The Parables of our Lord present the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, as he casts them alongside some astonishingly earthy likenesses, where his simple comparisons reveal not only the hidden Kingdom at work but also our native incomprehension and miscalculation to grasp it.
The foundation stone Jesus laid, upon which the Parables depend, is found in his first public message where we read, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). If it is indeed within reach of those who repent, then its effects are already present in the King whose Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension lift us with him. To believe puts us fully in the grip of the mystery, and in its promise and power. The Kingdom is ours now. But we barely understand this.
Enter the Parable of the Sower and Matt. 13:1-23. Jesus introduced four types of soil where seed was planted: the wayside; the stony; the thorny; and the good ground that produced much fruit. It is the way things are. Understanding this mystery is a revelation from heaven; it calls us to use our ears if we have them. “It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the Kingdom” (v. 11). And if you don’t get that the Kingdom operates as a mystery, you will immediately come under a built-in befuddlement.
Notice the components of the Parable: The Sower is God the Father; the Seed sown is Jesus; the field is the whole world. The world has been sown by God, without any help from us. By the time we bring the Good News about the Word, God has already prepared the world to be mysteriously ‘drawn’ to Jesus’ Cross (John 6:44), good ground or not. It strikes me that without a sense of this mystery, there can be no faith, but only a Pharisaical test–tube of plausible man-made solutions which takes faith’s place. This rationalism leads to a kind of solipsism, that the self is the only existent thing. But mystery, when embraced, involves a basic humility, where we don’t have all the answers in ourselves, reason isn’t king, and real faith becomes possible.
In his book, The Parables of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), Father Robert Farrar Capon points out the paradoxical power the mysterious Kingdom operates in, like the imagery of a seed planted. It is so small compared to what it produces that, after it is sown, it can’t be found at all. The seeds disappear when covered with earth, becoming not only unrecognizable but undiscoverable, concerned only with dying and disappearing. Jesus’ whole ministry follows this script: “As the word sown in the field of the world, he dies, rises, and vanishes. His entire work proceeds as does the work of a seed: it takes place in a mystery, in secret – in a way that, as Luther said, can neither be known nor felt, but only believed, trusted.” (p. 78) The Cross may seem to be inaction, and the Kingdom may seem only a virtual Kingdom. But seeds really are doing something, and the Kingdom is an actual Kingdom, and is in fact, effective. And the Word sown is powerful. Therefore, the people of the Kingdom, not frantic in self-effort, have power to bear fruit as they simply abide in the Word, who is himself sown in the field of the world by his death, resurrection, and ascension.