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This has been a bumper harvest year for my black raspberries! They have done well in our little churchyard space each of the last six years since I planted them but are now finally established in just the right patch. Rooted in well, aided by supportive fencing for their brambles, provided a good amount of sun but not too much they have rewarded me with plump berries for breakfast for weeks now.
It is in the light of a prodigious supply of black raspberries that I ponder and prepare for this coming Sunday’s gospel text in the Revised Common Lectionary which includes the parable of the sower from Matthew 13:
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 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.” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)
As is often cited, Jesus used the context of his environment and its agrarian culture to communicate to his people in a way that they could certainly relate: sowers and seeds, sheep and shepherds, figs, wheat, mustard seeds, etc. In our more contemporary season certain details are easily lost, or at the very least, nuances get sorely missed. This is true not simply because the vast majority of the world’s population now live in urban areas, but because even within the rural amongst us, the practices of agriculture itself have developed quite differently. For example I grew up farming and (albeit from a significant distance) still am involved with my family’s operation, but other than reseeding a few patches of lawn grass I can’t recall having ever really sowed as the sower in this passage does, going forth and broadcasting seeds by hand. Obviously, nowadays we have machinery great and small that does that, and it can even tie into global positioning systems and soil analysis to get planting percentages just right.
Which is not to say that people don’t still sow as the sower does, at least generally speaking, in particular wide areas around the globe. They certainly do. But it is not likely that many of the folks in my pews or around you are as intimately familiar with the imagery Jesus is using. Well, duh. Right? This is obvious. But is it? Is it obvious or am I/do we too easily miss what Jesus is getting at? (“Seeing and never perceiving” is left out of the lectionary this week but is located textually in between the parable and it’s explanation.)
On the one hand there is the beautiful absurdity that is so often present in Jesus’ parables. It is absurd that a sower would broadcast precious seeds so widely. That would be an utter waste. Sometimes, this parable is called the parable of the soils, because when it comes down to it in the explanation, it is the contrasting nature of the soil environments that is being noted. Why would a sower waste time and resources upon planting seeds in such harsh environments that they could never take hold? Well, she or he wouldn’t. But also true, the entire environment is rather harsh, or often can be. This is not a rip on the holy land especially, rather an obvious fact of life and farming that the crowds to whom Jesus is speaking would understand. Life can be/is difficult and is often/usually lived out of scarcity and survival. Thus, there is an absurdity interwoven into the story itself, a beautiful absurdity that somehow expresses who God is and God’s reign. It makes me think of the Monty Python line, “blessed are the cheesemakers.” There is truth inside that absurdity. I hope we don’t miss the absurdity.
On the other hand, it seems we also have to be cautious that this agrarian imagery can readily lead to a romanticism that equates much of the message to being quaint, not relatable and easily dismissed or worse, made into something more saccharine than substance, more sentimental than significant. “Oh, the good old days…” Thankful we’re done with them or wanting to return, neither particularly helpful or accurate.
Or I suppose we could also see this all as a Church growth strategy…
I apologize if this may seems more preachy than blogy. I’m wrestling with this for this upcoming Sunday as my congregation and I begin a week of Vacation Bible School, and as I began, in the light of a large harvest of black raspberries. So, what does all this mean?
I’m not entirely sure. But somehow those raspberries are impacting my view of the parable. If you know anything about raspberries, they’re tough. And tenacious. I’ve seen stems that have fallen on concrete root into the cracks. They also excel on the margins of changing environments, picture them for example where a woodlot and meadow meet. They are thorny and delicious. And are often “sown,” at least eventually, but the birds and other critters than eat them. What would Jesus say concerning the raspberry? I’ll continue to ponder. But for now, I’m off to eat them with yogurt.