In the light of the pandemic situation as in most churches across the country, the minister and elders of Immanuel URC have taken the difficult decision to close the building for all activities including Sunday worship. This decision will hold until further notice.
However, each week we are creating a ‘reflection’ for personal devotion.
Reflection for Sunday 12th July 2020
Matthew 13; 1-9 and 18-23
This reading from the Gospel according to Matthew is “strange”, and makes it rather difficult to write about. Can you guess why that is?
Before I try to respond to that, I want to invite you to look at two very famous paintings, that might be able to shed some light on the reading and help clarify a few thoughts. Take a good look at them and try to connect them to the Bible reading[i].
[i] With thanks to The Visual Commentary on Scripture for suggestion of the paintings.
The painting on your left is Vincent van Gogh’s “The Sower” – quite easy to relate to the actual Bible reading. The painting on the right is Edward Hopper’s “Automat” and you may wonder what connection this has with the reading. I hope you can follow my thoughts to discover some answers.
So back to my original question. What makes this a ‘strange’ reading – quite simply that Jesus both tells the story and just a few verses later explains the meaning of the story. So in actual fact there is not much we can say about it… it’s set before us, clearly.
The sower goes out and scatters the seed which falls on four different surfaces, and gives fruit (or not) accordingly. In one case the fruit is exceedingly abundant, in another case the fruit in basically none and there are the in-between situations, of more or less fruit, that lasts more or less in time.
I’ve often thought that this story is not one ‘once in a lifetime’ situation, rather one which reflects the different moments of life for most of us I would guess. Sometimes we are truly receptive, the seed falls at the right time, in the right place, and the results are amazing. At other times in our life, we can be less receptive, and the results are less abundant. And even at some time in life the seed falls away from us and we feel empty.
This is when I would invite you to look at Edward Hopper’s painting. Many of his paintings show us people in a deep sense of loneliness, of sadness; and this is the case of this painting. The Automated coffee shop, which was quite popular in Hoppers time. Really no human contact taking place, and this woman in the painting is feeling that absence: she is so alone. How possibly can any seed give fruit under those circumstances? If you look clearly she is elegantly dressed, she sits in a corner, the corner nearest the heater. It must be cold – she has a coat on and one glove. A small plate is empty in front of her. Her whole body language is one of sadness. If you look behind her you can see the lights of the coffee shop reflected in the window. But have you noticed – there is no reflection of her – this only increases the sense of abandonment and solitude. And notice the fruit bowl.
This in a way becomes a parable of all those people who feel dried up. Sadly some people feel this can be a very long and very difficult moment in life, for others it is a sense of emptiness that sums up life, and for others it can be a ‘bad day’. Whatever it is, the truth that Jesus is talking about in the parable is that such a time doesn’t necessarily mean the end, because that is not what Jesus teaches. True fruitfulness is best perceived in a sense of belonging, of community, of being part of.
Jesus is always presenting the people with an alternative, Jesus always speaks of hope, of new opportunities, of a new sense of life. And this is what I think Jesus is trying to teach us in this parable, a parable that clearly the author of the Gospel wants to make quite sure we fully understand. The fruitlessness lies in the ground where the seed falls, even in spite of the Sowers effort, the Sower has no control over the fruit.
WE are the ones who make the difference -barrenness or fruitful. Look at the two paintings side by side now – in one the joy of nature, the sun, the fields, a tree that seems dead yet is flowering; in the other a corner shop, dark and dreary, the absence of life. In one the scattering of seed is a sign of hope in the other the sadness speaks of hopelessness. In one the Sower seems to be fulfilling a sense of calling while in the other loneliness seems to be highlighting the isolation; and yet like the tree that seems dead, there is hope of flowering.
Even if this women in her sadness cannot feel a sense of fruitfulness, the bowl of fruit behind her is a sign of hope (notice the vibrant colours of the bowl). The message seems to – not all is lost. And that is exactly what this parable is all about. HOPE. In life we all have an opportunity of receiving the seed and responding to that seed and being fruitful. This is joy of life with Jesus, and being part of the body that has Christ as its head. We can all belong even if we aren’t always in a receptive mood even if we feel isolated!
May the words of the hymn inspire us and move us to a living hope:
Come living God, when least expected,
When minds are dull and hearts are cold,
Through sharpening words and warm affection
Revealing truths as yet untold.
Then, through our gloom, your Son will meet us
As vivid truth and living Lord,
Exploding doubt and disillusion
To scatter hope and joy abroad.
Then we will share his radiant brightness
And, blazing through the dread of night,
illuminate by love and reason,
For those in darkness, faith’s delight.
Hope, Peace and Grace to you all.