This week we have a parable, a familiar one to many of us, and just in case we’re too dense to figure out its meaning, Jesus gives us his own interpretation. In today’s terms it sounds like a story about why you only get a few positive responses if you send out a mass e-mail. Don’t be disappointed. That’s how you find your niche in today’s market. Most people won’t care, but once you find your target audience it’ll pay off more than you ever dreamed.
Well … fine. I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Experience tells us that Jesus’ interpretation is true to life. Once you find your target audience, it’ll pay off more than you ever dreamed. Don’t be discouraged if most people don’t respond. Just wait and see what happens with those who do.
But I’m a little suspicious about that interpretation. It may have Jesus’ name attached to it, but I have a feeling that it may not be the only way to hear this parable—or even the most important way.
For one thing, most scholars—and these are mostly Christian scholars—think that this interpretation was added under Jesus’ name by a later generation. Those later followers believed this was the meaning the risen Jesus was leading them to find in the story, so they transported it back to the original setting and added it to the parable. It was a common and fairly innocent practice—just a way to tell the whole truth about a person with the benefit of hindsight. People back then had no idea that it would drive historians crazy today. So there’s a good chance that the parable circulated for years without the added interpretation, and in fact it shows up in the Gospel of Thomas all by itself.
Now feel free to make up your own mind about what the scholars are saying—their conclusions do differ, especially over time. But whether Jesus gave this interpretation or not, it’s not the only way to hear the parable. It’s not even the most important way to hear it. Why? Because Jesus didn’t tell parables just to give us homespun illustrations about everyday life. He told them to shake up the way we look at the world.
A man gets mugged and left injured on the roadside. The pillars of your community do nothing to help him. That’s no surprise; you don’t think much of these so-called pillars anyway. You’re ready to hear that the person who does help is an ordinary person like you. Stories like that were popular. But instead you hear that the only one who helps the man is somebody you’ve been taught to loath all your life—not just an outsider but an enemy of your faith. Everybody’s standing before God is undermined—not just the privileged, not just the common people, but everybody.
That’s how Jesus’ parables work. They’re not true-to-life illustrations. They’re stories that unsettle the whole way you look at life. If you’ve ever studied Buddhism, they’re more like Zen koans, like, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” We’re not always sure these stories make any sense at all. Sometimes you might get a common-sense lesson for your life out of them, but when you do you’re probably overlooking the most crucial part.
So let’s look at this parable on its own. Let’s look for clues that something outrageous is happening. Here’s a present-day, Indianapolis version. This guy heard that the new demand for ethanol was driving up the price of corn, so he decided to plant some and make a killing. He bought plenty of corn, plus a seed spreader from Lowe’s, and then walked down the Monon Trail scattering the corn.
Now what’s wrong with this picture? Let’s ignore the obvious fact that the city won’t let anybody grow crops along the Monon Trail. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we know what’s going to happen with most of the corn—nothing. Most of it will get crushed, or eaten by birds. Maybe some of it will grow on the side of the trail, if it escapes getting mown down. But common sense tells us this guy’s about to go bankrupt. He invested in all this corn and then scattered it where he knew it was least likely to grow. What kind of fool would do that?
Let’s hear another story. God enjoys this unlimited, unbreakable community—in fact God is this unlimited, unbreakable community. So says our Nicene Creed. But for some outrageous reason God wants another kind of community—a limited, breakable one. So God summons a whole universe to get going and showers it with love, all day, every day. Most of the universe can’t even name God, but apparently that’s OK. Off in some remote corner creatures develop that can begin to name God, but as soon as they do they start using the name to justify their own self-serving, limited agendas. In the name of God they turn to violence against each other and against the world they inhabit. The community is broken. And God keeps on showering them with love, all day, every day. They don’t like being reminded that God might not serve their agendas, so they go into denial and turn even meaner. And God keeps on showering them with love, all day, every day. When God comes to them on their own terms, they turn to murder. And shortly afterward they start to see that God is still showering them with love, all day, every day. You’d think God would have learned better by now, but apparently not.
A sower went out to sow. A creator went out to create; a redeemer went out to redeem; a sustainer went out to sustain. And here we are. What kind of fool would do something that? God would, and does. So says Jesus.
And so says God, at least according to Isaiah. “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” (Isaiah 55:10-13).
There’s a reason our lectionary has us read that passage alongside the parable of the sower. It’s the same basic story line.
The parable of the sower is the parable of God’s very life with us. So is the story of Jesus. Jesus’ life, death and risen life is God’s parable about the God who squanders everything, even life itself, in order to have a community that includes us repeatedly self-centered folk. Almost everything seems to work against what God’s aiming for, and yet like a love-besotted fool God keeps showering us with love, all day, every day, as if we were ready to receive it.
The parable starts with this outrageous beginning. But it also has an outrageous ending. The sower ought to be going bankrupt. But instead he makes a fortune—one hundred times what he sowed. I’m told that even a careful farmer would have been lucky to get back twice as much as he sowed, but to get back a hundredfold is beyond incredible. So when this farmer who definitely was not careful gets that much, well, I guess you’d have to say it’s beyond incredible squared.
So you see, I don’t think this is a story about waiting till you find your target audience. That may not be bad advice, but it’s still well within the realm of the familiar. This is a story about how crazy things get once we start to make room in our lives for a God who acts like Jesus—a God who never stops showering us with love, all day, every day, a God who doesn’t stop expecting to find love multiplied among us a hundred times over, even when the whole history of our species seems to point the other way. That’s the God Jesus preached and the God Jesus lived and the God who with Jesus lives among us now. There isn’t any God besides this one.
That’s who God is. But of course we are still people who try not to invest too much in harebrained schemes, and I don’t think we’re supposed to stop paying attention to what we can expect to happen. After all, if we did, this story wouldn’t shock us any more. Instead, maybe we’re supposed to look a little differently at what does happen.
When people don’t join up with our community or our movement, maybe we shouldn’t draw any hasty conclusions about what God is up to in their lives. We can trust that God is just as involved with them as God is with us, and that God hasn’t given up on anybody.
When politicians and religious leaders turn dreams of God’s reign into business as usual, maybe we’ll realize that none of that can kill off the dream itself, and that we’re not total fools to keep living by it.
When we discover that we’ve been more selfish with our own lives than we ever wanted to admit, maybe we can find hope in a God who never stopped showering us with love, all day, every day. Maybe we’ll take a few more risks ourselves than we would have, just to see where more generosity might take us. Maybe.
Or maybe we’ll forget about the whole thing and just get back to making it through the day. We’re good at that.
But Jesus tells us that even if we don’t do anything with the parables he told, or the parable he lived, we’re not going to get God to give up. There’s a power loose in our world that we can’t ignore for ever, showering us with love, all day every day, and if we just happen to notice, there’s no telling what might happen next. It could be something better than you ever dreamed possible.
A sower went out to sow. A creator went out to create; a redeemer went out to redeem; a sustainer went out to sustain. And here we are. What kind of fool would do something that? God would, and does. Let anyone with ears listen!