Breaking the 4th wall

Psalm 80 (Morning)

Psalms 77, 79 (Evening)

Leviticus 25:35-55

Colossians 1:9-14

Matthew 13:1-16

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “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!” Then the disciples came and asked him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’ With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn— and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Matthew 13:1-16 (NRSV)

Matthew’s account of the parable of the sower and the seeds displays a very revealing observation (although I wonder if this was accidental) about the teachings of Jesus. In his account of this parable, he shows Jesus “breaking the 4th wall,” as they say in the TV and movie trade. We see Jesus first speaking to the crowds, then turning and speaking to the disciples about what he just told the crowd, and in tomorrow’s reading (a continuance of this chapter) we will see him turning back to the crowd and continuing on with the parable.

The term “breaking the 4th wall” refers to a device where the main character in a dramatic work speaks directly to the audience–not just in a short aside, but in some way, actually telling the tale (or what’s about to happen in the tale) to the audience. It comes from the notion of a stage having four walls, with the fourth wall being an imaginary or iconic one separating the reality of the play from the reality of the audience. It creates a level of meta-fiction within a fiction, and acts as a sort of Venn diagram, with the intersection being the character making those two realities meet–fully a character in the play, and fully a real person speaking directly to you and the rest of the gathered faithful. (Sounds a little like “fully human, fully divine,” doesn’t it?)

In modern movies, we see this device being used in films such as Goodfellas and Fight Club, and perhaps even a little in Raising Arizona. But the three all-time masters at this were Groucho Marx (Animal Crackers is the perfect example,) George Burns in his old TV show with Gracie Allen, and Bugs Bunny. All three of them had a habit of looking directly into the camera and cutting you in on the secret. One could claim that Bugs even broke a 5th wall, since he was a cartoon character, and we are treating his breaking of the 4th wall like we would a human being!

Matthew lays this chapter out in a way that allows us to enter into the story, not just as a listener to the parable, but with a choice as to which level we want to hear about the parable. We can learn from it just as a person in the crowd that day did by simply hearing the parable’s own story and not worrying about the dialogue in the middle–or, conversely, we can learn from it in the way a resident physician learns from a skilled teaching physician. (“Let me tell you how I handle this situation…You heard me when I talked to the patient and it was clear he didn’t get what I was telling him…now watch when I go back in and ask the patient some questions and go back to what I said before…”)

Let’s start by looking at the first half of this passage. Jesus has told the crowd, “Okay, here’s a story about four situations with the sowing of seed.” It’s clear from the get-go, if this were a multiple choice question, “D” is the correct answer. Choices “A,” “B,” and “C,” will result in a bad outcome for the seed. Everyone wants to be choice “D.” Seems like a no-brainer, right?

Now we move to the second half. The disciples are saying, “Why don’t you just tell them outright?” and the short version of Jesus’ answer is, “To teach you how I teach, so you can teach them.” He points out that the disciples are the smart kids in the classroom, but it’s not about them showing their theological prowess to him. It’s about sharing the Gospel and the story of the Good News in Christ with “them”–the nebulous “other.”

It’s clear that 75% of the seeds in this parable will not bear fruit. Some will never grow. Some will begin to grow quickly, but never bear fruit. Some will be stymied by a bad situation. Only a quarter of the seeds will bear fruit, but the fruit they will bear, over time, will surpass our original amount of seed exponentially. Matthew’s account of this, though, by allowing Jesus to break the 4th wall and letting us hear the story in much the same way he and the disciples did, illustrates that this exponential growth happens partly because the smart kids in the class learn how to share the Good News. They find a way to invite everyone to listen and learn on their own, to allow them to make their own insights. They find a way to make the Good News about the people who are hungry for it, rather than using the Good News to stroke the egos of the righteous. They become the good soil–the substrate for spontaneous growth–rather than engage in the futility of trying to control the elements.

Those of us who regularly read (or write) text studies can fall into a terrible trap. We enjoy the intricate details of the Bible to the degree we can make our Christianity all about ferreting out the little details of the Bible and feeling good that we are so clever at it. But too much of that puts us in peril that we will be like the seeds in choice “B”–we grow quickly, but unless we are in good soil that lets us put out roots both downward and laterally, we will bear no fruit. Matthew, however, shows us the antidote for that–it is in following Jesus’ example and breaking the 4th wall. It’s in simultaneously sharing the Good News both in the place where 75% (or more) won’t “get it” at first, yet providing special care and feeding to the seeds that we notice are growing quickly. It’s in the understanding that some people are just in a place where they can’t grow at the moment because their soil is too thin, or in a place where circumstances are choking them, yet we must both keep sowing the seed and offering good soil.

Where are you called to break the 4th wall in proclaiming the Good News in Christ?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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