Updated: Jul 17
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
When I lived in Costa Rica, there was a program by the Costa Rican government to place computer centers in rural districts to expand digital access and capacity. In my village on the border with Nicaragua, there was no electricity; however; the international fruit company that harvested oranges in the district cleared one of their storage sheds and hooked up a generator to power a new computer center for the village. I was excited about the possibility of exposing my neighbors to the almost limitless possibilities of the internet, so I signed up to be an instructor for one month. Never in my life have I undertaken a task as difficult and frustrating
as explaining how a computer works to folks who have spent their life without access to electricity. Not only did I struggle with a language barrier because of my poor computer vocabulary in Spanish, but there was also a cavernous deficiency in the basic operations of…well…everything to do with computers. I found myself having to explain how electric current works, how information can be carried through wires, and why pushing a button in one location might change something dramatic on the screen in another location. I realized quickly that before I talked about something as mind blowing as the internet, I often needed to start with the “on” button at the back of the computer.
I bring this up because it illustrates the difficulty that Jesus encounters when he enters our dimension (a dimension that Paul calls the “flesh” in his letter to the Romans) and tries to explain to us what the “kingdom of heaven” is like. The difficulty for Jesus, much like my difficulty trying to explain the computer, is that there is a cavernous deficiency in our understanding of the basic operations of…well…everything to do with the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is trying to explain a powerful and invisible reality that is pulsing through our universe (perhaps analogous to electric current), a reality that he calls the “the kingdom of heaven.” Of course, even the phrase “kingdom of heaven” becomes confusing, because when we hear the word “kingdom,” we often think bejeweled crowns and processions of chivalry, things that we can touch and feel, and when we hear the word “heaven” we often think of fantasies of comfort like soft white pillows, chocolate bars, and frolicking children; by way of contrast, the “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus is pointing towards reveals itself through a love that offers its flesh to be tortured and crucified…not at all the kind of “kingdom of heaven” we expect when Jesus uses the phrase.
Language is problematic when trying to share a novel and invisible reality because words are sticky and carry all kinds of confusing, loose associations. Consider for a moment our computer vocabulary in English and how it would sound to someone who has never encountered a computer before: “Take the mouse and move the arrow over the desktop to the toolbar in the top right corner, then click the Bluetooth image.” This is incomprehensible language with all kinds of false starts and confusing associations. This quagmire of language is a decent analogy for the challenge that Jesus is trying to overcome when he talks to us about the kingdom of heaven.
Understanding Jesus’ challenge clarifies the approach he takes in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which is sometimes referred to as the “parabolic discourse” because it contains a series of seven parables that are all attempting to explain something about the “kingdom of heaven.” Today’s parable is the first parable of Jesus’ discourse, and it serves as an introduction and overview to the entire chapter. Lucky for us, this one comes with an explanation, so we have some helpful guard rails. I will try to accomplish two things with it today. First, I will practice an application of Jesus’s parable with an extension of our computer analogy. Second, I will invite us to think about this parable in a way that I hope unlocks some of its depth.
Here is an application of the parable through analogy:
The seed that is sown on the path is when someone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it:
Perhaps we could draw an analogy to an elderly man from the village who is told that a computer will allow him to exchange messages and pictures in real time with his daughter who lives in a faraway city, but he doesn’t understand how that could possibly work and it sounds too good to be true. He refuses to set his hope on something that could disappoint him terribly if it doesn’t work, so he doesn’t bother to learn. Could it be that some part of us doesn’t engage the kingdom of heaven because we can’t understand how it could be true and we are afraid to set our hope on something that is too good to be true?
The seed that is sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it with joy, but when trouble or persecution occurs, that person immediately falls away:
Perhaps we could draw an analogy to the villager who embraces the computer and dreams of receiving an online degree but quits after she is ridiculed by her family and friends for being a dreamer. They tell her that someone like her could never get a university degree. Could it be that some part of us doesn’t engage the kingdom of heaven because we are afraid of ridicule or alienation from those around us?
