For the purpose of my mini-sermon this morning, I want to talk about the idea of the “Biblical edit” and why that’s a very good thing for us, 2000 years since the birth of Jesus.
First, however, a little disclaimer:
In this mini-sermon, I in no way intend to suggest or imply that the Bible is not the Word of God. However, I would strongly suggest that God works in many ways, which includes “continued revelation”. This can manifest itself as an additional commentary or edit of Biblical text before the text (or in this case the Gospel of Matthew) was set down on paper and became the accepted text that we now know and love today.
Stage One: the Seed
The process of Jesus’s words and life becoming a canonical gospel (or, a gospel that made it into the Bible) was long and drawn out. It also had several stages. Now, once it’s written down as text there was a process involving who read it, whether or not it was widely conceived to be a “true account”, its initial inclusion in what would be called “the New Testament”, and then a group of the Church Fathers deciding at the Council of Rome in AD 382 whether or not it should be in the “official Bible.”
Notable works that didn’t quite make it in that you may (or may not) have heard of include the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalen.
However, today we’re just looking at the process of the events occurring and becoming part of the popular narrative, until they are written down by someone other than Jesus with a bit of commentary or editing involved. This, we could argue, is a process of “divine revelation” or “divine inspiration”. Everything after it could be seen as straight out politics in the early church (but where would we be without those early church arguments?).
For something to be written in a gospel, it had to in some way, shape, or form, involve the historical Jesus.
The historical Jesus is a figure wrapped in mystery, confusion, and debate. While he was fully God and fully man, he was nonetheless a human figure who lived in a very specific geographical location and political climate. As such, his words and actions were heavily influenced by his surroundings.
(For those of you following the current movement concerning racial justice in the United States of America, the argument that “white Jesus” is a form of cultural imperialism or oppression has its roots in the question of the “historical Jesus.” Genetically speaking, it’s nearly impossible and highly improbable that Jesus had blond hair and blue eyes.)
So, to get back to the historical Jesus, he really was just a guy walking around the desert in sandals. He spoke to people using their words, using their language. And, let’s be honest, they were the words and the language he was brought up with.
In many ways, the historical Jesus while also being the Son of God and our Savior, was very much a product of his times.
While he was walking around the desert and chatting with Samaritan women when he was in desperate need of water, Jesus was also preaching and often used parables to try to translate divine and heavenly concepts for his audience, who were fallen, human, flawed, and had difficulty grasping anything outside of 1st-century Palestine.
Here, in Matthew 13, he tells the parable of the sower.
It’s one of the more famous ones. Many of us may know it (if not, click any of the links above for the text). Jesus was sitting by the sea, looking about at people who were desperate for him to say something that could mean something to them, and Jesus probably saw a sower in a nearby field and used it as an active illustration for his meaning.
Jesus was talking to the men, women, and children of 1st-century Palestine and relating God’s message (and people’s understanding and acceptance of it) with sowing seeds in a field.
The story is short, succinct, and to the point. If someone doesn’t quite get it, Jesus can just point to the sower that is there, and the confused listener will have a lightbulb moment, realize that “hey, isn’t that clever?”, and get the point (hopefully).
This is a process of divine revelation. Through Jesus, the message of God speaks and takes form. The parable takes on an actual life of its own, and people are inspired and understand. Before they had been less than clueless.
Stage one complete.
Stage Two: Sowing the Seed
I’m not sure you’ve noticed, but once you’ve said something, you can never really take it back. People have heard it, they remember it, and God help you if you put it on the internet because it will in the Cloud for the rest of eternity.
Now, this can have repercussions if you’ve changed your mind, or don’t want to be known for a long list of asparagus recipes you posted in 2007 that are attached to your username or internet handle.
It can be a definite problem if you regret something (such as an unflattering comment you made about a bride’s veil on facebook a couple years back).
However, it can be really great if you were brilliant… say, if you came up with the idea of the parable of the sower off the top of your head… like Jesus did 2,000 years ago.
To Quickly Recap:
4 BC – Yeshua ibn Yusef (or Jesus of Nazareth) was born
AD 30/33– Jesus is crucified
AD 70 to 110 (probably AD 80 to 90)- The Gospel of Matthew is written and codified
What do those dates mean? Well, for one, Jesus wasn’t exactly born in the year “0”. That’s a minor point, however, though good for trivia night.
Why are those dates important? Because there’s a gap. Jesus died in either AD 30 or AD 33. Even if we are in the camp that believes that the Gospel of Matthew was written within weeks of the Temple being destroyed in AD 70, that’s at least forty years for the stories about Jesus’s life to circulate, for the parables to be passed by word of mouth, and for things to warp, alter, change, and context to suddenly come into play. (And remember, Jesus was preaching in the year or so leading up to his crucifixion, so as early as in the late AD 20’s.)
