“If a brother sins against you…”

Watching for the morning of September 7

Year A

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 18 / Lectionary 23

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Macrocranion Tupaiodon Weitzel, 1949. Photocredit: H. Zell

We are on dangerous ground, this Sunday. Jesus is talking about sins. We don’t like people talking about our sins.

We have trouble getting this right in our time and place. We tend think about sins as personal acts or failings. We speak of sins as if they were disconnected from the larger human community. If I drive too fast I get a ticket for violating the law, the written rule; I do not imagine that I have betrayed or dishonored others.

Adultery is not a personal moral failing; it is a rupture in the human community. Gossip is not a guilty pleasure; it is a poisoning of the social fabric. Sins involve others. It rends the network of relationships that give life its strength and goodness.

So what is to be done when there is some rupture in the human community? Revenge is the classic answer. I make it right by harming you the way you harmed me. I balance the equation. And the fear of revenge restrains us. On an international scale we called it Mutually Assured Destruction. It may keep an outward peace, but it is not the peace of God. It is not the kingdom. It is not the way of life.

Jesus chooses the way of reconciliation.

And he teaches us to do the same.

The Prayer for September 7, 2014

Almighty God,
you call us to walk as children of the light
and set before us the command to love one another.
Turn us back when we stray and lead us in your pathways
that, clothed in Christ, we might bear your grace to the world;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 7, 2014

First Reading: Ezekiel 33:1-11
“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” – God compares the prophet to a watchman against hostile enemies and charges him not to remain silent when God has given him a message of warning for the nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:33-40
“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” – Another segment of this magisterial psalm celebrating the gift of God’s Law/Teaching.

Second Reading: Romans 13:8-14
“the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
– Paul urges his hearers to live the life to which they have been called in Christ where love (the solidarity of regarding others as members of your own family/kin) is the heart of God’s commands.

Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20
“If another member of the church sins against you…” – Following the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the declaration that God does not want any to be lost, Jesus instructs is followers on seeking reconciliation in the community.

“Besides women and children”

For Saturday

Matthew 14

File:Christ feeding the multitude.jpg21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

It grates against our ears to hear the number given as five thousand and then to be told that the women and children weren’t counted. It should, I guess. It is helpful to remember that equality of men and women – and adults and children – is not part of our human experience ever since we lost the garden. (We should be clear that scripture attributes this to our fall from communion with God, and not to God’s eternal design.) But it wouldn’t have sounded strange to Matthew’s congregation; it would have said something much different to them.

First of all, it would have clued them in that we are hearing about a banquet. Banquets at the time were public rituals not private parties. As public events they were the affairs of men. The fact that this is a banquet is important for Matthew, because he has set this banquet of Jesus alongside the banquet of Herod Antipas.

This is a banquet, a public occasion, not a spontaneous picnic in the park (at the time of Jesus, people didn’t picnic out in nature). At such occasions, the food was set before the men, what remained would then be taken away to be shared with the women and children. (It was a man’s obligation not to eat to excess, to remember that others would need to eat from this table.) After the women and children ate, what remained would be shared with the poor. (So it was also the obligation of the women and children not to over indulge. Whatever they ate beyond what was needed was stolen from the mouth of the poor.) So this simple reference “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” clues the reader in that what happened out there in the wilderness was not as a quick lunch but the banquet of God.

At this banquet of God everyone ate and was satisfied – and there were still twelve baskets left over, twelve baskets for the poor, twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel.

All are fed at the table of God.

All are fed. Not those in power. Not those with privilege. Not those with abundant lands. Not those with houses and fields and people to come tend their gardens and clean their houses and prepare their meals. All. The men, the women and children, and the poor.

5,000 was bigger than all but a few cities in Israel. 5,000 households may be hyperbole – but it proclaims the bounty of God. The banquet of God has come to us in this Jesus of Nazareth. Israel is fed again in the wilderness. The nations are gathered to feast at Zion. The reign of God is present to us in this blessed and broken bread.

And all are fed.

Feeding the crowds

For Friday

Matthew 14

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Volunteers packing food boxes for the San Diego Food Bank. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Paul Polach

19Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

Do you think the disciples ate first, before passing the food on to the crowds?

I wrote this simple question for Friday’s reflection. After writing the question, I couldn’t find the next words. I tried. I tried several times. And every time, it seemed like they were just words, that all the power was in the question. But I was unwilling to post just the question. I wanted people to probe the depths of the question.

Do you think the disciples ate first, before passing the food on to the crowds?

