Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Robert James Magliula, OHC
Proper 10 A - July 13, 2014
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
|The Sower by Jean-Francois Millet|
The community for whom Matthew’s Gospel was written was a hard time and place to be a Christian. Due to both poverty and persecution, massive numbers of people were migrating out of the region. Within the Church itself there were dissenters and false prophets. With this parable Jesus reminds his disciples, and Matthew reminds his community that the message is not wrong and that their efforts should not be judged by the lack of positive public response.
Jesus begins his parable with a good dose of realism. Everyone in the crowd would be nodding their heads as Jesus describes the trials of first century farming in Palestine. Unlike a modern American farmer who carefully prepares the soil with just the right pH balance and then injects the seed into the ground, farmers in Jesus’ day cast the seed and then plowed the land.
The parable, true to its form, is more like a riddle, hiding as much as it reveals about God. It must have been confusing to its original hearers too, because an allegorical interpretation (vv.18-23) was finally added to clean things up and drive home the point about good soil. Whenever I heard this parable as a child I would examine myself as to what kind of soil I was made of. What could I do to be that fertile soil for God’ seed? It was always a depressing exercise, always ending with a disheartening list of my failings and a resolution to improve my pH balance. How tempted we are to spend our time, energy, and hope trying to coax growth from inhospitable places in others and ourselves.
Are there any who have not felt closed off, distracted, overwhelmed by circumstances and situations. Can any one of us say that we have never hampered or blocked the growth of God’s seed in us? How ready we are to indict ourselves for not living up to standards and expectations?
Despite the misleading interpretation, the story isn’t about us but about the sower. It is not about good soil but about a good sower. This sower is not so cautious and strategic as to throw the seed only in those places where the chances for growth are best. No, this is a high-risk sower, relentless in indiscriminately throwing seed everywhere---as if it were all potentially good. It leaves us to wonder if there is any place or circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root.
The parable’s ending is it’s greatest challenge. The story doesn’t end in a normal harvest from the good soil. It ends with a miracle, a hundredfold harvest. Jesus goes beyond simply encouraging his disciples to keep on in the face of rejection. Instead he challenges them and us to believe in God’s abundance. This parable is not simply pragmatic; it is also filled with promise. The God we serve tells us to expect the best, that there is more than enough for everyone. That’s the God Jesus calls us to trust. Jesus knows the hard ways of the world. He also knows the abundant ways of God.
The eighth chapter of the Letter to the Romans begins with the Gospel’s astonishing conclusion: “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What would it take for us to trust and embrace this truth in our hearts? Any one who has lived has done things for which they blame themselves or for which they feel guilt. So how do we stop obsessing about soil quality and believe this nearly unbelievable statement? The answer, I think, is to be found in the phrase “in Christ.”
To be in Christ is to be part of something far larger than oneself. It is to encounter a power greater than all the willpower we have ever mustered, added to all the physical power we’ve ever exerted, added to all the influence we have ever had. All this combined is infinitesimal compared to the power of God in Christ. It’s not that we’re powerless. We have the power to hurt or to help others and ourselves. It’s just that our power is so bound by our capabilities, so limited by our perspectives, so tied to our agenda. Paul describes this state by the phrase “in the flesh.” But to be “in Christ” is to be swept up in the power of the Spirit, and to be free from what has bound, limited, and tied us. To be “in Christ” is not the result of something we do; it is something God does for us. All the initiative begins and rests with God.
Paul doesn’t exhort his hearers to get their act together. He proclaims “You are in the Spirit since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” To believe this is to reorient one’s life toward the power greater than oneself.
The greatest power we know in this world is death, which conquers all of us. Death’s power is not simply at the moment of our dying; it is an insidious power that creeps into our lives, our communities, and our bodies long before the moment we breathe our last. Anyone in recovery, anyone who has loved and lost, knows what a living death feels like. However even this power pales when compared to the power of the Spirit. In the concluding lines of this portion of Romans Paul proclaims, “this Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies” (v.11). In Christ God decisively breaks through everything that separates us from God, and makes it possible to live the life God intends for us, a life of abundance, an end to the old creation and the beginning of a new. “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
The Spirit that we have “in Christ” is able to do so much more than we are able to do. Paul tells us that “in Christ” we are not constrained by our limitations, shortcomings, failings; we are not even condemned by our cruelties, hurtful ways, hateful actions.
Instead, we are set free. It is the freedom to be part of God’s movement in the world. It transcends our individual time and space, and at the same time allows us to live fully as ourselves. This freedom is ours in Christ. It is the result of the power of God, That Good Sower, whose power is greater than the sum of all powers.