pp. 160-169). He contends that eminent theologians of the cross — he names no less than Luther, Barth, and von Balthasar (one of his own mentors) — as having erred in their interpretations by not correctly reading the Pauline and wider NT contexts. Their blunder is to read passages like Romans 8:3 and 2 Cor. 5:21 as too directly implying God as the agent of judgment and condemnation. This creates possible contradictions. One is that the gospels clearly show the opponents of Jesus as both against God’s will and as judging Jesus. Yet if we read Romans 8:3 and 2 Cor. 5:21 as showing us God’s will to have Jesus condemned in our place (as Luther, Barth, and von Balthasar do), then we have the apparent contradiction that Jesus’ opponents, who almost by definition are opposing God’s will, are still somehow acting according to God’s will by their judging of Jesus.
The second possible contradiction is within the Godhead. Many passages (e.g., John 3:16-17) witness to God sending Jesus to save the world not condemn it. So we get ourselves into a fix if we read Romans 8:3 and 2 Cor. 5:21 as God having sent Jesus to be take on the condemnation of the world. Which is God’s will? To condemn the world or save it? It’s not quite good enough to say that the world is saved by Jesus’ taking the condemnation for us. For according to this position Jesus is merely a sacrificial substitute for the more basic divine will for having sinners punished and condemned.
The first key to seeing Paul’s theology as consistent, both internally and with the gospels, is to read passages like Romans 8:3 and 2 Cor. 5:21 in the context of Romans 1:18-32, where we see how Paul deals with the issue of God’s anger. God’s anger isn’t a simple and direct will to act as judge over sinner’s. There God’s anger is interpreted three times as a “handing over” (Gr: paradidomai) of sinners to the consequences of their own sin. (This is in consonance, in fact, with the gospel view of judgment above: we are judged according to the measure of our own judging of others. In short, we are handed over to the consequences of our own sins of idolatry.)
Paradidomai is the same word that the gospels repeatedly, and even St. Paul himself (Romans 8:32), use to describe Jesus’ fate on the cross. He was handed over to the will of his opponents, a will which was trapped precisely in this self-punishing mode described in Romans 1:18-32. Jesus’ handing over was in the same category as sinners’ being handed over to the consequences of their own sin. That’s why Jesus in the flesh was condemned by sin (Romans 8:3). It is also the term which Paul uses to reinterpret the notion of God’s wrath (Rom. 1:18) with a rapid-fire use of paradidomai in Rom. 1:24, 26, and 28: God hands us over to the consequences of our idolatry.
A second key is to see Paul’s understanding of the law as being a good gift from God which has been corrupted under the power of sin as becoming a tool for deadly human judgment. Taken together, these insights of the wider Pauline and NT contexts, show God’s will as unambiguously being on the side of salvation, not condemnation. Schwager concludes:
Certainly, [God] sent [Jesus] into the world of sin, but entirely with the aim of saving humankind. However, the power of sin was so great that it was able by means of its own mechanism and dynamic to draw him into its world and thus to make him into sin. (p. 168)
4. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren (whose next book will have a significant Girardian component) suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans. This passage comes within his Fourth Move: Unite all in a common struggle and a common victory, illustrated by two stories: the Story of Me and the Story of We (Rom. 7:7-8:39), of which he writes:
The resonances here with previous circlings are obvious and strong (especially with 5:1-11), with one new metaphor added: adoption, rendering Jews and Gentiles siblings in Gods one family as well as fellow citizens in Gods one kingdom. Once again Pauls mind naturally follows a course from forgiveness (justified in 5:1, no condemnation in 8:1) to relationship (peace with God in 5:1, children of God in 8:14), to suffering (boast in sufferings in 5:3, suffering with him in 8:17), to victory and reward (hope does not disappoint and love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit in 5:5, be glorified with him and the Spirit bears witness with our Spirit in 8:16-17). I find these parallels strong and moving. The points made in previous moves are truly glorious, but they shine even more brightly here, as Paul expands the scope of suffering and reward and glorification, seeing all of creation groaning in empathy and anticipation with this new humanity in Christ one new humanity, one new kingdom, articulated in we and us. (pp. 151)
5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 42, “Spirit of Love: Loving God”; Romans 8:1-17 is listed as a passage in support of this beautiful essay on loving God. For example:
If love means supporting the beloveds dreams and plans, we love God by expressing our support for what God desires. We express this support whenever we pray, May your kingdom come. May your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. We do so whenever we come to God in empathetic concern for others, joining our compassion with Gods compassion for those in need, sorrow, or pain. By refusing to allow numbness or hardness of heart to gain a foothold in our lives, we keep our hearts aligned with Gods heart, and in this way, express love for God. Sometimes, holding up the name or face of a person in Gods presence, simply breathing the words please help him or please bless her can be a way of loving God by loving those God loves. (p. 213)
6. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship after Campbell’s dismantling of justification, showing Paul’s language of justification to be a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page.
7. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. We await his ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series Christian Origins and the Question of God, which will surely include his response to Douglas Campbell.
Reflections and Questions
1. My own Lutheran tradition does not seem to know how to deal with this passage. We are seemingly more comfortable with what comes before it, the quagmire of Romans 7. Traditional Lutheranism seems to believe that we are hopelessly trapped in sin, as Paul describes at the end of Romans 7. I’m told that much of Calvinism calls this “total depravity.” But we don’t know quite what to do with what comes after it, the last verses of 7 — “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” — and the beginning of Romans 8. Paul apparently believes that we have in fact been rescued! It’s a done-deal! But with our justification theology much of Protestantism seems to think that that rescue is only an imputed justification, and we never get around to very meaningful conversations about sanctification.
I believe that Douglas Campbell is basically right in his book The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (see my review on the Amazon page). It is time to put away Justification theology altogether. It has not served us well, especially in interpreting passages such as Romans 7-8. Campbell argues successfully that Justification is a secondary language for Paul which he used in debate with Judaizers. His primary language of unconditional grace is found in language of Deliverance, rescue, as found in Romans 5-8. Protestants have typically read Romans 5-8 through the lens of Justification language in Romans 1-4, and it should be the other way around. We need to read 1-4 through the lens of 5-8. When we do, it becomes easier to see that our reading of Romans 1-4 has also been deepley flawed. (I won’t get into all the exegetical arguments, which are summarized in my Amazon review. Read his book! It is a tour de force that must be reckoned with.) In fact, Campbell argues that the true Lutheran position of unconditional grace is one that sees Paul’s Gospel as about sanctification, not justification. He writes in his conclusion:
It is very important to appreciate that this analysis is consequently not an attack on the gospel but an attack on a version of the gospel, and one that I maintain Paul himself would view as false. It is therefore a thoroughly evangelical discussion in both method and purpose. Moreover, the solution that I am aiming toward is deeply Protestant if not Lutheran. To put things at their simplest, only if my rereading is true is it possible to affirm coherently Pauls slogan that God justifies the ungodly, since he means by this that God delivers the wicked from their enslavement to Sin, when they cannot deliver themselves, and thereby demonstrates his unconditional grace and love. Alternative construals of this slogan are caught by irreconcilable contradictions and theological conundrums issues of theodicy, capacity, and so on. But in affirming the slogan in this sense we are of course being loyal to some of the central insights of Protestantism and of Luther. Furthermore, only now is it possible to affirm coherently Pauls construal of sanctification, which he seems to discuss with such profundity in Romans 5-8, elevating this material now to its rightful status. Pauls account of sanctification is the gospel. His description of deliverance and cleansing in Christ, through the work of the Spirit, at the behest of the Father, the entire process being symbolized by baptism, is the good news. It requires no supplementation by other systems. (p. 934)
More subtle Lutheran positions do allow for “saint and sinner” simulaneously, that one can begin to eschatologically live into sainthood, sanctification. But that still interprets Romans 7:15-25 as Paul speaking in the present tense about his inability to do what is right. It has no real sense of Paul speaking as having been delivered through the rescue mission of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection that he can can participate in through baptism. The deliverance is eschatological only. I disagree with this version of Lutheranism, too, and agree with those who view Paul in Romans 7:15-25 speaking in the first person only as his formerly trapped self, prior to the rescue which he proclaims joyfully in 7:24b-25a and then elaborates in Romans 8. I am Lutheran in the sense of believing that Christ’s rescue of me from the powers of sin and death is unconditional and that it begins and baptism and continues to the extent that I live life in the Spirit.
