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

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Good Soil.


Luke 8.1-21

I.
            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. 

II.
            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. 

III.
            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.

IV.
            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.

V.
            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.
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