Extravagantly Lavish (Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:9-13; Matthew 13:1-918-23)
Anyone that has spent any time around First Baptist knows that we are a small congregation. That concerns some of us, since we worry about long-term viability. And we’re not wrong to be concerned. At the same time, it’s true that over 85% of American Baptist Churches have an attendance of less than 50, so we’re a denomination of small congregations. It’s been that way for a long time. You have to go back decades and decades since the Sunday worship attendance was 100 here. Nonetheless, many of us wish there were at least some more.
It’s easy to fall for the North American marketing strategy that tells us that “big is good,” “small is bad.” “Go big or go home,” we hear. The latest one I heard was “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.” We do sometimes think that bigger is the same as better, but it’s not. Is being small (and living on the edge of financial viability) a mark (the mark?) of failure? I suggest that a similar question occasioned the way in which Matthew told Jesus’ Parable of the Sower (which is also found, in slightly different forms, in Mark and Luke). Last week we looked at the fact that, at this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was working hard teaching, preaching, and healing in Galilee, but that his work had not met with great numerical success. Many were not attracted. Some openly rejected him. In Matthew’s own day, some 60 years after Jesus lived, Matthew’s “congregation” (or “congregations”) was (were), seemingly struggling with similar issues, and in response Matthew told his version of Jesus’ parable to assure folk in his own day when the results were not very promising and not many were responding.
Close to the beginning of Matthew 13, the text says that Jesus “told them many thing in parables, and chapter 13 contains seven such parables, three shared by Mark or Luke, but four unique to Matthew. The word “parable,” is derived from Greek words that mean “to place something next to something else,” or “to compare things.” The Hebrew equivalent word behind Matthew’s Greek is oftentimes translated as “proverb” (it is, by the way, the Hebrew name of the Book of Proverbs). It probably also means something like “comparison.” This word often describes a pithy saying that expresses a general truth in a specific example, for example, “A good name is to be chosen above riches” (Prov. 22:1). Now, in both the Old and New Testaments the words for “parable” can be quite general and often meant simply “figurative language,” sometimes “difficult figurative language,” or even “a riddle.” This latter general meaning is something like what the disciples meant when they asked Jesus, between the two pieces of our Gospel Lesson today, “Why do you speak to them (the crowds) in parables,” in “riddles”? (Mt. 13:10). Why be difficult? Why don’t you come out and tell us what to think, Jesus? To paraphrase Jesus’ response, “I speak this way just because such speech is capable of many interpretations on the part of listeners.” Parables, such as Jesus told, are stories from common life that are intended to refer to something more or something other than the story describes in so many words. Such indirect, figurative language teases the mind into insight rather than simply telling us how it is. So parables sometimes hide as much as they reveal. Perhaps that is why Jesus encouraged people to listen carefully, both before and after the parable itself here, and at the beginning of the interpretation, and why he said that not understanding (literally, “putting things together, integrating them”) is the prime cause of failure and “understanding” the prime reason for success. It takes perceptive listening (“ears to hear,” Jesus said) to “get” what he’s saying. So, let’s “listen up,” forewarned that things may not be obvious.
Jesus said the sower scattered seed here and there. Some of it produced and some of it didn’t for various reasons. After the interlude where he talked to his disciples about why he used figurative language, Matthew’s Jesus interpreted the parable. He said that certain folks are similar to certain of the soils into which the seed has fallen in his story.
Here’s a question for you. How have you been encouraged to hear or read this parable? If you’re like many of us, it’s been to raise the question, “What kind of soil am I”? Am I the soil by the path that allows the evil one to snatch away the seed? Am I the stony ground in which the seed cannot take root? Am I the weedy ground in which other things choke out commitment to Jesus? Or am I the good productive soil that is on fire for Jesus? “What kind of soil am I”? I think I was meant to assume that I could choose to be any kind of soil I wanted if my desire was fervent enough, although the story nowhere says that. In fact the story just says there happens to be this kind and that kind of soil. The parable also doesn’t clearly suggest any way to fix what kind of soil I am. Let suggest another way to hear this parable that doesn’t encourage us to respond to it from guilt – which is pretty much at the lowest level of techniques for moral development, and hardly one I want to assign either to God or to Jesus. And I’ll come back to the parable at the end.
One of the common factors that is obvious from today’s passages is the idea of abundance. The two lessons from the Old Testament that are paired with this parable certainly want us to understand that God in nature is overwhelmingly, wastefully, abundant in gifts to accomplish that which God intends for the earth, which is blessing it. In the first part of Isaiah 55 (which we didn’t read), a voice (which we later find out is God’s) has called out, “Hey, everybody that’s thirsty, come get water for free! And milk and wine, too!” At the end of chapter 55 God’s people go home from exile with lavish joy to the accompaniment of the trees, hills, and mountains that clap their hands because they’ve caught the spirit of abundance. God is neither stingy nor scant in gifting the earth, but pours forth gifts that are extravagantly lavish. And that’s true in the part of this poem we did read as well. Our Psalm is also clear that God gives abundant gifts in the world.
