LISTENING TO A WASTEFUL GOD (Matthew 13:1-23)
“Listen!” This is Jesus’ first word as he floats there in the boat, beside the beach, looking up at all these curiosity seekers, crowd followers and people of all kinds who have come out to hear the young rabbi they have heard so much about. Perhaps they have gotten the day off work. Perhaps they have no work. Perhaps it’s lunch time. At any rate, they have taken time out of their day to see him and hear what he has to say. They line the beach and the hillside – which is why he put out in a boat. He had no place to sit.
Perhaps the disciples are closest to him, on the beach, just at the water’s edge. “Listen.” They don’t need to be told twice. They know something good is coming.
Why does he say “Listen?” Why now? I don’t think there’s another parable in the Bible where he begins by saying “Listen.”
Why this parable?
There are two other important spiritual leaders who begin with this word. One is Benedict, the father of Western monasticism which was itself the foundation of Anglicanism with its emphasis on study, leisure, work and prayer – a balance we should pay attention to. The other leader was the Buddha.
Benedict’s rule begins: “Listen, my child, with the ear of your heart, to what the Master is saying.” So we listen not with our heads but our hearts to what our Master, our Leader, our Savior is teaching us. We pay attention as the Buddha commanded his disciples to wake up and pay attention.
And what does he say to us? He tells us this long parable and bids us pay attention – the parable of the sower and the seeds and the soils – and the souls – where some fall on rocky soil, some by the wayside, some among thorns and only some on good soil. And even that soil is divided into the good, the really good, and the great.
Now we have to wonder about this farmer. Presumably he knew his land. Presumably he had been farming there for some time. And presumably he didn’t want to waste any of his seed.
Presumably it cost a bit of money and he only had just so much to go around, so why scatter some on the wayside, where birds would take it away? Why scatter some among thorns, where it would get choked? Why scatter some on rocks where they’d whither and die?
Presumably he’d done this before. He’d seen what happened when he scattered seed in these out of the way places. Why was he so anxious to waste his seed when he could conserve it judiciously? And when it comes to the good soil, why use some on the 30 fold soil when he could put it all in the 100 fold soil?
Well, it was the field he was stuck with so he had to maximize his possible yield even if it meant wasting grain.
We are here in Cornwall NY, and I’m sure the church has worked for many years to evangelize and minister and has done a good job, but there are areas that just don’t seem to work. Why keep trying? Surely there are other areas that would yield better fruit.
Yet this is our field, and in this interim process we start today, we imagine all the ways we could propagate the harvest in our field, God’s field.
Our God is a wasteful God. That is the only explanation for this parable. Our God is a wasteful God who wants to try everything. He wants to leave nobody out. He scatters seeds among the thorns because there might be some good soil in that thorny patch. He scatters the seed by the wayside because there might be some softer, broken soil over there where maybe a cart threw up a clod of dirt. He scatters seeds among the rocks because there might be a crevice there, where the seed can put down real roots.
Our God is a wasteful God, who wants to leave no one and nothing out. So if you are the type of person who has to deal with money all day, the Lord is not going to stereotype you as a money grubber, only interested in stocks and bonds. He’s not going to write you off if you have to hang out with unscrupulous people because of your job. He’s not going to say – “Jim is a thorny man, overwhelmed by the love of money since he hangs out with those people.” No. He’ll scatter some seed your way, because he hasn’t given up on you.
If he sees someone beside the way, beaten down by life, with the cart tracks of numerous misfortunes going across your head, he is not going to say – why waste my seed on such a loser. It’ll never mean anything to them. No, he scatters the seed over your way even if some might be wasted. He cares more about you than conserving seed. He cares more about all of us than conserving the Word. The Word is for spreading to all the people.
So he spreads it to all of us, and risks its loss, and plans on a fuller yield, for we worship a wasteful God, and we can relax if we are in a bad place, for we know that God will find us there, and nurture us with his seed, as we should nurture others with his seed, when we find them among thorns, overwhelmed by the love of money or the scarcity of money; when we find them beside the way, overwhelmed by loss and the way life beats you down; when we find them among rocks. ‘Oh, they’re just a dilettante’ we say ‘they’ll be into this for a while, and then they’ll drop it.’ Maybe not. Maybe there are deep crevices in them we know nothing of. Waste the word on them. Waste words of love and compassion and the Bible quotes that may come to mind. It may do a pile of good in what looks like inhospitable soil.
