Looking back to the hills from the Morgan Burra Road

Pig Sty or Paradise

There is a farm house out in the Hills which stands in a 30 acre paddock on some of the prettiest land in the state. Over the years, the owner has collected car bodies and old farm machinery which lines the farm drive, and is also scattered in a couple of hundred random clumps over the whole 30 acres like a demented mechanical cemetery.

I often wonder how some farming families can stand to have a dozen pigsties lining the drive up to their house— this place has pigsties as well, but this farm takes mess to a new level.

Most likely, the cars, and the pigsties, are invisible to the owners. We become habituated to the place where we live, and blind to the features which seem most obvious, and even appalling, to fresh eyes. My wife could be tempted to suggest, at this point, that instead of talking about my desk, I simply clean it up! We are all like this.

As a species, we are habituated to our violence and greed. We are so habituated that even though the church speaks of original sin, or uses words like depravity, we have a hard time really believing it. That stuff happens elsewhere; our problems are minor, not so bad; the problem is not us.

Every so often, I get disgusted with my desk, and begin to clean things up. Commentaries go back on the shelf, and various bits of hardware I pulled out some months ago to fix a friend's laptop, are finally placed in the cupboard. It never quite works. It's not because there is not enough room— a place for everything. There is something about a really tidy desk which demands a fundamental change in who I am.   The farmer in the hills— it's easier to talk about him— would have to confront all sorts of insecurities about himself, issues about hoarding, what his father said and did, fear of change. These things are beyond us on our own.

To confront these issues is not simply to tidy our desk. It is to change everything about us. And when we change one thing, a dozen others appear, all thrown out of balance and disturbed. Old scars which have mostly left us alone, begin to bleed again.

The farm looked as pretty as the picture it always promised to be, the last time I went past. All the machinery is gone; it must have taken days, mobile crushers, and semi loads of scrap metal. The house is painted. It is so different, that I wondered for a moment if I was looking at the wrong place.

Our ability to make more than surface change in our lives is so hemmed in by the conditioning which formed us, that I wonder if the farmer died, that the farm was sold, and the new owners, who have a different set of issues in life, were able to make the change.

Our habituation is the behavioural flesh upon the bones of who we are. It covers the intersection of our selves with our culture. It shows where we are hooked into all the good and the bad of humanity. To change our habituation, is to cut ourselves adrift, needing to find a new way of seeing ourselves, so that we can know who we are. To leave who we are changes everything, and demands everything.

And it tells the culture something is wrong. Our misbehaviour, our dishabituation, sends rumbles through everything, and threatens everything. It loosens the foundations of who we all are.

So when Jesus comes and heals the sick and casts out demons in a way not seen before, everything is "up for grabs." Everything is questioned. Stability is shaken. Authority is challenged.

In our existential depths, it is easier to say ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons,’ (Mt 12:24) because to grasp hold of the healing he offers, is to allow everything to be changed. Healing, and being enabled to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, demands everything of us.

This is why Jesus appealed so much to those who were poor and sick. They had less to lose. But even those of us who are impoverished and desperate are infected with this. Old loyalties, and lifetime conditioning and fears, do their damnedest to hold on to us. At the naked edges of humanity, ambos and police are always aware that the partner who called them in desperation may turn on them to protect their abuser.

And we do this in church, abusing the ones who show us where we are snarled up, and sometimes crucifying the ones who offer us a way to healing, because healing demands we change everything. Real healing is often terrifying.

This long introduction is to make a point: It is not surprising that the grain falls on the hard ground along the path and is snatched up. It is not surprising that people welcome the idea of healing, and are then appalled at the cost, so that their discipleship withers, instead of taking root. We are rocky ground. Nor is it surprising that the cares of life, or the addictions of comfort, choke out offers of healing. Who wants to give up what they have?

The surprising thing is that so much grain finds good soil and bears fruit. Sometimes a hundred fold!

John Petty says

In Matthew's theology, "bearing fruit" [he is referencing Matthew 13:23] means living out the kingdom of heaven.  This has nothing to do with piety, nothing to do with syrupy pronouncements, nothing to do with vague decisions, nothing to do even with worship.  It means "following on the way," which means imitating Jesus, and doing what he did.

With Jesus as our model of what the kingdom of heaven looks like, "bearing fruit" means actually doing what Jesus himself teaches and does in the gospel of Matthew, which is:  gender equality, open table fellowship, non-heirarchical living, embracing the human dignity of all, resistance to oppression, and resistance to religious corruption.  "Bearing fruit" is that program lived out in every day life. 

