Updated: Jul 18, 2022
We have been given a series of lessons today that should fill us with peace in the present and hope for the future. In our current moment of pandemic and national unrest, I suspect that I speak for more of us than myself when I observe that peace in the present and hope for the future are two resources that all of us might be hungry to receive.
The gospel lesson from Matthew is a parable. Well, it’s actually five or six different parables wrapped into one, and with so many images packed into one small parable, we could spend a much longer time than I will today digging into each image to discover its depths. Instead, I want to focus on the two foundational images of this parable: the seed and the harvest.
The first image is the seed, which might be easy to overlook. Matthew makes clear that the seed being sown represents “the Word of the kingdom.” And before we dive into what may or may not happen to the seed after it is sown, I want to be clear why the seed is Good News. I am going to make some generalizations here, which is often dangerous, but I feel reasonably confident about them. “The Word of the kingdom” is that God loves each one of us as much as his own self, his own person made flesh in Jesus, which means that all of us are as valuable as God himself (cf. Jn. 3:16). That means that Sally and Olivia and Jim and Ed and everyone in this Church are all as valuable as God. This is why we Christians call ourselves children of God (cf. Jn. 1:13).
Take it or leave it, that truth is “the Word of the kingdom” that each seed represents. This Word is almost impossible to believe in a world that assigns us value that is NOT based on God’s parenthood and the love of Jesus, but on our flesh, which is to say our race, our pedigree, our beauty, our intellect, our influence. To receive “the Word of the kingdom” is to believe that our lives have already been given infinite value through God’s love, and nothing that we do in the world can justify what has already been gifted to us freely.
I invite everyone in this room to consider how often we use the things of this world to justify ourselves. Let me illustrate this sort of justification with a short story: My wife and I spent four days on a camping trip with 90 fourteen-year-old-boys last fall. We slept on wooden tent platforms with canvas covers, and each night we would have a campfire. The boys were drawn to it like moths, and they loved to exchange stories. One boy named Jamie jumped into another boy’s story about fishing to claim that he had caught a shark, but another boy interrupted Jamie’s moment in the spotlight to say that he too had caught a shark; however, Jamie was not to be outdone. Can you guess what he said next? You guessed it! Jamie proclaimed that he had caught four sharks in one day, and when his revised proclamation was met with a mixture of astonishment and disbelief, Jamie decided to double-down to claim that he had eaten them raw with his father on the boat!
One of the most endearing features of many adolescent boys is how poorly they posture and lie. They are often too blunt and unpracticed to disguise their desire to justify themselves with the things of this world. But if we are honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that we participate in the same kind of one-upmanship that Jamie displayed at the campfire, but with significantly more nuance and slight-of-hand than Jamie was able to muster. Which of our accolades do we find ourselves dropping into conversations casually with new people to make sure that they know that we have value? Which virtues do we like to signal to the world to let people know that we are good? I suppose you all might expect me to be good at this sort of thing since I am a priest, but let me tell you, I have a bear of a time doing something noble and not telling anyone about it. The affirmation that I receive when I justify myself feels too good for me to resist!
The hard truth is that many of us, much of the time, don’t really live our lives believing that we are a child of God. Like Jamie, we rely on our stories of success and virtue in the flesh to feed our narratives of self-worth that we share with the world. You may remember that Paul proclaimed in our scripture from last week, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate […] For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive” (Romans 7:15-24). Even Paul, the pioneer of the gospel of grace, seems to have discovered himself resorting to the flesh to justify himself. We all do this because we are all made of flesh.
And yet, we are not ONLY flesh, and that is the good news of the parable today. Yes, there are three different types of dangerous soil, and each one destroys the seed in its own way, but Jesus tells us in the parable that some seeds fall “on good soil and bring forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen” (Mtt. 13:9). One of the great temptations of human thinking is to see everything as either/or, good or bad, black or white. This kind of thinking reduces the human condition to a unity, when, as Paul points out, we are actually a multiplicity -- both good and bad, both flesh and spirit.
But how can we reconcile the evil and the good in our lives? This bring us to the second image that I want to examine briefly, which is the harvest. Even though three of the four types of soil that Jesus deploys in his parable destroy the seed, the good soil produces a remarkable harvest from the seed that lands in it. “The quantities [that Jesus mentions], a hundredfold, sixty, thirty, are apparently far higher than was usual even in a good year; seven was average, ten was good” (Fenton, J.C., Saint Matthew. Middlesex, England: The Pelican New Testament Commentaries:1963, pg. 214). This suggests that even the worst harvest of a seed in good soil would produce more than four times the average yield, as if all four portions of soil, including the three portions of bad soil, were producing a harvest. This is a profound point. The fruit of the spirit does not negate the bad soil, but the harvest that the good soil yields overcomes and provides for the destruction of the bad soil.
Surely some of us can think about this dynamic in our own lives. Even after a lifetime of mistakes and posturing, we humans are still capable of extraordinary acts of faith and love. And these acts of faith and love don’t negate the evil that we may have done, but they do make provision for them. I am a young priest, but I have already witnessed several moments of deathbed reconciliations between estranged family members that were nothing short of miraculous. When the Word of the kingdom finds good soil, the world is transformed. This hope is what allows Christians to speak honestly about our darkness while still proclaiming the light.
The good news of this parable is that it gives us permission to stop our posturing
and be at peace with the fact that our souls are filled with a multiplicity of soils, both good and bad. This is the peace in the present that the truth provides. The parable also gives us hope in the abundant harvest provided by the good soil. Hope that the harvest will be sufficient, and provide even for the bad soil. This is the hope for the future that the promise provides. One of the special effects of a place like Saranac, is that it is a place where many of us are more likely to discover the good soil, the soil of openness, vulnerability, and honesty that is receptive to the seed of this parable. Our prayer is that this might be a place that allows “the Word of the kingdom” to enter our souls.