The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Guiding Ethical Hand of the Lectionary

Why do the Lectionary-ers exclude the mercy of Jesus in favor of the delusion of personal works righteousness?

by Russell Rathbun

Gospel Reading:  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

For Sunday, July 10 , 2011: Year A—Ordinary 15

I have learned from literature and movies and TV that a bad seed is a person who is genetically bad—no good from birth—evil even. No amount of nurturing or right moral upbringing could have any effect. A bad seed is very often a creepy little boy dressed like Angus Young of AC/DC who pretends to be good and then does horrific things when the adult’s heads are turned.

Bad Seed

While not everything I learn from literature, movies and TV is right, I do think the bad seed character explores a really interesting question about being human and about evil: Are some people born evil? I would answer this question in two ways—of course no one is born evil and yes, everyone is born evil.

Without whipping up some old school systematic theological debate, let me just say—I would like to think that everyone is born with the same disposition regarding one’s predilection to evil. And, more importantly, I think that it is all sorted out by the grace of God through Jesus Christ—I am sure many of you could get behind me on that.

Which is why I cannot imagine why our beloved lectionary-ers chose to edit this pericope the way they have this week. They’ve taken a beautiful and deliciously mysterious Dagwood-of-a-God sandwich and pulled the mercy meat out from between the slices of chiding, ethical bread.

God Sandwich

Top slice of chiding, ethical bread: Jesus tells the parable of the sower. Some seeds fall on the asphalt, birds eat them; they grow up and get fried by the sun.  Clearly some of the seeds make all kinds of unwholesome, half-baked, choices about where they should land. Other seeds fall on fertile soil and bring forth amazing amounts of whole grain goodness.

Mysterious mercy meat in the middle: the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables. He answers, to you have been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but not to them. He says they can’t see, hear or understand—I talk to them this way so they know they can’t see, hear or understand—so then they will turn to me and I will heal them. Then they will know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven. Get it? You know it or you realize you don’t know it and then you know it—because God’s mercy meat is a given.

Bottom slice: same as the top slice, but with more imploring you to act right. Be like a seed that falls on good soil—don’t be like one of those rolled oats that have the naughty notion to just go falling on the path or among the weeds or on the rocks.

Blind to Reality

Here is why the sandwich makes no sense without the mercy (by the way, sorry about this kind of lame extended sandwich metaphor—I promise not to end this post by asking, “Where’s the beef?”):  the seed doesn’t choose where it lands. That is the responsibility of the sower.

What Jesus is getting at with the mercy in the middle, is that, if you think that you, a mere seed, can control what soil you land on, you are blind to your own reality. Once you realize you cannot do a thing about the state of your soil, you turn and you are healed.

The Hardest Question

Why do the Lectionary-ers exclude the mercy of Jesus in favor of the delusion of personal works righteousness?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Tim says:

    Is this about a Prodical Sower or getting a home, do it yourself, soil analysis kit? Is God wasteful or does the soil have to shape up?

  2. Josh says:

    I agree that cutting out the middle of the parable lessens its meaning. I do think, however, that the mercy part is right there in the beginning of the parable. The sower is careless–he lobs seeds left and right without being practical. The sower is totally wasteful with the seeds. Doesn’t he know that some will fall on the wrong kind of soil and die? That almost-sloppy-yet-wonderful gardener is so amazing to me. Knowing that we as human beings screw most everything up, the Great Gardener is still extravagantly careless about the seeds. We are still loved, cared for, and used–regardless. It’s less about morals and doing what is “right” and not “wrong” because the sower is tossing the seeds every which way. That is mercy to me, though you are right that the “middle” of the sandwich is also really great, too.

  3. Dwight says:

    I read this parable differently. Of course that is the nature of a parable.

    I believe the parable to be in the context of Jesus’ ministry and how it is being rejected by those around him. Jesus is the sower, the seed is the Kingdom of God, and followers of Jesus are the soil and then subsequently the sower.

    The message of God’s mercy is centered around the Kingdom of God and given to us as a ministry and calling. This ministry and calling was being rejected at the time, but Jesus was encouraging his followers to receive the message of the Kingdom of God, and not lose heart in sharing the Good News of God’s mercy.

    I agree the lectionary exclusion of the middle verses was not wise, but for me it’s because it reveals the hardest question. If Jesus says in Matthew 7 that those who seek will find, those who knock will have the door opened to them, and what parent if a child asks them for bread will give them a stone-why then is Jesus talking about a hidden message that only few understand?

    Just some musings.

    I enjoy this site and how it makes me think further about the text and gives perspectives that I often do not see on my own.


  4. Greg says:

    We aren’t the seed; The Seed is the Word. We are the soil and the path and the rocks and the thorny ground. I think Josh has it exactly right – the seed is sown in abundance and reckless abandon.

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