Abundant & Free
By Charity Sandstrom
We always take for granted the things we have in abundance. It’s why we have reminders not to let the water run while we brush our teeth, or to eat the food on our plates. Rest assured that people in places where water is scarce or eating more than once a day is not guaranteed do not need these reminders.
This tendency to ignore what surrounds us isn’t just a problem with our water bills, it can get in the way of our understanding scripture, too.
If we had any understanding of the geography and climate of Palestine in the first century, we’d understand a whole lot more about why it is important that Jesus is always by the lake, the sea, down by the Jordan, or claims to have access to a spring of living water welling up to eternal life.
In Matthew 13, Jesus is by the lake again and so many people crowd around him that he puts out into a boat so he can teach them all. In this chapter, we are given parable after parable, teaching after teaching, coming in waves so quick it’s hard to digest one thought before the next one demands our attention.
7 parables and 2 explanations thrown back to back in this rapid-fire discourse. I can’t tell you if Jesus really sat in a boat and said all of these words in succession, or if the author chose to put them together out of convenience or a desire to group similar material. I’m also not sure it matters, because whether Jesus or the writer of this gospel put the teachings together, there emerges this pattern and overall theme that we must pay attention to in order to reap the full benefit.
I don’t know about you, but growing up in the church means that I was surrounded by scripture constantly. We would receive a Bible lesson in Sunday School, trot off to worship and hear a sermon, come back for prayer meeting on Sunday night and sit just outside the circle of adult conversation in the Wednesday night Bible study. I’ve heard the parables explained and interpreted, usually alone, almost always with a direct application to my life today tweezed expertly from the pages by a professional.
I’ve done it myself as a pastor, all grown up and with my own congregation in the pews eagerly expecting the same kind of exposition.
I’m trying harder these days to break that habit. I want to serve up meaty portions of text, in their contexts, mystery and mess included. I’m weaning myself and my congregation off of neat and tidy slogans based on hair-thin interpretations of texts that weren’t written in our language or to our culture. Of course that is my disclaimer as I do my best in this moment to draw the threads of all these parables together: the sower, the weeds, the mustard seed, the yeast, the hidden treasure, the pearl, and the net.
Taken separately, I could easily give you distinct meanings and applications, but stringing them together as they are found in this chapter there emerges a sweeping narrative of life in the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim. The Sower sows seeds in a broadcasting arc and lets them fall wherever they may. The Weeds are sown by an enemy seeking to diminish the harvest. The Kingdom of God may seem small, but produces great fruit. Even a little Yeast works through the whole batch. Sometimes treasure is overlooked in the field. Even when we know what we are looking for, great Pearls are worth a great sacrifice. Don’t worry about what gets caught up in the net because it will all get sorted out in the end.
Jesus was talking to a people greatly concerned about their position in the world. Oppressed by the Romans, sometimes taken advantage of by their own leaders, often living hand to mouth and barely getting by. Amazing how their situation is often the one we often feel looming on the horizon. As Americans, we have immense wealth, opportunity, and ability to participate in our government. We also can experience real poverty, real barriers, and real oppression.
Scarcity and insecurity can lead us to operate in fear. We cluster together and keep out the impure. We don’t waste any resources, take no chances that the one we help will exploit us. We go on crusades to eliminate the threat from within our ranks. We don’t trust. We don’t give. We define the enemy. We armor up.
If I had to name the greatest threat to Kingdom life in our culture it is this: being ruled by fear.
We can’t be open and vulnerable when ruled by fear. We can’t grow spiritually if we cage ourselves within walls meant to shield us. We can’t experience the love and grace and expansive mercy of Christ. We certainly can’t offer the same to others.
What do we do, then? Obviously fear is a part of life. I can no more make myself unafraid than I can make myself un-joyous at the antics of my 5-year-old. Fear is a real thing and often comes like that neighbor we are trying to love, at the worst possible time. What do we do when it comes?
That is the key question, not how to avoid fear, but how to respond.
When I was a kid, one of those blessed scriptures they made us memorize (I mean hide in our hearts) was this, “What time I am afraid, I will put my trust in thee,” Psalm 56:3. Tada, hidden in my heart so at just the right moment I could share it with you. KJV and all.
Sarcasm aside, I think it holds the answer. (Thanks mom and dad and Sunday school teachers.)
What do we do when we find ourselves wrapped in fear? Tempted to exclude in the name of purity? Thinking the Kingdom is too small for me to waste my time with those people? Afraid I don’t meet the qualifications of good soil, good plant, good fish, great pearl?
We relocate our source. Where do I put my trust? Where does my help come from?
I think Jesus was by the water so often because his words and teachings are vital. They are refreshing, they hold the keys that allow us to live and operate in freedom in a world as dry and threatening as a desert wasteland.
“Where else would we go? You have the words of life,” John 6:68.
My situation, my life, my family, my church are all things I have to entrust to God. I don’t have the resources to fix everything in the world around me. I don’t have the resources even to fix myself. If I claim to follow Jesus, if I believe in God Almighty who made Heaven and Earth, if I believe that God is Love, my only appropriate response is trust.
When we trust that God’s resources are enough, we can sow seeds of truth and love and grace with abandon. When we trust that God’s resources are enough, we don’t have to sort seedlings for fear that some are weeds sown by the enemy. When we trust that God’s resources are enough, we don’t have to kill ourselves trying to make something happen for the Kingdom—mustard seeds and yeast are enough. When we trust God’s goodness and love, we can love the treasure found in unexpected people, and we can trust that there is treasure in our soil as well. When we trust that God is wiser and more beautiful than we could ever dream, we know we can trust God to sort out judgment and eternity without feeling like we have to do the job for everyone we meet.
Responding to fear with trust in God’s goodness and resources, we find the life of the Kingdom unfolding before us more abundant and free.