In a way everything hangs on this question: Is the church’s first obligation to feed itself or to feed the crowds?

This isn’t meant to be a stick with which to beat upon our congregations (it’s not that we don’t deserve it; it’s that beating us with sticks doesn’t make us more loving.) It’s meant to be one of those simple incisions that open us up for heart surgery. Hiding in the question is the reminder and profound truth that Jesus didn’t eat first, either.

He didn’t eat first on the night of the last supper; he got up and washed everyone’s feet. He didn’t eat first when the soldiers came to arrest him; he stepped forward so his followers could get away. He didn’t eat first – he didn’t take care of himself first – when he stood before Pilate, or when he carried his cross, or when he bore our pain. Alright, maybe he ate first on Easter evening when he appeared to his followers and asked for something to eat, but that wasn’t to serve himself, it was to show his disciples that he was not a ghost. That night he ate first for our sake, as everything else was done for our sake. Jesus gives himself to us and for us. And when we understand this, when we are truly grasped by this faithful love of God, then we start to understand that the meal doesn’t end with us: we were sent to feed the crowds.

Dilettantes and disciples

Thursday

Matthew 14

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The eyes of Jesus. Part of an early (7th-8th century) Byzantine icon found in Egypt

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

“When the crowds heard it.” The ‘this’ Jesus heard was the beheading of John, but what is this ‘it’ that the crowds heard? Does Matthew have in mind that the crowds have also heard about John? Or does Matthew have in mind that the crowds heard have that Jesus has gone to a deserted place?

Translating is tricky work. It would be nice to have the translator before us to ask why he or she translated the Greek word ‘and’ with a ‘but’. The ‘and’ seems to suggest that we are extending the thought – Jesus withdrew and the crowd went after him. The ‘but’ raises the possibility that Jesus’ response to John’s death was to withdraw, but the crowds’ response was to follow Jesus. ‘Follow’ is a big word in the Gospels. It is what disciples do. Is Matthew suggesting that the crowds that had looked to John now look to Jesus? That the mantle of John has fallen on Jesus? It’s not uncommon when we lose one hero to look for another.

So are the people looking for a hero, any hero, or are they looking for Jesus? Are they turning to Jesus out of desperation or have they found the one and don’t want to let him out of their sight?

Do you see the question that is homing in on us? Are we people who turn to Jesus in moments of crisis, or have we found in him the word of life and want always to be in his presence?

Are we following him or leaning on him?

Is he the plumber we call in an emergency or the master to whom we have apprenticed ourselves?

It is an important question for our self-reflection. Are we dilettantes or disciples?

The sweetness in the text is that it doesn’t matter to Jesus. When he sees the crowd, he has compassion. He does not ask if those who have come with their sick are there just for the healing or for the whole journey of faith. He heals. He nourishes. He sets before them the great banquet of heaven.

Not too far down the line, one of Jesus’ closest disciples will betray him and the rest will run away. Peter, too, will choose his own skin – thought none of us can honestly blame him considering what happens to those who would suggest there is some other rule on earth than Rome. But the question whether Jesus is a vocation or an avocation will haunt Peter until Jesus walks him back through his three-fold denial with a three-fold declaration: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” But even that morning, on the shore of Galilee, began with a meal.

Jesus will indeed talk to us about the necessity of discipleship. But first there is compassion. First he heals. First he sets before us the great banquet of heaven.

The Dance of the Seven Veils

Wednesday

Matthew 14

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Ludwig Hohlwein poster for a Richard Strauss music festival

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

“When Jesus heard this.” The reading for Sunday requires us to look back and see what the “this” is. “This” is the beheading of John.

You have probably heard of this “this”. It was made famous as the “Dance of the Seven Veils” in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome. Salome is the daughter of Herodias from her first marriage to Herod II. His brother, Herod Antipas, scandalously took Herodias as his wife against Biblical law. (Herodias divorced Herod II when he was dropped from his father’s will, perhaps for someone still in line to inherit the throne. To take Herodias, Herod had to divorce the daughter of the Nabataean king. This led to war with the father of the spurned wife.) John dared to preach against the illicit union and Antipas eventually had John arrested. He was, however, hesitant to kill the prophet.

Herodias apparently had no such compunction towards the prophet who called her marriage incestuous. And, according to the Biblical account, at a great palace banquet for his birthday (attended only by men, remember) Antipas allows his daughter to dance for their entertainment. It is shameful to allow a family member to dance before men who were not family. And it is yet more shameful to show oneself aroused and out of control by such a dance. But Herod – again shamefully – promises her anything, up to half his kingdom. Salome consults with her mother and returns to ask for the head of John. Herod is bound by his public oath and has the head of John brought on a platter and given to her.

