Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
Sundays after Trinity (4)
Matt 13. 1-9, 18-23 :
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Have you ever planted seeds, and watched and waited expectantly for them to germinate and grow? How many of them finally developed to maturity and what kind of yield did you get?
Recall an event that achieved far more than you had expected, or a time in your life when you grew and developed as a person or community beyond all expectations. What factors led to the outcome?
Reflection on the text
Jesus loved to tell a story! He had this knack of speaking directly to the experience of most of his listeners and he does so here in the form of parables by the lake in Galilee (v1) among mostly fishermen, peasant farmers and villagers; those struggling to make ends meet. They knew how hard it was to get a decent crop to grow in the poor soils of the region.
But Jesus’ parables had a deeper meaning too, although often even his closest disciples failed to get the message – as Matthew explains in the intermediate verses (v10-17).
‘Listen very carefully’, Jesus is saying. ‘It isn’t good enough just hearing the words I speak. For them to have any lasting effect, you have to take each one into the very heart of your communities and nurture them like your children, if God’s Kingdom is to take root and flourish in this God-forsaken part of the world. Those words need to grow, and multiply, to feed the real needs of the people.’
For the author of Matthew this would have been just as relevant to the people for whom he was writing: they too would have to cherish the ‘seed’ – the words (teaching) of Jesus – for all they were worth in the face of opposition to their Christian communities. There were plenty of ways the words of Jesus could be lost to the community.
If we think of a small Christian community as a mix of soils producing a yield then what contribution is each member making to that yield? The parable teaches that the yield from the planting of God's word in the life of the community of faith depends on the openness of each member to embrace and live it in community and as individuals in the wider world. Each must have a heart to embrace it.
some questions for group discussion:
- How does your Christian community enable the word of the kingdom to take root in your life together? e.g. how do you plant and grow Jesus’ words ‘love one another as I have loved you’? or ‘love your enemies’? What learning methods do you employ and how effective are they?
- What prevents the words of Jesus taking root in your life together as a community of faith? Think of each kind of soil in turn as outlined in verses 19 to 23 and think about each in a corporate rather than individual way. (e.g. how does the evil one snatch the word away from the community? How does the lure of wealth and anxiety about life make its impact?
- How do you help each other when the going gets tough and people feel under the sort of pressures Jesus describes? Is there an understanding in the community about mutual support, encouragement and prayer?
- How might your Christian community bring ‘good news’ to downtrodden people in your neighbourhood.
A bishop reflected on saying the Lord’s Prayer, “How can I meaningfully pray ‘give us this day our daily bread’ when we have a month’s stock of bread in our freezer”.
Say the Lord’s Prayer and pause before the words “Give us this day our daily bread”. In the pause, think of an essential resource for life that you do not have and on which your life depends.
Then continue the prayer, but substitute those missing resources for the word ‘bread’.
More background information
- The parable of the sower is found in all three synoptic gospels. It is also known as the parable of the soils, the parable of the seed and the parable of the gardener.
- Sowing preceded ploughing in first century Palestine. Seed was scattered randomly by the farmer in the knowledge that though some would not germinate there would still be sufficient taking root to ensure an adequate harvest.
- Exceptional abundance characterises life in God’s kingdom. Agricultural data from the time suggests that a tenfold increase from seed to crop was thought good. So the hundred, sixty and thirty fold suggest something way beyond normal experience. Wherever God’s kingdom prevails there will be enough for everyone and mountains left over. The Garden of Eden and Joseph’s accumulation of reserves during the seven ‘fat’ years come to mind. The result? There will be no more hunger, no more poverty!
- The yield in this parable would be in marked contrast to the experience of a small-scale farmer sowing seed in the 1st century AD. He would know only too well all the risks to his vulnerable seed and would quickly identify with all the scenarios which Jesus speaks of, stony ground, weeds, and drought, random events over which he had no control. He would probably have a few other concerns lurking in the back of his mind, over which he had little or no control, but which were far from random, rent for land and housing, taxes and tolls to pay, fertiliser and seed corn to buy and worst of all the confiscation of the bulk of the crop in order to feed a passing Roman legion. He was at the mercy of government, wealthy landowners and businessmen and the military. And just one year of poor crops, cast a farmer and his dependents into debt from which escape was almost impossible.
- The term “kingdom of heaven” or “empire of the heavens” appears thirteen times in this chapter.
- The traditional view of this parable is that it reflects the multiplication of talents and gifts made available through the church when believers are nurtured in healthy spiritual conditions and not distracted by greed and wealth. More recent interpretations suggest they contrast life within God’s empire with that of the Roman Empire. But they do not simply challenge the values of the Roman rulers, they also challenge the political leaders of Israel who were puppets of Rome and religious leaders who had negotiated an accommodation with Rome and were deeply implicated in empire building.
- Palestine was a staging post for the Rome’s army on their way to conquering Egypt. The fertile delta of the Nile was needed as a source of grain to feed the population of Rome to which ‘all roads lead’. There is nothing new about ‘global’ markets. Then as now, the market overfed the wealthy and starved the poor.
- George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian on 10 June 2008 under the headline ‘Small is Bountiful’ spoke out for the high productivity of the smallholder who holds the key to feeding the world in the future. He points out that “Peasant farmers offer the best chance of feeding the world. So why do we treat them with contempt?” See http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2008/06/10/small-is-bountiful/