January 03, 2007

sower explained/david

Hope y'all had a good holy-day break.

Perhaps we're still recovering but I don't see this passage generating a whole lot of energy which is odd as it is pretty central to the Christian traditions.

The Jesus tradition -- as captured by Mark -- preserves a story as told by Jesus about this guy who sows his (or more likely his master's) land by broadcast seeding -- i.e., he throws the seed all over the place and hopes for the best. Mark also preserves an interpretation of this same story and places the interpretation on Jesus' lips. This interpretation is mostly allegorical in character. On this paradigm much of medieval exegesis is based. This approach becomes so utterly associated with Catholicism that Protestants end up taking a radically literalist approach to scripture. And so the entire warp and woof of churchianity's approach to scripture can be summed up as a turf war over this little patch of (un)real estate.

As a Quaker I can see this "seed" as the Seed and the sower as God. It undercuts the Catholic/Protestant thing nicely. But I'm not sure that it is true to the intent of the passage.

If this story is about spreading the "Good News" -- then it really says -- let us speak the truth (or the Truth) without regard for results -- the fruits of our speaking (or our actions) are with God and not ourselves. Do good for goodness sake. Deontic ethics if you will.

My trouble with that -- and here I stumble into heresy -- is that I find the so-called "gospels" remarkably ambiguous about just what this "Good News" is. Whatever the "Good News" is for Mark, for the other synoptics, it doesn't seem to be the modern notion of get-yourself-born-again-and-avoid-the-coming-tribulations we see in evangelical sub-cultures.

For a modern take on the Quaker gospel, check out Marshall's blog.


At 11:09 a.m., Blogger forrest said...

Well. The following was going to be a new post. But if we're going to have a discussion after all, it turns out to be a slightly different take on what David said. Which I'll take up more directly later.

Once upon a time there was a man who found a secret.

It was secret because it was elusive, because language alone could not convey it.

Language could plant the seed of it; time and experience could ripen that seed into a new sense or understanding of life and life's meaning. But for anyone not yet ripe, the secret was meaningless. Such people couldn't see what he was getting at. "That's nonsense," they'd say, or if he tried to make it simpler: "Everybody knows that." Thinking they knew what he was talking about, they couldn't possibly see it.

The process of learning that secret is called "Life."

We've acquired some really good ways of saying it, some from one religion, some from others, some ancient and some quite recent. But no way of saying it is the secret itself. The secret, in one sense, is like "Two plus two equals four," or like the punch line to a joke; you see it when you know that it's true. You don't see it because you "have faith." You see it because it's true. Faith keeps you looking, searching, growing that seed--but it isn't the secret.

Jesus had that secret--ripe and flowering out of him--and people caught the scent of it, all right. But they weren't ripe yet. Not even his disciples.

(Yeah, I've got it; it's on the tip of my tongue... I know what it looks like because I've seen it, but I think it's going to take a lot more ripening, in my case.)

God is "the man" from my parable. Religions are his efforts to explain. And from time to time, another person ripens.

Religions, while all this is going on, take on lives of their own. People pass on what they've heard--whatever they think it means--but they don't pass on the secret because only the ripe can receive it. Scriptures can be received, doctrines can be received, even parables can be received--but it's all like keys to a safe deposit box when you don't know where the bank is.

Somewhere in the early history of Christianity, the church became a purveyer of Fire insurance. They started selling "Get Out of Hell Free" cards. This is ironic, because their customers were already as much in the one true Hell (ignorance of God) as they ever would be. And didn't know it. What they needed was the secret. And what they were offered, all they were ripe to receive, was that same old insurance jive.

Those last two pieces from Mark have been badly distorted by the Hell Insurance paradigm. First that notion of an "unforgiveable" sin, which has frightened so many small boys, leaving sometimes lifelong scars. It was roughly the divine version of "If you don't stop making that face, you'll get stuck in it!"--but many of us wondered: "Have I done it? What I thought a minute ago; was that 'The Blasphemy?'--the ultimate 'Thought That Should Not Be Thunk?' Maybe I'm doomed!"

