Shattering the Closure of Unbelief (Is. 55:10-11; Rom. 8:18-25; Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23)

by Luke Timothy Johnson

Luke Timothy Johnson teaches New Testament at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 11-18, 1990, p. 668, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


These texts shatter the "structure" of my unbelief, my idolatrous hold on my own interpretation of the world, my own despair at the lack of the world’s possibilities. They say to me: this is not a closed system but one open to its creator, whose possibilities are endless.

Lectionary readings tease our minds because of their odd combination of openness and closure. They can become a deconstructionist’s dream. By providing only fragments from biblical books (in this case part of an oracle from Isaiah, a reassurance from Paul, a parable from Jesus) , they leave a suggestive opening, not only to other texts but also to the even more fragmented tissues of our individual lives. But they also come to us as a package. They are placed side by side in close conjunction and therefore bend our minds to a closure: we want to make sense of these fragments as if they were the only pieces that mattered.

This mental tension is somewhat analogous to the life of faith -- a constant oscillation between the poles of idolatry (closure) and freedom (openness) ,) an oscillation, moreover, in which each new opening realized by faith (enabled by another) is quickly turned into another closure.

These texts share a theme and tonality. In each, God’s activity in the world is suggested by means of an organic metaphor: in Isaiah and the parable of the sower, the word of God is imaged as a seed; Paul speaks of the birth pangs of creation. In each there is also an unmistakable tone of tempered optimism. Isaiah declares that the word sent out will not return empty but rather will complete the purpose for which God sent it. This is as certain "as the rain and snow [that] come down from heaven . . . and water the earth" (Isa. 55:10) . Jesus’ parable states that despite the attrition caused by a scatter method of sowing, any seed that falls in good soil will bear abundant fruit. And even Paul’s image of birth pangs suggests an inexorability; despite the anguish of present circumstances, the revelation of the "glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21) seems certain.

This neat closure is at once dissolved by my practiced skepticism. The first thing I know when I read texts like these is that I emphatically do not believe them. A not always locatable but nevertheless important segment of my mind (and heart) rejects these affirmations. They are too easily and too obviously disconfirmable. I am far more aware of the ways in which God’s word simply blows about emptily in the world, without God’s stated purposes being fulfilled in any verifiable fashion. I know too much about the seed plucked from the rocks, smothered by thorns and dried from lack of moisture in wasted sowings of the human spirit. And when I can make myself gaze fully at the "groaning of creation" around me, I see more evidence of its "bondage to decay" than of its hope for liberation. Are these birth pangs or are they death throes?

Part of me therefore resists the authority assumed by these texts not only to know what is happening in the world (and in the mind of God) but also to interpret it in positive terms. I am too fragmented and see my world as too shattered to be repaired by such simple glue as this. How can anyone alert to the ecological disaster around and within us appeal to the natural and predictable rhythms of nature? How can anyone aware of the terror we inflict on one another every day in our envy and rage think of ourselves as the "first-fruits of the Spirit"? How can any of us rejoice in the one seed that "bears a hundredfold" when all those other seeds were lost?

Perhaps that is part of the point of listening to these texts. When we look around and within us, we find only the closure of idolatry, sin and despair. Left to ourselves, we cannot break out to freedom. Maybe these texts ask us not to look simply at ourselves and at the so-called evidence (of which we are so fond, so long as we get to select it) . Maybe they ask us to listen to a voice that provides an opening to freedom by providing a perspective other than our own, enunciated by the voice of the one who creates this world at every moment and knows where it is going, who calls prophets to speak and knows the purpose of their words, who sows the seed of the word with joyful abandon, secure in the knowledge of the harvest.

These texts, then, deconstruct me more than I deconstruct them. They shatter the "structure" of my unbelief, my idolatrous hold on my own interpretation of the world, my own despair at the lack of the world’s possibilities. They say to me: this is not a closed system but one open to its creator, whose possibilities are endless.

Evidence? I think of an Isaiah 2,500 years ago pronouncing this word (about his word) and letting it blow through the ages; of Paul dictating to Tertius in Corinth a letter to. a community he had never met concerning certainties he had never witnessed; of Jesus scattering parables in a backwater province to some ignorant peasants. And here am I, reading their words as though they mattered. On such a basis, perhaps I can affirm -- however obliquely -- the faith that says God’s word works in the world to shape a new creation.