By: Emily VanBerkum
I remember attending catechism classes when I was younger, and I recall parables being shared with visuals and great enthusiasm. Still to this day, I can rhyme off a list of parables, and imagine them playing out with various settings, props, and a cast of characters. Like my favorite fairy tales, it was engrained in me that these imaginative narratives all contained a “moral of the story” and a spiritual lesson that Jesus wanted to teach his followers. Though metaphoric language seemed strange to me as a child and certainly as a 21st century listener rather than a first-century Palestinian one, it got me thinking about how special it was that Jesus used examples of things drawn from everyday life, relevant to his audience, to reveal something about the Kingdom of God.
I later discovered a definition of a parable during my days studying theology, that added more depth to my understanding of it as a child. New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd wrote that “at its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application [in order] to tease it into active thought.”
The great mystery of parables is that the “teasing into active thought” process invites both careful reflection and, eventually, real-world application. Biblical scholar Donald Senior says that parables bear “the dynamics of both revelation and response,” and [always] reveal an “unexpected challenge.”
So then, what is the unexpected challenge of today’s parable?
Today’s parable is the story of seeds planted indiscriminately in various types of soil, which yields varying harvests.
Interestingly, despite the public crowd, this metaphor was mostly directed to Jesus’ closest disciples and was likely lost on most of his larger audience by the sea. But the strangeness of this parable is that the sower and the seed is a metaphor describing the very lack of receptivity to the Kingdom of God as expressed by his sea-side audience as hearers of the Word. Only those whose hearts are receptive can truly listen and understand. In the lead-up to where today’s passage is situated in Matthew’s Gospel, the reader learns that Jesus’ preaching on the Kingdom of God and his own divine Sonship had gained him some fierce opponents, such as the Pharisees. The people of authority in Jesus’ time had mixed responses to his proclamation that God’s reign had come.
Jesus preached the Kingdom of God and not everyone was ready to enter into the mystery of God’s divine plan.
The seed is a metaphor for the Word of God and the soil represents people as receivers of the Word. In the verses that follow and away from the large crowd, Jesus explained this parable to his disciples. The various conditions of the soil and challenges posed to the planted seeds signify the different attitudes of those who hear God’s Word: seeds sown on the path are snatched away because the Word did not take root in the heart of the listener, seeds sown on “rocky ground” means the Word was originally received with joy but with no root, the Word is denied in the face of “trouble or persecution,” and finally, seeds planted “among thorns” “chokes the Word” because the hearer becomes “lured by wealth” and worldly concerns.
After unpacking the meaning of the parable for his disciples, Jesus says that his closest followers have been given “the secrets of the Kingdom.” In other words, more is expected of those who comprehend and choose to dedicate themselves to the fruits of what this knowing asks of them: total commit to the Kingdom of God and proclamation of the Good News. For when the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, we become sowers of the Word and God’s love is nurtured and cultivated just as the seed ultimately sprouts, is encouraged by the proper conditions, and yields an abundant harvest. There’s an old adage that says to “plant the seeds now” and wait for them to blossom. We are called by virtue of our baptism to sow seeds of the Kingdom in all aspects of our lives (our homes, workplaces, schools, parish communities, extended family, friend groups, and the list goes on). Surely, we’ve all had a great mentor, friend, spiritual advisor, or teacher of the faith plant in us a yearning for the Kingdom of God and provide accompaniment as we “teased out its meaning into active thought.” “The seeds were planted” unbeknownst to us- or to them- what harvest it would yield.
But I wondered: why wouldn’t the planter be more thoughtful when sowing the seeds? Why not seek out soil that bears the right conditions to yield a hundredfold harvest? This is the great beauty of the parable. Jesus’ metaphor of the sower focuses on the importance of understanding and patience. It is the dynamic of revelation and response- an openness to comprehend the Word of God as a true believer, and the impetus to proclaim it to others only after God’s revelation takes root in the heart. Ultimately, how the seed is nourished is how it is able to grow and bear fruit. Understanding the mystery of the Kingdom takes time and effort. We need the right kind of conditions for the seed to grow. But just like the farmer, we are called to plant seeds gratuitously because there will be times in our lives when we aren’t ready to hear the Word or act upon it, or when our proclamation of the Kingdom falls on seemingly deaf ears. Perhaps you can imagine the times when you receive advice that you’re not ready to hear or doesn’t make sense to you, the times you feel uprooted or disconnected from God because you don’t know where you’re being called next, or even when we struggle to understand how and why cultural values do not always align with the counter-cultural values of our faith. Reaping any harvest- great or small- requires understanding and patience.
This week, I encourage you to call to mind the people in your life (perhaps parents, teachers, catechists, or spiritual educators) that planted the seeds of faith in you. Secondly, consider what metaphors or parables describe your current spiritual life, and “in teasing it into active thought,” what unexpected challenges emerge? Where are you called to begin freely sowing seeds, or continue to generously sow seeds of the Kingdom, and how will you wait patiently to reap the unknown harvest?