Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Parable of the Sower: Anyone with Two Ears Had Better Listen!

“Some seed fell along the path and was trampled underfoot; the birds of the sky at it up. Other seed fell on the rock; when it grew it withered because it lacked moisture. Still other seed fell among thorns; the thorns grew with it and choked it. Other seed fell on good earth and started producing fruit…(and Jesus said) Anyone here with two ears had better listen!” (Scholars’ Version, Luke 8)

A sermon preached July 16, 2017 at St. Richard's Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL

The parable of the sower is one of the most widely repeated passages of scripture in the New Testament. It appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels, MK, LK and today’s lesson from MT, and it appears in the earliest gospel, the collection of sayings called the Gospel of Thomas. Given the multiple times it appears in the various gospels, the chances are very good that this passage actually came from Jesus as opposed to the many passages that reflect the needs and self-understandings of the early church.

Questions not answers

How do we know this is Jesus? To begin with, it comes in the form of a parable. Jesus is fond of this kind of teaching. The parables were a means for Jesus to communicate powerful lessons to his followers in ways they would comprehend while at the same time appearing innocuous and non-threatening to the ears of the Roman overlords who kept Jesus and the crowds he drew under regular surveillance.

Parables differed from the teachings about the Jewish law that one might encounter from the Pharisees and their rabbis with whom Jesus often interacted. For one thing, parables raise questions rather than providing answers. Jesus often sought to prompt people to engage in reflection even as he rarely told them what to think. Parables also invoke multiple possible responses as the parable of the sower readily illustrates: some of the seed falls on rocky ground, some of the seed is eaten by birds, some takes only shallow root and withers. Yet some grows and produces in abundance. Jesus constantly asks his listeners: Which one are you and why is that?  

Another detail that points toward Jesus is his use of the natural world as the audio-visual aid for delivering his message. Jesus clearly loves the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. While it is not clear whether this particular parable is original to Jesus or whether he simply adapted it from a common form of story passed around in the Greco-Roman world, Jesus often focuses on the capacity of the earth to bring forth abundance, a pattern which reflects the goodness and generosity of his Father in heaven who created everything that is – including us.

One last aspect that is common to Jesus’ teaching is his valuing of the common people whom he trusted to respond appropriately to his parables. The Westar Scholar’s Edition translates the last line of this passage this way: “Anyone here with two ears had better listen!” Bear in mind that this is the same teacher who praises the poor – who compose the vast majority of his homeland – as blessed. He calls them salt of the earth, light of the world. Clearly Jesus believes they are capable of understanding his parables. And in today’s Gospel, he calls them to become what they are capable of being as the children of G-d: living beings which grow, flourish and produce good fruit.

Paul’s Greek audience

To fully understand what Jesus is saying, it’s helpful to compare it very briefly
with what St. Paul offers us in today’s Epistle. Paul begins with the assertion that “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Note the key element common to Paul’s thought: punishment and avoidance of punishment through believing. Paul then launches into a long dissertation on sins of the flesh versus life in the Spirit.

This division of the human being into a flesh which is largely sinful and a spirit which is holy is striking in its Greek philosophical overtones. The Greeks saw the human being as the corrupt realm of the flesh driven by our desires and appetites as well as the pure and perfect realm of the Spirit where an uncluttered reason reigns supreme. It’s pretty clear who Paul’s audience was and it is not the Galilean peasants Jesus is addressing.

Indeed, in this comparison it’s easy to recognize that while St. Paul was adept at constructing a religion about the Christ, a religion which focused on sin and salvation, punishment and its avoidance, death and resurrection, the truth is, Paul had never met Jesus. And while the ideas of St. Paul can be reconciled with those of Jesus if one really works at it, they are strikingly different in both their focuses and their goals.

If Paul were telling the parable of the sower, it would probably go something like this: The sower is Jesus. He has come to bring the Word to those wish to attain resurrection after death. It’s important to note that Paul does not presume that his listeners are already children of G-d. In the next verse after the excerpt we have read for today, he goes on to say that receiving the Spirit as a result of hearing the Word makes it possible for one to become an adopted child of G_d. By implication, that means we do not start as such, an understanding completely at odds with the Creation accounts of Genesis.

Every seed holds its own potential

But Jesus tells a different story. For Jesus the sower is G-d, the Creator, and the sowing of that seed takes place at the moment of our very creation. It is particularly important to note the symbolism of the seed here. Seeds are by definition life in its potential form. If a seed is properly planted and nourished, it sprouts and becomes a plant. With devoted care, the plant produces something of value – here the grain needed for one’s daily bread.  Bear in mind, this is the same Jesus who earlier in this gospel reminds us that it is by the fruits of our lives that people know who we truly are.