There is considerable alcoholism in my family. Alcoholics learn that they never stop being alcoholics. When they drink, they continue to live under the powers of a drunk and addicted life. But they can be delivered by their Higher Power for a life of sobriety. Their lives can truly be changed to live sober lives, lives without drinking. I believe that Mimetic Theory helps us to understand that the corollary is to being a human being, not to being a sinner. I grew up with a Lutheranism that understands us always to be sinners — which could also be an excuse to keep drinking because there’s no hope of change. Those who did go to A.A. found that they could in fact change. Similarly, we are always human beings who live under the spell of the First Adam, unless we find ourselves truly rescued by the Second Adam. It is not that we are always sinners, with no hope of rescue in this life. To live in the flesh is to still live life mimetically under the power of the First Adam, who disobeyed God and so lives under fallen desire. But to live life in the Spirit is to begin to live under the power of Christ’s obedience to God’s loving desire. How we interpret Romans 7:15-8:11 makes a huge difference.
2. The idea of Grace is transcended by the experience of Grace. When we are trapped on the level of ideas only, Grace always seems to accumulate conditions that make it no grace at all. Campbell makes this point, too. He emphasizes that what is missing in the usual Protestant interpretation of Paul is the “participatory” element. Through life in the Spirit there is interpenitration of our lives with the life of God.
In 2011 this resonates with my learning about contemplative spirituality. The usual dualisms we deal with in the Protestant-Catholic debates — things like justification and sanctification — are transcended in our nondual experience of oneness with God. Contemplative spirituality has been completely absent from my Lutheran training, and I believe its absence from Lutheranism is behind our misinterpretation of Romans 7:15-8:11.
3. The lection cuts off before the “therefore” which begins vs 12. Vs. 12-17 ring out the theme of our adoption as children of God. Does the imagery here imply that we are children of God not by nature but by gracious adoption? The orientation of nature, “flesh,” is fallen; in Jesus Christ, the true Son of God, we are adopted into God’s spirit-filled way of life.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
2. René Girard, The Scapegoat, pp. 192-193:
Paraballo means to throw the crowd something edible in order to assuage its appetite for violence, preferably a victim, someone condemned to death. Obviously, this is a way out of a very difficult situation. The speaker has recourse to a parable — that is, a metaphor — in order to prevent the crowd from turning on him. Ultimately, there is no discourse that is not a parable. All human language, and other cultural institutions, in fact, originated in collective murder.
3. David McCracken, The Scandal of the Gospels, ch. 5, “Parabolic Lies, Parabolic Truth,” pp. 71ff., and ch. 6, “Training the Scribes of the Kingdom,” pp. 90ff., which focuses on Mt 13.
As we begin ch. 13, take a peek at the end. After Jesus tells these parables, he goes to his hometown (13:54-58), where “they took offense (skandalizo) at him.” Matthew’s Jesus uses the Greek root skandal in both explanations of parables in this chapter. The rocky soil yields those who, “when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away (skandalizo).” (vs. 21) According to the explanation of the wheat and weeds parable, at the end of the age, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin (skandalon) and all evildoers…” (vs. 41)
This chapter falls into McCracken’s view of both parable and skandalon: they are the occasion for either taking offense or responding with faith. (He is influenced not only by Girard but also by Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.) Here is his conclusion (p. 106):
Parables do not ‘contain’ knowledge; they cannot be understood as we understand a moral tale, and argument, or a statement. Parables precipitate internal action, forcing the hearer or reader to a crisis or collision that requires movement, which in New Testament terms is an either/or: either stumbling or changing-and-becoming, either enacting a lie that we desire or being transformed.
