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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 07/13/2014

Today’s gospel is a case where you’ve got the parable, you’ve got the explanation, so what’s left? It feels like my work is done here because I don’t think I can top Jesus. Or even if the explanation is the work of Matthew and the early church community rather than Jesus as most commentators think, do you expect me to come up with something better than they did? What they came up with is good and, in their explanation, the mixed results the sower gets does go along with Jesus’ earlier words of caution to the disciples as he sent them out with warnings of persecutions and “you will be hated by all because of my name.” In other words, expect failure is what he had told his disciples. Today you pretty much get that same message in the form of a parable along with the explanation; you’ll have your successes, but there’s a lot of dry, rocky, thorny soil out there, so…be prepared.

That would be the glass half empty interpretation of the interpretation. The glass half empty though is also the glass half full and a glass half full interpretation would be a little different. It would start by reminding us that most of the time, when Jesus told parables he was talking about the Kingdom of God or in Matthew it’s called the the Kingdom of Heaven but it’s the same thing and it has to do with the possibilities of life in this world more than the hereafter; it’s mostly about the here and now.

Jesus’ announcement at the beginning of his ministry is that this kingdom has come near. That’s what he has come to embody and to talk about. With that in the background, the half full interpretation of this parable has to do with hope. Despite many obstacles, despite all those imperfections in the soil that the parable highlights, despite all of that the kingdom has been sown and it will come about in abundance. The enemies and opposition are out there and they will have their impact, but they can’t stop it; the kingdom will prevail. Seen that way, the parable is not a half empty expectation of failure, it’s a half full anticipation of success.

We then could ask, did Jesus intend this parable to be half empty or half full? Words of caution or words of hope? The answer is probably all of the above but the interpretive trend has tended toward half empty leading to the question, “What kind of soil are you?” and then, following that, “How can you be good soil so that the seed of the word does take root and bear fruit?” Those are good questions, but they do pretty much assume the half empty perspective. The half full alternative is also worth thinking about though.

That’s the beauty of parables; there’s always room for another interpretation because there’s never just one, there’s always one more. In this case, one thing that happens if we think more about a half full explanation is that it begins to put greater emphasis on the seed rather than just focusing on the soil.

In his telling of this parable Jesus’ emphasis is definitely on the soil. With that there is the assumption that while the soil can be questionable, the seed, the word, is always good. As the first reading from Isaiah says, “As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth making it bring forth and sprout, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it will not return empty.” The word is good; it’s effective if it lands on good soil.

In the interpretation of the parable, the seed represents the word and while the word “word” can have different theological meanings, in this case where it speaks of “hearing the word” it would seem that the word is understood as scripture, scripture as proclaimed, as preached, just as I am doing right now. What complicates things is that such preaching is done by imperfect human beings who might take that good word, who might take that good seed and make it something else. That’s not the intent! Obviously we all try to get it right, we all think we get it right but what any of us chooses to emphasize concerning a particular word, a particular text can make a difference in the quality of the seed we sow.

The possibility of bad seed isn’t directly addressed in this parable, but…If bad seed falls on good soil, the yield is still going to be poor. Sometimes the bad seed is obvious, when people calling themselves Christian use the teachings of Jesus to legitimate bigotry and hatred, that’s bad seed, in fact you could call it empty seed and with that, damage is done; the KKK would be an extreme example. Less obvious though is when you get into the gray area of interpretation concerning seeds or words that might be seen as half empty or half full like this parable. What has happened in such cases is that the church and those of us who preach could be accused at times of choosing to offer a word that is more half empty than it is half full and that too does its damage.

The question then is, is this parable best explained by the half empty, expect failure interpretation or by the half full, the kingdom will arrive despite the obstacles interpretation? Both interpretations are legitimate but which one is more likely to bear fruit in abundance? Which one do you need to hear?

Preaching the parable of the sower as half empty, it becomes what Martin Luther would call law in his law/gospel formula. Seen as law the parable reveals that there is something wrong, there’s bad soil, and recognizing that there is the exhortation to be good soil because there are things we can do to be good soil or at least to be better soil. Preached as half full, the parable is gospel as it offers reassurance that even though we are not good soil much of the time, the kingdom will still come because God is in control and God’s word will not return empty. Which one do you need to hear?

You probably need both, but I believe that we live in a time when a half full, gospel approach is what is most needed. It’s needed in part because as much as we talk about gospel and good news, the perception of many outside the church is that the church is full of judgmental people mostly focused on rules and prohibitions particularly around things like abortion and sexuality, issues that get approached as bad soil that needs tending. Whether the perception is accurate or not doesn’t really matter; it is the perception and a gospel approach is needed to counter that perception.

A gospel approach is also needed because there is so much general negativity out there; bad news outweighs good news so that it can become hard to see the glass even being close to half full. Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ is always a glass half full message of hope in the face of the doom and gloom that seems to prevail.

I don’t think that most people who attend church these days need to be reminded that they are bad soil at least some of the time. I think we all already know that. As one who preaches I feel called to offer a word of hope not because I’m afraid to acknowledge sin but because the gospel message as recorded throughout the Bible, the gospel message revealed most fully through Jesus Christ is a message of hope! There is sin, there are consequences, bad things on a small and a large scale do happen, but my assumption is that you don’t come to church to hear that, you don’t need to come to church to hear that because you hear it all the time. What I want you to hear in church is that there is hope; I want you to hear that God continues to be at work in and through the brokenness of your life, in and through the brokenness of the world so that there is a future, a hopeful future. The glass is half full and will get fuller.

The gospel seed that Jesus lived and proclaimed, the gospel seed that we are called to sow is always about the possibility of being full; in its fullness, that seed, that word should never leave us empty or even half empty.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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