Jesus uses parables to reveal, to encourage, to challenge those open to the kingdom, and to confound those not in the right frame of mind or state of heart! (Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10 . Matthew 13:1-23; Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; and Romans 8:1-11.) If you were starting a new religion or breakaway group you would think that you would state very clearly what you were offering, what your goals were, and what was required of would-be members?! But Jesus responds to the challenge to provide a sign and make clear who his family is by that very day teaching with parables!
You may like to read what I wrote three years ago
where I focused on the alternate Isaiah reading.
At the beginning of several parables in Matthew’s gospel that are about the nature of the kingdom of heaven (or the kingdom of God) it is worth pausing and reflecting again on what parables are (and are not) and tuning our ears, hearts and minds in. Parables as a genre are out of the wisdom or mystery traditions of many ancient religions and cultures. It is said that parables have the ability to reveal meaning to those meant to get it and to obscure it from those for whom it is not intended. Parables are not rational creedal statements but simply earthy stories that mysteriously convey spiritual truths and meaning, often to the least likely, while obscuring things from those who think themselves wise. Jesus uses parables extensively in teaching in general and in teaching about the nature of the kingdom in particular.
For many of us this particular parable has become so apparently familiar that we may be missing a great deal. It probably doesn’t help that this is one of the few times Jesus apparently offers an explanation. Several scholars suspect that this explanation was offered at a later stage but we cannot be sure. What we can notice is that even the disciples who have already committed themselves to the call do not understand at first. This is not a simple Sunday School story. Or maybe, like a lot of Sunday School stories, there is a lot more to them than we were taught!
Firstly, the context: Jesus commences his parabolic teaching (according to Matthew) on the same day as the Pharisees and scribes ask for a sign. Jesus says that the only sign he will offer is that of Jonah. What did he mean? I’m not sure but Jonah didn’t like where God had sent him and didn’t end up where he was meant to be until he had been swallowed whole and kept in the dark for three days!! And when Jesus’ poor mother and family try to see him (possibly to check on his physical and mental health) Jesus states that all who hear and understand him are his true family! Clearly the teaching about the nature of the kingdom of heaven is not straight forward and transparently logical. It is mysterious and confounding, tantalising and alarming, inviting and obscure.
If we listen with fresh open ears and hearts this parable is curious. The farmer is a fool, a generous, chaotic, crazy, spendthrift lover. In a world where seed is precious this farmer scatters it everywhere including in places it would never have been expected to grow. It can be no surprise that some of the seed does not do well and yet the seed that does produces amazingly wonderful results with some producing a hundred grains for every seed! We have narrowly understood this as a moral tale about personal salvation and as teaching that some are in and others are not because they failed to thrive. And I am sure that there is a cautionary teaching here for both those who listen to the word and those who preach it. But what else is there for us in this story?
Firstly, as a teaching about the nature of the kingdom we might hear the prodigal generosity of the farmer, of God, and the wealth of seeds scattered all around us – every where opportunities of insight and grace, welcome and amazement, mystery and gateways to heaven in plain sight. We might glimpse that God’s good purposes work in the most curious of ways and places. When read alongside the story of Isaac and Rebecca and their twin sons where scarcity, competition, favouritism and trickery play their disturbing part in the formation of the chosen people of God and the granting of blessings we might be led to reflect that God has always been surprising us with counter intuitive grace and unmerited generosity! The kingdom of heaven seems to pop up in some unlikely places and be revealed in some unlikely ways including in those places and people we think are not worthy of God’s attention much less blessing!
Secondly, we may reflect on the parable as it seems to relate to the spiritual journey of the individual. We might hear that although the news is good it is not easy – not every moment or seed will bear fruit in our lives, not every insight will lead to wisdom and right living, not every good intention and phase will last. There are seasons of blessing and growth and seasons of once held views withering away. There are times of being on fire when everything works well and there are seasons of struggle and failure. The faith journey, like any pilgrimage or farm, is not all success and ease but seasons. While not all seeds grow to maturity all might be part of the process.
And thirdly we might wonder about if and how this parable relates to the proclaiming of the kingdom within the broader community. As has been said in response to the pandemic, we might all be in the same storm but we are not all in the same boat! Some are in luxury yachts and some are in leaky old rowing boats. Some people who hear the word are in stony places not necessarily through any fault of their own and if we believe the farmer to be generous to a fault then we must also join the work of cultivating inclusion and growth and flourishing. The God of Sarah and Abraham, Rebecca and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, will deliver blessings to all despite our fear of scarcity and competition and favouritism. God the farmer will continue to scatter seeds of wisdom and inclusion, encouragement and challenge, sustenance and abundance, where God will (which is everywhere including in unlikely places).
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, and entice and confound us with your possibilities wherever we are.