The kingdom of God is always part mystery (it comes to us at odd angles and takes us by surprise), and always part practical action (there is something ordinary and at hand that we can do). Perhaps the first and most practical “kingdom” action we can take is to listen intently to the words and meanings of Jesus. Consider this simple story about hearing and response from Matthew 13:3-9 (The Message Bible): A farmer planted seed. As he scattered the seed, some of it fell on the road, and birds ate it. Some fell in the gravel; it sprouted quickly but didn't put down roots, so when the sun came up it withered just as quickly. Some fell in the weeds; as it came up, it was strangled by the weeds. Some fell on good earth, and produced a harvest beyond his wildest dreams.
Are you listening to this? Really listening?
The story of the sower, the seed, and the soils is the parable that defines all parables. It makes the major point that we are to be responsive to the words of Jesus -- to his invitation to the Kingdom -- and that our response makes all the difference.
This past Sunday we talked about the various ways we can react to what we hear. We can be resistant to Jesus, as in the seed that fell on the road and never took root. We can be shallow like the seed that fell in the gravel, initially intrigued by Jesus’ words, but going no further than the moment. We can begin with Jesus but find in time that the cares of life, like weeds, choke the life of the good seed. Or, we can be good earth, taking into us the promise of the kingdom, which begins now as a mere seed but holds within it a future and a hope. The parable suggests that if we begin with Jesus, and continue with Jesus, a good future is inevitable: “beyond [our] wildest dreams”.
The major point of this parable is the call to adequate response. But the intriguing thing for me is the image Jesus uses of himself as the sower of the kingdom. It is that of a peasant farmer, a most surprising image to use for a king preaching about a kingdom.
The image attached to this email is that of a farmer from the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan area, circa 1920. While we don’t know who he is, or even who took the picture, we are immediately impressed by the idea that the Canada we live in was built up from the ground by such basic, hard-working people. In other words, our culture and infrastructure and civil life -- everything we enjoy today in Canada -- is connected to the simple actions of people like this man, sowing seed in a field some 90 years ago. But such simple and basic actions, in time, can lead to amazing results. Jesus knows this principle, and chooses it as the picture of how his kingdom gains ground with humanity. How do you respond to such an image?
Simon Tugwell writes about how our views of life and God are often shaped by such imaginative renderings. Tugwell grew up Anglican, and remembers in the book of common prayer a picture of Guy Fawkes trying to blow up the houses of parliament with an enormous eye watching him from above. Tugwell says, here is a picture of God as the “ever-present policeman, constantly prying into our misdeeds”. What is your image of God?
One reason God sent Jesus into the world was so that we could get our imaginations right about who he is. We read the Biblical stories to shape and correct our images of God and his kingdom.
Jesus is using the humblest image to represent what he is doing. But even though it is a humble picture, it is none the less powerful and transformative, in the same way we can imagine the farmer from Prince Albert building a country. And that is because as soon as the sower goes out to sow, a future in set in motion: planted seeds take root, and grow, and a harvest is now in view. The work of the sower, no matter how simple and gentle, means that a resolution will come, a future is guaranteed, the joyful and most hoped-for harvest is now to be expected.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is near, that his listeners should change their minds about things, and believe his good news. But we have to get the image right. The power of this kingdom comes clothed in humility and humanity, and the non-intrusive way he offers the kingdom to us means that it is entirely possible for us to resist, or forget, or become so crowded with cares that his words get choked out of us.
The question still remains: how will we respond to Jesus?
questions and ideas to ponder:
1. what image has dominated your thoughts of God? why? where did that image come from? 2. have you ever participated in a harvest of any kind (even a backyard garden)? what did it feel like? describe the whole process if you can: the planting, tending, watering, waiting, harvesting, etc. 3. the words we might use to describe the “power” of the sower’s action are gentle and slow -- nothing is hurried here, nothing is forced -- and yet the action of the sower does transform his landscape in a powerful way. how do you react to words like “gentle” and “slow” as descriptors of power? what words do you usually associate with power? talk about power for a while and see if you can describe some of the more unusual or surprising forms of power and transformation. 4. muse for a while on the art of listening in general: what is hard about it? why do we fail to listen well? what makes a good listener? what are the implications of listening well to Jesus?