The Message of the Kingdom
July 9, 2011
( Isaiah 55, 10-13, Matthew 13.1-23 )
The parable of the sower certainly rings bells for me at the moment. I don’t do a lot of gardening, but I’ve recently sown some wild flower seeds in a small patch of earth. First of all I had to clear it of weeds and stones to give the seeds any chance of growing. Then I had to net the patch, to stop the birds taking away the seeds before they had a chance to germinate.
Judging by the number of gardening programmes on the television, the parable will ring bells with other people too. We may no longer be a nation of farmers and agricultural labourers – but many of us are interested in growing things, even if only on our own small plots. So we will all identify with the sower in his problems.
And this, of course, was Jesus’ intention when he spread the message of the Kingdom through parables. As many of us were taught in Sunday School, a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. As a good teacher, Jesus told stories about familiar things, which people understood. Their first reaction would be ‘Oh yes, I know all about that’ but then ‘ I wonder what he’s really getting at?’
Parables were meant to make one point only. In the case of the parable of the sower it is a message of encouragements. The farmer ‘broadcast ‘ his seeds, as was the custom in Palestine. His ground was of mixed quality, with some very shallow soil with rocks underneath, a path around the edge and had been cleared of thistles, but the roots hadn’t been dug up. Lots of the seed went to waste – yet his sowing still produced an abundant crop (even allowing for the oriental exaggeration in the story) for Galilee was a very fertile area. So Jesus is telling his hearers not to worry if their work seems to fail in some area; God will bless their work as they proclaim the Kingdom in word and deed.
Jesus ends the story with an enigmatic comment “Listen then if you have ears”. This is his sign that there is something more to what he has been saying than just a story. Jesus seems to have followed the old military precept ‘Never apologize, never explain’ when he preached the message of the Kingdom. He expected his listeners to do some work for themselves and work things out, so he didn’t give them the solution to the meaning of the parable.
So how, then, do we account for the next two sections of our passage: verses 10-17, which are an explanation of why Jesus used parables, and verses 18-23, which interpret this particular parable?
The second section tells us about how the message of the parable was received in the next generation of Christians, the time just before the gospels were written. Scholars think that Matthew’s church contained a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians. Matthew was very keen to emphasise the Jewishness of Jesus, and his continuity with Israel. He was also interested in how prophecy shed light on the ministry of Jesus. One of the questions that obviously puzzled the Jewish members of his community was why had so much of the Jewish Nation failed to accept Jesus’ message about the coming Kingdom? Why did the parables no longer speak to them with the power that they had when Jesus first told them? Matthew found an answer in the prophecy he quotes from Isaiah 6.
Matthew interprets this prophecy in a certain way, understanding it to say that it was God’s intention that the people of Judah before the Exile, and in the time of Jesus, should not listen to him and be healed. But it is not necessary to interpret the ‘otherwise’ in that way. Indeed it goes against all that we know of the nature of God revealed by Jesus, and the intention of Jesus himself, to suppose that he told parables to confuse all but his closest followers. The strong message of the Gospels is that he taught about the Kingdom to anyone who would listen, and in a way that everyone could understand.
This section, too, ends with a message of encouragement for the believing community, another beatitude: blessed are you whose ears hear, and eyes see what many of the prophets looked forward too.
The final section probably comes from the next stage in the growth of the Christian community, when the faith was spreading into the Gentile world. As Geza Vermes reminds us, in his book ‘Jesus the Jew’, in using parables, Jesus was using a typical teaching method of the Jewish rabbi. Jews accustomed to Palestinian teaching methods would have needed no explanation – but non-Jews would have needed every detail spelt out. Indeed, they might have expected it, since interpreting stories as allegories, when every detail meant something, was the fashion in the Greek world of the time.
Hence the allegorical interpretation of the parable in verses 18-23. The explanation reinterprets the parable. The seed changes from standing for the good news, to standing for different sorts of people who receive the good news. Some are unresponsive and easily tempted, and the message never takes root in them. Others have a shallow faith, make a start by then give up when things get hard. Some cannot withstand temptation; but there are still enough whose faith takes root to bring great results.
