Sowing in Time, Sowing for Eternity
Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time (B) | Rev Br Andrew Brookes ruminates on the genius of Jesus’s image of the seed.
Does an overview of history help us live well? In today’s Gospel parables, Jesus outlines his teaching on history, and how the Kingdom of God, and therefore the Church, fits into it to help us live well.
The Parable of the Developing Seed has three phases. In Phase One the seed is sown. The second phase is one of growth. The final phase is the action of harvesting. How would the Jews have heard and understood this?
Let us start at the end with the image of harvest. In harvesting, the reaper gathers what is good and the rest is left, burnt or trodden underfoot. It is about separation, and as such was an image of judgment. It is used in both Old and New Testament like that. Jesus’ original hearers would recognise the final phase very clearly as being about the final judgement of humanity by God. This would not have surprised them as judgement was seen as what God would do at the end of time. God was competent to judge, and in doing this he would establish his reign, or Kingdom, on earth.
The Jews, reflecting on their Scriptures, knew God had made various promises about what he would do. They linked them all to God’s climactic involvement in history. They often called this the Day of the Lord. There seems to have been a presumption or conviction it would happen over a short time frame, if not literally a ‘day’, fulfilling all of God’s remaining promises and establishing his Kingdom in one act. But Jesus challenged that presumption and gave a different teaching, developing the coming of the Kingdom of God into three phases, expressed in these Parables and elsewhere.
Phase 1 is the arrival of God’s Kingdom. Jesus announced it as arriving with him. It is the arrival of the Word of God in history, sown in the world and actually enfleshed in Jesus. But Jesus indicates that there is a phase between the initiation of the Kingdom of God and the final event of judgement (harvest) which brings in the full victory of God over evil of all sorts and bringing huge blessings.
His teaching was almost certainly novel. The fact that Jesus explains it with the growth of a seed is genius. Harvesting grain was an image used for judgement. Jesus takes the biological process that precedes that to teach that in the same way that there is a time interval between the sowing of the seed and harvest, there is a time interval between the initial arrival of the Kingdom of God and the final general judgement of humanity. It is proper in the natural world, and using the image, Jesus encouraged his audience to accept an interval (phase 2) as supernaturally proper.
He says more than this through the seed image. The seed has the power within it to grow and develop to the point of harvest. It does not require the action of man: the farmer ‘knows not how it grows’. By this Jesus indicated that the harvest of judgement and full victory will come by the sovereign will and power of God even though it will not happen at once. The next parable, contrasting the small mustard see with the large shrub that emerges, assures listeners that from small beginnings in the ministry of Jesus, considerable growth will result.
The challenge for the original audience was accepting this middle period, and that Jesus is the Promised One though there is a delay before his final victory. Our challenge nowadays is probably to accept the final phase, and to accept Divine judgement as the end of human history as we know it.
In giving this teaching Jesus wishes to inculcate certain attitudes as well as give a map of history. Firstly, be assured. Just because Jesus does not do everything at once it is not grounds to dismiss him as fake. The Kingdom of God has truly and definitely arrived. Jesus is God made man: the Divine Seed of the Kingdom of God has been planted. Though Jesus does not do everything at once, he will do it, including bring in judgment, to gather what is good. Secondly, be stirred to respond to Jesus and co-operate with grace. The Parable of the Sower challenges us to contribute to what can be usefully harvested. We all get what we deserve ‘in the law court of Christ’, so let us live by faith in the vision of Jesus for history and its judgment. Let us trust in the power of the seed that is the Word of God planted in us and co-operate with the grace and mercy that accompany it and grant us growth. So bearing fruit, may we be harvested and brought into the joy of our Master!
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a window in the National Cathedral in Washington DC.