A Provocation: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 17, 2017: Matthew 18:21-35

Matthew 18:21-35
18:21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

18:22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

18:23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.

18:24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;

18:25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.

18:26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’

18:27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.

18:28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’

18:29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’

18:30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt.

18:31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.

18:32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.

18:33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’

18:34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.

18:35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

A Question or Two:

  • If you were Peter, would you have said “Seven times”?
  • Would you have guessed a higher number?
  • Or lower?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is another well-known, well-worn scene that delivers an important bit of advice: forgive each other, forgive each other, forgive each other even more still.  As with most of the scenes like this in the gospels, the advice good (but worth analyzing) and the text has been the base for many, many basic sermons.

And like most scenes like this, there are always oddities.

In this scene, the oddities start with the basic advice:

Peter asks a good question: How many times is just too many?

If he is asking how many times he has to forgive minor annoyances, then seven times is a ridiculously small number.  Even 77 times is not too many times to be bothered by someone you encounter frequently.  And so you have to wonder if Peter is one of THOSE people who keeps score and remembers EVERY time you did or said something they didn’t like.  Jesus should have told him to get a life.

But if Peter is asking about real offenses, then forgiving seven serious hurts is in itself already odd and surprising.

How many chances do YOU give people before you just write them off?  I’ll tell you the truth: if the hurt is real, I cannot imagine giving a co-worker 77 chances to inflict pain.  I can imagine giving up on such a person; I can imagine ceasing to take them seriously and thus denying to them the right to hurt me.  But that is not the same thing as forgiving them.

And what if Peter is intending to ask whether we are obliged to be punching bags?

If Jesus’ answer to all of this requires that we absorb abuse and then forgive, and forgive, and meekly forgive, then Jesus gives a bad answer.  As a professor and as a pastor I have heard stories of abuse from my students and parishioners and I have not, do not, and will not tell them that they ought to accept abuse.  Forgiveness may indeed set them free, but not if it comes as a demand that perpetuates the abuse.

But the real oddity comes in the parable that Jesus tells.

Its basic narrative structure is ordinary enough: a king forgives a huge debt, the forgiven slave refuses to forgive a smaller (though still significant) debt.  Don’t be that guy.

But this parable is more than its basic narrative structure.  The debt owed to the slave is sizeable: a denarius was the wage earned in a day by a common worker, so 100 denarii approaches four months wages.  That is a lot for anyone, though it is not a crushing debt.  It is worth asking how a slave (who is NOT paid for his work) would ever pay off even THAT debt, but that is another matter.

The REAL oddity is the size of the debt owed to the king.  The parable says that it was 10,000 talents.  Historians give different answers as to the value of a talent, and it will always be difficult to translate ancient money into contemporary amounts.  The economies are basically different, and currency exchange rates must suppose a basic similarity.

But no matter how much a talent was worth, exactly, the amount is huge.  One source imagines that a talent, as a measure of weight, was 130 pounds of silver.  That would mean that the slave owed the king 13,000,000 pounds of silver.  At the current price of silver, that would add up to something like $2,782,000,000.  That debt is oddly large, strikingly enormous.

It is a good practice when interpreting parables to follow the oddities.  The oddities tend to lead to the heart of the story.

So the question is: how in the world did a slave (who does not own even his own body) come to owe such an astronomical amount to the king?

Not on his own.  No matter what the real answer is supposed to be, the slave would not have been able to fail on such a level had the king not enabled him to do it.

The king set him up.

Maybe the king put him in charge of the royal investment fund and imposed a contract under which the slave would receive a percentage of the gains and (oh, by the way) bear the losses, but “In an economy as strong as this one, what could go wrong?”  Maybe the king did this in, perhaps, late 2007.  And then came September 29, 2008.

Or maybe the slave heard the king and his over-privileged buddies telling lies about their success in the stock market.  The king (who was successful, tremendously successful, and really very rich) gave the slave a hot investment tip, and lent him the money (“Can’t miss!  What could go wrong?”) for the investment.  Of course the slave did not have a daddy with money to bail him out of financial failure.  And thus the slave owes the king over $2 billion.

However the debt came about, the king had to be complicit.

Perhaps this what the oddity in the parable wants us to notice.

But, if so, what, exactly, are we supposed to reflect on?

Interpreters generally leap from the enormity of the debt to the idea that human sin creates an infinite debt to God.  This sets up a theological reflection on some variation on the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement, which is a theological construct that begs the question: “How could a good God create an economy that can only result in every creature failing and falling into infinite debt?”  I know that there are Christians who really like the Satisfaction Theory, and I am sure that they can come up with any number of justifications for their continuing to hold this medieval theory.  I have played those justifications through to their conclusions.  I am not impressed.  In the end, God is either poor at creating, or abusive in governing the Creation.  In the end such theories plant a terror in the heart of faithfulness and thus undermine even joy at the fact of forgiveness.

What if we are to direct our interpretive attention to the king’s complicity?

What if the key interpretive question were: “How out-of-touch IS this guy?”  Or: “What was the king thinking when he through the slave into prison until the debt is paid off?”  Let’s just say that the imprisoned slave earns what an inmate earns in my state (South Dakota): $.25 per hour.  That comes to $10 per 40 hour week, or $500 per year.  That means that the imprisoned slave would work off his debt in a cool 556,400 years.  Which is over twice as long as modern humans have been on earth.  What was the king thinking?

