Cover Image: The Sower by Jesus Mafa (Cameroon) 1973.
Jesus liked to teach in parables, but it wasn’t always obvious what it was he was trying to teach. Maybe he could have tried a different genre and he would have had better luck. Something more obvious and to the point. Maybe some tweetable little sound bite, a catchy jingle, a meme that could go viral. Or how about a provocative one-liner to grab the media’s attention and score some free publicity? But seriously, parables? Way too long and complicated.
If this story is any indication, even the disciples had a tough time with the parables. “Even you guys don’t get it?” Jesus sighs. “OK, I’ll spell it out for you this time ….”
It wasn’t that the disciples were stupid. They weren’t the dimwitted fools they’re sometimes made out to be. As scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, “We should not be too hard on the disciples. They were looking for something within their comfort zone… [But] Jesus was requiring that his disciples do more than listen; he was asking them to think as well…” ( Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controverial Rabbi, New York: HarperCollins, 2014, p. 3.)
Maybe that’s the whole point of these parables. At least that’s what Jesus seems to say. They’re not meant to entice but to confound. They’re not ads to sell the Jesus’ product, they’re thought-provoking challenges. These aren’t little life lessons, “five easy steps to better living,” simple guides to self-improvement. No, these parables provoke. Only those who follow Jesus will begin to understand; they’ll see what other people miss – signs of the kingdom of God.
Jesus is asking his disciples to think. To think about their lives, their faith, their values, what they expect and what they hope for, and what they’re willing to give up to get there. I suspect he wants them to have some skin in the game. I suspect that’s what he wants from us.
As Levine says,
They bring up unasked questions...
I think she’s right. As I listened to this parable again I found myself asking all sorts of questions. Like that part about the good soil, and the seed producing a bountiful crop. What does that actually mean? If the seed is ‘the word,’ does more seed mean more opportunities to spread the word? Does an increase mean there will be more and more followers of Jesus?
That’s what some scholars think. They think this parable was a way to explain why Christianity took off in some places and in others it didn’t seem to have a chance. Why some people would accept Jesus and others reject his teachings. It wasn’t the seed, it was the soil. That’s one interpretation of the parable.
But what if he didn’t mean that at all? What if the abundance wasn’t about the number of people who followed him, but what happened to the people who did? What if the ‘bountiful crop’ was the growth you would see in people’s lives?
And how do you know if the word has taken root in someone’s life? What does that kind of growth look like? That’s what’s thought-provoking for me – at least this time around
I found myself thinking about the passage from the book of Galatians where Paul talks about the “fruit of the Spirit” –the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control. [Gal. 5:22-23] I think that’s what happens when the word of God takes hold in your life. At least I hope so.
A couple of days ago Julie Houpt posted a David Brooks article on Facebook. Brooks talks about the difference between ‘resume virtues’ and ‘eulogy virtues.’ “The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace,” he writes. “The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” ( David Brooks, “The Moral Bucket List,” Sunday Review, The New York Times, April 11, 2015. http://nyti.ms/1Fy2QmR)
I read that and I thought, that’s just like the fruit of the Spirit. That’s what I want to have grow in me. That’s what I want Jesus to produce in my life.
I know people who live that kind of life. I’m sure you do, too. I think of the woman who experienced a deep betrayal at work, but decided not to let anger take hold. She kept taking the high road, over and over, though sometimes it was brutal. She showed courage and she stayed honest. It was important to her to live a life that was full, not one eaten away by bitterness. She would say she couldn’t have done it without faith, without prayer. I think the word was growing bountifully in her.
I think of the man whose wife began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. He struggled with how to take care of her, which got harder as her illness grew worse. He felt like he was gradually losing her. But as hard as that was, he decided to enjoy her presence as long as he could – the glimmers of memory, her smile, affection. He wasn’t always patient, but that was his goal. Sometimes he got frustrated and had to work at self-control, but his faithful love never wavered. I think the sower found rich soil in him.
Then there’s the teenager I know who’s been through a lot in his life already. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him. It’s not that he’s hiding anything; what I mean is that he isn’t cynical or jaded. He isn’t concerned with what people think, he’s concerned about people. He has a generosity of spirit, a kindness. I think the sower would be proud of that harvest.
What would abundance look like in your life? What would it feel like if you could have that?
What is it that gets in the way?
‘Abundance’ doesn’t mean wealth; Jesus makes that pretty clear. Contrary to the so-called “Prosperity Gospel, Jesus warns that “The lure of wealth” is one of the things that can get in the way of abundance. Like thorns choking out plants, “the appeal of wealth, and the desire for more things break in and choke the word, and it bears no fruit.” “Thirty, sixty, and a hundred-fold” is not your return on investments.
Abundance is not the same as success or achievement; in fact, those can be thorns that choke out what God has to offer. David Brooks put it this way:
[I]f you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured… [Y]ou live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys.
What is it that threatens a depth of meaning and joy in your life? Is it busyness? Is it worry? Is it jealousy of what other people have that you don’t? Is it pride? I know I’ve dealt with every one of those in my own life, and I daresay I’ll have to face them again. I feel like I’m weeding all the time, trying to get those thorns and thistles out of there. Trying to give God’s word room to grow. But those weeds are so tenacious! Sometimes I need help to get rid of them.
What snatches the seed away before it begins to take root? Is it self-pity, or shame? What about fear or outrage or helplessness? They can swoop right in and take away any hope that we have. They can convince us that God’s promises aren’t true, or they aren’t true for us. God’s word doesn’t have a chance if we’re already convinced it can’t possibly grow.
And what about that rocky soil, where the seed starts to grow, but withers away? Some come into the body of Christ with the best of intentions… feeling connected to God, hoping for a deeper connection to others… There are spiritual highs and moments of real, true joy. But then something happens and it all fades away. You hit a dry spell and it’s harder and harder to see why you bother. You get hit by a crisis and you give up on God; what good is faith anyway?
Sometimes I wonder how God’s word grows at all. How does it ever take root? How can it possibly thrive?
But it does. You can see it. Just look around you. If you can’t see it in yourself yet, just look around. The abundance of kindness, and generosity. The joy and peace you can feel. The loving patience. The self-control. Can’t you see it?
It’s not that we’re all such great soil. There’s thorns and there’s thistles, and dry rocky patches, and places that are simply worn out. But God keeps scattering that seed, scattering it everywhere, throwing it around with abandon, knowing that sooner or later, it will land in that rich spot in your life that’s so ready, that’s been ready forever. That place in your soul that is rich and fertile and deep.
And if it doesn’t grow this time? He’ll keep coming back and throw out some more.
Can you believe God is so wasteful, wasting it all on people like us?
Can you believe it?
Rev. Karen Chakoian
First Presbyterian Church