Looking out across the valley, the fields below have a wan, camouflage quality, patched brown and gold and shades of faded green. Scents of crushed chamomile underfoot as we walk, and the hedgerows are full of wild geraniums, poppies and cornflowers and dog daisies. It’s nearly harvest.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-25
That’s the reference for today’s gospel reading. Looks innocuous enough, doesn’t it? Beware, sometimes a comma does a great deal of work.
The comma marks a gap. And as we’ve learned over the last months, we can’t afford to gloss over gaps. Gaps have a way of asserting themselves, demanding things of us. Either side of this comma is a parable with which we’re all familiar.
Listen! A sower went out to sow…
And we know where we are. In the fields.
But concealed by the comma, verses nine to seventeen offer us some of Jesus’ saltiest and most demanding statements. He says to his disciples,
To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that “seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.”Matthew 13:10-13
By missing out verses nine to seventeen we’re allowed to feel safe and secure in our discipleship: we’re privy to Jesus’ words, just as the twelve are; we’re in on it. But reading the intervening verses, ignoring the comma, we find our position considerably less assured. Perhaps we’re ‘them’ after all, those to whom the secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not given.
The comma conceals an uncomfortable claim: that admittance to the kingdom of heaven is conditional. What’s more, the conditions appear not to relate to faith or hope or love, but to knowledge.
This is unfamiliar territory. In contemporary expressions of Christianity we’re much more likely to find stress placed on belief, on faith, on praise, on loving God and neighbour and so on. There’s actually not a great deal to know.
To the medieval mind this would have seemed very odd indeed. Back in the thirteenth century, entering the university of Paris or Bologna or Oxford to study theology, you would have embarked first on a training which included astronomy, geometry, mathematics, logic. Theology, the longest and most arduous of the courses, was the queen of sciences. Theology was knowing stuff.
And actually we find a similar move away from the importance of knowledge in a good deal of secular thinking too. Take vegetarianism. In the late third century, the pagan philosopher and committed vegetarian, Porphyry wrote a letter to his fellow philosopher, Firmus Castricius. Like me, Castricius has tried his best to go vegetarian, and failed. Porphyry takes him to task.
I heard from visitors, Firmus, that you had condemned fleshless food and reverted to consuming flesh. At first, I did not believe it.Porphyry, On Abstinence from Killing Animals
Yikes! We tend to adopt vegetarianism on account of an animal’s being able to suffer physically and emotionally. But that’s not an argument Porphyry uses. For Porphyry, the crucial point is not that animals can feel or have emotions or suffer, but that they can think. ‘There is a rational soul in animals,’ he claims, ‘and they are not deprived of wisdom’. And that’s why we shouldn’t kill and eat them.
Porphyry’s argument against killing animals rests on our sharing a capacity with them to understand. He uses understanding as a way of including animals in a sphere of responsibility that precludes us from killing them. Jesus uses understanding too, but contrariwise, as a comma, as a way of distinguishing between human beings, those with understanding, and those without. On which side of the comma do we fall? And can we cross the comma?
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.Matthew 13:19
With the Sower, Jesus offers us a parable in which the Word of God is represented as sown seed. Some seeds get pecked up by birds, others fall on thin soil, others are choked by weeds. But some falls on good ground and flourishes.
The Sower is effectively the parable of parables, a key that unlocks them all. It’s not about knowing how to forgive, or knowing how to be neighbourly, or knowing how to be ready; it’s about knowing how to know.
The parable is a picture of knowledge. Jesus tells us, if we wish the Word of God to bear fruit in our lives we cannot afford to stop listening, perceiving, by being open to the Word, allowing it to take root in our lives. The key to Jesus’ theory of knowledge is a radical openness. Open ears, open eyes, open minds, open hearts. This is the purpose of the parable, the purpose of all true science and art: to wedge us open.
The Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky has cropped up more than once in these reflections. Here he is talking about the purpose of art.
the allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time
We’re not the grain; we’re the ground. To understand is to be ploughed and harrowed, open and ready to receive the seed.
Well, what do you know, it’s nearly harvest time.
The traditional English folk song, ‘John Barleycorn’ dates back at least to the sixteenth century, but may well be far older than that. The song grants personhood to the crop which forms the basis of brewing. ‘John’ has to suffer being ploughed, harrowed, harvested, threshed and milled. To bring good to the world means dying to the world, dying for the world. It’s a distinctly pagan song, but with a potently Christian reading…
The song was recorded by Traffic in 1970 and gave their fourth album its title. This is a 2012 video clip of Steve Winwood who sang, played keyboards and guitar on the original record. One of the great voices of his generation.
creator of all things, source of all life,
open our ears to the secrets of your kingdom
in scripture, in sacrament, and in science.
sustainer of all things, richness of all life,
open our eyes to the glory of your Creation
in the sowing and in the reaping.
redeemer of all things, and purpose of all life,
open our minds to the mystery of your truth
in parables and in prayer:
that we may find knowledge nowhere but in you,
wisdom in the acceptance of your will,
understanding only in your Word,
your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.