NOT many Gospel passages in the Principal Service Lectionary have sequels. But here is “Parable of the Sower II”: “The Enemy Strikes Back!” Last Sunday, we heard how the Sower sowed seed that was good, and saw how it prospered or failed. This time, the focus is not on positive potential, but on negative threat.
I wish verse 35 had not been cut. It says: “Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables.” But, if you then check the source that Matthew is using (Mark 4.33), you find a slight but telling difference: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.”
Matthew drops in that little phrase because he wants to present Jesus’s disciples as being in-the-know insiders, in contrast to the multitude, which was still mystified by the parables. It is a small indication of how the retelling of the oral tradition about Jesus works, smoothing and streamlining the message as the first Christians went about doing what I am doing as I write this, and you are doing as you read it: namely, making sense of what Jesus Christ has to tell us.
The parable of the weeds and the Enemy is not as popular as the parable of the Sower. That suggests what we mostly intuit: that the gospel, to be fruitful, needs to be positive. We need to be for Jesus, not just against “not-Jesus”. True, the Sower makes a great Sunday-school theme. But I suspect that the Enemy would, too: I can imagine children booing and hissing as they hear of the baddie sneaking about, trying to undo all God’s good work.
If this Gospel were read for Advent, it would be easier to unfold; for we could explore it in terms of the end time, which is traditional in that season. But here, well into green time, the message reads slightly differently. Like Jesus himself, the Church gives us the good news first (the Sower, Trinity 6) and the bad news afterwards (the Enemy, Trinity 7). Jesus starts with what is positive (“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty,” Matthew 13.8). Then he gives us a City of God-style take on the parable: in this life, good and bad grow together; so no earthly institution — not even the Church — can perfectly embody God’s holy rule.
Matthew wrote this part of the Gospel with one eye on fledgling churches under strain. He showed how Jesus was encouraging them to wait, and keep the faith, because a time of vindication was coming.
The Gospel seems to envisage a separation of good people from evil people, a teaching that is even clearer in Matthew 25.31-46. There is a place of fire and punishment to which the wicked will be consigned, while the faithful and good take their places in the Kingdom of heaven.
That is a straightforward interpretation of the passage, and Christians have taken comfort from it over the centuries — understandably so; for vindication is one of the sweetest emotional pleasures of this life. What a pity, then, that it is so often yoked to gloating. Micah 7.10 is a great example: “My enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, ‘Where is the LORD your God?’ My eyes will gloat over her; now she will be trodden down like the mire of the streets.” It is as if all the positivity in the hundredfold fruitfulness of the good seed has shrivelled up into that creepiest of Christian sins: holier-than-thou-ness.
To those first Christians, this parable was a promise that they would be vindicated in time, even though it might seem as if their enemies were triumphing in the present. But who are our enemies here and now, in this land? Even if we can identify them — secularism, scepticism, atheism, media misrepresentation — I doubt that we want to see their perpetrators tormented for eternity. But we have enemies that are much more dangerous, because they are insidious: inside of us.
Our inner enemies — our “demons”, we might say (consciously or unconsciously echoing gospel language) — are real enough. They damage us; they diminish us. There is a long list: idolatry, pride, and selfishness are only the beginning. Against such enemies as these, the battle (in this life at least) is never done.