~ Matthew 13:1-23 ~
One of the small pleasures during this shelter-in-place pandemic is watching my garden grow. We’ve planted a small garden every spring for several years now but this year I put just a bit more into it since I’ve been home a lot. Preparing the soil, adding compost and planting seeds. Except for some tomato starts, we planted everything from seeds, including squash and cucumbers. Every morning now I go to the backyard to watch my garden grow.
If you’re any kind of “foodie” you probably have heard of Dan Barber. He is the chef/owner of Blue Hill Restaurant in NYC and Blue Hill at Stone Barns on the Hudson River. Linda and I got to visit there a year ago. Quite nice. One of the ventures Dan Barber is involved with is the development of new seeds for new kinds of veggies, his “experimental seeds,” as he calls them. So, we ordered some for our garden. We got seeds for experimental cucumbers, various types of squash, snow peas with different colored pea pods, special orange-yellow beets. We planted them in our little garden. I must say, they are thriving. One of the squash plants has climbed the trellis to over 8 feet high! But they all started from seeds we buried in the soil.
Seeds are incredible. Their nature is almost mysterious. First, seeds are disproportionately small compared to what they produce. Some seeds, like mustard seeds, are almost ridiculously small. Just try finding a thyme or savory seed after it as fallen onto the ground. You might as well have sown nothing, for all you can see. Indeed, they seem to just disappear. Of course, they have to be covered with earth in order to function. But in a profound sense, they disappear because once covered with earth, they eventually become not only unrecognizable but undiscoverable as well. As far as their own nature is concerned, they simply die and disappear. It all appears to be quite mysterious.
Our gospel reading starts with this sentence: “That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.” He already had a full day. He cured a demoniac which prompted questions about who this Jesus really was – the Son of David or an agent of the devil? The Pharisees asked him for a sign in order to question his credentials. And then, with his family standing right outside the house, he outright rejects them saying that it is his disciples who are his mother, his sisters and his brothers. Indeed, up to this point in the story, 12 chapters in, the question of just who this Jesus is, is an open question. He has certainly not said anything to indicate that he is the messiah.
And so at the end of this day, as he gets into a boat on the sea so he can speak to the crowds, he clears everything up – not! Indeed, he makes things all the more obtuse. For here in Matthew 13 we have the first of Jesus parables. And, instead of declaring once and for all, that he is the messiah, he seems to intentionally incorporate mystery into his message. It’s almost like he says to himself, “well, since they’ve pretty much misunderstood me so far, maybe I’ll just take that to the next level. Maybe, instead of the idea that the kingdom will be some kind of military takeover of the establishment, as they all seem to be expecting, I’ll introduce some ideas about just how mysterious the kingdom of God really is.”
And so we are introduced to the great watershed of all of Jesus’ parables – the parable of The Sower, the first of several parables that speak to the mystery of God’s kingdom. Yet, as we hear this parable, we need to disabuse ourselves of thinking that we already know what it means. Two thousand years of familiarity might make us wonder why the disciples themselves didn’t understand it. However, the truth of the matter is that if we had been the original hearers, we would not have understood it any better that the disciples did. Indeed, consider the fact that we quite regularly miss its meaning even now.
As Jesus addresses the crowd, he doesn’t say what it is he’s talking about; he simply launches into a fairly straightforward story about a farmer whose scattered seed falls into four different situations, four different kinds of earth: some on the road, some on rocky ground, some among the thorns, and some on good ground. Of course, he isn’t talking about agriculture, but as to what it really is, he gives not a clue. As presented, if we were honest with ourselves, we would have the same questions as the disciples. We, along with them, would ask, “What on earth are you talking about?”
So, obligingly, Jesus does tell the disciples that the subject of the parable is about the kingdom. We didn’t read his explanation, but basically, he gives an allegorical interpretation of all the different elements of the story – what each of the different soil conditions mean. But even then, it is still quite obtuse. Indeed, he prefaces his explanation with several statements that people just aren’t going to get it. Yes, the disciples might get it but only if…. Well, it’s not obvious. It is all a mystery. It’s like he’s saying, “if you grasp the fact that the kingdom works as a mystery, then you might understand. If you don’t grasp that, then I can’t help you.”
Given all that, let’s take a stab at understanding it. Whom do we usually identify as the sower? We think it’s Jesus, don’t we? We have in our minds an image of him – and then, by extension, the church – going around throwing out the seeds he calls the Word of God on places that haven’t received it.
