Matthew 13 – The Importance of Preparation

What we can learn about God’s Love through the Parable of the Sower.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake.Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

10 The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
    though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
    you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
    they hardly hear with their ears,
    and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
    hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For 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.

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

31 He told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

34 Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 35 So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:

“I will open my mouth in parables,
    I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil.42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. 46 When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

47 “Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. 48 When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. 49 This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous 50 and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

52 He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there.54 Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. 55 “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” 57 And they took offense at him.

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”

58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.

Just as a marathon runner trains for their sport, just as a musician practices their art, we must properly prepare our hearts for Jesus.  Or, as Jesus puts it, the soil of our hearts must be made ready to receive his message.  Then, and only then, will our hearts (and his message) grow.

I think this is a beautiful idea that illustrates God’s understanding of our fallible human selves.  The disciples ask Jesus why he teaches in parables right after he delivers the first parable, the Parable of the Sower.  Jesus answers them, “the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been revealed to you, but not to them.”  In other words, “y’all already get it, but the others have some catching up to do.”  And Jesus wants to give us the time and the tools to do that catching up.  The parables allow us to come at Jesus’ message from an angle, working up to a full understanding of what he is and what he requires of us.  Because let’s be honest, even after 2000 years of Christian tradition, it can be kind of overwhelming to hear.  Can you imagine how it was to be around, in Jesus’ time, hearing his message for the very first time?  Your sins are forgiven and you shall have life everlasting as a child of God?  What the….

Let’s focus on that Parable of the Sower, because I see the others in this chapter as supporting parables.  Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower to his disciples starting in v. 18.  Seed that falls on the path is an analogy for those who hear the message but don’t understand it; seed on the rocky places is for those that hear the message and rejoice, but it doesn’t “take root;” seed that falls in the weeds is for those who let their faith be choked by the world’s troubles and distractions, and then seed in the good soil is those who hear, understand, and apply Jesus’ message.

Upon the initial reading it sounds a little like predestination: only a special, pre-selected few will receive the Good News, and everyone else is condemned.  But what farmer or gardener do you know that just spreads their seed willy-nilly all over the path, the rocks, the weeds?  Sure, a little bit might get there due to wind or spillage, but by and large they are careful where they plant their seed, making sure the soil is good and ready.  So really, I see this parable as Jesus calling us to prepare our hearts for him.  Are the weeds of life choking you?  Then start weeding-simplify, refocus, whatever you need to do to get to a place where you’re ready to receive God’s message for you.  Is the soil of your faith rocky and shallow?  Build it up!  Fertilize with friendships and community support.  Have you been completely abandoned to the elements, like the seed on the path?  I don’t know what that individual can do, but maybe that means it’s our responsibility, as a society, to see what we can do for them.  So you see, we aren’t abandoned or predestined, but rather being invited to fully prepare ourselves for Jesus’ message and God’s purpose for our lives.

Then, when we are ready, when the tiny mustard seed of Faith is planted in good soil, it will grow to great heights.  It will pervade every aspect of our lives, just as yeast does in a well worked dough.  In the right conditions, Faith is strong, tenacious, and pervasive.  But just like practicing a sport or an art, or preparing a garden, it takes some work to get there.  Jesus knows that and is okay with waiting on us to catch up, he just wants to see us making progress.  Get out there and practice kindness, practice love.  Get out there and weed away whatever is distracting you from doing those things, and you will find your understanding, like a treasure buried in a field or a merchant looking for fine pearls.  What beautiful things you can grow with God’s help, I can’t wait to see.

***

I know there is a lot I didn’t get to here, like the separating of the weeds and wheat or the good and bad fish; and Jesus’ less-than-cordial welcome back to his hometown. But the beauty of the Gospels is these stories are often told in more than one book, so we have a chance to revisit them and examine a different aspect next time we come across them.  So don’t worry, I’m not ignoring them, this is just what I was moved to focus upon this time.

Psalm 139 – Thoughts for Pride Month 2019

We are all fearfully and wonderfully made.

You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
    Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
    if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
    if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
    your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
    and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
    the night will shine like the day,
    for darkness is as light to you.

13 For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
    when I was made in the secret place,
    when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
    they would outnumber the grains of sand—
    when I awake, I am still with you.

19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

I’m taking a one-post break from Matthew right now because I didn’t want Pride Month to pass me by without mentioning it, and it’s almost the middle of June!  Also, this seemed like a natural break since I finished Chapter 10 last week, and read Chapter 11 back in December, so we’ve got a gap.

Pride month is rapidly becoming one of those odd events where we focus on the celebration and not the underlying cause, kind of like Memorial Day.  All the barbeques and sales of Memorial Day and beginning-of-summer-fun mentalities seem a little tawdry when you consider we’re supposed to be remembering those who died in service of the country.  Just an example.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good party.  But the original Pride Parade was a commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, when tensions between police and the gay community reached a breaking point at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village.

But now, Pride Month is a profitable, cool thing to do.  Businesses of all stripes are on board. Lots of straight people attend (selfie-ing away in rainbow tees).  And while this isn’t inherently bad, I have several gay friends who make a point to remind people each year that this hasn’t always been some big giant block party.  It came from a real place of pain and inequality, and people have been fighting for fifty years since Stonewall to end violence, increase awareness, and promote equality for our LGBTQ siblings.

So, in the effort to find an appropriate Bible passage to recognize Pride Month, I Googled…well… “Bible passages for Pride Month.”  Psalm 139 was my favorite hit.  “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well,”  the author says.  And really, that is something we can all say, for we are all children of God.  God made each and every one of us perfect, and knows us even before we know ourselves: “You have searched me, Lord, and know me.”  God creates us all, and knows Xyr creation, and loves each and every one of us.

