12 July 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Pentecost 6A 20

Matthew 13:1-23

Isaiah 55: 10-13

The parable of the sower is probably the most accessible parable that Jesus told, so why is it that this is the one that the gospel writers have Jesus explain?

As the preacher, I would have liked them to include the explanation for some of the tricky ones. Or is it just that because we have the explanation right here it doesn’t seem to be very difficult? The Lectionary actually gives you the option of leaving out the bit in the middle- the bit where the disciples ask Jesus why he uses parables- and he replies that it is in order that people won’t understand. And the reason that they leave that bit out? Well, because it is a hard word and we won’t like Jesus’ answer.

But did you notice that it is the exact bit that I told you that Jesus was referring to in the passage we read last week? That was at the end of Chapter 11 and we have skipped over the whole of Chapter 12 but here we are again with Isaiah and hearing and seeing and understanding. 

Jesus says that it has been given to the disciples to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but that it hasn’t been given to the crowds. Now that raises for me the question- why is Jesus teaching them at all if they are not going to be able to understand? This makes me wonder if it is Matthew who is trying to decide who is in and who is out. Do you remember that right at the beginning of the year A we talked about the fact that Matthew’s church, or the group of followers to whom the gospel is directed are people trying to define themselves against  their Jewish neighbours? I do wonder if that is what is in play here.  And to add insult to injury Jesus says that to those who have more will be given and from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away. This always sounds just plain unfair, doesn’t it? It seems that Jesus says that he talks in a way that is meant to obscure so that people won’t listen. That is very counter productive isn’t it? So either we are misunderstanding or Matthew is being particularly “othering”. 

If we subscribe to the theory that the gospel of Mark is one of the original source texts for the gospels of Matthew and Luke it makes sense to go back and see what Mark says. In Mark the discourse is rather more simple. The parable is much the same and Jesus’ invitation to anyone who has ears to listen is also the same. The uncomfortable thing that Jesus says in Mark is that it is in order that people won’t be saved.

So does this mean that Jesus doesn’t want everyone to be saved? Are we to subscribe to the theory of predestination as did Calvin, that is that only those elect of the Lord, those who are predestined, who will be saved? I don’t know about you, but that makes me extremely uncomfortable and what’s more it doesn’t seem to sit well with John’s statement that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. 

So let’s have a look at the passage that Jesus quotes, from Isaiah. ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn- and I would heal them’. This seems to put a slightly different spin on it all. The first thing to be noted is that in its original context this passage relates to the Assyrian Exile. The people, who won’t listen to either the prophet or God are about to be dragged off, or perhaps have already been dragged off to some other place. This is about a very present danger not their ultimate ‘salvation’ in the sense of a heaven/hell paradigm. The next thing that I want to say is that it appears to be a wilfull blindness and deafness, a people who don’t want to hear or see and understand and we can certainly relate to that in our current context, can’t we? You only have to think of the climate change deniers to find a very clear example of those who don’t want to hear, see or understand because they think it is in their own best interests not too. And then, of course, we look at the situation with Covid 19 in the US and another whole scenario comes to mind… We humans often refuse to see or hear in case we are made uncomfortable or challenged to do something difficult.

I think too, of the Black Lives Matter campaign and the people who feel that it puts into question their very being to hear and see what is being said to them. It is so very uncomfortable to have to admit the truth of our white privilege. 

Jesus, however, talks about broadcasting his word over every kind of soil, whether it is going to be productive or not, so it seems to me that he is not doing that in order that people might not respond but in case they might.

 We are all familiar with the parable, and the different soils that either result in growth or don’t. We can all think of others as they respond, or don’t, to the word that is cast on them. And this is a word, I think, to the preachers- you scatter the seed but you can’t control how people respond. And perhaps it is also a word to the prophets, from Isaiah, right through to the present day- you tell people but they choose whether or not to hear…

Jesus understands this. But he also understands with Isaiah, the power of water and the seed, and the soil.

The picture we had in the reading from Isaiah, the other end of Isaiah, written to those returning from the Babylonian exile, is of the grace of God. The rain and snow water the earth and bring forth shoots from the seeds that are there. These words shall not return empty and the shoots will spring forth from God’s precious soils. They who return shall go out with joy and be led home with peace and the mountains and hills shall burst forth into song and the trees will clap their hands. And instead of the thorns that Jesus alluded to, cypruses will come up and instead of thorns the myrtle will bloom. ‘There will be for the Lord a memorial and an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.’

Jesus speaks of the difficulty of following the word and Isaiah speaks of the joy that follows. This is the word of the kingdom, that fruit will be found a hundredfold. Yes, its difficult and many choose not to hear, or perhaps it isn’t their time for hearing. Yes, there are many who are in exile and never choose to come home, in this life, but those who do will bear much fruit. Yes, there are those from whom the evil one will snatch away any growth and those whose lives are so complicated by weeds that they find it very hard to respond, but God’s plan is for abundant rain, good soil and marvellous growth. 

We preachers always make excuses for the words that fall on deaf ears, even it seems Jesus is tempted to that particular justification. But as for what is sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty and in another thirty. Our God is a God of second chances. There is always opportunity for the soil to be improved, for the weeds to be cleared away and for wonderful growth and fruitfulness. We are all exiles, in a sense, living out our earthly lives while we are seeking to be in fuller relationship with God. And they who are led out with joy from their present habitation, will be led home with peace, into unity with God, and the mountains and the hills will break forth with singing!

Rev Roberta Hamilton