No matter how you answer that question, the king appears to be either a petty dictator who first causes the slave to fall into bottomless debt and then dismisses him by “forgiving” him for falling into the debt into which the king dropped him, or the king is simply incompetent and does not bother to do the math that would allow him to understand his effect on his subjects.

But that would make this scene, and this parable, even stronger, even more incisive.  This is not simply a command to forgive more.  It is an indictment of ANY system that sets God up as the one who keeps score.  Such theological structures, even when they are used to encourage us to forgive and grant release, train us to keep score and preserve the patriarchy.  That is maybe why the slave went out from the presence of the king to whom he owed the debt and demanded payment from his fellow slave.  Perhaps he, too, even intended (after threatening imprisonment) to forgive the debt, just as he had been forgiven.  I suppose we could stop short and say that the parable says that the slave didn’t go far enough, didn’t buy into the system of debt and release deeply enough.  But I’m starting to think that the problem is a twisted focus on debt which (not so) subtly preserves the hierarchy that keeps us apart.  When forgiveness is pictured as the act of a king who counts up, and then eliminates, a debt (a debt, from the parable, that he is free to recall and re-impose), then God models hierarchical domination for us, and we will follow suit.

This parable is a warning against that way of thinking of God, the world, and each other.  Maybe it’s time we started taking the Incarnation seriously, and stopped thinking about “salvation” as the payment of a large debt.  Maybe it’s even time we quit heating ourselves up over “salvation” at all.


A Provocation: Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 10, 2017: Matthew 18:15-20

Matthew 18:15-20
18:15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

18:16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

18:17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

18:18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

18:19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

A Question of Two:

  • Why are two or three witnesses important?
  • Why does Jesus’ “Father in heaven” need two or three witnesses(verse 19)?
  • Does this mean that human solidarity is important, even in the face of the Deity?

Some Longer Reflections:

First, some obvious things:

  • People disagree and people hurt each other, even when all the people involved are good-hearted and aiming to do right.
  • This is true in any and all communities, including congregations.
  • When people have been hurt, they talk to other people about it.
  • When we have been hurt, we generally talk to close friends who will commiserate with us, and then we talk to not-so-close friends who will agree with us, and sometimes we even talk to people who are nearly strangers.  It hurts to be hurt.
  • This scene in Matthew’s story aims to short-circuit what generally happens: Jesus directs members of the community to talk first to the person who caused the hurt, alone, when it is just the two of you.  This does not necessarily rule out close-friend-commiseration, but it does cut off the cycle of gossip.

All of this is obvious.  And probably useful.

But obvious.

But notice what this little scene requires of us.

Jesus requires witnesses.  Two or three of them.

What do you suppose happens when the person who feels wronged first speaks to the two or three who might serve as witnesses?

There are several possibilities.

  • The person seeking witnesses might begin by going to people who are likely to take their side.  Did the witnesses actually witness anything?  Or are they expected to simply serve as “wing-men” who will back any play the their friend attempts?  At that point, this becomes a matter of integrity.
  • If the people who are approached did indeed witness the event in question, they will surely have seen it from their own perspectives.  And they might, therefore, see it differently than does the person who feels wronged.
    • Maybe they saw the offense as even more serious than the person who felt wronged.
    • Maybe they didn’t see an offense at all.
  • If the witnesses saw no offense, the situation becomes deeply complicated.
    • The witnesses might be correct, which will be (at the least) awkward for the person who feels wronged.
    • Or, the witnesses might be (to sound an echo that goes back 40 years) “un-indicted co-conspirators.”
      • How many women have reported being harassed, only to discover that men who witnessed the abuse tell them to “just get over it?”
      • How many subordinates are abused by bosses and then discover that their co-workers see this as an opportunity to gain an advantage over them?
    • Dominators of every sort exert their power (and do their damage) by creating a system in which subordinates believe that it is to their advantage to take the side of their abuser.  That is the conspiracy.  That is the real abuse.  Those that refuse to be witnesses may not be “indictable,” but they are surely part of the plot, deeply implicated in the abuse.  (For a large and insightful analysis of this phenomenon, see Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James C. Scott.)

That is what is not, at least to me, immediately obvious in this little scene about making and breaking peace.

Though it may not be obvious, it is crucial to the interpretation of this scene.

When peace is broken, even the protocol that is set for making peace can be a tool used by oppressors.  And, perhaps even more important, the act of attempting reconciliation can catalyze the deep recognition of systemic abuse.  The very act of asking people to bear witness reveals that the harm goes farther than anyone had imagined.  In such a system, there is no integrity, and no peace, only more abuse.

I find myself reflecting at this point, not on the Ezekiel passage paired with this scene in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary, but on the indictment offered by Jeremiah (chapter 6).

13 For from the least to the greatest of them,

everyone is greedy for unjust gain;

and from the prophet to priest,

everyone deals falsely.

14 They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,

saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.  (NRSV)

Jeremiah is not simply calling out deceitful trading practices.  Jeremiah is naming systemic abuse and the way it makes co-conspirators of us.  It is time we ceased treating the wounds of our sisters and brothers carelessly.  It is time we acted with integrity when called to bear witness.  And it is time that we actually started making peace and ceased pretending that there is peace.  Far too often and in far too many situations, there is no peace, there is only silence.


A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 3, 2017: Matthew 16:21-28

Matthew 16:21-28
16:21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

16:22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

16:23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

16:25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

16:26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

16:27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.

