The Social Soil
For a comparison of the Isaiah 6 and Matthew 13 readings, check this link.
Text: Matthew 13:15: “…this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.”
Today is a day about things that are missing, or at least might be missing. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, the focus is on the presence, or the absence, of the spirit of Christ in our hearts, working each day little bit by little bit to make us fully have the mind of Christ.
That spirit of Christ in our hearts is the seed the sower plants in the parable Jesus tells this morning. So in Matthew’s gospel, the question of what might be missing is about the presence or the absence of fertile soil for the seed that falls from the hand of the sower—the gift of faith that God freely gives to every person, every human soul governed that lives under the condition of free will and which chooses on its own whether or not to do what is necessary for the seed to grow.
But there is no question what is missing from the readings this morning. The architects of the lectionary take out a significant section of the parable of the sower from Matthew’s gospel in the version of the reading we heard this morning. In fact the middle third of it is missing.
I know that the makers of the lectionary surely meant this for a very good reason. It was, I am sure, to help preachers and parishes focus in on the parable and its explanation, and not have to take on the somewhat difficult, not to say disturbing, text in the middle.
But you are a discerning congregation, and when things are edited to make them go down easier you are going to be suspicious. You do not shy away from the harder lessons and the more challenging texts of our faith.
And what is more, it seems to me that the missing middle of today’s gospel reading is the part we most need to hear just now. Even if few of us are farmers, we all get the gist of the parable of the sower. We’ve heard it many times. We understand that it is at the very least saying something about our willingness to welcome what God plants in us and to give it a home in our hearts in which it can grow.
But it is the middle of this text that seems to speak most sharply, most provocatively, to our present moment. So I have placed it in each one of your orders of service, and I invite you to have a look at it. Right after Jesus has taught that teeming crowd, sitting by himself in that boat at the edge of the sea, the disciples take him aside and ask for an explanation. And this is what he says to them—and to us:
Then the disciples came and asked him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ He answered, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.” With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
“You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.
One thing becomes immediately clear when we restore this text to the whole reading. It’s that the two halves of what we heard this morning, the parable itself and the explanation that follows, are actually said to two different audiences.
The parable itself is set out to the whole crowd. But the second half of what we heard is actually just the end of what Jesus says to his disciples privately after he finishes teaching. We can’t be sure why he doesn’t provide the parable’s answer key to the whole crowd; but he doesn’t.
We are here because we are disciples of Jesus, or at least we are trying to be, so we are invited to come with those twelve when they take Jesus aside and ask him about the meaning of the parable. Just what was it you were trying to say out there? What was your point?
The missing middle is the first half of the explanation Jesus gives us in answer to our confusion. And when he does, what we get is a slightly—but significantly—different understanding about the message Jesus is conveying—not just to the crowd, but to us.
Let’s remind ourselves here of the first thing you learn in preaching class: Parables are not parallels. They are not neat one-for-one puzzles that hold up one thing and mean another.
They are different ways of describing complicated things, a different lens through which to see a problem of spiritual life.
So yes, the parable of the sower is about the condition of each individual human heart upon which the seed of faith falls. But it’s about something more than that as well.
The clue for us disciples is in what Jesus quotes from Isaiah, which would have been instantly familiar to any Jewish person hearing what he was saying. And they would have known, too, that this is not just any text from Isaiah; it is the from the critical moment that Isaiah is called to be a prophet, and given his charge.
We know that, too, because we often hear that language when people get ordained. But we don’t hear all of it—we don’t hear the part that would have pretty quickly have given the disciples a sense of just what Jesus was up to. Jesus is placing himself in the position of Isaiah here. He is putting out a message that he knows most people will resist—and a few people will hear, and want to learn more deeply. He knows that by the force of his teaching he is shutting down the willingness of some people to hear, and opening up that willingness in others.
If you turn over that insert I gave you, you’ll find the text from Isaiah that Jesus is quoting. And you’ll see that in both cases, in Isaiah and in the parable, the field in few is not a collection of individual hearts; it is an idea described as “this people.” It is a collective, a group, a culture, a society.
It is the setting of our whole discourse about spirituality, about the sacred and reconciliation and faith and redemption and the central ideas of Christianity that we try to communicate in the middle of the overwhelming noise of our media-driven, attention-starved culture.
“This people” is a much larger idea than individual hearts making a choice for faith or not. It’s the idea that the choice they make is not made in a vacuum. It’s made in the midst of a lot of forces, a lot of pressures, for them to think, and feel, and believe in certain ways.
It’s the idea that we are, as Aristotle wrote years before Jesus spoke, social and political creatures. It’s the idea, sort of unfamiliar to us who are the children of the Enlightenment, that the collective precedes the individual—that, as Aristotle wrote, the whole has to have precedence over the parts, and that our social organization, however we structure power within in—political, economic, cultural power—is where we work out our own ideas about meaning and faith and the sacred.
Isaiah knew, Jesus knew, and we know what it is like to live in a moment in which the soil of society—“this people”—is inhospitable to the truths that God wants us to witness and represent. It is a little confusing to us, because as twenty-first century Americans we can look back and see a time in which it seemed that the social soil was very welcoming, very fertile, very encouraging to the growth of the seed of faith.
Not only was a moment when we built enormous churches and tremendous institutions and places for social outreach; not only was it a moment when the stores were closed on Sundays and the sports teams didn’t have games that collided with the time we set aside for worship.
Even more importantly, it was a time when we understood that our faith was causing us to grow in ways against the grain of easy social practices, a time when we found the courage and the clarity to speak up for change—and when the culture around us respected us enough to pay attention.
The inner logic of Christianity could not but lead us to support the cause of civil rights, because Christ teaches that we are radically equal in the sight of God. It could not but bring us to question the idea that only men could be priests, or only straight people were made in the image and likeness of God. It could not but make us turn our lip service into living out ideas about equality and opportunity by opening up access to institutions of education, by making real the idea of equal protection under law.
And there was a moment in which our commitments to those ideas, and our willingness to stand for them, found fertile soil in the society around us, and grew into the change we wanted to see.
That has changed. The social soil in which we toil, the furrows in which we are planting, seem much less welcoming, much less interested, much less accepting. And it confuses us. Maybe we got too used to being listened to. We’re tempted to change our message, or at least find something to talk about that people will want to listen to. We used to be so relevant. It’s almost as though that was the sign that God was pleased with us.
But it wasn’t. God was pleased with Isaiah, too. Jesus is God. And neither of them are easily received as “relevant.”
So what does this mean for us? How shall we live out our call to discipleship in the midst of “this people”?
We may need to get used to the idea that the harder we work, the closer we get to the message God wants us to offer, the more we will be dismissed, and the more marginal we will seem. We don’t get to decide what kind of soil we are called to do our work in. Not all farmers live in Iowa.
We know we have already entered onto a moment in which the easy acceptance of our message and the broad, unquestioned support of society for what we do and how we do it—all of that is gone. And we have to add to that, “by the grace of God.” Because God calls us now, here, in this moment, to be disciples of a different sort.
So we may need to prepare ourselves in new ways for that work. We may need to think about whether the assumptions and the structures we built to plant seeds in a very different kind of soil will really work well for us now.
If the soil around us is mostly rocky, and there are a few precious people out there with hearts ready and open to receive and nurture God has planted, are we rightly configured now to find them, support them, and bring them along?
Good farmers don’t tell the soil how it should be. They adapt to the conditions they’re given, and they find a way of raising a crop. So it is with us, even in the midst of this people—this people God loves so much that we are expected to keep talking, keep trying, keep reaching for them, keep helping them to grow toward the light and warmth of God’s love. Amen.