First Presbyterian Church
January 30, 2011
“Listen to this! This sower went out to sow. While he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil, and it came up right away because the soil had no depth. But when the sun came up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered. Still other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, so that it produced o fruit. Finally, some seed fell on good earth and started producing fruit. The seed sprouted and grew: one part had a yield of thirty, and other part sixty, and a third part one hundred.
When the Jesus Seminar did its work in the 80s and 90s searching for the voice of historical Jesus, they focused on his parables and aphorisms. They discovered a creative personality. They discovered someone with a clear eye and a sensitive ear. They discovered a person who could talk about ordinary things in such a way as to make them sacred.
There has been much debate and disagreement regarding the quest for the historical Jesus. The challenge is to find a method to enable us to distinguish the voice of Jesus from the voices of the gospel writers and later church dogma. I don’t think any of the scholars would claim they succeeded. At best, they may have been able to make some distinctions and to come up with some best guesses.
When seeking to discover what goes back to Jesus, you have to take into account context. That includes the context of the gospel writers and the context of the situation in which these parables or aphorisms were uttered. There could be many. There is an art to doing this work. Because Jesus never wrote anything, you don’t have a standard to measure other sayings. You have to rely on independent sources recording a similar saying. You have some sort of theory of how the various sources relate to each other. You find a voice, then you compare other things attributed to him in light of that voice.
How do you distinguish what an individual says from what is remembered by others? I am sure you have had the experience of being quoted by others and you don’t really recognize what someone said you said? Any public speaker and especially preachers have this experience often.
Twice in the last couple of weeks, I had the experience of people remembering something I had said. In both cases it was positive. It was meaningful for them, and I yet I didn’t remember ever saying it. I wasn’t sure if in either case what was remembered sounded like me. But I have learned that if it is positive, don’t be bashful. Take credit and be grateful. I very well could have said it and now I am glad I did! It could be that I simply forgot and someone remembered better than I did. I also wonder in cases like this that if it might not be a combination of what the speaker says and what the hearer hears and remembers. There is a creative interplay going on between speaker and hearer. And something new is created.
If that happens to us, it is quite likely that it happened to Jesus. The gospels are layers of memory and creative interplay between what this wandering prophet and sage may said on one hand and how he was remembered on the other. The different gospels will have parables and aphorisms in different settings. They will be different from one gospel to another. In that sense the gospels of Jesus are creative works. They took some raw material floating about such as stories about Jesus and stories that Jesus told and created narratives. They borrowed from the language in the surrounding culture, from their own scriptures, their own creative imagination and told stories, meaningful stories in which Jesus functioned as protagonist.
So we have Mark’s Jesus, Luke’s Jesus, Matthew’s Jesus, John’s Jesus, Thomas’s Jesus, Mary’s Jesus, the Apostles’ Creed’s Jesus, Constantine’s Jesus, yours and my Jesus. The historical Jesus scholars each have a Jesus too. No one can claim to have “The Jesus” in any objective sense. Although people do like to make that claim. At best we have stories of stories, and creative stories at that.
For those of us in the Jesus tradition, for those of us who value Jesus in some way, the quest for the authentic voice of Jesus is connected to our own personal quest for meaning. The Jesus we find, not that there isn’t objective material there, we do have stories about him, not only in the New Testament but in other literature, but the Jesus we find, that we distill out, is part of us as well. We both discover and create.
I would argue that the gospel writers did this as well. They were creative. They drew from early traditions and created a meaningful story. They may not have been self-conscious that they were doing that or admit it if they were, but they were telling the story of Jesus in a way that was going to speak to their own context. I would further argue that that creative remembering did not end in the first or second centuries when the gospels were written or in the fourth century when the canon of the New Testament was made official.
The medieval Jesus was a product of creative remembering. The Reformation Jesus of the 16th century was creative remembering. The 19th century evangelical Jesus as well as the 20th century liberal Jesus and the contemporary fundamentalist Jesus and the Jesus Seminar Jesus are all products of creative remembering. And this process continues. We here, in a living tradition, are still telling the story of Jesus in our context. We are singing a familiar song in a new key.
I should probably add that not all Jesuses are equally good. In the Presbyterian tradition we have what we call the rule of faith and love. The rule is that if an interpretation of the Bible leads one to greater love and a deeper faith it is more likely true than an interpretation that does not. In other words, if your Jesus makes you more loving and deepens your sense of trust or awe, wonder, compassion, joy that’s a good Jesus. If your Jesus turns you into a miserable, narrow-minded, mean old cuss, then maybe you want to try again.
Many of us have found the Jesus Seminar scholars helpful in this process of discovering/creating a Jesus that is more “real” to us than the one we have inherited in church or in the larger religious culture. The parables provide a window for looking for another Jesus. Founder of the Jesus Seminar, the late Robert Funk called this quest a glimpse of a glimpse.
Let’s look at one of Jesus’s most famous parables, the parable of the sower.
The "Parable of the Sower" has two parts to it, the parable and the explanation. The Jesus Seminar concluded that the explanation did not go back to Jesus. It was either a creation of Mark or a tradition prior to Mark that Mark adapted. The reason we mention Mark is that Mark is likely the first gospel and Luke and Matthew are dependent upon Mark. They follow Mark and add material of their own.
