A House Divided (July 4 – 10)

Sunday, July 10, 2011
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Weekly Theme
A House Divided

Weekly Prayer
O God of mercy, in Jesus Christ you freed us from sin and death, and by your Holy Spirit you nourish our mortal bodies with life. Plant us now in good soil, that our lives may flower in righteousness and peace. Amen.

Weekly Reading
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

All readings for the Week
Genesis 25:19-34 with Psalm 119:105-112 or
Isaiah 55:10-13 with Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Focus Questions

1. Do you experience “conversion” as a one-time event, or a slow process?

2. How do you respond to the suggestion that the parable is about the sower, not about the ground?

3. When have you encountered obstacles in trying to spread the Good News?

4. How fertile is the “soil” of American Christianity?

5. Would it change your life today to really believe that “tomorrow” belongs to God?

by Kate Huey

There’s something so down-to-earth about this passage, which opens up the third set of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel of Matthew. We can picture Jesus walking out of his house after a private tutoring session with his disciples, seeing the large crowds gathered to hear him (“the harvest is plentiful” 9:37), and then climbing into a boat to address them. Sound may carry better across water than land, but that doesn’t mean the message is received and listened to, in the heart. Preacher-writer Barbara Brown Taylor is poetic in her description of Jesus in the water, “his figure swaying a little with each lift of the waves, his words full of life and as hard to hold as a handful of lake.”

What makes these “full of life” words so “hard to hold”? Inside the house, Jesus could talk to his disciples candidly and directly. We remember when he was direct with the crowds in his earlier teachings (think of the Sermon on the Mount), but perhaps things have changed. It’s time to switch to a new way of teaching: out on the water, in front of a crowd that could include spies from the empire and concerned religious authorities as well as pickpockets and thieves, Jesus turns to a common practice of the time: speaking in parables. And parables, and their meanings, are definitely “hard to hold.”

“Listen!” Jesus begins and ends his speech with the same word: “Listen!” What he’s about to say is important, but he knows that only those who have ears to hear, and hearts to listen, will get what he’s talking about. The rest will be bewildered and unsure: is he making trouble, or not? It’s a little like speaking in code, or telling family stories that only members will understand. Ironically, it’s insider talk by the ultimate Outsider. Can you imagine what the crowds thought? Maybe they came to hear a compelling and clear message, perhaps even a rabble-rousing speech to overthrow the Romans, but, Taylor says, “what they get instead are more like dreams or poems, in which images of God’s kingdom are passed before them–as familiar as the crops in their own fields and the loaves in their own kitchens–but with a strange new twist.” (Her beautiful sermon on this text is in Seeds of Heaven.)

I was taught that as soon as you “know” what a parable means, as soon as you think you’ve figured it out, you’re wrong. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it seems obvious that more than one meaning in this story is possible. Matthew provides an explanation from the time of an early Christian community that must have felt small and threatened, and sometimes ineffective and discouraged. But even he “tweaks” the story a bit, changing “seed” to “seeds” and reversing the order of the harvest. Scholars, of course, wrestle with the meaning of those changes, and even with the explanation of the Gospels that we have before us, we can still ask thought-provoking questions: What is the seed, and what is the ground, and who is that sower? It’s almost like watching different climbers attempting to conquer a mountain, each one taking his or her own approach, and the mountain always wins. But it’s still there, just like the story, which has something to say to us today.

We could focus on Matthew’s interpretation, and ask us what kind of soil we are to receive the Word of God, and what kind of harvest we will yield. The story’s not a measuring-stick for the faith of others, or a guideline for who’s saved and who isn’t (although that seems to be a preoccupation of many of us today). Charles Cousar says it well: “As hearers, the disciples are not allowed the luxury of armchair quarterbacking, of deliberating over someone else’s positive or negative response as to who gets the credit or blame. The text bluntly asks, How do you hear? What type of soil are you? Does your hearing lead to understanding?” And Dianne Bergant observes that each of the different “soils” initially heard the Word of God and, “to some extent it was accepted. Jesus is not referring here to outright rejection from outsiders but to the way followers receive the word of God.” So our openness to receive and be transformed by the Word is a much deeper, and more fertile, process, not a one-time event. Instead, growing closer to the kingdom is a lifetime thing.
It’s not all about us after all

Imagination, an open mind and an open heart, are all needed for parable hearing (perhaps that’s why those “little ones” were able to grasp who Jesus was and what he was about). So it’s intriguing to follow a slightly different line of thought: what if the story, Barbara Brown Taylor says, is “not about us at all but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon…confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes in at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?” For Taylor, “The focus is not on us and our shortfalls but on the generosity of our maker.” It’s true that this is an extravagant sower, just as God throws grace and mercy around, extravagantly, showering them on a world hungry for both, whether it realizes it or not.

When we think of the situation of the early church and our situation today, how are we the same? The early Christians of Matthew’s community faced all sorts of responses to their proclamation of the good news:  persecution, indifference, hostility, closed minds, loss of place and community. When Christians today proclaim the counter-cultural gospel of love, peace, justice, and acceptance of all God’s children, we face many of the same responses our ancestors in faith encountered: persecution, indifference, hostility, closed minds, loss of place and community. As in early Christianity, a measure of this opposition comes from within the religious community. And yet God works great wonders in all situations, and is astonishingly extravagant in offering grace and new life in the harshest of situations and the deepest deprivations.

A bountiful return from just a few

The sower is remarkably free in throwing the seed on all sorts of potential “growth areas.” There’s no calculation or careful husbandry of the seeds in his pocket. In the face of all sorts of obstacles and dangers, he counts on the bountiful return of a few seeds; he imagines the plentiful harvest reaped when even a few of the seeds find fertile soil. Have there ever been times in your spiritual growth that you felt like rocky or barren ground, or like being fertile ground for the Word of God?  

The parable of the sower and the seed has been compared to the statistic that eighty percent of the money given to the church comes from twenty percent of the people in the church. How does this comparison affect your hearing of this parable? There are more than two thousand references in the Bible to money and our possessions and our relationship to them, so we have to wonder how many (of us) modern Christians really “get” the message of Jesus, and how much of it is falling on rocky ground in a materialistic society. In any case, it is truly the generosity of God that gives abundantly, the generosity of God, Thomas Long writes, who magnifies our best efforts into a “fruitful, extravagant, and altogether gracious yield. Therefore, the church is called to ‘waste itself,’ to throw grace around like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow, and it belongs to God.”

For Further Reflection

Jerome, 4th-century bishop
The crowd is not of a single mentality, for each person has a different frame of mind. He therefore speaks to them in many parables so they may receive different teachings depending on their frame of mind.

Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century
Mercy has converted more souls than zeal, or eloquence, or learning or all of them together.

Henry David Thoreau, 19th century
I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.
Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
People only see what they are prepared to see.

About Weekly Seeds

Weekly Seeds is a source for Bible study based on the readings of the “Lectionary,” a plan for weekly Bible readings in public worship used in Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches throughout the world. When we pray with and study the Bible using the Lectionary, we are praying and studying with millions of others.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The Revised Common Lectionary is © 1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.