The “So What?” Question

I love parable season.  I really do.  But this week isn’t working out quite the way I had imagined.  It has been a busy week, which, when dealing with spiritual hand grenades, isn’t ideal.  So here I am, at 10 to 2 on Thursday afternoon, my usual sermon writing time, and I’m still struggling around this question of “So What?”  I was supposed to have lunch with my friend and fellow Bible blogger, Evan, and per his post this morning, we were supposed to talk about this very issue, “So What?”, but that didn’t happen, so now my poor readers will have to read as I struggle through it in print.

The problem Evan raises in the post linked above is the crux of the issue.  If I am soil and there is nothing soil can do in and of itself to change from path to good stuff and if this story is really about God’s prodigal grace, then what is the preacher to do other than tell the parable for a third or fourth time after the people have already heard it twice in the Gospel lesson?  If I can’t draw a flow chart like this one:

The Parable of the Sower

Then what the heck do I preach?

Thankfully, yesterday I sat in on TKT’s Bible Study on the Parables of Jesus. Conveniently, the topic at hand was very parable.  As I sat and listened to it, rather than reading it, I realized that Jesus describes three action steps in his interpretation of the Parable of the Sower.  First, the word of the kingdom is heard.  Hearing is a totally passive activity.  Sound waves travel all around and when they happen to enter the ear canal and vibrate the ear drum, hearing happens whether or not I’m paying attention.  In the context of the parable, this is the work of the sower, seed is cast no matter the type of soil.

Secondly, Jesus says that some hearers will understand to word of the kingdom.  This is, I believe, the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  The Holy Spirit is constantly tending the soil of our hearts.  Some of us are 90% good soil and others are 90% path, but no matter the make up of our hearts, the Spirit is at work with tiller, water, and fertilizer, working to create as receptive as possible a place in our hearts.  The Spirit attempts to soften up the path, to break up the rocky under layment, to pull up the weeds, and to continuously nurture the good soil of our hearts.  We can’t do anything to make ourselves receptive to the word or to better understand it when it comes, that is a gift of grace.

Finally, the seeds that fall on good soil produce fruit with varying degrees of effectiveness: some 100, some 60, some 30 fold.  This is where we get to help out.  When we recognize the kingdom of God at work in our lives, then we are seemingly compelled to respond by helping it grow.  Thanks to the gift of seed from the Sower God, and the tending of the soil by the Farmer Spirit, and through the grace of Jesus Christ, we are able to respond to God’s work in our lives by sharing it with those around it through evangelism, giving, outreach, care, and love.  Children of the Kingdom are known by their works.  Their works don’t get them in, as this parable makes clear, but the sign and symbol of the grace of God at work in their lives is the fruit of good works.

So there, I guess I’ve worked out my issues here on WordPress.  Still, I wish I could have had lunch with Evan.

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What the Parable of the Sower Might Be About

It has been said that as soon as one thinks they’ve grasped the meaning of a parable, they’ve lost it.  This might be hyperbole, but I’m apt to think it probably isn’t too fair from the truth.  The gift of a parable, as I said on Monday, is that it is complex, nuanced, multifaceted.  I may find one particular meaning in the Parable of the Sower while you may find another.  Even naming it “the Parable of the Sower” betrays that my understanding of the story comes from a particular angle.  You may choose to call it “the Parable of the Soil,” but as I said yesterday, I’d think you were wrong. 😉

Many preachers find their understanding of this parable in the explanation given in verses 18-23.  This is well and good, but it leads us to talk about two dirty secrets of exegesis: things I swore I wouldn’t talk about once I left seminary.  The first is the Historical Critical method of Biblical interpretation.  Historical Criticism seeks to find the origins of the text in order to find the kernal of truth hidden inside.  In order to do quality Biblical exegesis, one must understand Historical Criticism in order to ignore it in the pulpit.  So, for example, most scholars argue that the interpretation given for the Parable of the Sower is not original to Jesus, but rather it was added by Matthew, building off of an addition my Mark, as a pastoral response to his original church context.  It can be considered sacrilegious and heterodox to suggest that the Bible says something that might not actually be true, so many modern preachers, knowing this information, skirt around it by being bold enough to suggest a different interpretation, thereby asserting that maybe the one attributed to Jesus isn’t the only way.  This leads us to the second secret of exegesis, we all interpret scripture differently because scripture is not univocal.  Again, in our interpretation from verses 18-23, we see that it begins with “Jesus” telling “the disciples” to “hear again the parable of the sower,” but yet once the interpretation begins, it is all about the soil.  So which is it really about?  Good preachers will explore both avenues before settling on their own interpretive angle.  Some will argue that we should be good soil.  Others will say that we should spread the seed of the Gospel.  Me, well you already know mine.

