Bishop Larry Benfield
Grace Church, Pine Bluff
July 10, 2011
The Fourth Sunday after PEntecost
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The latest project around my house has been painting, specifically painting my kitchen cabinets. It is a time-consuming chore, in fact so time consuming that it began last summer before I broke my collarbone and is only now getting into the home stretch. I am doing the work because there were so many layers of paint on the cabinets of my 80-year-old house that I decided it was time to strip everything down to the wood and start over.
When I start such a chore, I try to plan what I need, then go out and buy it and nothing else. Let’s face it: prudence has its virtues when a gallon of oil-based paint is more expensive than dinner for two at a decent restaurant. So there I am in the store, figuring up how many square feet I have and whether I should buy an extra two quarts so that I have just enough to finish the job. And then there is the question of paint thinner with which to clean the brushes-and me-afterwards. I buy exactly what I think I will need and later when it is time to clean the brushes, I keep telling myself: don’t pour too much thinner into the jar. Save some just in case.
Now, you can guess the result of all this measuring and planning. I have had to make additional trips back to the store for additional supplies, which meant more gasoline (also an investment these days) and more time. It was all a lesson in false economy: more gas for the car, more driving around Little Rock, more time wasted, more paint thinner used. Sometimes saving costs a lot. One can be too economical.
Generally, we pride ourselves on being economical. I once even had an ongoing friendly disagreement with a parishioner on whether or not to use clear plastic cups or Styrofoam cups when serving juice at church. The conscientious accountants among you will be relieved to know that I don’t try to waste money.
Then along come today’s lessons. I am worried about the cost of two quarts of paint versus a gallon, or the cost of cups, and Jesus tells a parable about sowing seed with profligacy, scattering it everywhere with no apparent thought as to the yield, no hoarding the seed for bottomland only planting. And the book of Genesis shows just how disquieting selfishness can seem.
In its telling, today’s gospel has one drawback, and it is that Matthew just simply can’t let the story rest on its own merits. Matthew may be like me, wondering why anyone would be so foolish as to spend too much. What is unusual about this biblical passage is that it is one of the few in the New Testament with so clear an explanation. Most likely, Jesus told only the parable itself, not what follows. After all, at the parable’s end he says, “Let anyone with ears, listen,” which is the first century equivalent of saying, “Make of it what you will.” End of story; go home and think about it.
Parables often simultaneously have one central truth and several layers of additional meaning, like a good right brain imaginative story, but Matthew cannot let the story pass without a left-brain explanation, and isn’t that so much like us? We’ve got to get it exactly right, measure the paint out to the teaspoonful.
The explanation we hear in the second half of the gospel story talks about what the seed represents. Matthew concentrates on, so to speak, the paint. The author wants everything lined up, sort of like me getting ready to paint, but he omits the central truth, the big picture, just like I forget all the lost time and effort of being overly concerned with details. What Matthew omits is any discussion of the most important topic of a parable, namely the character first mentioned. That is the central part of a parable. In this case it is the sower, who represents God. In Matthew’s explanation God remains a mystery, never pigeonholed or clearly explained. Make of it what you will.
The parable centers on God sowing the earth. And look where God sows: everywhere, with abandon. God throws seeds on hard paths, rocky ground, among the thorns, and on good soil. God is not a good twenty-first century agronomist, staying within the furrows, carefully differentiating where things ought to be. God is not parsimonious, thinking as we do that there is only so much to go around. One thing this parable tells me is that I am not God. You see, I certainly did not waste paint nor paint thinner. I marshaled my resources as if they were limited. I was sort of like Jacob as well, plotting how to get my hands on everything that I can. And that sort of behavior is, in the end, not very pretty.
According to the parable, perfect goodness, it seems, does not think and act like I act, carefully holding back and managing resources because it might cost too much. Perfect goodness is lavish with love. Perfect goodness in the form of one Jesus of Nazareth lives and dies for those who are less than perfect, lives and dies for prostitutes and dirty-handed tax collectors and thieves. He lives and dies with abandon, so different from you and me. Make of it what you will.
What I hear from the story is the great mystery that God is willing to sow seeds of God’s love everywhere, and as a result living things will pop up where we least expect them. God isn’t worried about the cost. It can make for a mob scene, a garden gone wild, perhaps even disappointment, not places that most of us would want to be. We prefer reservations and decent order, a close calculation on what things will cost and how they look. If people were to dare become extravagant, what in the world might happen?
But look what happens when we are not extravagant. In the case of one house painter I know only too well, frustration and a certain amount of figuratively kicking one’s self took place. It was ultimately more costly than it should have been. In the case of us in our lives as religious people, to sow so very carefully just as likely results in frustration, people always upset as to why the rules don’t seem to work for everyone, people never seeing life in all its variations because they are way too angry. It, too, is ultimately a costly way to live.
Now I am going to tell you a parable. Somewhere there are people who lead lives of privilege and satiation. They hoard their resources and count their money regularly. They often have many possessions, and they are always looking for more. They are frequently frustrated because there is never quite enough. But there are other people somewhere who open their pocketbooks and give of their time. They often find love popping up in some of the strangest of places, among the most unlikely of people, especially among those who seem invisible to the people in positions of power and privilege. Sometimes their love is returned; sometimes it is not. Their level of frustration is low. The ones who give seem content with what they have. It is great mystery. Make of it what you will. Amen.