Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 5 2017

Bible illustrations contributed by Sweet Publishing to Wikimedia Commons

Isaiah 55:10-13
Romans 8
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

We are reading through Matthew’s Gospel in the course of this year at Sunday Mass, and today we have reached the point where Jesus begins teaching in parables.
It’s said that a bible student once defined a parable as “a heavenly story with no earthy meaning”. Well, that’s not quite right, but they aren’t “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning”, either. The more you look at them, the more it becomes apparent that parables aren’t simply metaphorical tales that we can just decode.
Parables are strange. Jesus describes seemingly ordinary everyday scenes, but look closely, and there’s always something odd about them, details that don’t fit, things that just aren’t that way, in the world we know: mustard seeds that grow bigger than trees; a prize treasure hidden in a field; a shepherd who abandons ninety-nine sheep to look for one. It’s as though the parable is saying, “what is wrong with this picture?”
The parables are a bit like a Zen koan, those paradoxical riddles that have no answer, such as, “what is the sound of a handclap made with only one hand?”. There is something elusive in the parables which is trying to jolt us into a new way of seeing, a different consciousness.
When Jesus was asked why he taught in parables, he quoted the Prophet Isaiah:
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
The point of a parable, it seems, is not to enable us to understand a simple lesson. It is to bring us up against the fact that we don’t understand. Our not perceiving, not understanding, are part of what a parable is exposing.
It’s as though the parables of Jesus hold up a mirror, and we think we see a distorted image, but actually we are seeing the distortion of our own perception. Jesus is describing how things really are; if it seems weird to us maybe it’s because we have got reality wrong.
Except that with this parable of the Sower, Jesus seems to spoil it all by explaining it. The seed stands for various types of people, and how they respond to the word of the Kingdom. Well, yes. But that doesn’t explain it all. Perhaps Jesus is probing our perception, to see if we will be content with the everyday explanation, content to stay where we are, to look and not perceive, to listen and not understand.
Because one very important thing is not explained in this parable: the Sower. And a very strange Sower he is, too.
This year’s crop of tomatoes is just starting to ripen at home. The ripe fruit is of course the end of a long process. If you grow your own tomatoes you too will have started with a pack of seed, probably quite expensive and with not many seeds in it (holiday buying tip: Italian seed packets are cheaper and have much more seed in them). Now, what did you do with that packet of seed? Did you wander down your garden path, randomly flinging the seed in all directions, onto the stones and into the weeds (though I’m sure none of you has weeds)?
Well of course you didn’t. That would be a waste. Seed has to be looked after, you prepare the seed compost, nurture the little seedlings, protect them from the slugs, plant them up, feed and water them, and so on. So we begin to see what is odd with the parable of the Sower.
This Sower doesn’t seem to know about waste or limited resources, or the risk of throwing away the seed you’ve got in strange places. Now, wheat isn’t quite the same as tomatoes, but it is still odd behaviour as farmers depend for their livelihood on their crops. The seed you sow is what you have to spare from the grain you need to eat and sell. Sow too much, and you’ll go hungry. Sow too little, and you won’t have enough to harvest for next year.
The life we are familiar with is made up of limitations: careful calculation, planning for the future, and very often possessiveness, rivalry, anxiety, fear. Ultimately, it’s about survival, and over it all is cast the shadow of the fact that in the end, after all this striving, we won’t survive. The future we plan so carefully is bounded by death, and we measure out our lives a little at a time from our finite resources, staving off year by year that final limit that we can do nothing about.
But the Sower in the parable doesn’t seem to know anything about this. He wanders along the path, recklessly flinging seed in all directions, without counting it out, without caring where it lands: on the path, on the rocks, among thorns, in the good ground. He inhabits a strange new life which knows nothing of finite resources, of holding on to what’s mine, of rivalry, of death. He has done with these things. In other words, the Sower is one who has been raised from the dead.
The Sower walks on a path that begins in an empty tomb, and leads into the new world of the resurrection, the life that is without limit because it is the life that God lives.
Old calculations no longer apply. “The one who hears the word and understands it bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” It doesn’t matter how much. And in fact even thirtyfold would have been much more yield than any ordinary farmer would have seen in the time of Jesus.
Those who follow Jesus along the path of new life will bear fruit abundantly, and that fruit itself becomes seed that is sown, that bears more fruit in its turn. Jesus the Sower is our model.
Does it matter where we sow our seed? The Lord of the harvest doesn’t seem to think so. If we follow Jesus on the path of new life we become his ambassadors whenever, wherever, we are. We can share our faith whenever God gives us the opportunity.  We are to scatter the gospel seed, but leave the growing of it to God. We can be sure that some will take root and grow. We may not see the fruit, but it’s not our harvest.

Does it matter, whether we bear a hundredfold, or sixty, or thirty? The Lord of the harvest doesn’t seem to think so. All is overflowing abundance. Old calculations, limitations and rivalries have no place in the life of the resurrection. Some churches are bigger than others. Some Christians are more gifted in sharing their faith in words, others in works of charity.  But there is no need to compare ourselves favourably or unfavourably with anyone. If we follow Jesus, we will bear, and sow, the fruit that he wants us to, the fruit of the abundant and limitless life of the resurrection, in our own lives, and in the world around us. And that is more than enough.

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