Sunday, July 16, 2017

“A Parable of a Third” (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

I think that anyone who has had any experience in the agricultural field would agree with Jesus’ logic in the parable about the sower.  You have to know your soil when it comes to planting!  Obviously some of the sower’s choices were not of the quality that would bring about a bountiful crop.  Only in the last place where the seed was sown was there a successful crop.  Though Jesus is talking agriculture here, we all know that his meaning really has nothing to do with crops at all.  No, what Jesus is talking about is how faith is embodied in order to grow and prosper within individuals . . . and, though it is not alluded to, also how it is embodied within the body of Christ--the church--in order to grow and prosper.

In our scripture reading this morning, you might think that he is telling a parable about a sower; but, the reality is that he is telling a parable about thirds.  Let me explain.

Years ago I volunteered to be a part of a non-profit organization to do some civic-minded things around the community I was living in.  It boasted a huge volunteer membership . . . and, sure enough, on its membership rolls it had lots of names of people who belonged to the organization.  At least that was what was on paper . . . the reality was far from that.  The reality was that very few of those people actually ever showed up to support and do the work of the organization . . . in fact, it turned out to be only about a third of the people who did all the work and supported the organization financially.  

This confused me.  The executive director of the organization explained that it was that way with most non-profit groups and other organizations that rely upon voluntary participation.  She explained that typically one-third of the group carries approximately 90 percent of the work and financial load; one-third participates whenever it feels like it . . . maybe once or twice a year; and, one-third never participates at all, but consider themselves to be members nonetheless.  Because of that, she said, you are never going to see a huge group coming out to do the work.

Though Jesus uses different examples in his parable, I think he was talking about this one-third theory.  Yeah, I know what you are thinking . . . Jesus mentioned four areas that the sower sowed seed.  But, remember, the first seed never took to the ground as birds came by and ate it.  In the other three examples, the seed takes root, grows, and either meets its demise or flourishes.  In those three soil examples, I think Jesus does a good job of explaining the one-third theory.  Wouldn’t you agree that Jesus’ example demonstrates the theory?

One-third does nothing . . . one-third puts out a puny effort . . . and, one-third does the yeoman's share.

The underlying and unspoken question of the parable is this: Which soil are we growing our faith?  Or, even better, which third are we in?

As I said earlier, Jesus’ original intention was to address this parable to the individual listener.  Now that the body of believers . . . the church . . . has been in existence for a couple of thousand years . . . I think that the unintended intention is to address this parable to that group . . . to the church.

On the individual level we have all seen this parable in action.  We have seen people come into the church . . . some have stayed and participated in everything . . . some come every so often, usually Christmas and Easter . . . and, others we never see again.  Those individuals in the less participatory two-thirds are probably in those first two soils that Jesus talked about.  They are not very active, nor are they very reliable when it comes to their faith or the work of the church.  They probably have their reasons, and those reasons are probably legitimate and real; but, the bottom line is that they are not carrying their weight.

Now you are probably sitting there, thinking to yourself, that the pastor is full of mullarky . . . that this is not for real.  But, I assure you . . . it is for real.  I know from experience.

One of my jobs at the university is to provide professional development workshops for teachers.  We offer these workshops for free.  Because teachers need professional development to keep their licences and to move up the pay scale these workshops are necessary . . . because they are free, they are popular.  Rarely do we have a workshop that does not fill up and have a waiting list.  Before any workshop takes place it gets filled to capacity.

That is before the workshop takes place.  What happens is that when the workshop actually does take place only a number of teachers between one-third and two-third will show up.  If the workshop is for 30 people, we will have between 10 and 15 people show up.  Out of the 30 we have come to understand that 10 will be there because they want to be there; another possible five will show up because they had nothing better to do; and, the rest will not show up or even let us know that they are not showing up.  It pretty well equates to one-third, one-third, one-third.  And, we have been keeping up with this statistic for almost five years now and the results rarely change.

Now, that is my secular experience.  Let me share with you my church experience with this one-third theory.  This is a theory I have been keeping track of as a pastor for over twenty years now.

Everyone knows how much fun a scheduled mid-week meeting is in the church.  They are about as popular as getting a root canal; but, they are necessary part of the work of the church.  Now if there are a hundred people at worship on Sunday morning when one of these meetings is announced, I can predict fairly accurately how many people will attend that meeting.  There will be 30 people, give or take one or two.  In over twenty years, I have rarely been wrong.

Sure, there are exceptions.  Most of the time, within our congregation, we skew this theory’s premise and actually have more participate than should.  At the same time, there are times when we live up to the theory.  

Now, if you still don’t believe me, try it.  Do your own homework.  Think of a group or organization you belong to and keep track of the participation.  Then let me know if this idea of one-third isn’t true.  I think Jesus was onto something.

Which brings us to the dilemma of the whole parable . . . how does the one-third get the other two-thirds more involved?  To that I have no answers.  Nor does Jesus give us any answers.  Yet, at the same time, we do have some clues.  Jesus tells us that the seed that flourishes does so because it embraces and understands . . . it believes in the message, believes in the messenger . . . and, because it believes and understands it embraces its purpose.  Embracing its purpose it goes about the business of living and doing it.

The question is how do the one-third instill that into the other two-thirds?

Well, it cannot be done by haranguing on them.  No, that will just make them dig in their feet and move further away.  No one enjoys being constantly told that they should be more involved . . . after all, they have chosen which third they want to be in.  What needs to be done is going back to the foundational block of it all . . . relationship.  For that seed that thrives it comes down to having a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus.  This is what needs to be shared with the two-third that does not participate with regularity.

It comes down to relationship . . . the one-third showing the other two-thirds their relationship with Jesus.  Not beating them down with the relationship, but is living it in the presence of the other.  In order for this to happen relationships between the one-third and two-thirds must be established.  The one-third meets the two-thirds where they are.  They begin to show that they care . . . that they are there for them . . . in those times when life is difficult and pulls them away.  In such relationships the one-third becomes the soil necessary to grow and thrive.  It is not fast work, but work that slowly pulls them back into the circle, back into the family of God.

In which soil is your faith?  Jesus poses the question this morning . . . and, he poses the challenge.  May we all find the soil that strives to make us one as the family of God.  Amen.

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