We are headed into a stretch of parables this month, all of which Jesus tells as an effort to help people understand what the kingdom of heaven is like. It is not always a comforting picture.
“Parables are not parallels,” my old preaching professor used to say, by which was intended a warning for young preachers to beware the trap of imagining one could by the skillful wagging of a finger line up the story of a parable with some set of circumstances, either historical or contemporary. Parables are poetry; they are meant to be evocative, not descriptive. There is no way to define the kingdom of heaven in terms of our usual descriptive categories. It simply eludes our desire to pin it down in descriptive terms.
Jesus, apparently, had a different preaching professor. Because at least in the case of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus goes on to make very direct parallels between the images in the story—the path, the thorns, the rocks, the soil—and the circumstances of the people who hear what he is preaching. There is no ambiguity.
And that’s just the problem.
The images of the kingdom of heaven that we will hear over the next few weeks are filled with fertility and the delirious joy of verdant growth. Seeds and weeds, wheat and chaff, soil and rocks—all of it speaks of God’s relentless, abundant creation. These weeks are filled with the joy and vitality of the ongoing creative acts of God. Those of us who are city-dwellers perhaps do not as readily see this, but the farmers know it instinctively.
But there is a problem picture here, as all farmers know. Things do not always grow as one hopes. Sometimes, things one does not much care for grows instead. It’s evident from Jesus’s own preaching that farmers have been battling weeds for thousands of years. So, as it turns out, has God.
Whatever else the kingdom of heaven is, from the parables we hear this month we know it is at least two things: profligate in opportunity, but selective in result. When the seed falls on hard ground, the opportunity offered does not find a receptive place to grow. When the weeds are separated and bound up, it is not because condemnation is intended; it is because an opportunity offered has been squandered.
This time of pandemic and distancing has, in a very real way, completely cleared the ground. The whole church is like a field prepared anew for planting; the seeds have already been sown. God is generous in giving opportunity; it is given regardless of the reception it will receive. Our role, at least in the first instance, is to make up our minds what kind of ground we are prepared to be—whether our hardened, fearful hearts will make new growth impossible, or our willingness to allow God’s love to take root in us will make us fruitful.
See you in church,
The Right Reverend Mark D. W. Edington
Bishop in Charge
Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe