Jesus tells parables to open up the secrets, the mystery, of God’s way, a way so different from our way that sometimes only pictures can open the possibility; today is the image of a seed and growing, and God’s promise that this seed will bear fruit in all circumstances.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 15 A
texts: Matthew 13:1-23 (adding back the omitted verses 10-17); Isaiah 55:10-13
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We might have the wrong idea about mystery because of the literary genre that has given birth to books and films and all sorts of stories. In those, the whole point is to follow the clues and solve the answer – the guilty party, the secret staircase, the hidden history of the family – whatever it is.
The mysteries of faith are quite different. Understanding, or comprehending the mystery of God’s will and ways is not a puzzle we can sort out for ourselves, even if we follow the clues that God has revealed. So our goal is not finding a simply packaged answer that boxes God up neatly – for no such answers exist – rather it is finding a deep appreciation of the mystery of God and a willingness to enter into whatever the Triune God has revealed to us.
This is how we can begin to hear Jesus’ parables. Because without exception, when Jesus told a parable it was because he was trying to convey something of the mystery of the way of God, and the only way to do that was to paint a picture or tell a story or give a simple, earthly example. There were plenty of occasions when Jesus spoke directly, taught clearly and said exactly what we needed to know. We have much that is clear truth given to us directly by the Son of God. We should, therefore, take it seriously that sometimes he didn’t feel direct speech could convey God’s truth, and used the form of a parable instead.
What that means for the next three weeks of Gospel readings, but also for all of our encounters with Jesus’ parables, is that we seek to set aside the idea that there is one “meaning” we can write up that fully explains the parable. If there were, Jesus wouldn’t have told a parable, he’d have said a declarative statement. Realizing that, we can begin to see that with these parables Jesus is giving us images and stories that we can live in, ponder, look at from different angles, and see many different riches and truths of God that he is trying to convey. The parables are extravagant gifts indeed, for they are views into the very heart and mind of God, and through these images we are able to catch glimpses of the beauty and grace of the Triune God Jesus came to reveal to the world.
Today we begin with considering the question of mystery before we look at today’s parable, because that’s what Matthew does.
With this familiar parable Matthew, like Mark and Luke, introduces Jesus as parable teller. As it is the first story, they all also include Jesus’ answer of why he tells parables in between the parable itself and Jesus’ explanation of it. The lectionary left out those middle verses, likely because they are a little confusing, but we heard them today for the simple reason that today’s Gospel makes more sense with the verses left in. We need to understand, before any parables, what Jesus is doing.
And it’s all about mystery, the mystery of the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God. The difficulty is the question of whether Jesus tells parables to deliberately confuse hearers who are outside his group of disciples, or in the hopes that the outsiders will perhaps understand and follow.
Jesus here says he hopes to help understanding. He says, “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.’” (13:13) In other words, Jesus is saying here that it is because of the lack of understanding of the crowds that he tells them parables.
To underscore this, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6, about the people’s hearts being dull, their ears hard of hearing, their eyes closed, so that they aren’t able to be reached by God. But Jesus turns Isaiah around. In Isaiah, the prophet is told to speak in a way that makes the people dull and deaf and blind. Jesus flips it over, and says that the people’s blocking of God’s ways is the reality, and that he is telling parables to try and crack through that veneer, to reach people who have made themselves unable to see or hear or know God’s Word.
And that is the way of the world, isn’t it? We want things to be as we see them, as we make them. God’s ways are radically different, so we close ourselves off to them. Rather than be changed to see or hear or know differently, we pretend we cannot even understand God.
So Jesus gives us God’s mysteries in stories and pictures, hoping to sneak past our defenses, climb over our walls, unlock our back doors, and show us God’s true intention for us and for the world.
And as Jesus says, once we’re open to the reality of the mystery of God’s ways, more and more we’ll be able to see how this is truth and life. “To those who have, more will be given,” he says.
But the more we close ourselves off to our own way, and try to force God into that, the less we’ll be able to understand God. “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away,” he says.
That’s reality. And he’s giving parables to us, to the world, in an attempt to change that reality, and invite everyone into the mystery of God in the world.
With that in mind, let’s look at this story of a farmer throwing seeds all over the place.
There is much we could say about this story. However, since we’re not looking for “the one answer,” let’s just turn this jewel in the light and look at one of the glimpses of God it provides.
This is one of only two parables where an explanation by Jesus of the parable’s meaning is provided by the Evangelists. Even so, the explanation Jesus gives only serves to help us find entry into his original parable. It doesn’t give a final, declarative conclusion.
So the seed is “the word of the kingdom,” Jesus says. But that could mean Jesus – the Word of God incarnate – is the seed; it could mean that Jesus is the sower and the seed – the Word – is his teaching. It could mean that we are the sowers and the seed – the Gospel – is what we are spreading. Do you see?