16:28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

A Question or Two:

  • My family belongs to Holy Cross Lutheran Church.  What does the word “holy” mean in that sentence?
  • “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”  The Princess Bride

Some Longer Reflections:

You may have guessed by now.  I am weary of conventional religious answers, and distrustful of much of what passes for religion and religious practice.  Too much of it is too holy, too gladly separate from regular life.  And regular life is the only life we really live.

I am weary of conventional religious readings even when those readings have generated powerful theological understandings.

Consider, for instance, the matter of cross-bearing.

“”If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” says Jesus, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes The Cost of Discipleship and generations of Christians learn new and productive lessons about religious practice that knows the difference between cultural Christianity and actual faithfulness.  Bonhoeffer’s contribution to Christian self-understanding and to religious practice are immense.

And most of the sermons I have heard on The Cost of Discipleship and cross-bearing are religious.  And conventional.  And they are conventionally religious in ways that Bonhoeffer would (I think) find puzzling.  Christians, desiring a more energetic, more authentic faith have courted suffering in the name of carrying the cross.  Theologians, desiring to respond to Jesus, Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther (not always in that order) have crafted theologies that focus on how the death of all things human (strength, righteousness, hope, intelligence) must precede our receiving life from God.  Some even have gladly proclaimed that God kills us (gladly) in order to raise us.  The problem with all of these reactions is not simply that they are masochistic (though that is a REAL problem).  The problem is that they are religious.  And conventional.  And they make of Jesus’ words a metaphor.

In the world that Jesus knew, crucifixion was not a metaphor.

People were actually crucified, and all of his hearers knew that.  Jesus’ words are not advocating religious athleticism.  His words establish a connection with a world that suffers, a world that is tortured.

Jesus’ words foster honest awareness that there is no path through life except one that involves suffering.  Crucifixion is not a fetish, it is a disturbingly common fact of regular life.  There has been no generation without war, not generation without disease or famine.  Imagining a privileged freedom from suffering and sacrifice is revealed as a pointless fantasy.  Jesus’ words call out both privilege and fantasy, and reveal them for what they are: escapist and irresponsible.

This must be considered carefully.  I suppose that we might, someday, construct a world in which people do not torture people.  I can suppose that we might construct such a world.  Someday.  But we have scarcely begun work on that project, and there are highly placed officials who have learned that it is politically expedient to feed revenge fantasies by calling for people in law enforcement and the military to be free to torture people.  Jesus’ offensive, shocking words about carrying a cross do not allow us to imagine a world that is easy or simple, or better than this one. We are not allowed to forget the parts we want to ignore as anomalies.  Torture, pointless suffering, slavery and it’s aftermath, all these things are real parts of the regular world.  Can’t we just get past that?  No, actually, we cannot.  Not even maybe.

So we need to re-translate, and re-hear, Jesus’ words:

  • No one can be my follower unless you are beaten on the street.
  • No one can follow me unless you are shot while carrying a bag of skittles.
  • To believe that the Messiah is turning the world right-side-up, you have to be charged with resisting arrest without actually resisting,
    • or pulled over because of the color of your skin (or the allegedly broken tail light),
    • or seen the officer throw down the gun that you will be charged with having in your hand (though you did not).
  • No one can claim the name of Christian unless you have been pimped to men who wanted to masturbate in your vagina.
  • No one can claim to believe in social justice until you have been driven out of business by a corporation that had no interest in your or your community.

The list can go on.  If you are not offended by items on this list, I have not done my job as an interpreter of the words of Jesus, because crucifixion was an obscenity in the ancient world, and everyone knew that.

“This must never happen to you,” said Peter, and his words seem to make more sense now.

“Get behind me, Satan!,” says Jesus, his words now revealing that our dream of comfort and easy equity is a dangerous temptation to which we gladly give in.


A Provocation: Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost: August 27, 2017: Matthew 16:13-20

Matthew 16:13-20
16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

16:17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.

16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

16:20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus ask the question he asks?
  • Why do people give the answers that they do?  Why John the Baptist?  Why Elijah?  Why Jeremiah?

Some Longer Reflections:

A simple question: what does it mean that Peter says that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God?”

The easy answers suppose that this is an identification question, and that Peter gets it right because God revealed it to him.  The easy answers suppose that Peter is commended for passing the ID quiz.  Yay, Peter.

The more complicated answers are more interesting.  And more important.

“Messiah” is not an identity.  It is not even an office.

“Messiah” is an analytic, a diagnosis, a considered judgment on the state of the Creation and on a particular moment in time.  To say that Jesus is the messiah is, first of all, to confess that the world is upside down.  If it were not, there would be no need for a messiah, for an agent anointed to turn the world right-side-up, which is what a messiah does.  By the time Jesus was born, the Jewish people had been without an anointed king for several centuries.  By the time Jesus was born, what had originally been a simple hope for a return to the monarchy and the independence that had existed before the Babylonian Exile had gathered to it all the hopes and prayers of people who saw injustice and pain, disease and abuse, and refused to believe that God had intended this to be the proper state of the universe.  By the time Jesus was born, “messiah” was a protest against a world out of whack.

Such a protest is easy to understand if you focus on obvious injustices, if you look (in Matthew’s story) only at Herod’s genocidal attack with which the story begins.  That is too easy, and easy understandings of “messiah” are, in fact, evidence of deep MIS-understandings.  To confess that the world is upside down is, then and now, to confess that the basic structures of life are wrong and need to be rebuilt.  “Messiah” calls for a basic change, not just some tinkering around the edges.

