Hear my law, O my people; incline your ears unto the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will declare hard sentences of old (Ps 78:1-2)
Today’s Daily Office Gospel reading for today Matthew’s Parable of the Sower (Mt 13:1-16). So familiar as to be almost something to be ignored. One would think the parable self evident. It appears in all three Synoptic Gospels pretty much unchanged. A sower scatters seed. Some falls on a path where is it picked off by birds. Some falls on rocks, nice warm ones, and quickly sprouts, but soon withers. Some in thorns and the seedling are choked by the stronger competition. Some on well turned soil, and thrive. Even there, there is an uneven yield, a hundred, sixty, or thirty fold. A really good yield in that place and time was about seven fold. Even today 60 bushels/acre is a bumper crop, and 40 normal.
But spiritual teaching doesn’t always stick. Even hungry birds can become careless agents of Satan. Rocks represent a quick conversion, but after the excitement is gone, and there is work to do and, well, we’d rather not. The thorns? First, Sunday church, or not, and then the mall, and maybe a movie, or maybe a night out, and what happens out, stays out. Shiny distractions can blot out the best of teaching. The well tilled soil is obvious. Devotion, formation, living as Christ taught us, loving one another, hearing and seeing the Holy One moving among us. But the crowds on the shore didn’t hear or see.
Speaking to his disciples, Jesus says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” Then he says that for one who has, more will be given and in abundance, for one who doesn’t have, even what little he or she has will be taken away. This actually is a reference to economics, the rich and the poor, a subject very dear to Jesus. In the Greek the words make it clear: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer because of economic inequity. In terms of spiritual growth rich and poor have taken on new meaning, a reverse meaning. Being rich in faith and obedience to God will be rewarded.
Jesus is using parables to help the poor in faith along, those learned but in darkness, those simple unlearned folk. He is easing them through with familiar examples. But they don’t see or hear because they have shut their eyes, stopped their ears. In a touch of frustration and perhaps fatigue, Jesus, a very incarnate and human Jesus, quotes Isaiah 6:9-10, “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.” The key words are turn and be healed. Turn to the one who has shown signs though healing and banishing evil spirits. Turn to the one who can forgive sin. Turn to Jesus, true God, begotten not made, and be healed. The people are in sin, perhaps a sins he has preached on – adultery or murder in the heart, prideful prayer, not forgiving enemies, failing to help the needy. And they need to turn, recognize their separation from God as Jesus is teaching them, and he can heal them. All those signs, which so amazed the crowds, are only manifestations of God’s love being enacted through Jesus before their eyes and in their hearing, which they don’t see or hear. What they see are tricks. They think the man they follow is at best a prophet, but more likely a mere magician.
Jewish Scripture long predicted the coming of the Messiah. This Gospel often points to this, of particular importance to Matthew who recognized Jesus not only as the Messiah, the Christ, the fulfillment of the Law, but a reformer of Judaism. At this time followers of Jesus observed Jewish practice, and prayed with and preached to unconverted Jews. The authors of Matthew, Mark, and Paul knew the Old Testament scrolls and had read them in synagogue, as had Jesus.
This is not a parable about the glory of God and all the uplifting sayings that energize a crowd. Even though the Beatitudes and the teaching in Matthew 5-7 are hard, they are the kind of moral preaching about which one can say, offhandedly, that’s nice, and promptly forget. This parable is a warming. But the crowd doesn’t hear it, or see the Christ before them. Perhaps the message is also meant for us.
Crowds are an iffy thing. We have seen mobs of a million women and men in pink pussy hats defying an administration of self-aggrandizement and corruption. And we have seen crowds enthusiastically celebrating God, and the power of black women, at the recent Beyoncé Mass. And crowds of school kids marching for gun reform. Energy is feel-good, but does enthusiasm stick? And when does a cause or event become so exciting that seeing and hearing Jesus fades to black? That may be part of the warning of this parable. People rush to join good causes, to be part of the crowd, to seek new ideas, experiences scattered on the path. Maybe to be seen, to have a story to tell next week at work, school or church. Crowds flock to rocky ground, all excited, but with no community, no teaching, no patience. And, poof, it is gone. And how many of us put our faith, our church, our souls equal to the latest sale at the mall, the hottest music festival, the newest, well, whatever is the newest anything. When does that overcome all the gifts of the Cross and Resurrection?
We need balance for life in the world, a new movie or book, birthday parties, trips to new places. But without the foundation of good soil can we hold on in the face of the world, the material glamour. Or even be overwhelmed by righteous concerns – outrage at current politics, destruction of the planet, the plight of the marginalized? Does anxiety and care about any of these things overcome the ground of our being in Christ, in the love of our Father? Are we in Jesus’ boat, or on the shore?
What Jesus said to disciples is true for us, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous [people] longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Mt. 13:16-17).”
We need to be constantly renewed, to see and hear, not only for ourselves, but for our witness, what we teach, so that the world may see and hear.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.