This sermon was delivered at New Hope Christian Church on July 13, 2014. The transcript below is substantially longer than the actual sermon delivered. In fact, I think it’s the longest sermon I’ve ever written. However, NH has a 25min cutoff (which I still abused) so I had to cut quite a bit out for the sake of time.
Matthew 13:1-9 &18-23
Our default mode for reading the text of Scripture is to place ourselves in the position of the righteous man or woman. In the Old Testament we nod along with Amos or Isaiah as they condemn Israel’s unfaithful ways. When Jesus criticizes the hypocrisy of the pharisees we’re right there next to him wagging our fingers and feeling very sorry for what silly people they were. And as we read the parables we tend to place ourselves as the hero at the end. And of course, the temptation is no different with this text. In the parable of the sower we all want to imagine ourselves as the one who gets it: hearing the word of the dream of God for the world, receiving it it, embodying it, and watching as it spreads from life to life — like a virus for good infecting every person we come into contact with. This is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and perhaps it’s true, perhaps we really are those people. And yet, I wonder if perhaps we might receive more from the parable if we cast a more critical eye at ourselves — casting ourselves in the role of the unfaithful person and asking the question: is this me? Have I failed to understand the nature of the rule of God for the world? Have I failed to understand what kind of Messiah Jesus really is? You see, it’s those questions that are at the heart of this — and every — parable.
Central to this parable is the notion of the kingdom of God. That language is a bit archaic and doesn’t necessarily sing for most of us today so let me give some background on the concept. The Jewish people had a golden era that began with King David and continued through his son Solomon’s reign. It was a time of prosperity, peace, and wholeness. It was a time largely of, what the biblical writers referred to as shalom, which literally translated means peace, though it’s a larger more rounded out concept than that. It’s the idea of peace or wholeness at every level of human existence; encompassing both the personal (emotional, mental, spiritual, physical) as well as the societal (political, economic, communal) levels. A great picture of shalom is a large family gathering with meal times and caring and sharing by firelight (Padriq Harrington). Or another example might be, a society in which the crushing weight of poverty is unheard of. That was the kind of world envisioned by the prophets: shalom, peace, wholeness, fulness: However, if you’ve read a good bit of the Old Testament you know that that peace did not endure, and in fact what happened is that the story of the people of God became a story about the ways that Empire — with it’s violence, greed, and will to power — dominated and controlled the land of Israel. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally by the time you enter Jesus’ era, the Romans. These were not days of shalom. Thus it was during this period of conquest after conquest that the prophets began to foretell of a Messias, a deliverer, who would restore the shalom of God in the world. This historical context helps clarify why Jesus was considered a failed messiah. 1st century Jews expected a militaristic messiah. They were looking for a king with a sword in his hand and what they got was, well, Jesus. A king with thorns as his crown, a cross as his throne, and his death as his enthronement ceremony.
People often wonder why Jesus speaks so much in parables. No doubt it was because of his peasant background (Jesus was not trained in the finest synagogues of his day) and audience (mostly peasants themselves), however a deeper reason is that Jesus was himself a living parable. He came embodying the kingdom he preached, a kingdom that he said would, like a mustard seed, start small and quietly in the hearts and minds of his followers, impacting them on a deeply personal (mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual) level. However, over time that little seed would bloom into a tree that would be kingdom community, and that community, the church, would themselves embody the shalom of God in ways that would be a blessing for the entire world. That is the vision of the kingdom and it is to this kingdom and the soil of the human heart upon which it grows that we now turn.
The parable of the four soils in Matthew 13 opens with the image of a road with soil that is so densely packed that the seed simply lies there dormant, stillborn, unable to penetrate to the life giving oxygen of the soil where it might bloom into something beautiful in the person’s life: faith, hope, and love never flower.
Judas Iscariot is the villain of the New Testament and, because western culture is so influenced by Christianity, he is a sort of universal villain for our entire culture. That’s why parents don’t name their children Judas. They can be the most hardened church-hating unbeliever but they wouldn’t think of naming their child after Judas, because culturally he stands for something. He is the figure of the traitor writ large. He is the man who betrayed the Son of God. If Jesus represents humility and service then Judas stands for selfishness and pride. If Jesus represents a love of others, then Judas represents a hatred for the fellow man. If Jesus represents a generosity and freedom from wealth, then Judas — the man who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver — represents greed and an insatiable desire for wealth. (As a quick aside, the figure of Judas the money-lover is the origin of a strong anti-semitism that developed historically within Christianity — that’s a travesty and there’s no excuse for it. Both Jesus and Judas were Jewish and it’s simply ugly racism to extrapolate from Judas to Jewish people everywhere.)