If you want to feel the impact of Peter’s confession, read (slowly and carefully) some of what is currently being written about the matter of white privilege.  Don’t argue, don’t resist, don’t refute.  Just read, slowly and carefully, and reflect.

“Messiah” does not preserve privilege, nor does “messiah” make everyone privileged.  Such fantasies are economically impossible; they are idle imaginings founded on a desire to be free from responsibility for each other, free from connection and community.  Cain hoped for such freedom, and you know how that turned out.  Abel paid with his life.  “Messiah” creates community and connection, and fosters responsibility amongst the members of Creation.

A classic description of “sin” names it as the condition of being “curved in on oneself,” being concerned first with how all things affect me.  This description suggests that we are properly created to be concerned first with each other, with the health of the entire Creation.

That means that a reaction to discussions about “white privilege” that worry first about how I might be dis-advantaged by such discussions reveals itself as a sign of how the world is broken, upside-down.

Reflect on this.  Analyze it.  When Peter says that Jesus is “Messiah,” he is confessing that the basic structures of privilege and access to resources that govern the world are broken.  This is the sort of confession that will need to be revealed by God, and given as a gift.

This gift has a second characteristic, as well.  Peter’s confession not only means that the world is upside-down.  For Peter to tie the word, messiah, to Jesus, Peter has to believe that it is possible to turn the world right-side-up.  He is saying that the person standing in front of him is the one actively engaged in making that happen.  This insight into the significance of the present moment is also a gift from God, and separates Peter’s analysis of the need for change from mere complaining, simple despair.  Peter is confessing that hope is possible.  Anytime this happens, God has given us a gift.

But the most important moment in Peter’s confession comes when he calls Jesus the messiah who is the child of the “living God.”

This way of speaking of God means two things simultaneously.

First it means that God is the “God of life.”  This is the right way to translate the Hebrew phrase behind this confession in the Greek Testament.  That means that Peter is confessing that, no matter how privilege is presently structured, God working on the side of life, of justice and equity.  In actual fact, this means that God must be the God of resurrection, because nothing less will be required if the world is to be turned right-side-up.  Too many radical reactions to the brokenness of the world contribute only reactive violence, and thus advocate that we all jump into the meat-grinder together.  Only death comes out of following that advice.  To confess that God is God of resurrection is to dare to hope that life is possible, and that hope is not simply a pleasant illusion.

And Peter’s confession also means that he expects that God is lively and active in the present moment.  God is not, according to Peter, a sentimental vestige of a past world in which people believed in such beings.  God is not a static symbol for generalized hopefulness.  God is an actual, active participant in human history.  Peter is claiming that God is working to bring life into a world that has been regulated by death.

Jesus says that his Father in heaven has revealed this to Peter.

This vigorous hope and expectation is the foundation stone for Christian faithfulness.

That is worth thinking about, especially these days.

But what I don’t know is why Jesus commands them NOT to tell any of this to anyone.  The easy answers are not satisfactory.  Reflect.




A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost: August 20, 2017: Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28

Matthew 15: (10-20), 21-28
15:10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:

15:11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

15:12 Then the disciples approached and said to him, “Do you know that the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said?”

15:13 He answered, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted.

15:14 Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.”

15:15 But Peter said to him, “Explain this parable to us.”

15:16 Then he said, “Are you also still without understanding?

15:17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?

15:18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.

15:19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.

15:20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

15:21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.

15:22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

15:23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”

15:24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

15:25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

15:26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

15:27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

A Question or Two:

  • That which goes into the sewer doesn’t make a person unclean?  Really?
  • Why does Jesus call the mother a dog?  What would your mother say if you did that?
  • The mother said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  How did she hold her head when she said this?  How did she hold her shoulders?  Try a few different possibilities.

Some Longer Reflections:

There hadn’t been Canaanites in centuries.

Read that sentence again.  There had not been people who were properly called “Canaanites” for centuries.  So why does the storyteller refer to the woman in this scene as a “Canaanite?”

Do not answer this question too quickly.

This is a question to contemplate, not to dispose of with a snap answer.

Why does the storyteller have Jesus interact with a Canaanite?  In the parallel version of this scene in the gospel of Mark, Jesus meets a Syro-Phoenician woman, not a Canaanite.  That identification marks her as an inheritor of political, social, and economic power from the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, that enemy of the Jewish people remembered for his cruelty (described in the books of Maccabees).  That identification makes Mark’s story a confrontation with a well-remembered historic enemy.  The scene in Mark is marked by sharp conflict (though it is often obscured by translators): Jesus’ words to the mother when he relents are best read as harsh (“For saying this, Go!”), and when the mother finds the daughter, she is “thrown on the bed, the demon gone.”  Why is she “thrown” (and why do translators cover this up)?  There is no answer.

But in Matthew, the scene is harsher at the beginning.  Jesus wants nothing to do with the mother, and she follows after him, shouting.  Jesus does not answer her at all, and his actions make him look like one of the Ultra-Orthodox (in any faith group) who angrily refuses any kind of contact with a woman, especially a foreigner.  The disciples are no better.  They are at least trying to drink the Ultra-Orthodox Kool-aid.