The feasts of the elite were decadent affairs by almost any standard, made more so by the progressive impoverishment of the poor who were losing their lands to the wealthy. Against this background we see Jesus hold a banquet that feeds the poor.

When Jesus hears about the death of John – his cousin according to Luke – he leaves town. Whether he is avoiding Herod, troubled by grief, or on a spiritual retreat to ponder what John’s death portends for himself, the text doesn’t say. Only that the crowds followed, raced around the lake, and were waiting for him when he got off the boat. Though he sought solitude, he had compassion for them and began to heal their sick. As the day grew late, he is urged to send the crowd away. The five loaves and two fish are not, in Matthew’s telling, brought forth by a small boy; it is all Jesus’ disciples have. But placing their all into the hands of Jesus, it becomes enough to satisfy the whole crowd.

Herod serves a banquet leads to death. But in the wilderness, Jesus serves a banquet that leads to life.

“All ate and were filled”

Watching for the morning of August 3

Year A

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

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Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, Israel. The mosaic on the floor marks the stone where Jesus was thought to have multiplied the loaves and fishes. The mosaic is from the fifth century church destroyed in 615, but rediscovered and excavated in 1892.

Manna in the wilderness, the bounty of creation, the banquet of God towards which all creation moves, the table of the Lord around which we gather every Sunday – they all weave together in the readings for Sunday. The central narrative on Sunday is the feeding of the multitudes. It is perhaps the single most important story in the Gospels other than the passion. It is told by all the gospel writers – and by Matthew and Mark twice: feeding 5,000 and then again 4,000.

We have lost something of the meaning of family dinner. It lingers on for many in the celebration of Thanksgiving. We almost always seal a wedding with the sharing of a meal. We know that the sharing of food binds us to one another. It is the most fundamental of all acts of human kindness.

I have a picture of my first born in a high chair, learning to feed herself, offering us a cheerio with her gummy fingers. Food is to be shared. It binds a mother and child in the most intimate communion. It binds God and ourselves in the most intimate communion. God the provider. God the eternal parent who gives his life for his children. God the prodigal father who kills the fatted calf to bind together a fractured world.

So the prophet cries out like a merchant in the marketplace bidding all to come and “buy” the sustaining food offered at God’s stall for free. So the poet sings of God’s open hands to provide his bounty for all living things. So Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and provides the Sabbath meal for all creation. And even Paul’s passionate cry that he is willing to be eternally cut off from God that his people might receive God’s gift in Christ Jesus, reflects that eternal love that comes to us in the bread and wine.

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Picture of the mosaic noted above.

The Church’s act of communion is not a religious ritual; it is the most profound participation in Christ. We who eat this bread are present in the wilderness receiving the manna. We who share this loaf are transported to the hillside with the five thousand. We who gather together at this table are given a taste of the wedding banquet that has no end. The world to come has come in Jesus. Lives are healed. Sins are forgiven. The estranged are reconciled. The dead are made alive.

The Prayer for August 3, 2014

Almighty God,
through your Son Jesus you set a table
for all the world to come and feast.
Grant us hearts that are eager to hear your word,
share in your banquet,
and live your reign of mercy and life;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for August 3, 2014

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” – After the return from exile, the prophet calls to the community like a vendor in the marketplace, inviting them to “feast” on God’s promise that the eternal covenant once established with David is now transferred to the whole nation.

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.” – A psalm of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and bounty.

Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
“I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”
– Having laid out his message of God’s reconciling grace apart from the law, Paul now takes up the problem that God’s people have largely ignored the message of Christ Jesus. He begins with an expression of his great grief that Israel has not received this fruit of all their promises.

Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
“All ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.” – Following the parables of chapter 13, Matthew tells of Herod’s banquet where all act corruptly and John is beheaded, and of Jesus’ banquet on the mountain where he has compassion for all.

Something so small

Sunday Evening

Matthew 13

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Cones and seed of a Giant Sequoia, by Didier Descouens

31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

I brought a hammer, pliers and screwdriver for the children’s message on Sunday. For each I had asked, “What is this for?” and received the expected answers, “to pound nails,” to “turn bolts,” to turn screws.”