However, what’s remarkable about the betrayal is that there’s no doubt that Judas had a strong connection with Jesus on a personal level. They did after all spend three years traveling together, and that means hours and hours of eating, talking, telling stories, and running from bandits. If Judas had a wife I’m sure Jesus had met her, if Judas had children I’m sure Jesus had hugged them or shaken their hands. In fact, there is even a record in the the Gospel of Matthew (ch.26) where Jesus, knowing Judas will betray him, refers to him as ‘friend.’ However, perhaps more disturbing than the sheer amount of time they spent together were the hours Judas spent hearing the message of the kingdom. He heard every parable, story, and analogy a hundred times. I think we’d forgive someone who heard the parable of the sower or the Sermon on the Mount once and then simply went on their way, but Judas soaked in the message of the kingdom for years. Judas not only heard the parables, but he spent time with the living parable: the parable with flesh and blood on, the parable who slipped into skin and revealed God to us — the Christ. So what happened?
There is plenty of speculation on this topic, most of it centering on the title following Judas’ first name: ‘Iscariot.’ Some scholars think that Iscariot might mean son of Keroth, and Keroth was a city in the Negev region which is in Judea. The reason this is significant is because all of the other disciples were from Galilee and Judeans looked down on Galileans. In other words, there might have been a class issue. Judas had failed to embrace the part of the kingdom of God where declares that in Christ their is neither male nor female, slave nor free, rich nor poor, Gentile nor Jew, Judean nor Galilean, for all have been made one in Christ. This might be the reason for Judas’ failure to embrace the message of the kingdom.
However, scholars also speculate that a copyist error flipped the “I” and the “S” in the last name ‘Iscariot’ which would mean the title Iscariot should actually be ‘Sicariot.’ This would place Judas firmly in the camp of the violent revolutionary group the ’Sicariis’ — which literally means ‘the dagger men.’ Thus Judas Sicariot is Judas ‘the dagger man’. In other words, Judas was possibly a Zealot who believed the Roman Empire could only be overthrown by violence. This would make sense as to why he would earnestly join Jesus, the one he believed to be the Meshiach (Messiah) of Israel, only to abandon him when he realized that Jesus was taking a different path to establish the kingdom of God than he expected — not the path of violence but the path of the suffering servant with thorns for his crown and a cross for his throne.
Of course, this is speculation and at the end of the day we’re left with the disturbing mystery that there are people who hear the message of the kingdom and have some level of comprehension, yet they never come to deeply understand it in a way that involves acceptance, reception, and appropriation. They heard the word but they never enact the word, they never themselves become a parable of the kingdom. They have failed to understand what kind of Messiah Jesus is and the nature of kingdom they have been invited to join. They are hard soil.
The parable then shifts to the image of a soil that is good and rich and receptive to seed, however lurking just below the surface is a layer of rock that prevents the seed from laying down deep roots. They are a shallow person who have not moved beyond the syrupy sweet goodies of culture and popular Christianity to embrace the deep things of the soul, the Spirit, The Christ, and the Father.
Back in my early to mid twenties, before I had children, I remember days where I would do nothing but watch college football from morning to night. You had the early pre game stuff beginning around 11am and then the game at 12pm, another game at 3:30pm, and then the night game around 7:30pm. This means I would watch football for roughly 10hrs that day. And what I distinctly remember is the anticipation with which each of those days began and the absolute horror with which they ended because over that 10hrs, between the sedentary couch sitting and the utterly horrific nutritional value of queso, I had turned into a slug. I literally felt exhausted by my nothingness. It was the height of irony. My day of rest and relaxation had utterly depleted me. My day of fun and enjoyment had left me utterly depressed. Why?
There is a way of engaging certain activities that do not plunge us deeper into our lives and the lives of those around us; that do not put us more in touch with ourselves as mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual beings, but instead isolate us from others and over time cause us to become less human. Rather than generous, open people characterized by freedom, we are selfish and anxiety ridden, often addicted and trapped. This is a tremendous danger in a culture of 24-7 news and an endless number of cable television stations. It is a tremendous danger in a culture of easy access to both illegal and prescription medication. We live in perilous times when every sort of bizarre sexual fantasy is just a few clicks a way online, while our wives or our husbands languish alone in bed. It is so easy for us to float through life, living shallow lives — from purchase to purchase or sporting event to sporting event — and all the while neglecting the deep things of life.
