Pentecost 6: 16 July Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
In Matthew 13 Matthew is returning to Mark's order. Matthew 13 uses and expands Mark's parable chapter (Mark 4). The immediately preceding episode in Mark is 3:31-35, where Jesus responds to his family by declaring his new family. Matthew has just used it at the end of chapter 12, which also included other material from Mark 3: the accusations that Jesus cast out demons by Beelzebul. So, as in Mark, the focus of the parables is on making sense of the responses to Jesus, the successes and failures of the mission.
The parable of the sower draws on very familiar earthy images which would have been part and parcel of every day life in the rich granary of Galilee. It appears to have been typical of Jesus that he saw sacred text in every day life. This made him different from the scribes who derived their expositions from scripture. The earliest material we have rarely shows Jesus using scripture in anything like a scribal way and it was noted: he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes (Mark 1:22). In preaching it is always salutary to remind ourselves that there is more than one text. Good preaching arises from a meeting of the text of scripture and revelatory text of common experience and reflection.
The image of sowing and reaping had always been part of every day life and is therefore also richly used in scripture. Many of Jesus' every day images are like that, so there is scriptural allusion present in many parables. It seems that if you approach scripture as a heritage of rich imagery and less as a sterile legal document, you can be more in touch with its play, its poetry and images, and more in touch with what (who) inspired it.
At the earliest level the parable on Jesus' lips may have been asserting that despite appearances - setbacks - God's kingdom would come and surprise us with its overwhelmingly rich harvest (at least, for those days). This is all the more dramatic if the practice of the day was still to sow on the unkempt field of dried out weeds and worn paths surviving since last summer and then to plough. To the uninformed it must have appeared stupid. Already there are two elements: faith in God, in the promise that the blessing for the poor and broken people will be realised; there will be such a harvest and it will be beyond our expectations. The second is: we hold onto this despite the apparent absurdity of the task (Paul's the foolishness of preaching, the folly of the cross), despite the setbacks; this also implies setbacks are normal, as they are in sowing and harvesting. The prospect of suffering is real; the prospect of failure is real. The parable asserts ultimate trust despite the misadventures of so many seeds. At this level the parable is almost autobiographical of Jesus. It is also paradigmatic.
Such an image invites reflection and this appears to have occurred very early. The interpretation placed on the lips of Jesus now displays the hallmarks of the early church, but would not have been impossible as a reflection already in the setting of Jesus' ministry, although normally he appears not to have offered such interpretations. Whatever the case, the interpretation exploits the detail about the different state of the soil or ground on which the seed fell. Perhaps it began as an expansion of the consoling aspect of the parable: I can come to terms with failure here and there; it is bound to happen. Always a helpful reflection, especially for perfectionists and would-be messiahs of ministry! Of course, it can also be a haven for avoiding poor performance. Perhaps my sermons are really dull and missing the mark not because it is inevitable, but because I need to give them more attention! On the other hand, I need to accept that my excellent work may fall on distracted hearers. There are no rewards in giving myself a hard time!
Different soils also opened the possibility of making a point not about the preachers but about the hearers. This is the main line of the interpretation in 13:18-23. It is probably good for us preachers not to skip over the application to preachers and focus on this feature too quickly - talking about 'them' is always easier. Matthew appears to put the emphasis here. This seems indicated by some of the revisions he has made of Mark. Mark was making much of the climax and contrast between the fate of the seeds and the huge harvest. His numbers go: 30, 60, 100! Wow! Matthew reverses this order. Mark's version of the parable spoke of one seed falling here, another there and then others (plural) falling on good ground - fairly optimistic. Matthew evens this out: some fell here, some fell there; some fell into good ground. Mark has Jesus scold the disciples for their failure to grasp what he was saying (4:13), even though they were insiders entrusted with the mystery (4:10-12). Matthew removes such harsh aspersions on the disciples. Their failure in Matthew is not at the level of grasping truth, but trusting it, living by it. Take your pick! These are hardly less applicable today.
Matthew puts great emphasis on understanding. He adds it in 13:19 and 23. His gospel illustrates the importance he attaches to teaching. The great commission highlights teaching (28:19). In 13:19 he expands Mark's 'the word' to 'the word of the kingdom'. Matthew is concerned about content. Faith with understanding will help combat the adverse conditions which threaten the harvest. That is why he has written his gospel of the kingdom. The particular dangers may each warrant attention and be a sermon in themselves.
The various versions of the sower parable preserve a sense of the mystery of God's working. In Mark, especially, the parable is a parable about parables and the way they work: creating penny dropped experiences for some; passing others by, almost reinforcing their inability to hear by using this medium. Matthew's focus moves somewhat away from such paradoxical reflections. 'Mystery' becomes 'mysteries' (ie. teachings) and failure to respond is explained rather than evoked by use of parables (see Matthew 13:10-17 in contrast to Mark 4:10-12). The disciples do now see and are thus blessed. The challenge is: do they trust what they believe and understand? If not, why not?
Epistle: Pentecost 6: 16 July Romans 8:1-11
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