Year A, Proper 10
Offered July 13, 2014 to Second Congregational Church, Newcastle, ME
Every now and then, I decide that I want a house plant.? Only I am so bad with plants that I have developed a system.? I buy a philodendron from a cheap grocery store because if they haven’t killed them, I won’t.? So I am well aware that I am the least qualified person in the room to speak about the Parable of the Sower.
Fortunately, as we just heard, the Scripture explains the parable, so my complete incompetence will not get in the way.? But really, the images are pretty straight forward.
There’s the seed sown on the road that the birds eat up.? I think of those nights when you cook supper and no one remembers to call and tell you they’ll be late.? You’ve made this nice thing and you were looking forward to sharing together and instead all these strangers are swallowing up your family time.
There’s the seed sown on the shallow rocky ground where everything looks good for a while, but nothing can really take root.? Is that not every good intentioned diet and exercise program we’ve all embarked on?
Finally, there’s the seed sown in the thorns that choke the plants.? I think that’s anything that comes out of your mouth after handing a teenager the car keys.? Nothing you’re saying is sinking in.
Conversely, there’s the good soil that brings forth grain.? That’s cool.? And maybe that’s what we’re always aiming for, to sow on the good soil.? Or maybe we’re aiming to be the seed that flourishes.? Or even the good soil that brings forth such bounty.? Those are all great roles.
The challenge with the interpretation is that it thinks you can tell where the seed is being sown.? Sometimes, in those worst moments, when we’re sure we’re planting our last seed in the middle of a pricker bush clinging to the top lip of a granite cliff in the middle of the Maine Pike, we turn out to be laying out our greatest harvest.
The part of Isaiah that Carol read today was written after decades of exile in Babylon.? Everything of home was lost.? The Israel was no more, the Temple destroyed, all but the oldest members of the community had been born in Babylon, had never known another life.? For devout Jews, there could have been no more scorching, rocky, thorny ground than where they were standing.
Yet from that place and time comes the Torah.? In the same period that this part of Isaiah was written, the Jews wrote down and finalized the first five books of the Bible.? Jews, Christians and Muslims are known as the People of the Book, and the book is the Torah.? Something new comes into the world, something so lush and abundant that we are still reading it 2500 years later, still finding meaning in its words.? And given how lovely the passage was this morning, still finding real beauty in its reflection on what it feels like to be heading to a home you have never known from an exile that seems like normal life.
But even if we grant that we don’t always know what ground we planting, doesn’t the parable that Jesus shared seem sort of like a story from Beatrix Potter?? Rather hand drawn and sweet?? I kind of expect Squirrel Nutkin to come hopping along to explain the types of soils again for the folks who weren’t really paying attention the first time.
But you don’t get crucified by the Romans for being sweet and hand drawn.? So where’s the edge in here, where’s the part that cuts into our assumptions?? The Romans would certainly have not liked the bit about the Kingdom.? But if Jesus’ words didn’t move anyone to act, the Romans probably didn’t care all that much.
Maybe it was the combination of what Jesus was saying with the folks he was saying it to.? Jesus was talking to peasants, to subsistence farmers.? We have images of farmers riding John Deere over acres of monoculture fields, selling their crops to brokers and going to the grocery store like the rest of us.? In first century Palestine, you need to think more like ? a guy with a stick.? He would have inherited tiny scrips and scaps of land that he farmed.? In a good year, a subsistence farmer would raise everything his family ate and wore, generate enough seed for the next year’s planting and pay Rome and Herod their taxes which amounted to about 30% of what he produced.? Maybe there would be a little left over to trade, but probably not.? And that was in a good year.
When you zoom out to look at what society looked like then, about 70% were peasants, these subsistence farmers.? About 7% were merchants and artisans, another 6% were priests or in the government.? 15% had either unclean professions, like tanning hides or collecting tolls or prostitution or they were simply expendable, day laborers who never had enough work to do.? The last 2% controlled 66% of the society’s wealth.? In 2007, in the U.S., the top 9% of the population controlled about 2/3rds of the wealth.? So in 2,000 years you can either say it stayed pretty much the same or it got five times better.
