Matthew 13:1-9 | What is the nature of this Kingdom Jesus talks of?

Some of my favourite books to read when I was around 11 or 12 were those ‘choose your own adventure’ stories. Do you know the ones? At the end of each chapter you got to choose what happened next, you’d be given a couple of scenarios, like: ‘To follow the footsteps into the forest go to page 56.’ Or, ‘To return to town and look for Sean’s missing bicycle, turn to page 89.’ Usually at some point, one of the choices you made would lead to you being kidnapped or murdered or falling off a cliff. But, the great thing was, that if you didn’t like the outcome you would just go back and choose the other option! Oh, if life was as simple as that! Multiple endings and the ability to just keep going back until you get the one you want!

In a normal story, one where you have to just keep going and follow through where the author is taking you, the authors usually save what the point, or what they are really getting at until the end of the book – that’s actually what makes a good story! We’re drawn into the story along the way and part of the excitement is the big reveal that so often happens near the end. Reading a story for a second time is always an interesting exercise – often we pick up different details along the way because we know where the thing is headed. We’re lucky enough with the story we seek to inhabit – the Scriptures – to be able to skip to the end and know where the whole thing is headed. The end of Revelation, chapters 21 and 22 describe a vibrant community – a city – where God dwells with all of creation and everything is as it should be, in harmony and life to the full. So, when we come to Jesus we can see that this is what he is working towards.  This Kingdom he is announcing – that is here, near, and at hand – this is what this ‘thing’ is all about – God dwelling with all of creation in the fullness of life. Typically when there is talk of kingdoms we can’t talk of these without talking about the nature of those who are in charge. Which brings up the idea of power and how it is used. How does the hierarchy exercise the power they have in relation to those who find themselves in this kingdom?

Parables were Jesus’ primary teaching tool. He used them to reveal what it is that he was doing and what he was working towards and he used them because they were disruptive and disorientating – which really is the best way to get people’s attention. It’s been said that we can group Jesus’ parables into three categories. Parables of the Kingdom. Parables of Grace. And, Parables of Judgement. The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 is said to be a parable of the kingdom. As we have listened to it just now, knowing the big picture of what Jesus was trying to do we can ask the question, ‘So, what does this say about the nature of God’s kingdom, about how God rules over this kingdom?’

A typical read of this parable makes the assumption that the seed = the ‘good news’ and that as followers of Jesus, we are the sowers. The problem of the ‘seed’ not being received by some or only taking root in a fickle kind of way is explained away because people’s hearts are hard, they have too much going on in their lives, they lack the imagination to believe in mystery, they have some sort of moral failing that blocks their ears, they don’t try hard enough, or perhaps even we are at fault with something in our lives getting in the way of people hearing the good news and taking it to heart. But, I like another take on it from the late Robert Farrar Capon (American Episcopal Priest, Author, and Chef) who gives us the idea of reading this parable with language from John 1 in mind. Here’s the beginning of John 1 just so we have this fresh in our minds:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word, nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

(John 1:1-5 CEB).

The seed in the parable becomes ‘The Word’ – the presence of God made concrete and real in Jesus and the sower is not us but rather God the creator. With this in mind, we can see that the ‘seed’ is present in all places and situations on earth and in life and this seed is perfect, full of life and goodness, and capable of doing what it intends to do. This reading of the parable frees us from having the burden of sowing seeds and it frees us from the burden of passing judgment on those who don’t receive the seed for whatever reason. We simply become, like all people, receivers of the seed. Jesus says after the parable that we receivers have one job – those who have ears are to pay attention! This takes a bit of pressure off as I’ve said. We are to pay attention to what we are hearing. We are to listen and understand. We are not to listen and then work really hard to make the seed grow by providing the perfect growing conditions. This is good news. We can get rid of the conditions for growth that we’ve placed on the seed (God’s way and presence) – the rules we’ve imposed to put boundaries on what it means to be a good Christian, the striving we have to do to make God notice us, the guilt we’re meant to feel when we make mistakes, and the grovelling we’re meant to do if we do. We are simply to listen and understand, listen and take it to heart. I would say in summary that this means, join it, don’t fight it!

