“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13:3-9)
After Jesus spoke that parable, his disciples asked him why he always spoke in parables. Jesus proceeded to quote Isaiah 6:9-10. The gist of it is this: you become like what you worship. Therefore, idolaters become like their idols: they have eyes and ears, but they are as blind and deaf as their idols who have eyes and ears that have been shaped by some craftsmen. They cannot really see or hear what Jesus is really saying in his parables.
With that, Jesus proceeded to explain the parable of the sower to his disciples: “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Mat 13:18-23 NRS)
What lies at the heart of this parable is how people respond to the good news of the Kingdom of God in Christ. Not everyone who hears, or even initially receives the good news of the Kingdom, ends up having that “seed” take root in his heart and grow into the fullness of Christ. And as the parable points out, it would be wrong to say that it is always necessarily that person’s “fault.” Sometimes, tragically, the seed is snatched away, or choked out, or the initially new growth is scorched and withers away.
And that leads to a basic question: Why? What causes faith to die? Why is what was once received with joy and promise—why does it sometimes die?
A Thorny Question
What I want to focus on in this post is Jesus’ words regarding the thorns that choke out the word of the Kingdom of God that is initially received by someone. This past week, I wrote two posts addressing the recent sexual harassment revelations in our society. In the first post, I said we really shouldn’t be surprised such things happen, given the way our society objectifies women, but in the second post I gave some personal thoughts on how our natural sexual attractions and desires can (and should) inspire us to foster creativity in our own lives and society. Simply put, in my second post, I tried to offer some positive thoughts about the good things about sexual attraction, women, and creativity.
Unfortunately, on my Facebook thread, the discussion took a sharp turn into hostility and badgering about a whole range of things that had very little to do with the posts, and had everything to do with people’s own agendas. It was disheartening and frustrating to me—for two days I felt I was spiritually choking on the vitriol of those discussions. I was in a bad mood for two days straight, irritable, and I felt I lost any joy and satisfaction I initially had by trying to be thoughtful about a very tough topic.
And then Jesus’ parable about the sower came to mind: thorns choke out the seed of the Kingdom of God.
Over the course of a few days, that parable kept coming to mind as I watched the news, and read articles and comments online, be it Twitter, Facebook, or online news stories. Everything seemed to be riddled with thorns of worry, bitterness, and outrage: Donald Trump tweets more inflammatory nonsense, and people erupt in outrage; Matt Lauer is fired over sexual harassment, and although people express justified anger, as soon as Kathy Lee Gifford speaks of the need for forgiveness, she is viciously attacked…for speaking of forgiveness; politicians and pundits take to their microphones and twitter accounts to wage verbal warfare over tax reform—not constructive argument, but vitriolic fear-mongering.
Don’t get me wrong—all these stories are things that need to be addressed in society. We cannot bury our heads in the sand. What I’m saying, though, is that we need to realize that one of the dark consequences of 24/7 cable news and social media is that it is really hard to ever find room to breathe: these things become idolatrous in nature, in that they demand our continual attention and focus. They are thrown in our faces 24/7, and they end up being thorns that choke out our joy, happiness, and yes, our very humanity.
It’s exhausting and disheartening. In I Corinthians 1:10, Paul speaks to the thorns of division that were growing up in the church in Corinth, and threatening to destroy the unity they had in Christ: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Unfortunately, it seems those thorns of division never were successfully dealt with in the Corinthian church.
Thorns, Thistles, and a Crown
The first mention of thorns in the Bible is in Genesis 3. Just as the woman would suffer pain in childbearing, so would the man suffer the pain of thorns in the harvesting of crops. In both cases, the point is this: in this world, in this age, new life comes about through pain and suffering. That’s the way of this world. Thorns will always be there to threaten the growth of new life. We’ll never get rid of thorns—they are inevitable in this life.
To tie this in with Jesus’ parable of the sower, the challenge for Christians is to tend to the growth of the Kingdom of God in the midst of the thorns of this world, without letting those thorns choke out of life of the seeds of the Kingdom of God in both our hearts as well as in our society.
Let’s face it, thorns can be fascinating. They prick and hurt, and in a strange way, those wounds make it possible for us to feel our heartbeat in the throbbing of the wound. In fact, one of the key images of the crucifixion is the crown of thorns—it is through the wounds of those thorns that salvation in Christ has come, making it possible for us to be remade as a transformed humanity in the image of Christ.
So the question remains: What are we to do with the thorns of this world?
The way I see it, we can either let the thorns of this world pierce us and make us bleed for the life of the world, or we can allow the thorns of this world to choke our own humanity in Christ until it dies. We cannot succumb to the seductive temptation of wielding thorn-bushes as a scourge, then fashioning them into a crown and pressing them down onto the heads of our enemies. When we do that, our joy, our happiness, and yes, our own humanity and faith in Christ are choked out.
Instead, although we must be the conscience of our society, we must speak the truth of Christ into the thorny issues of our time without letting those thorns grow around our hearts and minds and choke out our life and joy. And in practical terms, as I’m coming to see, it means to making the conscious decision to turn off the news for a while, and refraining from the participating from discussion threads on social media in which outrage and vitriol are palpable after reading just the first two or three entries.
Take a break. Listen to the silence. Go for a walk. Do something creative. When the thorns of this world prick and wound you, don’t respond in kind. Find a way to bring about new life through those wounds.
Don’t let the thorns of life choke out your life and joy in Christ. Wear them like a thorny crown…and bleed creativity for the life of the world.