Jesus was indeed teaching about the arrival of something which is, for his listeners, very weird. That’s why he has to teach in parables. And please note the justification which he gives for teaching in parables. He quotes Isaiah, when he says:
Listen as you will and you will not understand; look as you will and you will not see, because this people’s heart has waxed gross. They are dull of hearing and have closed their eyes against seeing and their ears against hearing lest they be turned to me that I may heal them. (Mt 13:14-15 quoting Is 6:9-10; cf. Mk 4:12 and Lk 8:9-10)
That is, there is no direct understanding of the kingdom: it is a strange thing, and people’s minds are dulled, which is exactly what we would expect as a result of what we’ve seen about the human condition, our own included, shot-through with death.
It’s worth our while to stop a little to see what this teaching in parables consists in. The parables are highly creative little stories sprung from Jesus’ imagination and have as their aim helping people to overcome their being blocked-up with respect to God and his project. However, behold, they are two edged weapons, capable of different interpretations. It is perfectly possible to interpret the greater part in terms of a violent God. In that case the parables only serve to reinforce what people already think anyway, and they move on no further. What I’m suggesting is that this would be the ‘dull-hearted’ reading of the parables. At the same time it is perfectly possible to read the same parables as obliging us to overcome this vision. This means that there is an interpretation for those who understand, and that what they understand will increase exponentially, and there is another interpretation for those who do not understand, so that what little they do understand is in the process of being lost, for they will get into an ever more tied-up and painful understanding of the things of God. (1)
5. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 141:
What we can see in the light of this is the way Jesus’ teaching and practice leading up to his death had, already, as its object the setting free of his hearers and disciples from their being scandalized by him precisely so that they could become part of the new edifice that was to be founded in his rejection. There is ample evidence that the apostolic witnesses were able to re-read Jesus’ practice with them exactly in terms of his attempting to lead them out of scandal, to prevent them being caused to stumble by him. So, he tells the disciples of John the Baptist, at the end of a list of signs that accredit him as the “one who is to come,” “And blessed is he who is not scandalized at me” (Mt 11:6; Lk 7:23). Those who are unable to accept his teaching are described as having been scandalized by him (Mt 13:57; 15:12; Mk 6:3). In the parable of the sower some are scandalized by persecution (Mt 13:21; Mk 4:17) and so do not bear fruit. The process of Jesus attempting to lead his hearers beyond scandal is shown in John 6. There Jesus attempts to bring his hearers on from their understanding of his miraculous feeding of the five thousand, an understanding rooted in food and a kingly messiah, towards his own subversion of the Passover and the Manna in the desert as pointing to himself as the authentic bread from heaven. During the discourse, the eager listening of his audience is gradually turned into furious questioning, linked by allusion with the murmuring of Israel against Moses on its way to the Promised Land. Finally even many of his disciples find it hard to take, and Jesus asks them if this scandalizes them (Jn 6:61). The scandal is what prevents people perceiving the unity of Jesus and the Father (v 62), and for John the flesh is precisely the human condition locked in scandal, while the spirit is what leads people beyond scandal into a belief in Jesus as revealing the Father, and the Father as he who sent Jesus into the world (vv 63-65). Many of the disciples are caused to stumble, but Peter and the other eleven stay, having perceived that Jesus has words of eternal life: that is, they have overcome the scandal, at least to some extent. Even so, Jesus knows that one of them is a ‘diabolos’ who will betray him (v 70). The word ‘diabolos’ here is quite specifically not used to indicate a metaphysical entity, but a human person locked in scandal.
6. Two of my other favorites on the parables (non-Girardian) are Robert Farrar Capon — which he originally published in three separate volumes but now in one volume, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus — and Bernard Brandon Scott. Capon’s first work on the parables, The Parables of the Kingdom, is basically on Matthew 13 (and Mark 4 which provides Matthew’s basis). It also gives a wonderful introduction to the parables, in general, and frames them within the gospel narrative as a whole, using the Temptation and the Ascension as “parabolic events” which frame Jesus’ story. Here’s a pearl on the parables, in general:
Speaking in comparisons and teaching by means of stories are, of course, two of the oldest instructional techniques in the world. And in the hands of almost all instructors except Jesus, they are a relatively straightforward piece of business…. With Jesus, however, the device of parabolic utterance is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all previous explanations and understandings (p. 6).
