Posts Tagged ‘parable’

The seeds of evil

July 19, 2014

Pentecost 6b. 2014

Matthew 13:24-30 (31-33) 34-43 (see below)

Marian Free

(It is always difficult for a blog to represent just what is actually said, and the tone with which it is said. I was unhappy with what I wrote last night and so spoke from the heart. The update – what is immediately below – represents as best I can remember, the verbal edition.)

In the name of God who sends rain on the just and the unjust. Amen.

 

(Sung before the reading of the Gospel:

God is love, and gently enfolding

all the world in one embrace,

with unfailing grasp is holding

every child of every race.

And when human hearts are breaking

under sorrow’s iron rod,

then they find that selfsame aching

deep within the heart of God.

Timothy Rees 1874-1939)

 No doubt you, like me and countless others, woke up on Friday to the news that flight MH 17 had been shot out of the sky over Ukraine – presumably by pro-Russian separatists. No doubt you too have spent the time since in a state of bewilderment and incomprehension. How could such a thing happen? How could anyone wantonly take the lives of nearly three hundred civilians who have nothing to do with your cause? How could a civil war so far away and in which we have no stake come all the way to our shores? The impact of the loss of life is more powerfully felt because twenty-eight of those on the flight are our fellow citizens, friends of our friends, people whom we might have known. We are not at war and yet we, and many others who are equally removed from the situation, have been affected by an act of war.

The how and why of these questions belong with a broader group of questions – how could the Rwandans, the Serbs and others slaughter vast numbers of their fellow citizens – former neighbours and friends? How can would-be lovers throw acid in the faces of the women who reject them? How can men gang rape a woman to the point of death or rape teenagers to settle a score with their family or tribe? How can men and women commit acts of torture, degrade other human beings? How can anyone force children to become soldiers? How can a person traffic others into slavery or into the sex trade? How can people stroll through a shopping mall indiscriminately shooting anyone they see? How can such evil and ugliness persist in a “civilized” world?

How? How? How?

On a day like today when there are so many questions, we have to ask ourselves what does the gospel have to say in such a situation. In particular what does today’s gospel have to say?

At first glance today’s gospel makes it easy – the devil did it. This response is problematic for two reasons. The first is this, that Matthew or someone telling the story before Matthew has radically changed the original parable as told by Jesus. In Mark, chapter 4, we find the same parables that Matthew has grouped together in chapter 13. Mark’s version however, is that of a sower who sows seed and goes to sleep and wakes and goes to sleep while the seed grows. (The sower does not know how it grows.) The writer of Matthew has added an enemy, weeds and reapers. Not only do these appear to be additions to an original, but they don’t really make sense. What enemy would go to the trouble of sowing? It would be much easier to wait until the wheat was ripe (and dry) and set fire to it. Furthermore, who would make a large collection of weed seeds (which might affect their own crop)? Finally, darnel (the weed) carries a fungus that is hazardous to the wheat. Leaving the weed to grow until the harvest is not really an option.

It appears that the original parable was adapted to answer the same question that we might well be asking at this time: What has happened to the kingdom of God that Jesus promised? Why does the world look so different from that which we might have expected as a result of Jesus’ preaching? By the time Matthew is putting pen to paper, Jerusalem has been destroyed, the Temple razed to the ground and the community for whom Matthew is writing has been forced to leave their homes. This is not what they expected. The parable is recast to enable them to make sense of the current situation.

That said, there is another reason that taking the parable at face value is problematic – for to do so would absolve us of our complicity in the affairs of the world. It would be to make the assumption that some among us were good, in contrast to the others who are not.

I can’t answer for you, but I know for sure that I am a long way from perfect and while I do not wish to share my flaws with you, I can assure you that they are many and that I am as yet only a poor reflection of the child of God I was created to be. Until I, until you, are perfect and perfectly fitted for the kingdom, the world will remain violent, unjust and cruel.

And this is where the parable as told by Matthew shines a light on our current situation. Good and evil exist side by side in the world and in each one of us and, failing a miracle, will co-exist until the end of time. It is this our brokenness that excludes us from passing judgement. Only God, who is without flaw, can truly distinguish good from evil, and as a result, only God is in a position to judge.

In the meantime, it is essential that we who are concerned with the kingdom do all that we can to ensure its presence in the world – by allowing God’s love to expose the presence of evil in our own lives, by making Jesus’ life the model for our own and by giving the Spirit free reign to produce in us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It is only when we are not part of the problem that we can be part of the solution. It is only when we allow God full reign in our lives that we can begin to alleviate the sorrow that is “deep within the heart of God”.