But at the end of the scene, Jesus is quite amazed, and genuinely changed.  “Great is your faith!”, he says.  He had no idea!  “Let it be done for you as you wish.”  His sharpness is gone.  He is converted.

And the woman is called a Canaanite.

That means that she is being identified as one of the people marked for extermination in the book of Joshua, who shares a name with Jesus, by the way.  At the beginning of the scene, Yehoshua (Jesus) adopts the stance of his namesake from the distant past.  At the end, he is different.

So, what is going on here?

Maybe the storyteller is giving us a glimpse of a rigid Jesus, Ultra-Orthodox in his inclinations, who is changed.  If so, this scene is a foreshadowing of what I think happens in Matthew’s whole story.  For my developed argument for this interpretive line, see my commentary, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew (The Pilgrim Press).

Of course I like this possibility.

But I think that there is even more here.

The storyteller is calling into the story, not just a mother, but also a memory, a remembrance, even.  The storyteller is staging a remembrance of the slaughter carried out by Joshua when they invaded the land.  This is not idly done.  This remembrance makes this a scene of historic repentance: the Canaanites are shown to be capable of real faithfulness, and as such, should not have been slaughtered.  The entrance to the Land of Promise (this remembrance implies) ought not to have been accomplished through genocidal slaughter, and the argument for that slaughter (they will lead you away from true faithfulness) is revealed to be false, at best mistaken, and more likely ignorant and inexcusable.

If that is what the storyteller is doing, this scene offers a pointed reflection.  I live in South Dakota (a state that carries the name of the people who lived in harmony with this land before European-Americans arrived and dispossessed them.  I live not very far from the site of the Wounded Knee massacre.  I have friends who teach at, or graduated from, universities that were constructed, in part, by the labor of people who were held as slaves, again by European-Americans.

What would it take for those of us who are descended from those European-Americans (for starters) to engage in a similar act of remembrance?  What would it take for us to say, with Jesus, “Great is your faithfulness!”

That’s a good question, I think.

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday After Pentecost: August 13, 2017: Matthew 14:22-33

Matthew 14:22-33
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

14:32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

14:33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus walk on the water?
  • Why does Peter want to do that, too?
  • Are their reasons the same?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are lots of hooks in this scene, lots of hooks on which you could hang a sermon.

I will look at only one of them.

A dear friend, a gifted pastor and a strong preacher, drew my attention to this hook some years ago.  If you see Pastor Steve Martens, thank him.

Some basics:

  1. Jesus is alone.  That is a little odd.  He dismissed the crowds, and apparently the disciples took off with them.  Really?
  2. The disciples are in a boat.  They have been in a boat before: at least a few of them fished for a living.  Paul Minear, now years ago, pointed out that boats are used as symbols for the Church.  If he was correct, then this is a story for a Church that is battered by the waves.  This is not an unheard-of situation.
  3. Jesus comes to them walking on the sea.  The sea is a regular symbol for the dangerous chaos that hides under all systems of apparent order and safety.  It can break out at any time.  Jesus appears to be master of chaos, so masterful that he can stroll on its surface, easily and calmly.
  4. Peter gets out of the boat.

Here is where my friend and teacher, Steve Martens, asked a powerful question.  We were reading this scene together with other members of a text study group we belong to.  We were noticing the standard readings of the scene that give Peter credit for daring to get out of the boat, and then laugh at him (perhaps with a twinge of recognition) when he feels fear and begins to sink.  We even noted that when Jesus shifted his name from Simon to Peter he got it just right: Peter = Rock, as in “sinks like a ….”

Then Steve asked his question: Wouldn’t it have been better for Peter to stay in the boat and row?  Did Peter fail his test of faithfulness, not when he “noticed the strong wind,” but when he asked to be Master of Chaos, just like Jesus?

This is, to my ear, a great question.

Standard readings of this scene do not think so.  I was reading one just this morning, and it was stirring, inspiring, even.  The interpreter was encouraging his readers to step out of the boat and discover their inner “Wave Walker.”  This hidden inner identity was set parallel to that of Clark Kent.

Who doesn’t want to be Super(wo)man?

My friend’s question suggests a question in reply: Wouldn’t it have been better if Peter hadn’t wanted to be Superman?

Go carefully here.

Standard interpretations are attractive because they take their energy from the recognition that life batters us with chaos over and over, and sometimes we get knocked out of the boat.  When that happens, it is life-saving to discover that the God who can overcome chaos can catch us and lift us up from the waves that have overwhelmed us.  This interpretation takes seriously the impact of chaos on regular human life, and offers a picture of God as rescuer and “very present help in time of trouble.”

My friend wouldn’t quibble with any of that.

He just wants to know why Peter thought it was a good idea to get out of the boat in the first place.

It is set up as a ID check to determine whether the Wave Walker is Jesus or a ghost.  Okay.  But wouldn’t it have been better for Peter to ask for a different identifying sign?  “Lord, if it is you, bail the water out of the boat.”  “Lord, if it is you, slow this wind down a little,”  “Lord, if it is you, tell me the name of my mother-in-law.”

Instead, Peter asks to walk on the water.  Why?

Maybe he wanted to save ferry fare on the Sea of Galilee in the future (as suggested by the Arrogant Worms in their rather remarkable song, “Jesus Brother, Bob”).

Maybe he wanted to be the best water walker among the disciples.  It wouldn’t be the first or the last time that followers of Jesus argued about who was the bestest disciple.

