Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Secret is in the Soil

Remember when the big controversy fueling the news and talk shows was the presence of the Ten Commandments in government buildings? People were trying to have them removed to preserve the separation of church and state. This in turn got push back from conservatives who saw this as undercutting the Christian foundation for our society. The ironic thing is that many of the representations of the Ten Commandments had not been erected by either churches or states out of religious or civic fervor but had been donated by Paramount Pictures as a publicity campaign for the 1956 film "The Ten Commandments" directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Charlton Heston. I'm surprised Hollywood didn't decide to do a remake and cash in on all the public attention.

What bothered me at the time, as it had after the Columbine shootings when once again it was proposed by some that the Ten Commandments be posted in classrooms, is that both those championing these Decalogue displays and those opposing them seemed to think they were imbued with a mystical power. Did they really think that their presence would make people appearing in court spontaneously repent or convert? Or that looking at them would make teenage gunmen hunting classmates suddenly go, "'Thou shalt not kill?' D'oh! I forgot!" If so, it shows that what both sides really believe in is magic. Magic is the belief that the mere incantation of certain words will alter reality to suit someone's will. Magically endowed items are what Indiana Jones pursues in the movies. In real life, the cup that Christ used would be the greatest archeological treasure ever found. It would not, however, turn Nazis to dust or heal Sean Connery or convert Harrison Ford. It would not be an Energizer battery powered by God.

Even the scriptures do not posit Jesus himself as having this kind of power. In the 6th chapter of Mark, we are told that in his hometown of Nazareth he was able to do no deeds of power, other than heal a few of the sick. Why? Because of their unbelief. They knew him as the carpenter's son, Mary's boy, whose others sons and daughters were still living among them. He was a wise speaker, yes, but they just couldn't see him as a prophet of God. Without their trust, he couldn't do much for them.

When I wrote radio ads, I would sometimes encounter clients who expected their commercials to have a magical effect on their business. One high-toned restaurant in Key West, trying to drum up business in the doldrums of summer, tried to pass off a $27 fixed price lunch as a local's special. I tried to explain that "local's special" means something cheap and affordable and that using those words would not induce most workers in a tourist town to blow a week's lunch budget on one meal. But the salesperson who dreamt it up would not listen to reason. After running it a week with no results, the place's food and beverage manager was willing to change the ad to reach the audience that would be receptive to it.

Jesus knew this marketing truth. That's why he said in Matthew 13, where we find the parable of the sower, "Let anyone with ears listen!" The version of the passage used in our lectionary omitted some verses, obscuring the fact that Jesus explained the parable to his disciples privately. As for the others listening, Jesus quotes Isaiah to the effect that he is purposefully keeping it obscure so that its hearers will not understand it. That sounds shocking but there are 2 ways of looking at this which justify Jesus' words. The first is one I read of when researching this passage this week. The idea is that what Jesus was preaching was aimed at oppressed people and was so radical that if their oppressors understood it, they would suppress Jesus' preaching. It's an interesting theory and there are 2 things to commend it. First, that is exactly why the Book of Revelation is so hard to interpret. The writer used a lot of opaque Old Testament imagery and even a numerological code to hide his message from the Roman officials who were persecuting the church. Unfortunately, this has led some Christians to take what was intended to be a message of comfort about trusting in God's sure victory over violent persecutors into a Rorschach test for those who wish to combine bloodlust and Christianity, not noticing that Christians are depicted as non-combatants. And its numerical pattern, built around Sabbaths, attracts those who think God's Word is a cross between a Will Shortz puzzle and a Dorothy L. Sayers railway schedule mystery.

Secondly, up until the creation of the United States, religion and politics were inextricably combined. Rome usually insisted that its conquered peoples make room in their pantheons for the divine Emperor, who called himself King of kings and Lord of lords. So what might sound to us as a merely spiritual message could be perceived as a political message. The religious leaders of Judea played that card to get the belligerent Pilate, already on shaky ground with Rome, to go along with Jesus' crucifixion.

But I think something else is at work here. I opt for William Barclay's idea that Jesus is talking about people who just don't get it when it comes to spiritual wisdom. They have closed minds and though they might hear Jesus' words, they really aren't listening to the meaning. They have a kind of intentional deafness, akin to the intentional blindness that psychologists note in humans. In an experiment you can see on the internet, psychologists filmed people passing basketballs and instructed subjects watching the video to keep track of how many times the players passed the ball. People did pretty well at what they were instructed to do. But they were so focused on their task that they missed something else in the video. And it wasn't subtle at all. While the viewers were counting passes, they did not see a person in a gorilla suit saunter into the middle of the screen, beat his chest and stroll off camera. Many viewers did not believe the researchers when they were told what they had missed, until they were shown the video again. You tend to see what you expect to see. It's the same with hearing.