 

Matt. 13:24   He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 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?’ 28 He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 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.’”

Pentecost 6. 2014

Matthew 13:24-30 (31-33) 34-43

Marian Free

In the name of God who sends rain on the just and the unjust. Amen.

No doubt you, like me and countless others, woke up on Friday to the news that flight MH 17 had been shot out of the sky over Ukraine – presumably by pro-Russian separatists. No doubt you too have spent the time since in a state of bewilderment and incomprehension. How could such a thing happen? How could anyone wantonly take the lives of nearly three hundred civilians who have nothing to do with your cause? How could a civil war so far away and in which we have no stake come all the way to our shores? The impact of the loss of life is more powerfully felt because twenty-eight of those on the flight are our fellow citizens, friends of our friends, people whom we might have known. We are not at war and yet we, and many others who are equally removed from the situation, have been affected by an act of war.

The how and why of these questions belong with a broader group of questions – how could the Rwandans, the Serbs and others slaughter vast numbers of their fellow citizens – former neighbours and friends? How can would-be lovers throw acid in the faces of the women who reject them? How can men gang rape a woman to the point of death or rape teenagers to settle a score with their family or tribe? How can men and women commit acts of torture, degrade other human beings? How can anyone force children to become soldiers? How can a person traffic others into slavery or into the sex trade? How can people stroll through a shopping mall indiscriminately shooting anyone they see? How can such evil and ugliness persist in a “civilized” world?

How? How? How?

Evil permeates the world in which we live. This, it seems, is the problem that confronts the community for whom Matthew writes. They know that Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God and yet the world of Matthew’s community does not resemble the kingdom any more now than it did before Jesus’ came. In fact the situation could be said to be worse. Jerusalem and the Temple have been destroyed and the Matthean community has been forced from their homes. Why, they might be asking, have things not turned out as they expected? Why has the kingdom not come to fruition?

At the time that Matthew is writing, some fifty years have passed since the death of Jesus. In that time Jesus’ teaching has been passed on and sometimes adapted to meet changing circumstances. This process may be reflected in the parable included in today’s gospel, that of the wheat and the tares. We can make this assumption because a similar parable occurs in Mark. The Markan version makes more sense in the context of the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed with which it is told. Mark’s parable is simple, while the farmer sleeps, the seed grows though he does not know how, the farmer wakes and sleeps and the seed grows until it is ready for harvest (Mark 4:26-29).

Matthew or someone else has retold the parable in the light of their experience of the world and added new elements so that it makes sense of their situation. That this has happened, becomes clear when we realise that many of the aspects of the story do not really make sense. What enemy would think to sow weeds and at night? Even if he did think that this was a good idea, it is very unlikely that anyone would have sufficient seeds of the weed to hand? In any case, apart from the obvious inconvenience at harvest time, the weeds in the story have made little or no difference to the final crop. (In reality, darnel contains a fungus that in turn damages the wheat. It would be worse to leave the weed than to pull it out.)

We cannot know for sure in what form Jesus told the parable or whether both versions come from him. It does seem clear though that the author of Matthew uses the parable in a way that reflects the experience of his community – that, even though the Kingdom of God has been sown, evil continues to be real and effective in the world.

Nothing has changed. There is still little evidence that the Kingdom of God has come. Terror and violence persist to a greater or lesser extent in all parts of the world, and this despite the best efforts of local and international law-makers. Increased communication and better understanding of different cultures and faiths has made little difference to peace, harmony and goodwill. People continue to commit atrocities and inflict cruelty on others. Innocent men, women and children continue to be caught up in disputes that don’t directly concern them. Locally and internationally violence against individuals continues.

It would be easy, like the author of Matthew, to place the blame elsewhere, but one thing that the parable tells us is that the good and bad exist side by side and will do until God’s kingdom is firmly established. Humankind is capable of the greatest good and the basest evil. We have no need of an external power to sow the seeds of discontent, anger, hatred, greed, envy or fear. To a greater or lesser extent, all of those characteristics exist side by side with love, compassion and contentment in each one of us. In the final analysis, only God can distinguish evil from good, and only God can root out evil from the world.

Our task in this lifetime is to do our best to be part of the kingdom now – by allowing God’s love to expose the presence of evil in our own lives, by making Jesus’ life the model for our own and by giving the Spirit free reign to produce in us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When, in our own lives God is all in all, we will have played our part in the coming of the kingdom.

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Spreading the gospel with wild abandon

July 12, 2014

Pentecost 5 – 2014

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who is not concerned with the where or the how, but only that the gospel is shared. Amen.

