This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Across the Lake.

Luke 8:22-39.

            Jesus decides it is time to bring his ministry beyond his own Jewish people.  He wants to sail across the lake to Gentile territory, and start preaching and healing there too.   So they all get into a boat and start on their way.  Exhausted, Jesus finds a comfortable spot and takes a nap.
            A storm brews up.  The wind increases, the waves swell.  It gets so bad that even the accomplished sailors in the group – Peter, James, John, and Andrew – have so much trouble that the boat is in danger of sinking.  They’re probably embarrassed to ask Jesus for help, they are professionals and experts, while Jesus knows about as much about boats as he knows about motorcycles.  In any case, Jesus sleeps through the whole thing.  They have to wake him up, with the deck of the boat being thrown around like a Tilt-a-Whirl.
            Jesus wakes up, looks around at the chaos and terror, and simply calls out to the storm, “Chill!” or something to that effect in Aramaic.  He rebukes the storm, as if it were demonically inspired.  He casts the storm demon out of the elements, and the sea and the atmosphere return to normal.
            Then he turns and rebukes the disciples.  “Where is your faith?” he asks.  “What, you can’t handle a second-rate weather-demon?  Do you really think this whole thing is going to end in a shipwreck?  You have to show a little more trust in what we are doing here.  Jeesh.”
            The effect of this on the disciples is that they are more afraid now than they were during the storm.  “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water and they obey him?”  Jesus goes back to his nap, while the disciples cower at the other end of the boat wondering what just happened.
            There is a wonderful little story about the Russian Orthodox monk, Seraphim Rose.  Father Seraphim and a companion established a monastery in the mountains of northern California in the 1970’s.  It was challenging work, beset with all kinds of difficulties.  But every time they met with some obstacle, like a flat tire on the truck, or even opposition from someone in the ecclesiastical bureaucracy, they figured they must be doing something right if the demons thought them worthy to have these annoying inconveniences thrown at them.  So instead of getting angry or despondent when things didn’t go well, they took heart.  They interpreted it as an indication that they were on the right track.  They rejoiced even, and enthusiastically changed the tire and got back to their mission.
            That’s what faith looks like.  When the going gets tough it is a sign that you’re making progress.  The Evil One does not pay attention to ineffective ministries.  Those he leaves alone to thrive unmolested.  It is the ministries with great potential that he starts dropping obstacles in front of.

            Jesus is saying that, when the storm blew up on the lake that day, what the disciples should have said was, “Cool!  We must be doing something right or the devil wouldn’t be throwing a storm at us!  God must really be with us!  We can’t possibly fail now!  We’re on a mission to bring Jesus across this lake.  Who can stop us?  Certainly not this pathetic excuse for a storm!”
            The church is in a terrible storm right now.  The swells are high; the wind is at gale force.  Our particular denomination lost 100,000 members last year, which I think is a new record.  Once large churches are now medium sized.  Once healthy churches are now struggling.  Once small churches are now closed.  Full-time ministries are suddenly part-time.  Presbyteries can’t afford the staffs they used to.  The fastest growing religious demographic in America is “none.”
            We turned the boat over to the experienced professionals, with advanced degrees, and long resumes, and still we founder.  We dissolve into blaming each other.  We moan in debilitating nostalgia about when the sailing was easy and the boat was full.
            Maybe the sailing was easy and the boat was full back then; but maybe as well it wasn’t going anywhere.  And maybe because it wasn’t going anywhere, the Evil One left us alone, fat and happy with our bulging numbers, our political clout, our economic stability.  Maybe a boat that stays in a risk-free existence in the harbor would do really well... but that is not what Jesus calls us to do.
            Jesus could have stayed in Capernaum and let people come to him.  If he had we never would have heard about him, because it is the people in the countless towns in Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Syria, and the Decapolis, whose lives are dramatically affected by his ministry, whose memories and experiences of him form the groundwork for the spread of the Way after his resurrection.
            It is because they do go, they set sail on the lake, that they become a target.  God wants a church on the move.  Jesus does not appear to have stayed very long in any one place.  But being on the move is risky.  It gets the attention of the Enemy.
            I suspect that the Enemy wants God’s people anchored to real estate, crippled by debt, spending money on fuel bills rather than on mission.  How many Presbyterian churches are really just mausoleum maintenance societies?  (I read the Minutes of church sessions; I know whereof I speak.)
            Nothing is less useful to God, or more congenial to the Adversary, than a church content to go nowhere, take no risks, and stay safe and satisfied with its worldly “success.” 

