Listening to the Historic Jesus in a Very Holy Parable
A sermon based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 12, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott
When I first saw what Lectionary lesson from Matthew was up for today, I was a little disappointed. The parable is in the play Godspell and I like it, but I have read, rehearsed and directed it so many times I almost decided to use a different text, because what I have long heard IN this story is what most of us very likely hear, a story of the ordinary idea that seeds only grow on good soil, and the word of God is like that too. But instead of setting the story aside, I decided to re-examine it carefully and prayerfully; to do some research, and while doing all that to do as Jesus asks at the start of the story, to “listen!” to him.
The Jesus I try to listen to is the One I believe in. And there are two timeline related parts to that Jesus. First of all, I believe that a man in history named Jesus lived and died in First Century Palestine. That’s a fact that vast majority of scholars agree on. Professor Marcus Borg refers to the historic Jesus as the “pre-Easter Jesus.” He is the flesh and blood mortal Jesus who lived and breathed as a fully human being. I believe in that Jesus.
The second part I also believe is that from Easter onward Jesus became more than flesh and blood, more than mortal, more than fully human. What and who Jesus became after his death, after his mortality, from Easter onward is often called the “Christ of faith,” but might better be called (to use Dr. Borg’s term) the “post-Easter Jesus.” And here’s the thing, whatever the pre-Easter Jesus did as a mortal, led to the post-Easter Jesus of immortality.
Christians can, and do, have many different views on who Jesus was before and after Easter, but they pretty much agree he lived in a way that became a continuing definitive disclosure of God. I believe that Jesus became that decisive revelation of God, not because he was born more divine than others, but because he lived in a Way more divine than others. I understand that apart of the good news in the New Testament is the pre-Easter Jesus taught others how to live in that Way too. I believe Jesus presented a Way to incarnate God which allowed his followers to continue to experience him post-Easter in profound and influential ways– and to experience the post-Easter Jesus, not just in him, but in others and on his Way.
Ever since Easter followers of Jesus’ Way have had profound and transformative experiences of Jesus as the Christ who has revealed God throughout time. A part of having such post-Easter experiences of Jesus is to tap into not just the stories of Jesus that evolved after Easter, but to tap into pre-Easter Jesus’ teachings which are a key to his Way. And to living our lives more divinely!
With all this in mind, I sat down with our lesson and dug in to its background. And I was delighted to find that amazingly the first half of lesson is one of the pre-Easter teachings of the Jesus of History. “The Parable of the Sower” is a story Bible scholars have concluded can actually be traced all the way back to the living breathing fully human pre-Easter Jesus. The gist of the story comes from Jesus! I got pretty excited about that!
It’s not always the case that scripture can be directly connected in a scholarly sense to the pre-Easter Jesus. It is actually hard to find direct evidence of the historic Jesus anywhere. As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Stephen Patterson points out it, “We simply do not have very much historical information about Jesus. The ancient historians leave us helpless; the Christian texts at our disposal leave us confused”1. See Pre-Easter Jesus was an obscure peasant in a remote place and time. Contemporaneous written records were not kept on such peasants 2. It was only decades later when the Jesus movement grew big enough to be noticed that non-religious accounts of Jesus were recorded. 3. But even then, not much was said Dr. Patterson notes that “All we learn . . . is that Jesus was a Jewish teacher of wisdom with a reputation for sorcery. Who had a few disciples, and perhaps a somewhat larger following, which, after his execution at the hands of Roman authorities did not entirely give up on him.” 4 .
Years after the first Easter, as the Jesus movement took hold and sustained beyond Jesus’ death, religious accounts also began to be put in writing. They were based on decades old traditions passed along by word of mouth 5. Oral traditions and witness accounts are not known for accuracy 6. Moreover, as religious accounts they are not so much records of the historic Jesus, as they are theological reflections on experiences of the post-Easter Jesus. So the New Testament contains writings layered with theological ideas and experiences and teachings mixed in with decades old oral traditions. Bits of records of the pre-Easter Jesus are in those layers, but are hard to find. So when we do, I get excited.
I consider teachings that can be traced directly back to Jesus as very Holy. They set out clues to the Way Jesus taught his followers to follow– and successfully led to experiences of the post-Easter Jesus! So I took all of this and I re-listened to this very Holy parable that Laura read so well– keeping in mind Jesus taught it. It will not surprise most of you that I also kept in mind that Jesus’ teachings as a whole can be– as I’ve noted before– summarized as: God is Love; believe in Love, love Love, and be Love.
Finally, I also kept in mind that Jesus parables are not known for simplistic clarity, like the second half of the lesson suggests. Jesus’ parables were told to tease the listener’s minds into active thought to find the extraordinary. That’s how we know the second half of today’s lesson was not likely taught by the pre-Easter Jesus. Sure we can find that meaning, but it is not very extraordinary to teach that seeds don’t grow very well if they are not on good soil, or that the Word of God does not take root if is not listened too and understood. Those ordinary truths are not likely one of the extraordinary meanings Jesus meant to tease out.
Lets see if we can tease out some of the pre-Easter Jesus’ meanings in the details. Taking all of the stuff I’ve mention, what extraordinary meaning can be found in the details that could aim us toward God being love, our believing in that Love, our loving that Love or our being that love? The first detail is Jesus starts the parable off saying “Listen!” with an exclamation point. If we go on to the rest of the story and listen, we find out we can hear something extraordinary in both the sower’s method of sowing seeds and the results he achieves. They leap out at us when we listen. Seeds are valuable, they cost money, consequently, ordinarily sowers sow on good soil, otherwise they will not get as good a crop, or no crop at all, for reasons along the lines laid out in the story, animals eat them, rocks stunt them, thorns choke them.