I think the Parable of the Sower is about the prodigality of God.  Whether the sower is God the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit changes over time, but the truth about God remains the same, God spreads his love with reckless abandon in hearts that are at once all four different types of soil.  No where is this more evident than in the lives of the disciples, who, as Elisabeth Johnson points out, Jesus invests in over and over and over again despite their hard hearts, stiff necks, and dim minds.  He continues to work at them, helping them to understand just what God is up to.  He scatters the seed of the Gospel with reckless abandon, and even when it is clear that they just don’t get it, when they turn him over to the authorities, abandon him in his hour of need, and deny even knowing him; he continues to pour out his love on them, inviting them to back into the fold after his resurrection.

God is downright foolish with his love for us, scattering seed indiscriminately and tending to soil that should have been abandoned long ago.  That is, I think, what this parable is all about.

What the Parable of the Sower Doesn’t Mean

I’m sure that I’m not bursting the bubble of many of my readers by suggesting this, but let’s start out our discussion of the meat of the Parable of the Sower by talking about what it is not suggesting.  The Parable of the Sower is not a call to “be good soil.”

There, I said it.  I feel better, don’t you?

There is nothing that soil can do, in and of itself, to be better.  In fact, even “good soil” still must rely on outside factors to maintain goodness and foster growth.  The most nutrient rich soil, which only gets that way thanks to the breaking down of organic material to create fertilizer, can’t support even a mustard seed without water.  Soil can’t produce water, it must come from either springs below or rain and snow above.  The proper amount of sunlight is also required for good soil to produce a good yield, which is also related to the need for a suitable ambient temperature for growth.  And sometimes, given the right amount of water, proper nutrients, and a reasonable temperate, even Alabama Clay can produce prodigious yields.

Let’s review.  Good soil requires the right balance of nutrients, water, sun, and temperature in order to produce good yields.  Soil can’t ensure any of those things, but rather must rely on outside sources.  Good soil, therefore, is a gift of grace.  Good soil that actually produces something, is a double portion.  You can’t make yourself into good soil.  Period.  End of story.

The Parable of the Sower, as the name would imply, really has nothing to do with the soil, but it is all about the sower who is downright reckless in tossing seed.  More on that tomorrow.

Opening Day of Parable Season

Like my friend and colleague, Evan, I love Summer Parable Season.  It helps fill the void between the end of Wimbledon and the start of Fantasy Football Season.  Y’know that time when, unless it is a World Cup year, all we have to talk about his awful baseball is and how the season will never, ever end?  As I opened the Lectionary Page this morning, my heart skipped a beat to see that this Sunday we move from the doldrums of Jesus’ expository preaching to the fertile fields (pun intended) of parabolic preaching.

Before we can dive into this week’s parable, however, I think it is wise to spend a few moments in a section of Matthew that the Lectionary skips.  In Matthew 13:10-17, we hear, from the lips of Jesus himself, why he chooses to use these little gems, which I have likened to auditory hand grenades dropped by Jesus in our brains just waiting to explode with meaning.  He does so because, well, his disciples don’t get it.  “Why do you talk in parables?” They asked Jesus.  “Because,” he says, with an obvious tie in to last week’s Gospel lesson, “I want the people to listen, to see, and to think.” (author’s paraphrase)

Jesus doesn’t just hand us a set of blue prints on how to build the Kingdom of Heaven.  Instead, he invites us to use our God given ability to think and come up with ways in which we can be co-creators of the Kingdom with God.  As I’ve said elsewhere, every Christian is a theologian.  Too often, this particular role has been delegated to clergy who have in turn allowed the academy to do all the heavy lifting.  This is to the great detriment of the Church.  Instead, every member of the Body of Christ should be encouraged to work out, in community, their understanding of God and how God works in the world.  Together, we grow in faith and develop deeper relationships with God and with each other as a result of the sometimes difficult work of imagining things that are beyond our comprehension.  Jesus modeled this work for us in his use of parables to teach, and I encourage you, dear reader, to take some time over the next few weeks to read and prayerfully consider what these parables of Jesus mean for you.

Enjoy parable season!  I know I will.