But what are these deep things I’m speaking of – whatever it is that reconnects you to others and your own soul. A walk with your spouse and the comfort of holding hands, a good novel that helps you tap into the deep reservoir of emotion that is in us all, a world cup soccer game that has you screaming and eventually crying with everyone in the chills bar, a cup of coffee in the morning as you read the Psalms, the quiet lapping of a lake, your nightly episode of ‘Parks and Rec’ with your spouse, journaling (writing your story), the laughter of your child as you push them on a swing. The way Brian Zahnd, one of my favorite pastors in America, put it is this “When birdsong and gentle footfall replace the shrill rancor of 24-7 news and the inane blare of 500 channels, the soul has a chance to heal.”
Now, why did I just give you this long cultural analysis? Because the truth is that Matthew 13 is describing a religious version of this same phenomena. What we have here is a description of someone who has refused the deep soil of faith, and has thus resigned themselves to a shallow religion which is what passes for popular Christianity in this country.
The description the text gives of this person is a bit disturbing though because it’s a counterintuitive. What it describes is not someone reluctant to join the faith, but someone who is literally overjoyed at finding the kingdom. ‘Praise God’ they yell! ‘I have been saved!’ They are full of enthusiasm and passion. They are what we might refer to as an on-fire Christian. You know the type. They come into the faith in a blaze of glory, they have a stirring testimony of what God has done in their life, and they are telling anyone and everyone of those great things. They also tend to have a strong fixation on the sexier things of faith: they’re spiritual power, the demons they have seen and controlled through their prayers, the direct tangible experiences of God they have had. What is the theme here: THEM. Or to put it in the first person, ME. You see, that’s how I know this person so well, that was me, and to some degree still remains a temptation for me. Turning Christian faith into an extended exercise in navel gazing. It is all about me. My experience of God, my spiritual power, my miracle, my blessing, my future, my dreams, my kingdom…? But this is to fundamentally misunderstand what kind of Messiah Jesus is and the nature of the kingdom we have been invited into.
To cultivate deep roots we need the death of me. Too many of us think that Christianity is about God making me into the best me that I can be. But Christianity is an invitation not to the inflation of self and an obsession with the ego, but a death to the self. The way the famous German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it is this: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is the deep soil of faith that the kingdom invites us into.
To cultivate deep roots we need to practice (1) works of mercy. Christ washed feet and described himself as the servant of all. To be his follower is to serve the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in our society. Caring for children is a work of mercy. Whether it’s on a Sunday morning or as a mother or father. There is a selflessness there that is remarkably Christ like. Caring for the elderly is a work of mercy. We too often neglect the older citizens in our society. However, the church should be a place where the elderly are never lonely. The mentally ill, mentally handicapped, and physically ill are another group who could use your time and attention. There is a lot of stigma around mental illness in our society and thus persons with this sickness are often neglected. Volunteer at a hospital. Care for your or others children. Care for your or others grandmothers. These are works of mercy and the deep soil of faith.
To cultivate deeper roots we need (2) spiritual practices. As we discussed earlier we live in an insane society with too much busyness and noise and it’s killing our souls. Find some time each day to read the Scriptures, journal, or pray. Over time these practices will shape you into someone who loves God, other people, and is more in tune with the state of your own soul. Spiritual practices cultivate deep roots.
To cultivate deep roots we need (3) a better grasp of the family story. Too many of us are unfamiliar with the Story of both Scripture and Church history. Take the next year to read through the Bible and a book by Roger Olson called The Story of Christian Theology. Again, in a shallow drive-by culture there are plenty of crappy Christian best-sellers out there but we need the great thinkers of the faith to shake us from our theological slumber: St. Basil, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth are all wonderful thinkers who will help you grapple and engage more deeply with the question of what it means to call yourself a Christian.
The parable transitions a third time to the image of soil that is choked by the thorns of a worldly materialistic wealth.
Let me preface this point by saying up front that talking about money in the church is difficult for at least two reasons.
First, we live in a society strongly divided by class. The minimum wage in our country is not a livable wage, thus we have a large contingent of working poor. They often work two and three jobs just to put food on the table, a roof over their head, and clothes on their kids back. Then there is the middle class who are working for something well above minimum wage, but they are far from being rich. For them money is tight, but no where close to what it is for the working poor. Finally, there are the upper classes. If the middle class has trouble either remembering or identifying with what it’s like to work for minimum wage, these folks have likely completely lost touch with the reality of what life is like for the millions of working class folks with no pensions, zero job security, and feeling that you’re a paycheck or two away from financial devastation. As an aside, let me say that I’m completely supportive and appreciative of what people like Scott and Amy Johnson do through Financial Peace University because they are helping people who work for a living do everything in their power to stay away from financial devastation, and that matters greatly. Having said that, we also need to be addressing the systemic issues in our country (e.g. poor minimum wage and sky-rocketing CEO pay) that are hurting poor and working class folks. But coming back to my main point, the reason class makes it difficult to talk about money in church is that I’m speaking to three groups of people with three very different relationships to money.
