VI Pentecost, Year A
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her,
"Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger."
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!" (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.
There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 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. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!"
"Hear then the parable of the sower. 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 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. 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. 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."
This passage struggles to work as “parable.” A parable tends to read the reader at least as much as the other way ‘round. This story (minus the interpretation that was added later) seems to be so clear that it reads more as allegory. Certainly the interpretation suggests that this is how it was read in the earliest communities. While Michael and I are not particularly averse to the notion of Jesus’ use of allegory, it seems that there is a parable, a dark saying, a mashal hidden in or under the words after all.
We have a text that is clearly about different types of soil. It encourages us to consider ourselves, to find ourselves in one variety of dirt or another. Are we as hard as the path? Do we allow Jesus’ words to penetrate our hearts not at all? Or are we perhaps rocky ground that appears to allow the word to take root, only to see it wither? Am I soil choked with weeds? Or am I fertile soil? Do I yield fruit?
This all seems pretty clear. We have a “parable” designed to help us measure ourselves against Jesus’ ideal, the good soil.
But the moment I fall into this reading, I allow the parable (Yes, it really is a parable!) to read me. The moment I use it to measure myself (let alone the likelihood that I will eventually use this text to measure others) I demonstrate how easy it is for negative mimesis to creep into my thinking. Perhaps it is the skillfully set trap that makes it so likely that I will show myself to be the purveyor of violence that I am. Jesus draws me in, hooks me with the word “good.” I have just heard Jesus speak of trees that are judged by their fruits. Matthew has re-iterated this saying in a setting that makes it appear to be a reference to individuals, though trees are much more likely to be representatives of nations or systems. (The incident of the “cursing” of the fig tree being a clearer example.) And so, I hear “good” soil, and I think, “Oh, the ‘good’ person!”
Suddenly, I am caught up in the scapegoating process, in the selection of those who are good, and by implication, those who are not. Suddenly, I am differentiating not between one kind of soil and another, but between persons, selecting some who are worthy of praise, and (by far the larger bunch) those who are not. By counting some as “good” I have created new models, whose “goodness” I am to desire. “But how,” you will surely ask me, “how can desiring another’s “goodness” be violent?”
It matters not, in mimetic theory, what it is that is mediated by the model. In the end, “goodness” is a trait that has value only as long as some do not have it. Rivalry over “goodness” must eventually lead to the death of a scapegoat.
The parable, then, needs to be read again, once I’ve acknowledged my own tendency to read it mimetically.
Once I stop reading it as a handy measuring stick for the Good, the Rocky, and the Thorny, the Good News of the kingdom emerges.
What we have is a story of profligate love, of gratuitous grace. (Yes, I know that’s redundant.) I am not the first to suggest that this text is about the Sower more than it is about the soils or the seeds. We have a story about a Sower who showers every variety of soil with the same seed, apparently also the same quantity, regardless of the soil’s ability to produce fruit.
“Ah!” you will say, “Ah! But some of the soil even has the seed taken away!” Yes. But that doesn’t change the behavior of the Sower. Every soil is showered with seed. Period. That is the nature of the Sower. Every attempt to limit the profligacy of the Sower reads me. The parable calls me to turn to this Sower.
In the “So What?” portion, we’ll see how this might preach, how we can lead other readers to a place of alternate reading.
There are no issues here that concern us this week.
Okay, how do we preach a profligate lover? Are we not to desire the fruitfulness of the Good Soil?
If I hear this parable, and look at myself, and see no real fruit, because of persecution or worry, or hardness of heart, am I to desire the goodness of another?
I am to desire only the seed. I may one day produce sheaves of wheat, but that is not to be my goal. The many-fold return will be God’s doing, not mine. I am to desire only the seed, the gift of the sower.
Here, in this section, we can stretch the parable a little, ask of it more than it actually says. We can look at the way that the seed is an important way that the Sower breaks down rocky soil into smaller bits, wedging itself into cracks and crevices, slowly enlarging them. We can see the way that the seed, withering as it may, still enriches the soil into which it is sown, gradually increasing its ability to hold moisture and provide nourishment. We can see that prior to creating in us the thirty fold increase, the seed still does its work.
I’ve included here a link to a story I wrote many years ago, long before I met the work of Rene Girard or heard the words mimetic theory. I hope you enjoy it.
(Right Click Here and then click "Save Target As" in order to download the Word document. If you Left Click it, your browser will probably just load it right in.)