This goes so much farther than just Pride, too.  I found this psalm intending to use it for Pride Month, but it immediately made me think of my Autistic daughter.  My biggest concern for her is that she will not be accepted into society the way she is.  As she gets older, her differences are becoming more and more noticeable.  She doesn’t talk to people, but her echolalia (repeating things over and over and over) is pretty constant.  I actually love it, because I get to hear her voice, and not all moms can say that about their special needs children.  It also gives me a way to interact with her, because I know the “script,” if you will, and we can do a call-and-response sort of thing.  Additionally, she has trouble regulating her voice and reactions appropriately in certain social situations and can sometimes be extremely anxious – if she’s getting overwhelmed she will scream at (and sometimes try to hit) unfamiliar people who try to talk to her. We’re working on things to make navigating this world easier for her, but I am in no way looking to “cure” her.  She is smart, beautiful, funny, and completely cherished.  God made her the way she is (not vaccines or any of the other bullshit people sometimes throw out there related to Autism), and she, too, is fearfully and wonderfully made.  As are we all.

As the psalmist says: even the darkness is not dark to the Lord.  God knows all, and knows us.  Isn’t that a wonderful thing?  We are not perfect, and yet we are:  we are perfectly loved and perfectly formed by our God.  Let’s honor that fact by loving others, no matter how they may have been formed – Christian or not, gay or straight, abled or disabled, man, woman, or somewhere in between: we are all children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made.  Happy Pride, everyone – God loves us all.

Matthew 7:13-29 – Wrapping up the Sermon on the Mount

In summary: “OK y’all, I just told you what to do. Now go put it into practice.”

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

To summarize these last verses: “Okay y’all, I just told you what to do.  Now go put it into practice.”

I wonder how much Jesus shakes his head and rolls his eyes at us. I can just see him sitting on his celestial throne, groaning “Come on, guys, get it together!” like you would do while watching your team lose because of a series of unforced errors.  Perhaps he leans over to God and says, “I told them.  You saw me tell them, right? I told them exactly what to do, but here we are anyway.”

In all reality I doubt it’s like that, but that is the first image that came to my mind.  What does happen, though, if we chose the wrong path? Listen to the wrong person? Put our faith (aka build our foundation) in the wrong thing?  Does this eternally damn us?  Jesus does say “broad is the road that leads to destruction,” which sounds pretty damn scary.

Here’s my take.  And again, this is just one layperson’s thoughts.  A layperson who isn’t particularly holy, doesn’t have any theological education, and hasn’t even been to that many Bible studies.  But here we go anyway.  I don’t think this life is our last chance.  Think of it like a college class, where your coursework counts for a large chunk of your grade, but so does the final exam.  So of course you want to do well on your coursework, to get that high mark.  But if you’re not doing great, you can still study really hard and do well on the final exam, passing the class.  And, if you have been doing well all semester, you’ll probably do well on the final exam, too.  This life is like the coursework, and our final hearing before God is like the final exam.  The Nicene Creed, which gets recited almost every Sunday at my Episcopal Church, says Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” so I do know he’s coming.  Beyond that, I haven’t read a lot of the Bible that deals with eschatological issues, so I don’t know if this judgement, this final hearing, if you will, is a big, grand Judgement Day or if it happens individually when each of us dies, but the point is we get one final hearing.

This final hearing is the main reason I don’t worry too much about the souls of people who aren’t Christian, why I’m not running around trying to “save” everyone.  To keep with our college class analogy, I’m keeping my eyes on my own work.  There are a lot of Christians out there (apologies for the jab, but mostly conservative and Evangelical) that would do well to remember this, because I believe it is them Jesus is talking about when he says, “many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.’ ”  Those who claim Christianity, but then deny the rights of others, say hateful things, support hateful leaders, discriminate and belittle all in the “name of Christ” are not true Christians.

I’ve quoted John 13:35 before, where Jesus says “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  So, if someone is spreading love and goodness in the world, even if it isn’t in Jesus’ name, I truly believe that God will see the good work they are doing, and count it in their favor.  It may sound hokey, and I’ll probably piss off some non-Christians with this next bit, but I’m going to say it anyway:  When said person comes before God and Jesus in their final judgment, they will be before God, which means God has revealed Xyrself to them, and they will get the chance to fall down and worship, or pledge their allegiance, or see the truth – whatever you want to call it.  Perhaps there are some that could deny God to Xyr face, in all Xyr glory, Jesus sitting right there, both surrounded by the Holy Spirit, but that would be a pretty magnificent sight to turn away from.

So, does it not matter at all what religion you are?  Or if you even believe in a God at all?  Yes and no.  One more time with our class analogy:  I feel like being Christian gives me a ready-made study guide, like I bought the textbook with the important parts already highlighted and noted.  That doesn’t mean you can’t pass the class without this extra help, it’s just going to be a bit more work to get that A.  But again, what we need to worry about is our own selves, keeping our eyes on our own work and not worrying about the unknowable depths of someone else’s secret heart.  God will know us, and them, by our actions, by our love.  So Jesus’ final assignment for you today, from this lesson called the Sermon on the Mount is to get out there and love one another.  Love the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Love the Salt of the Earth people.  Love those who adhere to a law of love.  Love those who live at peace with their neighbors.  Love those who uphold the rights of women and other minorities.  Show your love through simple promises and nonviolent resistanceLove your enemies, and guard your secret heartDo not worry, for God is with us, Xe alone will judge us, as we have judged.  By doing all this, we have already chosen the small gate and narrow path that leads to life, life everlasting.