And now this parable, which, even with the explanation, still makes people (me for example) think first in terms of "good" and "bad" people. "Ooops, you weren't the right kind of ground! No crop, no laundry! Please take the down staircase; you'll find it over there to My left." Or some such. We're all primed to take this as blame and threat. "Listen up and be serious or you won't get your fire insurance!"

People didn't see anyone actually going to Hell, but they could hope; and they were all going through Hell themselves--so this take was plausible, and highly motivating, only it was pointing somewhat downstairs & to the left. But if you weren't simply repelled by that implicitly punitive notion of God, it could motivate you to turn to God & get beyond it.

These days, with everything around us palpably going to Hell, there are probably more people incubating the secret, more of them closer to ripeness than ever before. But our belief systems are still in the way of communicating it:

"Fire Insurance? No thanks, I don't believe in any of that." Or: "Fire Insurance? No thanks, I've already got it." "The secret? I heard that on tv the other night." There are a myriad ways not to see that there's Something in the picture one isn't seeing.

Isaiah 6.9: "Go and say to this people: 'Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.' Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn, and be healed."

No doubt there was a certain irony in the original. It is not a miracle to strike a people blind--but sometimes it takes a miracle for them to see what's plain before them.

So in adapting this to Jesus's use of parables, Mark missed the mark considerably. God had all along been doing everything he could to be seen, and heard, and understood--while people went right on seeing and hearing their familiar notions of God--instead of God--understanding everything as they already understood it--instead of turning, and looking again.

Parables were a common Rabbinic technique for helping people see in a new light.

Jesus was hiding nothing. But only by hiding it could he get people to take a second look.

At 11:59 a.m., Blogger Larry said...

"the intent of the passage" be damned. And likewise heresy. All that matters to me is what does it mean to you. The Bible is the Living Word. No one can do more than speculate on "who said it" or "what did he mean" For me that's simply irrelevant.

Re paucity of action: we've had a housefull of family for the last ten days. Eventually things will get back to normal, whatever "normal" may mean now.

Happy New Year.

At 2:04 p.m., Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hmm. You write, "If this story is about spreading the 'Good News' -- then it really says -- let us speak the truth (or the Truth) without regard for results...."

But that is not how I see it at all.

I start with the fact that this was a parable addressed from a boat to a multitude (verse 1). The multitude were not like the disciples; they were, at this early point in Christ's ministry, very ill-informed regarding Christ's message. Why then would Christ have instructed them about the importance of preaching without worrying about results, when they knew so little of Christ's message that they had nothing to preach?

I think some other explanation of the parable is necessary.

Here is how I myself parse this text:

Christ begins his clarification of the parable (in verse 11) by telling his disciples, "You understand the mystery, where outsiders do not." Here the word "mystery" (Gk. mysterion) is a technical term borrowed from the Greek mystery religions, where it meant something a whole lot larger than just "a secret": specifically, a mysterion was something that cannot be spoken in words, but that can be comprehended by going through a process of training.

The process of training, in the case of the mystery religions, was a sustained ritual of some sort, a ritual that the religion in question made available to qualified seekers at regular intervals. In the case of Christ's ministry, on the other hand, the training process was not ritualized at all: it was the process of ongoing discipleship to him personally.

Naturally it was given to the disciples to understand the mysterion, since the training program through which they would understand it was the discipleship that entitled them to be called "disciples" in the first place.

Given these facts, it is reasonable to guess that the "mystery" referred to in verse 11 might also be the "seed" referred to in the parable.

But if this is truly the case, then the sowing of the seed cannot be simply a matter of speaking the truth; for the seed in question cannot simply be spoken -- it can only be transmitted through discipleship. Thus, the sowing of the seed must be a matter of making the discipleship process available to all who would be willing to go through it.

