As I have mentioned before, I am a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. More often than not, Gardner gave his novels a catchy, alliterative title. Here are a few choice examples: The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, and last but not least, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. Well, if Erle Stanley Gardner had written today’s Parable of the Sower, he might have been hard-pressed to decide whether to call it “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils” or “The Practical Parable of the Profligate Planter.” For each title gives a different insight into the meaning of the parable.
Let’s start with “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus does something he rarely does—he explains a parable! The sower is Jesus himself, spreading the Word of the Kingdom of God. And one point of the parable is to explain the disappointing rejection of the Good News by so many people. Jesus explains that the rejection of the Gospel has everything to do with the condition of the soil, which allegorically represents the mindset of those who hear his message.
Jesus enumerates four distinct kinds of soil, four distinct mindsets. First, there are those who don’t take in what he is trying to tell them. Now, he doesn’t mean that they literally can’t understand his speech. He means that they don’t take his message to heart. It goes in one ear and out the other!
Today’s Gospel starts out with Jesus’ appointing precisely 70 evangelists to go out ahead of him preaching the Good News, for Jesus knows that he can’t do it all alone. Why 70, you might ask? Well, it turns out that in the book of Genesis, 70 is given as the number of Gentile nations in the world. So, there is a symbolic and prophetic reason for Jesus’ picking this exact number of evangelists; it represents the extension of his mission to the Gentiles—in other words, to people like most of us! I say it was an extension of Jesus’ mission, because in Luke 9, Jesus had already sent out the twelve apostles to spread the Good News among the descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Luke tells us that Jesus sends out his evangelists to the Gentiles in pairs. And there are several possible reasons for this. One obvious reason would be mutual support. But another might have to do with the fact that in Jewish law, valid testimony requires two witnesses. And these evangelists, we are told, will be testifying for the Kingdom of God, as well as testifying against those towns that refuse to accept the Good News of God’s Kingdom. (As an aside, the Episcopal Church also encourages sending out home visitors two by two, but in this case it is to prevent misbehavior during home visitations.)
As you know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News, as is the reading from the Old Testament. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of Good News. So let me say a few words about the First Reading and the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
The story from 2 Samuel is the story of a problematic procession, of a liturgy gone wrong. However, due to the editing of the authors of our lectionary, you would be hard-pressed to know that! They have removed two paragraphs that change the entire meaning of this excerpt from King David’s bio. The first deleted paragraph explains how the procession went to Hell in a handbasket when the ark of the covenant began to fall out of the cart. Uzzah, one of two brothers from a priestly family who had been tasked with leading the procession, notices that the ark of God is slipping. Without thinking, he reaches his hand out to push the ark back in place. And he is struck dead for his efforts. The implication is that God was angry at the man for having touched the ark with his bare hands, something that was taboo. I don’t think that Uzzah’s death was fair. And King David didn’t think that it was fair. The Bible tells us that David was angry at God for killing Uzzah, and consequently, ruining his great procession. But David is not just angry, he is also fearful. So the procession of the ark stops for three months to see if God is going to kill anyone else. When David is finally satisfied that it is safe, the procession proceeds.
But there is yet another problem at the conclusion of the procession, a serious marital dispute. We are told that King David dressed in a linen ephod, a sort of loincloth, and danced ecstatically with all his might before God, and before a crowd of many thousands. His wife, Michal, objected. Given what we heard in today’s highly edited account, we can’t quite figure out why Michal objected so strenuously to David’s dance, why she “despised him in her heart.” The answer comes in the second deleted paragraph. There the Bible explains that King David danced in a scanty loincloth, with no underwear, and had exposed himself to the crowd. Not surprisingly, his wife, who was the daughter of a king, was scandalized. King David’s response to her criticism was to vow never again to sleep with his wife and to condemn her to a life of childlessness. When we know the whole story, King David comes across as both vulgar and vengeful. And even God himself is portrayed as somewhat capricious. All in all, it’s a disturbing and uninspiring story.