The second reason it’s difficult to talk about money in church is because there is the perception that the only thing the church is interested in is our money. Thus any time the issue of money comes up, even if it’s not ’stewardship’ (tithing) Sunday, we have our radar out because the question of alterior motives is always in the back of our mind. We feel like we’re at a sales pitch and so we reach for our wallets, not necessarily to give but to protect them because we fear that we are going to get taken! In other words, when the preacher starts talking about generosity we wonder if it’s because he or she is trying to get rich off us. It is disconcerting to see a pastor driving a Bentley. Now, I don’t know the exact paychecks of people on staff at New Hope but I do know most of them personally I can assure you they do not drive Bentley’s nor do they down vacation houses in the Bahamas.
You can tell a lot about a society by it’s fairy tales. In western society our fairy tales are always a rags to riches story. There is someone who starts off at the bottom but through their ingenuity, hard work, or just sheer good fortune they end up at the top. It’s only when they’re a princess, a king, or some other wealthy person that the story can conclude with the famous phrase ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ However, in the New Testament the logic is reversed. Here we have stories of people who had it all (wealth, status, prestige, etc.), or at least could have had it all (e.g. Jesus tempted by Satan with the kingdoms of the world) and yet they refuse. They go from riches to rags. And yet, they would say that they have chosen what is better. How could this be?
It’s interesting that the person said to be choked by thorns is someone described as both deceived and riddled with worry. Up to a certain point in our life money is sheer survival. We need clothes to wear, shelter over our heads, food in our children’s bellies. Yet, once our material needs are taken care of there is a shift that occurs at which point money becomes a promise of a life that never comes. Money promises us security and yet we find that whatever amount we thought would make us feel absolutely secure is never enough. Money promises us social status and yet no matter how high up the social ladder we climb there’s always someone ahead of us ready to make us feel small. Money promises us pleasure and yet we find that exotic foods or vacations quickly become routine and mundane. In short, what this text says is that we have been lied to. Rather than bringing simplicity, peace, depth, and love to our lives wealth seems to bring complexity, insecurity, anxiety, and hopelessness.
There is a passage in the book of proverbs that get’s right to the heart of the matter.
“…Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with the food that is my portion,
9 That I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or that I not be in want and steal,
And profane the name of my God.
I wonder if I am a person—if we are a church—who could write such a verse. Are we a people who can reject the fairy tales of western culture in order to be able to pray something like this. Because of course from a larger societal perspective this is truly an insane prayer. Who ever heard of someone begging God to not make them wealthy? However, there is a wisdom here that we desperately need. When it comes to money we have too often had a theology of more more more, when what we need is a theology of enough. This is the deceitfulness of wealth. It is never enough. As Mahatma Ghandi, a man who himself lived a simple life of ‘enough’ said “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Oh God, give us enough that we aren’t hungry but not too much that we have no time to feed the poor. Oh God, give us enough that we aren’t tempted to steal but not so much that we can no longer envision a society of shalom and sharing. Oh God, give us enough that our children have clothes on their backs but not too much that we no longer see you in that homeless person who themselves need clothing. Oh God, give us enough, but not too much that our imaginations are darkened and your dream of a world with enough for everyone is choked out by the thorns of a greed that is never satisfied.
Finally, the parable makes it’s final transition to the image of good soil that bears good fruit. Notably it doesn’t go on and on describing exactly how this good fruit functions or what it looks like, rather we gain our insight into this good soil from contrasting it with the three previous soils.
Where the first soil was an image of someone hardened to the message of the kingdom: full of unbelief and lack of faith. The good soil is the image of someone open, receptive, and trusting to what God is up to in the world.
Where the second soil was an image of someone shallow who did not fully comprehend the depth of message of the kingdom: full of false enthusiasm and shallow thinking. The good soil is someone who has learned to be patient and set down deep roots: deeper serving, deeper thinking, deeper praying, deeper conversations, and a deeper connection with our soul and the one Jesus called ‘Abba.’
Where the third soil was an image of someone overwhelmed by greed and thus stifled in their imagination for the kingdom: full of a lust for more more more. The good soil is someone who has learned to say that they have enough and they now devote the remainder of their lives, to bringing the shalom of God to the world.
Let us pray.