Our native inability to change significantly, and our fear of change, means the parable of the sower asks us a serious question. Is our successful congregation a changed congregation, or are we a field of thistles so habituated to our comforts that we have not yet noticed how weedy we are?

People have seen the opposition to Jesus in Chapter 10. They have experienced the resistance, the blindness, the deafness to good news and healing. They know the painful disruption of the kingdom: brother delivers up brother to death.

What is it that God is doing? Is God blinding people on purpose— making

the mind of this people dull,
   and stop[ping] their ears,
   and shut[tting] their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
   and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
   and turn and be healed. (Isa 6)

The answer is a resounding No!

God has not hidden the message of the kingdom. God has spread the seed everywhere. It is spread along the Way. It has been spread upon the rocky ground, where it seems almost to be wasted, and among the thorns. God has spread the seed everywhere.  The fact that people don't respond is not because the message is not out there. It is not hidden, and it is not scarce.

Sometimes people speak as though the ancient farmers scattered seed willy-nilly, almost at random. In real life, a broadcaster of seed will land barely a seed land on the path, and be very good at avoiding the patches of rocky ground where experience knows that the seedlings will die. Seed is precious and expensive, and never wasted. The message is clear, and scandalous: God wastes the seed even in those places where common sense— or is that human prejudice— says it will bear no fruit.

W.D. Davies sums this up:

In their preoccupation with wondering how God can justly give knowledge only to a select group, some commentators have failed to see that the emphasis of the text lies not on privation but on God's gift. Matthew 13:16-17 and the remainder of this chapter make this manifest. The normal state of humanity is ignorance of God's eschatological secrets. (Matthew: A Shorter Commentary pp212)

Jesus' disciples, living in all this, wonder if the parables don't make things worse! And Jesus replies that he tells the parables because already, people cannot see. The deep wisdom of this is still visible. The parables remain, even now. The Samaritan, the Sower, the boy living in the pigsty; the stories are still there, despite our deafness and our active opposition. They wait for that final moment of desperation when we may hear.

Chapter 13 begins with the words, "On that same day…" These words point us back to the previous story, where we are twice told that Mary the mother of Jesus is "outside the house." Even his mother does not understand him.

"Outside the house," is a cultural scandal, because family meant everything. Family held the culture together because… family makes us. (Our modern notion that we can walk away from family betrays how profoundly blind we are to our situation.) "Outside the house" also reflected the situation of the first believers. They were in the house church, and their families outside.

The situation must have seemed impossible. Why can people not see good news, or take hold of healing? How can such a blindness as ours, be healed? I do not even understand why I can see what I can see, why some things are healed, and why other things in my life are intractable.

But with all that spreading of seed, there is always the possibility of something taking root, especially if I bear fruit that mirrors the compassion of Jesus. And at the end of the gospel, at that dangerous place near the foot of the cross, stands Jesus' mother, no longer outside.

Even one who was outside the house has been able to choose Jesus rather than family. "Let anyone with ears listen!"

Andrew Prior (2017)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Previously on One Man's Web

Matthew 13:1-23 - A Farming Faith
Matthew 13:1-23 - Stone Heaps in the Sun 

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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Messy desk, messy farm
Tom Pardy 13-07-2017
As someone with a perpetually untidy desk, I found your introduction very apt; and I love the way you use it to point to the need for a complete change of who we are.

easy vs. hard
Bill Schlesinger 16-07-2017
So it's easy to say I'm scattering broadly, or to say I need to be 'better ground.' But better ground is putting this context into sync (syniemi) with my life instead of getting caught in my (mimetic) desires and my despair over finding someone to take over the work we've built over 30 years (farmers who have no children to take over their farms - wow). And the pains and frustrations - the ease of changing into mechanical doing or moralistically publishing political opinions (of which I have many). Easy to do the surface talk. Hard to make it real.

re: easy vs hard
Andrew Prior 17-07-2017
Yes... It all gets very deep, very quickly. My observation is that giving up the farm grounds a person very quickly into the harsh realities of where their values lie. Maybe it can even be gift to discover so bluntly how even a farm is a temporary thing, where as city folk can pretend about the permanence of things, and life, a bit longer. But it's pretty crushing. There's always a small part of me mourns not taking over the farm, even after all these years.

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