The Sower and the Kingdom

I do not know how many times I preached on the Parable of the Sower during my twenty-eight years of active ministry, but it had to be a bunch, given that the Sunday lectionary of the Episcopal Church appoints it to be read once every three years. I do not recall the con­tent of these sermons, but I am confident that I always identified the sower as Jesus or perhaps the Church. I can say with equal confidence that Robert Capon’s thesis that the sower is the Father and Jesus the eternal Word sown from the foundation of the world never informed my preaching of the Sower. This surprised and disappointed me. Either I never read the two chapters devoted to the parable, or I disagreed with the exegesis. But it would have been fun to preach the Sower along Caponian lines. So how does our interpre­ta­tion of the parable change if we identify the Father as the sower and Jesus as the seed?

Listen, therefore, to the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the Kingdom and does not understand, the wicked one comes and seizes away what has been sown in his heart; this is what was sown beside the path. And the word sown upon stony places: this is the one who hears the word and immediately accepts it with joy; But he does not hold the root within himself and it is temporary, and when tribulation and persecution come on account of the word he immediately falters. But what is sown among the thorns: this is the one who hears the word, and the anxiety of this life and the beguilement of riches throttle the word, and it becomes fruitless. But the word sown upon the good soil: this is the one who, hearing and under­stand­ing the word, bears fruit, one a hundredfold, another sixty­fold, another thirtyfold. (Matt 13:18-23)

The Word is sown among humanity, meeting four different responses: misunderstanding and rejection (the path), immediate but temporary acceptance (stony places), fruitlessness (thorns), abundant growth and fecundity (good soil). The four kinds of ground, Capon suggests, “are clearly meant to cover all sorts and conditions of human beings” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 64). The scope of the sowing, in other words, is universal and com­prehensive. All human beings are seeded; all will be given to hear the good news of the Kingdom; all will be and have been given the opportunity to meet the Savior. How could this not be the case? After all, does not Scripture teach us that the cosmos is created through Christ and in Christ and for Christ? Are we not made in his image? Here we see the catholi­city of the Kingdom. The salvation of the Father, accom­plished in the atoning work of his Son by the Spirit, intends the world. And if we are still not persuaded, Capon points us to the parables that follow the Sower (Matt 13:24-52). “He who has ears let him hear.”

If the seed sown is the incarnate Word, how do we understand its apparent failure in inhospitable, hostile environments? Capon addresses the question head-on:

The idea that the Good News of the kingdom is proclaimed in a hostile environment is written all over the New Testament. Whether we look at the demons who recognize Jesus or at the religious establishment that refuses to, it is quite plain that antagonism is every bit as much the soil of the Word as is acceptance. The point is, literally, crucial: the supreme act by which the Word declares the kingdom in all its power is not an act at all but a death on the cross inflicted on him by his enemies. Therefore, whatever else needs to be said about hostility to the Word—about its power and function in the Gospels or about the presumed menace it poses in our own day—the first thing to be insisted on is that all the antagonism in the world has already been aced out by Jesus. Not overcome by force as we would have done—not bludgeoned into submission or out of existence—but precisely aced out: finessed, tricked into doing God’s thing when all the while it thought it was doing its own thing. (p. 70)

A literal reading of the Sower might suggest that God is impotent before the hostility of the world. The divine seed, apparently, can only prosper when sowed in good soil. Yet the prophet Isaiah reminds us that the Word of God is sovereign and effectually accomplishes its purposes:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. (Isa 55:10-11)

And Capon reminds us that the power of God is perfected in weakness. The victory of the eternal Word is exhibited precisely in failure. Satan and death have already been defeated in the death of the Crucified. The soil of the hostile world is mysteriously and hiddenly compre­hended in the Kingdom that is Jesus:

Nobody, in other words—not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves—can take us away from the Love that will not let us go. We can, of course, squirm in his grip and despise his holding of us, and we can no doubt get ourselves into one hell of a mess by doing so. But if he is God the Word who both makes and reconciles us, there is no way—no way, literally, even in hell—that we will ever find ourselves anywhere else than in the very thick of both our creation and our reconciliation. All the evil in the uni­verse, whether from the devil or from us, is now and ever shall be just part of the divine ecology.

And the Sower says that. The seed eaten by birds is as much seed as the seed that produced a hundredfold. The snatching of the Word by the devil—and the rejection of it by the shallow and the choking of it by the worldly—all take place within the working of the kingdom, not prior to it or outside of it. It is the Word alone, and not the interference with it, that finally counts. True enough, and fittingly enough, the most obvious point in the whole parable is that the fullest enjoyment of the fruitfulness of the Word is available only to those who interfere with it least. But even in making that point, Jesus still hammers away at the sovereignty and sole effectiveness of the Word. Those on the good ground, he says, are those who simply hear the Word, accept it, and bear fruit: some thirty-, some sixty-, and some a hundredfold. It’s not that they do anything, you see; rather, it’s that they don’t do things that get in the Word’s way. It’s the Word, and the Word alone, that does all the rest. (p. 71; emphasis mine)

Yet the fact remains that the parable highlights the negative responses to the Word. Capon acknowledges the necessity of our synergistic cooperation with the unconditional love of God if we are to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s finished work:

Obviously, the several responses listed in the parable and in its interpre­ta­tion are meant to represent, in terms of either soil conditions or resultant plants, the various kinds of human behavior that can be offered in response to the proclamation of the kingdom. The Word, of course, takes care of itself, infallibly doing what it should in every case; it is no skin off its nose if only the last response listed produces fruitful results. But it is definitely skin off our noses if we respond in ways analogous to one or another of the first three.

The whole purpose of the coming of the Word into the world is to produce people in whom the power of the kingdom will bear fruit. But since the kingdom is fully, albeit mysteriously, present in the Word (since, in other words, the Word’s fruitfulness is not in question but is already an accom­plished fact), it is chiefly for our sakes that the parable enjoins the necessity of response. The biggest difference made by responses to the Word is the difference they make to us, for us, and in us. They decide not whether the Word will achieve his purposes but whether we will enjoy his achievement—or find ourselves in opposition to it. (pp. 72-73)

A question immediately arises: If God truly wills the salvation of every human being, how can his Word be said to be infallibly effective if it fails to produce faith and repent­ance? Recall the words of Isaiah. And what about hell? Is eternal torment really no skin off God’s nose? We will return to these questions when we examine the parables of grace and judgment.

(Go to “Mysterious Kingdom”)

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4 Responses to The Sower and the Kingdom

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The seed that is sown is the same seed that grows – they are not different kinds of seed. This year’s harvest forms next year’s seed corn, to be sown once again to produce yet more seed – there is no limit to it, you always have more than when you started. This is the point of the parable – God is profligate with himself because despite the apparent consequential losses that is how you get a bountiful harvest.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Milton Finch says:

    Exquisite and finely honed thinking. Where we used to see ourselves as (only) the good soil, we need to see ourselves as actually Him…the Word…the seed that has been thrown, no matter where. Where we find ourselves is where we will find our personal growing condition depending upon what soil we have come to rest upon while we find out that we are, in all actuality, His Body. And God’s Word will not return to Him having done nothing, but will have done what He needed it to accomplish while it was where He had landed through us being His cellular seed, His cellular Word.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Herb Garfield says:

    Less is More. Thank you, Eclectic

    Like

  4. Mike Brown says:

    I’ve seen this as different conditions of my own heart. Sometimes I neglect the word, other times it is received with great joy.

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