In which we think about scriptural interpretation

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11A – July 19, 2020 – Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again. “Want to make God laugh? Make a plan!” John Lennon put it this way: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Trained first as a journalist, and much later as a homilist, I cringe in the face of clichés such as these. However, they do contain their truths.

One such truth is this: we cannot control the future. We might crave—and even indulge—the illusion that we can. But it is undeniably just that—an illusion. The best we can do is faithfully adapt to what comes our way. (Although even that is easier said than done.)

The first portion of this morning’s gospel parable captures this truth well.

Jesus begins, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”

Listen closely to get a sense of the whole arc of this brief story. When the plants begin to grow, the householder recognizes the weeds as the work of the enemy and then decides how best to respond.

“Shall we go and gather the weeds?”

“No. Gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat, too. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The landowner’s decision is prudent. He cannot afford to sacrifice the wheat. Trying to get the weeds up now would do more harm than good.

Although he is responsible for managing the property, this man couldn’t control the wicked nature of the enemy, but what he could do was adapt to this new set of circumstances.

Perhaps his response gives us a little glimpse of the Kingdom. Think about it. Jesus does not compare the Kingdom to someone with absolute control of the future, or the ability to magically erase the events of the past. He compares it to a person with control only over how calmly and faithfully he responds to present circumstances.

At least, that’s one way to look at it. Matthew gives us another interpretation in the second portion of today’s reading.

“Explain it to us,” the disciples say to Jesus. “We need some help here. What does it mean? Lay it out for us.”

“Oh, yeah, well sure, that’s easy . . . the one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one; the enemy is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are burned up, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels; they will collect the sinful ones and throw them into the fire, but the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

Makes sense, right? It’s all very straight forward.  

But what if I told you that this second portion of today’s text does not stem directly from the words of Jesus, as does the parable, but is rather the author’s attempt to make sense of Jesus’s words for a particular audience facing a particular set of circumstances?

The interpretation is attributed to Jesus for legitimacy’s sake. But if, as scholars tells us, this attribution is merely a rhetorical technique, then what are we to make of it? Is the interpretation legitimate? Of course! I’m not here to argue with Holy Scripture.

I will, however, suggest that it is not the only legitimate interpretation of the parable. Matthew’s interpretation casts a particular view of the future. Because this particular interpretation is linked to Jesus, it is tempting to hear it as the only sure and certain way to understand this parable, but to do so would be an attempt to control something that we cannot control: the word of God.

Remember, one who embodies Kingdom principles is not one who can control what comes next, but rather one who calmly and faithfully responds to what does come.

As humans, we desire sureness and certainty. We want to have a say in future events. We want to understand exactly what things mean. Certainty brings a sense of security and completeness. Once we have it, we can move on to the next thing. You can’t blame Matthew for writing a neat and tidy explanation of this parable so the reader can learn the lesson and move on.

But to identify a specific interpretation of any passage of scripture as the correct one is to miss the point. We can’t even do that with human knowledge. A poet friend of mine recently wrote of the med school professor who tells his students on the first day of class, “Half of what we teach you here will be wrong. The only trouble is, we don’t know which half.”

Think of human forays into understanding DNA, the effects of DDT, or the mysteries of the human brain. Think of our attempts at space flight, witch trials, or religious inquisition. Eventually we learn that some theories are wrong, or at the very least, that there are others. An expectation of certainty is futile.

Just as sure as we cannot control the future, we cannot control the meaning of God’s word or God’s will, and it’s okay to admit that to ourselves. The point of scriptural interpretation is not to be “certain” of what God wants from us or expects of us. We can’t be.Why else would we pray, as we will this morning, “mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask”?

It is not the duty of the faithful Christian to define the word of God. It is the privilege of the faithful Christian to experience it, respond to it, and return to it time and time again. We read and interpret scripture in order to nurture our relationship with Jesus and to strengthen our ongoing commitment to the faith so that we can expand the Kingdom.

It is not my intent to question the legitimacy of Scripture, or of Jesus. I am merely proposing that there is no single, rock-solid-set-in-stone interpretation for any biblical parable, story, or teaching.

Surely there is an arrogance in the mind of any reader who believes themselves to have a monopoly on the truth. Our perspectives are colored by experiences we’ve had, and none of us has had every experience under heaven.

Nevertheless, we can take comfort in the fact that, while we may not have the capacity for absolute certainty, the steadfast love of God persists. God is always with us, even if we cannot always anticipate, and certainly never predict, how we will experience God.

If we read the Bible over and over and over again, it should not be because we take comfort in knowing precisely what it all means, or exactly how each story ends. It should be because we are continually humbled to participate in the covenant of God’s loyalty.

God’s word is not ours to define for all people in all places. It is not ours to specify or to stipulate. Its meaning is not stagnant or idle. To define it once and for all would be to kill it, to render it impotent in an ever-evolving world. And that’s impossible, because the word of God is alive, sustaining us always with the grace we need to get by.  

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