Capon’s treatment of the Parable of the Sower comes in chs. 5-6, pp. 61-86.
Bernard Scott‘s book Hear Then the Parable uses a methodology which might remind some of the Jesus Seminar, but he can generally be relied on for an insightful and unusual reading of Jesus’ parables. His treatment of the Parable of the Sower is in ch. 17, “What Did the Farmer Sow?”, pp. 343-362.
7. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. On pp. 63-69 in the section entitled “Doubling of Sin and Hell” (excerpt), Schwager has crucial insight into Matthew 13, the parables, and many of Jesus hard sayings when he elaborates on Mt 13:12: “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” The passage which best helps to understand such sayings is Matthew 7:1-2: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Roll into these sayings a parable such as “The Talents” of “The Unforgiving Servant,” and you can see the idea Jesus is developing: the measure by which we judge others is the measure by which we end up being judged. In short, we judge ourselves according to the measure by which we judge others. In the parable of the Talents, the third servant judges his master to be a hard judge, and so he is judged accordingly, having all his investment funds taken away from and given to the other servant who judged his master most graciously.
Applied to the parables of Matthew 13, Schwager says,
All these everyday experiences of life can, when they are read correctly, give witness to the kindly Father, his proximate coming and dealings with people. Even if the new community in the Kingdom of God contrasts completely with the old laws of the human world, it is however not something unrealistic. It only needs a fresh look to see signs of it everywhere in our everyday world. If people defend themselves against this new vision of reality, if they remain in their old positions of fear and self-defense, then they necessarily defend themselves also against what Jesus brings. Thus they lock themselves even more into their old world and give themselves up to a process of judgment, which runs according to self-chosen and stubbornly defended norms. Hence the parables lead those who hear them, and yet do not hear, into a process of self-induced hardening of heart (Mark 4:10-12 and parallels). (p. 66)
9. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4, a sermon on this text, entitled “The Extravagant Sower”:
…I had the same response I always do to this parable: I started worrying about what kind of ground I was on with God. I started worrying about how many birds were in my field, how many rocks, how many thorns. I started worrying about how I could clean them all up, how I could turn myself into a well-tilled, well-weeded, well-fertilized field for the sowing of Gods word. I started worrying about how the odds were three to one against me those are the odds in the parable, after all and I began thinking about how I could beat the odds, or at least improve on them, by cleaning up my act.That is my usual response to this parable. I hear it as a challenge to be different, as a call to improve my life, so that if the same parable were ever told about me it would have a happier ending, with all of the seed falling on rich, fertile soil. But there is something wrong with that reading of the parable, because if that is what it is about, then it should be called the parable of the different kinds of ground.
Instead, it has been known for centuries as the parable of the Sower, which means that there is a chance, just a chance, that we have got it all backwards. We hear the story and think it is a story about us, but what if we are wrong? What if it is not about us at all but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?
If this is really the parable of the Sower and not the parable of the different kinds of ground, then it begins to sound quite new. The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who does not obsess about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil and bad, who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but who seems willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his truth.
10. Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel. Tolbert has a ingenuitive thesis that the Parable of the Sower lays out the different kinds of soil as a summary of the characters we meet in Mark’s gospel. She suggests that the rocky soil — those who “when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away” — is the disciples in Mark’s gospel, led by Simon who is dubbed “Rocky.” Immediately after these parables, they begin to show their true colors by showing fear in the face of a storm. Ultimately, they will go with their fear and fall away.
Moreover, Tolbert proposes that the interlude between the parable and the explanation — namely, the explanation of Jesus’ parabolic teaching through his quote of Isaiah 6 — is the structuring center of Mark’s entire Gospel. Having ‘ears unhearing and eyes unseeing’ gives the outline to Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus. Mark 4 gives us his teaching with the watch word “Listen!” The disciples show their lack of understanding throughout. Are the disciples themselves among those who are confounded by the parables? The first section focused on “Listen!” transitions to the next section with the healing of a deaf person, Mark 7:31-37.
