Today, I have chosen the short form of the gospel reading. Since I almost always select the longer form, maybe you’re wondering why I chose the briefer version for today’s liturgy. I imagine that you’re familiar with this gospel. Doesn’t it seem as though I’ve left out the most important part…the explanation of the parable? This parable is the first of a series of illustrations that Matthew presents to us. Scripture scholars call these the “parables of the Kingdom.” Jesus always used parables to illustrate and expand on his teachings. In this case, he’s using a parable to teach his disciples about the Kingdom—or Reign—of God.
The passage from Matthew’s gospel certainly contains a parable. However, we should be aware that there are actually two separate illustrations in the long form of this reading. The first is the parable that we just read. The second illustration—that tries to explain the parable—is actually an allegory that tells the reader what the seeds, the footpath, the weeds, and the rocks might be. Jesus used parables. They are pithy little stories meant to be taken personally and to stimulate questioning. Parables are a particularly Jewish form of teaching used not only by Jesus but by many rabbis over time. Allegories are a particularly Greek form of teaching. Think of Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. Whereas the parables reference Jesus’s life and the life of his disciples, the allegory references the life and conditions of the early Christian Church. As far as we know, Jesus seldom if ever used allegory.
When we think of today’s gospel reading, it’s hard for us to separate in our minds the parable from the allegory. We tend to gloss over the parable and concentrate on the allegory because in the allegory the meaning is spelled out for us. We don’t have to work for it. Yet, the very reason that Jesus and the other rabbis used parables was to challenge their listeners to think. That’s what I’d like to do this morning—challenge you to put aside what you think the parable means and look at it afresh. And that’s why I wanted to read only the parable without the allegory.
Scripture scholars have identified eight principal themes that Jesus used in his preaching. This is one of them. This gospel passage concerns the nature of the Kingdom—or Reign—of God. We pray about it in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Reign of God is nothing other than God’s will. The phrase, “thy will be done” is the explanation of the phrase, “thy Kingdom come.” We attribute to God the efficacy of his will through the power of God’s word. We see it at the very outset of our creation story: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” [Genesis 1:3] I’ve mentioned before that in Hebrew the word for “thing” and the word for the spoken “word” is the same word: דבר (dabar). In other words, the דבר (dabar) of God brings דבר (dabar) into existence. The word of God is creative. The Gospel of John tells is that, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” He goes on to say that “All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be.” The Word and creation are inseparable.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Jesus conveyed his understanding of the Reign of God through a simple homespun illustration. His listeners were familiar with the scene. Fields, in Jesus’s time, were often surrounded by stones to mark the boundaries. In the early spring, farmers would plow the field with an ox or donkey, tilling the soil, turning the weeds under, and fertilizing it before sowing the seed. The animals walked up and down the field in well-worn pathways between the rows. When the plowing was done, the farmers would scatter the seed over the entire field. That’s the reality, what was Jesus’s message?
Despite the way we’ve been accustomed to understanding it, the seed in the parable is an illustration of the creative word of God we’ve already identified with the Reign of God, or God’s Kingdom. In other words, Jesus is saying, “What is the Reign of God like? It’s like fertile seed.” It emerges from the Father with God’s own creative energy that nothing can hinder, regardless of what that may be. The yield of that Kingdom is enormous, especially for Jesus’s time. For every grain of wheat planted, thirty, sixty, or a hundred grains of wheat are harvested. The creative power of God is overwhelming and unstoppable.
That’s the impact that this parable had on Jesus’s listeners. And that is exactly the message we heard from the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading. Listen again.
Thus says the LORD:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
While we need to appreciate the deeper meaning of this parable, we shouldn’t disregard the allegory entirely. The early Church wasn’t wrong to apply the vitality of the Kingdom to the trials and tribulations they were facing—worldly distractions, indifference, and persecutions—but we should focus on the irresistible force of the creative love of God rather on whatever apparent obstacles to it there may be. God in Christ Jesus—his Eternal Word—has overcome all obstacles, even death itself. So, as we try to let the insights of this parable seep into our consciousness, we might meditate on how the Reign of God is capable of overcoming all the obstacles we face, if we would but trust him. The parable, in a sense, is a call to humility. It asks us to trust God enough to get out of the way. For, what greater obstacle could the creative will of God face than our own stubborn insistence on handling everything ourselves?
Once again, the message of the gospel is consistent: I can’t—my best efforts always fall short; God can—the power of his creative love surrounds and sustains us; I think I’ll let him—“Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done.”