In the parable, the sower doesn’t seem to care that he’s scattering some seed by the path the farmhands tramped hard through the field, or on stony or weedy ground. This may seem careless to us, but, in Jesus’ day, and for centuries before and after, fields were sown before they were plowed. The sower would walk back and forth, tossing the seed to and fro without trying to avoid bad patches which would be hard to distinguish amid the unplowed stubble. Sowers didn’t worry much about where the seed landed, they simply sowed. If we take a hint from our Old Testament passages and see God as the sower, how lavishly, how extravagantly, God tosses not only the physical gifts of the earth, but the seed of grace in the world. Some of it comes up, some of it doesn’t. Perhaps we should concentrate more on the abundance of grace than the numerical scarcity of response. In Jesus’ day, in Matthew’s day, in our own day, and every other, the sower’s goal is abundant sowing not spending great deals of time in soil analysis after the fact.
If there is great abundance at the beginning of the story, there is also great abundance at the end. In both Jesus’ story and in the interpretation we read of a return of a hundredfold, sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. I think we may read too quickly over these statements. In Jesus’ day a passible yield would be three or four bushels of grain for every bushel of seed, a good yield would be between seven and eight. An outstanding yield would be ten. Thirtyfold is staggering, and a hundredfold is preposterous! In spite of the fact that some seed may fall on ground that isn’t as fertile as other ground, the yield in the end of the day is superabundant. The gifts are more than enough. Such abundance at the beginning and the end of the story does not depend on the soil’s fertility or human diligence (although that doesn’t hurt in the least) or certainly guilt. What is crucial is the faithfulness and blessing of God. Let me go back and read part of that Isaiah lesson again:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it
What an encouragement to small Christian fellowships (from Jesus’ small band of twelve, to Matthew’s, to ours) to think that the crucial factor is God’s abundant gift of grace seeded throughout the world in spite of how promising the soil is. And who says the thirty-, sixty-, and hundredfold response is always (or ever) to be measured in terms of sheer numbers? I’m afraid that the same old “bigger is better” mythology often raises its head again. In what other ways might we measure abundance, and might some of those ways be more appropriate? Might it be an appropriate measure of abundance to think about how many persons we can bless with Jesus’ care, love, and grace? Might it mean feeding a hundred hungry folks pulled pork and baked beans? Might that be an admirable thirty-, sixty- or hundredfold goal for First Baptist? What might be the difference from a stewardship of scarcity and a stewardship of abundance?
At the end, let’s come back to the thought about the hearers of the parable being “like” the soils upon which the seed falls, and takes root, or not. The way Matthew, Mark and Luke tell it this was Jesus’ interpretation of his own parable. I would suggest that we look at the identification of kinds of people and kinds of soil as simple statements of fact, rather than as a rationale for trying to force someone to make a religious decision based on guilt. For example, I know that my own life is ample witness to the fact that I have been more responsive to God’s grace at some times than others, and I still am. I really think that Jesus is saying something simple like “Where people are in tune with the values of God’s heart, the seed of grace is sowed everywhere, just as God does regardless of how it is received. It is only when we don’t put those heart values together and we assume that God’s grace is scarce or that God is stingy with it and won’t “waste grace” on those who won’t easily respond that the whole question of stewardship as a synonym for our stinginess occurs. Did you notice that, quite apart from all of us, some of the flowers in the pots by the door, have seeded themselves on the gravely ground outside the pots and some beautiful flowers are coming up outside the pots. How like the lavish grace of God that is where flowers come up outside the pot in the gravel. If we do not see this, then we are among those who Jesus says, don’t understand.
For people to partake in God’s heart values they must take the time to understand how abundant God’s gifts, including the gift of grace is in this world. It is important to understand that the extravagantly lavish outpouring of grace is far more important than the fact that people don’t come up to our standards. To respond fruitfully a necessary prerequisite is to go from “not understanding” to “understanding.,” to integrating our lives with the grace and love of God in the world, and not worry about how many people think we’re right or even worrying about an analysis of why it works out. On this, I think of another parable of sowing, in Mark 4, verse 26:
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would spout and grow, he does not know how.
Like flowers outside the pots. The parable of the sower is a good encouragement to us at First Baptist to do what we can to bring the grace that God has so abundantly sown, to the fore by caring for people “out there” and “in here.” It encourages us to feed people tomorrow night. It also may encourage us to tend those within our community faithfully so as to bring what harvest there may be of God’s grace. Ours it is to sow and tend, not to analyze the soil and find it wanting by our own measure.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.