            Eventually the boat carrying Jesus and the disciples makes it to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.  They pull the boat onto the beach, and they are immediately met by a naked madman who had escaped from being chained up in the asylum in the city.  Now he lives there among the tombs, for they have apparently landed at a lakeside cemetery. 
            The party is clambering out of the boat, when this crazy guy runs up to them.  Jesus orders the demon to come out of the man, who then throws himself on the ground and starts screaming at the top of his lungs: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me.”
            I can just see the disciples exchanging knowing glances with each other: “Gentiles.  I knew we shouldn’t have come over here.”
            Jesus is trying to have a conversation with the naked man writhing in the sand.  “What is your name?” he asks.
            “Legion,” says the man, or rather the army of demons possessing him.  The demons refer to themselves as “legion.”  It is the name of the main unit of Roman infantry, made up of 6,000 drafted soldiers. 
            If he wanted to make the point that he was possessed by many demons, he could have said his name was “mob,” or “throng,” or “multitude,” or any number of words signifying a lot of people.  But he doesn’t.  He very pointedly says “Legion.”  He doesn’t even use something generic like, “army.”  He says, Legion.  He might as well have said which Legion and give the General’s name.
            Everyone would have gotten it.  Here is an individual possessed by a legion of demons; everyone watching him lives in a country possessed by imperial legions.  The parallel would not have been lost on anyone.  “This man,” they would have thought, “is just like us; his individual situation is our situation as a country: possessed and tormented by a legion.”  When he says his name is “Legion,” the general response would have been, “Seriously.  I hear ya, dude.  We’ve all been there.”
            Jesus knows this is now a special case, there is symbolism involved.  It suddenly get political.  The demons beg Jesus not to cast them into the abyss.  He doesn’t usually negotiate with demons; but looking around, Jesus sees, next to the cemetery, a pasture.  Some herders are overseeing a herd of pigs, but right now they are distracted, entertaining themselves by watching at a distance to see how these strangers handle the lunatic.  Jesus sees an opportunity to make a point.  He permits the demons to enter into the herd of pigs, which they do.  The pigs then go crazy, and stampede en masse down the embankment and into the lake, where they all drown.

            Then the man wakes up.  He is free!  He is in his right mind!  They get him cleaned up and into some decent clothes.  He sits down with Jesus and they have an actual conversation. 
            The horrified pig herders, though, run into the nearby town to explain the loss of the pigs and that it wasn’t their fault.  The leaders of the town show up.  And here’s the kicker.  They see the man, now liberated and healed.  But they don’t care about him.  They do not welcome him, receive him, praise God for his healing, none of that.  What they do care about is the economic loss of a herd of pigs.
            They were afraid of what it was going to cost them to be free.  If it took a whole herd of pigs to free one man from his legion of demons, how much would be demanded of all of Gerasa to be free of their legions?  Jesus is upsetting the system.  He is threatening the economy.  So where the man is free, the nation is content to stay possessed.  Freedom is too expensive.
            So they basically, no doubt politely, request that Jesus go back to where he came from.  He is upsetting the social order, and he is undermining the economic system.  He has to go.
            So Jesus shrugs.  Any people who are more concerned about a herd of pigs than a human being is hopeless.  Any people who would rather stay possessed than be free, is not going to receive Jesus.  So he and his entourage start climbing back into the boat.  The liberated man wants to come too.  But Jesus sends him back to the town as a witness to what God has done for him.  He goes and tells everyone about Jesus.
            By standard measurements, this foray into Gentile territory is a failure.  The whole group has risked life and limb, gone to the trouble and great expense of a voyage across the lake.  Not to mention that they can expect to hear from the pig-owner’s lawyer at any time.  And all they have to show for it is one convert, and an invitation never to return.  The mood on the trip back is probably not very good. 
            What will happen when the Personnel Committee or the Board of Trustees gets wind of this debacle?  Well, Jesus’ “Board of Trustees” is that group of wealthy women Luke tells us about earlier in the chapter.  And the thing about this group is that every one of them can relate personally to that demoniac on the beach whom Jesus saves.  And everyone in Jesus’ entourage would acutely understand the significance of casting out a demon named “Legion.”  Because that is what they all hoped and prayed would happen to their own country.

