read Matthew 13. To get to Laity Lodge in Leakey, Texas, you have to drive through a river. A roadsign urges you on: “yes, you really do drive through the river.” If it hadn’t been for that roadsign, I might have turned around. But every time the river lapped against the tires of my rental car, and my courage flagged, I remembered the sign and kept going. I arrived without a splutter and spent two days surrounded by Christian artists, musicians and writers. “We don’t control what happens when we worship,” a man who writes a Laity Lodge blog under the name Pilgrim told us. And I didn’t control what happened over that weekend. All I know is that I arrived thinking I didn’t even need a retreat, and wishing I hadn’t come, and halfway through the weekend, as I was walking through a dry windy hilly landscape, with a rusty windmill creaking in its casings, a deer skittered past me. The supernatural joy and peace that comes from God alone filled me. I discovered that I hadn’t known how badly I needed a retreat. But apparently God knew.
Matthew 13 opens with Jesus “sitting beside the sea.” I love the image of Christ sitting beside the sea. It gives an image of a man at peace.
Jesus launched out into the lake on a boat because of the crowds, and told a story that begins with the words van Gogh has painted so beautifully: “a sower went out to sow some seed.” It’s a line bursting with possibility, just as the van Gogh version is bursting with color. This and the next parable are the very first parables in the gospels, and so it’s striking that Christ interprets both of them – he breaks the code for us. It’s as if he is saying: here’s the thing. I will speak to you in stories, but I want you to get it. My stories are about the kingdom of God. You’re not of that kingdom, so I’m going to use human beings in my stories. My stories are about humans, but even though I talk about humans, you can learn about God. This is because God has broken into the human world. The incarnation is real.
The sower, for instance, strikes me as a bad farmer. What kind of a sower throws his seed onto the road? Why would he throw it on rocky soil? Why does he have such lame aim? Similarly, the sower in the second parable strikes me as over-cautious; he is so afraid of losing even one stalk of wheat that he refuses to let his servants weed his fields. In two other stories in this chapter, Jesus praises two seemingly poor investors, who sell everything to buy one thing.
Why does Jesus tell parables about people who do unwise things? Humans do unwise things like this all the time. We all take our gifts and sow them places where they will yield no fruit. Then we sit by the roadside and grump about how nothing good ever happens to us. Or we throw diversification to the winds and fill our portfolios full of mortgage-backed securities and then moan about the greedy evil boss men of Wall Street. We fail to weed bad habits out of our lives and then complain when we get lung cancer. But we expect that of humans. Aren’t the parables supposed to be about God? And doesn’t God cherish careful sowing, tidy fields, and diversification of assets? Shouldn’t God be careful, tidy and risk averse?
What breaks open this chapter – what strikes me as the “grain of sand” or irritant, which, when turned over time yields the pearl – are the seemingly strange words of Jesus in verse 12: “For whosoever has to him will more be given, but to him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” This doesn’t seem fair. Shouldn’t God be like a perfect Communist redistributing wealth?
And then we remember. God is not like us. God is rich in mercy. God is kind to the cruel. God loves those who hate him. God is radical in grace. See Eph 2:4 and 4:7. God’s lavish kindness does not make sense. There is something in the ways of God which seem “foolish” to the eyes of man. 1 Cor. 1:27.
God invites us into a kingdom where we, too, can give generously. He invites us to sow wildly; to weed sparingly; to over-invest in love. In short, he calls us to be as lavish in generosity as He is. Titus 3:6; 1 Thess. 4:15.
How can we afford this rash generosity? We can afford it because Jesus Christ already paid the price on the cross. Eph. 2:16. How can we trust that we won’t get depleted if we give so lavishly? The answer is that we will get run down; but we know to whom to turn for refueling. Eph. 4:23. When we feel empty and turn to our Creator, God’s presence fills us up. When we open our hearts to God’s ways, we discover the strange truth that the more we give, the more we get. “My cup runneth over,” David exclaims in the famous 23rd Psalm You can almost hear David shouting the words, as if in the throes of discovery. When we sow as generously as God does, a supernatural joy fills us. We find ourselves like David, so full of the joy of the Lord that he dances with abandon with his servants in a loincloth. Or we become like Archimedes, running naked through the streets, having leapt from a baptismal bath, shouting, “Eureka! I’ve found it!” When God gives to us, we are so grateful and joyful, we can’t help but give it away. So God keeps giving to us. He is a river of life, constantly feeding us, so we can feed others. He gives to those who have, because they need more.
But what happens when we don’t feel like giving? What happens when we hear God’s word, but our hearts are hard, when worries choke our faith, and when the cares and riches of the world lure us away? We may want to give generously, but we watch, as if helplessly, when the miser in us takes over far. And we justify our miserliness, often not seeing it for what it is.
That’s why Christ uses story to break the human heart. As Christ says in this chapter, and as he once said when explaining why God allows divorce, our human hearts are hard.
