Revisiting God through the Parable of The Sower.

Posted: July 9, 2020 in Uncategorized

In a recent article in the 4th R the Westar magazine, Lloyd Geering wrote about the decline of God since the end of the Nineteenth century when Friedrich Nietzche discerned that “God is dead and we humans have killed him”. This is not to say that the idea of God was destined to suffer an instant death from then on but rather to herald the fact that the idea of God was and has been changing forever. Lloyd suggests that the thought-world that humans participate in is always fluid and moving. Some have been preserving they suppose something they call tradition, traditional values and things to maintain but others have been moving on from the very idea of God convinced that the concept of God has become obsolete and it is no longer convincing to speak of ‘the living God’.

While in our language today we often hear the words “Oh my God” and read the letters “OMG” the concept behind them has completely changed. This is as Lloyd suggests indicative of the fact that the “God” concept has been retired from daily speech. A brief journey the concept of God has been on might be ‘Wind or Breath” in a ‘Spiritual’ world where breath was evidence of the spiritual world that surrounded everything, thru the birth of gods, imagined to identify and explain natural phenomena, much the same as we use  electron, neutron and quark today.

The key difference is that the God concept moved to include the idea that the forces of nature attributed to those gods transcended human power and control thus introducing the idea that humans in order to survive needed to obey and respect these gods. Each tribe or ethnic group had their own names for these gods and what areas they looked after such as fertility, birth, death, war, peace, love and so on. This concept of God being adaptable stayed around for a long time and we still name our days of the week after them.

We remember here also that the ancients explained natural phenomena through the medium of stories about the gods which we now call myths or stories. The telling of stories was the way of expressing knowledge, much like we now call philosophy and science. At the core of these stories was the idea that one could talk about these gods by anthropomorphic means, in other words these gods were given human attributes and behaviour while being immortal, most of them in charge and to be feared. Humanity was at mercy of the unseen powers of most of the gods.

The other phenomena we should heed before entering our text today is the arrival of the idea of Monotheism. Between about 1000 and 400BCE Israel’s prophets urged their people to abandon all gods except Yahweh, very likely a storm god. Polytheism becomes henotheism (choosing one of many) then along comes the biblical prophets and this message becomes embedded in the Moses story and between 567 and 540 BCE monotheism is settled in. The Jews from exile in a polytheism world escape to a monotheism world (The Holy Land) in the Genesis story.

As Lloyd reminds us the first chapter of Genesis marks the crossing of a very significant threshold in the evolution of human culture. The assertion that at the beginning of time it was God who created everything introduced a powerful cultural invention that remained unquestioned until about 500BCE.

In regard to our text for today the above is a crucial background to the interpretation of what is being said and proposed by the text. In terms of the assumptions of God that lie beneath the text the understanding of those being spoken to and the message the text is conveying. Who or what is the God Jesus would be talking about? What is the message he wants to convey?

On this last question scholars suggest that one of the most important things Jesus wants to say is that there needs to be a change in the way we think about the kingdom or realm or social, political and economic environment that exists.

Our text for today is what is known as the parable of the sower and taking all of the above into account we see that the parable is about this creator God, creating the kingdom or realm:

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’

A translation:  

On that day, Jesus went out of the house (and) was sitting alongside the sea, and great crowds were gathered together to him so that he entered into a ship to sit down and all the people stood upon the shore.  And he spoke much to them in parables, saying, “Behold!  The sowing one went out to sow.  And as he sowed, some indeed fell beside the way, and the birds came to eat them.  But others fell upon stony places where they were not having much soil, and immediately they sprung up because they did not have depth of soil.  But when the sun rose, they were scorched and, because they did not have a root, they were withered.  But others fell among the thorns, and the thorns climbed up and choked them.  But others fell upon the good earth, and they were giving fruit, some indeed a hundredfold, but some sixty, but some thirty.  The one having ears, let that one hear.”

It has been suggested that the parable of the sower is the touchstone of all the parables.  That it has primacy of place is in all three synoptics.  Even the gnostic Gospel of Thomas includes the parable of the sower. 

