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3rd Sunday after Trinity

07 June 2024

16 June, Proper 6: Ezekiel 17.22-end; Psalm 92.1-4, 12-end (or 92.1-8); 2 Corinthians 5.6-10 (11-13) 14-17; Mark 4.26-34


IN FIVE words, Mark encapsulates a puzzle about the farmer: “He does not know how.” The parable reflects on our relationship with God: someone simply sows seed and waits for the harvest, but cannot explain how growth happens. This farmer, unlike real farmers, does nothing to increase the chance of germination. There is no ploughing, weeding, fertilising, watering. The seed is left uncovered on the surface of the soil.

Imagine the reaction of Jesus’s hearers. Readers may recall a Harry Enfield comedy character, “Don’t”. His response to anything and everything was always “You don’t want to do that!” So listeners to the parable must have reacted (perhaps silently, not wanting to be as rude and annoying as “Don’t”): “Don’t be silly! He needs to do X, Y, Z, if that seed stands any chance of producing a harvest. What kind of farmer scatters seed, then simply goes to bed and waits?”

Jesus must have left out key steps deliberately. His parable omits all the actions that make the effort and expense of sowing seed worth while, and give it the best chance of flourishing.

Now for the theological problem embedded in the parable. Can we forward the work of God, or not? Putting it more precisely, does redemption depend wholly on God’s actions, and will — or can — we somehow influence it by our own behaviour, our own choices? This is a less antagonistic way of expressing the question than the more familiar opposition in justification by faith or works. But it is still sensitive, a factor in divisions between Christians.

When Jesus says that the earth produces “of itself”, that phrasing suggests something miraculous, which we tend to take as meaning “against nature”. But the farmer cannot stand for God at the beginning of the parable, because he shows us that he is ignorant. By the end, though, a few verses later, he has assumed a divine part, reaping the harvest that reveals that the parable is about the end-time, the coming of the Kingdom.

Can human beings do anything to forward the work of their own salvation? That is a theological question that took shape in the fifth century, under the influence of writings from Pelagius and Augustine. Common sense pushes us towards Pelagius (what is the point of being, or doing, good if it makes no difference?); the divine paradox of grace and free will pushes us towards Augustine.

With characteristic thoroughness, theologians sub-divided the question. We can ask whether humans have anything to contribute as, first, a question about the beginning of salvation; then, about its continuance. In other words, does the first move towards God have to come from us, or is God responsible for that, too? Pelagius-lite argues that we must make the first move in an act of human free will, but the continuing of our salvation from that point on is a matter of grace, not works.

Anglican theology has within it an element of “Arminianism”: a theology linked with Methodism. It holds that God’s grace does come before any form of earning or deserving (through right behaviour or thinking) on the part of humankind, but also allows for the real freedom of human beings — first to choose faith, then to co-operate with it.

It will always be difficult to reconcile scripture and theology with present understandings of humanity in the world around us. We are not all called to be systematic theologians, bent on making all aspects of our faith cohere. But we are all called to read and absorb Jesus’s parables, and to determine what they mean for our lives.

One message of this parable could be that we do not need to know the theological mechanics of our collaborating with God in order to employ our God-given reason and choose to co-operate with his mysterious gifts of life. These include the growth of plants for food, and the growth of human beings into adults who recognise that they owe something to their Maker and Redeemer. Some Christians take comfort from being free of the need to earn salvation. Others (me included), without claiming to be earning salvation, still believe that we have genuine freedom about co-operating with it.

Jesus does not explain to us how this works. But he did explain everything in private to his disciples. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall back then, back there!

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