Then, the second half is about having eyes unseeing. A second feeding story is follwed by “Watch out!” (8:15) and a repeat of the Isaiah 6 quote in 8:18. Then, Jesus’ teaching about discipleship (following what Jesus does and not just what he says) is flanked by healing of blind men (Mark 8:22-26; 10: 46-52). In between, there are three passion predictions that they will witness, each followed by an act of incomprehension by the disciples. Mark 13, the other long sermon by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 4 being the other), rings out the theme word “Watch!”, continued in the Garden of Gethsemane as prelude to the passion — which the disciples will fail to see because they all run away. They fail to watch and behold Jesus’ stand against the Satanic powers of death. Will they also fail to witness the victory of God’s power of life in the resurrection? Mark’s Gospel infamuosly ends with none of Jesus’ chosen witnesses having heard or seen and then giving witness. The women at the tomb run away in fear and tell no one. Mark leaves it to his readers to be those faithful witnesses. The fertile ground in Mark’s Gospel is illustrated through the unnamed folks like the woman with a hemorrhage (Mark 5:34: Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease”) — and hopefully through subsequent unnamed disciples like Mark’s own community.
Why rehearse all this concerning Mark during the year of Matthew? First, in one of the most grievous omissions in the lectionary, the Parable of the Sower complex, which Tolbert persuasively shows as being central to Mark, is skipped in Year B, the year of Mark! We go from the Parable of Satan Casting out Satan (Mark 3:20-35; central to a Girardian reading of the Gospel) in Proper 5B to the middle of Mark 4, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, for Proper 6B. Mark 4:1-20 — the Parable of the Sower and it explanations, the pivot point of the whole Gospel — is bypassed. How can this be?
Second, since we don’t get a chance at this parable during Year B, we might ask how much Matthew understands and passes on, and/or reformulates, Mark’s theme of using the disciples themselves as a chief instance of rocky ground, as examples of ears unhearing and eyes unseeing. How much of the Markan viewpoint can we pass on through the engagement of this important parable in Matthew’s rendering? There are many ways in which Matthew obviously reformulates what he gets from Mark. The ending is a big change. The historic, named disciples have a role as witnesses to the resurrection. And Peter, Mark’s exemplar of rocky soil, is famously the Rock on which the church is built in Matthew’s Gospel (16:18-19).
But I would propose that Matthew’s seeming elevation of the historically named disciples has its paradoxical elements. After the ‘Peter as Rock of the Church’ episode, for example, Matthew adds to Jesus’ rebuke of Peter. To Mark’s Jesus rebuking Peter with “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33), Matthew adds “You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me” (Matt. 16:23). As we have already highlighted, Matthew is the evangelist who most highly develops the theme of skandalon (very significant in the context of a Girardian reading), including in this important chapter of Matthew 13. Even within Matthew’s ending, there are double elements of positive and negative, such as, “When they saw [the resurrected Jesus], they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matt. 28:17). Rather than simply overturn Mark’s theme of the failure of the historical disciples, I would propose that Matthew takes the historicity of the disciples’ failure as overturned by the power of the resurrection. Yes, different than in Mark’s Gospel, Matthew shows Peter and the gang called to be faithful witnesses to the resurrection (and everything before it), but it was paradoxically and precisely as those who, like the rest of us, fall into the power of scandalized desire and Satanic violence. The power of the resurrection is manifested in that it begins to free us from those Satanic powers of death and turn us into faithful witnesses to God’s power of life. For Matthew the example of the historically named disciples goes beyond their failure. They can be examples to the rest of us (Mark’s unnamed disciples) that, even to the extent that we may fall away as rocky, scandalized soil, God’s generous sowing of the Word can still find fertile soil in us through the power of the resurrection, the power of forgiveness.
11. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 42, “Jesus the Teacher”; Mark 4:1-34, one of the sources for Matthew 13, is a main text for this important but brief essay summarizing Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God.
