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 5 is here. This email is available online and on Facebook.
Before reading the parable, take a few moments to skim through Matthew 1-12. Jesus is baptized in Matthew 3 and suffers the Temptations and calls his disciples in Chapter 4. Jesus begins his teaching ministry with the Sermon on the Mount in Chapters 5-7. Over the next several chapters, Jesus heals people, casts out demons, eats with sinners, raises the dead, and sends out the disciples to declare that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. In Chapters 11-12, Jesus engages in an extended teaching discourse about the nature of his Messiahship and the Kingdom of Heaven that he proclaims. At the end of this discourse, the religious leaders ask for a sign, and the only sign Jesus gives is the sign of Jonah.
Capon hypothesizes that at this point, Jesus is aware that his teaching ministry has failed. Everyone – from the common laborer to the religious leaders – is looking for a new David to reestablish a Jewish kingdom ruled by God’s Anointed under God’s Law. Jesus has failed to overcome and correct his audience’s grossly mistaken expectations of who he is and what he is proclaiming.
It is at this time, Capon writes, that Jesus decides on a different teaching method. “Well,” he seems to say, “since they’ve pretty well misunderstood me so far, maybe I should capitalize on that. Maybe I should start thinking up examples of how profoundly the true messianic kingdom differs from their expectations. They think the kingdom will be a parochial, visible proposition – a militarily established theocratic state that will simply be handed to them at some future date. Hm. What if I were to stand every one of those ideas on its head? What if I were to come up with some parables that said the kingdom was catholic, mysterious, already present in their midst, and aggressively demanding their response? Let me see . . . .” p.56
It is in this context, that Jesus’ parabolic teachings begin.
A Three-Step Parable:
The Sower is Jesus’ first parable, and the gospel writers present it to us in three steps: the parable, a question by the disciples as to why he is now teaching in parables, and finally Jesus’ allegorical interpretation. Capon wants us to pay attention to each of these three steps. p.57.
First (vv.3-9), Jesus simply launches into the parable. He does not preface the parable with a statement of its purpose or its meaning. His first words are simply: “‘A sower went out to sow.’” (Matt. 13:3b) Until this time, Jesus’ teachings had always been fairly straightforward. But not anymore.
Second (vv. 10-17), imagine you are one of the disciples or simply someone in the audience when Jesus abruptly and without warning changes his teaching method. Not even the disciples would have known what Jesus was up to in telling this story. As Capon writes: The truth of the matter, however, is that if we had been the original hearers, we would probably have understood it no better than the disciples did. p.57 Imagine you are one of the disciples who has been with Jesus for months, and now you are hearing a parable for the first time. What are you thinking? This is why they are asking him “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (Matt. 13:10).
Jesus’ response to the question is simply a recognition of his unsuccessful experience in teaching everyone directly. Jesus tells his disciples that the parable is about the mystery of the kingdom of heaven and that this mystery has been given to them but no one else. Jesus goes on to say that he who has this knowledge, more will be given, but those without this secret knowledge, what they do have will be taken away. At first glance, this is an odd and hard saying of Jesus.
According to Capon, Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question must be seen as descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, Jesus is simply describing the way things are (based upon his prior experience), not prescribing how things should be. Jesus does not keep the outsiders in the dark, rather the outsiders are simply in the dark. Jesus seems to be more reasonably understood as giving a simple description of the way things are. “If you grasp the fact that the kingdom works in a mystery,” he seems to say, “then that very grip will give you more and more understanding; but if you don’t grasp that, then everything that happens will make it look as if your plausibility-loving understanding is being deliberately taken from you.” p.59.
Finally (vv. 18-23), Jesus gives the disciples a spiritual, allegorical “explanation” for the parable. But, as Capon points out, the explanation seems to raise more questions than it answers. Jesus’ explanation of the Sower, if it is looked at with an open mind, does not reduce what was a complex story to a simple meaning; rather, it takes a merely puzzling fable and drives it for all it’s worth in the direction of supremely difficult interpretations. p.60. Read the explanation and see how many questions arise. The explanation simply deepens the mystery, not only for the disciples, but for us as well.
The Identity of the Sower:
When we read Jesus’ explanation, the first unanswered question is “who is the Sower?” Jesus does not tell us. The Sunday School answer is that the Sower is Jesus and the seeds are his teaching ministry. This can be extended to mean that the Sower is the disciples and later the church and the seeds are their teaching ministry about Jesus. In this simplistic interpretation, Capon says we have in our minds an image of him – and then of ourselves as the church – going around sprinkling something called the Word of God on places that haven’t received it yet. p.60. We become the center of the parable. Capon disagrees with this interpretation.
As discussed in my introduction to this study, the two key hermeneutics (the lens through which a passage is interpreted) for Capon are Scripture and Theology. Looking solely through the lens of Scripture and Theology, the identity of the sower becomes more obvious.
In his explanation of his own parable, Jesus clearly says that the seed is the “word” (Gk. logos). Capon, therefore, says that the primary meaning of the phrase the Word of God in the New Testament, and in Christian theology as well, has got to be one that is consistent with the Johannine teaching that the Word is the one who was in the beginning with God and who is, in fact, God himself. More than that, it has to include the notions that the Word is the one by whom all things were made, that he is the one who, coming into the world, lightens every person, and that he is the one, finally, who became flesh and dwelt among us in Jesus. In short, and above everything else, the Word has to mean the eternal Son—God of God, Light of Light, True God of True God—the Second Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. p.60
What this means for Capon is both radical but also very much supported by both the Scriptures and Theology. It says, first of all, that the Sower is God the Father, not Jesus. What Jesus turns out to be—since he is the Word—is the seed sown. But note what that in turn means. It means that on the plain terms of the parable, Jesus has already, and literally, been sown everywhere in the world—and quite without a single bit of earthly cooperation or even consent. p.61.
In the following chapter, Capon will discuss the merits of this interpretation more fully. However, the question he raises at the end of Chapter 5 is what are the implications if Christ has already been sown throughout the world? What is the Evangelium (or Good News) that the Church is to proclaim? If we as the Church are not the sower of the word, God the Father is, then what is our role? If we can no longer claim to see ourselves as having a leading role, then where do we fit in? The mystery should deepen.
Dinner is at 6:30. The menu is chili and cornbread. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to see you here!
He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.Colossians 1:15-17