-- In which case, this parable is actually about the consequences of the offer Christ made to the world in Matthew 11:28: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."

The meaning of the parable, then, is that the discipleship being offered to all, was a discipleship that would bear fruit only if the disciple was spiritually ready to receive the training properly.

Only if the disciple could not be drawn away from the gift that the training imparted by the tugs and pulls of the world (verse 15) -- only if the disciple was committed enough to stick to the process of discipleship through thick and thin (vv. 16-17) -- and only if the discipleship was detached enough from the cares of the world, the attractions of material stuff, and the desires for other rewards, to remain dwelling in the training and the gift (vv. 18-19) -- only then would the training bear fruit in the disciple's life.

And why was this message spoken to the multitude, cryptically and without any further public explanation? The answer must be contained in Christ's final statement, "He who has ears, let him hear!"

Christ apparently felt that, unlike his own disciples, some people in the multitude would understand what he was talking about without a lot of further explanation. These special people would be those who could intuitively grasp the way how discipleship was likely to work, even though they had never been disciples of Christ.
Christ evidently wanted to say to these people, "You can see, on the merest handful of clues, how discipleship to me would work, and what would make it likely to fail. You are potentially fertile ground, therefore; and you must be ready to be truly fertile, and let discipleship succeed in your life."

So the purpose of this parable was twofold: first, to draw out the special few from the world who were ready to take the next step and become Christians; and second, to prepare them for the taking of that next step.

Or so it seems to me.

At 10:57 a.m., Blogger forrest said...

Marshall's "mysterium" is a good metaphor for my "secret," except that we haven't worked the concept into our language yet, and call something "a mystery" to mean merely that we consider it implacably mysterious.

Another objection: We aren't talking about anything intrinsically conveyed by any ritual or any process of training (although either can be and has been helpful to different people.) It is utterly intrinsic to our God-given natures, but clearing away the obstacles to it (those pesky "motes") is anything but cut-&-dried.

It is called "Good News," but this does not make it new information about anything in the world; it's the sort of "news" that leaves our facts alone while changing the significance of everything.

There is not "a Quaker Gospel" or "a Christian Gospel"; there is rather Truth (that mysterium which Marshall and George Fox would call "Christ.") There are Christian (and specifically Quaker) ways to formulate and attempt to convey it, but it is not about the particular words we profess.

Jesus, as a prophet, was addressing Jews in a specific situation. Although we goyim have found Truth through sayings collected (and sometimes invented) by his followers, he was unavoidably involved in the politics of Israel--which meant being "100% religious and 100% political" (as J.D. Crossan has described Jesus.) His audience was expecting him to talk about "restoring" Israel, as that "Kingdom of God" which had been inexplicably given over to pagan goyim from Rome. Whether or not you agree with my belief that Jesus had been already annointed king, the Romans and their clients were watching him like they watched John the Baptist, much as US Army Intelligence was "keeping a dossier on every charismatic black preacher in the South" when Martin Luther King came along. And his audience was expecting to hear something about the God who'd brought their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt.

The fact that Jesus had met and knew God... was not exactly irrelevant, but its expression was being shaped by the history he'd been born into. On this level, we have a simple message about "The Messiah has arrived, God's Kingdom is here!" One can rejoice and forget about it, one can join up eagerly but fall away when opposition sets in; one can mean well but be distracted by personal fears and ambitions--or one can take the news to heart, pass it on. That is, "Bring forth however many times" until many more people hear than those at this particular gathering.

This is parable, not allegory. One would hardly expect a hearer to bring forth more message than he had heard.

But there's more meaning here than the immediate politics. One meaning is "hidden openly" so that no one can accuse Jesus of "telling everybody to go spread sedition, " even though everyone knows that's what he's telling them.

But there's also that "mysterium." Jesus is hardly ignorant of that, either. Once again, I'm leaving much unsaid for now and hoping to get back to it soon.


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