An excellent book on this parable and on the Gospel of Mark is Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel. In this book she takes this parable and its explanation and sees it as the guiding metaphor for the gospel. The types of people in the parable are seen in the characters of the gospel. The seed becomes the gospel and types of ground are types of people as they respond to this gospel.
- The hard path would be the religious leaders who immediately hear what Jesus says and dismiss it.
- The rocky soil refers to the disciples who all flee when trouble hits. They are excited but have no root to withstand the heat.
- The thorny ground would be for example the rich man who came to Jesus and who wants to follow but in the end cannot part with possessions.
- The good soil, the good earth is the one who hears and lives and produces fruit. There is one character in the gospel who is that good earth. This is the unnamed woman who anoints his head with oil. After being criticized by the disciples for wasting the ointment Jesus says, “Leave her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me….she has done what she could.”
Jesus Seminar scholars and others are doubtful that Jesus provided the explanation to this parable. Thomas has the parable (saying 9) without the corresponding allegory. Allegories tend to be second-order explanations. The writers of Mark or the early tradition before Mark said:
“Jesus’s parable is hard to understand so let me tell you what it means.”This parable ended up being a parable that could fit into an allegory with a moral. The sower becomes God or Jesus. The seed is the gospel. The ground is the people. Credit the creativity of Mark for shaping his narrative around it.
We have heard this parable as a moral. Be good soil. But if we hear it without the allegorical explanation it has a different tone to it. The parable itself is a parable about a person scattering seed. It isn’t about the person. The person fades away as soon as he is introduced. The parable may have no moral to it at all. The sower doesn’t have to be God or Jesus. The seed doesn’t necessarily mean the gospel. The ground doesn’t necessarily mean people. It is seed falling on ground. The harvest (30, 60, 100 fold) is a typical harvest. There is not even hyperbole there. It is like many of Jesus’s other parables such as a woman who conceals leaven in bread or another woman who loses a coin and sweeps the house or a mustard seed that grows to become a weed.
The parables are so plain and ordinary that we think well what is the point?
The parables of Jesus are about what he called the empire of God. Stories about empires and the emperors who rule them are stories of conquest and success. They are stories of benevolence and abundance and exceptionalism. The emperor brings stability.
"Peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces."Yet the parables that Jesus told about the kingdom or empire of God are not parables that are worthy of empires as we know empires to be. No conquest. No victory. No tallying up of gold or silver booty.
In fact they are stories in some cases of failure. Seed that falls on four different types of soil. Just scattered seed. In three cases, the path, the rocky soil, and the thorny ground, the seed doesn’t mature into a plant. Only in the fourth case does it produce, and nothing dramatic, just a normal harvest. In three of four cases, the seed doesn’t mature. That is the empire of God.
The seeds that fall on the hard path, rocky soil, and thorny ground, are not necessarily mistakes. They are what they are. Each seed has its own little purpose.
I think Paul Daniels’ poem that he wrote for us for worship today is a wonderful reflection on the parables of Jesus.
“…we’ll just keep being ourselves, this little seed and me.”Nothing big, nothing dramatic, yet when seen with an eye that is attuned to the sacred, that little seed
“holds the same magic inside as the moon, the stars, and the sea.”What is implied in that, in both Paul’s poem, and in Jesus’s parable is that that same magic, that empire of God, is within you.
I think that the parables of Jesus were contra-empire. They were not head-on critiques but they glanced off. A glimpse of a glimpse. Empires as we know them are associated with big speeches and big shows. They are demonstrations of power and high drama. The language of empire is about competition and conquest. It is about growth.
We will out-grow, out-educate, out-perform the other guys.I am not criticizing our president as such by making that reference to his state of the union speech. I know what he is doing. He is offering encouragement and hope. But the language he has to use, the only language available to him as commander in chief, is the language associated with empire—victory over the competition.
It is a sputnik moment.
What if we decided to have a compassion moment.
Or a just chillin' moment.
Or a helping others moment.
Or a planting a garden moment.
Or a loving our enemies moment.
The parables of Jesus are contra-empire in that he isn’t interested in the competition or in competing. His is more realistic. Life is three times out of four being scattered and falling on the wrong place. When we do land on a fertile spot, well the results are about average. That’s life isn’t it? That’s OK.
Not only is it OK it is sacred.
I think we spend a lot of time thinking that we need to measure up to some kind of standard. Then we need to beat that standard. Get on that treadmill and compete and conquer because there is not much room at the top you know. Once we get there, if we do, then what? High blood pressure and a heart attack.
What if a nation or a group of folks or an individual said,
“You know I don’t think I want to play.”I don’t have to be the best in order to be. I don’t have to have the largest GDP or the biggest military or the most stuff. I am just cool right here, being a seed. A seed of mercy. A seed of justice. A seed of compassion, wherever I am scattered. I will fail at it three times of four and that will be just fine.
I'll give Paul the last word:
So while others may struggle trying to becomeAmen.
what they think that they should be,
we'll just keep on being ourselves,
this little seed and me.