Now I know that some people are worried by being told that parts of what is written in the Gospels may not be the original words of Jesus. They imagine this is equivalent to accusing the Gospel writers of telling lies. But this is not the case.
We believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Jesus when he taught. We believe that the Spirit inspired the writers of the Scriptures when they wrote. We believe that the Spirit will inspire and guide us when we read, if we ask her to guide us. But the Spirit’s inspiration will not override the normal and natural processes of our human minds.
Whenever we read anything, what we understand is the product of a complex interplay between what was originally said, how the writer interpreted and recorded that, and what we bring to our reading of the passage from our own culture, education, experience and situation. So, people from different cultures and from different times are bound to ‘hear’ different things.
It is the task of Biblical scholars (also inspired by the Holy Spirit ) to unravel the different layers of interpretation contained in the Bible to help us in our reading and understanding. This is not just a modern thing. The scholars of the Jewish nation said of their Scriptures that they had several layers of meaning: first of all there was what was called Pshat – the plain and obvious meaning; then there was Remez – or hint – the implied meaning, referring to the Torah and Jewish history; thirdly, there was Drush – the meaning found by philosophers; and lasting there was Sod – the hidden meaning, accessible only to the mystics. So we should not be surprised that God’s Word, conveyed to us through the pages of Scripture, has a new message for each generation of the Church.
If we go back to the parable of the sower, we will read it with our modern knowledge of agriculture. We do not sow seeds and grow plants in the same way that a Palestinian farmer would. God has given us knowledge through science and technology which has changed the way we grow things – mostly for the better.
So also with the Bible and the message of the Kingdom; we are free to read and reinterpret it anew for each new age.
How we do so will depend on our outlook and our personality; but our reading will always be limited by our understanding that the primary message is about God and the kingdom. So I want to offer you a reading of the parable of the sower, informed by our knowledge of the world today, to answer our questions about the way we should spread the Word of God – our seed – today.
Some of the seed falls on the path. Paths are made of earth that is trodden hard. For me, this ground stands for the down trodden peoples of the world; for nations where there is no freedom, for groups in society that are discriminated against. In this sort of situation, the forces of evil find rich pickings. Before the seed of the gospel can take root in this ground, the soil needs to be dug up, turned and loosened – so that the air of freedom and the water of encouragement can circulate, and the plants that come from the Gospel seed can send down roots. In these situations, the work of sowing the seed of Gospel truth will involve first preparing the ground by working for social justice.
The shallow soil with rock beneath speaks to me of those people who are dead inside – who are unable to receive the good news of God’s love because their spirits have been killed by self-hatred, low self-esteem, shame and past abuse. On the surface, these people may seem to be fine, fertile ground – but though their relationships may begin well, they always self-destruct, as their roots come into contact with the dead area inside. There will need to be long, patient works of preparation, often by carefully trained experts, before the Gospel seed can take root here: breaking down the hard rock, clearing the remaining stones away, then enriching what is left with the new topsoil of unconditional love and compassion and acceptance.
The seed which fell among thorns represents perhaps the most common ground in which present day evangelists try to sow the gospel seed. People nowadays lead busy lives, crowded with demands , distractions and temptations from work, from their social life, from the media and the internet, from within their family. Often they can find no space for the seed of the Gospel to take root. It will not be much good just hacking at these ‘weeds’ when they show above the ground.
That would be to do as the Palestinian farmer did, destroying the obvious weeds above ground, while leaving the roots to sprout again, grow up and take over. We need to dig deeper, into the fabric of society, and help to clear away the roots from which these social weeds spring. Also, we can provide – perhaps at first only bit by bit – areas and times of peace and freedom from demands, where the Kingdom can take root a few seeds at a time, and the crop can begin to bear fruit.
But, even this interpretation of the parable of the sower comes back ultimately, to the central message of the Kingdom that Jesus preached. In the church, ‘small is beautiful’. Our efforts may seem small, our results unspectacular in the eyes of the world. But where God is at work through us, nothing can prevent a glorious harvest.