            There is no guarantee that if we follow Jesus we will achieve “success” according to our goals and objectives.  Jesus appears to think that liberating one broken, tormented soul is success enough to justify this whole sailing-across-the-lake project.  
            And maybe, a few years later, when perhaps some of the people in that very boat that day come back to Gerasa with the message of Jesus’ resurrection, they will find that folks over there already know about Jesus, because there was this one guy who couldn’t shut up about how some Jew named Jesus had sailed over from the other side of the lake and liberated him from having been possessed by a legion of demons.
            God can take even our failures and turn them into triumphs because of the seeds we faithfully planted.  God can make our failures even more fruitful than some of the things we think are great accomplishments.  Maybe the future is not with the big, rich, successful institutions; maybe the future is really being born today in the marginal churches, the churches in crisis, the churches experiencing profound losses, the churches that have to take risks, try new things, and endure repeated failure.
            These are trying times for a lot of churches, this one included.  We’re all going though the same storm.  So we can relate to the situation of the disciples in that boat.  They feared for their lives, they had a reasonable chance of drowning.  But the main thing that’s troubling us is a human-made illusion called money. 
            In fact, I wonder if the preoccupation with money and finance in our culture isn’t the invasive, extractive “legion” that has a grip on us, leaving us vulnerable and anxious, fearful and out of control, making us dwell alone in the land of the dead.  It is what got us into this long Recession.  Paul says that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  When we value our pigs more than our freedom, we are in deep trouble.  When Capital has more rights than people, something is very wrong.  Jesus does not stay in that kind of environment.  It is very toxic soil for the Word.
            We are with Jesus Christ when we are ready to obey his Word and go where he sends us, when we realize that our challenges and even our failures are validating our mission and making us stronger, when we do not let the stress corrode our love for each other, when we view success in terms of faithfulness alone,  and when we are not afraid but thrilled by this adventure of bringing people home to God’s Kingdom, realized here and now, among us, in this community of disciples.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A New New Testament?