I then pulled from my bag a seedpod from a liquidambar tree. It’s a little smaller than a golf ball, with spikey tendrils that snag easily in fur to help disperse the seeds far and wide. They used to get so tangled in the feathers of my childhood cocker spaniel that I had to cut them free with scissors. Jeremy identified them as “those things in the playground my sister hates.” They hurt when you step on them.

I then pulled out a small redwood seed cone, and from the cone a small redwood seed. I told him it was from the redwood trees outside, but he asked “what trees?” so we ducked out the vestry door to look at the five majestic spires. If you only come into the sanctuary from the direction of the parking lot, you may not notice them. But there, beneath the towering redwoods, Jeremy gave the remark that is the heart and soul of the parable of the mustard seed: “It’s amazing something so big could come from something so small.”

There was nothing more to say, really, though I had planned to. We walked back inside and I took the Bible from the lectern (properly called an ambo, it serves as both lectern and pulpit) and asked whether the Bible was more like the tools or the seed. And he answered without any hesitation, “the seed.”

I forget, sometimes, how clearly children see.

The Word of God is not a tool we use to craft objects or people of our own design; it is a seed that grows into the object of God’s design.

From the seed of God’s word grows hope, compassion, justice, mercy, patience, truthfulness, integrity, joy. From the seed of God’s word grew St. Patrick’s courage and compassion to go back as a missionary to the people who had captured and held him captive as a slave. From the seed of God’s word grew the courage to sit at lunch counters and to stand before fire hoses. From the seed of God’s word has grown a multitude of orphanages, clinics and hospitals and wells to bring clean water in remote places. From the seed of God’s word come millions of simple acts of kindness. From the seed of God’s word hearts are healed and lives grow into the image of Christ.

Scripture can be used as a tool to build a house of slavery; but the seed of the word grows into a community of freed people.

And “It’s amazing something so big could come from something so small.”

Choosing well

Wednesday

1 Kings 3

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Icon of King Solomon in the Kirillo-Belozersky Monastery

5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night.

When we in the modern West hear an opening sentence like this, it sounds to us like “Once upon a time.” It is the introduction to a fairy tale.

We don’t trust dreams. They are not, for us, windows into the divine. They may be windows into the inner workings of our psychology, they may be voices of the subconscious, but they are not the voice of God.

Most of us don’t remember our dreams. Few of us pay attention to them. But most cultures do. Joseph, the favored son of Jacob, dreamt dreams that revealed the future. And Joseph, husband of Mary, dreamt dreams that saved the life of the child Jesus. We may hear them as children’s stories, but the ancients did not. Solomon has an authentic encounter with the divine – and what comes from that encounter is of great import.

5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.”

There at the climax of the swiftly moving events surrounding David’s death, there in the tumult and political machinations over which of David’s many sons will gain the throne, Solomon emerges victorious. Nathan the prophet plays a part. Bathsheba plays a crucial role. Her son Solomon is not the eldest son. She is not the first wife. But racing to install him as king before Adonijah seizes the crown, they succeed in setting Solomon on the throne.

And why? Why should the kingdom go to another? For the next 400 years in Judah the crown will go to the eldest son. In the northern kingdom of Israel it will be different. There, coups and counter coups, rivalries and butcheries will be the pattern of power. But not in the southern kingdom. There it will be more or less orderly.

But David chooses Solomon. And where will God come down in this succession struggle? Will he side with the younger son, or will God side with the claims of heritage and social norms?

“Ask what I should give you.”

Much hangs on this question. Will Judah’s kingship pursue the familiar quest for glory, wealth and power? Or will Judah’s kingship journey towards a different goal?

Will God stand with Solomon if he chooses wealth and power? Or will God turn from David’s line as God turned away from Saul?

In this night Solomon is being tested, probed, questioned. Who will he show himself to be? What path will he choose? It is another narrative like Jacob wrestling God at the river Jabbok, or Abraham taking Isaac to the mountain. This is not royal propaganda; the heart of Solomon is being weighed. And the fate of the nation lies in the answer.

We are all tested. At some time or another choices have to be made, prayers are offered, a path chosen. And what shall I choose? What goal do I pursue? To what end do I lay down my life?

Solomon chooses wisdom; he chooses the care of his neighbor; he chooses the path that begins with the fear of the LORD.

The point of the story isn’t that Solomon got his cake and ate it, too; the point is that Solomon, who could have chosen anything, chose wisdom. He was tested at Gibeon and chose well.

Such a story doesn’t simply praise Solomon; it pries into our own hearts and asks how we have chosen – inviting us to choose anew today.

