Sunday, July 30, 2017

Our Scarcity or God's Abundance?

The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is a story that has been heard and preached countless times throughout the history of the church.  In the lectionary, in the year of Matthew for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, it is found in Matthew 14:13-21.  It bears close resemblance to the same tale as told in both Mark and Luke. This story lifts up two contrasting views of the world:  scarcity or abundance.  Which is the lens through which you look?

(The following questions are an attempt to unlock some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For more on this genre of preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available at or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  The Word functions here mainly as Gospel.  The Gospel proclaims the simple message, "Here is Jesus," and here the Word is doing just that:  "Here is Jesus, the one who has compassion on the sick and injured, the one who feeds the hungry, the one who takes the little that we have and multiplies it for the sake of the world."

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  It is tempting to lift up the attitude of the disciples in this story as they tell Jesus to send the hungry away to fend for themselves, and to use this occasion to scold our congregation for their lack of compassion.  There may be texts which function this way, but this is not one of them.  Jesus does not scold the disciples.  Even when they insist that they have nothing to give the hungry crowds, Jesus does not scold them, but simply says, "Bring [your loaves and fish] here to me."  The upshot is:  there is no word of Law here, no word which lifts up our need for Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We have two choices:  the disciples or the hungry crowd.  The Word addresses the disciples, but the Word (i.e. Jesus) also feeds the crowd.  If we choose to identify with the disciples, then we will need to deal with our lens of scarcity.  If we choose to identify with the hungry crowd, our posture may simply be one of awe and praise.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  The call to obedience comes in two short statements:  "You give them something to eat." and "Bring them here to me."  These two statements encompass our call to serve the hungry and the method by which we do that: we bring our gifts to Jesus and let Jesus multiply them.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Taking the view of the disciples, several couplets come to mind:  scarcity/abundance; doubt/faith.  If we take the view of the crowd our couplet, of course, would be:  hungry/filled.

6.  Exegetical work:  Douglas Hare, in his commentary (Interpretation series) reminds us that this is the only miracle story which appears in all 4 gospels. (Matthew, p. 165)  In looking at the original language it is noteworthy that the vocabulary and grammar used are very close to the same, especially in the Synoptic versions.  One place where the language is nearly identical is the account of the distribution of the loaves:  "Taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds."  One wonders if this language was so close because it was an early liturgical formula for the eucharist/love feast.

The presence of numbers in this story has always puzzled me.   Why five, and two, and twelve, and five thousand?  Fourth century bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, interprets these numbers allegorically:  "We are invited to explain things by reasoning according to types.  It was not granted to the apostles to make and administer heavenly bread for the food of eternal life.  Yet their response reflected an ordered reasoning about types:  they had only five loaves and two fish. This means that up to then they depended on five loaves -- that is, the five books of the law.  And two fish nourished them - that is, the preaching of the prophets and of John." (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol 1b, p. 7-8)  "The leftover fragments of bread and fish, after the people had their fill, amounted to twelve baskets.  Thus... an abundance of divine power, reserved for the Gentiles from the ministry of eternal food, was left over for the twelve apostles." (Ibid, p. 9)  "The same number of those eating proved to be the number of those who believed. As noted in the book of Acts, out of the countless people of Israel five thousand men believed." (Ibid, p. 9).

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Steve Kuhl does a superb job of lifting up the mindset of the disciples - futility - in the face of the needs of the world.  He points out how an attitude of futility makes us of little use to the world, and finally strangers to God.  Christ, however, breaks into this futility and sets us free for fruitfulness.  See the entire analysis, archived under Year A Gospel, 2011, by going to study.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Weeds Galore!

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, the gospel lesson appointed for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, is the second of the parables in this chapter which offers, alongside it, an allegorical interpretation.  Like the first parable in chapter 13, the accompanying allegory to this parable centers on God's judgement not God's patience.  Scholars have long argued that the allegorist was not Jesus, but rather, Matthew, representing voices in the early church.  If that is so, it might be helpful to lift up how quickly the church turns to concerns about "who's in and who's out" while Jesus seems unconcerned with that.  Wisdom for today?

(The following questions are not meant to be exhaustive, but offered as a way to lift up some of the concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  For a further understanding of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide to this genre, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  Like the first parable in this chapter, the way the Word functions in the parable and the way it functions in the accompanying allegory are quite different.  In the parable the emphasis is on the forbearance of the Master:  "Let them both grow together until the harvest." This is certainly a gospel function as we are given a full view of the scandalous grace of the Master, when we, like the servants in the parable, wish to pluck up the weeds.  The Word functions as law, however, in the allegory, as the emphasis there is on judgement: "The Son of Man will send his angels... and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."  Even the assurance at the close, that "the righteous will shine like the sun" does not have a gospel ring to it; rather, it seems assuring only to those who can manage to live rightly.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  The answer to this question will, of course, be tied to how we answer the first question.  If we center on the forbearance of the Master, then the Law is downplayed, even though, at the close of the parable Jesus makes it clear that the weeds will be collected and bound in bundles to be burned.  If, on the other hand, we center on the judgement in the allegory, the Gospel is downplayed, indeed it is hard to find at all.  A balance is needed.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are the servants in the parable, who ask the Master how the weeds came to be in the field, and who, upon learning that an enemy has sowed them, ask, "Then do you want us to go and gather them?"  We are people who are concerned about the "weedy people" in our churches.  We are the self-righteous ones who so easily assume that we are the wheat and others are the weeds.  We are the ones who somehow insist that we are capable of separating the good from the bad, and seeing which people ought to be allowed to continue in Christ's church and which ones ought not be.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  If the call to obedience is the Word functioning to instruct us in the best ways to live in response to the Gospel, then it might be argued that this whole text is a call to obedience.  We are to bear fruit, according to the first parable in this chapter.  This fruit needs to be "wheaty" not "weedy".