            A guy named Hal Taussig has taken the books of the New Testament, added 10 more early Christian writings chosen by an invited “council,” rearranged them all thematically, added introductions and prefaces, and had the whole collection published as a book called A New New Testament.  He bills it as a way to bring to light some otherwise little-known writings that help us understand that the early Christian movement was much broader in scope than the traditional New Testament would have us believe.
            Of course, there have always been early Christian texts that the church accepted, cherished, learned from, and disseminated, that were nevertheless not included in the New Testament.  Non-inclusion did not necessarily mean rejection.  It did mean that these texts were secondary and not as authoritative as the canonized texts.  For instance, the Infancy Gospel of James was the source for a lot of traditional background material about Jesus’ birth and family.  A letter called1 Clement and a book called The Shepherd were even included in some early collections of New Testament writings.  But, for good reasons, the people did not find them to meet the lofty criteria for final inclusion in the New Testament itself.
            The purpose of the New Testament is to provide as direct a witness as possible to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, it includes texts that most credibly do this.  Books written later may be valuable, even indispensable.  But if they don’t witness to the event of Jesus Christ, they are not included in the New Testament.  Its purpose is not to give a historical reflection on Christ over the ages, as worthwhile as that is.  It is to give us as immediate a view as we can get of Jesus Christ, by recording testimonies of those who knew him, or knew people who knew him. 
            This may not be strictly true of all of the books included in the New Testament.  Some appear to be a generation or two removed from Jesus’ ministry.  But all are from the first century, or at the latest, the first decades of the second.  They were all likely completed between the years 50 and around 110. 
            There are dominant scholarly views as to the dating of these writings.  Marcus Borg has recently written a book, Evolution of the Word, in which he comments on the writings of the New Testament in chronological order, stretching from 50 to 120.  I find his dating of New Testament books to be somewhat on the later side, but it is still in the range accepted by most scholars.  We may find hypotheses about the dating of the New Testament in various introductions, like those on Wikipedia, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, or in good study Bibles.  (Conservative ones tend to like early dates; in more academic editions, like The Oxford Annotated Bible, the dates tend to be later.)
            The general consensus is that the earliest of all Christian documents are seven of Paul’s letters; almost no one doubts this.  Most scholars believe that some letters attributed to Paul are likely to have been written by others much later.  But even the later books are still older than almost any non-canonical texts from any part of the Christian movement. 
            No responsible scholar disputes that the four canonical gospels are the earliest such documents available to us.  Some argue that Thomas, or portions of it, are as old.  And there is an ongoing argument about the order in which they were written, and their sources.  But the priority of the four is not in question. 
            So far I haven’t found anyone (not even Borg) claiming, for instance, as Taussig does, that Luke was written after 140.  At best, Taussig is being disingenuous and misleading about dating in an attempt to get his new books onto the same chronological playing field with the New Testament.  He pretends that scholars are all over the map, postulating that some New Testament books “could have been” written well into the 2nd century.  Sure, you can find a professor somewhere who will say anything you want.  But that is not mainstream scholarship.           
            Of the writings added to the New Testament in Taussig’s book, all ten of them derive from the 2nd, or even the early 3rd, century.  This dating is according to the introductions to these writings in the seminal collection, The Nag Hammadi Library, which is where Taussig got them.  So, in order to include these books in anything close to the same time-frame with the canonicals, one has to argue for the latest possible dates for the books of the New Testament, and the earliest probable dates for the ten.  Can this be done without a bias towards a particular outcome?  And even then, the canonicals are still mostly earlier, sometimes by decades. 
            In short, what Taussig and his compatriots have done is take a 1st century collection and added to it a bunch of books from the 2nd century.  Presenting them mixed and rearranged thematically together in one volume certainly makes it seem like they all come from the same time period.  But they do not.  If these ten writings were included in Borg’s book, all would have to be tacked on the end.
            So it becomes clear that these books were not originally included in the New Testament because the people of the time didn’t find them to be a credible witness to Jesus’ life.  They were not old enough.  I suspect that the canon was effectively closed simply because no more books were emerging from the first century.
            My guess is that documents were received, accepted, and considered authoritative on their merits by local communities.  Books were expensive, rare, and took a lot of time and energy to copy.  If a community obtained a book a decision would have to be made whether it was worth making copies to keep and pass around.  Our current New Testament is the collection of books the people decided were worth retaining, reproducing, and sharing. 
            This would have been an organic, decentralized, and populist process.  Some books were copied extensively and started showing up everywhere.  Other books were not finding wide use.  They were probably kept on the shelf, and eventually boxed up and put in storage… like the collection discovered near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945.