Ordinary sowers don’t waste seeds, they sow them on good soil. But the sower in Jesus’ story does not just sow on good soil. It’s extraordinary what he does. He tosses the seeds everywhere and anywhere, wantonly. Rev. Dr. Theodore Wardlaw, the president of Austin Presbyterian Theological School, wrote about this parable in the Feasting on the Word commentary. He points out that this is not the ordinary good business plan for farmers, or for that matter a good plan for any secular or religious businesses. He writes:
We scratch our heads and wonder at such a foolish waste of seed and other precious resources on the part of this sower. The logical place to sow seed, of course, is on good soil, and we readily take this message to heart. Even if we are not farmers, the lesson is easily applied to our situation . . . Be strategic about location . . . maximize your effort toward the arena of greatest result. Find the good soil and throw seed on it! It’s just good business. It seems obvious that the sower in this text is anything but a good businessperson He seems willing to just fling that seed anywhere. Why does he do that? 7
I am quite certain that Rev. Dr. Wardlaw has tapped into the pre-Easter Jesus teasing in the parable. That’s a mind bender observation and question which agriculturally savvy First Century peasant farmers in Jesus’ audience would have caught right out the gate–and probably laughed at. What kind of nutty sower is this? Why does he toss seeds hither and yon? What’s the point of such a waste of precious seeds? Sure enough, as we ordinarily expect, the seeds do not all grow. But the story ends in a very unexpected way with extraordinary crop yields from the seeds that do grow, thirty to a hundred-fold. I’d love if the seeds I sow in our garden had half that result! The parable’s end result more than compensates for seemingly wasted seeds.
So is this a parable about a new kind of zany agriculture that defies the laws of nature and the experience of sowers? Is it to be taken literally? Not likely. Parables contain metaphors and symbols. Jesus’ parables are full of them. And like I said, Jesus’ original telling did not likely explain the metaphor or the meaning. He wanted listeners to sort it out.
So here’s how I sorted it out for today. I set aside the half of the lesson that tells us the meaning and I considered ideas that would help tease my mind and our minds anew. Even though I am going set my findings out, all of you listening should feel free to think beyond my suggestions. I encourage everyone to do so.
For my suggestion I’ll start with the seeds that are being sown all about. I have questions about those seeds. Like what do we know about what Jesus would want sown everywhere and anywhere? What seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ ministry? What did Jesus always teach and preach and practice? As I mentioned, and mention a lot, Jesus aims us toward God being love, our believing in that Love, our loving that Love and our being that love. So, I made it simple I asked is the seed love? We may not have heard that idea for the seeds in this story before but, does it fit? Would Jesus teach that love is to be wantonly sown? Of course! That sure fits with both the pre-Easter and post Easter Jesus I know! So I decided the seed can symbolize love.
Okay, that was easy enough. So who’s the sower? We know the sower sows seeds with abandon to all sorts of bits earth regardless of the nature of its condition or makeup. Does the sower symbolize God? Jesus? His followers? Me? Us? Is the sower all those beings? Or potentially all those beings? Since we are to be God and Jesus in the world, the Body of Christ in action now it sure could be all of them. Right? They all sow seeds of love, or can. So I decided the sower can symbolize any being acting as God or Jesus’ hands on earth.
Finally, I looked at that soil, those bits of earth. In the Bible we are told that humans were created out of earth infused with the breath of God and all made equally in the image of God. So bits of Divinely animated earth has a long Biblical tradition of being a metaphor for humans. I liked that idea, but if all humans start off with the same earthiness, the same quality, if we are all equal, then the metaphoric seeds once sown ought to grow the same upon landing on that metaphoric soil, right? But they don’t. Like the animals, plants and minerals in Jesus’ parable things can affect the chance of successful gemination, successful taking root and successful thriving. Jesus knew, his audience knew, and we know that the messiness of life creates things that snatch, wither and choke out opportunities for growth– this sadly includes how love might or might not grow. People’s varying receptiveness to grow with love is affected by situations, upbringing, injuries, sins, or other impediments to growth or nourishment. But here’s the thing we cannot usually tell whether a human is ready or not for love. We do not know their metaphoric soils preparedness to receive love. Right? We have to leave that part to God.
I let that all these ideas tease out in my head. And I found that the historical Jesus can be heard to teach his followers to be his and God’s hands that sow love, toss love out, toward everyone everywhere with the idea that God will do the rest and help it grow where it can. We are not to concern ourselves with the condition of the soil like an ordinary sower of seeds does. The song in Godspell that follow this parable in the play’s script is called “All Good Gifts” and now that I have listened to the story anew, even though I have read and heard it well over a hundred times, I find it extraordinary that I can hear how the first verse of that Broadway song fits this new-to-me meaning that I have found. The first words in that song are “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s all mighty hand . . .”
Extraordinary. Holy is the lesson from Jesus before us today! AMEN!
1. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus, 14
2. Ibid, 15
3. Ibid, 15-16; Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity , 3-14
4. Patterson, 17
5. Crossan,49-58, 59-68
6. Ibid., 49-58, 68
7. Feasting on the Word, 237-239.
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