Or maybe he wanted to have control over chaos.

This last possibility deserves careful reflection.

Human beings do not have control over chaos, though we spend a great deal of time and energy searching for such control.  And our search has yielded helpful results.  The polio vaccine, sulfa drugs, antibiotics, even aqueducts and railroads and airplanes, all give human beings stability and control over life that we did not once have.  And we are searching for cures for diseases that have hunted us and haunted our history.

So maybe Peter was asking to be the person who finds a cure for ALS.

Or, maybe he was just wanting an exemption from risk and danger.

There is a difference.

The first possibility makes Peter a pioneer.  The second shows him seeking a privileged advantage over the rest of us.

And maybe that is the real problem.

Current discussions of privilege might be exactly the right context in which to think about Peter’s request.  If this is about privilege and advantage, Peter can fulfill his responsibilities to his colleagues who are still rowing by telling them that all they have to do is get out of the boat.  Imagine the scene: Peter stands on the waves, wind whipping his hair.  He looks strong and heroic and his face is lit from above by steady lightning.  He calls back to the frightened disciples: “I got out of the boat.  You can, too.  All you have to do is take action on your own behalf.  Anyone can do it, if they just apply themselves.”  He might add, just for effect: “It’s like when I was stopped by the police for having a broken taillight.  I was respectful, and all I got was a warning.  That’s all there is to it.”  He could even say: “If you were as great a businessman as I am, tremendously successful, you could have had a millionaire father, too.  Losers!”

If that was what Peter was up to, he reveals a profound misunderstanding of the world.  That is not how things really work, not in the real world.

In the real world, what we mostly need is people who keep on rowing.  Maybe that was Jesus’ point when he told Peter to get out of the boat.  Maybe Jesus knew that Peter would see the wind and sink.  At that moment, Jesus gets to decisively demonstrate his identity: “Lord, save me,” cries Peter.  And Jesus pulls him up out of the chaos.  That is his essential act, then and now.

Notice that the storm does not cease when Jesus saves Peter.  The storm ceases when Jesus gets into the boat, which seems to have been his destination in the first place.

Maybe if Peter had stayed at his oar, the storm would have stopped sooner.

A Provocation: Ninth Sunday After Pentecost: August 6, 2017: Matthew 14:13-21

Matthew 14:13-21
14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

14:17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

14:18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

14:20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

A Question or Two:

  • Why did the crowd not make provision for meals?
  • What does that do to the feeling of this story?

Some Longer Reflections:

A short note: the disciples have confidence in the ability of the people in the crowd to take care of the,selves.  They advise sending them into the towns around the area to look for food.  The disciples expect that the crowd has resources, both monetary and logan sticks, that will allow them to find food, and they further image me that the people in the surrounding towns can be counted on to be hospitable and generous.

This is important to notice.  They don’t sit around whining and waiting for miracles when there are problems to be solved  I admire such directness and practicality.  And I respect the faith that lies behind it.  The disciples expect that things can be made to work  I think that they usually are correct.

Another thing to notice: jesus does not (in Matthew’s telling of this story)  express concern about the crowds ability, or their infirmity, or the scarcity of resources.  He just tells the disciples to feed the crowd themselves.

Think carefully about this.  Is Jesus staging a demonstration miracle so that the crowd (or the disciples?) would see that he had extraordinary power?  Some interpreters take this line, but it seems to me that, if that were the point, Jesus would have said, “I will give them something to eat.”  He does not.  He says, “You feed them.”

Does Jesus want to throw the disciples into an impossible situation so that they realize, without Jesus having to say it, that hei s a Grade A miracle worker?  I suppose this is possible, bough I’m pretty sure that I won’t like the theology that emerges from such a passive-aggressive beginning.

I do not know why Jesus says and does what he does.

But I think that the disciples’ response is interesting.  Their first words are, “We have nothing….”  some commentators seem to have read no further, and make fun of the disciples’ idea that they have nothing when they are in the company of the Messiah, for Pete’s sake.

Dont go there.

What I notice these days is that the disciples say, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

The most important word just might be “but.”

The disciples have a clear view of their actual resources, limited though they might be.  What they have, they know they have.

It turns out that this was enough.  It turns out that there was a great deal left over.

And it was the disciples who passed the food out. And it was the disciples who picked up the scraps.

This matters.  From the way the story is told, I have to assume that, if you asked a person in the crowd what just happened, she would say that the disciples gave them food.  And Jesus healed people and blessed the food.  But the disciples fed the crowd.

Which is exactly what Jesus said they should do.

I suppose there is a sermon sitting there, waiting for you to ask her to dance.  I suppose so.

But what I notice right now is that neither Jesus nor the storyteller scolds the disciples for knowing the exact staste of their resources.  They knew what they had, and they knew what they didn’t have.  They trusted the people in the crowd to be able to feed themselves, and they also trusted Jesus when he told them to start handing out the food.

And it was enough.  More than enough, in fact.

That is worth thinking about.

A Provocation: Eighth Sunday After Pentecost: July 30, 2017: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
13:31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field;

13:32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

13:33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

13:45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls;

13:46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

13:47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind;

13:48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

13:49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous

13:50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.”

13:52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus insist on telling stories?
  • Why do these stories offer life and death, acceptance and rejection, at the same time to the same people?
  • No, really, WHY?