            It is not an uncommon procedure in some circles to pretend that, by the 4th century, the church had all these books to choose from, and some venal and oppressive church hierarchy chose only a few that suited their agenda and imposed them on the people, brutally suppressing the rest.  I suppose framing it that way satisfies some modern fantasies, but it is not true.  And the thing that gets me is that these scholars know this, yet for whatever reasons – probably having to do with book marketing and a hatred of fundamentalism – they continue to go on NPR and the Discovery Channel, and willfully leave the wrong impression with an unsuspecting general public.
            We see from the current canon that the church was not afraid of wide theological diversity.  The books of the New Testament are remarkably broad in their perspectives on the event to which they witness.  Any text for which a good case could be made that it came from the first century, would certainly have been too valuable not to be preserved, copied, shared, and included in the canon.       
            The question about A New New Testament is: Why?  Taussig has taken it upon himself to decide that “the spiritual thirsts of our day need more nourishment,” as he says in his Preface.  Leaving aside the hubris and presumption of that statement (and his whole project), the New Testament was not compiled to quench the spiritual thirst of anyone’s day.  It was just to tell us about the revelation of God’s love in Jesus Christ.    
            He also worries about “churches’ strangleholds on what they deem to be unarguable truth about a certain kind of Jesus.”  Thus, Taussig first betrays his disgust with “churches.”  As suggested earlier, the New Testament was formed by the church, that is, by people of faith gathered for worship and teaching.  The New Testament was shaped by the community to which it belongs.           
            Taussig’s apparent mistrust of faith communities is further revealed in his use of the rather negative term “stranglehold” to describe the way churches keep their images of Jesus.  I guess he is referring to stereotypical conservative and evangelical churches who might maintain images of Jesus he doesn’t like.  I get that.  I too am disgusted by the false depiction of Jesus as an armed, white, middle-class American.  However, I find it more fruitful to point out how such images of Jesus contradict the Jesus we see in the four gospels we already have.
            In short, I fully intend to maintain my own “stranglehold” on what I deem to be “unarguable truth” about Jesus.  For the Jesus presented in the canonical gospels is all about liberation, forgiveness, inclusion, welcoming, equality, healing, non-violence, economic justice, and walking lightly on the earth.  In short, he embodies the shalom and agape of God.  He proclaims God’s Kingdom over-against the empires of his day, and establishes alternative communities based on blessing and sharing.  We do not have to dig up some obscure and tattered “new” papyrus from the desert someplace to find this Jesus.  He is right there in the New Testament.
            My concern is that adding this later, eccentric material to the New Testament only serves to dilute its inherent and essential anti-imperialism.  Frankly, some of the books added by Taussig’s council show a bias towards a Gnostic, anti-creation, spiritual escapism that deflates the pointed political character of the New Testament, which has an anti-imperialist apocalypticism at its core.
            For instance, Taussig includes The Secret Revelation of John, (more commonly called The Apocryphon of John) a late 2nd century text full of metaphysical and, well, bizarre, mythology.  Contrast this exercise in esoteric symbolism with the canonical book of Revelation, a highly symbolic, yet thoroughly political, description of the collapse of Imperial Rome as an indication of the fate of all empires, culminating in Christ’s reign of peace.
            Then there is a book called The Gospel of Truth, written in the second half of the 2nd century.  This is another highly mythologized take on Jesus, in which he comes into the world with true knowledge, but gets crucified by a personified feminine figure called Error.  Once again, it is a depoliticized version of the gospel.
            So, while the much-maligned orthodox were following the Jesus of the New Testament in building communities of peace and serving needy people, and often being harassed (or worse) by Roman authorities for it, there were also these other people claiming to be Christians who had a depoliticized, collaborationist, gnostic (that is, focused on the personal acquisition of spiritual knowledge) application of the faith that would not have bothered Rome at all.  I imagine that if the Roman government was paying attention, they might even be inclined to support and encourage this harmless, irrelevant, distracting version of this increasingly bothersome Jesus movement. 
            Hence, I fail to understand the value of adding these books to our New Testament.  They come from a different historical era, and they contradict, or at least disregard, the most important counter-cultural strands of the New Testament.  In an era dominated by our own version of imperialism in the form of globalized capitalism, how are we helped by watering-down the New Testament with documents that preach a non-political, otherworldly message?
            Maybe the reason why these writings did not make the cut in the first place is that they had little to say to ordinary people living under the domination of Empire, but appealed instead to a wealthy, privileged class who were content to feed on Empire’s spoils, and who thought of themselves as a spiritual elite.
            All of these writings and more have been available in many formats for decades.  You can get several different editions on Amazon today.  (Search “Gnostic gospels.”  Some of these books have an even more sensationalistic titles than A New New Testament.  They’re all about “secret,” “lost,” “forbidden,” “hidden,” and so forth.)  These books do shed some light on the development of Christianity in the 2nd through the 4th centuries.  They show different roads not traveled, and it helps to be aware of them.  Christianity certainly did not always take the right path historically, especially after the 4th century.  We have not been very faithful to Jesus.  But the Jesus we have failed is the Jesus we see in the New Testament.
            And that’s the point.  In our time, following Jesus, in the sense of living according to his example of non-violence, justice, healing, inclusion, forgiveness, peace, and love, is really important.  Attempting to mix in elements of other far less political and more spiritually escapist versions of Jesus doesn’t help us fight today’s empire.  Just the opposite.  It distracts from discipleship and its cost.