But keeping in mind Jesus’ explanation of the four soils, what happens if we look at this story with open minds and new eyes to the mystery?
What I notice this time is that we’ve sometimes assumed that Jesus is describing a permanent, final situation for all the seeds. But what if he’s only describing the reality of the world? That is, what if he’s not saying that at the end of this parable we have the final answer for all of these seeds, all of these plants?
That yes, there are some people whose faith is hindered by not understanding, and any good news from God falls away without impact. And yes, there are some people whose faith is deeply challenged by persecution and trouble that following Jesus might bring. And yes, there are some people whose faith is deeply challenged by worries about life, or anxiety that leads to grasping for false security such as wealth. And yes, there are some people whose faith seems to root deeply and grow and produce fruit.
But nothing here says that’s the final situation for any of these people.
And what if he’s not saying that people are classified in only one type of soil?
That, yes, there are lots of ways faith is challenged, and he’s described them well, but that perhaps any of us at any time might find ourselves in one place or the other. That is, at some times in our life the thorns might threaten us, at some times we seem to struggle to deepen our roots, at some times we simply don’t understand at all, and at some times it all makes sense to us.
Nothing here says that we cannot find ourselves in various kinds of soil in our lives.
If this is so, then what if Jesus is tying this parable to all the rest of his teaching and ministry (a good biblical interpretive principle), and is inviting us to participate in the growing of God’s Word in the world?
Jesus knew his Isaiah well, and certainly knew and believed our words from Isaiah 55 today, that the seed of God’s Word will always grow and accomplish what God intends for it.
The sower practices horrible agricultural techniques, throwing the seed into all sorts of inappropriate places, wasting a precious resource of seeds for planting. Even in Jesus’ day a farmer would prepare soil and only put seeds into the prepared place, which had weeds already removed, and rocks taken away, and never on a hard path.
The only way this planting method makes sense is Isaiah 55: the mystery of God is that God desires the Word to go everywhere, even in places we’d usually assume were a waste of time and space, simply because God will make sure the Word will take root and grow.
It will do what I want it to do, God says.
Which leads us to consider the possibility that the status of the seeds and the soils and the growth is not a final status but an in-between one. That just as we often find ourselves as different kinds of soil, we also are able to change our soil, or have it changed for us. Nothing in this parable says that the farmer can’t or doesn’t break apart a path or pull up weeds or remove rocks.
So what if that’s something Jesus would like us to consider? What if he’d like us to think not about our final status but about our gardening and farming skills?
The fruits of life in Christ he calls out in us are always love of God and love of neighbor. Perhaps part of the mystery of the kingdom of God is that within the kingdom those who are growing well and bearing the fruit of love of God and neighbor can be helping those who are in a time of thorns or rocks, or feel as if their minds are as thick as concrete sidewalks.
Bearing thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold fruits of such love would be shown to the world in our willingness to help our neighbors with their patch of ground.
To lovingly help those struggling to understand by listening to their confusion and sharing what we’ve seen. To lovingly help those struggling with the anxieties of the world, the misplaced priorities of a wealthy society, by walking alongside them in a different way, showing how it is a way of life to live in trust of God for all things. And to lovingly help those who keep hitting rocks in their attempt to deepen in faith by gently helping them remove the barriers and obstacles that are hindering their faith, by digging out rocks with them.
Suddenly this jewel of a parable reveals the beauty of a community of believers who help each other grow and deepen in the Word, in faith.
Of course, the scary part is when we find ourselves struggling, because it will take a great risk to admit to others the weeds and thorns and rocks and hard paths in our hearts and lives, and more, to let our sister or brother help us with them.
We tend to prefer being the helper, and resist admitting we need help from others. But compassion runs in two directions, and we need to be able to receive as much as to give.
Perhaps Jesus tells this parable, which so easily makes sense to our own experience of thorns and rocks and concrete in our lives, to encourage us to see that we’re in the same field as our sisters and brothers and we need not be too proud to let them help us with our patch of grain once in awhile.
It’s a beautiful thing to consider. And it all comes from this simple story of planting seeds.
Next time we pick it up, and turn it around, perhaps the jewel of this story will shine something else for us. It’s how Jesus’ parables tend to work.
For now, we have this mystery, that even when we seem to see no life, dead seeds stuck in bad soil, God promises it will grow and bear fruit. And in this story, God’s given us the task of being a part of that promise, being a part of that growing that God most certainly will accomplish.
And what a privilege that is, to work the garden alongside the God who is with us always. We remain in mystery about how God will do all this. But what we know for certain is that this seed God has planted in us, in the world, will grow and bear fruit. That is a promise.
In the name of Jesus. Amen