Jesus is not focused here on sin or salvation. He is not focused on divine punishment and how we avoid it. He is not talking about death and resurrection. And he does not presume that we must be adopted by G-d to become G-d’s children.

So what is Jesus talking about? Unfortunately, our excerpt from Matthew today leaves out about 8 verses in the middle of this passage that provide the key to understanding it. In verse 11 of this chapter, when his disciples ask Jesus to explain the parable, he begins with these words: “You have been given the privilege of knowing the secrets of the Kingdom of G-d...” While Paul is talking about sin and salvation, death and resurrection, Jesus’ parable is about the here and now, the way that each of us lives our lives as children of G-d, and the coming of the Kingdom of G-d.

So how does this kingdom come about? According to Jesus, it is the result of the willingness of each of us who bear the seed of our own individual humanity implanted in us at the moment of our creation to live into the best and highest version of ourselves that G_d has called us to become. Jesus regularly models that higher version of ourselves: healing the sick, giving to those who beg, turning the other cheek, forgiving your enemies. And he does so in a manner that is often self-sacrificing.

Let us remember that Jesus is Jewish, that Judaism has long taught that every human being is created a child of G-d born bearing the divine image. That’s the seed. Judaism also teaches that each of us is born with the potential to grow increasingly into the divine likeness. That’s the tending of the plant. And what happens if we are each faithful to the process of growth and development into the likeness of G_d? The parable of the sower tells us it is the great yield of which we are capable of producing. In short, the result is life in abundance, one of the marks of the Kingdom of G_d which Jesus asks us to pray each day will “come on Earth as in heaven.”

The Sower comes to the beach

Over the years as both a student and a teacher of world religions, I have come to believe that no spiritual path is worthy of serious consideration unless it has the capacity to do two things. One, it must have the capacity to enable people to transcend the vagaries of their daily lives, and two, it must have the capacity for those same people to collectively help transform the world in which they live. Absent either of those two capacities, a religion may be a lot of things but it is not ultimately a path worth following.

Now think about the mission statement of this church. Each Sunday we hear this proclamation of that mission: “We are here to discover G-d’s grace, to change our lives and to change the whole world.” Like the parable of the sower, it evidences a great deal of confidence in its hearers to respond to that calling from Jesus.  It is a spiritual path that aims at personal transcendence and social transformation. It is, in my view, a spiritual path worth following.

But is also a path that runs against the grain in a culture that accentuates individualism and measures human worth in terms of power and dollars and cents. And yet there are examples of transcendence and transformation around us every day if we are willing to see them. Indeed, if Jesus were telling this story today, it might go like this:

A woman and her family were at the beach enjoying a day of summer vacation. Suddenly the woman noticed that her three young sons were out in water over their heads and were frantically waving their hands and screaming. They had been caught in an undertow. Though the woman was not a good swimmer, she and other family members charged into the surf to try to rescue the boys. But the undertow was strong and soon nine people thrashed in water over their heads increasingly far from the shore

Other people on the shore had noticed what was happening. They began to form a line out into the surf holding hands, forming a human chain. Volunteers poured out across the beach and soon the human chain, with some members barely keeping their heads above water, reached the family and one by one pulled all nine of them to safety.

No doubt there were some who saw what was happening and simply said “It’s not my problem.” That’s the seed that fell on barren rock. There were others who started to join the chain but became afraid: “I don’t know how to swim, I might drown.” That’s the seed that sprouted but then died for lack of care. And yet others said, “Look, I’ve got things I need to do this afternoon. I don’t have time for this altruistic bit.” That’s the seed that gets choked out by noxious weeds.  

And yet, there were enough people who were able bodied, empathetic and willing to engage in what could well have proven a dangerous activity that resulted in the saving of a family on Panama City Beach, Florida last Saturday. They each transcended our cultural values of self-focus and in the end together transformed what could have been a serious tragedy into a story of human triumph.

By their fruits, we know them.

So now it is your turn to find yourself in the parable. Which one are you and why is that? What will you do with the seed that G-d has given you to nurture, tend and bring to production?  By what fruits will your life labors be known? Let me close with some advice from Jesus here: 

Anyone here with two ears had better listen!” AMEN.  

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

© Harry Coverston 2017


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