Riddles, allegory, picture language…showing us a window into another world that exists both within and beyond this world.
Jesus’ parables (and much of the Bible, in fact) hint at a bigger picture than one that is simply explained by technical, theological language. Even when he unfolded the meaning of a parable, Jesus didn’t always wrap things up so tidily that we can then say “OK, so we’ve got our heads round that now”.
The kingdom of God is bigger, more mysterious, than that.
Ever read the parable of the sower*? Jesus takes pity on his disciples and 21st Century Bible-readers by giving an explanation of what it all means….until right at the end.
“And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”
It struck me that Jesus explains pretty much all the parable’s elements except the harvest, the crop produced by those who “hear and accept God’s word” – the good news that he has to offer.
I’ve met people who seem to have understood this harvest as success in leading other people to Jesus – with the 30, 60, 100 times even representing numbers of people becoming Christians. For me, this idea never seemed to quite add up. Jesus seems more interested in quality of life and of people’s hearts than mere numbers of converts. In fact, he picks on the Pharisees for the type of converts they make, describing them as “sons of hell”!
This is where the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) come in handy. As a Christian, I primarily follow the person of Jesus rather than a book, hence the term ‘Christian’ rather than ‘Biblian’. However, Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience who would (or should) have been able to understand his allegory because of their background knowledge of God’s ancient promises. We have been given the same scriptures to help us understand.
The imagery of a promised spiritual harvest was very familiar to the Jews, and the most obvious passage that springs to my mind, that most closely relates to Jesus’ parable, is from the prophet Isaiah.
God, through Isaiah (55:10-13), compares the results of his word being sent out, to seeds being watered and producing a fruitful, abundant harvest. So I wondered, maybe Isaiah explains what this harvest is…
You guessed it – yes, he does! And here it is…
“You will live in joy and peace,
The mountains and hills will burst into song,
And the trees of the field will clap their hands!
Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.
Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.
These events will bring great honour to the Lord’s name;
They will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.”
So this is the kind of harvest Jesus is alluding to for those who hear and accept his good news. Notice, though, that much of the language is poetic. The trees aren’t actually going to clap their hands. Nettles aren’t going to become obsolete. With prophecy, parables and allegory, we need to be careful not to try and interpret them too closely or treat them as mathematical equations to be solved.
I recently viewed a photographic exhibition, which was very good, but for me it was slightly spoilt by the amount of blurb next to the exhibits, explaining the photographer’s aims. I wanted the photos to speak to me for themselves (in a way that might be different to the way they’d speak to someone else).
The parables and other scriptures point to a greater reality which can only be experienced; dived into. Something bigger than our understanding, bigger than words.
In the words of Shaun Lambert in A Book of Sparks: “One of the problems in pulling parables to bits and explaining their exact meaning is that we miss the point of the parable.”
At the risk of doing just that…
Jesus, in the parable of the sower, as throughout his ministry, is promising the kingdom of God. This kingdom is not just some future realm of heaven, but something that he invites us to take part in here and now. This kingdom, which in the future realm is complete and breaks into this world in part, is (as alluded to by Isaiah as well) one of love, peace, wholeness, happiness and freedom, in which everyone is embraced entirely by the Father’s love.
When we pray “Your kingdom come”, we pray for the future realm to break into this world, with liberation from addiction, healing from our dysfunctionality and even physical ailments, reconciled relationships, people finding their home and happiness in the Father’s arms, loving peaceful communities, reduced crime rates, laughing in the streets….that kind of thing.
The church I’ve been attending recently has, as part of its vision, the words: “…and the transformation of society.” Wow, what a big vision!
But Jesus does indeed promise this kind of harvest for those who “hear and accept” the good news of his kingdom.
Later, he made it clear that he would make this all possible through his death and resurrection.
So….why am I saying all this? Here’s the thing. It’s a New Year (just about, still). I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions. But I do sometimes do a New Year’s Prayer – because I can rely on God’s resolve more than mine.
So here’s my New Year’s Prayer for 2015:
Father, I’ve already heard and accepted your good news. May I take time to not only hear your word but to listen to it. To meditate on it, absorb it, breathe it, and walk in it. To receive more deeply the incredible news that you came to take away all sin, all hurt, all brokenness.
May I fully accept the good news that you love me without condition, with fierce compassion, that my past, present and future are all forgiven and covered by your grace. May I remember the amazing transformation you’ve already already brought about in my life and continue to accept your healing love. May this love overflow, so there would be a harvest of people also hearing and accepting the Father’s love, compassion, healing and forgiveness.
May I accept that you are not only love but also joy. That there is happiness in your heart, which you love to share. May I walk with a spring in my step, in acceptance that you’re pleased with me. May I laugh often, remembering that I have every reason to be cheerful. And may there be a harvest of happiness around me. May the real possibility of a transformed life catch on with infectious laughter!
May I enjoy stillness often, to re-discover again and again (in that rare place of just being) my true self, and the true you – Jesus, who are Peace. May I always find self-acceptance in the peace of your presence, and in prayer. And may there be a harvest of such peace, such fullness, for others, where striving for the objects of addiction and false fulfilment is stilled and truth is experienced.
May I be increasingly mindful of your beauty and creativity: in nature, humanity and art. May I participate in your creativity and see a harvest of your kingdom beauty in the world around me.
And may I grow within a community that hears and accepts and lives in the good news of your kingdom, producing a harvest of freedom, reconciliation, healing and transformation of society.
But, oops, maybe I’ve spoilt the parable for you with too much blurb of my own. Maybe you could ask yourself what it means to you. Maybe let it catch your own heart and imagination, for your own spiritual harvest?
3 “Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seed. 4 As he scattered it across his field, some of the seed fell on a footpath, and the birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seed sprouted quickly because the soil was shallow. 6 But the plant soon wilted under the hot sun, and since it didn’t have deep roots, it died. 7 Other seed fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants so they produced no grain. 8 Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” 9 Then he said, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.”
10 Later, when Jesus was alone with the twelve disciples and with the others who were gathered around, they asked him what the parables meant.
11 He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secret of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables for everything I say to outsiders, 12 so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled:
‘When they see what I do,
they will learn nothing.
When they hear what I say,
they will not understand.
Otherwise, they will turn to me
and be forgiven.’”
13 Then Jesus said to them, “If you can’t understand the meaning of this parable, how will you understand all the other parables? 14 The farmer plants seed by taking God’s word to others. 15 The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away. 16 The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. 17 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. 18 The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, 19 but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. 20 And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”