Sunday 12 July 2020
St Andrew’s Parish of Indooroopilly
Matthew 13.1-9, 13.18-23
Loopholes of hope ©Suzanne Grimmett
On his deathbed, or so the story goes, actor and comedian WC Fields was seen to be reading the Bible. When a friend asked in surprise what he was doing, he answered, “Looking for loopholes”.
Jesus’ dependence on teaching with parables opens our understanding I think to all kinds of loopholes. There is an intentional ambiguity about all of these stories, and a freedom we are given to not find God and God’s kingdom through rules and laws written on stone tablets, but through a dynamic engagement with the Spirit as we follow the way of Jesus. And in this, there are loopholes everywhere. Loopholes to find God in earthly love and beauty, loopholes that can allow us to sneak into God’s presence whether we believe or not, loopholes that mean we land squarely in the joyful mercy of God just when we have most messed things up.
Jesus spoke in parables because, as St Paul knew so well, the law with its requirement for nothing less than mundane submission will ultimately kill us. For God in Jesus has done what the law could not do. In Christ, we have not simply words on a page, or nice guidelines to live by, but the Spirit of life itself- offered up in love and given back to us in all the many resurrections made possible by the life of Jesus dwelling in us.
But this kind of open invitation makes people uncomfortable. There is a section of this Gospel text missed out by the lectionary today, where the disciples demand to know why Jesus speaks in parables. It is in the middle, between the parable of the sower and the explanation of the parable. Jesus tells them, “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’” Parables defy the neat explanations and pat answers of doctrine every time and require dependence on the Spirit if we are to have “eyes to see and ears to hear.”
I once was in a church where a man stood up and said that he felt the church was getting it wrong and he wanted to go back to “Simply obeying the ten commandments and dressing properly in collar and tie for a Sunday morning.” He was expressing a wish for these to be clear rules about what you could and could not do and adherence to outward appearances and standards. The problem is, this idea, or any other outward show of conformity, is the opposite of Jesus teaching about the kingdom of God. Jesus instead employs metaphor and story to help us understand that the kingdom is not about adhering to conventional morality or social mores but is instead something we enter into. These parables are an invitation to let go of our ideas about outward behaviours and rules and instead take on the yoke of Jesus and learn his way.
Two errors have been made in the past about understanding the kingdom. The first is to equate the kingdom of God with heaven as something we get to when we die. This is most obviously not what Jesus is saying as he keeps emphasising that the time is now, the kingdom of heaven has drawn near, or at other times he says, “the kingdom of heaven is within/ amongst you.” The second common definition is that the kingdom of God is about a personal relationship with Jesus. Now while this is partly true, it ignores the much bigger story going on here.
Brian McLaren sums up well what is going on when we allow the comfort of our lifestyles and the focus on our own personal faith to choke the growth of the kingdom;
Sadly, in too many quarters we continue to reduce the scope of the gospel to the individual soul and the nuclear family, framing it in a comfortable, personalised format — it’s all about personal devotions, personal holiness, and a personal Saviour. This domesticated gospel will neither rock any boats nor step out of them into stormy waters. We have in many ways responded to the big global crises of our day with an incredible, shrinking gospel. The world has said, “No thanks.”1
This parable of the sower, like other parables, has the power to create an internal shift in us, inviting us to a bigger and braver perspective. The dogma and pieties of religion have nothing to say to the complex global issues facing us but Jesus’ words can draw us into a different way of hearing and seeing and being. In the fertile soil of open hearts grow lives committed to justice and peace, forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. The kingdom of God springs to life everywhere, bringing hope to what can seem a hopeless world wherever there are those who follow Jesus’ way, living his risen life.
But if you are anything like me, the first thing you will be wondering when you hear this parable, is how can you become the good soil where the Word of God could take root and bear fruit for the kingdom. This for me is closely followed by anxiety at all the times I have not been good soil. Those times when the distractions of my comfortable existence have been like the thorns that choke the word and prevent my life from bearing good fruit, or about the temptations in my life that are like birds carrying away the seeds or rocky personal problems that prevent the word taking root. The issue with this kind of interpretation is that not only am I back to looking for outward signs that I am measuring up, it also makes the parable all about me and my personal successes and failures. And as soon as we do that, we are back in a graceless universe with absolutely no loopholes. But what if we have this all wrong, and the parable is not about us, but about God?
When we read the story this way, it becomes a story about a ridiculously extravagant farmer who throws valuable seed everywhere. Far from obsessing about the soil being neatly ploughed and ready, this farmer throws the seed where no one would ever expect it to grow, on good soil and bad. This sower knows full well that it probably won’t take root, (who throws seed on a path?) but casts it abundantly everywhere anyway. There seems to be no lack, no scarcity to be concerned about. Where the seed lands on good soil the sower rejoices at a harvest that is ridiculous in its quantity, particularly for the farming methods of Jesus’ day; thirty fold, sixty fold, a hundred fold. There is enough and more to make up for that which did not germinate. Jesus promises that there will be enough for us even when the smallness of our hopes shrinks our bellies, our anxieties fly away with our faith and our distracted busyness chokes out the peace of our days. But nothing in God’s economy is ever wasted. In these beautiful organic metaphors we can be reminded that even when the birds come and gobble up the seed, we know they are only flown away to be dropped somewhere else -with extra fertiliser. God is endlessly patient and generous, and will keep wasting the Word on us until our hearts are fertile enough to receive it. There are loopholes everywhere.
The kingdom therefore cannot be earned or achieved but can only be received.
We don’t become good soil by our own efforts but by the gracious abundance of a God who insists on life and forgiveness. We know the word is germinating in the good soil of our lives when we experience the abundant life God desires for us; a life where joy and peace flow and our relationships are characterised by loving kindness. When this happens we become like the sower ourselves, dropping love everywhere and releasing grace upon grace to set others free.
1 Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, p 244