15th Sunday of the Year

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Last night I was looking through the internet to find some an image to put up on our social media to advertise today’s Mass. I came across an extraordinary selection of art that depicted the Parable of the Sower. It is, after all, a famous parable. The first one, shown here, was not quite what I was expecting, but I soon discovered all sorts of, shall we say, more conventional interpretations. In fact, it made me realise that I’d never explored this parable through art before. I think perhaps because, if I’m honest, in my head, the scene looks how it did when I drew it out as a cartoon for a Religious Studies lesson at school. 

It has inspired though, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite an array of art. I hadn’t realised that Van Gogh had painted the scene, as did the 16th century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. Modern painters have tackled the scene too, like Wayne Forte and Miki de Goodaboom. But the one that really struck me was this, from the Jesus Mafa community – I think, probably, because the topic of racial justice has been so much at the forefront of minds.

The community are a group of Christians in Cameroon. They worked with a group of French missionaries to re-enact, in real life, different scenes from the Bible. They were to be ‘classical’ in composition, but the clothing and activities were to be a true reflection of the people who made up the scene. As the scenes took shape, they were transcribed onto paper and made into a library of paintings. In terms of art, they’re not really anything special, but for a society that is so used to seeing the dominant fair, white, never done a day’s work in his life, Jesus, they were uncomfortable to see. Still today, it is easy for us as a church, and I include myself in that, to perpetuate the image of a Caucasian Christ. Which he wasn’t. He probably wasn’t black either. I remember being in the Holy Land and stopping in the desert outside Jericho. There, as soon as we got off the bus, a group of Bedouin children swarmed around to sell us scarfs and beads. One was holding a lamb, so that tourists could pose for photos. “There” our leader pointed out, “don’t you go thinking Jesus was white. There’s the face of Christ there.” 

The Parable of the Sower from the Jesus Mafa Community

In almost every way, the ethnicity with which Christ is depicted is irrelevant. Race is only a few millimetres of epidermis, some more melanin or less of it. Other than that, we’re human, and so is Christ, so what does it matter about the skin colour we see him as. But to leave it at that would be to forget that it is due to that extra melanin, that utterly biologically superficial element of the human body, that hundreds of thousands of people through the ages have been tortured, abused, pushed aside and made unequal. It is a scourge that continues to be a horribly real part of human existence. So, it does matter if we show Christ as anything other than having something akin to the colour of my pasty English skin. It elevates the people who are represented to their full human dignity, that is, the image of Christ. It allows that particular ethnic group who are depicted to see themselves in the Son of God, and it forces anyone who claims to be Christian to see that ethnic group for who they really are. A beloved child worthy of all that God has given humanity in Christ. 

Parables are one of the ways Jesus used to try and get his listeners to enter the story. Here, for this group of Christians in Cameroon, by assembling themselves into this scene, and most importantly, did so in a way that was authentic to their culture and way of life, they were able to enter the story too. The Parable of the Sower is one that I could bore you with all sorts of explantions and interpretations. But I don’t want to. I want you just to enter the story. Read it again. Look at the pictures. Imagine how the scene would look in the midst of your way of life, your culture, your ethnicity, your family. And rejoice in that – because Christ has invited you into that story, in order that you might see yourself in him.