By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today I’d like us to consider clues Jesus gives us for recognizing the kingdom. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It’s frustrating, but sometimes the same thing can be both simple and complicated. An example of this is the parable of the sower, the story that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel.
The story line is simple enough. A sower goes out to sow, and casts seed so that it lands in four kinds of places, with four different results. The seed that lands on the hard path is eaten up by birds. The seed that lands in rocky soil grows up only to wither. The seed that lands among thorns grows up, but is choked by the thorns. But some seed ends up in good soil, and brings forth abundant grain.
The story is simple, but the disciples of Jesus have trouble understanding it, and ask for an explanation. And ever since, the Christian community has struggled with just what this story means.
It won’t do to sidestep the parable of the sower. It’s too important. There are three Gospels — Matthew, Mark, and Luke — that present parables. In each case, this is the introductory one, which sets the stage for all the rest. There are only a few features that appear in all three of these gospels, and the sower parable is one of them, a prominent part of the teaching of Jesus.
So the story of the sower demands our attention. What are we to make of it? Is it merely a simple story, or does it offer something more?
The parables in general and this one in particular are concerned with describing the kingdom of God. They attempt to address the question, “What is the kingdom like?” by helping us see, time and again, that the kingdom is markedly different from our expectations.
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In struggling to get a handle on this parable and others, I have found helpful the work of Robert Farrar Capon. [Capon discusses the Parable of the Sower in his Parables of the Kingdom (Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 61-86.] Capon is an Episcopal priest, a theologian, and handy enough in the kitchen that he’s published a cookbook. There may be something about preparing food, that mysterious, secretive process, which equips somebody to have insight into the parables of Jesus.
Capon claims that in this parable the sower is God the Father, and the seed sown is the Word of God, Jesus himself. The parable thus supports the belief that Jesus is everywhere in the world already. The task of discipleship, then, is not to take the Word where it is not, but to find that Word in all the places where it is, like an unending treasure hunt.
Capon also proposes that the parables of Jesus, and this one in particular, insist upon four important aspects of God’s kingdom. He calls these characteristics catholicity, mystery, actuality, and last but not least, hostility and response. These characteristics are what make the parable of the sower a challenge to the first disciples and to us. They make this treasure hunt something that perplexes and fascinates.
Catholicity refers to what is universal. When Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God, he proclaims its catholicity: that it is at work everywhere, always, and for everybody, rather than simply in some places, at some times, and for some people.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the story of the sower. A sower goes out to sow, and he tosses the seed in every direction so that it lands in every possible place.
The landing places represent every kind of person, every sort of human situation. There’s no way for any of us to opt out of this story.
This story is about everybody. It suggests that everybody has at least a chance at the kingdom. This catholicity, this universality, sounds great until we see that seed can land in the places we consider beyond the boundaries. We can feel sideswiped by the outrageous hospitality of God.
The second characteristic of the kingdom is mystery. So often we expect God to come on with Fourth of July fireworks. We want God to be obvious, unmistakable, punishing bad people and rewarding or at least rescuing good people (ourselves included). We want God to behave like any comic book superhero. But the way of God’s working to which Jesus points is different from that.
The sower sows the seed. And do you know what? That seed disappears. It literally goes underground where nobody can see it. To all appearances dead and buried, it sprouts, and becomes what its original size and shape would never suggest.
How strange! We want the kingdom to come in a way that’s noisy and noticeable, and what do we get? Jesus talks to us about seed. Then he becomes one. Into the earth he disappears. He’s dead and buried. Then he comes to life unexpectedly as the bumper crop’s first installment.
The third characteristic, actuality, is especially troublesome. The sower doesn’t just think about sowing the seed, or imagine it, or worry about it, or anything else. He sows the seed! Through the wide world the sower goes, casting seed every which way.
Whatever happens to a particular seed, it is still good seed. Its operative power remains unimpaired, like those seeds that sprout after spending thousands of years inside an Egyptian tomb. If there’s a problem, it’s not with the seed. The power of life is present there all along.
Jesus remains Jesus through his passion, death, and resurrection. The seed never becomes less than itself. The word is not unspoken. Our salvation is something actual.
The last characteristic is hostility and response. The point here is that hostility is real: the seed-eating birds, the oppressive sun, the choking thorns are not fantasies. What Jesus dies on the cross is a real death. But all this is turned away from its hostile intention to serve the purpose of God. We call the day of his demise Good Friday.
It is the Word alone, and not the resistance to it, that finally matters. The harvest is sure to happen. Our spot may be barren, but there’s a wheat field on the way. The only question is this: Will we obstruct growth on our own spot of soil, or will we stop blocking our life, and let the harvest happen to us?
We do ourselves a favor by letting the harvest happen. It is the kingdom of God. It is not something we do, yet it grows in the soil we are.
There are, then, four characteristics of God’s kingdom.
First, catholicity. The seed’s been scattered everywhere, and who knows where growth may happen.
Second, mystery. The kingdom doesn’t hit us over the head, but creeps into our hearts and our circumstances.
Third, actuality. The redeeming Word is never unspoken, but remains present come what may.
Finally, there’s hostility and response. We’re not here to earn gold stars, but to respond to grace by bearing fruit.
If Christian discipleship is indeed a treasure hunt, then here we have clues for the game.
The kingdom is hidden, yet everywhere.
It is not a possibility, but a reality.
It is not something we earn, but something we welcome.
We can keep our eyes on the bare spots in our lives and other people’s. We can fixate on disaster and sorrow. We can focus only on the infuriating birds who eat up seed, or the dead, withered plants, or the ones choked by thorns and weeds.
Or we can open our eyes to the harvest. Not just a little local harvest, but a universal one.
The wondrous growth–thirty, sixty, even a hundred times the return on investment–this happens not just inside the church or among Christian people. It happens here and there, in countless places through the wide world which God loves. It happens wherever anyone acts from a sense of mercy, justice, compassion, love. This wondrous growth happens whenever relationships are mended, wounds healed, hope restored. For the seed is scattered every which way, and whether they have heard his name or not, the one we know as Jesus enlightens everyone born into this world.
Our task is not to grit our teeth, hunch our shoulders, and go out to do good deeds. Rather we are to gaze with wonder upon everything God is doing in the world through all manner of people. We are to give thanks for these abundant miracles, the harvest born from scattered seed. We are to live out our gratitude by using the gifts God has given us, and thus adding to the wonder in this world.
This is our task as children of the kingdom. May we recognize it as a yoke easy to bear, a burden that is light.
I have spoken to you in the name of the One who reigns forever, and whose kingdom is present even now: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.