13. Jeff Krehbiel, in a sermon “Eating as a Spiritual Discipline,” has insight into the importance of soil, especially from the perspective of Wendell Berry:
For Berry, it all begins in the soil. Our sanctuary today is filled with soil, and as theologian Norman Wirzba points out, it is easy to dismiss soil as nothing more than dirt. He writes:
We forget that organic soil is the indispensable, life-nurturing setting (a placenta of sorts) in terms of which so much of our living is made possible. Good, healthy soil is not dead but teeming with life. Death decays into it and reemerges as new life, all because of the astoundingly complex and mostly invisible work of billions of bacteria and microorganisms. Without their work our world would be overwhelmed by the corpses and stench of death. Soil is a marvel and a mystery that we have not yet even begun to comprehend.
So it is no wonder then that Berry waxes poetically about soil in Christ-like terms:
The most exemplary nature is that of the topsoil. It is very Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence, and in the penetrating energy that issues out of its peaceableness. It increases by experience, by the passage of seasons over it, growth rising out of it and returning to it, not by ambition or aggressiveness. It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise. Death is the bridge or the tunnel by which its past enters its future. [from “A Native Hill,” in The Long-Legged House, 204]
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2014, I worked to expand upon my 2011 sermon, summing up its main points in the Children’s Sermon, but deepening the main idea based on a post by Pastor Kim Beckmann on the ELCA Clergy Facebook page:
…it is the sowers continued sowing that in time transforms even these failed situations into good soil and a chance for abundant life. Good soil only comes about through the processes of death and decay. Even the seed that falls to the earth and dies participates in this. God is driving toward life. I get assurance that Jesus is teaching about death and resurrection and Gods transformative power even in the face of sin and death.
She also pointed me in the direction of the Wendell Berry insights into soil (in Resource #12 above). I brought mulch and talked about manure with the kids to talk about how Good Soil comes about through dead and stinky plant stuff — just like God brings life out of death for us because of Jesus.
Then the ‘adult’ sermon extended these points from the Parable of the Sower into the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, especially on the basis of the Parable of Sheep and Goats in Matt 25:31-46. I had recently read Brian Zahnd‘s A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastors Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. I consider his reading of Matt 25 to be a game-changer on reading Matthew’s Gospel as a whole. He reads this concluding parable as a judgment of the nations along the criteria that Jesus gives — caring for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner. And he links the prominent Son of Man imagery of Daniel 7 with the position that Jesus saw himself as that Son of Man who would initiate God’s judgment on the nations in history, beginning with his resurrection. The parable isn’t about judging individuals in heaven after death. It’s about judging the nations in history. Empires that don’t care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, and the prisoner will end in their own self-inflicted fiery violence — like “the devil and his angels.”
God in King Jesus is effecting a regime change in this world based on caring for the least in Jesus’ family. Obviously, it doesn’t happen in the manner, or with the speed, of our human regime changes, because God doesn’t use violence. So in the meantime God uses disciples who are light, salt, yeast, and … Good Soil. What does it mean for us to be Good Soil in the 21st Century empire known as the United States of America? I raised this question in the sermon “God Bless America . . . with Good Soil.”
2. In 2011 I continued to draw insight from my growth in contemplative spirituality, where the good soil is often the place of suffering in our lives (see, for example, Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Chapter 16, “Opening the Door: Great Love and Great Suffering”). I begin the sermon, “The Good Soil of Suffering,” with the example of a 66 year-old leader in our community to help get housing for the homeless, who recently shared at a meeting about being an abused child who ended up homeless as a young adult. His time of suffering became the good soil for later helping homeless people. The Gospels bear this out. The entire context of the Gospel story is the suffering of the Jewish people under the oppression of the Roman Empire. And the various characters can be seen in this context: Roman collaborators (hard soil); those who believe in force to oust the Romans, and thus run away when Jesus offers a different liberation (rocky ground); and those who benefit from the Greco-Roman economics, even they aren’t collaborators (thorny ground). The Good Soil? In Tolbert’s reading of Mark (immediately above), it is the often nameless characters in the Gospel, who come to Jesus with some point of suffering, who are commended for their great faith. Matthew makes this even more plain by beginning and ending the teaching of Jesus with: the Beatitudes (5:1-11) and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (25:31-46). A shortened form of this sermon was edited into an essay for the 2014 Abingdon Preaching Annual.