Some Longer Reflections:

Just for clarity: no mustard on earth becomes a tree.  Mustard is an annual plant, a forb, if you are being particular.  In some few cases and places it grows very large, but it is never mistaken for a tree.  The storyteller here is emphasizing the expansive (even explosive) growth of this plant.  As my father, the Vocational Agriculture teacher, used to say, “It is impossible to have a little mustard in a field.”

Just for clarity: it is not yeast (at least not Red Star packaged yeast), but leaven that is being talked about here.  Leaven was understood to be a mystery.  In particular, it was a mystery belonging to women, since women baked bread in many ancient cultures, and men were amazed at (and ignorant of) how they made bread rise.

That means that the Reign of God is, in these two parables, likened to growing, living things, one of which is explicitly the purview of women.

And, just for the sake of clarity and complication, both of these images are images of corruption.

Mustard was not planted by Jewish farmers in the ancient world.  It was religiously illegal to do so, and not because of “silly religious superstitions.”  A main point of Torah observance, then and now, is to provide an image of the orderly way God loves the world, an image that becomes more necessary the crazier the world becomes.  Mustard destroys order and grows out of control.  Jews cooked with mustard, but they did not plant it in the ancient world because of the importance of offering exhausted pagans the hope that love and order and rationality were still possible, no matter how wild and uncontrollable the world has become.

And yeast is the same.  Throughout biblical narrative, yeast is consistently understood as a metaphor for corruption.  That is one reason that all leaven bread is removed from Jewish houses in preparation for Passover.  That is the reason that Jesus tells the disciples to “beware the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees.”  The storyteller makes the disciples misunderstand that statement as a reference to actual bread, but this is just a joke at the expense of the disciples.  The real point, as every audience would have known, was that even faithful efforts at purity can become a kind of corruption.  When religious observance goes sour, it turns people into nasty legalists.  Jesus was NOT charging that all attempts at Torah observance are sinful and self-centered.  Jesus is saying that even good-hearted faithfulness can go sour, and when it does it can even make a good person into a rat.  When a Pharisee goes sour, the result is a rigid religious rat.

In the ancient world, in fact, the image of the way leaven works to transform bread dough is a common cliché: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” people would say, meaning exactly what we mean when we say, “One bad apple….”

So, the Reign of God is like a bad apple?

That is exactly what Jesus just said.

If you have ever been the target of aggressive “evangelism” you probably already agree with Jesus.  People who begin by assuming that you need to become a whole lot more like them before God will love you are already beginning to rot, says Jesus.

That’s easy.

Too easy.

I think Jesus works with a sharper knife than that.

Even our best theology carries in it its own form of corruption:

  • The notion of a messiah offers hope by refusing to justify common abuses of power.  But it also threatens to bless violent revolution.
  • The notion that God created the world and all its workings to be good, exceedingly good, teaches us to trust life to carry solutions to even the deepest problems hidden in its depths.  But it also trains people to practice quiet submission when vigorous protest is necessary.

The list goes on.  The parable requires us to learn to analyze every promise until we see the problem lying latent in it.  The parable also trains us to believe that every problem carries a promise in its depths.


“Have you understood all this?,” asks Jesus.  The disciples responded in chorus: “Yes,” they said.

I am not so sure of my understanding.


A Provocation: Seventh Sunday After Pentecost: July 23, 2017: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
13:24 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field;

13:25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.

13:26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.

13:27 And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’

13:28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’

13:29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.

13:30 Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

13:36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.”

13:37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man;

13:38 the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one,

13:39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.

13:40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.

13:41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers,

13:42 and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13:43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!

A Question or Two:

  • Why in the world did the slaves think it would be a good idea to stomp all over the newly sprouted field pulling weeds?

Some Longer Reflections:

First off, I think Martin Bell was correct.  Bell read this parable in 1968, and heard the anger in the notion that some people are wheat and some people are weeds.  Bell urged his readers to understand themselves as the field and to recognize that both wheat and weeds grow in us.  The customary reading of this parable (even when it is urged on us by Jesus in the gospel of Matthew) sets us to work spying out enemies wherever they might hide.  If you look hard enough for enemies, you will always find them.  Bell’s reading sets us to work examining ourselves, wondering (for one thing) why it is that we are so sure that we are surrounded by enemies.

This is a salutary exercise, better than the one handed us by the customary reading of this parable.

It is difficult, though, to avoid angry, divisive readings of this parable.

That is partly because of the way Matthew’s story is structured.  For the long version of this analysis, please take a look at my commentary on Matthew, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  A quick sketch: Matthew begins his story with the slaughter (by Herod) of the toddlers of Bethlehem, all of whom are Jesus’ relatives.  The storyteller is remarkably honest.  The story not only narrates the genocidal murder of little kids, it also portrays the effect of surviving the slaughter on Jesus, who was Herod’s target.  What is the effect?  The same as it is on any survivor: he exhibits a strong tendency toward black-and-white thinking, with the good people being welcomed into the Father’s open arms and the bad people being consigned to the outer darkness where the fire never goes out and men wail and gnash their teeth.  Matthew thus paints a picture of Jesus unlike that painted by the other gospels.  But the key to this storytelling strategy is that Jesus holds this harsh persona until he is raised from the dead, and then he changes and no longer condemns those followers who doubt him.

It is a long argument.  You can read it all in the Matthew commentary.

What matters for now is that those scenes (like this one) that make harsh and angry divisions are rolled back at the climax of the story.  Until then, they function to draw out into the open those Christians who love to be angry with those whose faith is less strenuous.

There are plenty of such people, and not just inside the Christian faith.  There are plenty of such people even outside of any faith.

There is something in us that loves to scold other people.

People on the Left scold people on the Right.  People on the Right ridicule the “snowflakes” on the Left.  People who drive a Prius (as I do) make fun of people who drive big-butt trucks capable of towing a combine even though they live in the suburbs.  People who drive big-butt trucks snicker at the idea that saving fuel is all that important.  Vegans are appalled at the compromises made by occasional vegetarians, who look down their noses at carnivores, who remind everyone who will listen that “the West wasn’t won on salad,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

It goes on.  You have heard it.  We all have done it.  It contributes to eruptions of road rage and to the kinds of I-dare-you-to-challenge-me driving that leads to the eruptions.  It leads to the kind of video the NRA issued early in the summer that proposed using the “clenched fist of truth” (whatever that means) against Them (who seem to be anyone who is opposed to racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia).

This parable provides an occasion to reflect on how we seem to need to be angry with each other.  And the parable (angry as it is) provides also a suggestion: when the slaves ask for permission to go out and rip out everything that looks like a weed, the farmer tells them not to be stupid.  Ripping up weeds will also rip up crops.  He’s right: rash anger never makes things better.  Even when Jesus seems to encourage it.



A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: July 16, 2017: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.

13:2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.

13:3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.

13:4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.

13:5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil.

13:6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.

13:7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.

13:8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

13:9 Let anyone with ears listen!”

13:18 “Hear then the parable of the sower.

13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.

13:20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;

13:21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.

13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.

13:23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

A Question or Two:

  • Couldn’t Jesus find a better field in which to plant seed?

Some Longer Reflections:

The words reveal that the sower knew what he was doing.

The seeds that landed in unfortunate locations did not land there because of professional sloppiness.  The sower sowed seed.  In fact, you probably ought to write that (in English): the seeder seeded seed, and the seed fell where it fell.

Why does this matter?  It matters because this parable is deeply realistic.  Every real farmer knows that every field is a mixed bag.  Some parts are boggy and will dry slowly in a wet spring.  Other parts are sandy and crops will wither in years of sparse rainfall.  Some areas are rocky, and some are eroded and some are ideal soil.  Real farmers know that real fields offer mixed conditions.  So does real life.  This parable knows that, too.

Real farmers plant the crop anyway.  And most years, it pays off.  That is one of the practical points made by this parable.  If the sower waits for perfect conditions and guaranteed success before risking the seed on the field, nothing will ever grow.  This is true if we are talking about actual seed or about the “word of the kingdom.”

But the parable knows something more than that.

The parable knows that the yields promised are crazy impossible.  If we assume that the crop being sown is wheat (a reasonable assumption shared by many interpreters), it is worth knowing that ancient wheat normally had twelve to fourteen seeds in each head.  If a seed tillered (grew more than one stalk from a single seed), it would normally not produce more than three seed heads, generally fewer.  That means that even thirty-fold yield is abnormal (though occasionally possible), but sixty- and hundred-fold yields are completely impossible.

This impossibility could just be storytelling hyperbole: simply an intensification of the part of the story that you are supposed to notice and reflect on.

If so, this is a story that says, “Dare to risk.  Plant the seed.”

That is a good point.  It intensifies the practical point of the parable.  Farmers know to plant the crop even in the face of real risks.  Perhaps the hyperbole is simply emphasizing this point.

But the harvests that are impossibly large suggest something else, as well.

Read 2 Baruch sometime.  In the midst of a soaring  apocryphal apocalypse, we are given a glimpse of a world turned right-side-up: a sower is sowing, and has to step lively because the harvesters are following close behind.  The idea is that when Creation is set free from bondage to futility, soil and seed get to do what they have always wanted to do: produce life.  As soon as seed touches soil, both rejoice and collaborate to erupt in life.  The stalk of grain races up from the soil, and the seed head explodes from the stalk.  Reapers have to hurry behind sowers because Creation was always meant to flourish, to erupt in unstoppable life, not to be “regulated by death” (to recall Albert Camus’ picture of the world in The Plague).  This parable presents a picture of a world set free from death and futility.  This is more than practical encouragement.  It is a promise of a new aeon that erupts out of the career and teaching of Jesus, God’s messiah who is turning the world right-side-up.

“Let anyone with ears listen!,” says Jesus.  That means that it does not require magical powers or supernatural insight to understand that the world is rising from death.  All it takes is ears.  Everyone has ’em.  (And for people whose ears do not work, one of the signs of the world turning right is the restoration of mobility, sight, and hearing for everyone.)

There is one more little element to notice in this scene.

When Jesus explains and expands the story he told, he tells his hearers that it is the “evil one” who comes along and snatches away the seed that was sown.  This is a workable (and common) translation of πονηρὸς, but the word implies not so much malice as pointlessness.  I translate it (usually) as “the worthless one.”  I like that translation here.  The one described as πονηρὸς is snatching up the seed before it has any chance to grow.  Every group of which I have ever been a part has had at least one person like this.  They know ahead of time that nothing will work.  They snatch up hope before it has a chance to ripen.  They prevent (if they can) any action at all, thus guaranteeing that NOTHING AT ALL will happen, good or bad.  I call that sort of activity worthless.  The parable appears to agree.

Let anyone with ears listen.