As you know, General Synod met last week. A significant proportion of the meeting – one and a half hours each day – was spent in small group discussion. There were three aspects to the process – getting to know each other across Diocesan and theological boundaries, bible study and discussion of the report of the Viability and Structures Task Force. The Report, which is available on the General Synod website, is an honest, hard look at the state of the national church.

Broadly speaking, the future of the Anglican Church of Australia looks bleak. Whereas in 1911 38% of the population identified as Anglican, today, according to the census, only 17% of Australians admit to being Anglican and these figures drop to 12.2% in the Northern Territory and Victoria. Of these a massive 62% of those who identify as Anglican are over 60. Changes in our culture over the past fifty to seventy years have dramatically changed the landscape in which we as a church operate. Many of you like me have rehearsed these changes over and over again – Sunday is no longer sacred, patterns of relating have changed to include Facebook and other online networks, Australian citizens now come from vastly different backgrounds and many of our younger citizens have abandoned the church in favour of other forms of spirituality. The days of huge Sunday Schools and full churches seem to many to be a distant memory.

Not only has the society in which we live changed, but we are hampered by other factors that are outside our control – not least of which is the vastness of our country. The Diocese of North West Australia for example covers an area as large as Europe with a population that is small and scattered. How do we offer ministry in such a situation? Changes in our rural areas mean that the populations are declining making survival difficult for rural Dioceses. Job opportunities in our major cities mean that the coastal fringes and especially the capital cities on our eastern seaboard are expanding at a phenomenal rate -so much so that it is impossible for our Dioceses to keep up the pace. Both in the country and the cities there are large areas that are not receiving ministry on a regular basis.

Given the situation on the ground it would be easy to become despondent. However, while the report is realistic, it is also hopeful and offers some suggestions for moving into the future. Using the report from the Church Growth Research Programme in the UK (which we discussed yesterday at our Synod), the report points out that there are places in which growth is occurring. The research team discovered that while there is no single recipe for church growth, there are a number of factors that are associated with growth in Parishes. These include a clear mission and purpose; a willingness to reflect, to change and adapt; freedom to experiment and to fail and intentionality in prioritizing growth and nurturing disciples. Added to these, good leadership and the culture of a Diocese/Parish are paramount. Prayer and vision are indispensable.

Doing things the way that we have always done them is no longer working. If we are going to take the gospel to a world that is vastly different, we will have to try new ways of doing things, we will have to take the gospel to the community instead of expecting the community to come to us and we will have to create an atmosphere in which those who have no experience of church are made to feel comfortable and are given opportunities to engage with the gospel.

Today’s gospel of the sower is very familiar and most readers or hearers will be used to hearing and interpreting it according to the allegorical interpretation that follows. However, it is the view of scholars that the interpretation did not originate with Jesus, but was added by the early church. There are a number of reasons for coming to this conclusion but perhaps the most convincing is this – in a country where arable land was scarce and land holdings were small, it would have been a very thoughtless or careless farmer who would scatter his seed so recklessly (or clear his land so inadequately) that his seed would fall on the rocks, the paths or in weeds. Any farmer would want the best return from his labour and his seed and would ensure that the land was cleared and that the seed fell where it was intended to fall.

The parable then, is not about where the seed falls, but about the extraordinary growth that follows[1]. A thirtyfold return would have been a significant harvest in that time and place, sixtyfold or a hundredfold would have been inconceivable. The parable then, is not about how people respond to the gospel, but to the fact that the sower spreads the seed recklessly and in every direction in the hope that it will fall on receptive ground, take root and grow. The seed is not measured out in small quantities and planted in limited and suitable places. It is thrown to the wind that it might fall where it will.

The kingdom of God then is like a sower who tosses seed on to good and bad ground with wild abandon knowing that whenever and wherever it does take root it will flourish and grow beyond anyone’s expectation.

If we would like our church, the church, to grow, we need to stop being timid and cautious, limiting what we do to the tried and true. If we believe in the gospel, if we really want to share the good news of Christ with a rapidly changing world, we need to step out in faith, to try things that have never been tried before and to go to places where we have never been. We have to have the courage to experiment and not to worry when we fail. Above all, we have to have the confidence to spread the gospel widely and wildly, allowing it to land in many and varied places – the expected and the unexpected. And we have to believe that we will know when it lands in the right place, because it will grow and increase in ways that we cannot even begin to conceive or imagine.

There is good soil out there – just waiting for us to sow the seed.

[1] An interpretation that is supported by two of the parables that follow – the mustard seed and the leaven.


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