In Matthew, the parable of the sower is the first of a string of parables that follow one after another in chapter 13.  The parable of the sower sets the stage for all the parables that follow.

The lection begins with Jesus leaving the house.  He “goes out” to the sea just as the sower would soon “go out” to sow.  This would apparently be his own house, and the same one where he had just refused entrance to his own relatives (12: 46-48). 

At the sea, “great crowds” flock around Jesus.  The word is sunago, and means that the people “gathered together” around Jesus.  He is at the center of the people.  This is not surprising.  Jesus had significant support in the region of the Sea of Galilee.  The people loved Jesus and thrilled to his message.  He is presented as a “man of the people.” 

Then, he gets into a boat.  The stated reason is that Jesus needs a place to sit.  He needs to sit in order to assume the posture of a teacher.  This gives Jesus a bit of distance from the crowd which continues to stand on the beach.  Matthew has moved Jesus from being “man of the people” to being “authoritative teacher.” 

This is seen to be a deft piece of political theater.  Jesus is sitting in a fishing boat, which is, quite literally, on the sea.  In a sense, Jesus is speaking to and for all the people who try to make a living from the Sea of Galilee.  (It’s not for nothing that fishermen were some of Jesus’ first supporters.)  

Jesus may have had a home at Capernaum, perhaps the most important harbour city on the entire Sea of Galilee, which also made it an important communications center for the region.  He also traveled to many other towns and villages that lie on the sea, including Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, his frequent companion.

In the intervening verses, 10-17, Jesus tells the disciples that they get to hear “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven,” but others do not.  Jesus says that he speaks in parables, but no one understands. 

This suggests that, far from being easy to understand, the parables are so contrarian that they are difficult to hear.  The reason Jesus so often encouraged people with ears to hear is because what he was saying was so counter-intuitive, so formed by an alternative paradigm, that people were having a hard time comprehending what he was saying.  

In verse 18, Jesus calls the story “the parable of the sower.”  Suggests that this is a parable about the God they hold dear, and about the kingdom they put their faith in.  It’s the parable of the sower, and it is a kingdom of complexity with not one but four kinds of soil.  It’s about the relationship between the sower and the soils, the God-human relationship, in other words the Kingdom, realm, interconnection, interdependence that needs reimagining. It is not about a powerful creator God in charge of evil, dominated, powerless people.

To conclude this exploration today we remember that it was not until a number of Christian theologians in the 1960s acknowledged the truth of Nietzsche’s announcement and declared that the concept of God had become so obsolete that it was no longer convincing to speak of ‘the living God’ as a being who created and ruled over the universe. As J Macquarrie reminded us in the 1980s, whatever life God had formerly enjoyed in the thought world of believers has been slowly ebbing away in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, The sower is no longer the God scattering seeds like a creator but rather we are the sowers and the kingdom, realm we are part of is diverse, complex and like the universe as we understand it today, a realm of unexpected serendipity. That is, until we come to accept that it is like avatar within multiple universes and unlimited dimensions. Or as I think Lloyd is suggesting, the doctrine of the incarnation takes on emerging concepts, that we will understand the parable for us today. And as Roy W Hoover says in the same magazine as Lloyd’s article – “A modern faith requires a modern conceptuality and language that can make clear to us in what respects our religious situation is discontinuous with our religious past”. Or as Gordon Kaufmann has said: “ Our inherited symbolism no longer fits the overall cast of life as it is lived, understood, and experienced in today’s world. So, it must change, and change in decisive ways, if it is not to die out.”. It has been my personal claim  that this is the challenge the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa faces if it wishes to remain alive. The issue the church needs to avoid is getting caught up in the battle between incremental and catastrophic because the change is already underway, the church’s task is to articulate the thought world it lives in. To listen for the God concept of today and to incarnate it through language and experience.  Amen.

The Fourth R Volume 33 Number 3 May-June 2020 ‘The Life of God from Conception to Death in the human Though-World. Westar Institute Farmington MN

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