The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10A)
July 12, 2020
O Lord, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee, and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The parable of the sower and the passage we heard from Isaiah both tell us of God’s invitation to us to enter into new life. On the face of it they may seem quite different. The Old Testament story is so positive and joyful, while Matthew’s tale, especially its interpretation, seems much more negative, focussing on all the seeds that do not spring to life. When we dig a bit deeper, however, we will see that God’s message to us is both consistent and optimistic.
The main impediment to our understanding is the allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower that immediately follows the telling of the parable. In Matthew’s text, the story and its explanation are separated from each other by a narrative explanation of parabolic speech that has been omitted from today’s reading. The editors of the lectionary were not wrong, perhaps, in making this cut since the intervening material just complicates matters further. In that passage, Jesus tells his friends that he speaks to them in parables in order to obscure his meaning from those who “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (13:13). Matthew assumes the parables are opaque to the average listener and believes this to be purposeful, creating a situation in which some respond to the Gospel teachings and others do not.
This passage, along with that allegorical interpretation (which, as we shall see itself is to be rejected), explains to Matthew’s readers why some Jews have chosen to follow Jesus, while others have not. Indeed, this whole section promotes the notion of there being insiders and outsiders. As Jesuit scholar Daniel Harrington has pointed out, this is a late first-century quarrel amongst Jews and does not reflect the original setting of Jesus’ teachings. It shows sectarian thinking of the kind we also see in Paul’s writings and in John’s gospel, and it is unhelpful for us in our context.(1)
The parables, which we begin to explore today and which will occupy us on and off through the end of this long season after Pentecost, are not intentional riddles for those who are “in” or “chosen” to crack, leaving others mystified. We remember from just a few weeks ago Jesus words: “For nothing is covered that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known” (10:26). In their original setting, Jesus’ parables, considered some of the most authentic remains of his teachings, are for us to understand. They are tools for comprehending complex concepts, especially the Kingdom of God. The great Welsh biblical scholar C. H. Dodd famously defined parables as “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”(2) Each parable, whether a simple metaphor or a sophisticated narrative, is an example drawn from life meant to stimulate our imagination, to make us think, to help us understand that which is complex and hard to pin down, but that we can grasp by seeing the situation whole. A parable, therefore, is to be apprehended in its entirety rather than teased apart.
This, along with certain linguistic peculiarities, is why we must reject as authentic to Jesus’ intentions the complicated allegorical interpretation of the parable of the sower. These are the words of a preacher, steeped in Hellenistic thought, “in which,” as C. H. Dodd puts it, “each term stood as a cryptogram for an idea, so that the whole had to be de-coded term by term.”(3) Rather, Jesus summons to mind an image from life that would have been well known to his hearers: a person sowing seeds in a field. It is a universal image that has come through the centuries and across continents. It is an image from the rough and tumble of life, something most people, especially those whom Jesus met, would have understood, could have related to. Jesus makes the workings of God, the mysterious, distant, unknowable workings of God, accessible by relating them to human activity and the processes of nature.
Without introduction, without fanfare, Jesus begins, “A sower went out to sow.” His listeners immediately form a picture in their imagination; they are hooked. He continues, “And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them.” That is certainly natural enough. Birds love seeds and are always foraging for food. The action of the sower undoubtedly caught their attention, too. “Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, 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 upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” Again, these things happen. It makes sense. Jesus then concludes, “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
Why would Jesus tell us this if it were not relevant to, and consistent with the rest of his teachings? Jesus has been preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God. He has been preaching an inversion of values in which the humble and meek are truly valued. He has been preaching the centrality of the ancient commandment to love God and neighbour. This story must relate to that message. It is a way of explaining the workings of God and that unfolding Kingdom that has a king unlike any other. With the allegorical reading in our heads, however, we are set-up to look for equivalences. Who is the sower? What are the seeds exactly? Who or what does each kind of ground represent? And who are the birds supposed to be? Who am I in this story, then?
Rather than focus on these specific questions or focus on our selves, we are to look at the whole. We see a sower throwing about seeds abundantly, almost wantonly, prodigally. They fall where they may. Some germinate, but don’t grow into healthy plants, others are not even allowed to set roots, while some yield plants strong and great. If we see this as the workings of God, or the workings of the Kingdom of Heaven, it means that the invitation to participation in its life is issued broadly, to all, without prejudice. No one is left out of the invitation, no one is excluded. Admission to the Kingdom, to the life of God, is not based on a predetermined list or either people or characterictics on that great clip board in the sky. The Kingdom of Heaven is like that sower, wildly throwing seeds everywhere and seeing where they might land. Freedom and circumstance play their part, because God has given us agency and the ability to choose, the ability to respond or not to respond. If it were all pre-determined, then, love counts for a whole lot less. Love once offered exercises its pull and we respond freely, without coercion. Where there is force there is no love, where there is no choice, there is no love.
The parable of the sower, seen whole, tells us something about the nature of God’s invitation to us, about God’s love for us, God’s hopes for us. God invites us all, loves us all, hopes we all will respond and bring forth grain, or fruit, or whatever product means something to you, in the form of our faith, our trust in God, and our love returned to the world, perhaps “a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
And this brings us back to the passage from Isaiah. That sower, throwing his seeds to the earth is very much like God who said, “Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” God is sending his people a invitation, an invitation to the abundant life of everlasting relationship with each other and with God: “Hearken diligently to me,” the Lord says, “and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” Like the seed that issues forth from the hand of the sower, “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” Rather than offer us a puzzle to solve, over and over God shows us through analogies drawn from life that clarify rather than confuse, God’s intention for us.
God’s work is purposeful, always, even if it sometimes seems like it is arbitrary or random. It is always moving in the direction of the accomplishment of the Kingdom of God, always moving in the direction of more love, more relationship. If God invites us all into the abundant life of the Kingdom it is not an arbitrary or random invitation, it is not with indifference to who will respond. Rather it is with the desire that all of God’s children, all those made in the image and likeness of God, may come, might have the chance to respond, to live into the love that God offers us. The seed is spread widely to increase the harvest.
In a moment when all of us are both separated from one another by the reasonable constraints of social distancing, undertaken out of love for one another that we might not sicken our brothers and sisters who share our flesh, and feeling the pain of centuries of racism and division, it is essential that we remember God’s prodigal invitation into the life of the Kingdom of God. Each of us, unique, different from one another as we are, marked by physical characteristics that we categorise as race, by distinctions of education and class, by unequal economic conditions, is invited into the work of the Kingdom of God. We are all of us worthy to be included, counted among the seeds that spring to life and yield a hundredfold. We must be careful not to limit our conception of who is in and who is out, or think that only people who look and sound and act like ourselves are reached by the works of God.
This is largely what Matthew and his community were trying to do. They wanted to explain why some were persuaded by Jesus and others were not. Subsequent commentators focussed on the question of who is in and who is out, rather than on the message that the story of the sower sends, that God in Christ invites everyone to take part. Why some pursue self-interest, why some ignore love, focus on division and hatred, sowing discord, cultivating grievances, this is a consequence of the freedom that makes our ascent so potent and real. Some will fail to respond, but many of us will and we all find hope and inspiration, always before us in that image of the sower scattering seeds that reach us all and call us deeply into relationship with God, into the works of love and justice that characterise the Kingdom of God.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Benedict of Nursia, 12 July 2020
(2) C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 5.
(3) Dodd 1961, 1.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume