For this week’s readings, click here.
I saw a movie this week called Beatriz at Dinner. Ever since I saw the trailer for this movie several months ago, I’ve been waiting for its release. It’s a powerful movie about money and privilege, oppression and racism, capitalism and the plight of the earth, our home. So, there is a lot going on.
I was mildly annoyed at the end of the movie, however. It didn’t have a typical Hollywood ending. I won’t spoil it for you, should you wish to go and see it. But I wasn’t alone in this. I read some reviews and spent time in conversation with others who had seen it and we were all kind of scratching our heads.
Some of us liked being left wondering.
Some of us stayed annoyed, preferring to have a story make sense so that we clearly know the lesson we’re supposed to learn and move on.
And some of us, just wanted to be entertained, not to think too hard.
It seems a common set of responses to a story: we like to get the point of the story or we like to keep chewing on its meaning or we just want to be entertained.
We have the same problem with parables. Often, they aren’t what we want them to be.
There are layers of meaning that we would rather not have to deal with because we want easy to digest lessons.
Now, I can appreciate that. I’m learning to cook vegan dishes right now with a program called Purple Carrot. I’m deeply grateful that the recipes aren’t written in parables. There are no metaphors. No poetry. No imagery. No wordiness. The instructions are clear, concise, descriptive, and straightforward. I am learning a lot as I execute these recipes. They are written well and offer some explanation for the why behind what I’m doing.
Unfortunately, God isn’t as simple as that. The Kingdom of Heaven is a little more involved than a vegan recipe. As a matter of fact, the nature of God is mysterious – like a lemon seed on a counter. You can never quite grasp it because it slips from your fingers as you try. You can see it. You know it’s there. But it’s illusive and slippery.
Another way to think of this is to recognize God’s nature as Truth – truth that is startling and bright. Poet Emily Dickinson says that the best way to tell truth is to tell it on a slant.
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
… The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –“
The Gospel Truth is, indeed, a difficult truth to take in.
If it were easy, the Kingdom of Heaven would be realized, Christ would have come back again and this moral coil would be over. God’s peace would be reigning and there would be no oppression. Everyone would be liberated and we would live in equanimity.
And so, to help us hear the Truth, our teacher Jesus uses parables. He teaches people by using extended metaphors that are grounded in their every day life. He’s not exactly talking to us, however. He’s talking to first century, illiterate peasants who were being ruled by an occupying force – the Roman Empire.
Their everyday life was one of oppression under Roman rule. This is an important piece to understand if we’re going to understand Jesus as Messiah, to truly know what it meant to these people that this person Jesus was going to lead them to liberation.
For us, we like to put Jesus in a purely spiritual box. But the kingdom Jesus was talking about – God’s kingdom – was one of real life liberation from real life oppression. God’s peace was much more practical than a mystical sense of peace, of feeling good. It was a balancing of power.
That is not to say that there is no spiritual component to this. Not at all. Jesus taught us how to pray, how to confess, how to heal… how to be in relationship with God. Because this is what leads us to care for one another rather than live a self-serving, isolated life.
And this is the real point of today’s parable: if leading a spiritual life is just about feeling good, then we’ve missed the point.
To help illustrate this, we might glean a little from the missing verses in today’s Gospel reading: verses 10-17. What we miss is the disciples questioning Jesus about his choice to use parables. And Jesus responds saying:
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.
In other words, he was trying to find another way to reach people because plain language was no longer going to work with them. These were people who were tired and disheartened. For nearly 100 years Rome had become a military presence in the area, gaining full control about 25 years before Jesus started teaching. For nearly 100 years these people had been hoping that the Romans would leave, that someone would come to liberate them. Many just gave in to despair, losing hope and accepting the circumstances. Or finding a way to profit from them.
For nearly 100 years, the Jews had heard leader after leader, speech after speech, promise after promise. None of them knew what life was like without Roman presence. It had become the air they breathed. So, Jesus used a different way of talking to them to get them to see that the way things were was not how they should be.
The “vast majority of the population, about 70 percent, were peasants who worked the land and lived in the towns and villages that dotted the countryside.” That is to say, they provided the labor. They didn’t own the land. They just went with the land, as animals of a farm might go with the farm should it be sold. (Herzog, pgs 63-64)
The people to whom Jesus was speaking knew little else besides agrarian practices. They didn’t know how to read or write. They didn’t travel or have much leisure time. They weren’t necessarily unintelligent. But they were limited in their experiences.
Jesus used what they knew to teach them about how was trying to work through him – to liberate themselves from tyranny and oppression.
And his first lesson is a bit of a challenge to the listeners. He’s asking them to place themselves on a continuum.
Where do you belong, he asks. Which one are you?
- Are you going to be the well-trodden path? The kind of person who is so hardened against hope that your heart has no place for the Word of God to land?
- Or are you going to be the rocky ground? The kind of person who likes an easy fix but won’t be bothered to stick around when the Word of God asks too much of you?
- Or are you going to be the thorny soil? The kind of person who knows full well what the Word of God is saying but if it conflicts with self-interest, will refuse to act upon it?
- Or are you going to be good soil? The kind of person who hears the Word of God and allows themselves to be transformed by it? To be liberated by it?
And here we are in 21st century New York. Members of the Episcopal Church, sitting in an air conditioned room on a lovely summer day.
Some of us may garden, but we don’t need to.
Some of us work, but many of us no longer have to.
Some of us have experienced oppression, but most of us have never lived with bombs dropping around us or feared deportation or wondered if we were going to make it home at night if we were stopped by police.
So, if Jesus was speaking to oppressed, illiterate, Jewish farmers who spoke Hebrew or Aramean and lived about 2000 years ago halfway around the world… what could these words possibly mean to us today?
How are we supposed to be liberated by the Word of God?
How are we being asked to be transformed by it?
Consider that for a moment.
What kind of world is God asking you to imagine? Not what do you want, that’s a trap that will just keep you confined.
What is God asking you to consider? What is God asking you to give up so that you will be transformed? What is the message God is trying to get you to hear?
And remember, it may be something that has never occurred to you before because we are so used to breathing the air of our circumstances – just like the Jews were so used to the Roman presence that they couldn’t imagine an existence without that.
What is the wildest thought that you think is impossible because you’re too conditioned by the world to imagine it might be the Word of God? What is God’s hope that you are scared to let take root in your heart?
Now, here’s the Good News.
We are not one or the other… on Jesus’ list, we are not one or the other.
We are not either the hardened path with absolutely no hope or the rocky ground that just wants things to be easy.
We are not either the thorny overgrowth who is too self-interested or the good soil who finally gets it in some transformational ah-ha moment.
We are all of them. At different points in our lives, we have been and will continue to be all of them. And that’s Good News because there is good soil.
There is always good soil.
And God is always sowing seeds in us. Always and forever.
Never giving up on us.
Never ceasing Her Love for us or His desire for us to hear the Word of God that is Christ.
But the challenge of this parable is always going to be there.
What kind of soil are we today?
And so I return to the questions: What is God asking of you right now?
What is the Truth that Jesus is asking you to consider, perhaps, for the first time in your life? What is God asking you to give up so that you will be transformed?