What are we to do with this? Well firstly, this seems to be implying a sort of ‘accept God’s goodness and get out of the way’ approach. We aren’t to force or coerce the seed into behaving like we want it to. The goodness of God doesn’t follow our rules and boundaries, we can’t shape God in our image no matter how hard we sometimes try. This is hard because things like punishment or consequences are so ingrained in us that we read this back onto God. We are conditioned to think there have to be conditions. Simple and pure goodness is a nice idea but it can’t possibly be actually how it is!? It is hard too because we so often need to be in control. It’s the temptation of anyone in leadership as one example, to need to be in control. Anyone who’s been a parent will know that even though we want to be in control the whole time, sometimes we just have to step back and let them do their thing! A kind of silly but telling example is the person who can’t help but restack the dishwasher after it has already been stacked! Sometimes you just have to let it go! (I’m making this comment to myself here). From small to big things we find it hard to not be in control. Even when we know and trust God, and we know and trust God is good. It’s hard for us to let go and trust that things will happen – especially if it looks like they’re not happening. God in our image starts to look a lot like control, rules, limits, consequences, logic, and certainty. It’s meant to be the other way around, however. We are to be the image and likeness of God in the world. We are not to make God in our image – that in other places has been called idolatry.

Secondly, we trust the seed knows what it’s doing. If I plant a Kumara I expect Kumara, I don’t get onions. Seeds know what they are about – so too does this ‘seed’ – the goodness of God knows what it’s about, we are to trust this. Again, it comes back to trust. What is it to trust the effectiveness of God’s good news?

Thirdly, It shows us very clearly the kind of power that God exercises in the establishment of God’s kingdom. God is utterly generous and completely unconcerned with where the seed goes and how much of it gets scattered around the place. It’s a very willy-nilly and wild abandon kind of approach. God’s way of exercising power is simply to provide all we need and relentlessly give us the opportunity, without any hint of coercion, to respond. God, it appears, is a terrible farmer by our standards! And this gives us a hint that maybe there is a bigger picture at play. If God is kind of unconcerned or seemingly relaxed with when or how we respond – without ever giving up hope that we do – then God must know something we don’t! God knows what the seed of God’s good news contains, God knows its power. It is hoped that all will respond but I notice a distinct lack of anxiety from God. Again, we would do well to trust!

Finally, all this is to really say that our work, getting out of the way of the seed at work in us, is to be at rest in the goodness of God and let it grow in us. Jesus talks of an abundant harvest and in other places of ‘abiding in him’. Paul talks of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When we stop trying to control what the work of God is, when we accept and relax in God’s way, this is what takes root in us.

I’d like to land this quite close to home today and help us think about what it might mean as we start to get set up for a new expression of church and mission on our Papanui site. If God is the seed sower, and if God sows seeds indiscriminately, all over the place among all sorts of terrain; If we understand this to be saying that God is generous, that God’s good news is effective and contains all it needs for complete fullness of life; and if we understand our part in it then to be receivers and to allow God’s work to grow and flourish into abundant harvest, then I wonder about what our ‘active’ role in this is. If God’s got all God needs to establish ‘The Way’ then what is our part? Why have we felt it good to be pursuing a new expression of church and mission? Here are a few things I’ve thought of:

  1. To be passive is akin to death. To be active is to at least contain a sense of participation and to participate in something good is energising. Muscles atrophy. We have to use them if we want to keep using them. And, it feels good to do something!
  2. We are embodied creatures. Things become real when we experience them. This means others need to experience something real in order to know it is real. We can make the good news of God accessible to people in real and concrete ways.
  3. We can promote growth without slipping into thinking that growth is dependent on us. As we are listening to God and paying attention to God’s life in us and in those around us we can point to the good news of God and create conditions where that is nurtured and encouraged in people. We want to be a church that doesn’t stifle God’s goodness for people so we create nurturing and growing conditions that people can easily be a part of.

If we believe this parable – that in God’s generosity the seeds of God’s life are out there scattered all over the place, potentially taking root in all sorts of people and places, then surely we want to be looking for it, nurturing it, naming it, pointing to it and encouraging it. That is why we take a step of faith and trust in the goodness of God. That good news is out there – so let’s go find it and trust in God’s work to produce 30, 60, or even 100-fold. That, surely, is the adventure we want to be choosing!