Jesus was a masterful and effective storyteller. He talked about nature and everyday life, used short stories as vehicles for teaching about God’s kingdom and got his listeners to think about it. Today we begin a series of three Sunday readings from Jesus’ Parables Discourse in Matthew 13. They add to Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the wisest teacher of all.
Most of Jesus’ parables concern the kingdom of God. By its nature that kingdom is transcendent (because it belongs to God) and eschatological (because its fullness is in the future). As limited humans we can only catch glimpses of transcendent and eschatological realities like God’s kingdom. As a wise teacher Jesus meets people where they are and tells them thought-provoking stories about what was his central theme.
One of the major audiences for Jesus’ parables were Galilean farmers. They knew all about sowing seeds and waiting for the harvest, as Jesus describes it in the parable of the sower. What would have surprised them in the story was how prodigal (in its positive sense of extraordinarily generous) the sower was in casting the seed: he sows abundantly in all kinds of soils. Even more surprising are the results. While the first three soils yield little or nothing, the seed sown in the good soil yields remarkably productive harvests.
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God prodigally in word and deed. He did so for all to hear and see—rich and poor, wise and simple, respectable and suspect. Many paid no attention, while others rejected him and his message. But those who did listen and did accept him and what he had to say have been (and will be) marvelously productive in assimilating and communicating Jesus’ words about the kingdom. That is what matters most.
Today’s Old Testament readings confirm the positive thrust of Jesus’ parable. According to Isaiah 55, God’s word does not go forth and return without having its intended effect. Likewise, the beautiful description of the agricultural cycle in Psalm 65 affirms that when God’s word goes forth, it does not come back empty. In both cases agricultural imagery describes the effect of God’s word.
In the allegorical interpretation attached to Jesus’ parable of the sower, there is nothing wrong with the sower (Jesus) or the seed (his message). The problem comes with those who reject his message (the bad soils) and the obstacles that prevent them from receiving it: their lack of perseverance, the lure of worldly desires and the influence of Satan.
The second installment of Paul’s reflection on life in the Spirit according to Romans 8 places the sufferings of the present time in the larger context of hope for the future fullness of God’s kingdom. Then Paul reminds us that the glory for which we hope is not only individual and communal but also universal and cosmic, in the sense that it involves all creation. We who enjoy the “firstfruits of the Spirit” await in hope the definitive redemption that will come with the fullness of God’s kingdom.
• Why are parables an effective instrument for teaching about God’s kingdom and other spiritual matters?
• What picture of Jesus’ ministry emerges from the parable of the sower?
• What is the scope of God’s kingdom according to Paul?