The wise see

Watching for the morning of July 27

Year A

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

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Mustard seedling. Photocredit: Tess Watson

What you see now is a mere seed, but from the smallest of seeds, a surprising end awaits.

Jesus was not much to look at. He was not a member of any ruling family. He had no noble blood or title. He was a carpenter’s son, after all, perhaps a stonemason; he worked construction. What few could see was that he would be building a new world, a living temple, a true humanity.

We think of Solomon in all his glory – 500 wives and concubines and the wealth of the nations. But his prayer was for wisdom. Wisdom to rule wisely. Wisdom to understand the world God had fashioned. Wisdom to understand the meaning of life. Wisdom that begins in the commands of God.

Perhaps the narrative of Solomon at Gibeon is nothing more than political propaganda, but if so, it is propaganda that has become scripture. The king who follows David, the king who will carry forth the plan of building a holy nation and temple, should ask above all for wisdom. Kingships stand or fall on whether they seek the glory of the king or the glory of God – justice and mercy and care for the poor. Should Solomon seek wealth and power or a just nation that attends to God’s commands?

And so the psalmist adds his voice to these texts for Sunday, singing praise of that true wisdom which God has embodied in the Torah: God’s law, God’s teaching, God’s path for the people.

Wisdom sees what is of true value: the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field, the home for the birds that shall grow from the tiniest seed, the reign of God that is hidden in humble beginnings of the man from Nazareth. Those who are wise will give everything to gain it.

The Prayer for July 27, 2014

O God, your promises never fail
and your purpose for the world
will be brought to its fulfillment in Christ Jesus.
Grant us wisdom to recognize the riches of your grace
and to live now the joy that awaits us;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 27, 2014

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12
“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” – After David’s death, Solomon gains the throne and comes to worship at the ancient holy site of Gibeon where he asks God for wisdom.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:129-136
“The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” – In a majestic tour de force in praise of God’s law/teaching/word, the poet celebrates the guiding commands of God in 22 8-line strophes that proceed from Aleph to Taw (A to Z) with each of the 8 lines in every strophe begin with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”
– Paul’s argument that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ by God’s favor (grace) apprehended by our trust in his promise (faith) now culminates in an ecstatic declaration that nothing in the heavens or on earth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” – From unlikely beginnings – a tiny seed, a bit of yeast – comes an extraordinary end, so it is with the reign of God. What is sown looks frail and powerless – a Galilean rabble and a crucified ‘messiah’ – but from it will come an exceptional harvest. Like a merchant finding a priceless pearl or a farmer finding a great treasure, the wise will do all in their power to obtain it.

Unimagined

Wednesday

Matthew 13

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The Sower, Vincent van Gogh

3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.

Parables are like jokes; they consist of a story that carries the hearer along expected pathways, then takes a sudden and surprising turn. In a joke, that turn makes us laugh as we reframe what we have heard. So the parable tells a story, and in the ‘surprise’ we are forced to reconsider what we assumed at the beginning. It prods us to see God, ourselves and the world differently – if we have ears to hear; sometimes people don’t get the joke.

So what is the surprise in this familiar parable of the sower and the seed? (Just as familiarity can kill a joke, it can kill a parable.) A sower sowing is no surprise. Neither is the fact that when you sow there is an inevitable and unavoidable loss to birds and weeds and the path. The surprise in this parable of Jesus is the extravagance of the harvest. Instead of “you still get a modest return, enough to feed your family,” you get a harvest far beyond anything you could imagine. A 100, 60, even 30-fold harvest is nothing less than miraculous. Such a harvest is incomprehensible.

So Jesus is out here, healing a few who are sick and preaching to villages in the backwater of the world. And his word is mocked by some, ignored or corrupted by others, and hated by still others. From such meager sowing one might expect a few followers, but the fruit of this word is beyond all comprehension. The world is forever changed. We are forever changed.

We tend to hear a moral imperative in this story: be good soil. Don’t let the evil one snatch away the word from you. Don’t let it get choked by weeds. But the message is in the surprise: despite all the obstacles, the word that is sown will reap a harvest beyond all imagining. The parable is not about us; it is about the power of God’s message.

We lose faith in the power of grace sometimes. We lose faith in compassion, in forgiveness, in charity, in kindness. We lose faith in the gospel. Against the might of Rome, against the ‘hosts of wickedness in heavenly places’ (RSV), how can a message of love and forgiveness prevail?

“A hundredfold” says Jesus. “A hundredfold.”