Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Parable of the Seeds

 Isaiah 55.10–13 & Matthew 13.1–9, 18–23

It’s quite wonderful that today’s readings happen to come to us just days before the great St Faith’s Flower Festival.  (And if any of you are wondering why Sandra looks a little less composed than normal, it’s because of the Great St Faith’s Flower Festival!). 

Isaiah, first, offers us a vision of the trees clapping their hands, while mountains and hills burst into song.  Cypress trees replace thorns, and myrtle overcomes brier and bramble.  Rich metaphors indeed – to underline God’s promise that his word will accomplish that which he purposes for it.   Isaiah uses the metaphor of rain.  For an unscientific man, writing in the Bronze Age, Isaiah demonstrates quite a profound understanding of how the climate system works.  Rain and snow fall from heaven, and they ultimately return there – which demonstrates that Isaiah understood the principles of precipitation and condensation.  But, like the word of God, Isaiah says that rain only returns to the sky once it has accomplished its purpose; of watering the earth, and ‘giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater’.  God’s word has power, and despite the best that the thorns, briers and brambles of the world can throw at it, God’s word will accomplish its task.  He promises it.

It is entirely possible to see Isaiah’s poetry as foreshadowing the work of Jesus, the Word made flesh.  He too comes from heaven, accomplishes the task for which he was sent, and then returns again to the heavenly realm.  He completes his work on the cross and from the tomb, and then returns to the right hand of God.

And while he lives on earth among us, Jesus teaches us not just how to live, but how to live on the Narrow Way of faith.  In the Parable of the Seeds Jesus outlines all the ways in which the word of God can end up strangled in lives of complex human beings.  Jesus didn’t often unpack his stories for us to understand so easily.  For us theologians, that can feel a bit some of the fun has been taken out of it!  We love to debate exactly what Jesus meant by some of his more obscure parables!   But clearly, Jesus wanted to leave us in no doubt about this one. 

There are four kinds of ground in which the word of the Kingdom gets sown:  the path, the rocky soil, the thorns, and then the good soil.  But before we focus on the four types of ground, we must not miss the nature of the seed that is being sown.  Jesus says that the seed is ‘the word of the Kingdom’.  He’s very specific about it.  Unlike Isaiah, who talks about the word of God in general, Jesus narrows it down.  He’s talking about his message of a new Kingdom, in which the mighty will be brought down from their thrones, and the humble and poor lifted up.  He’s talking about a Kingdom of love, in which the poor are blessed, the stranger is welcomed, where warring factions lay down their arms, and in which justice flows like a river.  This is a grand vision of the upside down Kingdom, in which everything we think we know about how to live gets turned over, reversed, reset and repented of.

But there are mighty forces arranged against the success of the Kingdom.  Along the path, “the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart” (v19).  This is an obvious reference to the Devil, or Satan: which I believe to be another metaphor – this time for all the evil that human beings do to each other.  When we oppress one another, or when the rich steal from the poor, or when arms dealers provoke wars to line their pockets, or when massive international companies destroy the planet for personal gain, these are great evils.  And these great external evils can snatch away our hope in Jesus’ promise of the Kingdom.  We can’t see how it can possibly be true, when so much is obviously wrong with the world.  So, with hope snatched away, like birds taking seeds, we retreat into our shell, and the hope of the kingdom within us, dies.  The seed on the path, therefore represents all the external forces, which press down upon our faith. 

The seed sown among the thorns, however, represents all the internal forces do the same.  These are the forces which we, ourselves, have the power (with God’s help) to do something about.  Jesus summarises them as “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth”, and these are the thorns which can strangle our faith, if we let them take hold.  So, when the maintenance of our home, or our garden, our social life, or our shopping habits begin to strangle our ability to function as agents of the Kingdom, we need to beware.  We need to take stock.  How much are we letting ‘the cares of the world and the lure of our wealth’ strangle the hope of the Kingdom inside of us?

We need a defence against these external and internal forces arrayed against us.  The defence that Jesus offers is the maintenance of good spiritual roots.  Seed sown on the rocky ground, is seed which initially hears the word of the Kingdom with joy – but which then develops no roots.  These are the people who, for example, might love the atmosphere of church and the social dimension of belonging.  They love the music, they love the friendship, they even enjoy the occasional sermon – especially when there are jokes! 

But that’s as deep as it goes.  The core message, of the radical life-changing possibilities of the Kingdom, never penetrates beyond the surface.  It never goes deep.  We resist the radical call of Jesus, to really live life lightly, to let go of old resentments, to embrace compassion and justice in every encounter, to take time often to be in the presence of God and to hear his quiet voice. 

Jesus says, “such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.”  Without the deep and cultivated roots of faith, without regular worship, regular practice of the presence of God, the generosity of love, we are unable to combat the external forces of evil, and the internal forces which threaten our Kingdom vision.

So, how are we to be the good soil, in which the word of the Kingdom bears fruit in varying quantities?  Incidentally, I love the way Jesus says that the fruit of the kingdom is borne in different quantities in different people…”in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty”.  By these words, Jesus acknowledges that the Narrow Way of faith is a tough road to follow.  He has compassion on those of us who struggle to let go of the thorns of worldly care, or fail to let our roots go deep, or who are frightened by the external forces of evil.  He know that these forces are real, and their effect is profound.  Which is why he encourages us, each week, each day, to seek forgiveness, and the strength to try again. 

And that, perhaps, is the very heart of this story.  I have certainly recognised myself in these descriptions of the different soils, and I imagine you have too.  I know that I sometimes get fixated, and not a little scared, by the great evils in the world.  I know that I can sometimes let the cares of the world and the lure of wealth cloud my daily practice of the Narrow Way.  I know that sometimes I am less than diligent in the pursuit of the deep roots of faith.  But I also know that Jesus offers me his forgiveness, for every time I fail.  All I need to do is ask for it, and it shall be given.  And through the gift of his body and blood, his nourishing spiritual food, he strengthens me to once again step out on the journey of faith.  Amen.

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