3. In 2008 a key insight for me, in preaching this parable to today’s congregation, is that our North American middle-class temptation is to fall into being the thorny ground: this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. Among our cherished cultural values are comfort, convenience, entertainment, and wealth. Also (per one of the themes sown by Maryann Tolbert described above), one of the examples of thorny ground in the Gospels themselves is the Rich Young Man, who asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I take the young man’s question to illustrate a central manifestation of the thorny ground of too much contemporary Christian faith, namely, to be too focused on personal salvation to notice the biblical theme of justice. In the face of growing awareness of huge problems in our world created by injustice, our too-small-faith leads to hopelessness and/or turning to other possible solutions (many of them bad). I quote Brian McLaren‘s diagnosis (from his excellent book, which I highly recommend, Everything Must Change) along the way:
Sadly, in too many quarters we continue to reduce the scope of the gospel to the individual soul and the nuclear family, framing it in a comfortable, personalized format — it’s all about personal devotions, personal holiness, and a personal Savior. This domesticated gospel will neither rock any boats nor step out of them into stormy waters. We have in many ways responded to the big global crises of our day with an incredible, shrinking gospel. The world has said, “No thanks.” (p. 244)
The resulting sermon is titled “Plowing Thorny Ground.”
4. Reading Jesus parables in terms of strange twists on familiar images, there are two such aspects of this parable that might have caused Jesus audience to do double takes. One is that the Sower seemingly has done nothing to prepare the soil; there seems to be an awful lot of unprepared ground for his seed. The other involves the amount of yield: even if the Sower had taken great pains to prepare the soil, thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold yields would have been amazing for the farmers of Jesus day. They represent the yields of todays farmer using hybrid seeds, irrigation, and sophisticated machinery.
5. The emphasis of the allegorical interpretation is on the different kinds of soil, while the emphasis of parable itself would seem to be on the generous sowing of the Sower and thus on the certainty of the seed to produce amazing results despite formidable obstacles.
6. Link to a sermon entitled “The Prodigal Sower” (1999 version). Capon, in his reading of this parable, emphasizes Jesus himself as the Word (made flesh) which God sows for the sake of the world. God prodigally sows Jesus everywhere, for all people, even those who will resist his bearing fruit in their lives. In the 2002 update of this sermon, the following twist in interpretation is finally suggested in the end:
In light of the sowing of God’s mercy in the cross and the incredible harvest of the resurrection, then, I’d like to suggest one further twist to this parable. If I am to unlearn the usual human story filled with divisions and strife, then I need to unlearn looking at myself as good soil and someone else as bad soil. No, the most basic field into which God sows his grace is my life, where it sometimes meets with hard soil and rocky soil and weeds, and sometimes with good soil that bears the fruit of extending God’s limitless love with others. It is my constant prayer, then, that my heart and life be good soil today.
7. As an early foreshadowing of the Gospel’s climax in the cross, does the parable of the sower fall a bit short? It foreshadows the rejection by showing us three soils that fail to yield fruit and one that does. But doesn’t the cross show us ‘pure’ rejection (i.e., no one is shown to be a faithful follower), and it is only this rejection that in fact yields the fruit of the resurrection? In other words, the cross ends up being a more drastic picture of rejection than even the one which this parable shows us. Yet it is precisely that act of rejection which God transforms into the fruit of new life. So is there no soil condition for which God’s Word in Jesus Christ can ultimately fail to yield fruit? Perhaps that is why the sower sows so prodigally in the first place. Where sin abounds grace ultimately abounds even more.
1. Note: Here I would like to point out that this is exactly what Girard understands in his exposition of mimetic desire: whoever has not grasped the mimetic workings of desire, and because of this begun to come out of being enmeshed in mimetic rivalry, will twist everything up in an ever greater frustration; whoever has begun to move in a pacific mimesis will understand very well the messes which he or she is leaving behind, and will understand all things creatively and pacifically. See, for example, Girard’s discussion of the double message in the works of Shakespeare in A Theater of Envy – William Shakespeare, New York: Oxford UP, 1991.