5.  Exegetical work:  The word translated "weeds" in this passage has been more precisely translated as "darnel".  Darnel is an ancient grain that looks very much like wheat in its early stages, and reportedly was almost impossible to distinguish from wheat until the harvest was near. (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. IV, p. 826)  This would explain why the Master was reluctant to have the slaves attempt to pull up the weeds before the harvest.  David Buttrick, in his excellent guide to the parables of Jesus, speaks to the dilemma with which this text deals:  "[This parable addresses] a concern of the church: How can the church be morally pure and yet live in the worldly world?  If we try for purity, we lose our evangelical touch with the world.  If we give ourselves to attracting the worldly, we can become morally lax and lose our souls.  A perennial problem."  (Speaking Parables, p. 94)   Augustine has a solution to this problem, suggesting that perhaps people are not permanently either weeds or wheat:  "See what we choose to be in [the Lord's] field.  See which of the two we will be at harvest time... Let the one who is wheat persevere until the harvest; let those who are weeds be changed into wheat...  In the Lord's field, which is the church, at times what was grain turns into weeds and at times what were weeds turn into grain; and no one knows what they will be tomorrow."  (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT, vol. 1a, p. 277)

6.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Eugene Lowry always emphasized the need to move the listener into disequilibrium and then back to equilibrium.  This text might lend itself very much to that, as a preacher lifts up the discomforting thought that, while we easily assume we are wheat, we can readily see that we are not.  Similarly discomforting is the fact that we are not able to distinguish the weedy folk from the wheaty ones in our midst.

Blessings on your proclamation!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Prodigal Sower

Jesus' description of a sower sowing the seed is nothing if not the picture of a prodigal.  How else to explain the extravagance that describes the sowing, as well as the abundance that finally results, albeit with considerable losses as well.  This parable, found and explained in Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23, the gospel lesson appointed for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, challenges our view of God.  Could God be that prodigal?

(The following questions are meant to ferret out concerns of Law and Gospel preachers.  They are meant to supplement many other fine sets of questions that exegetes might use for their discovery.  For a more thorough discussion of Law and Gospel preaching, see my brief guide, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted, available from or amazon.)

1.  How does the Word function in the text?  There is considerable debate amongst scholars as to the answer to this question.  Some argue that this text is Law, in that it warns us, especially in the allegorical interpretation, not to be those who choke off or neglect the Word in our lives.  Others argue that this parable is pure Gospel, reminding us that God is sowing seed everywhere, - even in places where growth seems unlikely - and finally abundance results.  I prefer the latter interpretation.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  Obviously, the answer to this question will depend on our answer to the first question.  If we choose to see God the Prodigal Sower, then the focus is not on our fitness as soil, but on God's ability to overcome our unfitness.  If, on the other hand, we choose to focus on the voice of the allegorist, then the Word is functioning primarily as Law, and our unfitness to be "good soil."  In this latter case, the Gospel is not heard.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  We are certainly the hearers of this parable.  We are the many listening on the shores of the sea.  How will we hear this?  that is the question.  One important note:  The parable itself focuses on the sowing of seeds, the allegory focuses on the "one" who is good soil or not.  This is important to note as we consider our place in this story.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  This parable is about God's Word being sown in the world.  It is about God's abundance, and our response to that abundance.  In a word, it is about grace, or conversely, faith.  Obedience, in the sense of what is an appropriate response to living in God's grace, is not addressed here..

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  Several couplets come to mind which may lead in fruitful directions:  scarcity/abundance; doubt/faith; failure to understand/ understanding.

6.  Exegetical work:  Luther, in his explanation about what draws us away from God, often referred to the triumvirate that we traditionally renounce at baptism:  "the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw us from God." (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 229)  It is worth noting  that these are precisely the things that the allegorist mentions in this pericope:  "the evil one comes and snatches [the Word] away", "such a person has not root" (i.e. is drawn away by sin), and "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word."  It might be fruitful to reflect on the fact that all of us are besieged by such enemies; there are none who are born "good soil", but in fact, it is God's grace that enables us rocky, thorny, hardened sinners, to hear the Word and believe it.  It is God's grace that makes us good soil.  One of the classic commentaries on parables I  appreciate is that of Joachim Jeremias.  His words regarding God's persistent sowing speak to Jesus' confidence in the power of the Word:  "To human eyes much of the labour seems futile and fruitless, resulting apparently in repeated failures, but Jesus is full of joyful confidence.... Consider the husbandman, says Jesus; he might well despair in view of the many adverse factors which destroy and threaten his seed.  Nevertheless he remains unshaken in his confidence."(The Parables  of Jesus, p. 150-151)

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  Joseph Justus Van der Sabb, in his extensive analysis, archived under Year A Gospel, 2011, argues that the verses which have been omitted from the pericope (vss. 10-17) are key to understanding this passage.  They provide the real life context.  In his analysis Van der Sabb shows how we are "soiled" by our complicity with the powers of this world.  Finally this leads to our death:  "I gasp. I sputter.  I wither.  I die."  Christ comes to "fertilize" us to life.  Christ takes our gasping, sputtering, withering, and dying upon himself, and in his death we are given new life. See for the entire analysis.

Blessings on your proclamation!