But wait. The disciples know nothing of this yet. The crowds know nothing of this yet. They have just been bidden to listen, to tear their attention away from what’s going on in the rest of the crowd, to stop treating Jesus like a curiosity. Listen, he says, so they do.
But then halfway through the lesson for today, it begins again with these words: “Hear then the parable of the sower.” Now if you look in the bulletin it says this is Matthew 13:1-9 and 18-23. So the lectionary compilers have left out nine verses. What do the nine verses say?
Verse 9 reads: “he who has ears, let him hear.”
Then verse 10-17 says: “Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Why do you speak to them in parables?’ And he answered them: ‘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 him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:
You shall indeed hear but never understand,
And you shall indeed see but never perceive.
For the people’s heart has grown dull
And their ears are heavy of hearing
And their eyes have closed,
Lest they should perceive with their eyes
And hear with their ears
And understand with their heart
And turn for me to heal them.
But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears for they hear. Truly I say to you, many prophets ad righteous men hoped to see what you see and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
Then he says, “Hear then the parable of the sower” – and we get that whole explanation of what each patch of ground was.
Why? And why does he give the description only to the disciples? And why does he write off all those other poor people?
Well, how did the disciples distinguish themselves from all those other poor people?
They came forward from the crowd that had been told to listen. They said to him: “Why do you speak to them in parables?” This is too hard to understand. So he made it easy for them – because they asked.
Jesus is the Lord of the Questions. We are the ones with questions. ‘Why is the world unfair? Why is my life taking the turn its taking? Why does everything have to hurt so much? What’s up with school anyway? What’s up with my friends? Why? What? How? Where?’
Where are you Lord? Why do you speak in riddles, if you speak at all?
Maybe so we’ll come forward with questions. Maybe so we’ll prove we’ve been listening, because if we’ve been listening we’ll know what Jesus says makes no sense, sometimes Christianity makes no sense, and we’ll have a question, and we’ll ask it. And when we’ve asked it, then we’ll have a relationship with Jesus. A question of Jesus begins a relationship with Jesus, where again we have to listen for an answer, instead of thinking we’ve got it all figured out and don’t need him or anybody. As Jesus worries:
But they shall perceive with their eyes
And hear with their ears
And understand with their hearts
And turn for me to heal them.”
Jesus doesn’t want us to have all the answers. He wants us to have all the questions. If you have questions, then you’re welcome here.
If you have a thorny patch in your life, and the worries about money threaten to overwhelm you, don’t worry. Jesus won’t write you off. Come closer. Let him scatter seeds of the word of God in that overwhelmed patch in the field of your life where nothing seems to grow because it gets choked with thorns. He’ll take the risk. He’ll waste the grain, knowing something might grow. He won’t write you off. For he is a Wasteful God.
If you are beaten down, and everyone has written you off – what a loser they say, can’t stand up for himself – Jesus won’t write you off and will risk wasting love, joy, compassion, all the words of God on you. Something might grow. You never know.
And if you’re a bit of a dilettante, going from one enthusiasm to another, whom serious people now avoid, he won’t avoid you. He knows you might have depths of soil in you.
And if you yield only 30 or even 60 fold, he won’t ignore you for the 100 fold person, the alpha male or female, the one who can always be counted on to deliver a lot! No, he has a use for you too. In fact, he has the same use for you as for the high yield guy. For it says:
But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.
In other words, they are equivalent. He doesn’t say one is better than another. They are all equal to him. They have yielded to the extent of their ability and that is what is important to him, and that is why he wasted – or used – his seed on them.
That is why he wasted – or used – his seed on all of us, so wastefully, for he is a wasteful God, and loves us all no matter our circumstances.
He loves all Cornwall and beyond to all Orange County and the wider world, no matter the circumstances, no matter who has given up on whomever else. He casts his seed upon them.
And he gives it to us as his disciples, his questioners, to use it as well. He tells us up front – don’t be afraid to be wasteful. There is more than enough love, joy, peace, compassion, to go around. You just have to use it wherever you find yourself, on all your neighbors.
As we start this interim phase, we will look – with the help of diocesan staff in the parish profile process and then the search process – at all the things we are good at, and all the things we are bad at, at the parts of St. John’s that could yield a hundredfold, and the parts that yield only thorns.
Don’t be too quick to write off the thorny or beaten down or rocky parts of our field, even though we – like the farmer – have long experience with how it yields. Like God who told us this parable, we know that even a little bit is better than nothing. We know that loving it, and the people who inhabit those places, is everything.