In a poignant example of how sometimes only story can soften a hard heart, the book of 2 Samuel tells how King David slept with the world’s most famous bathing beauty – Bathsheba – after seeing her bathing on a nearby rooftop. Bathsheba was the wife of one of David’s most loyal followers – a select group of fighting men – so when Bathsheba told David she had become pregnant from their adultery, David murdered her husband in order to cover up his crime. David didn’t repent of his actions until God sent the prophet Nathan to tell him a story. Nathan tells David that there is a rich man in his kingdom with many flocks, who stole the one little lamb of a poor man. “That man deserves to die,” David said. Only then does Nathan tell David those chilling words: “you are that man.” 2 Samuel 12:7.
We are each of us “that man,” but we can’t see it. At the Laity Lodge retreat, a poet named Nathan Brown told us that there is a place in Africa where every story begins with the words, “back when rocks were soft.” It’s a resonant first line. It hearkens to a time when human hearts were soft. It hearkens to the Eden for which each of us longs. But we live in a fallen world, and there are angels with flaming swords guarding the way back to the garden and the tree of life. Genesis 3:24. So how do we satisfy our longing for Eden? How do we live in a world of hard hearts?
If you have ever spent time with someone who has a hard heart toward you, you realize there is nothing you can do to soften his or her heart. No matter what you say or do, the person with the hard heart will interpret it in a negative light. They will criticize everything you do. Eventually you have to accept that only God can change them. Only God is in the business of softening hard hearts.
Each of us has, to varying degrees, a hard heart toward the things of God. None of us want to give up our sovereignty. We don’t want to give up our ability to choose what we can and cannot do. If God tells us we can do anything we want, except one thing, suddenly that’s the One Thing we want to do. It happened to Adam and Eve in the garden. It happens to us still. St. Paul delves into this strange phenomenon in Romans 7. He finds himself doing the very thing he doesn’t want to do. If the law tells him not to covet, wham. He finds himself coveting. We may want to give, but we often don’t.
The image that comes to mind when I read Romans 7 is one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie: Keifer Sutherland, buried alive in a coffin by a villain, crying out with no one to hear until he dies. Perhaps it’s so chilling because it’s an image of each of us, trapped by our own desires. We are each, like the protagonist in the James Joyce short story, a creature “driven and derided by vanity.” So what, Paul moans at the end of Romans 7, is the solution?
The solution is that Jesus took the nails out of our coffins, and took them into his own hands, to set us free. If the Bible teaches anything, it’s that human evil demands a bloody kind of justice. Who hasn’t wanted to tear Jaycee Dugard’s captor limb from limb? The very sight of that bearded man makes my skin crawl. The animal sacrifice of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus’ graphic words in this chapter about hell, and the pain of the cross all point to the truth about what my friend Eric Metaxas, writing of the Holocaust, calls “the evilness of evil.” Bonhoeffer.
In both sower parables in this chapter, Jesus says we have an “enemy” and that the enemy is the devil. No matter how you picture the devil, it is clear that there is a dark force at work in our world, who wants to trap humans in destructive patterns and selfish empty worlds. Christ invites every person to allow him to rescue us from the darkness. He invites us to allow him to lift the nails from our coffins. He challenges us to seek the light with our whole hearts; the kingdom of God, he says, is like a pearl of great price. We have to be willing to give up everything else to buy it. When you find the one true pearl your heart has always yearned for, the only thing that doesn’t make sense is holding back.
The promises of Jesus tug on our hearts. If we accept the relationship with him that our hearts were made for, we will yield abundant fruit. We will live in a kingdom where the birds will nest in our branches. We will shine forth like the sun. Matthew 13:8, 32 and 43.
Sometimes, Christ’s message comes to us through a bad farmer. Sometimes, a human whom we know is no better than we are – and in many ways worse – tells us that there is a Redeemer. I have heard many people say, “I just can’t believe in Jesus because of all those bad Christians.” Jaycee Dugard’s captor used to sing Christian hymns to her while he raped her. That is a hard story to hear, one that make us weep. But no matter how often we humans misuse the words of God, Jesus never does. He breaks through. He says, “I know there are people who misuse my name. I am Justice, and I have a plan for them. Don’t worry about other people. I want you.” Jesus says to us the same words that Nathan told David, but he says them in love, not condemnation: “You are my man. You are my woman.”
God wanted us back when rocks were soft. He wants us now that we live in a world where rocks are hard. He loves us even when we don’t love him back. He says that if we are willing to be cleansed by the cross – if we will drive through a river to get to him – he will transfer us to a kingdom from which no one can steal us. We can have such God-softened hearts, that simple things like a deer, a tree, the sun and the wind, can take us to a place that satisfies our deepest longings.
Posted by Caroline Coleman, in carolinecolemanbooks.com