Good Soil.

Luke 8.1-21

            Jesus continues his journeying from town to town in Galilee.  Luke tells us that he is accompanied by the twelve disciples.  But now we also hear that there are some women in the inner circle as well.  These are people whom Jesus has healed of various maladies, mainly demon possession. 
            (And by the way, when we read about demon possession in the gospels, don’t think The Exorcist, though there are some cases sort of like that.  Think more of conditions we would identify today as depression, anxiety, oppositional-defiant disorders, Tourette’s syndrome, alcoholism, schizophrenia, or even menopause.  These are people who seem driven to anti-social behavior because something comes over them making them seem not to be themselves.  There are societies on this planet today that think a young woman “possessed,” when all she wants is an education.)
            Luke names three women here, and indicates that there are others.  Then he says that “they provided for him out of their resources.”  In other words, Jesus’ ministry was financially underwritten by some women who had access to money.
            This picture, of Jesus and a group of twelve men, depending on wealthy women for financial support, may not sit well with all of us.  But we should remember that women have always been, and remain, the backbone of the church.  Whether they are officially the visible leaders or not, the women do the bulk of the work.  It’s not like the men do nothing; and the men are actually pretty good contributors in this congregation, not to bruise any egos or anything.  I mean, the men could disappear from many congregations and it would barely be noticed; but most congregations would fold without the women.  I’m just saying.       
            It is significant that Luke says this right after the story of the woman anointing him at the Pharisee’s dinner, which is right after that statement he makes about Wisdom being known by all her children.  People of that time would have understood Wisdom personified as a female figure.  Luke then proceeds to tell us about these women welcoming Jesus and supporting his ministry.
            Jesus may be illustrating the characteristics of “good soil” that he talks about in the parable he tells next.  The good soil is the kind of receptivity, gratitude, devotion, and generosity we see in these various women, and the other disciples, who gave up everything to follow him.  The good soil is a heart that knows it has been healed, saved, released, and delivered.  It knows death and decay, hurt and shame.  Think of the kind of  waste that goes into compost.  The heart that is good soil welcomes and feeds the good news in the same way that these women welcome and provide for Jesus.  To be good soil is to be Jesus’ family, those who hear the Word of God and do it.  They receive the Word, and it bears fruit in good actions. 

            So in one town a large crowd gathered, Jesus sits down and tells a parable.  It is a familiar parable to Christians, and one of Jesus’ most important.  Jesus uses the image of a sower, that is, someone sowing in a plowed field seeds, probably of wheat or barley.  Basically, they would take a bag of seeds strapped over their shoulders, and reach into it and scatter the seeds on the ground by the handful, like we would spread grass seed today.
            It is an imprecise method, and especially around the edges of the field, some seed might fall in places not particularly conducive to good growth.  Jesus gives several examples of places where the seed could fall, that would not work very well. 
            It could fall on the pathway, which would not only be hard packed, but people would walk on it crushing the seeds or birds would come and pick them off the surface.  The seeds could fall in rocky ground, preventing it from getting enough moisture, and they would wither if they sprouted at all.  Some could fall in the thorn-bushes that often lined fields and separated them.  These plants would be choked by the thorns and not thrive.
            Finally, of course, the whole point of this exercise of sowing is to get the seeds into the good soil.  There they receive nutrients and sunshine and water, and so they grow tall and full, yielding, as Jesus says, “a hundredfold.”  That is, each seed planted produces a stalk with a hundred new grains on it.  I’m no expert in statistics, but I believe that is a return of 1000%.  It is exorbitant, extravagant, spectacular, abundance.  It is one of those miracles that happen every day on this planet, and we tend to take it for granted.
            Jesus always uses parables based on experiences his hearers would have been familiar with.  He relates to their actual life.  Were he walking on the earth here today with us he would probably be telling parables about traffic, or supermarkets, or the internet.
            On face value, when hearing this parable for the first time, nobody seems to get it.  I imagine him telling this story, and people looking around in puzzlement.  He has just described something so normal and obvious, so everyday and commonplace, that the people are waiting for a punch-line, that never comes.  Even the disciples don’t understand.  They ask him about it later.
            And he tells them that some folks are equipped to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God, and some are not.  In other words, some folks are good soil, and some folks are unreceptive soil.  He speaks in parables in part to sift those who get it from those who don’t. 

