A vision of hope

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- St Augustine, writing in one of his more optimistic moments, once described the life of the Christian as ‘a convalescence’. We Christians are those sick and injured who need to be nurtured back to health, back to God who always intended us for glory and to share his life; that is the purpose of the Church and why we are members of it. Volumes have been written on the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23), not a little of it a depressing call to perfectionism, and even the bit at the end can be made to seem negative, not least for those only achieving thirtyfold. So it is worth while trying to make something positive of the whole thing.

One of our greatest difficulties in making sense of the scriptures lies in the fact that we read the Bible in tiny bits – here at the Mass, the Parable of the Sower – and read it quite detached from the rest of the Gospel. Matthew wrote his story of Jesus when Jews and Christians were parting company, a tragedy for both communities, and his Gospel is shot through with the grief and pain and anger the conflict provoked. Originally it was set in the context of Jesus’ own bitter disputes with the elements in Judaism who would kill him, and there is an increasingly sharp divide in our Gospel between followers of Jesus and his enemies, and the latter frequently accuse him of healing by the power of Satan. Seen in such a context the Sermon takes on quite a different hue, and is not about our scaling of any moral heights at all.

I suspect therefore that, taken in its original setting, our Gospel of the Sower speaks disparagingly of the fate of some of the seeds: those eaten by the birds; those that fell on the rocks and those that fell among thorns; as a reflection upon the society which ultimately rejected and crucified Our Lord. Were those eaten by the birds representing the Jews whose attacks ultimately killed Jesus, those who never gave him a chance despite his wonderful miracles? Were those that fell among the rocks those who followed Jesus for the food, or for what he could give them, but failed to stick the course, or even those whose wealthier patron’s demands prevented them from following the way of Jesus?  Were those that struggled against the thorns an image of those caught up in materialism, the need to climb the greasy pole to success in the society of the time, and who fell by the wayside, unable or unwilling to deal with the cost of discipleship? Seen in this sense then, the comment is not about their ‘not having tried hard enough’ but more about minds closed to the possibility of God’s grace, those who in various ways chose not to follow Christ, and chose deliberately to turn against him. There must have been those at the crucifixion who had for a time cheered Jesus and taken all he offered them.

What then of the thirty, sixty and one hundred fold? I cannot think that in God’s sight there are third, second and first class Christians, rather like holders of old fashioned railway tickets. God’s grace is surely simply his grace, poured out equally for all, and it always carries the abundance of his gift of himself to everyone – he could never do less, be less. Yet equal does not always mean the same, as Paul wrote so eloquently discussing varieties of ministries. Here, as the parable puts it, the rich soil produces differently according to the abilities of the recipient, but all share equally in the gift, some may be great theologians, like Augustine, others martyrs, others here the majority of us; but our commitment is valued alongside that of the greatest saints.

Perhaps this is something of the flavour of Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (8:18-23) In this letter he reflects throughout on the utter inability of any Christian to ‘make it on his own’, and what we have as Romans 8 is probably the finest exposition of this impossibility, and of our entire reliance on God’s mercy and grace. Our brief excerpt shows Paul at his height as he says “The whole creation is eagerly waiting for God to reveal his sons….creation was made unable to attain its purpose, it was made so by God; but creation still retains the hope of being freed…to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God.” For Paul, it is about being on the journey and knowing that you are on it with the entire cosmos, rather than being some smart type who believes he/she has achieved the heights and made it on their own. Righteousness for Paul was never to be achieved by rigorously following the rules, but by flinging oneself on God’s mercy.

From exile in Babylonia in the 6th century BCE a school of prophets wrote what we have as Second Isaiah. They wrote from their understanding of the shame and disgrace of exile in a foreign land, subject to the demands of their captors, even when the elite, from whom many of them came, experienced this as an iron hand in a velvet glove, used and valued as they were in the cities as literate men. In time they had come to see their exile as God’s punishment for Israel’s unfaithfulness to his cult, and as a period of discovery of their faith during a time when they had no Temple and no sacrifices, and had to develop a self-understanding far from their homeland. Part of that project was the renewal of the Jewish faith, and with it the promise that ultimately they would return to their own country. This indeed would happen when Babylon succumbed to the new might of Persia with their very different policies towards the conquered. Their vision of a future back home I note is full of hope, not in power or great wealth, but of an agricultural community, in tune with nature and its cycles. Perhaps the convalescent was recovering and in humility was ready to return ‘home’.