I am excited about our beginning a study of Jesus’s parables using Rev. Robert F. Capon’s book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment – Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. This Tuesday we will be reading the introduction to the book and the Parable of the Sower in chapters 5-6 of The Parables of the Kingdom and as found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. Fr. Kimel’s teaching on chapter 6 is here. This email is available online and on Facebook.
The Parable as a Seed:
Rev. Capon opens chapter 6 with a defense of his conclusion in chapter 5 that the seed is the Word (the second person of the Trinity) and therefore the Sower is the Father (the first person of the Trinity). He reminds us that within Scripture we cannot completely separate one section from another. If we believe that all Scripture is inspired (literally, filled with the Spirit) then it has but one author. Therefore, we are necessarily free to use later contributions from John or Paul to clarify or give meaning to Jesus’ teachings. He also reminds us that, like a seed, the Parable of the Sower is just the beginning. Once Jesus reaches the full maturation of his ministry, his parables will explicitly state that it is he himself who is present in all people and all things and that it is he who inaugurates the New Covenant. As Capon puts it, with this inaugural parable, we are watching the opening of bud into full flower. p.63.
In the remainder of this chapter, Capon explores the themes of Catholicity, Mystery, Actuality, and Hostility and Response that are present in the Sower and that we will be discussing throughout his book.
The word Catholic comes from the Greek kath’holou meaning “about the whole.” The parables teach us that the Kingdom of Heaven is at work everywhere, always, and for all, rather than in some places, at some times, and for some special people. In the Sower, the four kinds of ground listed are clearly meant to cover all sorts and conditions of human beings; there are no cracks between them into which odd cases might fall, and there is no ground beyond them to which his words do not apply. p.64. Within the entire telling of the Sower from the beginning through the explanation, there is no specific reference to Israel, or God’s special relationship to Israel, or obedience or preeminence of the Torah (or any religious or moral laws). Not only are non-Jews implicitly included in the parable, but there is also no indication or guarantee that God’s chosen people will not be left out. Neither someone’s ethnicity nor religious devotion gives them an inside track to entering the Kingdom. This lesson, of course, applies today as well.
The great mystery that the parables give to us (and that will be demonstrated most directly in Jesus’s Passion) is God’s preference for left-handed power. Capon discusses this dichotomy between left-handed and right-handed power in chapter 1. Martin Luther coined these terms to describe the way God exercises power versus the way the world exercises power. Right-handed power is about using direct and straight-line power by employing sufficient force to obtain the desired result. Right-handed power is not simply the application of physical force but can also include logical argument or emotional manipulation or any other means by which someone can be compelled to do your bidding. For Capon, theology itself falls under the rubric of right-handed power. p.24.
The problem with right-handed power is that it is useless and counter-productive within a loving relationship. What works within the employer-employee relationship does not carry over well to a husband-wife relationship. The alternative to straight-line power is left-handed power. This power structure is based on love, forgiveness, and sacrificial service. It is intuitive, open, and imaginative. It is paradoxical power because its very strength lies in its weakness. It is that power that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. This power structure is the mystery of Jesus’ life and ministry that we will see again and again in the parables.
As to the sower specifically, the Kingdom of Heaven is not portrayed as a hammer hitting a nail with great force and a loud noise. There is no thunderclap or fireworks. Rather, the Kingdom is pictured as a seed. Capon asks us to consider a seed. Seeds are grossly disproportionately small compared with what they eventually produce. A follow-up parable features the mustard seed (Matt. 13:31-32) which is about 1.5mm (0.06 in) in diameter.
Seeds disappear. To be fruitful, seeds have to be covered up and eventually die and disappear. The very power of a tiny seed lies in its giving itself up. A seed is the epitome of left-handed power.
In all of Jesus’ parables, the Kingdom of Heaven actually works. First, the Sower is actively sowing the seeds. He is not sitting in his armchair reading seed catalogs in February; he is not tilling and fertilizing the soil in March; and above all, he is not standing in the garden in May, simply thinking about taking the seeds out of their packages If he were shown doing any of these things, we might fairly conclude that the power of the Word – like the power of seeds under similar circumstances – was only virtually present in the world. We might assume, in other words, that it would not achieve actual effectiveness until some further steps were taken. . . The seed, and therefore the Word, is fully in action in and of itself at every step of the story. Everything necessary for its perfect work is in the works from the start. pp.68-69.
Second, the seeds (which are not eaten by the birds) actually do spring up. The operative power of the seeds is not dependent upon the cooperation of the soil. The seed, like the Word, always does its job. The work of Christ on the Cross has been completed and finished, regardless of our opinion. The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world. Period. As Capon writes, Think of some of the things we have said to people. We have told them that unless they confessed to a priest, or had the sacrifice of the mass applied specifically to their case, or accepted Jesus in the correct denominational terms – or hit the sawdust trail, did penance, cried their eyes out, or straightened up and flew right – the seed, who is the Word present everywhere in all his forgiving power, might just as well not really have been sown. p.68. The Word does not ask our permission to be sown for the Sower has already sown it.
Hostility and Response:
The Kingdom always contends against a hostile environment. From the demons to the religious establishment to the political powers, the Word is sown in a hostile environment. The ultimate manner by which the Word declares the Kingdom of Heaven is not a lesson or even an act of the Word, but a death on the Cross inflicted on him by these hostile powers. However, the Word overcame this hostility in the Resurrection. Even seeds eaten by birds, often pass through to be disbursed more widely. The hostile powers have been “aced-out,” as Capon says, not by right-handed power but through self-sacrifice. Because of the catholicity, mystery, and actuality of the Word, all hostility takes place within the working of the kingdom, not prior to it or outside of it. p.71. The seed is sown regardless of the hostile environment without any condition precedent.
Even in a hostile environment, the Word always achieves its purpose. Even in bad soil, the seeds germinate into new life. Our response to the Word, makes the difference to us, for us, and in us. Again, Capon sees the different responses not as prescriptive but descriptive. His explanation of what happens to the seeds sown in bad soil is a sad description of our condition, not a punishment meted out:
What he (Jesus) is saying in this parable seems to me to be of a piece with all his other loving, if often sad, commentaries on our condition. He is not threatening some kind of retaliation by the Word against people who fail to make the best response; rather, he is almost wistfully portraying what we miss when we fall short and fail to bear fruit…. For a plant, the failure to bear fruit is not a punishment visited on it by the seed, but an unhappy declination on the plant’s part from what the seed had in mind for it. It is a missing of its own fullness, its own maturity – even, in some deep sense, of its own life. p.73.
Capon’s final point as to our response, is that the Word wishes that we bear fruit. Bearing fruit is the natural response to the Word if we would just abide in the Word and get out of the way. Think about the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 15:15-24). The only thing that the invited guests had to do was to simply show up. In the saying of the Vine and Branches (John 14), the branch simply needs to abide on the vine, and the vine provides everything necessary for the branch to be fruitful. Or think about Paul’s teaching on the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16-26). The works of the flesh arise out of our inveterately right-handed wrongheadedness. Whereas the fruit of the Spirit are those results that are not manufactured by our plausible and deliberate efforts but simply allowed to grow unimpeded under the guidance of the Spirit who takes what is the Word’s and shows it to us. p.74 The Kingdom is not one of accomplishing a work that we have achieved but simply bearing the fruit that has been already sown within us.
Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is chili and cornbread. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to see you here!
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.Isaiah 55:10-11