The parable of the sower from today’s Gospel reading affords us a chance to learn about what the kingdom of God is like, and even more about how it will be received.
Part of what a parable teaches, quite apart from whatever content might belong to the story, is that the wisdom of God is elusive, and appreciating it will take a readiness to hear and obey that divine wisdom.
A parable requires us to invest effort in its understanding. This fact is obscured by the lectionary reading, which presents the parable as Jesus told it, and then immediately jumps to his explanation of its meaning, which makes it sound rather straightforward.
But if you read the whole chapter of Matthew, something funny happens in between “He who has ears, let him hear,” and “Hear then the parable of the sower.” Jesus is calling us to have the ears to hear, to listen in such a way that we hear the true inner message and meaning of the parable. Yet the intervening verses, 10-17, do not appear in the reading for today and we miss something crucial as a result.
So, whoever has ears to hear, hear the middle of the parable of the sower:
10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” 11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. 12 For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. 14 With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:
‘You shall indeed hear but never understand,
and you shall indeed see but never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are heavy of hearing,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should perceive with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them.’
16 But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
That there is this gap between Jesus saying “him who has ears, let him hear,” and “Now hear the parable of the sower” means that what has happened in that gap is very important.
The important missing bit is why Jesus teaches in parables at all. Even his own disciples do not understand the parable at first. Notice they ask not what the parable means, though Jesus will tell them this, but why he speaks to the crowds he is teaching in the form of a parable. Why use parables at all?
Jesus says it’s because to some it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, to others not. He addresses himself to the crowd in parables because large parts of the crowd it would seem cannot understand the wisdom that is presented in parable form. They look but do not see; they hear but do not listen; they “understand” without really understanding in their heart of hearts.
Parables speak of deep things and can be obscure because deep truths cannot be simplified. The point of a parable then is neither to be deliberately obtuse nor to be glaringly obvious. So what lies in between being totally obscure and concealed in your meaning and being totally upfront and transparent to the point of oversimplification?
The point it seems to me is to challenge. It is to get you to ask yourself what this parable has to say to you personally. Where do I fit into this story? What kind of soil am I? How am I living into the kingdom of heaven?
The message of the kingdom is not received by everyone the same way, so each person must look to their own selves to consider what sort of reception they have given the message of God’s kingdom. This is why some people will hear a parable and understand it, and by understand here I mean they will take on board its wisdom and allow it to change their life. Others, however, will only be left confused, or unappreciative, or others even put off altogether. The kingdom of heaven is not universally welcome.
And this is really the meaning of this parable. It’s entirely to do with how the kingdom of heaven is received.
That this is a parable then is itself part of the point of the parable. Form is content. The parable is about the fact that not everyone will understand or appreciate the kingdom of God. And that content is reinforced by the form of the parable, a form our Lord uses to underscore what the parable is about: He teaches a parable about how not everyone will understand in the form of a parable because parables are the kinds of things that not everyone will understand.
When someone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it at all, then the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown, and this is the seed that was sown on the path where the birds came and devoured the seed.
Some hear the word of the kingdom and are at first joyful, but the word takes no root because they do not allow it to take hold of their lives, and as soon as they face persecution or trouble for their belief they abandon the kingdom. These are the seeds that spring up at first but are scorched to death because they have not put down enough roots to tap the groundwater.
Some truly do hear the word of the kingdom and understand it, but they are carried away by worldly concerns and love of money. These powerful distractions, so present to us in our lives even today, are rivals to the kingdom of heaven, and they choke it out before it comes to be really fruitful. These are the thorns that overwhelm the plant before it can grow to fruitful maturity.
There are many ways the kingdom of heaven can fail to truly dwell within our hearts, but the failures are our own—the fault is not in the sower but in the soil. Resistance to the kingdom of God comes in many forms, while there really is only one way to get it right. Because of that the fruit of the kingdom is not as great as it might have been, and we are invited to think about not just whether we are bearing fruit ourselves but whether there might be other ways in which we are failing to do so.
But the news in the end is good news, for there is such a thing as good soil. It is possible for us to hear the word and understand it, and when that happens, we do indeed bear fruit. So what does that look like in your life? Where do you see the kingdom of heaven working itself out in how you live with family, with co-workers, with friends and fellow parishioners? Is there some place in your life where you can see that the kingdom of heaven has been particularly fruitful because you have allowed it to really take root in your heart? Can you envision then moving from 30-fold to 60-fold to 100-fold?
For our Lord also indicates that the kingdom of heaven, even when planted in good soil, will yield varying crops of fruit. While we have opportunity to engage in private reflection and self-examination, let’s take that time to clear away the thorns and to multiply the fruit within our own lives by letting our Lord’s parable do its work of challenging us to ever greater commitment to letting the kingdom of heaven take complete possession of all our lives.