We don’t know what happened in those decades between Jesus speaking and someone writing it all down for posterity’s sake (this person traditionally being Matthew the Evangelist, known as Levi).
(For those interested in Biblical history, we do know that Matthew drew from the Gospel of Mark and a lost collection of sayings, believed to have been recorded during the life of Jesus, known as Q.)
But, the long of the short of it is, Jesus preached, was crucified, and his stories lived on in communities of believers before finally being written down more than a generation later.
Does this make it inaccurate? Not quite, we have the stories of Jesus from people who heard, who knew people who had heard, and we have Jesus’s intention.
Does this mean it’s not the Word of God? Only you can say. If your grandfather told you a story (let’s say, as an example) when you were ten and you recorded it today as you sat at your kitchen table how many years later– would those words be any less your grandfather’s? Would there be less truth in them because you are separated in time from a man who has been laid to rest? If you put a comma in the wrong place, is it suddenly wortheless?
Stage Three: Reap what You Sow
Jesus was the seed and his words were planted in the minds of his listeners (both his followers and his critics alike). These seeds took root either in rich soil or in barren cobblestones, but decades later they were written down in what we now call The Gospel of Matthew.
The man (or men) who wrote the Gospel had time to think, to consider, and could look back at the historical Jesus and realize — “How were we so stupid? That’s what he meant!”
So, they offered a bit of clarity. They took up their styluses and in Semitic Greek (or, rather, Greek used in the Synagogues by learned Jewish men) wrote down the story.
The simple parable was beautiful and worthy of being recorded. But they qualified it. These men had an insight, a divine revelation if you will, and helped explain the parable so that those who read the parable, not just those standing in the presence of the historical Jesus, would know what it meant, would understand, would realize its full importance. It is, perhaps, a pretty story–but Jesus (and the writers of The Gospel of Matthew) meant it to be more than that.
We are told what exactly can happen to seeds that are sown. And, I for one, am glad that the writers of Matthew expanded on the idea. Here, in 21st-century America, we have more advanced agricultural practices and, well, most of us aren’t really in agriculture anymore anyway, so we have no context. And let’s not forget that their land was different than our rocky New England soil.
As an example on context, I have successfully managed in my own personal life to kill a cactus. That is how bad I am at growing anything. I don’t do Victory gardens, I don’t do flower beds, because I have that much of a black thumb. If I didn’t sit around with books all day I collected since high school, I would have no idea how to sow a field of seeds then let alone now. I may be able to milk a cow–but that’s not helpful here.
Really, with Matthew 13, we don’t even need to know the ins and outs of the process. It’s not explained. Jesus didn’t need to. His audience knew, and if they needed clarification, he could point to an actual sower in an actual field!
Fortunately for us, the writers of Matthew tell us and further correlate it to how the metaphor/parable could play out. I don’t even need to get into how a sower might sow, the different methods, the various schemes, because it’s extraneous and the Gospel of Matthew tells us everything we need to know, anyway.
Stage Four: Endgame
So, which of the four options are you? Jesus is the message, the seed that is thrown into the fields. How have you reacted? Did you water your cactus enough? Did you water it too much? Did you even forget you. had a cactus?
(1) If you hear the Word and don’t understand, then you have reaped evil (Matthew 13:19)
(2) If you hear the Word and feel instantaneous joy, there is nonetheless no foundation for your faith (Matthew 13:20-21)
(3) If you hear the Word but care more for the world, there is no revelation and you will be led astray (Matthew 13:22)
(4) If you hear the Word and understand it… then yours in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 13:23)
I cannot answer this question for you–and despite being numbered, this is not a multiple choice question or a voting ballot. I can stand in my pulpit (well, my imaginary one as this is a virtual sermon) and rage against the system, talk about the feeble mindedness of even the most celebrated, craft a message for or against any number of social issues present in the world today …
… but this message, this parable, these seeds are not from me, they’re not from the media, they’re not from politicians, they’re from Jesus Christ himself.
Stop. Look. Listen with your heart. Listen for the still, soft voice that is our Lord God. He will tell you what is right. He will tell you what is good. He will tell you what is righteous.
Trust yourself enough to listen, and Trust in God… do not turn away, do not accept without questioning, do not be led astray… instead accept, ponder, pray, and love.
Jesus is the sower and he has been casting out his seeds for millennia. I pray that they take root in you.