By Stewart Clem
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about a farmer planting seeds. “The Parable of the Sower,” as it’s called, is about as down-to-earth and folksy as it gets. Anyone who has attempted to grow any kind of plant knows just how precarious the process can be. Not enough water, not enough sun; too much water, too much sun; any of these can bring a garden or a flower bed to a quick and disappointing end — not to mention the diseases and fungi and insects that can overtake a plant before you realize what’s happening.
Jesus’ story is a parable, of course, which means that it’s a story with a point. And that point isn’t about gardening but rather about — well, what, exactly? You’d think we’d be able to come up with a nice, snappy answer to that question, especially when we consider that this is one of those rare occasions in which Jesus provides an explanation of the parable to his disciples. But even the explanation cries out for an explanation.
Jesus explains that the seed is the “word of the kingdom,” and oftentimes this word falls on deaf ears. That’s the seed that falls along the path and gets eaten by birds before it even has a chance to grow. But sometimes the word of the kingdom begins to take root, only to destroyed by adversity, tribulation, or the love of money. That’s the seed that falls along rocky ground and among thorns. But the word of the kingdom does bear fruit among those who hear and understand it. This is the seed that falls on fertile ground and flourishes. And it doesn’t just grow: it brings forth a grain harvest of 30-, 60-, and even 100-fold.
Even with this additional clarification that Jesus provides, we’d still like some more answers. Why is the devil allowed to come and snatch away the word from some people? That doesn’t even seem fair. What makes some of the seed produce a 30-fold harvest and some 100-fold? And if the seed is supposed to be the “word of the kingdom,” what exactly is the “word of the kingdom,” anyway?
Here is what most modern-day Americans hear when they encounter this parable. It’s what I call the “salesperson of the year” interpretation. Clearly, we want to be the seed that grows and we don’t just want to bear fruit: we want to be the seed that produces a 100-fold harvest. So the question we immediately focus on is: “How can I be the kind of seed that bears a 100-fold for God?” Our rugged individualism and our Protestant work ethic get the better of us, and we want to know what we can do to produce more fruit. We imagine God as a corporate manager looking over the spreadsheets to see which employee had the most sales this quarter. Because we want to be that person.
But this interpretation gets the parable all wrong. Jesus isn’t telling us that it’s our job to bring about the harvest. We’re not the ones ushering in God’s kingdom; Jesus is.
The question that confronts us in this parable is not, “What can you do to help bring about God’s kingdom?” Rather, the question that confronts us in this parable is this: “When God’s kingdom arrives, will you find yourself in it?”
We Americans have all grown up with John F. Kennedy’s words echoing in our minds: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” That’s a helpful motto so long as we’re talking about earthly kingdoms. But Jesus never said, “Ask not what the kingdom of God can do for you. Ask what you can do for the kingdom of God.”
The difference between the kingdom of God and the United States of America (or any country, for that matter) is that the kingdom of God is not “of this world.” When Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world,” he didn’t mean that his kingdom was in another world somewhere and that we needed to figure out a way to get there. What Jesus meant was that the kingdom was already coming, and it’s not a kingdom like any other. It’s not like the United States, or Canada, or Mexico. It’s a kingdom where justice will reign and things will be the way God intended them to be from the very beginning.
The problem is that none of us is a natural-born citizen of the kingdom of God. We are all refugees, fleeing from a broken and hurting world. This is why the message Jesus preached is called the gospel, which simply means “good news.” What Jesus has to offer isn’t a blueprint that we can use to make the world a better place. He didn’t offer a self-help program for finding inner peace. Jesus is going to make the world a better place, and he can help us find inner peace, but this is only a result of his establishment of God’s kingdom.
A car dealership needs salespeople to sell cars, but God doesn’t need you or me to grow the kingdom. God’s kingdom is going to arrive, whether we’re part of it or not. That’s the point of Jesus’ parable. We should remember that the name of this parable isn’t “The Parable of the Good Seed — and How You Can Unlock Your Inner Potential and Bear a 100-Fold Harvest.” The name that Jesus gives it himself is “The Parable of the Sower,” reminding us that the sower is the main character in the story.
I’m aware that some people hear a message like this and think, “That can’t be right. Aren’t we Christians supposed to be out in the world doing good things? God doesn’t want us to just sit at home and wait for the kingdom to show up!” To that I say, “Indeed. I couldn’t agree more.” As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. We should have a burning passion for justice. We shouldn’t be content with the poverty and the inequality and the suffering we find in the world today. But there is a world of difference between a God who says, “I want you to fix this world,” and a God who says, “I am going to fix this world, and I am going to make you part of the process.”
The point is that the kingdom of God is not a meritocracy. God does not simply arrive on the scene after the work has been done to evaluate our efforts and award us accordingly. God is the initiator, the instigator. And God can use each and every one of us, no matter who we are. As the fourth-century church Father, St. John Chrysostom, writes, “The sower makes no distinction in the land submitted to him but simply and indifferently casts his seed. He himself makes no distinction of rich and poor, of wise and unwise, of slothful or diligent, of brave or cowardly. He plants his seed among all.” And whether we bear fruit, and whether that fruit is 30-fold, or 60-, or 100-fold, is entirely up to God.
We have to understand that Jesus’ original audience would have been shocked to hear a story about a 30-, 60-, and 100-fold harvest. In the agrarian setting of Jesus’ day, a four- to ten-fold harvest would have been considered normal. A 15-fold harvest would have been exceptional. The numbers Jesus throws out sound nothing short of miraculous. No one at the time would have been thinking, “What can I do to make sure that I’m one of the 100-fold crowd and not part the underachieving 30-fold crowd?” Instead, they would have wondered to themselves, “Who is this sower, and what makes him so powerful that he can grow such a bountiful harvest?” That’s the question we should be asking, too.
Of course, we want to be the seed that bears fruit. We should long to be part of God’s kingdom. But without a sower, there would be no seed; and without seed there will be no fruit. The fact that we are not the sower should come as a relief. The good news is that we are not God. The good news is that God is God.
The even better news — the good news of the gospel — is that God became incarnate so that he could reconcile us to himself. Through Jesus Christ, God has invited each of his into his kingdom. He has sown the word of the kingdom in our hearts, and if we receive it, God will work in our hearts. That’s a promise. Whether it’s 30-, or 60-, or 100-fold is up to God, but whatever it is, it will be more than we could imagine or ever hope to accomplish on our own.
The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.