If you didn’t want to be a subsistence farmer, there wasn’t much you could do about it.? There wasn’t a whole lot of technology around, so there weren’t a lot of technical skills one could become an expert in.? The priests were strictly hereditary.? The government positions relied mostly on interpersonal skills, so everyone was vying to have those jobs, but the system was set up to run on patronage, and it was hard if you were barely scraping by on your farm to do enough favors that someone would give you a plum job to pay you back.? It happened.? But not very often.
You could go the other way, though, you could fall.? In 1st century Palestine, you always paid your debts.? Your land would be seized and if that wasn’t enough to pay off what you owed, you and you whole family were sold into slavery.? Once the land was gone, it was practically impossible to get it back.? Life on the land was hard, but livable.? If you made it past your 5th year, you could readily make it into your 50s and 60s.? But once you lost your land and fell into that category of unclean or expendable people, you could expect to live for maybe five more years.? It was a slow death and everyone knew it.? And the surest way to lose your land was to take on debt, to chase after some crazy, new fangled, unproven idea.
So when the Bible says there’s a crowd around Jesus, they mean there’s a mob of peasants around him.? Because the overwhelming percentage of the population were subsistence farmers.? He says all the Beatrix Potter stuff about the path and the rocks and the thorns.? A large portion of his hearers had to be thinking, what kind of moron sows seeds there?? Even if you are hand broadcasting seeds, you are often so close to the edge of survival that you don’t waste seed on places where it won’t grow or where you can’t harvest.? While they’re wondering about that, Jesus gets to what happens on the good soil, bringing forth grain thirty, sixty, hundred fold.
This is where I think the Scripture’s interpretation of the Parable doesn?t help us much.? It’s so hard for us to hear this story the way the folks who heard Jesus would have heard it.? We are not one bad growing season away from seeing our children sold into slavery.? When we hear about sowing seeds on rocky ground, we’re translating that image from the farm into something familiar, and I think we lose something in the translation.
If I told you that you would get back thirty times the love you sow by adopting a pet from the shelter, anyone who had adopted a pet would tell me I was low balling it.? If I told you that you would get 60 times the laughs you normally get if you went with me to a particular movie, many of you would go with me.? If I tell you that this book will make your life 100 times better, you might think I was being a little Oprah on you, but you’d give it a try.? And yet we?re still in Beatrix Potter land.
But if I told you that you would earn 30 times your initial investment, year over year, in your retirement account, it all switches.? Then I don’t even sound like a good con artist.? Promise too much, too good a thing, we can all see the scam coming.? The original Ponzi scheme, run by Charles Ponzi, fell apart not because the mechanism didn’t work, but because he promised way too much.? He promised 100% return in 90 days.? He was doubling your money.? Over the course of the year, you would have earned a two or three fold return.
And there is Jesus saying 30, 60, 100.? He’s talking to people who know how to spot a scam, because if they didn’t, they would have already fallen into that bottom 15% and would be in the middle of a slow death.? If they fall for some crazy scheme, their kids go hungry, probably die, they can’t take care of their parents, they can no longer work themselves.? Their land will be lost, never to be regained again.
Now Jesus wasn’t claiming that following him would make your fields more productive.? He wasn’t selling a scam.? Jesus was trying to help us catch a glimpse of what understanding the word of the kingdom is like.? Imagine a scheme that sounds so unbelievably good that you know it can’t be true.? Only it is true.? And it’s true for everyone.? And it’s true for all time.? And it’s not a scheme.
Imagine that the alternative to the current system isn’t a slow death, but eternal life.? That instead of being uncared for, everyone has a productive place in the community.? You can see why the Romans got nervous, because they liked the system just as it was, with them on top.? Once those crowds really caught a glimpse of the kingdom, with its 30, 60, 100 fold returns, they weren’t going to stick with the old system.? All of a sudden they could hear the words of Isaiah as something more than going home to Israel from Babylon.
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, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 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. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
All of a sudden, they could hear the 30, 60, 100 fold promise of the kingdom.? Can we?