Today we encounter another well known parable. I guess in some ways, if instead of listening like bored children to familiar stories, if we were to try to relate the Gospel stories of Jesus not just to real lives but to our lives, the stories might not be merely just a bit strange, they might actually become worrying, embarrassing, or even at times infuriating. And when we remind ourselves that Jesus himself was subjected to a violent form of execution we ought to remember that his teaching – much of it in the form of apparently harmless parable – was likely to have been at least as disturbing in his day as I suspect it would be now if we took it seriously in our modern world.
Now why do I suggest such stories even have the potential to matter? After all stories like the sower going out to sow seeds in different soils are so removed from our world today they are not always seen as truly relevant. We might even be surprised they might be thought of as truly disturbing. Certainly as stories they are hardly surprising in that many are told and retold. I suspect most of us here today have all encountered them over and over again by the time we reach adulthood. And if it comes to that, for recent generations in the West, past telling of the Parable stories are not exactly known to have caused riots or have the crowds baying for blood.
So why did Jesus’ community turn on this teller of tales? I guess part of the answer is that most communities get on best with those who seem to share their community background and way of thinking. It is reasonable to suspect the first listeners of Jesus’ story about the seed and the different stories might have assumed that the bad soils represented those outside the mainstream culture and faith.
One of the historical characteristics of the Israelites was that they were fiercely nationalistic. Historically I guess this was partly understandable. Like in the case of modern day Syria, in most of the lands at that end of the Mediterranean down through the centuries, all the tribes depended on their survival by looking first to their own communities. The Israelites’ answer to the problems caused by their traditional neighbours was to treat all other tribes as potential or actual enemies – looking first after their own extended families and with little thought of caring about those born into different faiths. “Jews first” was the general rule while others from different tribes like the Samaritans were a very distant and deeply distrusted second. The way the world works means the thought of sharing their hard won faith was just not part of the Jews’ thinking. (Does that make you give a passing thought to the slogan “America First”?)
The parable of the sower and the seed implying that the message of Jesus should be shared with the symbols for those outside the faith – the bad soils – would not have gone down too well with some of his listeners. But perhaps we need to remind ourselves of one important, even blindingly obvious point not often mentioned by the commentators.
If Jesus is indeed the sower in the story, he is no longer present in the flesh! I wonder who has picked up the mantle….
OK now let’s start again, remembering the sort of religion we approve of – and the sort of people we would like to see in our faith community. Knowing what we know of our own Church and community settings would, or does our own community throw itself into spreading the seed of Jesus inspired actions in areas where the results are likely to be ambiguous at best.
First a true life story…. Last Sunday morning I happen to know there was a mainstream Methodist congregation worshipping at a Church (which I prefer not to identify) somewhere in South Auckland, New Zealand. One of the more vulnerable rough sleepers who is a frequent visitor to the Church and for whom the Church has offered much by way of practical assistance was a late arrival. Unfortunately the young man had some addiction problems and was clearly agitated in his seat as the service unfolded, and just as one part of the liturgy was moving to a dignified conclusion he suddenly stood up – cursed the minister very loudly and made a most dramatic exit, abusing those who attempted to calm him down. During the morning tea which followed, one of the congregation members asked why the Church was wasting time with losers like that.
Now that’s a very good question. So if we were the ones providing the answer to the man who asked his question on Sunday morning, do we agree that we in the Church should be concerned about “the losers”, particularly those who don’t respond with appropriate thanks or appropriate changes in behaviour? And for that matter would we be entirely honest if we were to reply that since we are quite comfortable with those who don’t share our background including new immigrants, we think the message and actions that Jesus put at the centre of his ministry must be offered to all regardless of social position, religion, or even personal history?
A typical Church in South Auckland might have at least one or two vulnerable people in the congregation but if we are really about putting the gospel into practice have the churches got the balance right? I don’t know if you saw the TV news on Monday night when it was reported there are now 41 000 known homeless in New Zealand which is evidently a new record. The government also say there is insufficient housing available for the number of homeless on their books. The Anglican city mission say they can no longer cope with the numbers and the Te Puea Marae is again being asked to take over some of the more serious cases of folk facing crisis as the winter descends. But here is the problem. If the churches are really responding to this issue with a whole-hearted gospel approach, why is the problem so big?
I suspect prayer without corresponding action is always inadequate. In the parable Jesus makes it abundantly clear he is talking of the seed as being the word, or by implication the essence of the kingdom. For his first hearers he talks in a way that strongly implies he is the sower. But in this generation, now Jesus is no longer with us as a physical presence, is it only Jesus who is the one who does the sowing?
Perhaps one way to read the parable is to see ourselves as the ones entrusted with sowing the seed – or if you like – we are those called to take on the task of being Jesus to the community. But here is the catch. Jesus doesn’t just say concentrate on telling, or even better being the word only for those most likely to respond and implying all will be well. In fact Jesus is brutally frank. He certainly says first that the seed is offered to all situations – stony soil as well as the soil rich with natural resources. Yet nowhere does he pretend that the seed will always be able to do its work.
Not all the recipients of the seed will respond in an ideal way. I guess if we are listening to the retelling of the parable we must be open to seeing ourselves as less than ideal soils.
Christian communities and Christian nations have typically long and chequered histories. There are few nations who have always treated neighbours as themselves. Think of religiously motivated wars, or what about the history of slavery and all too often its passive acceptance down through the centuries. Even today child slavery, sex slavery and sweat shops continue to exploit the vulnerable and for the most part the mainstream Churches are somewhat lukewarm about their protests.
Then of course there is the message that Christians should forgive our enemies. Do you agree that this message has for the most part fallen on very stony ground when the so called Christian nations invest far more in military hardware than in paying for the repair of the towns they have blasted into oblivion – and in the recent case of the US, made it abundantly clear that civilian refugees fleeing the bombing are unwelcome in the West
Certainly it is true that offering the hand of friendship will not always be accepted. Perhaps in part Jesus is merely underlining that unfortunate truth when he offers his parable. But remember nowhere does he imply that the one who does the sowing is entitled to only offer love to the one who is certain to reform and love in return. Those who work with Alcoholics and Drug addicts tell me that not all who enter the programmes for recovery will instantly reform – in fact in the real world, in situation after situation,the majority (including many who claim church membership) will continue to act against the words and acts of the offered gospel.
In one way the parable is mirrored by what happens every Saturday night at the emergency department of any major Public Hospital in the country. I know for some of the inner city hospitals Accident and Emergency can resemble a casualty clearing station from a battle field. The injured, the drunken party goers, the raving druggies just keep coming and yet, although the doctors and nurses are saving lives, patching up the wounded, offering comfort to the dying – and in short- being the Christian face of society, all too often their reward is not so much gratitude as it is likely to be a response of violence and abuse.
But think for a moment what the alternative would be if the assistance was only offered to the well behaved and politely grateful.
Certainly the traditional main point to the Parable of the sower and the seed is that the message – or if you like the gospel – can be offered to everyone regardless of how likely it is that they are worthy or ready for it. It is always been the case that not all will receive it.
The more interesting and often overlooked question is whether or not we can accept the implied challenge of accepting the role of the sower of the seed. If our current society is not living out the message perhaps someone here wants to step up in response to become the one – what was it Jesus said? Be “the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”