Monday, July 11, 2011

Of Parables & Life

The lead-off parable in both the Gospel for Pentecost 4 (Matthew 13) and Mark 4 is that of the sower and the seed. Also, both Gospels, show Jesus explaining his use of parables in general to his disciples, as well as the specific meaning of the sower parable. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, by the way (written 10 years before Mark, c. 60 AD, and 20 years before Matthew), also relates this parable. 
Parables are designed to stimulate people to think. Mostly, they get us to think about the reign/rule/dominion of God, what we traditionally call “the kingdom”. The bottom line is that we don’t interpret parables, so much as parables interpret us. They challenge us to see things in different ways. One can interpret a parable in many ways, and sometimes even in conflicting ways.
Scripture scholar Fr. Richard Pervo notes that this first parable of the sower is pretty boring, focusing as it does on types of soil. The sower uses a method of sowing by which he sort of flings the seed every which way. Matthew pictures three failures and three successes, each act of sowing summarized in three parts. The effect is rather monotonous and repetitious. Very much like life, with its ongoing cycles and patterns. One season or year is quite like all the foregoing others. Fr. Pervo asks whether you and I can ever see more than we want to see. Do we check to see whether we’ve let our eyes become dulled, if we’ve come to the point of asking, “Is this all there is?” 
Results of sowing vary. Matthew’s account lists the good soil’s yield as a hundredfold, sixty, and thirty, while Mark lists the return in reverse as thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. The Gospel of Thomas puts it this way: “Look, the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered (them). Some fell on the road, and the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rock, and they didn’t take root in the soil and didn’t produce heads of grain. Others fell on thorns, and they choked the seeds and worms ate them. And others fell on good soil and it produced a good crop: it yielded sixty per measure and one hundred twenty per measure.” Whatever the yield figure, what Matthew is highlighting is God’s superabundant graciousness: far beyond what we might ever expect.  
The clear implication is that there are no assurances about growth, whether it will take place or not. “The rhythm of normality is deceptive,” says Fr. Pervo, “and...God's presence is easily missed by those lacking ears to hear.” The coming of God's reign is neither an explosive event, nor a predictably rising curve in which things keep getting better and better every day. It’s always a mixture of failure and success. Note that at the beginning of this Gospel passage, Jesus “went out of the house”, out of the place of security, and “sat beside the sea”, which is the realm of chaos, of uncertainty, associated as the sea is with fierce wind, swelling waves, and unpredictability. What happens when the spiritual yields are rising upward? For sure, human as we are, you and I are among the first to praise God. It’s the downward trends which are a bit harder to handle. Our measures of success, growth, improvement are often at variance with God’s. 
Parables can be terribly frustrating for “bottom-line” folks who want to be assured of a good crop, and who miss the importance of the quotidian, the routine, involved in human life. You and I continually sow without really knowing what’s going to come up, yet we keep sowing. Learning to accept lower yields, and not lament them, takes work. Anyone can brag about the 100’s. What was going on between Jesus and the disciples was a learning process. While it’s somewhat easy to interpret the sower parable in relation to mission, we may miss the important connection of parable with learning, with spiritual formation. One thinks of the root meaning of the word seminary, deriving from the Latin for seed: a place where seeds are sown and planted, but which take long periods of time in order to mature and come to fruition. Even the ideas of mission and formation overlap quite a bit: the mission of the Church doesn’t end with just organizing communities of people or “planting” physical buildings in which they can meet. It requires constant attention, care, nurture of minds, hearts and spirits.
This parable of the sower, leads also to other insights. You can't, for example, grow wheat on rocks. Nevertheless, when it’s God calling us to do something, the results aren’t necessarily restricted by soil. Sometimes bad soil and weeds are too much and don’t produce yields, or very little ones. But sometimes, the astounding happens. Either way, that’s not our concern. God calls you and me to be faithful, not necessarily successful.
Another thing modeled in the parable is that, after sowing the seed -- in our case, the Good News of God’s reign -- even if the “growth”, the response, seems meager, it’s still important to reach out to those who are willing and eager to “listen”, and go deeper with them into the sacred mysteries. 
Likewise the parable may be pointing us to the fact that God’s reign is inseparably bound up with the proclaiming of it, but that the task of the sower is simply to sow, not to create the seed. 
Finally, as we try to relate Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the sower to our own lives, you and I can recognize that we’ve been like all three types of soil at one time or another. 
I was raised very devoutly from childhood by my Roman Catholic mother, and attended church every week. The family Bible, which I still have, endlessly fascinated me, though I didn’t actually read much of it at the time, probably because of the archaic language of the Douay Rheims Version! What grabbed me particularly were the etchings, depicting great biblical stories. When I was in 7th grade Mom gave me my first spiritual classic : The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis, which I read and meditated on many times, along with the Scriptures which I read nearly every day during 13 years in Catholic seminary, and in my early years as a priest. Perhaps this was the “good soil” phase, in which the seed of the Word was sown? 
Later, while I was a college chaplain and philosophy instructor at Sacred Heart College, Wichita, KS, in the mid-60’s, I was actively involved along with many of my colleagues in the civil rights movement, then front-page news. We were outspoken on behalf of African-Americans on campus and in the community. Yet, when invited by friends to join them in going to Alabama, to March and give witness in the now-famous 1966 walk from Selma to Montgomery, I cringed and backed off out of fear, and offered all sorts of excuses for not going.  Well, obviously, some of that “good soil” of the Word seemed to have deteriorated a bit! “...let some trial come, or some persecution on account of the Word, and that person falls away at once…
After my release from the Catholic priesthood in the late ’60’s, I  went through a period when I stopped reading, stopped going to church altogether for some time. The rocky ground where the seed fell seemed to allow what had been sown in my heart to recede in importance to me.
In the early 70’s, I’d mostly resumed what spiritual practice I had. By then I was employed in textbook sales in a large territory extending from San Antonio across the length of the Gulf Coast down to Florida. On the road or in the air most of the year, I became consumed with sales quotas, earning commissions, competing within divisions, and trying to please the boss. It was easy to slip into becoming the typical salesman stereotype who worked hard all day and partied after hours to relieve the stress. I was no slouch in wining and dining customers to ensure sales, or in being “out on the town” with the other guys and gals. It took me a good four years to realize how tired, and empty, and unhappy my spirit was, and, truthfully, how relatively unproductive I was. Kind of like seed choked by thorns.
Over the years I rode the spiritual roller coaster, as most of us do: up and down, faithful and lax, fervent and lukewarm. As we all must, I faced my inevitable share, of difficult, depressing personal situations: the death of a former spouse; a divorce; conflict with parishioners; the serious illness and near-death of my son; and the challenges of aging. 
Do you and I ever fully understand what’s happening on the ground of our soul, or how, or why? T. S. Eliot reminds us, “In my beginning is my end...For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” I eventually emerged able to continue sowing and receiving the seed, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly: from the Scriptures, from other holy writings, and even occasionally from The Imitation of Christ. I stand in wonder at the ever new sprouts of growth popping up from the soil of the spirit, most often in the events and people who are in my life. The measuring of growth of crops and yields doesn’t concern me so much now. It’s enough at this point to “set the mind on the Spirit [who] is life and peace”, to know that “the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you [and me]”. “We shall not cease from exploration,” says Eliot, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.      

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