The seed that is sown among the thorns is the one who hears the word of the kingdom, but it is choked out by the cares of this age and the lure of wealth:
Perhaps we could draw an analogy to the young man who understands clearly what computer literacy might do for him long-term, but for whom the pursuit of a motorbike and girlfriend becomes all consuming, so he abandons his computer training. Or in a similar example, a villager who learns the computer, but the sudden and immediate access to video games and pornography pervert and limit their aspirations for a new life. Could it be that some part of us doesn’t engage the kingdom of heaven because the benefits of the flesh are so much more concrete, immediate, and appealing?
And finally, the seed that is sown on good soil is the one who understands the word of the kingdom and bears an abundance of fruit.
Perhaps we could draw an analogy to the villager who endures the difficulty of exposure to something foreign and new and connects to a world that is so much bigger, more exciting, more complex, and beautiful than he previously realized. He could not have imagined this new world because he had been stuck within the constraints of his local perspective. His new perspective, insight, and creativity transform the world around him as he lives with it. Could it be that if some part of us allows Jesus’ parables to open us up to the possibility of the kingdom of heaven, then we too might be transformed and the world with us, perhaps in ways we cannot imagine?
So that’s the application with some questions that I hope you might find provocative. Here’s the invitation to a particular way of hearing this parable that might help unlock its depth:
When we encounter a parable containing three inferior options and one excellent option, it is natural for us to wonder where we fit into the line-up. Are we the one on the path, or are we amid the thorns? Or (perhaps the most seductive to consider) are we the good soil? This kind of thinking is as natural as it is wrongheaded. Jesus is not myopic the way that we are. Broadly speaking, the scriptures constantly invite us into multi-dimensional ways of thinking. For example, the scriptures don’t contain one gospel narrative: they contain four distinct narratives in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the scriptures don’t contain only one story of creation: Genesis contains two distinct stories in chapters one and two. The same story from two or more perspectives can be experienced in remarkably different ways, and the scriptures are constantly harnessing the power of containing multiple stories to unlock the depth of truth that each story point towards.
The Roman Catholic author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered a brilliant TED talk with over 34 million views on this subject titled The danger of a single story. In it, she says, “the problem with a single story is not that it is wrong, but that it is incomplete,” and she continues, “when we reject the single story…when we realize that there is never a single story…we regain a kind of paradise.” If we return to our parable today and consider it without the constraints “of a single story,” we are invited to embrace the fact that each one of us contains all four types of soil.
This is consistent with Paul’s struggle in his letter to the Romans, where he communicates that he is both flesh and spirit. In the portion of his letter we heard last week, Paul vulnerably shares his struggles living in the flesh, but today we hear him telling the Romans, “you are not in the flesh; you are in the spirit” (Rom. 8:9) The beauty of scripture is that we are not forced to choose. We are invited to embrace the reality that the kingdom of heaven is taking place at the intersection of flesh and spirit. As we hear in John’s Gospel, “The Word is made flesh, and lives among us” (Jn. 1:14). We are flesh, and the Word of God has come to live in us; he has made our hearts the throne of his glory.
Jesus is telling us about God whose nature is to pour seeds all over the landscape of our souls. He knows that seeds will fall on the path and in rocky soil and among the thorns, but God doesn’t care because he knows that some of those seeds will find good soil. The good news of the kingdom of heaven is that we can stop pretending that we are either a sinner or saint; instead, we can confess the reality of our sin, accept the gift of our redemption on the cross, and embrace our sanctification through the Holy Spirit all at the same time because each of those stories is true, and we need all three to understand the depth and power of God’s love for us. To repeat Adichie’s observation, “when we reject the single story…when we realize that there is never a single story…we regain a kind of paradise.”
Today we baptize Hallie Packard Montgomery, who is only seven months old. She is going to have good days and bad days, ugly moments and beautiful ones, triumphs and defeats, but God’s love is a love that showers the seeds of the kingdom of heaven on her in every single moment, in every type of soil, throughout her life. That is the love of a parent; that is the love of our Father in heaven. Today, we are called as the body of Christ to profess that love for Hallie, that she may know that our seeds of love will find the good soil because we will throw our seeds of love at her all the time and in every kind of soil, trusting that today, in Christ, there is indeed good soil to be found, and we look forward to enjoying the fruit. Thanks be to God. Amen.