However, I don’t believe Jesus is the sower spreading his message. God is the sower. Jesus is the seed being sown. Jesus is the Word that has already been sown. Indeed, Jesus has already, and literally, been sown everywhere in the world – and without any of our own efforts. But we haven’t acted on that premise. Have we not conducted far too many missions on the assumption that we were “bringing Jesus” to the heathen? Haven’t we acted as if the Word wasn’t anywhere until we got there with it? We have spent twenty centuries thinking that the seed that is sown is the gospel message – this is how you get saved. Yet that really isn’t the point of the parable. Instead, the point of the parable is that the kingdom, in all its mystery, is already present everywhere in the world. If we can grasp that notion then, as Jesus explains, we just might understand.
As Matthew, Mark and Luke present Jesus, one of the themes of his teaching from this point on is an ever-increasing emphasis on going to Jerusalem where, he foretells, he will get into big trouble and, as a result, be executed. This parable and the parables that follow seem to provide a theological framework for that eventuality. What he seems to be saying, through these parables, is that the final constitution of the kingdom is Jesus himself. Even at the Last Supper we hear Jesus say that the cup is the New Covenant in his blood. In short, we find Jesus asserting that in himself – in his death and resurrection – the fullness of the kingdom will have been accomplished purely and simply by what he has done. You could say that from this parable of the Sower to the end of the gospels, we are watching the opening of a bud into full flower.
So, let’s revisit the seeds. If, as I claim, Jesus is the seed being sown, how does the nature of seeds help us understand all this. First, the idea that seeds are disproportionately small compared with what they eventually produce. What does that say about the Word of God that is sown? This parable seems to say that the true coming of the Word, even if you see it, doesn’t look like very much and that when it really gets down to it, it is so mysterious it can’t even be found at all.
Second, seeds disappear. They simply die and disappear. What does that say about Jesus and his ministry? He comes and his own did not receive him. He is despised. He is the stone the builders rejected. He is seen and ministered to, as we read in Matthew 25, as the sick, the imprisoned, and the down-and-out. And to cap off his whole career as the seed sown in the field of the world, he dies and rises again. His entire work proceeds as the work of a seed, mysteriously, secretly – something that cannot be known or felt but only believed and trusted.
Yet, despite all that, the third point to be made is that seeds actually do work. In other words, the seed, and therefore the Word, is fully in action in and of itself at every step of the story. The apparent contradictions of the seed’s effectiveness as they land on the various types of soil do not deny that effectiveness. Well, you might say, what about all those seeds that didn’t grow because the devil snatched them away, or the rocky ground prevented them from thriving, or the thorns choke their growth and yielded nothing? However, the differences in effectiveness should not be interpreted as meaning that the power of the seed, the power of the Word, was in any way dependent on external cooperation.
Unfortunately, the church over the centuries, has acted as if the effectiveness of the Word did depend on external cooperation. We have given the impression that unless people did something special to activate it, forgiveness would only be potential, not actual. We have told people that unless they confessed to a priest, or accepted Jesus in the correct denominational terms or responded to the evangelistic invitation to accept Jesus as their personal savior – well, maybe the seed, the Word, didn’t really work, that the seed really hasn’t been sown.
So, what are we to make of these varying conditions that seem to affect the kingdom agenda? And what are we to make of the seeds that land in good soil but produce differently – some thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, some a hundredfold?
I believe that God’s kingdom, Jesus’ kingdom, is the kingdom of grace. And that grace permeates the entire world. It is everywhere (in church language, ‘catholic’); there is no place that God’s grace is not. It is mysterious; it works in ways that are not necessarily perceptible. It is actually present; the forgiving power of grace is ever present.
How we respond to God’s kingdom of grace affects our experience of God’s grace. The conditions Jesus talks about that stifle the growing seeds – hard road, rocky ground, thorn bushes – could be seen as ways that people stifle this grace that is ever, always present. But the truth of the matter is that there is nothing – not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves – that can take away the Love that will not let us go. It’s a matter of getting out of the way. The most important point of the whole parable is that the fullest enjoyment of God’s grace is available to those who interfere with it least. The point of the seeds on the good ground, he says, are those who simply hear this Word of grace, accept, and enjoy it: some thirty-, some sixty-, and some a hundredfold. It’s not that we do anything to earn it; rather, it’s that we don’t do things that get in the way.
Over the course of the next several Sundays we will be looking at more of these parables that help us see how pervasive, mysterious, and actual is God’s kingdom of abundant grace. Amen.