            In other words, those who get it and those who don’t are separated by their imagination.  Those who merely take the parable literally understand it as an observation about agriculture, and not a particularly interesting one.  The lesson here is, when you’re sowing seeds, try not to let any fall on the road, on rocks, or among thorns.  Do your best to keep the seeds in the good, plowed land.  From this perspective the story has no meaning beyond this.  If you’re not a farm-worker, it is irrelevant to you.  It is the people who understand Jesus literally he is talking about when he quotes Isaiah about those who, “looking they may not perceive,
and listening they may not understand.”
            Those who don’t take it literally are those who hear the story and realize they don’t understand it.  They know that there is something more than the literal going on here, but they can’t figure out what it is.  It is to these people, who do not comprehend the story, the disciples, who get the explanation.
            Only those who don’t understand receive the meaning.  Those who think they understand, really don’t.  So if you think the Bible is pretty clear to you, if it makes sense literally, if you think you understand it, that’s when you need to worry.  Certainty is the surest sign that you really don’t get it at all.
            Jesus then gives them the key.  The ones who admit they don’t know, get the key.  The ones who think they understand it don’t get the key because they don’t think they need it.
            The Lord explains that “the seed is the word of God.”  And it falls on different kinds of people, individuals of different qualities of receptivity.  Notice two things here.  First, the sower is not identified, but is very generous and profligate with the job.  The sower throws seeds all over the place, into all kinds of soil.  The seed gets thrown everywhere.  No one is excluded.  I get the impression that the supply of seeds is functionally infinite.  The sower is not afraid of running out or wasting it.
            Secondly, the seed remains the same.  There is no idea here that the seed has to be adapted to different environments.  The sower does not modify the seed.  The same seed gets thrown into each context.
            Everyone hears the Word, and it is the same Word that everyone hears.  That’s important because often we tend to try and conserve the Word by only giving it out to ourselves, or to people whom we consider to be receptive.  Or we try to adjust or change the Word to make it more palatable, more convenient, more attractive to its receivers.  That is a very dangerous thing, because then it stops being God’s Word, and becomes something of our own invention.

            It should be clear by now that the soil in the parable represents people, or human hearts.  In the first case, Jesus is saying that if our hearts are hard, like the pavement of a road, the Word cannot take root in us.  It bounces off us.  It makes no impression on us.  If we have no compassion, no openness, no willingness to be changed or to receive and nurture something new, the Word gets taken away.  We were never really conscious of it anyway.  And the Word will not stay with us forever.
            The second kind of heart receives the good news of God’s love with joy and enthusiasm!  But it’s all superficial.  And when they are tested by some crisis, their faith crumbles.  If we think that faith is going to exempt us from suffering… boy, do we ever have it wrong.  Faith is not an escape from suffering; it is a way through suffering to new life.
            The third kind of receptivity is where the Word is choked by all our distractions and busyness.  We have so many commitments that we simply don’t give enough time and energy to the Word growing in our hearts.  So, while it may actually grow, it doesn’t get enough juice from us to produce any actual fruit.  The Word is at best an ornament or decoration in our life.  But in the end it is worthless.
            The good soil, of course, is the heart that holds the Word fast in honesty and goodness.  It welcomes and embraces and cherishes the Word.  It nurtures and feeds and makes room for the Word.  It realizes what it has been given, and it overflows with thanksgiving and generosity.  These folks bear fruit a hundredfold.  They receive one Word, and they give away a hundred Words of grace, peace, healing, freedom, and blessing.
            Once again, the example is these women who have been healed and liberated, and who devote themselves to the Word, who in their case is right there with them in Jesus himself.
            What we are given is to be itself given away.  We receive a seed so we can produce more seeds for distribution.  Jesus illustrates this with his mini-parable about the lamp and how it needs to be put on the lampstand.  We receive light not to hoard and keep for ourselves but to give away in shining glory.  God’s intention is disclosure, revealing, openness, sharing, spreading, scattering, glowing, and giving.

            This is what he means when he says that those who have will be given more.  Those who are able to receive the seed of the Word are given even more to give away.  Those who do not have receptivity, who are hard hearted, shallow, or distracted, will lose even what they think they have.
            Jesus paints a picture of participation in the Kingdom of God as one of receiving and welcoming the Word, and then having the Word to give away to others.  The Word, of course, is the good news of God’s love and the peace we receive in Jesus Christ.  This is the shape and character of this new community, this new family Jesus is calling to himself.  It is people who receive the Word of God, and then go out and do the Word of God.
            So when members of Jesus’ biological family show up attempting to reach him, Jesus says that his real family are those who hear the Word of God and do it.  The ones who receive the seed and bear fruit, those are his mother and brothers. 
            These women who embody Wisdom by welcoming and supporting him, and facilitating the spread of the good news, they are Jesus’ actual family.  So are we when we are that good soil, when we have that welcoming and nourishing and receptive heart that is open to and feeds the spirit of forgiveness and healing, justice and love. 
            And remember that Jesus says that this is his family.  The good soil is not just about our individual decisions and responses, but this nurturing and welcoming and receptivity happen in community, as a gathering of people whom Jesus then sends into the world on a mission, which is to spread the good news a hundredfold of God’s redeeming love for the world.