The Seeds of the Kingdom and the Poor in Spirit
Fifteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Giles Hibbert preaches on the parable of the sower: some seeds fell by the wayside, some on rocky ground, some amongst thorns, and some fell on good soil and brought forth grain — some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.
Jesus explains this parable, at least to his disciples. The seeds are ‘the words of the kingdom’ and where they fall is symbolic of those who do not understand them, those who respond over-enthusiastically, those who are turned aside by other cares, and finally those who hear the word and understand it.
This would not seem to be a preacher’s charter. The sower is seen to be scattering his seeds somewhat undiscriminatingly: on rocks, the pathway, amongst thorns, and on the ground which has presumably been ploughed and prepared. The seed does not seem to have been dressed, nor is any care taken as to how it is broadcast. It is all somewhat haphazard — leaving it to chance. Odd.
A preacher — the sower of seed, surely — will normally prepare what he has to say about ‘the kingdom’ — God’s kingdom — with care. He will try to explain it, to present it in such a way that his listeners will be able to understand it — not just leave it to chance whether it is understood.
That is all very fine, but if the parable has anything to say to him, should he not, by contrast, choose out those who are represented by the ‘good soil’? It is somewhat invidious if I, as preacher, am called on to decide who are worthy to receive my words of wisdom and who, by contrast, should be written off as not worth preaching to. I cannot think of a more disastrous approach for any preacher to take.
So what, then, is this parable about? The crowds who followed Jesus simply got the parable by itself. It was only the particular disciples who received the full explanation. Or is it in fact only half an explanation?
Even with the explanation it doesn’t seem to follow right through. At the end of Jesus’s words we can say, “Ah, yes. I can now see what he means.” But is this so? What does it mean? That it’s all luck (or God’s arbitrary will) where the seed, the ‘word of the kingdom’, falls and flourishes?
I think this problem may well be caused by a misunderstanding of that phrase ‘the words of the kingdom’. The sower seems to be a prototype preacher. Whether ‘professional’ or ‘unprofessional’ we prepare our words; we try hard to develop an understanding of the Gospel; to put it over; to coerce our listeners by guile or charm. We want them too to share our understanding. This is a fair use of the terms ‘word’ or ‘words’; it is in fact what words are all about. But is it what ‘word’ means here?
What is this Word? It could be explanation, but we have already seen that this interpretation doesn’t fit the parable, so it can hardly fit its explanation. Could it mean proclamation? This would certainly go with kingdom; in fact it would go far more profoundly with Kingdom than even appears at first sight.
What is the proclamation of the kingdom? It is surely the Good News — the Gospel. This is what all this great section of Matthew is about. It starts off with Jesus ‘sitting down’ on a hill top and declaring,
Happy are the poor in Spirit.
This is our context.
We have problems here, however. The life of neither the ‘poor in spirit’, nor simply the ‘poor’ (Luke’s version), would seem to be especially characterised by happiness. So back to the traditional reading: none of this unsuccessful modernising!
But, Yes!! The poor are happy, precisely because what Jesus is proclaiming is that the Good News is for them. They, who do not see themselves perhaps as worthy nor expect others to do so, are so in God’s eyes. This is the Good News, and it is the Good News of the Kingdom, which is for them, theirs.
What is this Kingdom? It is where God’s will runs, which means where his justice, love, peace, forgiveness and healing reign. The ‘seed’ is the ‘word of the Kingdom’ — its proclamation, and the whole point of the parable, surely, is that this either means everything, or nothing.
Unless it means everything — a hundredfold or more — it is not the Good News.