And the point of the parable is that, just as Jesus could not reach people who were not receptive, neither can the Word of God magically change everyone. And Jesus lists the main reasons.

For some, the word just does not penetrate. These people simply don't get it. Tell them they can have eternal life and they will cancel their life insurance. Like seed on a sidewalk, the word never gets below the surface. The next idea or desire flits by and it's gone.

Then there are the folks which do seem to react to the gospel. And how! "Eternal life? I'm all for it! Give me my WWJD bracelet and cross necklace! Slap on the "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned" bumper sticker! Love the Praise music! Go, team Jesus!" And then things get tough. And the person has no roots. He's just not that grounded in the faith. He doesn't seem to realize that the cross around his neck stands for suffering, and that following Jesus doesn't grant you a sweeping exemption from all "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." To be fair, such a person today may have been sold a bill of goods. If he was enticed to come to church by hearing someone preach a "prosperity gospel" that tells you that following Jesus automatically means health and wealth and invincible happiness, he may be unprepared for the reality of discipleship. I don't subscribe to that form of devotion that fetishizes suffering but neither should its existence be denied. Judaism and Christianity are 2 religions that admit that not all misfortune is caused by sin and that even the innocent suffer. But not all believers seem to have gotten the memo. And for some that's a deal breaker.

Then there are the people who may be rooted in the faith but their expression of it gets choked off by the weeds, "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth." It is interesting that Jesus lumps these 2 together. The cares of the world is better translated the "anxiety of the age." It carries a sense of distraction. So this does not rise to the level of the troubles or persecution that laid low the previous kind of believer. Here we are talking about the everyday things that continually demand our attention and chip away at our calm and our trust in God. If you let them, they will distract you and make it hard to keep your focus on God and his priorities.

To them Jesus adds the lure of wealth. And the word translated "lure" has overtones of deceit, the way a fishing lure is not a real fish or worm. When we feel well-off and prosperous, we should be thankful to God. But often that's when we forget him. We go to him in times of trial but when good times come, we are too busy enjoying our good fortune to take time for him. Plus riches do have a downside. They may solve some problems but they create others. When you have more money, you tend to spend more. You have more choices to make. You have more property to protect. You in fact have more cares of the world. And maybe that's what Jesus meant by the deceit of wealth. Studies show that after you make enough to live comfortably, any additional money doesn't really make you happier. Winning the lottery briefly makes people happier…and then they go back to however they originally felt. So unnecessary amounts of wealth do not deliver more delight. But they can crowd out the author of delight.

Finally Jesus speaks of the good soil and how the Word of God, planted there, is amazingly fruitful. Jesus doesn't define what makes this type of hearer good. One can assume that, in contrast to the others, that person has spiritual depth and is not being strangled by worldly cares and wealthy snares. But the main factor is his or her receptiveness to the Word. There are no barriers, only a desire to understand what God is saying and a willingness to put it into practice. Only then can the Word have results.

Which is why posting the Ten Commandments in public places is not going to have a magical effect on everyone seeing them. For one thing, if the words are there every day, they, like the color of the walls, will be not be noticed by those who frequent the courthouses and schoolrooms. But should someone notice, only the person who is already receptive to God's Word will get any benefit. And odds are that person already knows the words.

God knows that as long as his commandments remain external they will not work. In Jeremiah 31:33, the Lord says of his new covenant, "I will put my law in their very core and upon their hearts will I write it." Just as a seed needs more than a surface on which to grow, God's Word, his law, the expression of his true nature, cannot bear fruit if it does not burrow itself into the good soil of our hearts and minds. It must send down its roots deep within us. Only then can it grow, sprout and produce what it is supposed to.

Even the farmers of Jesus' day knew that soil didn't just remain fertile. It needed to remain fallow ever so often. It needed nutrients. It needed to be plowed and have its soil stirred up. It needed to be weeded. And it needed to get seeded properly. Just so we need our rest, the Sabbath. We need the nourishment of the fellowship of those united in the Holy Spirit. We need to have our habits of thought overturned from time to time, so we don't overlook what new and unexpected things God is trying to show us. We need to ruthlessly weed out the stuff that distracts us and lures us away from God. And we need to receive God's Word. We need to let it germinate, change and then break forth in riotous new growth. Only by receiving the Word, in all its unlikeliness, can we hope to bear sweet fruit.

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