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July 10, 2005
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Alt Reading 2:
Psalm 65: (1-8) 9-13
Alt Reading 1:
When a parable of Jesus appears in the lectionary, the preacher is often faced with a fundamental decision—whether to treat it in its gospel context or to remove it from that setting in order to interpret it in terms of its likely function and meaning within the proclamation of the historical Jesus. Either approach is in my estimation valid. It is naïve, however, to ignore the possible differences in meaning than might be at stake, and it is therefore important that one be clear regarding which route one is taking and not fall into the trap of trying to pursue both at the same time.
Within the Matthean context, The Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9) is clearly an allegory, and its interpretation is for most interpreters determined by the explanation in 13:18 -23. If the preacher chooses to include the latter verses in the reading, then it will be extremely difficult to abstract the parable itself from that context without confusing those in the congregation who actually pay attention when scripture is read!
If the parable is abstracted from its Matthean context, interesting possibilities emerge. The difficulty in pursuing this route, however—and this is particularly true of doing so on the basis of Matthew’s version rather than Mark’s (4:3-8)—is that it will involve reconstructing a form of the story that existed prior to any of the synoptic versions. My remarks will therefore focus solely on the Matthean text. For readers who want to pursue the other option, however, I can recommend the treatments by three scholars: John Dominic Crossan (In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, pp. 39-45, 50-51); Bernard Brandon Scott (Hear Then The Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp. 343-361); Theodore J. Weeden, Jr., (“Recovering the Parabolic Intent in the Parable of the Sower”, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March, 1979). Weeden will be particularly interesting to frequenters of this website, since he approaches the reconstructed parable from a process perspective.
Chapter 13 as a whole comprises the third of Matthew’s five great teaching discourses. It is devoted to parables that are thematically focused on the Rule of Heaven. It also brings into sharper focus the conflict that appeared in chapter 11. Now, however, the cosmic background of the opposition to Jesus emerges into prominence. For the figure of the devil appears in the explanation of The Parable of the Sower ( 13:18 ) and in both The Parable of the Weeds Among the Wheat ( 13:24 ) and its explanation ( 13:39 ). The discourse ends with the Parable of the Net, which links with earlier elements to give the entire chapter a tone of judgment. The interpretation of The Sower in 18-23 makes clear that the various seeds in the parable itself represent varying responses to the “word of the kingdom,” and the image of the harvest in both The Parable of the Weeds and its explanation make clear that wrong responses are subject to God’s eschatological judgment. Both the Parable of the Net and the identification of the sower with Jesus in vs. 37 show that the judgment involves not only the world at large but the church itself. Thus the seeds treated negatively in the Parable of the Sower include members of the church, and the parable and explanation serve as a warning to Christians and encouragement to hold fast to their commitment to the word. Even those who once received it with joy can fall away in the face of trouble, persecution, worldly cares, and “the lure of wealth.” All these are of course obvious themes for preaching, but the major challenge is to find fresh ways of articulating them.
One of the difficulties with the whole of Matthew 13 from a process perspective is the sharp dichotomy between good and evil. There is little in the reading itself or its broader context to mitigate this dichotomy, so that if one wants to do so it will probably be necessary to make the point by drawing directly upon insights and sensitivities that have emerged fairly recently in human history. Here is a point, in other words, at which we might profit from allowing our own world view to challenge some of the presuppositions of the ancient world in which the biblical texts had their origins. Life simply does not come to us in terms of absolutes unless we have allowed a severely dogmatic perspective to warp our perceptions and shut out major aspects of our experience. This does not mean, however, that biblical images of good and evil, moral choice, and the judgment of God have no place. As Plato argued long ago, one cannot know that a line is crooked without grasping the concept of a straight line. Although decisions are usually more complex than a simple choice between good and evil, we cannot reflect meaningfully on either gradations of the good or moral ambiguity without a clear sense of what constitutes the good.
On a rather different note, a process perspective might be helpful in linking the Matthean reading to the reading from Romans 8. The very notion of the Spirit is a gold mine of opportunity for the process interpreter. Although the Greek does not contain the article “the” before the word “spirit” in most instances in this passage, the qualifiers “of God” and “of Christ” in vss. 9-10, together with vs. 11, which does involve the article, make clear that the concept of “spirit” here is inseparable from the divine Spirit (hence the capitalization). And the parallel to “flesh” actually strengthens this point. For an examination of Paul’s usage of the Spirit/flesh dichotomy shows that the latter term does not refer to sheer material reality. Both flesh and spirit are powers according to which one can live. To live according to the flesh is to live within the field of force of an alien power, a power that denies the realm of the Spirit altogether. It is to live as if material reality were the only dimension of existence. To live according the Spirit is, by contrast, to live within the sphere of influence of God’s empowering presence. Thus, if we think of the action of the Spirit in process terms, we can envision it as the agent of God’s luring us toward the good in every moment of our lives. We can interpret it as God’s persuasive influence in every decision we have to make. And this insight can help us with the Parable of the Sower. It is not easy to resist the desire to seek safety in a time of persecution or the seductive lure of material comforts and luxuries. Paul’s image of the Spirit, however, encourages us to be attentive to another set of lures and another field of force that offers a fundamentally different mode of fulfilling our human nature.
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).